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       The Enemy, p.29

           Charlie Higson

  “I get bored of too much yakking.”

  “Fine. Don’t come, then.”

  “I won’t.”

  Achilleus winked at Paddy, who laughed. Maxie blushed and headed for the door before she lost her temper and made a fool of herself. Her side was throbbing badly enough to make her cry. Jester was waiting in the corridor outside, carrying a candelabra with five lit candles. She wondered how much he had heard of their conversation.

  What the hell. It was no secret how she felt about David.

  Damn Achilleus. Damn him! At least Ollie was meeting her up there, so she had some support.

  As she left the room Achilleus called out to her. “Where would you go?”

  “I don’t know,” she called back angrily. “Anywhere away from here.”

  Jester took her to the grand staircase, where they climbed one of the twin stairways. At the top was a statue of Perseus holding the Gorgon’s severed head. Maxie was struck by how young Perseus looked, and how old Medusa looked. Maybe that was what the story was about. A boy killing an adult. The new world killing off the old.

  Jester took her through the upper floors of the building, his candlelight flickering along the walls. It was less grand up here, more like a normal house, albeit a huge one.

  The sick bay was tucked away in a corner of the top floor. It was off a short corridor reached by a small back staircase. Two of David’s guards sat outside, with rifles by their sides.

  Maxie turned to Jester with a questioning look.

  “I thought this was a sick bay, not a prison.”

  “Lighten up,” said Jester. “They’re not keeping guard. They’re just there if anyone needs anything.”

  “So why the guns?”

  Jester leaned over and spoke quietly in Maxie’s ear. “They won’t go anywhere without them. They love their toys.”

  He chuckled as they went inside.

  There were six beds in here. Each with a little night-light burning by its side. Four of the beds were empty. The other two held Blue and the girl they had rescued. She was lying there, staring at the ceiling, her face covered with bandages.

  Blue was sitting up, naked above the sheets, reading a book, which he put down as Maxie came in.

  Rose sat by the window with her own candle, leafing through a magazine. Another girl in a nurse’s uniform was filling a glass with water from a jug. There was an air of peace and calm. Maxie wondered what she’d been so worried about.

  Blue gave her a wide smile, genuinely pleased to see her. He looked fine. Well fed and rested. Maxie was struck for the first time by how fit his body was. Since the disaster they had all been eating a lot less; their bodies were mostly lean with little fat. Their active lives kept their muscles in shape.

  “How you doing?” she asked.

  “Better,” said Blue. “Couldn’t stop being sick for ages. Kept falling asleep. But when I woke up this evening I felt almost normal. Mother of all headaches, though. How you doing?”

  “I’ll leave you two alone,” said Jester, and he slipped out.

  Maxie sat down by the bed and told Blue everything that had happened since the battle at the camp. Rose and the nurse fussed about the room, trying to keep busy and giving them space.

  When she’d finished, Blue was silent for a long while.

  “I’m sorry about Freak,” he said at last.

  “Yeah,” said Maxie. “To have gotten all the way here from Holloway and then die in a stupid squabble with some other kids.”

  Blue took her hand and squeezed it. Maxie frowned. Taken by surprise. She didn’t pull away, though. It felt comforting.

  Presently there was a knock, and Ollie came in. Blue let go of Maxie’s hand.

  “Have I missed anything?” Ollie asked, sitting on the other side of the bed.

  “Maxie’s told me everything,” said Blue.

  “You should have seen her,” said Ollie. “A proper wartime leader.”

  “I’d rather be a peacetime leader,” said Maxie.

  “It’s all sorted out now,” said Ollie. “We won.”

  Maxie shook her head. “You must admit that it sucked, what went down back there. A fight to the bloody death.”

  “No one died,” said Ollie. “And the squatters are on our side now. I don’t see how we could have done that without some kind of fight.”

  “It wasn’t our fight, though,” said Maxie.

  “If we’re going to stay here, then yes, it was our fight.”

