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       The Enemy, p.26

           Charlie Higson
 

  “Oh yes we are,” said John, and he grinned wider. “It’s the only way to decide it. A fight to the death. We’ve shook on it.”

  A great hubbub broke out in the room. There were cries of protest, and angry accusations. John stood there, smiling his smile, clutching David’s hand in an iron grip. David looked unsure of himself. Once again he turned to Achilleus for reassurance.

  Achilleus was unfazed.

  “What’s the problem?” he said once the noise had died down. “That’s my kind of fight.”

  He walked over to Carl and the other squatters. “Better get your shovels ready, chaps. You’re gonna have some digging to do.”

  “No!” Maxie shouted. “This is horrible. We’re not animals.”

  “Speak for yourself, bitch,” said John, and the room erupted into a chaotic frenzy of shouting and shoving.

  John stood there in the middle of it all with his broken-toothed grin, his hard bony head nodding slowly on his long neck.

  Sam and the Kid were sitting at the bottom of the Gherkin.

  The weird skyscraper that looked like a huge vegetable. They were finishing off the last of the provisions from the Kid’s leather backpack. Some murky water in an old plastic bottle and a can of peas.

  They’d been wandering, lost, through the empty canyons of the City of London for the last hour. The street plan made no sense. There were no straight lines; roads twisted and turned and came to sudden stops. The boys were trying to reach the river so that they could get their bearings, but it was proving impossible. Every direction they tried seemed wrong, or took them back to where they’d started. So time and again they made their way back to the Gherkin as the chief landmark in the area.

  And now it was growing dark.

  Paper fluttered in the air. Sam looked up to see that it was spilling from a broken window high up in the Gherkin.

  He didn’t like it here. The glass walls of the towers that loomed on either side reflected each other back at themselves.

  It was like a city designed by a madman. The scale was all wrong and none of the buildings matched. There would be an old church right next to an office block made of metal that looked like a giant engine. Everywhere there were abandoned building sites, some little more than deep holes in the ground, others home to the steel skeletons of office blocks that would now never be finished. Cranes stood over them, and the boys had seen three that had fallen, smashing into the buildings next to them.

  “Shall we try again?” said the Kid.

  “Okay.”

  They got up stiffly and set off, trying a new route.

  “We need to keep our eyes peeled like spuds, Frodo,” said the Kid.

  “It’s Sam,” said Sam testily.

  “Oh yeah, sorry, I knew it was one of them hobbits.”

  “And besides,” said Sam. “You don’t have to tell me to look out. I can look after myself. I’ve survived on the streets all by myself.”

  “Not these streets,” said the Kid.

  “They’re all the same,” said Sam.

  “Not so,” said the Kid. “You never know what you’re going to find around here. This part of London is way weird. Things happened differently here to how they did everywhere elsewhere, I reckon. That’s why your bully-butcher friends down below didn’t become sickos. This is an old place. There’s some kind of special magic here. Some old power, from the dark days, the storybook time, maybe even before Caesar and his Romans came, eh?”

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

  “I believe in everything, titch,” said the Kid.

  “Don’t call me ‘titch.’ You’re not much bigger than me.”

  “I know I ain’t, but you’re still small, buster boy. You’re a right tiddler.”

  “I’m a giant killer.”

  “I can believe it. As I say, I believe everything, shrimp.”

  “Don’t call me that,” said Sam. “Or I’ll call you rat boy.”

  “Midget.”

  “Tree frog.”

  “Crumb.”

  “Scab.”

  “Plankton.”

  “Poop head.”

  “Poop head?”

  “Yeah,” said Sam, giggling. “That’s what you are. You stink.”

  “Not as bad as you, pip-squeak.”

  “No, you smell worse, you smelly sock.”

  “Don’t you call me a smelly sock, you hairy yellow vetch.”

  “Rat boy, rat boy!”

  “Squirt.”

  “Ass.”

