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       The Enemy, p.28

           Charlie Higson
 

  This would be so much easier if you’d come up to the sickbay clinic. I’ve got all my proper equipment up there.”

  “No way, man, it’s too much like a hospital.”

  Achilleus was slouched in one of the big chairs up on the dais in the Throne Room with his shirt off. Rose was inspecting his damaged ear. She’d given him some painkillers and was trying to clean his wounds with disinfectant. Achilleus was wincing and flinching and complaining and generally making her job difficult.

  It hurt like hell.

  “Don’t you like hospitals?” Rose asked, dabbing at the wound.

  “Nope,” said Achilleus. “Spent too much time in them when I was a kid.”

  “You were ill?”

  “Not me, my mom. She had MS. Multiple sclerosis. Bad news, man. That’s how I remember her, as a sick person. Hated hospitals ever since. The only good thing about Mom being ill, she died before everything went bad. I never had to

  see her go crazy. Ow! What you doing there?”

  “Sorry. It’s your ear.”

  “What about it?”

  “I’m going to have to try and stitch it,” said Rose.

  “You done stitching before?”

  “No, not really.”

  “You know what to do?”

  “No, not really.”

  “What are the chances you’ll make a good job of it?”

  “No chance at all,” said Rose. “But at least it won’t fall off. Urgh. It looks really nasty. It’s going to be ugly no matter what I do.”

  John’s blade had cut through the top of the ear, so that it was only attached by the bottom inch or so of skin.

  “I shoulda killed Just John.”

  “I’m glad you didn’t.”

  “I’m not. I’ve got a enemy now.”

  “You had an enemy before.”

  “That’s true enough.”

  There was a knock at the door, and they looked over to see two of David’s guards escorting a boy into the room. A stocky little lad with cropped black hair. He looked shy and nervous, but was masking it with a macho swagger.

  “Sorry to bother you,” said one of the guards. “But this squatter kid’s been hanging around, we can’t get rid of him, says he wants to talk to you.”

  “I’ll come back in a minute if you want,” said Rose, putting down her equipment.

  “No. You stay,” said Achilleus. “Get stitching.”

  Achilleus turned his attention to the squatter. “What d’you want?”

  “Can I shake your hand?” said the boy, with a broad Irish accent.

  Achilleus gave a snort of laughter. “What you want to shake my hand for?”

  “I think you’re cool.”

  “Yeah?” Achilleus laughed again and held out his hand. “This ain’t a trick?”

  “Nope.”

  The little lad came up onto the dais and pumped Achilleus’s hand up and down.

  “That was awesome out there,” he said, his eyes transfixed by Rose as she started to push a needle and thread through Achilleus’s ear.

  “Shouldn’t you have gone on with the others?” said Achilleus. He was determined to show no pain in front of the boy, even though it was agony.

  “Nah,” said the lad. “You were right, what you said. John’s a loser. I’m coming over to your side. Jeez, that must hurt. . . .”

  “Meh.” Achilleus gave a dismissive shrug.

  “Don’t move,” Rose warned.

  “Just keep stitching,” said Achilleus.

  “I think I’d faint,” said the boy.

  “What’s your name?” Achilleus asked.

  “Pat. Patrick. Don’t care what you call me. I want you to teach me everything you know. How to fight like that. I’ll help you. I’d be like your servant. I’ll look after your weapons for you. Sharpen them. Carry them into battle. You know, like when you look after a knight, like a . . . What do you call it? A caddy.”

  “Paddy the caddy?” said Achilleus. “All right. You got yourself a job, soldier.”

  Callum pressed play on his boogie box and ABBA came on. “The Winner Takes It All.” His mom’s favorite song when she was feeling sad.

  “Dancing Queen” when she was happy. “The Winner Takes It All” when she was sad.

  She always said that you needed sad music when you were feeling down. “Last thing you want is someone trying to cheer you up. You want to know that someone else is as miserable as you are and knows how you’re feeling. Lets you know you’re not alone.”

