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       The Enemy, p.21

           Charlie Higson
 
Sam stared at the side window for a long time. His eyesight was swimming with blurry dots that weaved themselves into random shapes and broke apart.

  He blinked and saw a face at the window staring back at him.

  It was floating there, seemingly without a neck or body.

  Sam wasn’t sure if it was even human. It was filthy. Covered in dirt. With a bald, pointy crown and a wild straggly beard sprouting from its chin. In the center of its face were two wide eyes, the whites showing around the pupils.

  Sam realized with horror that it had no mouth or nose.

  He tried to scream, but his throat was frozen, like in a dream.

  Yes. A dream. It must be. Something like that couldn’t be real.

  It was still there, though.

  Sam stared at it for half a second, and then it winked and disappeared.

  “Did you see that?” Sam whispered.

  “What?”

  Sam thought for a while. The image of the inhuman face was seared in his memory. He couldn’t dislodge it from his brain. The smooth stretch of skin where its mouth should have been upset him in a way he didn’t really understand.

  “Nothing,” he said.

  Ben and Bernie were sitting on a cot in the middle of the ballroom they were using as a dormitory, watching the other kids argue. Bernie shook her head and took hold of Ben’s hand. Why did the fighters always get so pumped up about everything? She was glad Ben wasn’t a fighter. He was clever and gentle and funny. She’d never liked macho guys. The two of them had been bullied at first, but when it became clear that they had some very useful talents, they’d been accepted. Bernie wasn’t sure she fully understood what the argument was about, and even if she did have an opinion she doubted they’d listen to her right now. This was war talk.

  On one side were Blue, Achilleus, Big Mick, and most of the best fighters. On the other were Whitney, Freak, and Maxie, with Sophie and her archers. In the middle were Ollie and Lewis, trying to keep the peace. The little kids and the other noncombatants, like Ben and Bernie, were watching in silence. None of the palace kids were present.

  It was times like these that Bernie really missed Arran. He’d have sorted this mess out ages ago. The argument was going around in circles.

  “Look, there isn’t anything to discuss,” said Freak, not for the first time. “The fact is, we shouldn’t be fighting other kids. End of story.”

  “Exactly,” said Maxie.

  “Admit it, Freaky-Deaky,” said Achilleus. “You’re just scared.”

  Freak swore at Achilleus.

  “Can’t you two lovers keep your personal fight out of this?” said Whitney. “This is serious.”

  “It’s boring,” said Achilleus. “You’re all just a bunch of wimps.”

  “The thing is,” said Big Mick, “these other kids, these squatters, don’t mean nothing to me. Us in here is all that matters.”

  “And what about the palace kids?” said Maxie.

  “What about them?” said Mick. “I like it here.”

  Freak jumped up to make a point. He was getting very emotional. Bernie hoped for his sake he didn’t start blubbering.

  “Arran said something the night we found Jester, he said that every kid in London is one of our own.”

  “That’s right,” said Ben.

  “Nobody asked your opinion, emo,” said Achilleus.

  Now it was Sophie’s turn to speak. She’d stayed quiet up until now, but Bernie could tell she’d been listening very carefully and waiting for her moment.

  “Can I say something?”

  Maxie sighed. “This doesn’t really have anything to do with you.”

  “She’s one of us now,” said Ollie.

  “Is she?”

  “Will you please let me speak, Maxie,” said Sophie, a hard edge to her voice. Maxie looked embarrassed and stared at the floor.

  “Go on,” said Ollie.

  “As far as I’m aware, I’m the only one here who knows what it’s actually like to kill another kid. I wish I didn’t know how that felt. But I do. It feels horrible. There isn’t a minute goes by in any day when I don’t regret it. Even though I didn’t mean to do it. I’m not going to put myself in a position where it might happen again. Whatever you decide, I’m not going down there.”

  “The girl’s right,” said Whitney. “We don’t kill no other kids.”

  “I can’t believe you’re even discussing it,” said Maeve.

