There’s just over a week to go until the launch of Infiltrators, Book 2 of The Wall Series. I know it feels like a loooong time since Expendables came out, but I promise, I’ve been working as fast as I can to get the sequel out!
And, I’m pretty proud of this book.
Here’s a sneak preview to whet your appetite…
I look up at the two faces displayed on the huge screens that line the square. The evening news headlines have run, and this is the final announcement before the advertisements start up again. A murmur of excitement ripples through the crowd in front of us as two words flash up underneath the faces.
Excitement. Not fear or alarm, but excitement. But then, these people are Insiders. They don’t understand fear. Not real fear. The kind that has you constantly looking over your shoulder and viewing each person who smiles at you with suspicion. The fear that causes you to hide from the world, to choose to starve rather than reveal your identity and to betray your own neighbour to the government.
But admittedly, the two faces staring out at us don’t really look like dangerous criminals. They look like what we are: teenagers.
Names flash up above the faces. Aleesha Ramos. Darwin Trey Goldsmith. Such an odd name, Darwin. Trey suits him better. On the screen, he looks happy and relaxed, wearing a light blue shirt that I guess was his old school uniform. Today, he’s wearing a hat to cover the blond roots that are starting to show through the black hair dye. His blue eyes flick nervously to mine as though he’s looking for protection from the words that track continuously across the bottom of the screen.
I inspect my own face, wondering when they’d captured the image. Unlike Trey, I have no official record. Tight, fearful brown eyes stare down at me, framed by wisps of dark hair torn loose from my usual braid. I must have been having a bad day.
I pull my pink scarf up over my head, take Trey’s hand and lead him around the edge of the crowd. We keep our heads down, trying to look like a couple out for an afternoon stroll. I catch a flash of yellow on black ahead and turn sharply, almost dragging Trey down a narrow alleyway.
Trey doesn’t reply, but his fingers tremble in mine. We turn left at the end of the alleyway and left again further up the street to bring us back to our original route. We both memorized the directions, but Trey lets me lead. For an Insider, he doesn’t know much about the layout of the city Inside the Wall.
“What was your friend called again?” I ask.
“And you’re sure this is the right thing to do?”
He nods and glances down at me nervously. The small lump in his throat bobs up and down. “Yes. I thought we’d agreed on this. People need to know the truth. If they know what the government have done and why our city has ended up like this, then perhaps they’ll finally do something about it.”
But what will they do?
I know Trey’s right, but I can’t get rid of the nagging voice inside my head that’s telling me this is a really bad idea.
I’m so lost in my thoughts that I don’t notice the rhythmic pounding ahead until Trey pulls me back against a wall. The chatter of voices around us dies and is replaced by a low murmur of fear. A woman steps back onto my foot and stammers an apology.
“S’okay,” I murmur, too quietly for her to catch my Outsider accent.
The press of people intensifies as the crowd parts to make way for the Metz patrol. Glancing up from under my scarf, I watch them as they round the corner onto our street. They tower above the crowd, taller and broader than even the tallest Insider, and are protected from head to toe in black armour that seems to absorb all light. The only splash of colour is two parallel yellow stripes on either side of their helmets. These are our protectors. Our law enforcers. Our judges.
My fingers twitch toward the knife that’s hidden in my secret pocket. It would be pointless to attack them, but I’d feel better with the blade in my hand. But I stop myself. If someone were to see it, they’d know I was an Outsider and call me out. Insiders don’t carry weapons. They don’t need to.
The footsteps get closer, pounding in perfect time as if made by one being. And then, as the front line of the patrol draws level with us, they stop.
I stare resolutely at the ground. A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck. Surely, they can’t have spotted us in this crowd? My heart hammers in my ears and my fingers creep down again to tug at the handle of my throwing knife.
A heavy silence falls over the street. Everyone’s waiting. I risk a glance up, but all I see is the back of the man in front of me. I’m not even tall enough to peek over his shoulder. I take a step to the side, but Trey’s hand reaches out to grip mine. His palm is slick. He gives a tiny shake of his head.
Don’t do anything stupid, Aleesha.
A child whimpers. The kind of whimper that’s a precursor to a full-blown tantrum.
“Who is the guardian of this child?” The Metz officer’s voice is toneless and gravelly. There’s no way to tell if the person inside the armour is male or female. If there is a person in there at all.
I stretch up on my toes and strain to see between the heads of the Insiders in front of me but it’s no use. All I can see are the helmets of the Metz officers.
The child begins to cry. The officer repeats his question but is again met with silence. I move sideways to a break in the crowd, feeling Trey’s eyes bore into me. The child’s cries reverberate in my skull. Adrenaline fizzles through my veins and I fight to control my breathing.
The only reason they would detain the child would be if he was illegal. Like me.
The child’s cries turn to a scream as the officer reaches down and lifts him into the air. He’s perhaps two years old and dressed in Insider clothes, which is odd. A thread of doubt weaves its way into my stomach. Perhaps he isn’t illegal after all.
Just then, there’s a cry of fear and the sound of running footsteps. A woman appears, her hair flying loose from the tight knot on the back of her head. She runs awkwardly like she’s wearing high heels, and her face is a mask of terror.
She skids to a halt in front of the officer and reaches up her arms for the child. “Please, he’s mine. He just ran off …” She looks pleadingly up at the impassive black mask towering above her. For a second, they stare at each other, then, slowly, the Metz officer lowers the boy to the ground. The woman picks the child up and tries to soothe his sobs as she backs away.
