He pulls the smile away but it stays in his eyes. ‘Sorry, Miss.’
‘Go back the way you came, and do it now.’
‘No way. I’m not leaving. You might as well let me help you. What is it? You said you were helping a friend, yet if it is your friend in there, you are very careful to circle their house, check it out, be quiet. Shall I go knock on the door and see if they’re in?’ He takes one step forwards and I grab his shoulder, pull him back again.
‘You’re really not going to leave quietly, are you?’
‘No,’ he says, and this time there is a serious determination in his eyes, one that was there all along behind the jokes.
‘Cam, you don’t know what you’re getting into.’
‘So tell me.’
I sigh, pull him further back into the trees. Trapped.
‘It’s like this. There is someone locked in the house, and I want to bust them out.’
‘A jailbreak. Good, I like it.’
‘I’m hoping there is only one guard.’
‘Right.’ He drops into a crouch, fists up. ‘Want me to take him out for you?’
I roll my eyes. ‘It’s a her, and shut up and let me think.’
He stays quiet. I need to distract Tori thoroughly. A fight is one way, but there is another: Ben. I sigh inside. All these points of guilt that need dealing with in this effort to do what is right. I have to tell her Ben is still alive. That should be enough to get her attention away from her guard duties.
‘Okay. How about this,’ I say. ‘I’ll go in, get her to come out for a talk. I’ll walk her around the side of the house. You slip in the house, unlock the door and get the prisoner out.’ I explain to him the layout inside, where the key is in Nico’s desk drawer. Hoping that Tori doesn’t grab it when she comes out.
‘Yep, got it,’ he says. ‘No problemo.’
I shake my head. There could be all sorts of problems.
I get Cam to hide around the side of the house, away from the door so Tori won’t see him when we come out. ‘I’ll go back around so I come out of the trees at the right place, in case she watches the paths. So give it a few minutes.’
As I cut back through the woods, careful still not to make a sound, something niggles inside. This still feels so wrong. He shouldn’t be here, but it is more than that. How is he here?
I stop in my tracks, and consider the doubt twisting inside. I’d been so busy being angry, and trying to work out how to get him to go, and then what to do when he wouldn’t, that I didn’t focus on the one crucial thing.
How did he follow me? He would have been well behind. He drove far enough back up the road I couldn’t hear his car any more, then would have had to double back on the road, and into the woods. How did he know which way to go? I was going at speed – how did he even keep up?
I cross my arms when it hits me. Either he is a master at following and running silently, or, far more likely, he hung back because somehow there is a tracker on me. I don’t understand this; it doesn’t fit. Cam?
I slip back to his position, quiet and careful. Maybe he was just lucky, went the right way and stumbled onto the bike path. Once you get far enough in, it is marked enough to follow without too much difficulty.
He is still where I left him, waiting, as instructed. I creep closer. His back is to me; he is leaning over, doing something with his hands. There is a faint metallic click. He turns slightly and I see the gun in his hand, the deadly expression on his face.
Cam? With a gun?
The shock is so great I get stupid, shift back on my feet. He turns to the noise, sees me and there is no choice now but attack. I spin a kick at his wrist. The gun flies through the air.
‘Who are you?’ I manage to spit out.
No answer. But now there is a knife in his hand. He dives, feints to one side. I roll, but not fast enough; there is pressure, a cut, into my shoulder. And I remember the gun strapped to my arm, fumble to get it out, but he dives again and there is another slash of heat at my side, a deeper one. The hell with diversion; I need help. I stumble back into the hidden tripwire and collapse.
Cam walks up and smiles, but it isn’t in his eyes, and this isn’t the Cam I thought I knew.
‘Who are you? What are you?’ I whisper again, pressing my hands to my side, and there is red and sticky wet on my fingers. The world spins. His image splits into four or five Cams, suddenly ugly, changed.
Facing me, he is turned away from the house. He doesn’t see Tori appear round the side of it, or the gun in her hand. Indecision on her face, bad shot that she is. She creeps close and hits him with it, hard, in the back of his head.
There is a sickening thud. He turns then tumbles face down to the ground.
She walks round and kicks him over, but he stays still. ‘Who is this?’ She turns to me, finally notices I’m bleeding, not moving. Rushes over.
Some part of my mind notes that Nico would be so unimpressed with her. Not checking for other attackers, or covering Cam in case he can get up, or anything.
I groan, the beginnings of a plan forming. ‘I’m dying,’ I whisper, though I doubt it. Messy, but superficial cuts; blood is doing its usual thing and almost making me pass out, but not from the wounds. But Tori doesn’t know that.
Freaked, she looks. No illusions I’m her favourite person, but she knows Nico wants me, for whatever reason.
‘Tori,’ I whisper. ‘Doctor, I need a doctor now, it’s the only way…’ My voice trails away, and my eyes close. I slump back in the best imitation of unconsciousness I can muster, then peek between my lashes. To her credit, she gives Cam an experimental kick to check he is neutralised before running back into the house.
I breathe in, out; in, out; forcing myself to ignore the red seeping from my shoulder, at my side. Testing my limbs, but just a little movement and everything spins sickeningly. Not good enough. I curse inside.
A moment later, Dr Lysander appears in the door. She runs over to me, Tori behind her, gun trained on her back.
