Authors: Jane Higgins
‘Where were you tonight after supper?’
Tonight. Supper. Dr Williams.
‘Nikolai? Where were you?’
‘I was … I was in the infirmary garden.’
‘Why were you there?’
‘I needed to get out. Dr Williams –’
God. Dr Williams. I sucked in a breath. ‘He let me sit in the garden.’ I squinted up at the agent. He was dressed as he had been on Victory Day, in black, still neat as a bullet waiting to fire. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said. At the back of my mind Mace’s alarm bells were ringing louder by the minute.
Don’t talk to ISIS
‘What don’t you understand?’
The world swam. I dug the heels of my hands into
my eyes and pushed my fingers through my hair. They came away black and gritty. ‘I don’t understand what you want.’
‘What do you mean you needed to get out?’
‘Just – for some air. Some space. You know.’
‘I see. And Dr Williams will confirm this?’
I looked up at him. He looked back, waiting.
‘Dr Williams is dead,’ I said.
His eyebrows rose a fraction. ‘How do you know?’
‘I saw him. In the infirmary, with Dr Stapleton and Dr Lewis.’ I gripped my hands together to stop them shaking.
‘You went to the staff wing. Why?’
‘I don’t know. Everyone was … there was chaos, and I’d just been there, and … I don’t know. To see if Dr Williams was all right, I guess.’
‘Did Dr Williams talk to you when you sat in his garden earlier?’
‘No. I mean, not really, just hello and good-bye.’ I was lying to an ISIS agent. I could feel the sweat creep on my scalp. ‘He let me sit in the garden and then he sent me back to the dorm.’
Silence. My heart thumped.
He changed tack. ‘Nikolai, this carnage had inside help.’
‘You don’t mean Dr Williams?’
I think he almost smiled. ‘No. Dr Williams, God
rest his soul, does not interest us.’ He folded his arms and studied me with polite blankness. ‘You, however, do.’
‘Your name, Nikolai Stais.’
Not what I was expecting but I’d got tired of saying
I don’t understand
, so I just sat and looked at him.
‘Why did you keep it?’ he said.
‘Why did I keep my
‘Just answer the question.’
‘I don’t understand the question.’ I tried changing tack myself. ‘Am I supposed to come up with something clever here? And then you recruit me because I’ve passed some kind of test? I don’t have a clever answer for my name. So I fail your test. Can I go now? My friend is lying out there on the grass and he’s dead. Do you get that? He’s dead. And I can’t do a thing to change that. So right now I don’t give a … I don’t care about my name, or your tests or whatever the hell else you’re doing. I want to go back to him and sit with him and make sure they do right by him.’ I stood up.
‘No. I –’
He hit me – one sharp punch that pushed me back in the chair with my head on my knees, gasping.
‘You will sit when I tell you to sit. And stand when I tell you to stand. Is that clear?’
I nodded, still too winded to say shit. And scared.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘You will tell me everything you did tonight. Minute by minute.’
This was a minefield; I had no idea what would blow up in my face. He picked up the talisman round my neck and turned it to catch the light. I grabbed at it and he jerked it away from me, snapping the chain.
‘Hey!’ I dived after it but he stepped to one side and kneed me in the gut. I hit the floor. Someone knocked on the door while I lay there retching. I heard the agent open it and hold a murmured conversation, then his battle boots disappeared outside. The lock clicked. When I could move, I crept to the window and peered out. He was striding up the driveway with one of the soldiers who’d been guarding the gate. The other one stood at the gatehouse door.
I made myself breathe. Tried to think. My name. What didn’t they like about my name? I had to find Mace, and Frieda Kelleran, and ask them about my parents. But the immediate question was, should I wait for the agent to come back so I could get my talisman, or should I get out while I could? I knew the right answer. That didn’t make it any easier.
I crawled into the tiny back room of the gatehouse where Mace used to make me hot cocoa when I came to sit with him on winter afternoons. The guards fought off boredom by letting us sneak in and out – those of us prepared to pass the time of day with them. They’d made
a trapdoor for us at the back of a cupboard, behind the cocoa and sugar and tea bags.