The woman freezes, and I feel the crowd around me tense.
The woman holds out her right arm and the officer runs a gloved hand down the trembling limb. He does the same with the child. There’s a slight pause and then he nods.
“Keep a closer eye on your son in future, ma’am.”
I let out my breath in a rush, a strange sense of disappointment flooding through me. So, he was just an Insider boy after all. I could have risked everything, put myself up in front of the Metz, to save someone who didn’t need saving. A few weeks ago, the thought wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But that was before Lily.
The Metz move off and the crowd thins around me.
“What do you think you were doing?” Trey sounds pissed.
“Nothing,” I mutter. “Let’s go.”
Trey’s friend lives down by the river, or at least what was once the river. To me, it’s always looked more like a sea. Or, in the summer months, a muddy swamp. You can’t really smell it at all Inside. Out in Area Four, it stinks, especially when the tide is out. But I guess in here people don’t use the water as a toilet or a handy dumping ground for bodies.
We weave our way through an ancient part of the city that dates from the time before the Great Flood. The stone buildings are dwarfed by the glass towers behind them. The streets are quiet, even though it’s a weekend, and it doesn’t take us long to reach our destination.
“This is it,” Trey says as we turn down a street lined with modern apartment blocks. They’re blindingly white and each has a neat balcony with pot plants or small trees. I never realized that there were so many different types of plants until I saw Inside. Outside, everything dies.
We pause in front of one of the apartment blocks. “Are you sure you want to go in alone?”
Trey nods. “It’ll be fine. Best that they don’t see you, just in case.” He sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself as much as me. I reach out and squeeze his hand. His skin is cold and clammy.
“He’s your friend, right?”
“He was my friend.” Trey sighs and steps forward, scanning the list of names by the apartment door.
How his life has changed. A few weeks ago, he was an Insider boy, son of a government minister, being educated at a posh school outside London. Now, he’s an illegal citizen, forced to live Outside the Wall. I wonder if he wakes up some days thinking his old life was all a dream.
Trey tugs the cap down over his eyes and presses the comm link up to his friend’s apartment. A voice answers.
“Is Theo there?”
There’s a pause, then another voice comes on the line, too faint for me to hear.
“Theo? It’s me, Darwin.” There’s a muttered conversation, then the door clicks open and Trey disappears into the building.
I wander down the street, keen to get away from whatever security cameras may be around. The road is a dead end, the apartment buildings sloping down to the river wall. It’s a low, brick wall. I wonder what they do when the waters rise, but as I get closer, I spot the retracted flood barriers on either side. The evening sun casts a warm glow over the rippled surface of the water. Sunset is getting later. Spring is on the way.
My mother took me to look out over the river once, on an evening like this. We’d sat on top of a low building looking out as the sun bathed the city in red. I’d asked her who lived in the towers that jutted up out of the water. She said no one did. Not anymore.
I don’t remember what we did after that. My memories of that time are few, and as every year passes they seem to fade a little more into the blur that was my early childhood. But I think that wasn’t long before she left.
Before she was murdered.
The sound of footsteps cuts into my thoughts.
“Hey.” Trey rests his elbows on the wall and drops his head into his hands. “I’m glad that’s over.”
“What did Theo’s dad say?”
Mr Johnston owns one of the news networks in the city. An important man.
“He took copies of the documents. Said he’d think about it.” Trey lifts his head to stare out across the water. “It was strange though. He didn’t seem that surprised by the information. Almost like he already knew.”
Trey shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. We’ll have to wait and see. Theo was pretty riled up about it.” He smiles and pats the backpack on his shoulder. “And we’ve still got the originals.”
The originals are plastic films. We found them in some ancient cabinets in the basement of the government headquarters the first time we broke in. I haven’t read them – I can’t read that well – but Trey’s told me what they contain. They’re records of what happened after the Great Flood when London was one big city. Before they put up the Wall. Before there were Insiders and Outsiders.
“Let’s go. We’re more likely to be noticed if we’re out on the streets after dark.” Trey starts back up the street. I take one final look at the dying sun, then turn and follow him.
We walk in silence until we’re almost back at the Wall. It towers behind the apartment blocks and houses, a shimmering array of colour that lights up the dark sky. I yawn, feeling suddenly tired. Perhaps Abby will let me stay at her house tonight.
Trey turns down an alleyway. I follow, stumbling on a loose piece of paving. Recovering, I frown as I try to place where we are. “Isn’t this a dead end?”
Ahead of me, Trey rounds the corner, then takes a step back. “You’re right. Sorry, wrong road.”
I’m just about to tease him about not knowing his way around when he turns toward me and the colour drains from his face. His eyes lock onto something over my shoulder. I turn around and draw a knife from my pocket. But I know at once that it won’t help. There’s no weakness in that black armour.
I take a step backward and the three Metz officers take a step forward.
Aleesha backs up until she’s standing in front of me. My limbs feel suddenly weak and lifeless and I take a deep breath to try to force oxygen into my muscles.
“Is there any way out?” Aleesha whispers.
I shake my head and then realize that she can’t see me. “Nothing. No door or ladder. Just a high brick wall.”
I glance around, looking for something to use as a weapon. A length of broken metal pipe catches my eye. It’s hanging off the wall and almost rusted through. I take a step toward it.
My body freezes instinctively.
