‘Come on,’ Aiden says. ‘Best get you home.’
We walk back along the footpath, and Aiden opens the side door of the van. ‘Sorry, but it is safer if you travel in the back.’
‘It’s fine,’ I say. Climb in, settle myself, then shift closer to the window once the door is shut.
I want to know the way.
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
* * *
A surprise waits when I open the front door. Dad, on the sofa, feet up; Amy next to him chattering about her week. Mum reading a book on a chair. Three sets of eyes swivel and stare.
Mum shuts her book. Frowns. ‘That was a long walk.’
‘Give her a chance to come in and say hello,’ Dad says. ‘I haven’t seen her for a week.’ He holds out his hand and I walk over; he takes mine and pulls me closer, kisses my cheek.
‘Sit down, join us,’ he says, and I perch on the other end of the sofa next to Amy.
‘Where did you go?’ Mum asks.
Dad shakes his head. ‘Can’t the poor girl go for an afternoon walk without getting the third degree?’
Mum frowns, and there is atmosphere: waves of disturbed emotion in the air so real I can almost reach out and touch them.
‘You haven’t been on footpaths on your own, have you?’ she says.
‘No,’ I answer, truthfully. Not today. The only footpath I ventured down was with Aiden.
‘It’s not safe. They haven’t caught whoever attacked that Wayne Best yet,’ she continues. ‘You need to be careful, and—’
‘Now, Sandra,’ Dad says. ‘She says she wasn’t on footpaths.’
Amy and I both look at him, eyes wide in surprise. Mum visibly bristles, as if she is a hedgehog and her spines are sticking out everywhere. Dad, on my side? And Mum, her face a picture of suspicion. She doesn’t trust me.
I venture in. ‘Honestly, no. I just went along to the Hall and back. On the road.’ I’d calculated in my mind how far that was and the time I was gone, and it was about right.
‘I thought you said you had homework, and just needed a short walk to clear your head?’
‘I wasn’t going to go that far. But it is such a nice day…’ And my voice trails away. Even to me that doesn’t sound convincing.
‘Don’t neglect your homework,’ Dad says. Something else lurks behind his eyes.
‘I should go up now,’ I say, and start getting to my feet.
The set of Mum’s face says this isn’t over.
‘Wait a moment,’ Dad says. ‘Now we’re all here we can have a family meeting about AMD.’ I look at him blankly. ‘Armstrong Memorial Day,’ he says.
‘It’s up to both of you,’ Mum says. ‘If you want to come.’
Dad snorts. ‘Of course they’re coming.’ He turns to Amy and me. ‘It’s a huge celebration this year: twenty-five years since the assassinations, and thirty years of the Central Coalition in power. It’s at Chequers. The Prime Minister’s country house,’ he adds, looking at me.
‘What is happening?’ I ask.
Mum answers. ‘First up, the usual ceremony inside Chequers, live on telly like every year. That is family only, so just all of us and a film crew. Sympathy of the nation, speech from grieving daughter, blah blah blah.’
Dad raises an eyebrow at her tone.
She continues. ‘And then, as a special celebration this year, the Prime Minister will be there for a second televised ceremony in the grounds of Chequers, to be held at the exact time the treaty was signed to form the Central Coalition thirty years ago. Government officials and the rich and famous will all be there to celebrate. After that there will be a long and boring dinner.’
‘You need to come for the ceremonies, really,’ Mum says, regret in her voice.
‘It’s an honour!’ Dad adds.
‘But you can skip the dinner if you want to,’ Mum says. A look on her face suggests that would be wise. She still holds me in her gaze, some uncertainty hiding behind her bland look.
‘Can I be excused? Homework,’ I say.
‘Go on, then,’ Dad says.
I start up the stairs. What is up with these two? Mum is full of suspicion, Dad is chilled. Have they had a body swap?
And further joy: Lorder ceremonies, ones I have to go to.
Lorder ceremonies. Ones very hard to get into, unless you are in the family. This family. I stop at the top of the stairs, frozen in place by the clink of puzzle pieces clicking together in my brain.
Nico said I must stay in my life for a while longer; that I have a vital role to play. Is this it? Something to do with Armstrong Memorial Day?
Concerted attacks, Nico said. What better day to choose? The Lorders will be on high alert, but I can get in. I’ll be there!
I force my feet to take the last few steps, go into my room. Pull the door shut.
Before any of this goes down, I have to warn Ben. Get him away safe so Coulson can’t take any anger at me out on him. I hold Ben’s face, inside, as I saw him today. He is alive. My tears earlier were misplaced. Okay, so I didn’t get to talk to him, touch him, feel he still breathes, that blood pumps from his heart through his body. But I saw him. He lives. For now, that is enough.
I am grateful to Aiden for finding him, but he couldn’t be more wrong than to think I will get involved with MIA. He thinks I’m torn between reporting myself found on MIA, and doing nothing. If he only knew I am in a much more dangerous place: caught between Lorders and Free UK.
It is a waiting game, Aiden said. Wait until he finds out more about Ben and his situation, how to get me to him safely.
But I can’t wait long. Coulson hinted Ben is alive, so that much of what he said is true. He also hinted he won’t stay that way unless I do as he wants. But he doesn’t know I know where he is.