I hadn’t been through it in years and maybe it wasn’t still there. I took the shelf out and felt for the latch. The door opened easily. At the back of my mind, busy with getting out of there, came a thought that turned the sweat cold on my skin. The guards had played at those visits like a game, a prank for us to feel like we were fooling our teachers. But suppose you wanted to let someone slip into the grounds without going through the ID scan at the gate? Anyone could come and go at will through this little door. Anyone at all. Inside help, the man had said. From who?
I squeezed through, tumbled into the bushes outside and lay still, listening, wondering what to do next.
. I had some, and none of them looked inviting.
I could find the ISIS agents, and say ‘Hey, give me back my talisman and I’ll show you a secret door in the gatehouse.’ And from what I’d seen already, how likely was it that they’d pat me on the back and induct me straight into their inner core? Yeah, very.
But running … escaping through this door was as close as I could think to standing on the rooftops, waving my arms and shouting ‘Guilty!’ of whatever it was they were accusing me of doing. I leaned inside and put back the shelf with the cocoa and sugar and tea bags best I could and closed the doors on both sides. Then I crept to the corner of the gatehouse and peered out. People were wandering about, still with a dazed how-can-this-be-happening look, but they were walking now, not running; the school was still burning, but not fiercely. The sun was
rising red through the smoke.
I crouched there, searching the grounds for the ISIS agent, then I saw Sol. Someone had gathered the little kids together under a tree by the outer walls, away from the action. The school nurse was checking they were all right.
I watched them a while. Sol just stood there, pale-faced, and every now and then he’d do this little jitterbug, hopping up and down, and looking around. Just like you’d do if you were eight years old and your big sister had told you to stay put until she came back, and you were desperate for her to come and terrified that she might not.
I crept around the walls and crouched in the garden behind him. When the nurse was busy calming a hysterical kid, I whispered, ‘Hey, buddy.’
‘Shh. Where are the others?’
‘Looking for you!’
‘Did Dash get permission to take you home?’
‘Uh-huh. That’s why they’ve gone to look for you. We’re going to Ron David’s place. And we can go from there to home.’ He smiled a wan smile, pleased with himself for remembering.
‘Ron David? Who’s that?’
‘I don’t know. We’re gonna meet up and the people there’ll take us home. Dash said.’
It took a moment for the lights to go on. A rendezvous. Okay. We’d had drills for this, in case everything
went haywire. The nearest rendezvous was the church at St John’s Square.
‘That’s a good plan,’ I said. ‘Have you seen Macey?’
‘No. Jono’s looking for him too.’
He shrugged. But I could guess. Now that the immediate panic was over, the ISIS agents would be rounding up Southsiders, and maybe people who associated with Southsiders as well.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘When the others come back –’
‘Aren’t you gonna wait?’
‘No. I’ve got something to do first. When they come back can you tell them I’ve gone ahead and will meet you at the rendezvous?’
I wanted to find Mace, and I wanted to go back to Lou and Bella to say goodbye. But Mace had vanished, and Lou and Bella had been taken away. In the end all I managed was getting out without being seen. It didn’t feel right, just to go like that. I knew Lou would understand. But it didn’t feel right.
There’s this blind skiddy in St John’s Square. He used to sit on the steps of the church, or on benches, or in doorways, rattling his cup, humming to himself, always being moved on, always coming back. We called him Lev, because he was forever quoting Leviticus at us:
do all kinds of weird stuff. Verse after verse of what to eat, what to wear, who not to have sex with.
It must’ve been noon by the time I came to the square, and when I arrived Lev was the first person I saw. In fact, I fell over him. He was wrapped up in his big old coat, and propped beside the rubbish bins on the corner of Skinners Lane and the square, legs sticking out. Which is how I came to fall over him, because I was all eyes for the church across the square to see what the action was at the rendezvous point.
I’d taken a roundabout way there, partly to pull myself together and partly because I wanted to come at the place sideways in case ISIS was waiting – though I hoped they had more important things to worry about by now than a runaway school kid with a name they didn’t like.
That run through the streets made me wish I had eyes in the back of my head. The city was suddenly a ghost town. I ran through Sentian, in the shadow of Watch Hill. Its alleyways were deserted. A pall of smoke lay over the Hill, as though it had a storm cloud all its own. The bakers’ shelves on Bridge Street were empty and the tiny cafes were locked and dark; around the corner, the window of the antique jewelry shop was smashed and its alarm sirened into the morning. All the banks were battened down, but their security guards were nowhere. Twice I heard glass shattering a few streets over – whether
looters or hostiles, I didn’t know. Either way, I didn’t want to meet them.
