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       The Enemy, p.31

           Charlie Higson
 

  Bill looked down at his hands—he had shaped the number forty-eight without even thinking about it. He scrunched the stringy figures into a ball before anyone noticed, and kneaded it between his fingers.

  Blu-Tack never said anything, but he never missed anything either. Something was going on. A group of big kids, the most important ones, had been having lots of whispered conversations all evening. Ollie and Achilleus, Whitney and Lewis.

  Something was going to happen tonight. Bill tried to stop feeling worried. Slowly the ball of Blu Tack in his hands changed shape and became a smiling face.

  Bill looked at the face.

  “Don’t be scared,” it said.

  There were shouts from outside, the sound of running feet.

  Bill tensed; his hand squashed the face into a flattened mess. That was the only visible sign that he was concerned. His expression gave nothing away. He had lived so long now on edge, waiting for something awful to happen, reacting to it when it did, that he was like a small wild animal. Constantly alert. All his senses tingling.

  The footsteps passed by. Ollie and Whitney exchanged glances. It all went quiet again.

  The face had reappeared in the Blu Tack.

  “It’s okay,” it said. “You’re safe now.”

  The royals sat in their bedroom in the dark, staring into space. It smelled in here. They had long since forgotten how to use the bathroom. Every now and then they were herded downstairs to sit on their thrones, but otherwise nothing happened in their world.

  A cockroach crawled across the leg of a young man who was sitting on the floor. The young man’s face was so bloated with swellings that his eyes were two tiny holes, and his nose had disappeared. He picked the bug up and put it in his mouth.

  They were always hungry.

  There was a noise in the corridor outside. Something scraped the door. All the heads in the room turned as one and looked in the direction of the noise.

  There was a bang, the crunch of splintering wood. A second bang ...

  The door opened.

  The corridor was empty.

  Still chewing the cockroach, the young man got up and shambled to the door.

  The others followed.

  David’s two guards had been sitting outside the sick bay for five hours straight. They were bored stiff. David had promised them that somebody would come to relieve them after three hours. No one had come.

  This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t as if anything was going to happen anyway. The heavy wooden door was locked. There were only three kids in there. Two girls, one of whom was injured, and a boy with a concussion. What were they supposed to do? Batter the door down and overwhelm the two of them?

  Fat chance. They had guns, after all.

  “They’ve forgotten about us,” said the taller of the two. He had short brown curly hair and a bad case of acne.

  “They always do,” said the other one, a fair-haired boy with a big nose. “Everyone thinks that just because we’re in David’s guard, our lives must be great. But this sucks.”

  “We do get a bit more food than the others,” said Spotty.

  “Oh whoop-di-doo,” said Big Nose. “If I could, I’d trade this in and do farming or something. This is just tedious.”

  “We’re the elite.”

  “So what?”

  “When we take over London,” said Spotty, “we’ll be in a really strong position. It’ll be like in the Middle Ages. When the king invaded another country he’d divide up all the lands and all the wealth to his favorite dukes and barons, the ones who’d helped him.”

  “When we take over London?” Big Nose mocked. “You mean if we take over London, don’t you? All we ever do is sit around the palace with these bloody guns, trying to look important. We weren’t even allowed to go on the raid to the squatter camp.”

  There was a clatter on the stairs, and they tried to look alert as Pod appeared, red-faced and flustered.

  “Everything okay here?” he asked.

  “Yeah.” The boys shrugged.

  “You haven’t seen anything? Heard anything?”

  “Like what?” said Spotty.

  “The royals have escaped,” said Pod, sounding ticked off and harassed.

  “Say what?”

  “They got out somehow, yeah? David’s gone absolutely ballistic. It’s crazy down there—everyone’s, like, running around, trying to catch them.”

  “We should go and help,” said Spotty, standing up.

  “No, you need to stay up here and guard the prisoners.”

  “They’re not going anywhere.”

  “Even so. If the prisoners got out too, David would go off the scale.”