“I’ll distract them. When you see an opportunity, run.” Aleesha’s voice is low and controlled, showing none of the panic I feel. But that’s always the way. If she feels fear, she doesn’t show it.
“No, I’m not leaving you.” My voice betrays me, cracking on my final words.
Aleesha’s eyes tighten. “Don’t be stupid. You can’t defend yourself.”
Her words cut through me. The worst of it is, she’s right. I don’t know how to defend myself. They didn’t teach us that at St George’s. The closest we got was rugby, but I don’t think I’ll have much luck trying to tackle a Metz officer.
“Darwin Trey Goldsmith. Aleesha Ramos. You are both under arrest. Place your weapons on the ground and raise your hands.” The middle officer twitches its gun threateningly.
I lift my hands and look to Aleesha.
“See that passageway on the left, behind them?” Aleesha whispers. “I think it’s too narrow for them to fit. If we can reach it, there may be a way out. Let’s split them up.”
A security light high on the wall throws long shadows in front of the three giants in front of us. Behind them, a dark gap cuts between the buildings. If it is a passageway, it barely looks wide enough to squeeze through.
Aleesha begins to take slow deliberate steps toward the far side of the alley. I move in the opposite direction.
“Don’t move! Put the knife down.”
But Aleesha’s ploy is working. Two of the officers are turning to her. The third takes a step toward me. I stare up, transfixed by its blank, expressionless mask.
There’s a flash of movement in the corner of my eye. The officer turns as a harsh, grating cry rips through the silence, and suddenly I can move again. I run to the broken pipe, yank it from the wall and am running for the gap between the officers by the time it turns back to me.
It reaches out an arm. I duck around it. A glint of metal in the corner of my eye gives me a split-second warning before a shot fires overhead.
There’s a scream. Aleesha.
I skid to a halt but can’t see past the bulk of the two black figures in front of her. I throw the battered pipe at the nearest officer, then stumble after it. The pipe bounces harmlessly off the hard, black armour, but before I can think what to do next, Aleesha explodes from between the two officers.
“Run!” She grabs my arm and pulls me around. My foot catches on something and I lurch forward. A bullet cuts through the air where my head had been a second earlier.
The narrow passageway is two paces away. Aleesha disappears into it, swallowed up by the darkness. I misjudge the width of the opening, overshoot it and grab for the edge of the wall.
Another shot. Something thuds into my shoulder and an electric shock jolts my arm, causing it to spasm and throw me off balance. My shoulder smashes into the wall and a burning pain shoots down my arm as I stumble into the narrow gap between the tall buildings.
Aleesha’s voice comes from up ahead. I scramble blindly in the darkness toward it, running my hands along the concrete walls.
The passageway opens up and I let my left arm fall to my side. I trail my fingers along the right wall, feeling the smoothness of Plexiglas windows.
The bright beam of a flashlight slices through the darkness of the passageway and bounces off the walls. I emerge into an old-fashioned light well between tall office buildings, barely three metres across. Ahead, the passageway turns a corner, and Aleesha stands at the bend, face flushed and eyes wide.
I press my back against the wall as a knife whistles through the air in front of me. There’s a clatter and the light goes out.
The darkness seems even blacker. Aleesha’s hand grabs mine, pulling me forward. I follow her blindly, my arm outstretched to ward off any obstacle.
My foot catches on something and I lurch forward, falling to the ground, my hand slipping from Aleesha’s grasp. Pain shoots from my right kneecap, and I bite my lip to stifle my whimper of pain.
“Come on! They’ll start shooting soon.”
As if on cue, another flashlight shines down the light well. It comes to rest on me, and I drop flat to the ground as a bullet shoots through the spot where my chest had been seconds before.
I look up. I’m just a few metres from the turn in the passageway. A few metres from safety.
Aleesha’s face appears around the corner of the wall and she mouths something at me. Words of encouragement perhaps. I squirm forward on my belly, feet scrabbling to push me forward.
Bullets thud into the ground around me. Aleesha reaches out and grabs my belt, yanking me behind the shelter of the wall. I lie with my face pressed to the dusty ground, gasping for breath.
I push myself up and follow Aleesha’s gaze. The flashlight reflects off the office windows, providing enough light for us to see the concrete wall ahead of us. A dead end. I swallow, tasting the iron-tang of blood in my mouth.
“I’m okay. Just banged my knee.” I heave myself into a sitting position and examine my shoulder. The fabric of my top is torn, and my finger comes away wet with blood. I look away and roll my shoulder experimentally. “They shot me … but it felt like I was being electrocuted?”
“Stun bullets.” Aleesha picks up a small cylinder and holds it up to the light. “They’re designed to shock you. Like a taser but in a bullet. They’re pretty nasty.” She glances at my shoulder. “How did you get it off you?”
I squint at the object held neatly between her fingers. It looks like a tiny electronic device encased in clear plastic, with a set of spikes at one end. “My shoulder hit the wall. I guess it must have ripped it out?” I shudder and swallow down the nausea that rises in my throat, trying not to think about the blood trickling down my arm.
Aleesha nods approvingly. “Good. If you’d have tried to pull it out, the shock would have been worse. You’d most likely not have made it into the passageway.”
I lean back against the wall and close my eyes. The throbbing in my knee is fading to a dull ache. “I guess it’s too much to hope for that they’ll just go away?”
I can almost feel the look she’s giving me.
“They’re not trying to kill us at least. Otherwise they’d have used proper bullets. They want us alive.”
“Great. That makes me feel so much better.”