  Callum wasn’t exactly feeling sad. Inside he felt quite calm and peaceful, really. But he didn’t want to listen to happy music. He remembered how his mom would sit on the sofa and put her arms around him and not say anything. Just the two of them sitting there.

  His mom was often sad. Sometimes she’d stay indoors for weeks on end with the curtains drawn. Not wanting to see anyone. Not even answering the phone. Callum had to be the man of the house then. He had to look after her. So they’d sit and listen to ABBA together. He supposed that’s where he’d got his fear of going outside from. From his mom.

  Her friend Marion had told him that his mom suffered from depression.

  He wasn’t sure it really helped giving names to things. His mom was just his mom. And he was just himself. Callum.

  The piano intro ran around and around, and then the blond one started to sing. He could never remember if it was Agnetha or Frida. His mom had the videos. Callum could picture them clearly. Thinking about them now made him smile. He turned the volume on full and sat back in his chair as they sang about the winner getting everything and the loser feeling small.

  He pictured that bit in the film Mamma Mia when the mother—what was her name? The actress? Something weird. She sang the song by the sea.

  Greece looked nice.

  Callum had never been abroad. Not with his mom being how she was.

  Meryl Streep. That was it. Definitely a weird name.

  He picked up his Coke from the floor and popped the top. His last can. He’d been saving it for a special day. Well, there would be no more special days after this.

  The Coke was warm, but it didn’t matter. If it’d been winter he could have left the can outside, but otherwise there was no way of keeping things cold. He took a sip. The sugar hit him instantly. He gave a satisfied smack of his lips and went “Aaaaaaah,” just like they did in the commercials.

  Next he unwrapped his chocolate bar. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. It was a little white and hard, but that was all right. He took a bite. Oh, that taste. He closed his eyes to better appreciate it. This was heaven.

  ABBA sang about the gods. Not caring. Everything being ruled by chance, a throw of the dice.

  There came another crash from outside. The crack of something big breaking. A window maybe?

  He hadn’t gone away—the father in the cross-of-Saint-George vest. He and his little gang had stayed. And they’d been busy out there. Steadily smashing their way in. They were very nearly through. If not tonight, then tomorrow. He’d always known it, really, in the back of his mind, that sooner or later the grown-ups would come for him. He just hadn’t thought it would be this soon.

  The fat father and his cronies were different. They were clever. Callum had hurled things down on them, bombed them, but he’d missed the ringleaders every time. He’d taken out a couple of the normal grown-ups. The stupid ones. That was all. And the others—they wouldn’t give up. They were working away at the defenses.

  He remembered seeing a wildlife documentary about a pack of wild dogs. They trapped some animal in its lair. A badger or a lizard or something. And they dug it out. Took them ages. More than a day. They just kept on digging and digging, until they found it.

  And then they ate it.

  A huge bang followed by a thud. Something had fallen over.

  He could hear them coming in now. They’d made it into the mall. There was only the shutter between him and them. He supposed he could run, but where would he go? It was too lo
ng since he’d been outside. That scared him worse than the grown-ups.

  Another track came on. Another of his mom’s favorites when she was feeling “blue,” as she called it. “I Have a Dream.” They’d sung this one together a million times. On the karaoke version. With the words on the screen. It was only now, though, that Callum really paid attention to what the words meant. No wonder his mom liked it. It was all about believing in your fantasies to help you forget reality.

  It would be over quickly, at least, when they got inside. For now he would enjoy the chocolate and the Coke and the music. He wished he wasn’t alone. He wished he had someone to share his last moments with. He’d been slowly dying of loneliness since his friends had left.

  He’d gotten what he’d wished for, but, like in the fairy tales, he’d discovered that what he wished for wasn’t what he really wanted.

  He leaned over and plugged in his headphones, turned the volume up so that he wouldn’t hear the grown-ups scrabbling at the shutters. He slipped the headphones over his ears. ABBA was still singing away. They reckoned if you had a song to sing, you could cope with anything.

  Yeah, right . . .