  “One of us could stay here, the other could come with you,” said Spotty.

  Pod thought about this for a moment.

  “All right.” He looked at Spotty. “You come with me.”

  “What about me?” said Big Nose.

  “Stay put until further orders,” said Pod.

  Big Nose watched sadly as the two of them hurried off down the narrow staircase.

  Now, with no one to talk to, it would be even more tedious sitting here. Big Nose spat. Feeling a guilty pleasure as the gob of saliva sat there on the patterned carpet.

  He swore loudly and colorfully, and for a moment it lifted the boredom.

  Godzilla was asleep in Ella’s lap. She was gently stroking his head and talking to him about Sam.

  “I wish he was here, Godzilla. I really miss him. I don’t like to think that I might never see him again, but every day I forget a little bit more about him. What he looked like. How he spoke. It’s like he’s slowly disappearing. What I remember most is that he was small. I’d do anything to make him come back.”

  Godzilla yelped and wriggled out of her arms. He jumped off the bed, and Ella chased him over to where Whitney was standing at the open ballroom door, looking off down the East Gallery.

  Whitney saw Godzilla and grabbed him. She looked angry. “Who’s supposed to be looking after this dog?” she asked. Ella looked like she was about to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. Whitney’s expression softened. She handed the puppy to Ella.

  “Just keep him with you, darling,” she said kindly. “All right?”

  “All right.”

  As Ella went back to her bed, Maeve came over to join Whitney.

  “See anything?” she said.

  “Not a lot. No, wait a minute, here comes Pod.”

  In a moment Pod came bustling into the dormitory with two of David’s guards.

  “What’s going on?” said Maeve. “There’s people running everywhere.”

  “It’s nothing to worry about,” said Pod. “Some royals have escaped, that’s all. It’s a bit of a drag. We need some of your group to, like, come and help round them up, yeah?”

  “Nothing to worry about?” Whitney exploded. “With grown-ups on the loose?”

  “They’re harmless,” said Pod.

  “No grown-up is harmless,” said Whitney.

  “So why don’t you come and help look for them?”

  “No way. I’m taking the kids somewhere safe, man.”

  “Listen.” Pod offered Whitney a big cheesy grin. “It’s no big deal. Nothing to get upset about, yeah?”

  “I’m taking everyone outside the building. Now. Into the yard.”

  “You won’t be safe out there,” said Pod. “We’ve called all the guards in to look for the royals.”

  “We can look after ourselves, thank you very much,” said Whitney.

  “No—you should stay here,” said Pod, trying to sound like he was in control. “If you keep the doors closed you’ll be fine.”

  “You don’t tell us what to do, rich boy,” said Whitney. “We’re going to the parade ground until this is all over. End of story.”

  “Actually, I really do think you’ll be a lot better off in here.” Pod’s smile was slipping.

  “Like I care what you think,” said Whitney. “With Blue and Maxie not aro
und, I’m in charge. And if I say we go outside, we go outside. When you’ve found your precious royals we’ll come back in.”

  Pod planted his feet wide apart and folded his arms. The smile had become a superior smirk now.

  “You are not in charge here, actually, babes,” he said. “I am.”

  “Who you calling ‘babes’?” said Whitney, and she belted Pod hard in the stomach. He gasped and doubled over in pain. The two guards sprang to life, raising their rifles, but Big Mick and another of the Morrisons fighters had been standing ready. They seized the guns and wrenched them out of the boys’ hands.

  “We’re going outside,” Whitney said coldly to the two guards. “You stay here and look after Pod.”

  Pod had collapsed on to the floor and was sitting with his back against the wall, clutching his belly.

  “It’s all right,” he groaned. “Let them go.”

  Three royals shuffled down a long corridor lined with paintings of past British kings and queens. They looked bewildered. David was waiting for them, one of his guards at his side. Apart from his freckles and a red flush across his cheekbones, David’s skin was bone white. He was absolutely livid.

