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       The Enemy, p.25

           Charlie Higson
 

  It was agony for Rhiannon, and halfway up, Sam knew they were never going to make it to the top. He was just about to say something to the Kid when there came an almighty bang and a flash, and Rhiannon screamed.

  The three of them stumbled and fell over in shock. Sam was stunned; the noise and the light had completely disorientated him. It was a few seconds before he realized he was unhurt, but Rhiannon was crying. She was three steps below him. He sat up and put his hand out to her. Her top was wet. He could see it stained black in the dim light. She was bleeding. Some of the shot from the cartridge had hit her.

  It was clear she wasn’t going to go any farther.

  “Go on,” she croaked. “You’ll never make it with me.”

  “No,” said Sam, but then Nick’s voice rang out in the half-light.

  “Don’t move, none of you, I’ll aim the next shot straight at you.”

  “Keep down,” said the Kid, “and run like mad. He can’t shoot and point his flashlight at the same time.”

  “We can’t leave Rhiannon,” Sam wailed.

  “Just go!” said Rhiannon.

  Sam didn’t know what to do, but the Kid decided for him—he pulled Sam up by his shirt, and the two of them darted up the stairs.

  Nick was running up after them, but when he got to Rhiannon she threw her arms around his knees and they went crashing down to the bottom. It was all the two boys needed to get away.

  They were in the ticket hall at last, a pale light showing them the way out to street level. There were shouts and screams behind them. Sam tried not to imagine what was happening, but he silently thanked Rhiannon. He would owe her for the rest of his life.

  They vaulted the ticket gates and headed for the stairs.

  They ran up three steps at a time.

  The daylight hit Sam like a blow. He was blinded. He staggered along, shielding his eyes from the glare. It was physically painful, and he had an instant headache. He was vaguely aware of a church and tall old buildings.

  He felt the Kid grab him.

  “Move it, slowpoke,” he said. Sam squinted at him— the Kid had produced a pair of sunglasses from somewhere, a big pink pair in the shape of love hearts. Sam resisted the urge to laugh. It was the Kid who should be laughing; at least he could see what he was doing. He dragged Sam down the wet pavement. Sam could just make out, through the narrowed slits of his eyelids, where he was. This was the City of London—where old and new London butted up against each other, modern skyscrapers shouldering up through Victorian buildings on a higgledy-piggledy medieval street layout. “We need to hurry, dog,” said the Kid.

  Sam stumbled on, feeling the Kid tug him across the road. They came to a paved area in front of a massive building that looked like a Greek temple. Sam’s eyes were getting a little better. They weren’t hurting so much. He looked up at the statue of a man on a horse. Then something jerked him

  back, and he was thrown against a wooden bench.

  It was Nick.

  “I’m going to slaughter you, little pigs,” he snarled. His dreadlocks were flapping around his head like the rays of the sun in a child’s drawing. His face, though, was twisted into a picture of rage. There was no sign of Rachel.

  He held his shotgun in one hand, but before he could bring it around on Sam, the Kid threw himself at his arm, knocking it sideways and smashing the gun into the base of the statue. The gun exploded in Nick’s hand, and he dropped it, the barrel bent out of shape.

  Nick didn’t waste any time, and pulled a knife out from inside his coat. He glanced at the Kid. He’d fallen heavily, the gun going off very close to his face. He looked stunned. Winded.

  Nick turned his attention back to Sam, who was struggling to open his eyes properly, squinting in the bright light. He saw that Nick was having trouble, too; his eyes were red and tears streamed down his face. He wiped them away and blinked at Sam, raising his knife. It was old and well used, with a wide, curved blade, worn thin from constant sharpening. He took a swipe at Sam, who ducked. He felt the knife swish across the back of his head, ruffling his hair. Nick immediately brought the knife back again, and as Sam dodged to the side, he felt a sting in his neck. He backed away, down some steps, toward the road. He splashed through a puddle. It had been raining. He realized that the sun wasn’t even out. Though the clouds were beginning to break up in the sky.