Aleesha ignores my sarcasm. I feel her shift beside me. There’s a soft tapping sound. “The lower windows are proper glass. Breakable. Not like Plexiglas.”
There’s a sound like a child’s rattle followed by a small thud as something hits the ground on the other side of the skylight.
Why are they throwing things a—
There’s a blinding flash of light and the air is sucked from my lungs as a deafening blast reverberates in the narrow space. I try to draw a breath, but the air is more dust than oxygen and my lungs spasm in protest. Spots of light dance in front of my eyes and there’s a loud ringing in my ears.
Aleesha’s hand closes over mine and tugs me forward. I crawl obediently toward her, gasping as my knees grind into the hard surface and tiny daggers bite into my hands.
I blink and the spots of light fade. A steady beam of light reflects off the thousands of tiny shards of glass scattered on the ground. The bottom windows are ringed with glass teeth, the panes shattered by the explosion.
Aleesha is already inside the building, beckoning to me and mouthing silent words. I scramble through the window, not caring that shards of glass tear at my clothes and skin, and drop down into the room beyond. Aleesha pulls me forward and we half stagger, half run out of the room and into a long corridor. A high-pitched wailing noise intrudes on the ringing in my ears.
At the foot of a flight of stairs, Aleesha pauses. There’s a sign on the wall indicating we’re in the basement. “Up!” she mouths and points at the ceiling.
I pause on the ground floor but Aleesha keeps on going up, taking the stairs two at a time. Panting, I follow, struggling to keep up. She pauses for breath on the third floor.
“Where are you going?” My words sound muffled as if I’m underwater. I rest my hands on my knees and gulp in air.
“To the roof. They won’t expect us to go there.”
The roof? “Is there a way out there?”
Her teeth flash white in the dark. “I hope so.”
“You hope so?”
But she’s right. A trapdoor leads up onto the roof and we soon find a way back down a fire escape to a different street. The Metz are nowhere to be seen.
We reach the Wall, a shimmer of colour that stretches into the clouds. The patterns are constantly changing and shifting, like the swirling water in the brook that runs through the forest beside my family’s home in the Welsh countryside. I push the thought to the back of my mind. Thinking of the house, of my family, is still too painful.
Aleesha runs straight through the Wall, barely pausing for breath, but I hesitate, reaching out a hand toward it. Why am I nervous? I’ve been through it so many times. But we still don’t know why Aleesha and I are the only people who can pass through unharmed. Everyone else dies almost instantly.
I was always taught that the Wall was there to protect us. That inside it, we were safe. That was before I discovered I was an illegal child, my birth covered up by the man I thought was my father. Before the Metz came for me that fateful day at school. Before I cut out my chip and threw away my identity. Before I went on the run.
Now I know that nowhere is really safe. Insiders and Outsiders, we’re both at the mercy of the government.
I take a deep breath and step through the barrier. There’s no resistance, just a slight tingling.
Then I’m through. Outside.
* * *
It doesn’t take us long to weave through the streets of Area Five and reach the back alley to Abby’s house. Light glows from the kitchen window, but the blind is pulled down, obscuring the scene inside. An overwhelming sense of relief makes me stumble on the cracked paving stones and I sag against the wall of the house for a moment and close my eyes.
We made it.
The back door is unlocked. As I push it open, a stench of dirt, sweat and something else hits the back of my throat and I cough violently, my eyes watering.
What on earth?
The kitchen is in chaos. A bare-chested man lies prone on the kitchen table, which is covered with plastic sheeting. His hands grip the table edge and his eyes are squeezed shut. The hairs on his chest shine wet in the light and a deep wound on his stomach leaks fresh blood.
“There you are, Trey. Can you come and give me a hand?”
I tear my eyes from the man to look at Abby. She’s pouring water from the kettle into a large bowl. Her long dark hair is loosely tied back, and her olive skin is creased with worry lines.
I walk over and take the bowl from her. Jars full of pastes and ointments are neatly lined up on the counter. Healing remedies from the few ancient books on herblore Abby’s collected over the years, or those she’s learned to trust. It’s a far cry from the sterile, mechanical environment of the medic centres where bots carry out delicate surgical procedures and drugs can heal almost instantly. But, as Abby keeps reminding me, the medic facilities out here are overrun and not everyone can access them.
“Wash your hands. Then put some gloves on and start trying to clean up this gentleman’s wound.” She points to a pile of neatly folded white fabric and then to the man on the table. “Aleesha – please put more water on to boil. Bryn? How are you doing over there?”
It’s only then I notice that there are other people in the small room. A pale-faced woman sits in the rocking chair, clutching a small child to her. The boy appears to be asleep. Next to her, Bryn’s busy wrapping a white gauze bandage around the head of an elderly man whose eyes are glazed over. Another two people wait in line for treatment, slumped against the wall.
I walk over to the table, rest the bowl on the edge and pull on thin plastic gloves.
“What happened?” Aleesha asks. There’s an edge to her voice and I wonder if she knows these people. If they’re from Area Four.
“The Metz have been taking a heavy-handed approach again. There was a bust-up a few streets away, plus things in Four are so bad, Amber’s had to send a couple of people up here to get patched up.” She brushes back her hair with the back of her hand and sighs. “It’s been a busy day.”
I dip a cloth in the warm water and dab cautiously at the man’s chest. He lets out a moan. When I rinse the cloth in the bowl, it tinges the water pink. I swallow hard and force myself to look at the wound on his stomach. The raw gaping flesh moves as he breathes, revealing what looks like a giant worm.