  He held up his hand.

  “Stop!” he shouted, his voice firm and clear.

  One of the royals moaned. It was the young man with the bloated face. He was the son of a duke. He’d once been something of a party animal. Now he was a shambling wreck whose brain was so riddled with disease you could hardly even call it a brain anymore. It was just a tangle of damaged nerve endings, randomly firing off, as if someone had poured water into a fuse box.

  He walked on.

  “I command you,” David said, louder this time, “to stop.”

  Still the royals staggered down the corridor. Whining, stiff-legged, red-eyed.

  The guard turned to David. Scared. “They’re not going to stop,” he said.

  “They will stop,” David snapped, and he stepped forward.

  The young royal sped up, his arms stretched out. Drool was pouring from his open mouth and had soaked his filthy shirt.

  There was a deafening bang, and the corridor filled with smoke. The royal went down, a bullet in his skull.

  “You idiot!” David yelled, wrenching the gun from the guard’s grasp. “That was the Marquess of Tavistock!”

  He battered the guard to the floor with the butt of his rifle.

  “You can’t go shooting them, you moron,” he said. “We need them alive. They’re no bloody danger.”

  Another royal, a middle-aged duchess, grabbed hold of David’s sleeve, and he angrily shoved her away. She hit the wall and gulped with surprise.

  David hauled his shaking guard to his feet. “Grab hold of them and drag them back to their room, for God’s sake,” he commanded. “Just don’t let them bite you.”

  Jester appeared, running down the corridor with Rose.

  “Any sign of the rest of them?” he called out.

  “Not yet,” said David. “It’s only a matter of time, though. They won’t have gotten far. They’re too stupid. But how the hell did they get out?”

  “The door was forced,” said Jester.

  “Was anybody guarding them?”

  “Not as far as I know. We don’t always keep a guard on them. And with two of your boys tied up at the sick bay . . .”

  “So someone let them out?”

  “Looks like it.”

  “Could it be the squatters?”

  Jester shrugged. “It could be the Holloway kids. Maybe they’re up to something.”

  “I want you to find whoever did this, Jester, and I want them punished. Properly punished.”

  “Okay.”

  “And where the bloody hell’s Pod?”

  “Last I saw him he was heading for the ballroom.”

  “Right. Come with me.” David strode off down the corridor.

  “Where are we going?” said Jester, hurrying after him.

  “To the ballroom.”

  Big Nose was falling asleep. His head kept nodding forward and jerking him back awake. He could hear people moving around in the palace below and wished he could join them. It was very quiet up here. No sound came from behind the door. The murmur of voices from the sick bay had died away. He was utterly, utterly fed up.

  He closed his eyes for a moment. The sound of hurrying footsteps died away. He was drifting off again. Dark fizzy milk filled his head. Bubbles swam and burst. He had a brief flash of a memory. Being on vacation in Florida. A giant Mickey Mouse.

  Mickey called out his name. His head jerked forward; he opened his eyes with a grunt.

  There were two boys standing there.

  Two of the newcomers.

  He recognized one. It was Achilleus, the one who’d been in the fight with the squatter. He’d missed that as well. The other one was tall and skinny with a messy Afro.

  “What are you doing up here?” he said, struggling to look like he was on top of things.

  “The royals have gotten out,” said Achilleus.

  “I know.”

  “They need your help. It’s wild down there, man.”

  “I’m not allowed to leave my post.”

  “We’ll take over,” said Achilleus. He and his friend were casually edging closer as they talked. But casually enough for Big Nose not to notice.

  “You can’t,” he said, standing up and leveling his gun. “You’re newcomers, you might try to—”

  The boy had been concentrating on Achilleus; he knew his reputation. The other boy looked too laid back to be much of a threat. Suddenly, though, he moved. And with startling strength and speed. Before the guard knew it, the newcomer had him pinned to the wall his rifle trapped, uselessly, between their bodies.