  He was breathing fast. He knew he couldn’t keep this up for long. Nick was too big, too fit. Sam was just a kid.

  “Hold still, you little pig,” Nick hissed. “I’ll make it quick and painless for you. If you muck me about, though, I’ll string you upside down and bleed you slowly, just you see that I do. You’ll feel every minute of it. I promise you that. Now, hold still.”

  “Go to hell!” Sam shouted, his voice a hoarse croak.

  “I’m already there,” said Nick, and he chuckled, so sure was he of success. “Didn’t you know I was Satan, hisself? Old Nick. That’s me.”

  Sam swore at him, using all the dirty words he’d ever heard, and some he’d made up. Nick just laughed louder.

  Sam scrambled under a van, and for a moment felt safe, until he realized he was trapped now.

  Idiot.

  He should have run.

  The ground here was oily, and he was soon black with filth. He saw Nick’s lower legs as he stalked around the van, banging on the sides and calling out in a high-pitched voice.

  “Here, piggy-piggy-piggy, come to Nick.” Then he stopped and ducked down. Sam saw his grinning face appear below the edge of the van. He reached out a hand for Sam, who just managed to slither back from it. But it was a bluff. Nick quickly dodged around the van and made another grab for him. As Sam tried to shift again, his shirt caught on something and he was stuck. Then he felt Nick’s hand take hold of him, and he was dragged out, kicking and yelling.

  Sam looked for the Kid and saw him struggling groggily to his feet over by the statue. The Kid then bent double and vomited. Nick tucked Sam under his arm, clamping him tight, and strode back over to the Kid. Nick aimed a kick at

  his backside and pitched him into the street.

  The Kid wasn’t going to be any help.

  Nick set Sam down and held him upright with one hand. He raised his other hand above his head. The sun came out from behind a cloud and shone onto the blade, the sharpened edge glinting like liquid fire.

  “I’m going to cut your little pig’s head off,” Nick said with relish.

  He paused. Licked his dry lips. He didn’t want to rush this.

  This boy had caused him a lot of trouble. He wanted to see the fear and pain in his eyes before he finished it. He wanted the brat to know full well what was about to happen to him.

  The boy’s eyes were satisfyingly wide. There was a look of horror in them that pleased Nick. They were fixed on his knife, as they should be.

  No. Wait a second. Something was wrong. The boy wasn’t looking at the knife at all. He was looking at something else. His eyes had flicked down and appeared to be looking at Nick’s hand.

  Nick frowned and looked up.

  A rash of spots was spreading across his skin; already one or two had swollen into fat blisters. His throat went tight. He could do nothing but stare, mesmerized.

  He should never have come out into the sunlight.

  Sam couldn’t tear his eyes away, either. It was like watching a piece of food in a microwave. Nick seemed to be cooking in front of him. Another crop of blisters and boils blossomed from the knuckles, as his fingers swelled up like bloated slugs.

  Nick moaned. The knife was wobbling in his grip, his puffed-up hand no longer able to keep hold of it. He dropped it, and it fell to the pavement with a clatter.

  “Look what you’ve done,” he said in a strangled voice, and Sam looked at his face. The skin there was erupting too. Pearly boils were spreading from one ear across his cheek. His lips were growing fat, like sausages in a frying pan, the skin tightening then bursting.

  It was as if all the evil inside N
ick were erupting, forcing its way out of his body. The boils began to pop one by one, leaking blood and pus down his face. His eyes were swelling too, the blood vessels showing dark red. They bulged out of his face. Sam could imagine that someone had stuck a bicycle pump in Nick’s ear and was inflating his whole head.

  Then Sam had to look away as the eyes burst.

  Nick let go of Sam and put his hands up to cover the wounds. He opened his mouth wide to scream, but Sam saw that it was filled with swellings and lumps and ulcers, his tongue a fat warty toad-thing, forcing its way out from between his teeth. His throat was completely blocked, so that he could neither breathe nor speak.

  He no longer looked human. His whole body was bulging and writhing. He dropped to his knees. Blind. His hands groping the air. They looked like two udders and were still filling with liquid so that in a few moments the fingers had all but disappeared, the blackened stubs of the fingernails all that remained.