  He stuffed half the chocolate bar into his mouth. The taste of it was overwhelming. It seemed to fill his whole body. He sighed with delight. When he’d licked all the chocolate from his teeth he took a swig of Coke to wash it down.

  He’d killed his mom in the end. Smothered her with a pillow while she was asleep. Not that she was really his mom anymore by that time.

  There was an almighty crash and a rush of cool air from outside. He could sense movement.

  They’d broken a window.

  He tried to keep his eyes clamped shut, to lose himself in the music. But he couldn’t bear it. He had to look. He had to.

  He opened his eyes. For half a second. Less. Saw grown-ups running toward him. The bald man with the huge lolling head at the front. He was grinning, his arms raised, clutching his club.

  Callum closed his eyes.

  He sent a silent hello out to his mom, and they were upon him.

  Achilleus had been patched up, but he still felt like crap.

  His muscles were stiff and bruised, the whole left-hand side of his head throbbed, the cuts across his chest where John’s blades had raked him stung like a bastard. He was covered with a patchwork of tapes and bandages and had been liberally painted with disinfectant. He prayed that the wounds were clean. He saw what had happened to Arran after he’d been bitten. What were the chances that a filthy animal like John would keep his weapons clean?

  The one thing that gave Achilleus hope was that after his mom died, his dad had been surprisingly good at looking after him. He’d learned to cook, he’d gotten involved with Achilleus’s schoolwork, he’d made sure he always had clean clothes, and he’d taken him regularly to the doctor for his injections. He’d been obsessive about it. His dad had moved to England from Cyprus when he was twelve. He still had stories about the little village he’d come from. Achilleus was sure he exaggerated the backward nature of the place. But his dad loved the British health system. And he had horror stories to tell about all the diseases that had been stamped out by vaccinations.

  So Achilleus was pretty sure he was up to date with tetanus. The kids here were organized. They had a well-stocked first-aid center, but they weren’t up to giving injections for things like tetanus.

  Rose had given him some antibiotics, though, and had done her best with his ear. He wondered how it would come out. He’d never been particularly vain about his appearance. He knew he wasn’t pinup material. But he still didn’t want to look like a monster. True—a little scarring would increase his status. Looking hard was halfway to winning a fight. Right now, though, he didn’t so much look hard as a mess. His head was wrapped up like a mummy.

  Could have been worse. Much worse.

  He’d been lucky with John. The guy was thick. Couldn’t see when he was being suckered. But if Achilleus’s trick hadn’t worked, that would have been the end of it. He’d have been wide open to John’s counterattack.

  No problem. He’d won. That was all that mattered.

  He’d moved to the Music Room at the back of the palace and was sitting looking at the rain as it ran down the windows. He was waiting for his dinner. He was hungry again. Probably from losing so much blood.

  He was settled in a big fancy armchair, wearing tracksuit pants and a bathrobe. It hurt too much to put a shirt on over the bandages. Every now and then a palace kid would come through and compliment him. Want to shake his hand, hoping for some of his star status to rub off on them.

  He could get used to this.

  Paddy the Caddy came in with a cup of tea and a plate of food on a tray.

  “You took your time.”

  “It’s not my fault,” said Paddy, in his thick Irish accent. “They was busy in the kitchens.”

  “I don’t want excuses, PC, I want results. Yeah?”

  “Yeah, sorry. Plus I had to look for the other thing for you.”

  “Did you find it?”

  “Yeah.”

  Paddy put the tray down and unslung a pack from his back.

  “Open it up.”

  Paddy unzipped it. There were a few bits of clothes, a toothbrush, a flashlight, and three cans of spray paint.

  Achilleus sat looking at it all in silence for a long while. Then he picked up one of the cans.

  “Was he a friend of yours?” said Paddy.

  “Freak? Nah. Not really.” He tossed the can to Paddy. “Look after this for me. And the others. The rest you can dump.”

  “Okay. I’m not supposed to be your slave, though,” said Paddy. “More of a servant, I thought. I do things for you and you do things for me. Like teaching me to fight.”