  “Don’t make a sound, cowboy,” said Lewis, and he grinned at him. “Or I’ll bust your face.”

  Big Nose nodded.

  “We’re not very good at this sneaking-up business,” said Achilleus. “We should have just rushed him.”

  “Take his gun,” said Lewis, “before he shoots me in the foot.”

  Inside the room, Maxie and Blue had silently forced the window open and were seeing if there was any way they could remove the bars that blocked it.

  They turned together as the door swung open.

  One of the guards from outside, the one with the big nose, stumbled into the room. Behind him came Lewis and Achilleus, who was carrying the guard’s rifle.

  Maxie set her face into a cold mask. “What do you want?”

  “It’s like that scene in Star Wars,” said Lewis. “We’ve come to rescue you.”

  Maxie laughed without much humor.

  “Straight up,” said Achilleus. “And you’d better hurry, we ain’t got much time before David realizes what’s going on.”

  “I don’t get it,” said Maxie. “I thought you were on his side.”

  “That prick?” said Achilleus. “You got to be kidding me. The only side I’m on is my side. And as I see it, that’s your side too, Maxie. And yours, Blue.”

  “You can count me in,” said the girl from the museum.

  “Who’s she?” said Achilleus.

  “I’ll explain later,” said Maxie. “All you need to know for now is that she’s coming with us.”

  “Fair enough.”

  “Where’s everyone else?” said Maxie.

  “If it’s all gone according to plan, Whitney should be waiting for us outside on the parade ground with the other kids. We’re all going over the fence. We’ve had to keep it quiet in case David found anything out. So far so good.”

  “But David’s bound to find out what’s going on,” said Maxie. “He’ll try and stop us.”

  “We created a diversion,” said Lewis. “Let out his pets. With any luck the palace bozos are going to be way too busy to notice we’ve gone until it’s too late.”

  “My man,” said Blue, and he gave Lewis a hug.

  Achilleus looked at Maxie. “You want a hug?”

 
; “Nope.”

  “Didn’t think so.”

  They went to the door and checked that the coast was clear.

  “Wait!” Big Nose shouted, and they turned around, ready for anything.

  “Take me with you.”

  “What?”

  “I’ve had enough of David’s crap. Please. Take me with you. He’ll only punish me if I stay.”

  “Fine with me,” said Achilleus. “But if you try any funny stuff, Big Nose, you’re sausage meat.”

  Five minutes later the six of them burst out through the front arch onto the parade ground, where they found the entire Holloway crew assembled in battle formation, ready to leave. Maxie laughed and whooped and tilted her face up into the rain to shout “Yes!” at the top of her voice.

  Paddy the Caddy hobbled over to Achilleus, struggling beneath the weight of his golf bag and Achilleus’s shield.

  “You need your spear yet, Akkie?”

  “Not yet, caddy boy. Give me one of them cans, though.”

  Whitney gave the order, and the whole group marched toward the already open gates. Maxie could hardly believe it. Ten minutes ago everything had looked hopeless. And now they were walking to freedom.

  It wasn’t over yet, though.

  As they were trooping out onto the road, there came a shout from the balcony.

  “Where do you think you’re going?”

  It was David. He had Jester and five guards with him. The guards were training their rifles down toward the block of kids.

  “We’re off,” said Maxie. “You blew it. That’s all you need to know.”

  “I don’t think so!” David shouted. “You go any farther and I’ll order my guards to open fire. And don’t think I won’t, because—”

  There was a sharp crack and one of the guards fell back with a cry.

  He’d been hit by a slingshot. From this distance it wouldn’t kill him, but it sure would hurt. Maxie looked around. Ollie was already fitting another steel ball into its pouch and pulling back the rubber band. His skirmishers were with him. The next moment a hailstorm of shot was rattling up onto the balcony. David’s guards ducked down and cowered behind the parapet, Jester ran back indoors, and David was left crouching behind a pillar.

 
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