‘I wish you wouldn’t feed those lines to me, though. We used to talk, really talk, didn’t we, Kyla? What is going on with you these days?’
I bite my cheek. Focus.
‘Nothing, really.’ I smile, and I have got better at faking it, yet somehow she doesn’t seem convinced.
‘If you need to, we can talk. Just between us, all right?’
‘Of course,’ I say. ‘I know.’
But what I don’t know is who turned me in to the Lorders. And even if I could be sure it wasn’t her, what should I start with? Perhaps that I am in Free UK. The same organisation that blew up her parents. Or that I’m not, really – I’m a Lorder spy, infiltrating Free UK. Either way, I don’t think she’d be much impressed.
I watch her as she drives. Daughter of the first Lorder PM: is she one of them, or isn’t she? But apart from all of that, there is one thing that bugs me most of all.
‘I don’t understand you,’ I say, finally breaking the silence.
‘Why did you take in Amy and me? We might have done anything, you don’t know. We might be terrorists, or murderers.’
‘You don’t strike me as the bloodthirsty type.’
Appearances can be deceiving.
‘How can you know?’
‘I can’t. But I do know who you are, now. You and Amy both.’
I stare out the window. Does she know who I really am? Did she turn me in to the Lorders because she found out? ‘But what about your parents? And your son. They got blown up by AGT.’ I stumble over the words, nearly saying Free UK instead of AGT. Take care.
She says nothing, keeps driving. Traffic slows to a stop.
‘Kyla, what do you know about Robert? My son.’
I turn and look at her, startled to see her eyes welling up.
‘His name is on the memorial at school. He was killed when their school bus got bombed.’ That is what I say, though Mac was there and had a different version of events.
She shakes her head. ‘No. I believed that for a long time, but it isn’t true. I found out he survived the bombing, but I never saw him again. I think he was Slated, though I haven’t been able to prove it. I’ve done everything I can to find him, but nothing.’
I stare at her in shock. She knows.
There is the toot-toot of a horn behind us; traffic starting again. Mum continues up the road.
‘That is why, Kyla. Do you see? It is because I hope that somewhere out there, somebody looked after Robert. Somebody loved him. That is why I do that for Amy and you.’
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
* * *
The van door slides open. ‘Quickly now,’ Aiden says, and I climb in. ‘Sorry, it isn’t very comfortable back here.’ He shifts a tool box across. ‘Have a seat?’
I perch on the edge of it. He knocks on the wall to the front compartment, and the van rattles off. It is chock-full of technical stuff, parts, tools. Things hanging from the ceiling, on shelves and on the walls. There is barely enough room for the two of us amongst it all.
‘Is all this the other half of your double life?’ I ask. ‘Telephone repair man by day, superhero by night?’
Aiden laughs, an easy, natural sound, likes he laughs often. ‘Something like that,’ he says, and smiles. And I’m struck by the risk he is taking, now, to find Ben. The same risk he takes all the time to find other missing people.
‘Thanks for doing this,’ I say.
‘Don’t thank me yet. I’ve seen the photo and I’m still not convinced it is definitely Ben. But we’ll check it out. I’ve arranged an emergency repair at a house opposite the training field.’
‘Well, it’ll turn out to be a simple job, though it can last as long as we need it to. Won’t take long to actually fix, since I know exactly what is wrong. Since I was there in the small hours indulging in a little superhero sabotage.’
‘Don’t get your hopes up too much. There is always the chance he won’t be there today, though he has been the last two Sundays.’
‘Ben would never miss training.’
‘If it really is him,’ he cautions again, eyes serious.
‘Where are we headed?’ I ask.
Aiden finds a map-book on a shelf, and shows me our destination: about twenty miles up country roads. I quickly commit the way to memory. The van hits a pothole, and lurches to one side; my bottom smacks on the tool box.
After what feels like forever but is actually thirty minutes or so, we switch to a smoother road, and go faster. There is a window at the back but with Aiden and so much stuff in the way all I can catch are glimpses of trees, blue sky.
We slow down, take a few turns.
‘Nearly there, I think,’ Aiden says, voice low. The van stops. Moments later there is a knock and the door pulls across. The driver nods, and I say hi. Aiden doesn’t introduce us, and the driver turns away, moves so fast that I barely get a look at him.
‘Come on,’ Aiden says. Shielded by the van, we go around the back of the house, and the driver stays behind, getting out equipment. He starts making a show of checking wires outside the house as we go to the back door. Aiden reaches under a pot plant and holds up a key.
‘No one home?’
‘Yeah. It belongs to friends of friends, but they’ve arranged to be out. She said if we go up the stairs to the front bedroom, that is the best place to see. That is where she took the photograph.’
Upstairs the bedroom window overlooks a green field, a track surrounding. At the far side is a large building: a sports hall? There is a group of a few dozen or so boys, a coach, some onlookers. The boys are standing about, doing stretches.
‘Can’t we go over there? Get closer to see?’
‘Wait. They’ll run around,’ he says. ‘Then you can get a closer look. For now, try these.’ He passes across binoculars, and I eagerly peer through, try to see faces, but they keep moving around and turning their heads, and—
‘I think I’ve got him. Far side of the group.’