Is that his intestine?
A wave of nausea washes over me and the room seems to shift sideways. I close my eyes but that doesn’t get rid of the smell. It reminds me of another place. Another man. Mikheil.
“Trey? Are you okay? You look about to faint.”
The room swims back into focus. Aleesha is staring at me, concern in her eyes.
“I-I just …” I make it to the sink just in time. My eyes burn as I retch, and the smell of vomit mingles with the stink in the room, making my stomach heave again. I close my eyes and force myself to take a couple of deep breaths.
Behind me, there’s a faint splash as Aleesha takes over my washing duties. Abby walks over to her. “Once the wound’s clean, smear this inside. It’ll help stop infection. Then I’ll stitch it up. If he starts screaming, give him a bit of this on his tongue.”
“Tronk? You’re giving him tronk?” Aleesha’s voice sounds strangled.
“Just a bit, for the pain. And to sedate him while I stitch up the wound.”
Aleesha doesn’t reply. I glance back at her. She’s staring at a small packet of white powder on the table. Her eyes are hungry. They dart to me and I look away, wondering if Abby would have handed her the tronk so willingly if she’d known about Aleesha’s addiction.
“Here, drink this.” Abby shoves a cup into my hand. I rinse my mouth and take a couple of sips before using the rest to wash out the sink.
She pats me gently on the back. “It’s okay. Why don’t you and Bryn go into the front room for a bit? I can manage fine with Aleesha. Besides, you two need to talk. You’ve been tip-toeing around each other for too long.”
Bryn growls from the other side of the room. “Abby, it’s—”
Abby gives him a silencing look. I stumble from the kitchen, grateful for any excuse to get away. The air in the hallway is comparatively fresh and I gulp it in, trying to shake the nausea.
Bryn pushes past me into the small front room. He seems angry, but then he always seems angry around me. Like he wants to be rid of me. The son he never knew he had.
The room is dark and sparsely furnished. There’s a blanket on the sofa where Bryn has been sleeping. He turns to face me, his hands on his hips.
“What trouble have you two been getting into now?”
“W-w-what do you mean?” I bite my lip. Damn that stammer.
“You come in with a limp, covered in dirt and with blood on your hands. I hardly think you got that from walking in the park.”
“It’s none of your business.” The words come out sharper than I’d intended and Bryn’s eyes narrow.
Though we’re the same height, his hefty build makes it feel as if he’s looming over me. For a moment, his outline is silhouetted against the lamp in the corner of the room. Then he sighs, rubs one hand over his eyes and sits down on the sofa. “I’m sorry, Trey. It’s just, I worry about you, you know? I promised your parents I’d take care of you.”
I perch on a high-backed chair. Your parents. To him, I’m still the pathetic Insider boy who he’s been lumbered with the job of looking after. If everything had gone the way he and my father had planned, I’d be up at a school in Birmingham, banished from London by the government, and he’d have been able to forget I exist. Instead, I’m still here, a lingering reminder of an old affair.
My father. I still can’t think of Bryn as my father. My genes may be his, and my blond hair and blue eyes come from him, but my father is still the tall, dark-haired man who brought me up. The man who I always failed to please, but who I know loved me as if I were his own flesh and blood.
I wonder if it hurts Abby too, now she knows the truth. She never had the opportunity to have children, never found the man to love her as she deserved. If it hadn’t been for my mother, perhaps her and Bryn’s story would have been different.
“I couldn’t just leave. Not now I know how wrong things are in this city. If I went away it would be like I was burying my head in the sand, as if I was accepting that it was okay for the government to treat Outsiders like … like they don’t matter.”
Bryn snorts. “Oh, to be young and idealistic.” He sighs. “I was like that once.”
We sit in silence for a moment. “You know, you don’t have to stay in London because of me,” I say. “Don’t let me stop you from going back home. Where is home anyway?”
He yawns. “I’ve never really had one. Always been too busy moving around, working. But I had my eye on a little place up in the mountains in the south of France. It’s cooler up there in the summer and quiet – not many people around. I figured it would be a peaceful kind of retirement. Anyway, I may be able to leave soon. Now Lamar’s replacement’s arrived.”
I sit up straight. “Milicent’s replacement?”
“Lamar’s replacement. Milicent was never supposed to take charge.”
The door bangs open and Aleesha walks in. “Abby needs a hand moving the big dude, Bryn,” she says without preamble.
“Sure.” Bryn gets to his feet.
“Wait, who is he?”
“Who is who?” Aleesha looks from Bryn to me.
“Lamar’s replacement,” I say.
“Her name is Katya. She’s Russian,” Bryn says, as if that explains everything.
“And …” I prompt.
“And she seems competent enough. The Leader trusts her implicitly.”
There’s a “but” hanging in the air. Aleesha senses it too. She folds her arms, blocking the doorway. “So, what’s the problem?”
“No problem.” Bryn shrugs. “She’s a beautiful woman. And I never trust beautiful women.”
Aleesha rolls her eyes. “You never trust anyone.”
“You can talk.” He glares at her and Aleesha meets his gaze defiantly. “Anyway, she wants to see both of you tomorrow afternoon. Now, are you going to let me give Abby a hand or are we going to stand here chatting all night?”
Aleesha steps aside to let Bryn past, then leans against the door frame. “Who do you think the person is behind all this? The one they call the Leader?”
