I stare in wonder at Katran. Something of me, next to his heart? ‘Thanks,’ I say, and I slip it round my neck, under my clothes. A dread I cannot identify steals over me to feel it against my skin.
‘Time to go,’ he says, but he doesn’t move, and neither do I.
‘Take care tomorrow,’ I say. ‘Fight the good fight.’ Echoes of Nico whisper in my ears – die the good death. A shiver goes up my spine.
‘We’ll be all right, you and I,’ he says. Slow, uncertain, he holds out his hands. The violent hands of a killer; gentle hands, that comfort and protect. I move towards him, he holds me against him. His heart beats mad in his chest. ‘Go,’ he says in my ear, and gives me a little push away. ‘Try to be quiet this time.’
I walk off, and moments later hear the faint sounds of his bike.
Back in bed I hold the rook tight: are my hands the hands of a killer, too? Why is the rook so important? All I know of it is a happy dream memory, playing chess with my dad.
We run. He holds my hand, tight, like he will never let it go again.
But my legs are failing, my breath in such great gasps that my chest will surely burst, but still I can’t get enough air. Sand slips under my feet and still I run.
Until I fall. I trip, sprawl, and land on the beach hard, winded. No strength, nothing left.
‘Go!’ I push him away but he turns, holds me.
‘Never forget,’ he says. ‘Never forget who you are!’
And terror is closer. I can hear it, but I can’t look. He shields me but I twist and shield him, and my eyes are clenched shut tight. I can’t look, I can’t.
An echo inside of another time, another place. Midnight terrors, and a gentle voice: go on and look, Lucy. Face what scares you, and it will lose its power.
I open my eyes. But this time, it isn’t like under the bed. This fear is real.
Terror stares back. Wide, pale blue eyes gleam with death, and triumph.
I jump bolt upright in bed, heart thumping a painful beat against my ribs. Terror so real and strong the lights must come on, blankets pulled up to my chin, yet still I shake. Never in all the replays of that nightmare have I dared to open my eyes, and see what chases.
Only one man has eyes like that.
I curse the fear that woke me, so close to knowing…what?
Who was with me? What happened next?
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
* * *
‘How do I look?’ Cam does a model twirl in his suit. Mr Casual looks surprisingly good in a jacket and tie, but other things are on my mind.
I frown. ‘Your tie’s crooked. Stay home, Cam. You don’t want to come today.’ My eyes plead with him.
He straightens his tie in our hall mirror, faces me. ‘What’s up, Kyla?’ he asks. ‘Tell me.’
‘Nothing. But this will be boring as hell. You don’t have to come; run while you can.’
He looks thoughtful as if he can see there is something that I’m trying to hide. Half opens his mouth to say something else when Dad comes in from the lounge.
‘Aren’t you two a picture,’ he says.
I’d worn what I was told, without comment. A deep green dress – swishy, silky stuff – luckily with long sleeves. Fits well. Stupid shoes with heels not my footwear of choice on any day, but today speed might be useful and if so, they’ll have to come off. The cold feel of something round and deadly against my skin, strapped inside my arm.
‘Isn’t your mother ready yet?’
‘I’ll go see,’ I say, and climb the stairs. Knock on their bedroom door. ‘Mum?’
‘Come in,’ she says.
‘Are you all right?’
She shrugs, dabbing powder on her face. ‘I hate these ceremonies.’
‘Why? It honours your parents, grieves their loss to you and the country.’ I parrot the official line on Armstrong Memorial Day. Watch her closely.
‘I miss them both, so much. But today, here, I am a puppet on a string. This isn’t about my parents, or me. It’s about them.’
Her eyebrow quirks; she nods.
‘Maybe it’s time to cut the strings.’
She stares back. ‘Maybe,’ she finally says, and sighs. ‘If only it were that simple.’
‘Can’t you just tell how you feel. Tell the truth. Isn’t that always the right thing to do?’
‘Knowing what is right and wrong isn’t the end of it, Kyla. I’ve lived my life like this: cut the crap, cut the politics, keep out of it. Look after the people I care about who are here, now. Like you.’ She touches my cheek and a knife of pain twists, deep inside. ‘If only everybody did that.’
‘Maybe, sometimes, here and now aren’t as important as doing what is right. Maybe the people you care about will understand.’ And I know I’m pushing it, that she’ll start to wonder. But I can’t not say it.
She stares back. ‘Maybe.’
‘Car’s here,’ Dad calls from below.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘Time to dance.’
Cam walks us to our car. ‘It’s not too late to change your mind,’ I say to him.
‘Not a chance! I’ll see you there.’
Our limo is a state car, like Nico said it would be: flags on the bonnet. A Lorder motorcycle escort in front and behind. Dad is in happy mode as we set out, chatting with Amy. Mum is silent; her eyes are tired, drawn. A face that hasn’t slept well. A face that is grappling with decision.
Inside everything is pleading to her silently: tell the truth. Do it!
Don’t make me kill you.
We near the gates to Chequers, and next to the entrance is a black van. Lorder security. A wave of fear clenches inside: perhaps it ends here. They will haul me in, search me; find the gun and take me into custody. Surely Coulson would never let me through these doors without making sure, not when he suspects what is true. Not when he doesn’t know if I’ll stick to our bargain.