  “We’ll see.”

  “You said . . .”

  “Don’t bug me, little man.”

  “Sorry.”

  Achilleus took a sip of tea. It was too hot. He put it back down.

  “Blow on that for me, will you?” “I will not.” “You want me to teach you to fight, you blow on my tea.” “You teach me, I’ll blow on it.” Achilleus stood up and stretched. Looked at Paddy. “You really want to learn bad, don’t you?” “I sure do. So can we start?” “What, now?” Paddy shrugged. Achilleus waited a moment, then pushed him down on the carpet and laughed. Paddy looked angry and hurt. “What did you do that for?”

  “First lesson,” said Achilleus, holding out his hand to pull Paddy up, “be ready for anything. At any time. The best fighter in the world can be taken out if he ain’t ready. Look at what happened to Just John. Twice now I’ve had him. Once back at the camp, once out there. He was a better fighter than me, mos’ def, but he’s none too smart, and both times I caught him napping.”

  Paddy grinned. “I’ll be ready next time.”

  Achilleus hauled him to his feet, but halfway up he let go and Paddy fell back down with a thump. Achilleus laughed at him, and the little boy looked even more pissed off this time.

  “Thought you said you was ready,” said Achilleus. “That was just stupid,” said Paddy. “Ah, but you’re learning, padawan. Don’t trust no one.” “So how do you know you can trust me?” said Paddy, getting up by himself this time. “Maybe I’m a spy in your camp.”

  “You think I haven’t considered that?” said Achilleus.

  “I ain’t, though,” Paddy said quickly, throwing a pleading look at Achilleus like a cute puppy. “Don’t chuck me out. Please. I don’t want to go back to the camp. It’s cold there and wet. I kept asking John why we couldn’t just live in the houses like everyone else, but he said we was different. Special. I never understood half of what he used to go on about. He said we was like gypsies. But we never went anywhere. We never did nothing, neither. It was boring there.”

  “You think it’s gonna be any better here?” said Achilleus.

  “Hope so,” said Paddy. “When you start giving me my lessons. Real ones. Not like that. Not like a kid’s
game.”

  “What, you want me to come at you with a pointed stick?”

  “No. There’s more to giving lessons than just attacking someone.”

  “Wouldn’t know,” said Achilleus. “Never given a lesson before. Not sure I’ll be much use as a teacher. You’ll just have to watch and learn, I guess. Pick up what you can on the job. It’s not nothing I ever usually think about.”

  “I’m a quick learner,” said Paddy.

  Achilleus smiled at him, then shoved him down on the floor again. Paddy looked like he was going to burst into tears, but Achilleus just laughed at him. He was still laughing when Maxie came in.

  “I’m going up to see Blue,” she said. “Give him my love,” said Achilleus. “Will you come with me?” “What for?” “I want to talk to him about whether we stay here.” “Why would you want to leave?”

  “You could have died today, Akkie.”

  “That was my choice.”

  “And Freak did die.”

  “Could have happened any time.”

  “We’re just doing David’s dirty work for him.”

  “So? I like doing dirty work.”

  “Be serious.”

  “I am being serious, Maxie. I mean, look at me, I’m a fighter. What do you expect me to do? Sit around all day counting potatoes? I’m not like you, Maxie, I’m not interested in politics. So long as I have a bit of excitement in my life, get some food at the end of the day, I’m cool.”

  “Like an animal.”

  “Jeez, calm down, Maxie. Look around you! We’re living in Buckingham Palace, for God’s sake, not the zoo. Before— how we used to live—that was living like animals. This is living like a queen.”

  “I thought you’d rather live like a king,” said Maxie.

  “Same difference,” said Achilleus. “Bottom line: I like it here. I don’t know why you’d want to leave.”

  “Because if we stay here we’ll become like David. All he really wants is power.”

  “That’s fine with me,” said Achilleus. “As long as I’m on the winning side. Don’t want to hang with no losers.”

  “Will you come anyway?” said Maxie. “To see Blue?”

 
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