  “If we’re going to stay.”

  “What are you saying?”

  “I’m saying I think we should all leave.”

  “Wait a minute, Max,” said Ollie. “David’s—”

  “Oh, shut up about David!” Maxie interrupted. “I know how palsy you two are, but I want nothing more to do with him.”

  “Listen,” said Blue. “Before you two start getting into a fight. While I been lying here I been thinking. About me and David. On the way to the palace I talked to Jester, asked him who was gonna be in charge when we got here. He said we’d talk about it. It hasn’t really happened, except for all that crap about being a general and stuff.”

  “It’s not about who’s in charge,” said Maxie. “It’s about what David represents.”

  “That’s too deep for me, girl. Far as I’m concerned it comes down to the fact that we’ve got too many bosses.”

  “He’s never going to let you take charge, Blue.”

  “Then what are we talking about? We either fight David for top job, or we get out.”

  “That’s one way of looking at it. . . .”

  “It’s the only way I know, girl.”

  “Well, we’re not fighting,” said Maxie. “Whatever I think of David, I don’t want to fight him and the other kids here.”

  “So we go, then?” said Blue.

  “Hold on a minute,” said Ollie. “We need to talk about this properly.”

  “Whose side you on, man?” said Blue.

  “I’m not on anybody’s side.”

  “Then you ain’t on our side.”

  “There don’t need to be sides.”

  “Well, there are,” said Blue. “You gotta choose.”

  “No, no, no,” said Ollie, standing up and pacing the room. “David’s got a good thing going on here. I don’t like him much. But I respect him. He’s our best bet in all the chaos of London.”

  “That’s your opinion,” said Maxie. “My opinion is that we’d all be a lot happier if we got out of this place.”

  They watched Rose take her candle to the window and stand there looking out at the night. She blew the candle out and went over to straighten the sheets for the girl with the bandaged face, who lay there unmoving, though she appeared to be awake.

  Ollie sat back down again and leaned toward Maxie and Blue, speaking more quietly now.

  “Listen, Maxie,” he said. “The little kids aren’t going to want to leave. They’re happier and safer than they have been for months. This is crazy.”

  “We can’t lose all we believe in. Our sense of right and wrong,” said Maxie. “Just to survive.”

  “Just to survive? There’s no just about it. Survival is everything.”

  “Me and Blue both want to go,” said Maxie. “So there’s nothing more to talk about. I’ll go down and tell the others. They’ll do what I say. Me and Blue are in charge. That’s what you wanted.”

  Ollie sighed and sank his head in his hands. He could think of nothing more to say.

  Maxie walked over to the door and opened it.

  She paused.

  David was standing outside. His two guards on either side of him.

  “What’s this?” said Maxie.

  “I can’t let you leave, I’m afraid,” said David. “I need your fighters. I was hoping Blue would talk sense into you, but it seems he’s a problem as well.”

  “How do you know what we’ve been talking about? You got spies in here?”

  David’s eyes flicked toward Rose. She l
ooked down at the carpet.

  The candle. At the window. It had been a signal.

  Maxie laughed without any humor. “So what? You’re going to take me and Blue hostage?”

  “If that’s what it takes. I reckon if we lock away the ringleaders, the others will do as they’re told.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous, David. You can’t hold us here. We’re leaving.”

  “You are not leaving,” said David, and the two guards leveled their rifles at her.

  Blue jumped out of bed, shouting angrily, and took a couple of paces toward David, but he was still weak. He faltered, clutching his head and moaning. Maxie had to catch him before he fell.

  David now looked at Ollie, challenging him.

  “I’m with you,” Ollie said wearily. “I never wanted to leave in the first place.”

  David looked over to Rose, and she nodded that Ollie was telling the truth.

  “Maxie’s a fool,” said Ollie. “And Blue’s just ticked off that he’s not in charge.”

  Ollie walked over to the door, pushing past Maxie and Blue, and went out.