I could imagine them though – hostiles going house to house through riverside homes and shops. Maybe they’d got further into the city by now, and maybe the streets were empty because the casualty count was high: people shot or their throats cut, or bound up inside their homes ready to be trafficked over the river.
By the time I got to Skinners Lane and tripped over old Lev I was pretty freaked out and I was glad to see a familiar face. I picked myself up and crouched down to say sorry. The words dried up in my mouth.
Lev was dead.
I don’t even know how – caught by a flying piece of building in the night maybe, or knocked about by looters or hostiles, or trampled by people escaping north, or he might’ve just keeled over with a heart attack. But, the thing is, no one had noticed. It was the middle of the day, and no one had noticed a dead guy propped up on the edge of the square.
That’s when I let myself hear what I’d been thinking all morning. No one is coming. No troops in their jeeps. No police. No emergency services. No one.
St John’s was teeming with people
, all of them arguing. They crowded the steps and the wide-open doors, eyeing me as I went through. Inside they’d reorganized pews and occupied side chapels; piles of belongings were strewn everywhere. Downstairs in the crypt, I found Dash with Fy and Sol, and, unfortunately, Jono.
Dash stormed over to me as I came down the stairs. ‘
Where have you been?
We thought they’d got you.’ She grabbed me in an almighty hug and I figured I was forgiven, temporarily anyway. Jono and Fy were sitting together on a bench. Fy looked exhausted. Sol was roaming around the crypt. He arrived at my elbow and said, ‘Hi, Nik. Did you find Macey?’
Jono looked up. ‘Macey? Why were you looking for him?’
What would I have given to have Lou there instead
of Jono? Anything at all, that’s what. ‘No reason,’ I said. ‘Just to say good-bye.’
‘Is that so? How friendly of you.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Nothing. Just you and your secret squirrel ways. Anything you’d like to tell us?’
‘Sure. I know where there’s a secret lunch stash with bread and cheese and pickles …’
Sol’s eyes lit up. ‘You do?’
‘No. Sorry. Kidding.’
‘But I’m starving.’
Dash put an arm around him. ‘Me too. If these guys can just lay down their weapons for a minute, we might be able to think about food and how to get it. What d’you say?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Good idea.’
But Jono pushed on. ‘Did you find out what ISIS wanted you for?’
‘Nope. Do you want lunch or what?’
He gave me a narrow stare then turned to Dash. ‘What can I do?’
Dash had become team captain, which was fine by me. She was easily the best at it.
‘We’ll go and look,’ she said. ‘You and me and Nik. Fy, you stay here with Sol.’
Sol grabbed my arm. ‘No! I’m going with Nik.’
He was wound up tight as a top. I could feel him
trembling. I looked at Fy. She was sitting on the edge of a bench staring through us. I said, ‘You know, I think I’ll stay. You ISIS-types don’t need me.’
Jono turned for the stairs, muttering, ‘That’s for real. C’mon, I’m tired of doing childcare.’ Dash looked from Fy to Sol, said, ‘Yes, that makes sense,’ and followed Jono up the stairs.
‘Dash?’ I called after her. ‘Careful, yeah?’ She gave me the thumbs up, and was gone.
We found some blankets and cushions in the minister’s room at the back of the crypt and made a pile of bedding under an icon that glowed gold and blood-red in the dusty light that spilled down the stairs. The blankets were coarse and hairy and the cushions were hard but better than nothing on the flagstone floor. I played number games with Sol. Fy watched us and after a while she started to sing under her breath. Sol curled up and went to sleep.
I went upstairs then, to look about. It was chaotic. Some people had come because their homes were damaged, but mainly the place was full of people who were too afraid to go home in case more mayhem hit. They’d dug in to wait for help to arrive, and the way they did that was to have endless meetings, mainly entitled (as far as I could hear) ‘Who Should Be In Charge Here?’ and ‘Why Hasn’t the Army Arrived Yet?’ I told one or two people about old Lev, and said shouldn’t we move him because even
beggars deserved some respect and anyway, the dogs would be out tonight and did they want him chewed on, and bits of him dragged around the square? I didn’t actually say that last part, but I hoped their imaginations would get to work on the problem. That prompted yet another meeting.