In the meantime…Nico must think I’m on his side. Coulson must think I’m on his. Neither can find out what I do for the other.
It is like two high-speed trains, hurtling towards each other, getting closer and closer to disaster.
Late that night, Nico’s com buzzes from its hiding place under my Levo. Awake in an instant, I fumble for the button in the dark.
‘Yes?’ I whisper.
‘Okay to talk?’
‘The RTC attack will be tomorrow. But there is one condition if you go.’
‘What is that?’
‘Rain, you must do exactly what Katran says. Do you promise?’
He’ll love that. But what choice do I have? I promise, then listen to Nico’s precise instructions.
Train number one leaves the station.
* * *
Holly leans a bicycle against the tree. Walks towards the door.
‘Not sure this is a good idea.’ I breathe the words near Katran’s ear. He grunts, says nothing. His face says he doesn’t like it, either. The plan is Nico’s, and it was easy to see when Katran told us the details earlier that Nico’s interference in his group rankled. Much like my presence.
This Lorder building is out of the way as you’d expect for what happens inside it; no neighbours, yet just a few miles off a main road – good transport links. There is one black van parked out front now. Surveillance had said Monday’s a good day for this. Other days there are more ‘deliveries’: Slateds to be terminated.
Before Holly reaches the door a Lorder guard steps out.
‘Hi!’ she says. Smiles too wide. She shouldn’t look that happy to see a Lorder.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Sorry, I’m lost. Could you tell me how to get to the farmer’s market?’
Stupid story. You’d have to be a total idiot to have turned down this unmarked road and past all the ‘do not enter’ signs, and not the next one with all the signs to the market.
He says nothing, walks closer, face impassive. One eye on her and one scanning the woods around. Instinctively, I pull myself lower in the scrub though I know we are deep in shadows, well hidden from view. His hand reaches for a com at his belt.
Holly does a sudden spin kick, knocks his hand away from the com. I tense to spring forward to help her but Katran grabs my wrist. ‘Wait,’ he hisses. ‘Until the others come out.’
There are spy cameras all over the front. By now, inside, they’d see the guard tussling with one slight girl. He soon has Holly immobilised, a grip tight around her neck.
The door opens. Another Lorder comes out.
‘She says she’s lost, then kicks me.’
‘I don’t like it. Check the area.’
‘My hands are full.’
He shrugs. ‘So empty them.’
He moves one hand to Holly’s chin, another on her shoulder. No! I tense to spring forward, but Katran holds me in an iron grip.
A sudden violent twist.
The Lorder lets her go; she falls to the ground.
Her body twitches, then lies still: neck broken. Black horror inside quickly turns to rage. I glare at Katran, ready to lash out, but his face is filled with pain. When he sees me looking it hardens to a mask. The look is gone.
One Lorder speaks into a com – to someone in the house? Then two of them step out. One heads towards Tori and her waiting knives; the other in our direction.
Katran releases his grip on my arm. Gestures for me to stay out of it, dark revenge on his face.
But then the Lorders stop, step back. There are vehicle sounds coming up the road. No. A van?
It pulls in front of the building.
Katran shakes his head slightly. ‘Too many targets,’ he whispers.
And I stare at him, disbelieving. Pull back? Now? After what happened to Holly?
Two Lorders get out of the front of the van, confer with the others. Glance at Holly’s body on the ground. One pulls the van side door open.
A boy springs out, takes a swing at the Lorder, his face white. Slated: I can hear his Levo from here before he collapses on the ground. There is a scream inside the van. A girl is pulled out; she tries to reach for the boy.
‘Do something!’ I hiss. Katran’s face twists in indecision. My fingers curl around my knife.
‘Stay here,’ he breathes. ‘Don’t break your promise!’ He hits his com to give the order to attack. He and the others run forward.
It’s a blur of motion, cries. Blows. Part of me is screaming to run after them, to be in it, to strike at the Lorders. Another part is holding me still, sick inside at what is happening, eyes clenched shut. What is the use of me? Why bring me here to do nothing? I force my eyes open.
One of the Lorders breaks free, runs for it headlong into the woods and straight at my hiding spot.
I crouch in a fighting stance, knock his feet out from under him. He’s winded. My knife is in my hand, there are seconds when I could use it, stab him – I don’t. He swings at my arm, the knife falls from my hand and he has one of his own. He smiles.
Then there is a loud whack – Katran has kicked him in the back of the head. He falls. Moves no more, blood on the back of his head. Katran bolts back to the house.
I stagger to my feet. There is red in his hair, so much red, and there is a rushing, roaring sound in my ears. I stagger away. Later someone calls the all clear, and I don’t know how long I’ve been standing, still, unable to open my eyes or move away; almost in a trance. A blood red trance.
But something penetrates: there is screaming. A girl, still screaming. The Slated one? The buzz of her Levo is loud, and grates deep inside my skull.
She needs help.
I fight the fog, force my feet to walk through the trees. Fix my eyes on the girl and not on what lies on the ground. I slip an arm over her shoulders. ‘It’s okay. Just close your eyes. Don’t look around you; blank it from your mind. Breathe in and out. You can do it.’ Her Levo is at 3.4: too low.