  “Okay, okay, everyone just calm down,” said Ollie. “Let’s not get carried away here. Nobody’s suggesting we go into the squatter camp and kill them all. David just wants a show of strength.”

  “We’re just going to shake them up a little,” said Mick.

  “But why?” said Maxie. “What are they to us?”

  “You know what?” said Lewis, which surprised Bernie, because she thought he’d dozed off. He’d been sitting back against a wall, eyes closed, his Afro bigger than ever since he’d washed it. “I think, in a way, maybe David’s right. If we ever want to go back to any sort of normal life, we have to make everywhere safe. Not just this little part.”

  “Right, so we make London safe by attacking people, is that it?” Freak said sarcastically. “Don’t sound safe to me, sounds like war.”

  “It’s only war if they want to make it war,” said Lewis.

  “Oh, so it’s their fault . . .”

  “I agree with Lewis,” said Ollie. “If these squatters listen to us—if they can work with us—then we’ve got allies. We expand, we take over this area properly, then we move farther out—”

  “What do you mean, ‘we’?” Maxie interrupted. “You mean David. He’s the one wants to take over London.”

  “Why can’t you accept, Maxie,” said Ollie, “that David’s got a good thing going on here? And we can help him build on it. If all the little scattered groups of kids in London can link up, before you know it we’ll have civilization again.”

  “So we make peace by making war?” said Freak.

  “I guess so,” said Ollie. “If that’s what it takes. Look at the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans . . .”

  “I don’t know nothing about all that,” said Freak. “I only know that the real enemy is the grown-ups.”

  “And we have to unite if we want to defeat them,” said Ollie. “If we can’t unite, then they win. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure these squatter kids will see reason. I’m sure we won’t have to fight them.”

  “Do you really believe that?” said Maxie. “You don’t know them.”

  “I’ve made up my mind,” said Blue. “I’ve listened to enough yak-yak-yak for one night. I’m going down there tomorrow to take a look. Check these squatter dudes out. I’ll take anyone who wants to come with me. Anyone wants to stay here, that’s cool. I’m not forcing no one. But let’s see what these guys have got to say for themselves.”

  “And how do you think they’re going to react when you go marching down there armed to the teeth?” said Whitney.

  “We’ll leave the heavy stuff behind,” said Blue. “We won’t take no spears or swords and knives. Only wooden tool handles—you know, ax handles, stuff like that. Just in case. If it does kick off we want to scare them, not kill them.”

  “That sounds like a good enough plan,” said Ollie. “I’m with you.”

  “I still don’t like it,” said Maxie. “But okay. Let’s at least check them out.”

  Callum was running around his track. A circuit of the supermarket floor, in and out of the aisles. He’d done sixteen laps and was going for twenty. He hadn’t slept well, and even now it was barely light outside. He’d had a good day yesterday. He’d found a stash of old magazines he’d forgotten about, and leafing through them had helped take his mind off his loneliness. Before going to bed, he’d gone up to the crow’s nest to watch the sunset and to see if the grown-ups were still hanging around.

  They were.

  Dumb jerks.

  And then he’d seen a new grown-up arrive, and e
verything had changed.

  He was a father. Fat and lumpy with boils. He wore shorts and an England vest with a cross of Saint George on it, and had little patches of hair sticking out from his huge bald head. So big it looked swollen. He had a pair of wire-framed glasses with no lenses in them and seemed more intelligent than the others, even having some sort of control over them. Callum had never known grown-ups to have a leader before; they usually just hunted in loose packs. This father seemed to be rallying them, organizing them. He had even turned up with a weapon. Just a club, but it was something else Callum hadn’t seen before.

  The boss grown-up was surrounded by a little gang, some of whom also carried weapons. They were a mismatched bunch, but they stuck together. One had a metal-shafted arrow through his shoulder, another had a Man. U. shirt, another had no shirt at all, only one arm, and his whole body was covered in blisters. The last one wore a filthy, pinstriped suit and appeared to have a Bluetooth earpiece embedded in his ear.