I shrug. “Don’t know. I can’t even work out how big the Chain is. From what Bryn and Murdoch have said, they’ve people in different cities all over the world.”
“Bryn knows, doesn’t he?”
“I think so. He seems to be the only one here who’s actually met him face to face. Maybe he’s a recluse.”
I forget sometimes that Aleesha’s vocabulary is limited. She’s smart, but never went to school. “A recluse. Someone who hides away from the world.”
She looks thoughtful. “Maybe that would explain why he doesn’t just come here and sort things out himself.”
“Maybe.” I stand and prod my knee experimentally. It’s sore, but sound.
“Trey, how do we know that what the Chain is doing is right?”
I walk over to her. “They say they want to create an equal city. Take down the divide between Insiders and Outsiders.”
“Do you believe them?”
I sigh and stare into her brown eyes. They have flecks of green that I’ve never noticed before. “I guess we just have to trust them and believe they’re doing the right thing. You’ve got to believe in something, after all.”
“What do you believe in, Trey?”
I consider the question for a minute. “Justice. Trying to right the wrongs of the past.”
“Justice.” Aleesha rolls the word around in her mouth as if it’s new to her. Perhaps it is. “It’s a good word.” Then she turns and disappears back into the kitchen.
The grey light of dawn filters through the small bedroom window. Beside me, Trey’s breathing is light and even. He insisted on me taking the bed, even though I’m used to sleeping on the floor without even a mattress for comfort. I roll over to look at him. His hair’s all mussed up, framing his pale face. He looks so peaceful as he sleeps, like a child who knows he is safe. Did I feel like that once? Maybe a long time ago.
I push the blanket aside and crawl to the end of the bed, then tiptoe over to the window. I crane my neck to see past the back yards of the houses to the end of the alleyway. No sign of Metz officers. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
It was late by the time we finished treating the injured people last night and I’d been about to leave when Bryn had stopped me. “There are Metz stationed at the end of the road and the back alley,” he’d said. “It may just be coincidence or the fact that we’ve had all these people traipsing in and out, but we can’t risk them seeing you. You’ll have to stay here tonight.”
To tell the truth, I was glad to stay. A hot meal and a warm room to sleep in? I’ll take that any day. Though it felt strange to share a room with Trey, even if I was on the bed and he was on a thin mattress on the floor. It took us both a while to fall asleep.
I dress then crawl back over the bed and leave the room. There’s no noise from behind Abby’s door and only a duet of snoring from the front room downstairs. The man with the stomach wound had been in too bad a condition to send away last night. I can’t see him surviving unless Abby can work some miracle. I’ve seen wounds like that before and they usually mean a slow, painful death.
I slip out the back door and pad silently down the alleyway. But there are no Metz around and the streets of Area Five are quiet as I weave through them and cross the unmarked boundary into Four.
My hand moves automatically to the knife pocket in my trousers before I remember that I’d lost both of them last night in the fight with the Metz. Without my knives, I feel almost naked. Area Four is a dangerous place, and while I can defend myself hand to hand, my size and weight work against me. I need to find a blade, preferably more than one, soon.
But knives mean money. Chits. Which is why I duck into a narrow alley opposite a row of boarded-up shops to wait for the city to awake.
After half an hour, a light goes on in an apartment above a disused kebab shop. I know that apartment well. Lived there for most of the past two years, until a few weeks ago. My belly twists and I feel the smouldering fire within me, so quick to leap into flames. Anger. Hurt. Betrayal.
I lean back against the rough wall.
Calm down. This isn’t helping.
But the more I tell myself to calm down, the stronger the fire burns.
Two silhouettes appear at the bedroom window. They move into the other room and I lose sight of them in the dim light. I hesitate, wondering if I should go now or wait until she’s gone. I’d rather not have to see her, but if they both leave, then I’m screwed. And I really do need those chits. They’ll still be there – even Jay didn’t know about my secret stash under the floor.
I wait until the bedroom light goes off and my emotions are once again under control. But as I step out from the shelter of the alleyway, the sight of a figure walking up the road makes me freeze.
I pull back, my heart racing. He’s a big man, as tall and muscular as the biggest Insider, but he moves smoothly, almost gliding up the street. His black clothing is standard. The dark dreadlocks that hang to his waist are anything but.
Part of me still wonders if I’d imagined his presence in the President’s room. Perhaps it was a hallucination. I’d been pretty beaten up by the guards, after all. But the smell that lingered in the room was so distinctive. And when Trey had told me that the President seemed to know that he had been in the building, despite not being caught on any of the cameras, I had been sure. Because who else could have told the President but Samson?
Which begs the question, why was the Brotherhood, the most feared of all Outsider gangs, doing business with the government?
The man pauses at the door leading into the apartment block. His body blocks the keypad entry system, but a moment later he pushes the door open and steps inside. I lean back against the wall. More waiting.
Ten minutes later, the door opens again, and Samson walks out. He doesn’t even glance in my direction but heads off down the street.
Checking up on Jay, huh?
I wait another five minutes and am about to move out when a rustling behind me makes me instinctively duck to one side. A heavy hand lands on my shoulder and spins me around.
“Aleesha. Fancy meeting you here.”
The whites of his eyes are bright, locking me in his gaze. I feel like a rat in the flashlight of a hungry hobie. That smell again – sweet wood and needled trees – tickles my nostrils.
He glances around, checking we’re not being watched. “Come. I need to speak with you.”
