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       The Enemy, p.22

           Charlie Higson
 

  The party from the palace walked into the camp. There was litter everywhere, strewn all over the muddy ground, hanging in the trees, piled up in corners. There was an old stroller filled with scrap wood. Apart from the few sentries they had seen, there was nobody else around. They were all either asleep or sheltering in their tents.

  Across the road at the end of the park was Horse Guards Parade, a large drill square enclosed on three sides by buildings. Behind the buildings the great circle of the London Eye was visible, rising up into the rain-heavy sky.

  The squatters had built more permanent dwellings here: shacks and sheds and lean-tos knocked together from scavenged materials. More plastic sheeting covered many of the structures, but much of it was sagging under the force of the storm and simply pouring water onto the already sodden gravel of the square. It looked like a refugee camp.

  The palace party trudged through puddles into the center of the square, where a welcoming party was coming out to meet them. They were a ragged bunch, tanned and raw-skinned from living outdoors.

  At their head was a teenager armed with a thick staff that had three knives taped to the end of it. He was wearing a pair of long baggy shorts and nothing else. His bare chest was crudely tattooed, and his short hair had been shaved into patterns a little like Achilleus’s. He had several teeth missing and a hard, bony face.

  “Just John, I presume,” said Blue. “He don’t look like much.”

  “Don’t trust him,” said Jester.

  “Man,” said Blue, “I don’t trust no one no more.”

  With Just John was an older kid who looked a little like a pirate, with a bandanna tied around his head, a shirt with the sleeves cut off, the same long shorts as John, and boots without socks. He was slapping a machete against his leg.

  Behind them stood four big guys carrying baseball bats.

  “That you, Jester?” Just John called out, squinting into the rain that was coming down fast and heavy now, battering the ground and sending up a misty spray.

  “Yeah,” said Jester. “We’ve come to talk.”

  “Picked a nice day for it,” said the pirate.

  “When are you going to learn?” said Just John. “We don’t want to talk to you.”

  “And we’re never gonna leave,” added the pirate.

  “We don’t want you to leave,” said Jester. “We want you to work with us.”

  “Or what?” said Just John.

  “Or we trash all this. We make you leave.”

  “You’ve tried before.”

  “Things are different now. We’ve got help.”

  Just John looked over the ranks of newcomers with pity and contempt.

  “Ooh. Am I supposed to be scared?” he said.

  “Listen,” said Jester. “This is stupid. Us kids have to stick together. You and us, we can make this whole area safe. You can live properly, eat proper food.”

  “We’re happy as we are,” said John. “We get by.”

  Maxie looked around at their camp. It was hard to tell in the rain, but it looked like a miserable, semipermanent affair. Could anyone really choose to live like this?

  “What exactly is your argument with David?” she called out.

  “Whassat?” John sneered. “Did the bitch say something?”

  Maxie tried not to get angry. She knew it wouldn’t help.

  “I asked you what exactly your argument with David is.”

  “What’s it to you? Who are you, anyway?”

  “We’ve come to help David.”

  “He getting girls to do his fighting for him now? He must be desperate.”

  “Answer my question,” said Maxie.

  “Make me.”

  Maxie didn’t know what to say. There was no reasoning with someone like this. She understood why David wanted a show of force.

  Now the pirate spoke. “Our problem with David is that he’s a jerk,” he said. “We don’t like him. We don’t want him telling us what to do. Acting like he owns London.”

  “Well, can’t you at least let them grow their food in the park?” said Maxie.

  “Why should we?” said the pirate. “It’s not his park.” He twirled his machete around flashily. Showing off.

  “Now, why don’t you sorry bunch of losers eff off and leave us alone?” said Just John.

  “We need to sort this out once and for all,” said Jester.

  “Go on, then,” said Just John, and he laughed.

  “All right,” said Achilleus, stepping forward.

  Before John knew what was happening, Achilleus let fly at his head. His sledgehammer handle made contact, and John went down heavily.