  The worst thing was when the bald fat one looked up and met Callum’s eye. He had seemed to smile.

  Callum had worried about them all night. They looked dangerous. And as soon as there had been enough light he had crept out onto the balcony to see if they were still out there.

  They were.

  He still had two bombs and various missiles ready. If these new grown-ups made a concerted effort to smash their way in, he’d just have to use all his firepower. For the time being all he could do was watch and wait.

  He told himself he was just tired. That’s what his mother always used to say whenever he was cross or worried about something—“You’re just tired” or “Have you had a glass of water?” or “Have some fruit, your blood sugar’s probably low. . . .”

  The fat ass in the Saint George vest would get bored sooner or later and wander off. They always did. There was no point in getting worked up about it. He’d run a bit longer. That would help. Maybe thirty laps. Maybe forty. Maybe he’d just keep running forever.

  Blue yawned and looked up at the sky. It was a gray morning with thickening clouds. It wasn’t yet seven o’clock and it looked like one of those days that was going to turn nasty. There was a distant rumble of thunder, and he shivered. He’d rather have been in his bed right now, but there was work to be done.

  They’d decided that the best time to go over to St. James’s Park and check out the squatters was first thing, when they’d all still be asleep. Most of the fighters were going. Though Freak and Sophie’s team and a few others had opted out, Pod and Jester had joined them, with a squad of fighters from the palace.

  “So what’s the deal with David?” Blue asked. “How come he ain’t with us?”

  “He’s not really a fighter,” said Pod. “He’s more of a leader, yeah?”

  Achilleus wandered over, swinging a sledgehammer handle.

  “And what about all those nerds in uniform?” he said.

  “With the cool guns? How come they ain’t with us, neither?”

  “If David wanted a show of strength, why didn’t he send them down?”

  “With six guns and only about twenty bullets between them?” said Pod. “They’re really just for show. And besides, they need to stay behind and, you know, guard the palace,” said Pod. “If anyone, like, attacked while we were all out, it’d be a total disaster.”

  “Tell us about the nerds,” said Achilleus. “What’s their story?”

  “All the boys you see in uniform were from the same boarding school,” said Jester. “Down in Surrey somewhere. When everything started to go wrong, David led them all up into town. We’d already set up here in the palace, but it was chaos. David sorted us all out. He was head boy before.”

  “We used to play them at cricket,” said Pod. “Not me—I was a rugby player—but our school.”

  “I suppose as he’d been to boarding school he knew how to organize kids,” said Jester. “Some of the boys he brought with him work in the gardens or the kitchens, but most stayed as the palace guard. I think they did army training and everything at school.”

  “I still don’t think they’re as good street fighters as you guys,” said Pod. “I’m really looking forward to seeing you in action. I might pick up a few tips, yeah?”

  “I’m hoping we won’t be going into action,” said Blue.

  “No, of course not, not today at least,” said Pod.

  “We were kind of hoping the fighting was over.”

  “Come off of it,” said Jester. “You’d be bored stiff. You love fighting.”

  Blue grunted. Could have been a yes or a no.

  “Are we going, then?” asked Achilleus, anxious to be off.

  “Guess so,” said Jester.

  “Let’s move!” Blue shouted, and they tramped out through the gates.

  As they passed the Victoria Memorial someone called out. “Look at that.”

  The memorial had been vandalized. The Queen’s face had been sprayed yellow with two black eyes and a big smiley-face grin. And there, beautifully stenciled to the plinth below her, was a message. Two big words, multicolored and vivid. They simply said:

  ARRAN LIVES

  And under them the tag: FREAKY-DEAKY.

  Maxie laughed when she saw it.

  “How can Arran be alive, man?” said Achilleus. “I watched him burn.”

  “It’s a message from Freak,” said Maxie. “Not to forget what Arran believed in.”

  And there was Freak, standing at the top of the steps that led down from the statue, watching the kids troop past.

  “Freak’s an idiot,” said Achilleus.

  “Don’t you believe in anything, Akkie?”

