PRESTON STARES AT ME intently. What the hell is he thinking? So he knows that Ellis is one of us, so what? Why should that make any difference to him? Whatever the reason, his tone has definitely changed. He's suddenly more serious and direct. He left the van momentarily to speak to someone, then came back and pulled the door shut. It's suffocatingly hot in here now.
"Tell me about her, Danny."
I don't like this. I'll drip-feed him information and find out why he wants to know. Years of living in the old world have taken their toll, and my guard is up. Part of me can't help wondering whether I've managed to stumble on the last remaining pedophile ring in existence. When I don't answer he asks another question.
"Just turned five."
"And you think you know where she might be?"
"Possibly," I answer quickly. I can afford to give him some vague details. Even if I knew exactly where Ellis was, I could tell him anything. He doesn't know anything about her. He doesn't know what she looks like. Christ, I haven't even told him her name.
"She somewhere near here?"
Preston leans over to the front seat and picks up a map, which he unfolds.
"I'm not telling you anything until you tell me why you're so interested in my daughter. What are you, some kind of pervert? A kiddie-fiddler?"
His face remains impassive and serious. There's not a flicker of emotion.
"It's not just your daughter we're interested in," he finally starts to explain. "Our belief is that children are key to our future. They're important now, and they'll be even more crucial when this war's won."
"Have you ever seen a child fight? They're fast, strong, agile... completely uninhibited. They're not burdened with years and years of memories of the old way of things; all they know is now. They accept what they see and experience today, and they accept it without question. This is their normality."
What he says makes some kind of sense, but I don't trust this guy. His slimy, slick way of speaking immediately gets my back up. He comes across like a politician, a subpar spin doctor. I know we're both fighting on the same side, but how different are our aims and objectives?
"You talk a lot, but you're not actually saying anything. Why should I tell you anything about my little girl?"
"Kids are true fighters, Danny, perfect fighters even. Brutes are strong and aggressive, but children are something else entirely. I think-"
He stops speaking suddenly, almost as if he's not sure I can be trusted. I press him, keen to hear what he has to say. He runs his fingers through his greasy, slicked-back black hair.
"I think the line between us and the Unchanged starts to blur when you're looking at very young children. Like I said, they don't carry the baggage and the memories we do. Given the right stimulation and provocation, I think even an Unchanged kid could be taught to fight like us."
There's another silence as we both think about what he's just said. My initial reaction is that it's probably bullshit, but he might just have a point. A young kid growing up surrounded by all this madness wouldn't know any different. They'd have to learn to fight to survive, whatever their initial allegiance.
"I got separated from my family when the Change happened to me," I tell him, deciding I've got nothing to lose from opening up a little more as long as I'm sparing with the details. I take the map from him and tap my finger on the area where I used to live. "I last saw them here, but my partner managed to get away with the kids."
"Kids? More than one?"
"Two sons and a daughter. It's only Ellis I'm interested in."
"That's your little girl?"
"Don't be so quick to write off the other two."
I slide my finger across the map, then stop.
"I think Lizzie would have gone to her sister's house. What are these marks?"
Two circles have been drawn on the map, both centered on the main part of town. Both my apartment and Lizzie's sister's house are just outside the outermost circle. Preston explains.
"Like Ankin said, the Unchanged have withdrawn into city centers. Our information's a couple of weeks old, but we think the first circle is the extent of their occupation."
"What about the second line?"
"The outermost edge of their exclusion zone. It's a strip of empty land smack between them and everything else, pretty well defended. Makes it that much harder for us to get through unnoticed. It's not impossible, just a little more difficult."
"So how does Ankin plan to march an army through no-man'sland without being noticed?"
"He'll find a way," Preston answers. He's not filling me with confidence. I try to steer the conversation back toward Ellis.
"So that's my plan," I tell him. "Check the apartment first, then look for Ellis at Lizzie's sister's house."
"And if she's not there?"
"I haven't thought that far ahead. I don't want to."
Preston folds up the map and thinks for a moment.
"What if I said we could help you?"
"Help me? How?"
"We've got a group of people heading out that way later today, looking for more recruits. You could go with them. You'll have more chance if you go with our support."
"And what's in it for you?"
"There are just two conditions," he announces ominously. "First, if you don't find your girl, you forget about her and come back here and fight with us. Second, if you do find her, you both come back to us and fight."