  He didn’t get up again.

  Everyone from both sides looked at his still body in amazement.

  “What you do that for?” said the pirate.

  “I didn’t like him,” said Achilleus. “He was getting on my tits. Now—you—Captain Jack Sparrow, what’s your name?”

  “Carl,” said the pirate.

  “Well, Carl, you seem a little more reasonable. Are you going to talk to us, or do we trash your camp?”

  A laugh went up from some of the palace crew. Carl looked around, unsure of himself. He was soon joined by several more of his friends, all armed and looking for a fight.

  “What’s there to talk about?” he said, readying his machete.

  “Fair enough,” said Achilleus.

  “Stop it,” said Maxie. “We don’t want a fight.”

  “You shouldn’t have started one, then, should you?” said Carl. “Cuz now you’re going to have to finish it.”

  Pod and his team started up a chant. “Fight—fight— fight ...”

  Maxie felt the situation slipping away from her.

  There was a bright flash, and a few seconds later a vicious clap of thunder. Maxie hadn’t thought it could rain any harder, but it did. The rain came down as a steady solid force. It made it hard to think.

  The chanting continued. More squatters appeared, carrying an odd assortment of weapons. They looked confused, the rain streaming down their faces.

  “Back off,” said Carl, seeing he had more support. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”

  “Fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight— fight ...”

  Achilleus stood there, sledgehammer handle at the ready, standing over Just John.

  “Bring it on, pirate. . . .”

  Carl advanced toward John, hoping to help him up.

  “I guess you don’t want to talk,” said Achilleus. “That’s good, cuz neither do I.”

  “Stop!” Maxie yelled. “Just stop!”

  “Fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight— fight ...”

  Freak was sitting on the steps of the Victoria Memorial, his chin resting on his knees, getting soaked.

  He had a bad feeling in his guts.

  What if any of them got hurt? What if Maxie got hurt and he wasn’t there to help?

  They’d all been through so much together. He should be with his friends. Maxie needed support. With nutcases like Achilleus and Big Mick with them, anything could happen.

  And Jester too. What did he have up his patchwork sleeve?

  Freak got to his feet.

  The sky flashed white with lightning. There was a long rippling crack and a deep boom. It sounded like World War bloody Three.

  He started to walk.

  He started to run.

  “Fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight—fight . . .”

  It was on.

  Achilleus ran at Carl, easily dodging a halfhearted swing from his machete. He ducked in and butted Carl in the guts with the end of his club. As Carl doubled over, Achilleus brought his knee up and connected with his face. Now Carl was down. Achilleus kept going, and soon two more of Carl’s friends were also taken out.

  This gave Pod confidence, and he and his gang charged forward with a shout. They grabbed a flimsy support holding up the roof of one of the shacks and pulled at it. It on
ly took two or three heaves and the whole shack twisted and toppled sideways, spilling rainwater everywhere.

  Pod’s team cheered.

  “Stop it!” Maxie screamed, but her voice was lost in the chaos.

  The camp had come fully alive, and kids poured out of the shacks like angry wasps. The entire palace squad was forced into the fight now, and a messy brawl developed in the square. Fists and sticks were flying. The kids were kicking, gouging, wrestling. Not many of the squatters were armed, and Achilleus and his fighters concentrated on those that were, trying to get their weapons off them without getting hurt.

  Freak was pounding along the walkway by the lake. He could hear the distant sounds of fighting.

  “Shit!”

  He kept his eyes open for something he could use as a weapon. He had nothing with him.

  “Stupid!”

  Some kid he didn’t recognize stepped out of the café as he passed.

  “Hey, what are you—”

  Freak barged into him and sent him flying.

  He raced on.

  Blue was standing there, watching, not sure what to do.

  “We’ve got to stop this,” said Maxie, shaking him.

  “How?” said Blue.

  “Take charge,” said Maxie. “Do something.”