  Sam saw the knife lying on the ground and picked it up, ignoring the stickiness on the handle. He felt almost sorry for the thing that had once been Nick. He wondered if he should put him out of his misery. But before he could bring himself to do anything, Nick’s skin split and he seemed to disintegrate completely. He collapsed to the pavement, a mass of putrefying, liquefying flesh and steaming entrails that bubbled and hissed in the sunlight.

  Sam retched, and then felt the Kid’s hand on his arm.

  He sang a little ditty.

  “TV highlight of the week . . .”

  “What happened to him?” said Sam.

  “Blame it on the sunshine. That’s why Mrs. Spiderlady wouldn’t come out. She’s going to be so angered, but what can she do about it? Now let’s get gone from here.”

  “Shouldn’t we go back for Rhiannon?” said Sam.

  “Can’t,” said the Kid. “Look . . .”

  He nodded to where a group of grown-ups was lumbering along the road toward them.

  “We need to get out of here sharpish, skipper. Poor girl’s probably dead as a dormouse already. Just thank her in your prayers.”

  “I don’t pray,” said Sam. “I don’t believe in God.”

  “Well, somebody up there’s looking after you, titch. Now let’s motor.”

  They ran off down the road, hand in hand, Sam glad of the human contact.

  They arrived at sunset. Carl, the pirate, had brought ten of the meanest, toughest-looking squatters with him, plus a couple of smaller kids. Wiry little bruisers with even more attitude than their larger friends. They were escorted to the Throne Room and came in intending to be unimpressed, to play it cool, to show the stone face, but now they were all standing there with eyes wide, mouths hanging open.

  “Oh, my days,” said Carl. “This is unreal.”

  Everything about the scene was unreal. The decrepit Royal Family were slumped in their thrones, drooling. Just John was standing to one side, his hands tied behind his back, his feet loosely roped together so that he could walk but not run. There was a wad of cotton wool taped across his nose, and his eyes were ringed with purple bruising. He looked uglier than ever.

  David and Jester stood on the other side, arms folded. David’s suit was clean and pressed, his tie immaculate. The palace guards were at attention in front of the thrones, wearing their red-and-black uniforms, their rifles at the ready, trying their hardest to look like professionals.

  Pod and his team of fighters were along one wall. Maxie and the chief Holloway kids were along the other wall. Maxie thought it was like some ridiculous school play, like Shakespeare or something, with kids pretending to be kings and queens and soldiers. But she was interested to see how the scene would play out. She could see a faint smile curling David’s lip. For the moment he had the upper hand. The squatters were thrown, their guard was down.

  He raised his hand for silence and started to speak.

  “This morning my ambassador spoke to you.”

  Maxie bit her lip. Since when was she David’s ambassador?

  Just John obviously didn’t like the idea of an ambassador any more than Maxie did.

  “Ambassador?” he said, his voice sounding choked and nasal. “What you talking about, moron?”

  “The girl, Maxie, was speaking on my behalf. Now I will speak for myself.”

  “Listen, mate,” said Carl. “We didn’t come here to talk, we came to get John.”

  “That wasn’t the deal, though, was it?” said David. “The deal was—if you wanted John back you’d have to talk.”

  “There’s nothing to talk about,” said Carl. “As I see it we won the fight.”

  “But we’ve got John,” said David.

  “This doesn’t need to get heavy,” said Jester. “We don’t have to be enemies.”

  “Who says?”

  “We have food here,” said Jester. “We have security. We also have many more kids than you do. We have weapons as well, good weapons, and a well-organized army. All we’re saying is—why not join us? Together we can be strong. We can take on any other gang of kids. We can rule London.”

  Again Maxie winced. She had no desire to rule London. She just wanted a roof over her head, food on her plate, and to be able to sleep at night without waking every half hour in a sweat of fear and anxiety. But maybe this was the only language the squatters would understand.

  “We don’t want you to change,” said David.

  “That’s big of you,” said Just John.

