Page 6

My dark thoughts and the run have taken too much concentration. Their house is close now, but something isn’t right. The air tastes wrong. A little, at first; then more.


It gets stronger, and I slow to a jog, then a walk.

Very strong, now: the air is thick and hazy, cutting the moonlight. My eyes are stinging and it is only the will to stay silent that keeps me from coughing.

Caution. Go slow and silent.

Ben’s road is visible now, dim houses beyond fences and hedges on one side of the canal path. Over one of them, smoke rises lazily, twists on the wind. It is an unreal silver and red, lit by moon above and red glow below. Though it is not a house any longer; now I’m closer, I can see the absolute devastation. The remains of a house. A total ruin.

It isn’t Ben’s; it can’t be. I scan those either side from behind. None of them look like his, with the workshop on the side where his mum made her metal sculptures. It must be this one.

The wind shifts, and I pull my shirt over my face to breathe through, choking in the air, unable to hold back coughing any longer. There are no firefighters, nobody in sight. Whatever happened is mostly over; there is just a ruin, glowing ash. Smoke. How…?

Stay back. Get back. There will be watchers.

Is it really Ben’s house? Could it be? What has happened?

Leave. There is nothing to be done here.

Nothing to be done. Anyone who was in that house…

And I stare at the ruins. The houses around, untouched; this one, completely destroyed. No chance for anyone inside. None.

Were they in there? Ben’s parents? Horror fills me. I never met his dad, but his mum was so full of life, of her art. Now so full of pain about Ben.

Not any more.

Get out of here.

And the urgency and fear bite in. My feet start reversing, slow up the canal path, hugging the trees on the side of it. There will be wakeful eyes on this street tonight.

I pause. The path rises a little now; I can look back and see more.

Get out of sight!

If I can see down, eyes can see up. I slip into shadows of trees.

Every instinct is shouting run, hide, but I can’t not look. I can’t take my eyes off this smoking ruin. Were they in there? Burned to death? I shudder. I can’t take this in, I can’t…

Hands grab my shoulders from behind.


* * *

I slam my left elbow back into flesh, which gasps and sags into a tree. I spin around, kick with my right foot, right fist ready to crack skull against tree, and…

My hand drops.

A girl is bent double, gasping and clutching her stomach, long dark hair cascading down. Barely visible in this light, yet I know that hair. Don’t I?


She looks up. Familiar flawless features, beautiful eyes. Yet not the same. Hollow. Choked with tears.

‘Tori?’ I say again. She half nods and slumps to the ground. ‘What are you doing here? How…?’

She shakes her head, unable to talk, and I can’t take this in. How is Tori here? How is she anywhere. She was returned to the Lorders. Tori was Ben’s friend: Slated, like us. I barely knew her, but she was his girlfriend before I was, I’m sure of it. Though he said he never kissed her, I never totally believed him. How could he resist Tori? But she was taken by Lorders: nobody comes back from them.

‘Bitch,’ she finally manages to cough out. ‘Why’d you do that?’

‘I didn’t know it was you,’ I whisper. ‘Keep your voice down. How did you…’ I start to say but my voice trails away. I don’t know what question to ask first.

‘I escaped, and I came to see Ben. But he…’ Her voice breaks, tears start down her cheeks.

Get away from here! It isn’t safe.

‘Tori, we’ve got to move. We can’t stay here. We’ll get caught.’

‘What does it matter now? Without Ben, I…’ And she shakes her head. ‘They’re all dead. They wouldn’t save anyone. I saw it all!’

Get out of here!

But I have to know. ‘Tell me what happened.’

‘I got here hours ago; the house was alight, just, and I held back as fire engines came rushing up, sirens on. But they didn’t do anything.’


‘Lorders were already here. They made them watch it burn. Just let them stop it spreading to other houses. I could hear them screaming, Kyla. And I didn’t do anything. I could hear them screaming inside the house. And one of the firefighters argued with the Lorders, and they shot him.’

‘They did what?’

‘They just shot him.’ And she is sobbing harder. ‘Ben is dead, and I didn’t do anything.’

I know how that feels; the overwhelming guilt. She doesn’t need it.

‘Tori, he wasn’t in the house. He wasn’t there.’ Her shoulders are shaking, she is beyond hearing. ‘Listen to me: Ben wasn’t in there. All right?’

Words are starting to get through. She looks up. ‘He wasn’t? Then where is he?’

‘I’ll tell you everything. But first we need to get away from here.’

‘Where can I go? I can’t go home; it’s the first place they’ll look. I have nowhere else.’

‘Come on.’

I urge Tori to her feet. She is in bad shape. Wearing stupid light shoes, shivering in torn clothes, limping. Her bare arms shine white in the moonlight, a beacon to any eyes. I hold her hand to urge her along, then her arm: her skin is like ice. Then finally link an arm around her waist to help her walk.

‘What has happened to you?’

‘I was all right until you karate-chopped me in the guts.’


‘I’ve walked a long way. I can’t go much further.’ Her voice is faint and her body, light though it is, is becoming a dead weight on my shoulder.

‘Stop. I need to rest,’ she says, and her words are slurred.

‘We can’t stop. Come on, Tori,’ I say, but then her body sags. I just manage to catch her, lower her to the ground.