  “Hold up.” The Kid tensed and went into a crouch. He was looking intently down the street, like a hunting dog. Sam looked in the same direction.

  It was another group of grown-ups. The third they’d seen since they’d been up here.

  “We need to be somewhere else, microbe,” said the Kid.

  “You’re a microbe, you punk,” Sam muttered wearily as they turned and ran.

  Achilleus was sitting alone in the palace kitchen, eating a big bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce. It was warm in here and quiet. He wanted a little time to himself before the fight, to get his act together. He was loading up on carbs, like a runner before a marathon. He’d put on a tough front upstairs, put on his macho hat, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Just John was one mean bugger.

  There was a knock on the door and he glanced up from his bowl.

  It was Jester. He was carrying a small round shield.

  “I’ve been looking for you,” he said, coming into the kitchen.

  “You’ve found me.”

  “Yeah.” Jester dropped the shield on the table with a clatter.

  “Thought this might be useful,” he said. “It’s ceremonial, really, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

  Achilleus got up from the table and picked up the shield. It was made of lightweight steel, backed with wood and leather. He slipped his arm through the strap and held on to the grip.

  “Yeah,” he said, experimenting, moving his arm, raising and lowering the shield. “Feels good. Coulda used one of these before.”

  Jester sat down. “You really think you can win?”

  “I gotta think that, dog, or I ain’t got no chance.”

  “I could see if I could find you a piece of armor, or something,” said Jester.

  “Nah,” said Achilleus, taking the shield off and returning to his dinner. “It’d only slow me down. Wouldn’t be used to it. I’m all right like this.”

  He had changed into a fighting outfit. Sweatshirt and pants. Sneakers. A marked contrast to Jester in his patchwork coat. What was with that coat, anyway? Achilleus had been meaning to ask, and now might be his last chance to find out.

  “Tell me something, Mister Magic,” he said.

  “What?”

  “David goes around in that nasty suit, everyone else here is kind of preppy, like they’re all at private school or something. But not you, you wear that tatty old coat. What’s that all about?”

  “I used to live in Notting Hill,” said Jester. “West London.”

  “Ritzy.”

  “I suppose so. Anyway, when it happened, what you call the disaster—”

  “Ain’t it that? What do you call it?”

  “I don’t call it anything,” said Jester. “It’s what it is. It happened. So, as I was saying, I ended up in this big house. Massive place. With a load of other kids. Mostly friends to start with, but more and more joined us. It was easy back then. There were loads of big houses around there. A lot of rich people. They’d hoarded stuff like you wouldn’t believe. It was rich pickings at first. We thought we had it made. But then ...”

  “Grown-ups.”

  “Grown-ups. Bad ones. And a lot of them. We didn’t have anyone like you, Akkie. We didn’t stand a chance. There was a girl with us, Persephone.”

  “Greek name.”

  “I suppose so. But anyway, the first of us to get it was her sister. We divided her things up among us. But Persephone, she took one of her sister’s pa
rty dresses, her favorite, and cut a patch from it. Sewed it onto a piece of cloth. To remember her. Then every time another kid died, Persephone made a patch from their clothes. Made a sort of quilt. She showed me how to do it. You know what it was like, there wasn’t much to do to pass the time. And when Persephone was killed, I added her patch. Kept the cloth. In the end we had to leave Notting Hill, it got too bad. Headed into town, where it was quieter. Some of us died on the way. But not everyone. Rose was with us. One or two others in the palace. And when we got here I made the quilt into this coat. To carry those dead kids with me. You know how many patches there are on here?”

  “How many?”

  “Forty-three. No, forty-four. I added Freak today.”

  He showed Achilleus a fresh patch.

  “And this one here is Arran.”

  “You took his shirt?”

  “He didn’t need it anymore.”

  “You’re deep, man,” said Achilleus. “Really deep. You happy to let David boss you around?”

  “Are you?” said Jester.

  “As long as I got something to eat, somewhere dry to sleep, I’m okay. I don’t want to be no boss. Too much to think about. But you . . . do you even like David?”