  “Looking out for number one.”

  Maxie shook her head and broke away from the group. She ran up the steps to where Freak was waiting.

  “Nice artwork.”

  Freak shrugged.

  “You don’t have to go, you know,” he said.

  “I know. But someone needs to make sure the fighters don’t get carried away. It could easily become stupid.”

  “Well, good luck, and take care.” Freak hugged her.

  “You too,” she said.

  “I wish Arran was here,” Freak said quietly into her ear.

  “Yeah,” said Maxie. “Now, I’d better go, or I’ll be left behind.”

  Freak watched her jog over to the others and catch up with the last of them as they went down into St. James’s Park.

  He prayed they’d all come back.

  Jester slapped Blue on the back. “You see?” he said. “This is where you belong, mate, at the head of an army. Not back in the palace doing all the boring crap. Watching vegetables grow. You’re a born general.”

  “Maybe.”

  There was a lake running the length of the park. The water level had dropped, but it still contained a decent amount.

  “Perfect for irrigating crops,” Jester explained. “Did you know? During the Second World War most of the parkland in London was turned over to allotments. There’s loads of space to grow stuff, easily enough to support the kids that are left. But you have to be secure or it won’t happen. Without security you’re reduced to scavenging, like you used to do, and like these squatters here have been doing.”

  “Who are they exactly?” asked Achilleus.

  “They turned up a couple of months ago,” said Jester. “Far as we know, they’d been wandering around London, taking stuff as they went. First thing they did when they got here was dig up all the crops we’d planted and eat them. If we try to go near and replant, they attack us. They don’t want anything to do with us. I mean, they’ve tried to grow new crops, but they don’t know what they’re doing.”

  “They got someone in charge?” Blue asked.

  “He’s called John.”

  “John what?”

  “Just John.”

  “Just John?”

  “Yes. Just John.”

  “Well, this guy, Just John, what’s he like?”

  “He
s hard to reason with,” said Jester. “Harder even than you, Blue, if you can imagine.”

  “He’ll reason with this,” said Achilleus, slapping his sledgehammer handle into the palm of his hand.

  “No fighting if we can avoid it,” said Blue.

  “Yeah, right.”

  The first drops of rain started to fall.

  “God’s policeman,” said Jester.

  “Say what?”

  “The police always used to pray for rain before any big demonstration, because people wouldn’t turn up. Nobody wants to riot in the streets if it’s pouring. Who’s going to want to fight in this?”

  “Let’s hope,” said Blue.

  Out on the right flank, Maxie put her hoodie up. It would keep some of the rain off, and her new leather jacket was reasonably waterproof. She glanced over at the main body of kids. Ollie had left his position at the back and was making his way to the front. She wondered if everything was all right. She watched as Ollie approached Achilleus and said something. The two of them then broke away to the side to talk to each other in private.

  Maxie liked Ollie, but she never quite knew what he was thinking, what was going on in that scheming clever mind of his. Coming to the palace they’d had an aim, something to look forward to. It had kept them going. Kept them bound together. But since they’d arrived she wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

  The park opened out to their left into a larger patch of grass. There was evidence of cultivation, mostly trashed, but someone had obviously tried to grow some new stuff. A few scrawny plants were drooping under the downpour. Other plants lay flat and dying in the mud.

  It was a sorry sight.

  “Months of work wasted,” said Jester. “This bunch don’t know anything.”

  Blue looked around and spotted a bedraggled knot of kids sheltering under the awning of the old café. A modern structure of wood and glass. They appeared to be armed, and a couple of them sprinted off in the other direction.

  “I guess they’ve seen us,” said Blue.

  “Let’s keep going,” said Jester. “Get this over with.”

  “Yeah.” Achilleus spat into the rain.

  They soon arrived at the outlying tents of the squatters. A mixed bag, large and small, expensive and cheap, flimsy and watertight. They clustered around the end of the park with no sense of order. A few sections of ramshackle barricade had been erected, and two boys were keeping watch from under a piece of plastic sheeting.

 
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