She crouches down, checking, pulling at my clothes. Dr Lysander must realise I shouldn’t be unconscious just from this. She is between Tori and me, blocking Tori’s view. I open my eyes and wink. Her eyes widen.
‘I need a tourniquet, now,’ she says. ‘Get me a first aid kit!’
‘Go! Get it, or she’ll die.’
Tori scampers into the house. I sit up. ‘Run,’ I say, and point. ‘Straight through there is a path; go left when it branches.’
‘Not without you.’
‘Go! Do it. I can’t; I’m half blood-tranced.’
‘No.’ She pulls me to my feet. My legs wobble underneath, but she puts a determined arm around my waist, and we start to hobble into the woods.
Then Tori bursts out of the house. Drops the first aid kit and dives for her gun.
But before she can reach it there is a loud bang, and wood splinters over our heads. ‘The next one won’t be in a tree,’ a voice says. A voice that makes me tremble.
We stop. Turn around.
And there is Nico, gun pointed at my head. ‘Now. Would somebody like to tell me what the hell is going on here?’
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
* * *
‘I’m feeling rather angry,’ Nico says. His eyes and voice are ice; not just cold, but glacial. ‘Someone must pay.
‘You.’ He glances at Tori while still holding his gun trained directly on me. ‘You did one right thing, at least. Calling me. I was nearly here anyhow, so came up quietly to see what was the emergency, and what do I find? You let our prisoner out,’ he says to Tori.
He turns and trains his gun on her.
She blanches. ‘No, Nico; no, I—’
‘You deny that you unlocked the door?’
‘It was my fault,’ I say.
He spins back to face me. ‘And who is that?’ He gestures at Cam, bleeding and still on the ground.
‘Just someone from school; but I don’t know. Something else, too. He followed me. He shouldn’t have been able to do it.’
‘You let someone follow you here?’ He shakes his head in disgust. ‘Such stupidity I am surrounded by! Who shall pay?’ He sighs. He cocks the gun at me, and Dr Lysander steps forward and raises a hand, about to say something, but I pull her back.
He pulls the trigger; it rings out loud in the woods. Over our heads again.
I stand frozen. Fear. Shock. Eyes turned as far as they can be from Cam, from blood on the back of his head, from my blood also, but I cannot collapse now, I can’t. Breathing deeply, blanking it from my mind. Holding it away, to one side, so now can be dealt with.
‘And you, Rain. Such deceit; it wounds me. Why aren’t you at Chequers right now where you should be?’
‘I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hurt her, of all people. She’s done nothing to deserve getting shot.’
He shakes his head. ‘Stupid girl. If she’d made her speech as we wanted, that would have been icing on the cake. But you needed to be there at 4 pm! You idiot.’ He is shaking with fury.
Yet…why did I need to be there at 4? The seconds are ticking along. 3:50 pm now. What was going to happen there at 4? I’m confused. I was supposed to kill her at the first ceremony, inside.
Unless he always knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.
The rage in Nico’s eyes is absolute. ‘After all I’ve done for you.’ He shakes his head. Steadies the gun again. ‘I should do this, right now, but I will not. There is a reason, you know,’ he says, conversationally. ‘You must live to die another day. Your death can still have such impact! It would have been the perfect occasion for it today. But no matter. Another time. If we have to drug you and prop you up, we’ll see to it you are on film and screen for evermore: the angelic-looking little blond Slated girl who kills people, and takes her own life.’
I shake my head, not understanding. Too horrified to move, too scared to speak.
‘Of course. It makes sense now,’ Dr Lysander says. ‘You want to publicly prove a Slated can be violent, to strike at all the Lorders are doing in one swoop. But what about all the Slateds? What would happen to them?’
Realisation seeps through my numb fear. ‘The Lorders would see us all as a risk. They wouldn’t know who might turn. What would they do about it?’
‘Any atrocities the Lorders commit further our cause. Give us more supporters.
‘Tori,’ he barks. ‘Lock these two up together.’
She stands there, staring at him. Confusion on her face. ‘But what will happen to all the Slateds?’
He rolls his eyes. Raises his gun and points it at her. Then her eyes focus behind him; I see it as he does. There is a split second where he wonders if she is misdirecting him, but before he can decide his gun flies through the air, kicked out of his hand. By Katran.
‘You bastard,’ Katran snarls. Nico feints, spins round and knocks Katran off his feet.
‘Tori!’ Nico shouts. ‘Choose sides.’
Tori picks up Nico’s gun, stares at it in her hand.
She looks to me and then back at the gun. I walk over, feet still faltering but stronger now. ‘Give it to me,’ I say. Hold out my hand.
Nico and Katran grapple on the ground. There is a flash of silver and Katran cries out: Nico has sliced into his arm with a hidden knife. Nico scrambles to his feet, knife out. Lunging. Katran rolls away and pulls out his knife. Gets to his feet.
‘Ben is alive!’ Nico yells. ‘She knows it.’
Tori’s face contorts. She raises the gun. I dive and a shot ricochets behind.
Dr Lysander is frozen. ‘Run,’ I scream at her, and this time, she does, into the trees, me following behind, my muscles working again enough to stumble along behind her but not keeping up. Crying inside with each step with fear for Katran: Nico can’t win that fight. Can he?