  “You can keep your camp,” said David, ignoring the interruption. “You can still be in charge, John. But we make peace. We grow food together. We share everything. If there is an outside threat, we stand shoulder to shoulder against it.”

  A couple of the squatters sniggered at David’s fancy language. But Carl was looking at Just John quizzically.

  “You say you won this morning,” Pod chipped in. “But we could have destroyed your whole camp if we wanted.”

  “You didn’t fight fair,” said John. “You cheated.”

  Now it was the turn of some of the palace kids to snigger. The idea of someone like Just John complaining about fair play was more than faintly ridiculous.

  “I could have beaten you with a blindfold on, man,” said Achilleus. “You are sad.”

  “Oh, tough guy, aren’t you?” said John, and Achilleus shrugged. “I was trying to talk to you and you whacked me.

  If I’d’ve been ready for you, you wouldn’t be standing there now.”

  “If you was any good you’d have been ready,” said Achilleus. “But you ain’t nothing.”

  “All right, all right,” said David, raising his hands again. “That’s enough of that. We don’t need to start an argument. This isn’t about fighting each other; it’s about becoming allies.”

  “This is boring,” Achilleus muttered. “It’s too much like politics.”

  “All I’m asking for is a truce,” said David.

  “There’s unfinished business,” said John darkly.

  “What unfinished business?” said Jester.

  “Me and him.” John pointed at Achilleus.

  “You want another fight, I’m ready,” said Achilleus.

  John spat on the carpet and shuffled over to Carl. The two of them had a quick quiet chat, which ended with Carl slapping John on the shoulder.

  “We’re ready to make a deal,” he said.

  “As long as you understand that we might not accept it,” said David. “As I see it, we have the upper hand. We have John prisoner, and—”

  “You gonna listen to our deal or are you gonna blab, fancy boy?” said John.

  “I’ll listen,” said David. “But it better be good.”

  “It’s good,” said John. “It’s the best you’ll ever get.”

  “Go on then.”

  “It’s like this. We’ll do everything you say. We’ll help you grow food; we’ll join up with you if anyone attacks. All that you said. We’ll make a truce. On one condition.”

  “Which is?”

 
Him there.” John was pointing at Achilleus. “If he can beat me in a fair fight.”

  “It’s a deal,” said Achilleus without any hesitation.

  “Wait,” said Maxie. “That’s just stupid.”

  “Yeah?” said Carl. “Well, it’s our deal. Take it or leave it.”

  “What do you say, David?” asked John, his chin raised cockily.

  “What if we lose?”

  “If you lose you can forget any kind of truce, and if you want to start a war, that’s fine with us. We’ll be ready for you.”

  “Wait a moment.”

  David and Jester went over to Achilleus. It was their turn for a quiet chat.

  “Can you beat him?” David asked.

  Achilleus smiled. “No problem. I took him before. I can take him again. He’s all talk.”

  “Are you sure? A lot rests on this.”

  “You don’t think I can do it?”

  “He can do it,” said Jester.

  “All right.” David broke away from the huddle. “You’ve got a deal.”

  “Wait a moment,” said Maxie, pushing between David and Jester. “We need to think about this.”

  “I have thought about it,” said David. “It’s agreed.”

  “Wait . . .” said Maxie, and Achilleus put his hand on her arm.

  “Don’t you want revenge?” he said. “For what he did to Freak? Don’t you want to see him dead?”

  “If I’d wanted that, I could have killed him myself this morning.”

  “Revenge, Maxie.”

  “I don’t want revenge. And I don’t want any more fighting.”

  “It’s not your decision,” said David, and he walked over toward John.

  “The two of you will fight for it,” he said. “Our champion against yours.”

  “All right.” John smiled, showing his small, jagged, yellow teeth, and shook hands with David. He didn’t let go. Instead he leaned closer until their faces were only about an inch apart. “The winner decides what happens between us. The loser gets buried with a nice ceremony and some flowers.”

  David laughed, trying to pull his hand free. “I don’t think we have to go quite that far,” he said. “We’re not talking about a fight to the death.”

 
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