  “He’s bonkers,” said Jester. “Gets nuttier every day. But it kind of works. For now. He’s sixteen, you know? Quite old.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah. I sometimes wonder if that’s what’s making him the way he is. I watch him all the time for any signs—you know, boils and that. Nothing yet. None of us knows what’s going to happen as we get older. . . .”

  “Don’t like to think about that stuff, man,” said Achilleus. “Don’t like to talk about it.”

  “No. I’m sorry.” Jester paused. Studied Achilleus. Then went on. “If you win tonight, Akkie, you’re going to be in a very strong position, you know. I don’t know if David understands that. You could topple him if you wanted.”

  “Told you, Magic Man, don’t want to be no boss.”

  “No,” said Jester. “But you and me. We’d make a very good team.”

  “Excepting I couldn’t never trust you, man. I’d fear to turn my back on you. You’re a backstabber.”

  “I’m a survivor, Akkie, a winner like you. There are forty-four kids on this coat that didn’t make it. And I’m the one wearing it.”

  “You gonna add another patch tonight? After I’ve fought John?”

  Jester shrugged and stood up. “Let’s hope it’s not your patch.”

  “Yeah. Well, with this shield you’ve given me, I reckon I’m safe. It’ll give me the edge over Johnny boy.”

  “You do realize I had to give him one as well.”

  “You what?”

  “We can’t have them crying foul.”

  “You’re one slippery bastard, Jester, you know that? I suppose you’ve had this exact same chat with Just John, haven’t you?”

  Jester laughed and went out.

  The quadrangle, the large central courtyard of Buckingham Palace, was crowded. Kids hung out of the windows, waiting. Others stood around the edges of the space, looking toward the center, where flaming torches had been set up to make a ring.

  Not all the kids were here. The younger ones and the more squeamish had been kept away. Some hadn’t even been told what was happening. Many of the smaller kids still woke from nightmares, screaming in the dark hours. They had had a very traumatic time. They didn’t need to be exposed to any fresh violence.

  Maxie wished she wasn’t here either, but she couldn’t bear to leave Achilleus to fight alone. She had to know who was going to win. She still couldn’t really believe that this was happening. It was like some awful barbaric Roman gladiatorial contest. She had never exactly liked Achilleus. He was a typical boy—a bully, used to throwing his weight around, lazy and rude and full of himself—but she nevertheless respected him as a fighter. Valued him. He had saved them all on many occasions. Before the disaster she never would have hung out with someone like him. In these tough times, though, he was a good person to have on your side. They’d been through a lot together. The thought that he might die today was too terrible to contemplate.

  And what was the alternative? That Just John would die.

  Another kid.

  Yes. He was a truly horrible person. Like Achilleus ten times over. And he had killed Freak.

  That morning, she would gladly have seen him dead. She’d almost killed him herself. But not anymore. And not like this.

  She didn’t want to ever see anyone die again.

  She’d had enough. Holding Freak as he’d slowly slipped away had been awful. And what had made it worse was that afterward she hadn’t felt anything. Just a numbness. A blankness.

  Maybe there were no more tears left inside her.

  She looked around at the faces of the assembled kids. Some were keyed up, some slightly glazed and shocked like herself, some sitting on the ground, nervous and quiet. The thirteen kids from the squatter camp stayed together in a huddle. The younger ones at the front, like they were about to watch a show, shoving each other, jostling for position, chatting excitedly.

  And there was David with Jester and his uniformed guards clustered around him. David looking all high and mighty. An emperor. His champion ready to fight the barbarian champion. She noticed that Ollie was with them. She wondered sadly if he’d gone over to the other side.

  There was no one for Maxie to talk to anymore. Ollie was with David. Arran was dead. There was always Whitney, but she was in the ballroom with the little ones, trying to distract them from what was going down.

  In a funny way she missed Blue. Even if he had been somewhat condescending. At least he understood what she was going through. He knew how hard it was to be a leader.