  Before they could say anything else, a group of squatters ran at them, and Blue was forced to hack away at them with his ax handle. A hail of shot and small rocks from Ollie’s squad rattled into the squatters’ legs, and they fell back, hobbling and swearing.

  Pod and his boys were moving from shack to shack, pushing them over. A fat girl ran out of one, shrieking.

  “What are you doing? What are you doing?” she shouted. “There’s kids in there!”

  Pod wavered, and the wail of a distressed baby came clearly from inside the shack, which was rocking dangerously, ready to collapse. Pod’s team tried to steady it.

  “Idiots!” Blue ran forward and ducked inside. He emerged a second later with a baby in his arms and almost chucked it at the girl. He was instantly back inside, and reemerged with a second baby. He turned and went back in as the girl yelled that that was all of them.

  He didn’t hear, and the next moment the shack went down with a creaking, splintering sound. Pod and his team began to frantically pull aside sheets of plywood and corrugated metal, planks and boards, and bits of plastic.

  While everyone was distracted, Maxie went to find Just John. He was stirring, trying to sit up, his lethal spear held limply in his hand. If she could take him out, she might be able to stop this.

  She had Arran’s club in her backpack. She’d been hoping not to use it, but she needed it now. She reached back for it and felt a terrific blow in her side. It took all her breath away, and it felt like her ribs had been caved in. She staggered sideways, her vision blurred with the pain. Out of the corner of her eye she sensed a movement and turned to fend off another attack. The second blow caught her in the upper arm, and she lost all feeling in it.

  It was a squatter with a baseball bat. He wasn’t big, but he had two others with him. One of them swung at her, and she ducked, but it hurt like hell to move, and she thought she might pass out. There was no way she was going to avoid the next swing.

  Suddenly the three squatters went down like bowling pins.

  It was Freak. He had barreled into them full speed. As they struggled to get up, he grabbed a fallen bat and laid into them like a maniac.

  Maxie was doubled over, fighting the pain and trying to draw some oxygen into her lungs.

  Freak was making short work of his fight; one of the squatters ran off, another went down and didn’t look like he was getting up again. Freak was just about to finish off the last one when he yelled and sat down on the gravel. He looked confused. A bubble of saliva formed on his lips. There was an ugly patch of blood spreading across his back.

  Just John. He’d stabbed up at Freak from the ground with his horrible three-bladed spear.

  “No!” Maxie’s cry sounded like the snarl of a wild beast. All her pain forgotten, she moved quickly, with an inhuman strength fueled by rage and despair. Arran’s club swung through the air in a blur of silver gray. It slammed into the shaft of John’s spear and knocked it out of his hands.

  He looked up at her, surprised. She raised the club above her head.

  “Tell them to stop!” she shouted. “Now!”

  “Make me, bitch.”

  Maxie swiped the club across John’s face. It smashed into his nose and flattened it sideways. He howled. Maxie kicked him flat and picked up his spear.

  “Now tell them!” she shouted, pressing the blades into the soft skin at his throat. “And don’t ever call me a bitch again, you ugly piece of shit.”

  Just John mumbled something, blood streaming from his ruined nose into the gravel.

  Maxie looked over and saw Carl, with a bunch of tough-looking squatters, grappling with Achilleus and his best fighters.

  “Everybody stop now!” she screamed, finally making herself heard. Kids paused in what they were doing. Carl looked furious. All he could see was the blood pouring out of Just John, and Maxie standing there holding his spear. What had she done to him?

  “I’ll kill him!” Maxie yelled. “I swear it! Now stop! Throw down your weapons.”

  “You better do as she says,” said Achilleus.

  “Do it,” Carl ordered, and the squatters gave up the fight.

  Pod had finally gotten to Blue and was dragging him out of the ruins of the shack. His body was limp and lifeless. He’d been knocked cold by a falling beam. He was still alive, though. Pod ordered his team to make a stretcher out of bits of scrap.