His hand clamps around my arm. I stumble unwillingly after him.
If only I had a knife. Then I’d show him that just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t bite.
He drags me down the trash-filled alley until we reach a warped metal door. He kicks it in and pushes me in front of him into a dark room. It’s empty apart from a water container and a pile of rags, and stinks of urine. The only light that filters in is from the door.
Samson releases my arm but remains standing between me and the door.
“Why are you working for the government?” The words spill from my lips.
Samson raises an eyebrow. “With, not for. Why do you think?”
His response throws me. I thought he was dragging me in here to beat me up, or to question me some more about the Chain.
“Because you’re one of them?” I hazard a guess. “An Insider.”
He chuckles. “I may have been once but not anymore.” We stand in silence for a moment, and I sense he’s weighing up how much to tell me. Finally, he continues. “As you seem to have worked out, we – the Brotherhood, that is – are working with the government. For the benefit of Outsiders.” He holds up a hand to forestall my protests. “Just listen to me. I know this divide in the city isn’t right. The Wall, Outsiders being treated as second-class citizens, it’s all wrong. But the Chain are going about it the wrong way. If they manage to take down the government then all they’ll replace it with is another dictatorship. Or they’ll create a war, pitting Insiders against Outsiders. Do you really want that?”
“So what do you want?”
“I want what’s best for everyone. Insiders and Outsiders. And at the moment that means stopping Outsiders killing each other.”
“Says the man who’s killed half the gang leaders in this part of the city.” I fold my arms. “For someone who’s trying to save Outsiders, you’re doing a pretty good job of bumping them off.”
He tenses and takes a step forward, his bulk silhouetted against the pale grey light. “I thought you would understand. But if you’re not even going to let me speak, then—”
I flinch and take a step backward. “No, go on.”
There’s a moment of silence. “The death of some of the gang leaders was unavoidable. They were so focused on fighting each other that they didn’t realize who the real enemy was. Besides, the number of deaths from gang-related fights across Area Four has halved in the past month. The death of a few idiots can save many.”
Is he right? I’ve got no way of knowing. I don’t know of anyone who keeps track of deaths. Probably only the government, and I doubt they know half of what goes on Outside. Most bodies end up in the river rather than the official crematorium.
“We need a long-term solution, Aleesha. The government is open to change, but they need to see that Outsiders can work together – that they’re capable of more than just fighting each other. All their attempts to improve education and healthcare have failed. The facilities have been attacked and people are now too scared to work there. The government want a solution to this as much as you or me, and they’re willing to put some resources forward if we show we’re willing to help them.”
He sounds confident. Passionate even. I shake my head. “You’re wrong. If the government want to stop fighting and killing, then why are there so many more Metz patrols now? The number of gang murders may have fallen but more people are dying at their hands.”
“Because the Chain have been inciting rebellion. They’re not bringing Outsiders together, they’re spreading dissent. They don’t care how many Outsider deaths it takes to win, and believe me, if you try to take on the Metz, it will take a lot!”
“So you think we should just lie down and let them walk all over us?” My voice echoes in the empty space. I take a deep breath, trying to control my rising anger.
Samson walks forward and grips my shoulders. His closeness suffocates me, and I feel lightheaded.
“No, I don’t,” he says tightly. “But if you – if we – attack them, they’ll only attack back. And they have the bigger army. They’re always going to win. We need to make them see that Outsiders aren’t the stupid, violent people they believe them to be. That they can be valuable to society rather than being a burden.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” I whisper. His fingers dig into the thin layer of flesh on my bones and his scent fills my nostrils, making my head spin.
White teeth flash. “If they don’t take us seriously? Well, that would be their mistake. When you invite a viper into your home, you’d better treat it nicely. Because the viper watches and listens and learns. And if you don’t play fair, the viper will bite.” His teeth snap shut and my heart jumps.
“So why are you telling me this?” My voice trembles and I wish, I really wish, he’d let go of me. His strength radiates through his hands and I feel as if he could just pick me up and crush me in an instant.
“Because you care about what happens to these people. The Chain say they’re working for Outsiders, but they don’t know what it’s like to be right at the bottom of the food chain.” He takes a deep breath. “And, unlike many Outsiders, I don’t believe you want to harm Insiders. You lied to the President to save the boy.”
“That doesn’t mean I like Insiders,” I mutter under my breath.
“I can protect you. I can get the government off your back. If you help me take down the Chain. You may think they’re doing the right thing. I’m sure their lies are pretty convincing. But their motives are twisted – right at the top. They aren’t seeking justice. They’re seeking revenge.”
He lets go of me and I stumble backward. I can still feel the imprint of his fingers on my skin.
“What do you mean?”
“Figure it out, Aleesha. You have all the pieces of the puzzle. You just need to put them together.”
But he is gone. Disappeared out of the door as silently as he’d snuck up on me. Leaving me wondering what the hell just happened.
* * *
I pace the rooftop. Forty paces by thirty. The corrugated iron roof of the small building in the centre rattles in the wind. Lily had thought it a monster the first night she’d spent up here. The things kids dream up.
I scowl at the building and flex my fingers. What I would give to have my throwing knives back. At least then I’d have something to focus on. The wooden beam that runs along the side of the building is notched from years of practice. I can hit it from twenty paces, right in the centre.
Dropping to the floor, I start doing press-ups. Ten full ones. Then sit-ups. Twenty of those. Ten press-ups. Twenty sit-ups. I switch between the two methodically. Grey dust on the rooftop. Grey clouds in the sky.