  “It looks like you two are alone, then,” said David.

  “The others won’t go for this,” said Maxie.

  “Who’s going to help you? Achilleus? I think not. He’s with me now. He knows a good thing when he sees it.”

  Rose and the nurse left, looking rather sheepish. Not catching anyone’s eye.

  Maxie and Blue were alone in the room with the silent bandaged girl.

  “You can stay up here as long as you like,” said David. “When you see sense, you can join the others. In the meantime, I’m taking charge of all your kids. Good night.”

  Sam didn’t think he could walk another step. He was leaning against the Kid, not sure exactly which of them was holding the other up. They hadn’t spoken for ages; they were too tired and hungry and scared. The steady thin drizzle was making them cold, sapping their spirits. They’d been wandering aimlessly, trying to find food and avoid the marauding gangs of grown-ups who seemed to be very thick on the ground. The Kid’s lighter had eventually run out of fuel, and in the dark they were even more confused. They’d passed among the towers of the City and got lost in the tangle of streets that clustered at their feet, backtracking, running, hiding, going in circles. They’d tried to shelter in several different buildings, but nowhere was safe, and there was nothing to eat and the darkness grew ever deeper.

  The river had to be close, and once they hit it they’d know where they were and could get away, but they were losing hope of ever finding it. They knew that if they didn’t stumble across it soon they’d have to find somewhere to spend the night, but the thought of that frightened them. This was an alien place. There were no houses, only offices and bars and shops. They wanted to get away from these gigantic glass-faced blocks that hid nameless secrets.

  They were trying a new direction. Into a very run-down area that had looked too scary before. They trudged toward a railway bridge.

  As Sam grew more and more delirious—exhausted, soaked, hungry, and thirsty, sucking rainwater from his shirtsleeves, his head throbbing—he began to see things. Flitting shapes in the corners of his eyes, dancing spots of light, moving shadows. Whenever he turned his head to look, though, there was nothing there. He had a powerful urge to lie down in the street, curl up into a ball, and fall asleep. Hardly caring if he woke up again. How nice to just go to sleep forever.

  As always, that little voice in the back of his mind told him to keep going. He owed it to Rhiannon. She had sacrificed her own life to help him get away. He had to keep going. Her death had to count for something.

  And what about Ella? His little sister needed him. He had to find her. Help her. Look after her.

  It was like the two girls were at his side, urging him on, one foot after the other. Rhiannon on the right, Ella on the left.

  Without warning, the Kid stopped. Sam tensed.

  What was it? What had he seen? More grown-ups? Would they have to fight this time? Sam gripped his butterfly pin. Maybe this night would never end.

  “Look,” said the Kid, his voice a croak. And he pointed.

  Sam squinted into the murky gloom.

  “What is it?” he said. “What am I looking for?”

  “There,” said the Kid. “Up ahead. Flames.”

  Sam saw them now—a row of what looked like flaming torches along the top of a wall. And he realized, with a little jolt of hope, that he recognized the building. He smiled. He had been here on a school trip.

  It was the Tower of London. The castle by the Thames, originally built by the Normans after the Battle of Hastings. How reassuring it was to see something familiar.

  And someone must have lit those torches along the outer wall.

  “There are people there,” he whispered.

  “Adult people?”

  “I don’t know,” said Sam. “They don’t usually light fires, do they? But nothing’s normal around here.”

  “We should go careful,” said the Kid, but almost as he said it, a voice called out from the darkness behind them.

  “Stand still. Don’t move.”

  A boy’s voice. Not an adult.

  “We’re kids,” Sam cried. “Only kids.”

  “I can see that,” said the voice. “Where have you come from?”

  “Waitrose,” said Sam.

  “Waitrose?” There was the hint of a suppressed laugh in the voice.

  Sam slowly turned around.

  “In Holloway.”

  “Where’s that?”

  “North London. Past Camden Town.”

  “You’ve come all the way from there?”

  “Yes—I’m trying to get to Buckingham Palace.”