God. What am I going to do? She escaped from Lorders: anyone caught helping her is in for it. Being anywhere near her is danger.

Leave her. Survival of the fittest!

No. I can’t. I won’t!

And I think of Cam’s drawing, and Nico the caveman. There isn’t really any other choice, is there? Even if she could walk that far, I can’t take her home. I can’t put that on Mum. Even if Mum would help, Amy could never keep a secret, and there’d be no way to hide it from her. And if Dad came home… I shudder. He was so suspicious of my involvement when Ben disappeared, he threatened to return me to the Lorders if I took even one step out of line. This would give him the excuse to get rid of me at last. Maybe Jazz and his cousin, Mac, would help. But there is no way to contact them, or get her there. She could never walk that far. It has to be Nico.

He’ll be furious.

Nico’s fury isn’t something to take lightly. But he said to call if I needed to. Why else give me means to contact him?

I fiddle under my Levo in the dark until I find the button on the com. Press it. Be awake, Nico!

Seconds later he answers, voice alert.

‘This had better be good,’ he says.


* * *

‘Stupid move, Rain.’ Nico hoists Tori into the back of his car. ‘What am I supposed to do with her?’

I don’t answer, shying away from thinking what he may come up with. I climb into the front seat next to Nico, exhausted from the effort of half dragging, half cajoling a semi-conscious Tori up the footpath in the dark to this, the first lane crossing. The hastily arranged meeting point.

‘Thank you, Nico,’ I say, and every bit of me means it. The relief to see his face was so strong when he arrived, I’d wanted to throw myself in his arms. But he wasn’t in a hugging mood.

His car purrs up the lane. It looks average, but the engine is something more. He keeps a careful eye out when we get to a main road. What explanation could we have if spotted, a now unconscious Tori in the back? We’d have to run for it.

‘You reek of smoke.’

‘Do I? What time is it?’

‘Nearly five.’

‘I’ve got to get home soon, or I’ll get caught. Mum gets up early.’

‘Not smelling like that.’

He drives fast. Tori whimpers, then is quiet again. We get to a dark house with a drive down the side to the back. On a hill, no neighbours nearby.

He carries her over his shoulder into the house. I follow. It is small, modern, neat. Not your usual Free UK hidey-hole.

‘Your place?’ I say, surprised.

He glares. ‘No time to take her anywhere else.’

He puts Tori on the couch. Pulls heavy curtains across the windows before turning on a lamp.

That is when I really see the state of her. Thin colourful clothes in tatters, as if she’d set out to a party, not gone hiking in this cold. Covered in scratches, bruises. One ankle so swollen it is a miracle she could walk at all.

She stirs; her eyes flutter part open, then all the way when they take in Nico. She sits up, panic on her face.

I grab her hand.

‘Tori, it’s okay. This is…’ And I pause, not sure what name he wants to use. ‘My friend. He’s going to look after you.’

Nico comes over, smiles. ‘Hello. Tori, is it? I’m John Hatten. I need to ask you a few questions.’

‘Can’t this wait?’ I say, voice low.

‘I’m afraid not. I’m sorry, Tori. But you can see what a risk I take for you. I need to know your story well enough to know what to do with you.’

My blood runs cold. One wrong word, and what he does with her could be permanent.

‘Well, Tori?’ he prompts, voice gentle.

She studies her hands, turning them side to side like they are unfamiliar, disconnected to her. ‘I killed him,’ she says in a low voice. ‘With a knife.’


‘A Lorder. I killed him, and I ran away.’

She closes her eyes.

‘You’re safe here. Rest, Tori,’ he says. Tori’s head lolls to one side: out again.

Nico raises an eyebrow at me. She couldn’t have found anything more right to say if I’d coached her. He probably wonders if I did.

‘Go, take a fast shower. I’ll look after her. But you owe me, Rain. Big time. This is a huge risk, an unnecessary complication that could interfere with our plans. Now, go.’

I run for the shower, grab the towel and nondescript dark T-shirt and bicycle shorts he chucks at me. Our plans? Does he mean Free UK plans, ones that somehow involve me? I wash and dry my hair as fast as possible, part of me noting things about Nico. I’ve never been in his personal space before. He likes nice shower gel, soap: it smells like him, and I can’t stop myself from breathing it in deep. He has a hairdryer? His hair always looks good, but still. I stifle a smile, suddenly terrified that while I’ve been admiring his designer bathroom, Nico’s version of looking after Tori might mean ending her life painlessly instead of otherwise.

But when I emerge, he’s wrapped her in a blanket. It rises and falls slightly with her breath. She is in a deep sleep.

‘Come on,’ he says. ‘I’ll run you back.’

‘What if she wakes while we’re gone?’

‘She won’t.’

We are on our way up the road before I dare ask. ‘How do you know she won’t wake up?’

‘I gave her a shot. She won’t.’

‘A shot?’

‘Don’t look so alarmed. It was just sedative and painkiller, both of which will help her.’ He curses under his breath. ‘If this goes horribly wrong, it is on your neck, Rain.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. My breath catches inside: both distressed to be the cause of Nico’s unhappiness, and scared of it, all at once.