  Lewis watched them, his Afro flattened in the rain, his head looking two sizes smaller. “We’re going to need another one of those,” he said.

  Pod gave him a quizzical look.

  “Freak’s hurt.”

  There was a sullen mood in the camp as the squatters surveyed the damage. Many of their shacks were completely trashed. Half of their tents trampled. They were getting thoroughly soaked. Younger kids were crying.

  Achilleus and the fighters were standing in a ring around Just John, who still hadn’t got his senses fully back. He was lying on the gravel, bewildered and bedraggled.

  Another group was clustered around Freak, who was sitting where he had dropped. Ollie was pressing a piece of torn cloth over the wound in his back. Maxie was holding him in her arms.

  “I don’t want to die,” Freak whispered.

  “Then don’t,” said Maxie, trying not to sob. She looked at Ollie, who had a look of utter hopelessness on his face.

  “I don’t feel good,” said Freak. “I wish my mom was here. How she was. Before she got sick. I wish everything was how it was before. I never asked for any of this. It was just me and Deke. Spraying our tag on the walls.”

  “Freaky-Deaky,” said Maxie.

  “Yeah . . . Is Deke here? Where’s Deke?”

  “He’s not here.”

  “Neither am I,” said Freak, and he closed his eyes.

  “The bleeding’s stopped,” said Ollie.

  “He’s dead,” said Maxie.

  They wrapped Freak in a blanket and carried him gently to one of Pod’s stretchers. They lifted Just John to his feet and tied his hands behind his back.

  Maxie looked at the sky and then walked over to where the squatters were standing watching. She looked for Carl, the pirate, who seemed to be John’s second in command.

  “Here’s the deal,” she said, her voice cold and hard and clear. “We’re going back to the palace and we’re taking John with us. You have until this evening to decide what you want to do. But before it gets dark you send someone to the palace to talk to us, and we’ll figure out what happens next.”

  “What do you mean what happens—”

  “Shut up, Carl. I’m speaking. Two things can happen. One: you turn up and make peace, we figure out how we can all get along, and you take John home with you. Ha
ppy ending. Or two: no one shows up and we come back here with a bigger force, with all our weapons, and we don’t hold back. We wipe you out. Kill you if we have to. You understand? It’s your choice.”

  On a Friday or Saturday night we’d get pizzas and watch DVDs.”

  “Me too . . . Only we used to get Indian takeout.”

  Sam and Rhiannon were sitting in the darkness of the car. The nightlights that Nick and Rachel kept burning twenty-four hours a day on the platform outside cast no light in here. All Sam could see was a vague yellow glow in the window, and Rhiannon’s head silhouetted against it. They were sitting opposite each other, keeping the fear away by talking of old familiar things.

  “I used to love chicken tikka,” said Rhiannon.

  “Me too,” said Sam. “But we didn’t get Indian food much. It was too spicy for my little sister, Ella.”

  “Don’t she like chicken tikka? Everyone likes chicken tikka.”

  “She likes it a bit. But she’s not very good with food. She’s fussy. All she really likes is plain cheese pizza.”

  “Boring,” said Rhiannon.

  “I bet you wouldn’t say no to one now, though,” said Sam.

  “Maybe we could call for a delivery,” said Rhiannon, and she giggled.

  “Domino’s,” said Sam. “Can I take your order?”

  “Veggie Supreme.”

  “I don’t think I ever had one of those.”

  “We’ll rent a DVD and have pizza,” said Rhiannon. “What shall we watch?”

  “We used to watch TV series mostly,” said Sam. “Sometimes three episodes in one night.”

  “Yeah,” said Rhiannon. “I love box sets.”

  “Star Trek,” said Sam. “And Heroes. But it was a bit gory.”

  “We were halfway through Lost,” said Rhiannon.

  “That was too scary for Ella,” said Sam. “She liked Ugly Betty. She didn’t really understand it, though.”

 
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