  Was she still a leader? She didn’t know anymore. Everything had changed since they’d come here. Things were slipping out of her control.

  She felt a tap on her shoulder.

  Sophie. Standing there with her archers.

  Maxie was torn. Under different circumstances they would have been friends. Sophie was someone Maxie could talk to. She would understand. But Maxie couldn’t tear down that wall between them.

  “What do you want?”

  “I’ve come to tell you we’re leaving,” said Sophie.

  “What?”

  “We just can’t stay. If it hadn’t been for Arran maybe it might have been different. As it is—we don’t like David, and you don’t like us. We’ve never fit in. And then the fight today. We’ve made up our minds, we’re going to get away while everyone’s here. But I didn’t want to go without saying anything.”

  “Where will you go?”

  “Don’t know, but we survived on the streets for a year, and it does seem to be safer around here, so . . .”

  “Good luck . . .”

  Sophie gave her a quick hug.

  “I wish things had been different,” she said, and she slipped off into the shadows.

  Maxie stood there stunned. Had she driven Sophie out. . . ?

  Before she could get things straight in her mind, a great shout went up as Achilleus walked into the center of the ring.

  Maxie looked around.

  There were Pod and his fighters, like schoolboys at a soccer match, cheering their side on. Couldn’t they see how obscene this was? How disgusting? Had they really come to this? Was a human life worth so little now? She supposed this must have been what it was like in a coliseum. No different than a cup final. Cheer on your favorite; boo the losers.

  No matter that they were going to be slaughtered.

  She winced. The pain in her side was worse than ever. It hurt just breathing. She’d give anything to be able to rewind the events of the last day.

  Achilleus did a circuit of the ring, pacing it out, then took his sweatshirt off and went over to Big Mick, who was standing with Lewis. Achilleus gave Mick the shirt and nodded as his friends urgently talked at him from either side. They seemed to be giving him advice. Meanwh
ile, Just John emerged carrying a shield and his spear. He strutted backward and forward in front of his crew like a caged lion, bouncing up and down on his toes, flexing his arms, throwing challenging glances over to Achilleus.

  Achilleus ignored him. He looked to be slowly withdrawing into himself. Gathering his strength, sharpening his concentration, holding himself in.

  “Come on, then, Gaylord!” John shouted over to him, spinning his vicious three-bladed spear around his head. “Kiss your boyfriends good-bye and come over here. Or are you going to roll over?”

  Lewis handed Achilleus his spear. Maxie noticed that it had been freshly sharpened, the tip glinted silver, honed to a needle point. It was made from a long steel spike, with a pommel at the blunt end and thick leather bindings just behind the head to stop another weapon from sliding down it. Achilleus was always working on it, getting the balance just right. It was lethal, but John’s looked more lethal, with the three knives strapped to the end of its sturdy wooden shaft. One jab from that would cause a terrible wound, and he handled it expertly. He must have practiced for hours every day, twirling it around from hand to hand.

  Lewis scratched his head. He looked half asleep as usual, but he was nervous.

  “That’s an evil spear he’s got there,” he drawled.

  “It’s clumsy,” said Achilleus. “It looks nasty, but it’s not aerodynamic, not with them stupid knives stuck on the end. It’s not weighted right.”

  “Don’t matter,” said Lewis. “It’s a killer. And he looks like he’s killed some.”

  “And I haven’t?” said Achilleus.

  Lewis shrugged. “This is different, bro,” he said. “This is another kid. He’s fit, man, and strong. He ain’t no shuffling zombie like the grown-ups.”

  “He’s flesh and blood like anyone else,” said Achilleus.

  “Don’t he scare you?”

  “’Course he scares me,” said Achilleus. “You think I’m nuts? He’s a hard-nosed son of a bitch. So I’m gonna keep on my toes.”

  “Not so hard-nosed now,” said Big Mick. “You land him one in the middle of his face, he’s gonna feel it.” He handed Achilleus his shield.

 
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