  “Well, you’re more than a little lost.”

  “I know. Please, we’re very tired and hungry. We’ve been running from grown-ups all day.”

  “Is it just the two of you?”


  Four figures appeared out of the darkness, and Sam felt like he’d somehow slipped back in time hundreds of years.

  The figures, all boys, were dressed in medieval outfits. Tunics and boots with pieces of armor, swords, shields, and helmets. One carried a crossbow.

  “Will you help us?” said the Kid. “We can’t go on. These are our last legs.”

  The two tallest boys talked quietly to each other before one of them broke away and came over. He took off his helmet. He had a face that would have been handsome if it weren’t for a long scar down one cheek that pulled his face out of shape. He smiled and the scar twisted his mouth into a grimace. His eyes were kind, though. Soft and brown.

  He knelt down in front of Sam and the Kid. “How old are you two?”

  “Nine,” they both said together.

  “And you’ve made it all the way here from north London?”

  “The shrimp did,” said the Kid. “I been living around about Spitalfields, but I got into the tunnels and I was sore lost and—”

  “Whoa, hold on, not so fast,” said the older boy. “So you’ve been in Spitalfields? Who’s been looking after you?”

  The Kid shrugged. “No one. There was some other kids with me one time, but they’re all dead now, you can count on it. It was only me. But then I found the hobbit. We been helping each other. We’re pals.”

  The boy with the scar shook his head and let out a snort of laughter through his nose.

  “And here we were thinking we were pretty clever living in the Tower, pretty tough. You two kids have shown us up as a bunch of wimps.”

  “Is it safe there?” said Sam.

  “In the Tower?” The boy nodded slowly. “Safe enough.”

  “You sure?” said Sam.

  “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?”

  Sam nodded.

  “Well, it’s as safe as anywhere, I guess. Safer than out here on the streets. Safer than down in the tube tunnels, that’s for sure.”

  “Will you take us there?”

  “Sure. Why not?”

  “And we’ll really be safe? It’s just you? Just kids?”

  “There’s sixty-seven of us living there,” said the older boy. “All kids. All ages. It’s not the greatest life in the world. But it’s a life. You’re safe now, mate.”

  Sam burst into tears, and the Kid joined him. The boy opened his arms and pulled them to his chest, holding them there until they stopped sobbing. Then he picked them up so that they sat against his hips, and carried them toward the Tower.

  Ben and Bernie were eating a late supper in the Dining Room. Most of the other kids had eaten earlier, and the food was cold. They’d been out of the way all evening, tinkering with a gas generator they’d discovered in a storeroom in the utility area of the palace. They hadn’t wanted to watch the fight, and had kept as far away as possible.

  Since arriving they’d been spending their time exploring and scavenging. They’d tried to get David interested in engineering plans. A pump and filtration system to get clean water from the lake, a plan to get some heating set up for the winter using the gas bottles they’d found in a shed, even a plan to generate electricity, but David wasn’t interested. His sights were firmly set outside the palace. He even said that it would make the kids tougher if they didn’t have too many luxuries. Ben and Bernie realized that the big welcome of the first-night feast, the show of abundance and opulence, had been just that—a show—to impress the newcomers. Since that night the food had been steadily getting worse. Tonight it was boiled potatoes with cabbage, and canned peaches for dessert. Ben and Bernie weren’t complaining—they weren’t that bothered about food, and at least this bland stuff filled them up. They’d noticed it, though. How the portions were getting smaller. How they never had any meat.

  They’d had such high hopes when they arrived. A new life with new opportunities. But David had set the palace up to be little more than functional. They could survive here, and that was about it. The two of them often talked about how they’d been more appreciated at Waitrose, and how much they’d enjoyed inventing things. They even missed all the stuff they’d left behind. They felt part of things there, an important part. Now what were they? They couldn’t fight and they didn’t look forward to spending the rest of their lives as farmers. But food and fighting were all that David cared about.

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