My breath comes in gasps and my arms begin to weaken. Come on, two more. The muscles on the backs of my arms tremble. I lower down so my nose almost touches the ground then push up again. I make it half way before my arms buckle.
Panting, I roll over and stare up at the sky. Where can I get a knife? I’ve used up all the favours I was owed. Snakes’ headquarters? There are always some spares lying around there. I sit up and lean forward, resting my chin on my knees. I could go to the gang headquarters. I’m sure someone would let me in, even though I don’t know this week’s password.
But I know I won’t. I don’t want to see the thoughts written so clearly on their faces.
My stomach spasms. I look down and realize I’m grinding my knuckles into the ground.
I guess they know now I’m illegal. Even Jay. Now my face is on the screens, branded as a criminal, he can’t have missed it. I wonder how he feels about having sheltered me for the past two years. The penalty for sheltering an illegal person is almost as harsh as the penalty for being one.
My gut twists again, and there’s a bitter taste at the back of my mouth. A raindrop hits my forehead, trickling down to the end of my snub nose. It’s followed by another and a gentle patter starts up.
I push myself up and walk over to the sheltered side of the building where the roof juts out. Even the strongest rains don’t reach to the back, but my few possessions are wrapped in a waterproof cloth, just in case. I slump down beside them and unlace my boots, pulling them off to let my feet breathe.
You have all the pieces of the puzzle.
What had Samson meant? I frown, trying to remember what else he’d said. That the Chain weren’t seeking justice, but revenge. But aren’t they the same thing?
What does he expect me to be? A mind reader?
Perhaps I should have told him about what Trey and I had found in the government papers. That the government had caused all this; that they were still poisoning Outsiders. Perhaps then he wouldn’t be so keen to take their side. But I’m not sure I trust him that much.
I lean my head back against the rough brick wall. There’s just too much to think about. And my survival depends on figuring out who’s telling the truth. If any of them are.
Is that all you want? To survive?
I swirl my finger, making patterns in the dust at my feet. A couple of weeks ago survival would have been enough. But now? Now, I’m not so sure.
You’re just like your mother. So passionate.
That’s what he’d said. I can still scarcely believe it. The President of Britannia – the most powerful man in the country – knew my mother. Went to school with her. Friends, perhaps … It must have been an expensive school, for the President to have been there.
How she had fallen. From a rich Insider to struggling with a young child in a mouldy one-room basement apartment in Area Four. All because of me. Because for some reason, she couldn’t register my birth and make me a legal citizen.
Because of him.
That’s what the President had said. He had blamed my father for her death. And he knew who he was. He knew!
And still, I don’t. My father is a mystery to me. A codename on a file. LC100.
I untie the thin cord that’s fastened around my ankle and hold it up to the light. The amulet hangs down. Green glass with an outlined pattern in a bronze coloured metal. I try to remember what Trey had called it. There was a special name for it. A tri … triquetra, that was it. Apparently, it was some kind of religious symbol. Is my father a religious man? I struggle to believe it.
I twist it over and over in my fingers. It is the only part of him I have. And the only part of her. A gift from my father to my mother before I was born. She had given it to me on the day she left the flat. The day she’d gone to meet him. The day she’d died.
Why did you leave me, Mama? Why not take me with you to see him?
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find out the truth about what happened that day. The truth about him.
I turn to the brick wall and gently ease out the loose block to retrieve the lockbox hidden inside. It rattles as I pull it out and I quickly open it. A single chit. I sigh. One chit won’t get me very far.
I run my finger around the inside of the box. It picks up a white residue. Before I can stop myself, I bring my finger to my lips and lick it off.
Ah. The trace of tronk is barely enough for a glimpse of the happiness it brings. Like a flicker of a beautiful bird at the edge of your vision, so fast that by the time you turn to look, it has gone.
I wipe at the saliva pooling at the corners of my mouth and rummage inside the hole in the wall. Perhaps I’d stashed some away somewhere for this very occasion. But all I find is brick dust and rubble.
The voice in my head starts up again. The annoying little voice I thought I’d got rid of.
It would be so nice just to have a few hours of peace. To escape the world.
I curl my knees up to my chest and bang my head back against the wall. I am stronger than this. Tronk is bad. Besides, I made a promise. And I don’t have any. There’s no point in wanting something I don’t have.
But every fibre in me wants it. Craves it. My fingers curl into claws and the three points of the triquetra dig into my palm.
Abby. Abby has tronk. For medical use.
I could take some. She wouldn’t know.
No. I made a promise. A promise to Lily.
But Lily isn’t here anymore.
A sharp pain shoots up my arm and I realize I’ve been clawing at the brick wall. Another broken nail. A drop of blood wells up and I suck on it, my mouth twisting at the sour metallic tang.
I must be strong. I’d seen the look of disappointment that Trey had given me last night. Like I was going to let him down again, that I would be too weak to resist the temptation.
I can be strong. For him. And for Lily.
I force myself to stand and walk over to the crumbling parapet. The rain on my face provides a little distraction. Enough to think of something else. I open my hand and look down at the amulet.
I’d always hoped he was a rich Insider, that he’d make me a legal citizen and give me a better life. A normal life.
“Who are you?”
But of course, the amulet doesn’t answer.
It’s a cruel thing, hope. It keeps you going, until one day it crumbles. And all you’re left with is despair.