I pass the binoculars to Aiden. He looks, considering. ‘Could be,’ he says, a moment later. He hands them back, and I look again: is it really you, Ben?
After what seems an age they start running round the track. The closer they get, the more sure I am. It is his body and the way he runs as much as what I can see of his face: a loping, easy gait that quickly leaves the others behind.
I stand, turn for the door. A wide smile stretching across my face. Just this glimpse from a distance, and my heart is pounding, blood rushing swoosh through my veins. All I want to do is run to him, throw my arms around him, and—
‘Wait.’ Aiden puts a hand on my arm.
‘But I’ve got to see him.’
‘Not so fast. You were too busy looking at Ben to notice.’
‘A black van just pulled up. Focus back on the buildings, other side of the track. What do you see?’
With a sinking feeling I hold the binoculars up again, and sweep back to the far side of the field. A few figures. Men. In black. Standing, watching the runners on the track on the return loop get closer to them. A cold shiver runs up my back and I pull away from the window without thinking. They wouldn’t be able to see us this far away, unless they have binoculars of their own. Which they very well may do, if they have a reason to look. Anything suspicious, like, say, a telephone van. On a Sunday. My mouth goes dry.
‘Why would Lorders be here?’
‘I don’t know. I’m sorry, but they are too close for you to get anywhere near Ben today. They are too close for us to even be here. I don’t like this, not at all.’
Cold dismay fills me. ‘But I can’t leave without saying something to him, seeing if he is okay. I can’t. I have to see him!’ I have to warn him about Coulson. Sooner or later when I don’t serve up Nico and the Free UK plans to Coulson, he’ll make good on his threats.
‘I’m sorry. It’s too dangerous. We’re getting out of here, pronto.’
Aiden times it so most of the runners are on their next lap, on the other side of the field, between Lorder eyes and us. We slip out of the house and I get into the back of the van, fighting my instincts – which all say to run to the track. To see Ben. Fighting to keep my promise to Aiden.
I’m on my own in the back this time, Aiden in front with the driver, wanting to see with his own eyes what is going on.
I count the turns as we go around the field, realise we’ve had to drive right past the Lorders. My stomach feels nauseous and I crouch down, away from the back window. But nothing happens. We carry on.
Once I’m sure we’ve cleared the field, I push through a jungle of equipment and wires hanging from the van roof, and peek out the back window. There is a collection of what looks like school buildings on the other side: the boarding school that Aiden said Ben is going to? And past it, a canal. We go over a bridge, and a trail hugs the banks, as far as I can see.
Ben would run there. Early in the mornings. I know he would.
Disappointment is creeping up my body, making me shake. I collapse back down on the floor, pull my knees up. We were so close! Tears are threatening to come up, and I fight them, hard. But I give up a battle I can’t win.
The van slows, comes to a stop.
Moments later Aiden pulls open the door. I wipe my face on my sleeve.
‘I dropped my co-worker off at that last junction. Pulled in here for a break, all right? Come out,’ he says, and holds out his hand. I take it, duck forward and out, legs stiff, and find the van is pulled into a passing place on a single-lane road, trees making a green tunnel overhead.
‘Stretch our legs?’ he says. We cross the road to a footpath, and walk in silence a few minutes to a creek, then along it until it reaches a clearing. There is a rough bench on one side.
‘Let’s talk,’ he says, and sits on the bench. I join him. ‘So. That really was Ben? You’re sure?’
‘Hold onto that. There was every reason to think he…’ And he hesitates.
‘That he was dead.’
‘Yes. Yet there he is. We need to play a waiting game now, and see what else we can find out about Ben and this boarding school he is going to, what the story is. Work out a safe place for you to meet him. As soon as I know anything, I’ll tell you. All right?’
‘When will that be?’
‘I don’t know for sure; I’ll do what I can. Tell you what: I’ll be at Mac’s again next Friday. Come up straight after school and if there is any news, I’ll tell you then.’
‘I have to see him, speak to him. I have to,’ I say, and I can hear my voice is desperate and pleading, but can’t stop it. It is past just needing to warn Ben; seeing him today made every bit of me scream to be close to him. My hand grips tight to Aiden’s arm.
He unhooks my fingers, holds my hand between his.
‘I know,’ he says, voice gentle. ‘And you know what else I know?’
‘Ben is a lucky guy.’
Aiden’s eyes hold mine. They are vivid blue, the colour of sky. Warm, and serious, and looking at mine like Ben used to. I pull my hand and my eyes away.
‘Kyla, listen. You see how important MIA is now, don’t you? What we do. Find people or what happened to them, good or bad. For people like you, who can’t go on with their lives until they know.’
I nod. ‘I get it.’
‘I’m not going to put pressure on you today, but think some more about it, all right? Think about reporting yourself found. To help somebody like we are helping you.’
There is a wave of panic inside just to hear him say it. I could do it: report Lucy Connor found. But what would it mean? She doesn’t exist any more, apart from a few shaky fragments of dreams.