But then, like Nico said it would, our limo and escort sweep past the guards and straight through the lodge gates. Down Victory Drive: a gravel lane that sweeps round a lawn with a broken statue.
‘See that?’ Dad says. ‘Statue of the Greek goddess of health. Broken by vandals in the riots. They were found, brought here and executed at the site of their desecration; it is left as it was to remind us what we fought for.’
Executed, there: on the grass. For knocking over a statue? Lorders do these things. Resolve grows hard and cold inside.
We pull in front of the main doors. Guards open them, and we step through and into a stone hall. We follow an official to the Great Hall inside, and I catch my breath. The ceiling is so far above and the space huge, our footsteps small as we walk across it. Massive paintings hang on the walls: portraits of dead people watching on. A crackling fire burns in a white fireplace, two armchairs arranged to one side of it. Cameras and microphone set up show the speech will be here.
An official goes through the order of the day. First: at 1:10 pm, the moment the bomb went off killing her parents, Mum’s live televised speech. Only immediate family will be in attendance: Dad, Amy, me. Then our friends and family – Cam included – will be allowed in, and we’ll have tea. Second: new this year to commemorate twenty-five years since their deaths, the current Prime Minister addresses the nation, and a select crowd of dignitaries. This will be in the grounds of Chequers, us alongside him, at exactly 4 pm: the precise moment the treaty that ended the county riots was signed thirty years ago. Then I’m leaving with Cam, while Mum and Dad stay for an endless reception and then, later, dinner. Amy, crazy girl, chose to stay for that as well.
But things will never move beyond first, will they? One way or the other.
I stare up at the ceiling, so high above. Would a gunshot echo?
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ Mum says. ‘Yet it still felt like home. I used to love staying here. There’s a library so long you can play cricket in it.’
She winks. ‘I wasn’t much of a reader back then.’
We’re called to our places. Mum in one chair, Dad in another. Amy and I are to stand behind Mum, a hand each resting on her chair. Lights are checked, then sound; I’m checking things of my own.
Lorders. They are everywhere, but not too close so they stay out of screen shot. Not close enough to stop her speech if they think it is going wrong, but she’ll only have seconds before transmission is cut. I search their faces, convinced Coulson will be here, that he’ll stop this before it starts. But he’s not.
A girl darts forward and dabs Mum’s face with powder.
But if she doesn’t give the speech we want: what then?
My head is light. I look up again and feel as if I’m floating above the room; everything is crawling, each second – tick, tock – slowing.
If she doesn’t give the speech we want, then: I must slip my hand in my sleeve, pull the gun out? No. I’m next to her, no aiming needed. Hand in sleeve, grasp the gun. Shoot her through the sleeve; they won’t have a chance to see it, to stop me.
No. She’ll tell the truth. She will.
If she does…what then? Lorders are still here. Transmission stopped. Will they arrest her? Shoot her? I blink.
Nico said no. They wouldn’t dare, they’d have to do things legal and proper for a change, everyone would be watching how she was dealt with. And that if what she said is proven true there is no treason. That he’s finding Robert, and they’ll prove it is true.
Unless they react without thought, shoot her to stop her words before the transmission is cut. My stomach twists. The country would see them in action, see them for what they really are.
But if she doesn’t tell the truth… I try to reach for the cold resolve I felt earlier, hold it inside. Focus. Hand in sleeve; gun; shoot. I can do this. There will be blood. But not until I’ve done it, and what does it matter then if I flip out? With all the Lorders here I’ll be dead before I have a chance. We’ll both be dead.
‘Kyla?’ Amy pokes me in the side. ‘Smile.’
I compose my face. They’re counting down. A light comes on the camera, and then—
‘Twenty-five years ago today, there was a terrible tragedy with the deaths of William Adam M Armstrong, and his wife, Linea Jane Armstrong, at the hands of terrorists. Our nation lost its prime minister and his wife. I lost both my parents.
‘There was no accident to the timing on this day. November 26. Thirty years ago today the treaties were signed in this very room to form our Central Coalition Government. The government led by my father that ended the riots, that brought peace back to this country.
‘I am here before you with my family now, and I ask myself what my dad would say if he were here. What he would do.’
She pauses. There are little white cards clenched in her hands, held together. Not open.
I see the official behind the camera exchange a watchful look with another. She’s not on the prepared speech any more! Hope quickens inside.
‘Dad was a man of principle. He believed what he did was right, and he fought to make this country a safe place for his children, and his children’s children, at a time of chaos when that seemed an impossible dream. Yet he never knew his own grandson. A son I have also lost.’
She really is going to do it. Without thought my hand reaches forward to her shoulder. Mum’s hand reaches up, holds mine.
The official is whispering to a technician, listening, watchful.
‘One of my beautiful daughters reminded me today of what is important: to do what is right. To tell the truth. But the truth to me is this: it is time to stop focusing on past tragedies. We can’t go back, only forward. It is time for our country to focus on what is good: on what we can do for our children, and our children’s children.’