The thought barely forms when hands reach out from shadows at the side of the road and grab my arm.
My instant reaction is to spin and kick, but car lights come the other way. He lets go of me as light sweeps over us, and confirm the only conclusion: it is Wayne.
Wayne, but he has changed. His face, never a picture, is worse: an angry scar runs from his eye and into his scalp, hair missing around it that isn’t growing back.
‘Pretty, ain’t I?’ he says, reading my face.
‘What do you want?’ I say, stalling. Reminding myself that he doesn’t remember: that is what Amy said was going round at the doctor’s surgery. He has traumatic amnesia. He doesn’t remember who beat him up. Unless seeing me brings it back?
Another car passes.
‘I think you know.’
Every instinct screams run, get away. ‘Tell me,’ I say.
He raises his eyebrows and one, trapped by the scar, looks like it splits in half. ‘Just this. Keep looking over your shoulder, honey, because one day, somewhere lonely, I’ll be there.’
He winks and I realise one eye is false; it looks the wrong way.
‘Later,’ he says. Walks back to his van. Gets in, starts the engine and drives up the road. Gives the horn a double tap ‘toot toot’ before he disappears from sight.
My knees are shaking so much I have to stop, and lean against a tree. I look at my hands: so much damage they caused. Nico’s training brought out in danger. It was self-defence, yes, but all I can see is the blood. His head soaked with blood. I breathe in and out, fight not to be sick.
And Wayne remembers. He knows it was me who did that to him, yet he hasn’t told the authorities. He wants to deal with me himself.
I shiver and start moving again, walking then running. Let’s face it: terrifying as he is, Wayne isn’t the worst bogeyman in my closet. There are so many threats to look for over my shoulder, I should install a wing mirror to keep them all in sight.
The bright lights and smiles of Group don’t lift the chill. I’m still shivering when Mum picks me up at the end.
‘See. I told you it was too cold to run. You should listen to your mother.’
Honk, honk! Car horns are loud in my ears. But the traffic is stopped. They’re not going anywhere, and I yell at the bus driver: move, do something! I know what is going to happen, but he can’t hear me.
There is a whistling noise, a flash, a BANG that rattles into my bones, sends me sprawling, but there is no way to get away. The side of the bus is splintered, folded in on itself.
There is screaming from inside; bloody hands beat on windows. Flames lick the back of the bus.
A pause. Another whistle, flash, explosion.
Opposite the bus a sign hangs on a pole, half dislodged – from some stray bit of shrapnel? The building behind is untouched.
The sign says London Lorder Offices.
Heart beating wildly, eyes finally open, I’m shaking: a blanket in my mouth to stop a scream.
A Free UK attack gone wrong. A face floats into view: Dr Craig. Why? What has he got to do with this?
Katran would do anything to strike at the Lorders. So would I! Determination clenches tight, inside. But not that. I couldn’t do that.
Something went wrong when that bus was hit – it was a mistake.
Was I there? Everything says yes – the details, the sounds, the smells – so real, so clear.
I’ve had this dream a few times before. In one version, Mum’s son Robert and his girlfriend were on the bus. But it happened over six years ago: I was ten years old! I couldn’t have been there; it doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t even with Katran and the Owls until I was fourteen.
Yet I must have done things like this in the past. That must be why the details are so real, so clear. Then, when I was one of the Owls, I would do anything to strike at the Lorders. I was strong.
I will be strong again.
I can do anything.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
* * *
Nico draws me into his school office the next day at lunch. Locks the door behind us.
‘I have a job for you,’ he says, and holds up a small envelope. ‘Plant this someplace your mum will find it, where no one else will see. But not until tomorrow afternoon.’
I reach out my hand, grasp the envelope.
‘Aren’t you going to ask what it is?’
I hesitate, shake my head. ‘No. Because you were right.’
‘I’m always right, but about what in particular?’ His face quirks.
‘About Mum. She is a Lorder tool. No matter her private leanings, if she is a willing symbol for them, she is a target for us.’
Nico’s eyes glow warm. He smiles. ‘But you were also right.’
‘In telling me about her son, Robert. There is a chance we can use this. If we can get her to come out publicly on our side – even better.’
I look down at the envelope in my hand. ‘And this?’
‘You could say it is an invitation.’
A sealed invitation, I notice as I hide it away in my bag for delivery tomorrow.
In classes I turn things over in my mind. So after all my hardened resolutions – my commitment to do anything – has Nico found a way out for me? He cares. He doesn’t want to hurt me, he believed me when I said Mum doesn’t support the Lorders. He’s finding another way.
At the end of the day Jazz drives Amy and me to Mac’s – a visit planned earlier this week. I’d forgotten it with everything else. The promised meeting with Aiden so he can update me on Ben.
When Jazz and Amy go for a walk, I find Aiden in the back room.
He doesn’t say a word, just looks at me with his intense blue eyes, until I blink, turn away. ‘What is it?’ I ask.
