He felt for it delicately, listening all the while. The men were moving about downstairs, and Will could see a dim flicker of light that might have been a flashlight at the edge of the door.
Then he found the catch of the compartment and clicked it open, and there, just as he’d known it would be, was the leather writing case.
And now what could he do? He crouched in the dimness, heart pounding, listening hard.
The two men were in the hall downstairs. He heard one of them say quietly, “Come on. I can hear the milkman down the road.”
“It’s not here, though,” said the other voice. “We’ll have to look upstairs.”
“Go on, then. Don’t hang about.”
Will braced himself as he heard the quiet creak of the top step. The man was making no noise at all, but he couldn’t help the creak if he wasn’t expecting it. Then there was a pause. A very thin beam of flashlight swept along the floor outside. Will saw it through the crack.
Then the door began to move. Will waited till the man was framed in the open doorway, and then exploded up out of the dark and crashed into the intruder’s belly.
But neither of them saw the cat.
As the man had reached the top step, Moxie had come silently out of the bedroom and stood with raised tail just behind the man’s legs, ready to rub herself against them. The man, who was trained and fit and hard, could have dealt with Will, but the cat was in the way, and as the man tried to move back, he tripped over her. With a sharp gasp he fell backward down the stairs and crashed his head brutally against the hall table.
Will heard a hideous crack, and didn’t stop to wonder about it. Clutching the writing case, he swung himself down the banister, leaping over the man’s body that lay twitching and crumpled at the foot of the flight, seized the tattered tote bag from the table, and was out of the front door and away before the other man could do more than come out of the living room and stare.
Even in his fear and haste Will wondered why the other man didn’t shout after him, or chase him. They’d be after him soon, though, with their cars and their cell phones. The only thing to do was run.
He saw the milkman turning into the close, the lights of his electric cart pallid in the dawn glimmer that was already filling the sky. Will jumped over the fence into the next-door garden, down the passage beside the house, over the next garden wall, across a dew-wet lawn, through the hedge, and into the tangle of shrubs and trees between the housing estate and the main road. There he crawled under a bush and lay panting and trembling. It was too early to be out on the road: wait till later, when the rush hour started.
He couldn’t get out of his mind the crack as the man’s head struck the table, and the way his neck was bent so far and in such a wrong way, and the dreadful twitching of his limbs. The man was dead. He’d killed him.
He couldn’t get it out of his mind, but he had to. There was quite enough to think about. His mother: would she really be safe where she was? Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t tell, would she? Even if Will didn’t turn up as he’d said he would? Because he couldn’t, now that he’d killed someone.
And Moxie. Who’d feed Moxie? Would Moxie worry about where they were? Would she try to follow them?
It was getting lighter by the minute. It was light enough already to check through the things in the tote bag: his mother’s purse, the latest letter from the lawyer, the road map of southern England, chocolate bars, toothpaste, spare socks and pants. And the green leather writing case.
Everything was there. Everything was going according to plan, really.
Except that he’d killed someone.
Will had first realized his mother was different from other people, and that he had to look after her, when he was seven. They were in a supermarket, and they were playing a game: they were allowed to put an item in the cart only when no one was looking. It was Will’s job to look all around and whisper “Now,” and she would snatch a tin or a packet from the shelf and put it silently into the cart. When things were in there they were safe, because they became invisible.
It was a good game, and it went on for a long time, because this was a Saturday morning and the shop was full, but they were good at it and worked well together. They trusted each other. Will loved his mother very much and often told her so, and she told him the same.
So when they reached the checkout Will was excited and happy because they’d nearly won. And when his mother couldn’t find her purse, that was part of the game too, even when she said the enemies must have stolen it; but Will was getting tired by this time, and hungry too, and Mummy wasn’t so happy anymore. She was really frightened, and they went around and around putting things back on the shelves, but this time they had to be extra careful because the enemies were tracking them down by means of her credit card numbers, which they knew because they had her purse . . . .
And Will got more and more frightened himself. He realized how clever his mother had been to make this real danger into a game so that he wouldn’t be alarmed, and how, now that he knew the truth, he had to pretend not to be frightened, so as to reassure her.
So the little boy pretended it was a game still, so she didn’t have to worry that he was frightened, and they went home without any shopping, but safe from the enemies; and then Will found the purse on the hall table anyway. On Monday they went to the bank and closed her account, and opened another somewhere else, just to be sure. Thus the danger passed.
But sometime during the next few months, Will realized slowly and unwillingly that those enemies of his mother’s were not in the world out there, but in her mind. That made them no less real, no less frightening and dangerous; it just meant he had to protect her even more carefully. And from the moment in the supermarket when he had realized he must pretend in order not to worry his mother, part of Will’s mind was always alert to her anxieties. He loved her so much he would have died to protect her.
As for Will’s father, he had vanished long before Will was able to remember him. Will was passionately curious about his father, and he used to plague his mother with questions, most of which she couldn’t answer.
“Was he a rich man?”
“Where did he go?”
“Why did he go?”
“Is he dead?”
“Will he come back?”
“What was he like?”
The last question was the only one she could help him with. John Parry had been a handsome man, a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines, who had left the army to become an explorer and lead expeditions to remote parts of the world. Will thrilled to hear about this. No father could be more exciting than an explorer. From then on, in all his games he had an invisible companion: he and his father were together hacking through the jungle, shading their eyes to gaze out across stormy seas from the deck of their schooner, holding up a torch to decipher mysterious inscriptions in a bat-infested cave . . . . They were the best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night.
But the older he got, the more Will began to wonder. Why were there no pictures of his father in this part of the world or that, riding with frost-bearded men on Arctic sledges or examining creeper-covered ruins in the jungle? Had nothing survived of the trophies and curiosities he must have brought home? Was nothing written about him in a book?
His mother didn’t know. But one thing she had said stuck in his mind.
She said, “One day, you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps. You’re going to be a great man too. You’ll take up his mantle.”
And though Will didn’t know what that meant, he understood the sense of it, and felt uplifted with pride and purpose. All his games were going to come true. His father was alive, lost somewhere in the wild, and he was going to rescue him and take up his mantle . . . . It was worth living a difficult life, if you had a great aim like that.
So he kept his mother’s trouble secret. There were times when she was calmer and clearer than others, and he took care to learn from her then how to shop and cook and keep the house clean, so that he could do it when she was confused and frightened. And he learned how to conceal himself, too, how to remain unnoticed at school, how not to attract attention from the neighbors, even when his mother was in such a state of fear and madness that she could barely speak. What Will himself feared more than anything was that the authorities would find out about her, and take her away, and put him in a home among strangers. Any difficulty was better than that. Because there came times when the darkness cleared from her mind, and she was happy again, and she laughed at her fears and blessed him for looking after her so well; and she was so full of love and sweetness then that he could think of no better companion, and wanted nothing more than to live with her alone forever.