‘I didn’t want to leave this. I wanted to tell you straight away. Yet now that you are in front of me, it’s hard.’
‘Has something happened to Ben?’ I say, panic suddenly filling inside.
‘No. Not as far as I know. But I’ve been looking into the boarding school he’s at. It doesn’t exist.’
‘What do you mean? We saw it.’
‘It is physically there. But if you look at the usual places schools exist, it doesn’t. It isn’t in any of the county or country educational databases. There is no information on it in any official channels.’
That stress on ‘official’. ‘What about unofficial?’
He hesitates. ‘This is more guesswork and rumour than anything else.’
‘All right. There may be some connection between that school and Lorders. You know how we saw agents at the training field? That wasn’t just some weird coincidence. They have a presence in that school.’
‘There are Lorders in my school sometimes, too. They go to Assembly, and seem to have an office there.’
‘Not like that. They are always about the place, and not just a few of them. The rumour is that there are some sort of experiments and training happening there, something new. And the students: there is something different about them as a group. They’re not your average mix. All of them: fit, healthy, tall. Athletic or with other skills that make them stand out.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I don’t really know. We’re curious to find out more if we can. But one thing I do know: it is far too dangerous for you to see Ben.’
I cross my arms and stare into space. Aiden pulls me close, a comforting arm across my shoulders. ‘You don’t seem as upset as I expected you to be.’
So many secrets: when is it right to share? I slump forward, head in hands, and sigh. ‘There is a reason for that.’
‘What is it?’
I straighten and face Aiden. Face the truth.
‘I’ve already been to see him.’
‘You know that canal we crossed in the van near the training field? I saw it out the back window. And somehow, I just knew: the Ben I knew would run there, early in the mornings. And he does.’
Aiden’s jaw drops. ‘Are you completely crazy?’
‘Nothing happened to me, did it?’
‘That isn’t the point.’ And Aiden looks angry, really angry. ‘I told you to wait until we found out more.’
‘You’re not my boss,’ I snap, then regret it. ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t wait.’
He pauses, gathers himself. Studies my face. ‘I take it this wasn’t a happy reunion, then,’ he says.
‘No. He didn’t know me. Not at all. At the time I thought he must have been re-Slated, though he is too old.’
‘At the time? What did you think after?’
‘I don’t know. It wasn’t right for that. For a start, I still knew him, what he is like, didn’t I? That he’d run there in the morning. And he wasn’t like a new Slated. Not all smiley and dopey. He was more…distant. Not like a Slated at all.’
‘Interesting. Did he have a Levo?’
‘His sleeves were too long to tell. What do you make of it?’
‘Well, a few things: he isn’t a prisoner there, is he? He is trusted to come and go, or he wouldn’t be running in the early morning alone.’
True. I cling onto that bit of good news.
‘And they are doing something else. Not Slating. Or at least, not as we know it. But to what purpose?’
He grips my hands, stares into my eyes. ‘Promise me, Kyla, that you will keep away from him. For now, at least. I’ll see what else we can find out.’
‘No buts. It is far too dangerous to go there with that degree of Lorder presence. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Neither would the Ben we knew.’
Ben: subject of some unknown Lorder experiment. He doesn’t remember me. At least he seemed fit, well. Not Slated-happy, but not miserable. Despite Coulson’s threat, they’re not likely to do anything to him because of me, are they? No matter how cruel, Lorders are rational. They won’t ruin an experiment just to get at me. He doesn’t know I know where Ben is: he could just tell me some other tale, and expect me to believe it. But there is nothing to gain by going to see him again. He still won’t know me.
‘All right,’ I say. ‘I promise.’
But no matter that logic tells me Ben is safe, at least for now, everything inside screams in fear for him. Who knows what is happening or is going to happen to him there?
Dr Lysander might know, or be able to find out. I’m meeting her tomorrow, our usual hospital appointment. But will she tell me?
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
* * *
The same Lorder stands guard outside Dr Lysander’s office while I wait. He stares straight ahead, expression blank. Whatever possessed him to wink at me the last time has clearly gone.
‘Come,’ Dr Lysander calls, and I escape inside, shut the door.
She watches me walk across the room, sit down. Her hands are folded in front of her, the computer shut. Something is up. Danger.
‘Good morning, Kyla,’ she says, finally. ‘How are you today?’
‘Fine. And you?’
She pauses. ‘I’m well, thank you. But I realised something after our last meeting. We’ve been playing cat and mouse, you and I.’
‘Am I the cat or the mouse?’ I quip, before sense can stop me.
‘You should be the mouse, but sometimes I’m not so sure. I want some answers, Kyla.’
‘I have questions, too.’
Annoyance wars with curiosity on her face. ‘All right,’ she says at last. ‘You ask one, and I will answer it; then it will be your turn. Deal?’
‘Deal,’ I say, though caution says it would be better for her to go first. I search for the words.
‘You remember Ben: Ben Nix. My friend,’ I say, and she inclines her head slightly. ‘I want to know what happened to him. Where he is now.’