Chapter Nine

Cpeck

There will be a statement from the prime minister on all TV and radio channels at 10:00 p.m.

— Government Statement, all-channel broadcast, 8:15 p.m. GMT, July 28, 2019

It was a normal house, its owners dead or gone since Doomsday. Rosemary had tacked several layers of thick sheets and blankets over every window and door so that she could light candles without being seen. There were a few lighter patches on the papered walls where pictures had once hung, empty book cases, and piled in a small room at the rear of the house were a pram, bouncy chair, and several bags of baby toys and clothes. She told them that she had tried to depersonalise the house-not to make it her own, but to make it anonymous.

Before Doomsday, she had been a nurse. She did not like stealing someone else’s home.

Jack thought they would all have trouble falling asleep. After eating food cold from tins, Rosemary showed them to separate rooms. Lucy-Anne, Jenna, and Sparky took one, while Jack and Emily had another, bickering briefly about who should have the top bunk.

“It’s dangerous,” Jack said, and Emily laughed and climbed the ladder.

But when the time for sleep came, Jack closed his eyes and suffered none of the anxieties he feared. He had worried that being here at last, in the Toxic City, would keep them all awake. But he soon heard Sparky mumbling in his sleep and Emily’s gentle breathing above him, and before dropping off himself he realised that the dangers of this place extended far beyond the ruins of the Exclusion Zone. London was perilous, but a world where such lies could be told, and such wonders hidden away, was deadly through and through.

For the past two years, none of them had ever been safe.

Breakfast was more cold food from tin cans, but baked beans had never tasted so good. Jack wondered how the Irregulars stayed healthy without anything fresh: no vegetables, fruit, or meat. But he kept having to remind himself that they were not normal people. She’s moved on, he thought, watching Rosemary opening several large plastic bottles of water. She’s evolved, all of a sudden. Her hands moved smoothly, confidently, the patterns they made almost poetic. What must it be like to have such power? He could barely imagine.

“I’m taking you to a man called Gordon,” she said. “He’s a friend, but not as…accepting of his new gift as I am.”

“What’s his gift?” Jack asked.

“He can trace bloodlines,” she said. “One drip of blood, and he can sense it all across the city.”

“You mean he can smell our families?” Sparky asked.

“It’s much more than smell, dear,” Rosemary said, smiling. She held up her hands. “Just as this is a lot more than touch.”

“You’re superheroes. Like Batman.” Emily chewed on stale breadsticks, and her seriousness made them laugh. All except Rosemary. Jack noticed that she looked pained rather than amused, and he wondered just how accepting she really was.

“Yeah!” Jenna said. “Shouldn’t you call yourself ‘Healer,’ or something? And your friend Gordon, he should be ‘Sniffer’!”

“I prefer the name my parents gave me,” Rosemary said.

“Still…” Jenna said, glancing around and catching Jack’s eye. He saw the twinkle of amusement there, looked away quickly, and Lucy-Anne was staring right at him. He smiled but her expression did not change. Even when he leaned sideways in his chair, her eyes did not waver. Yet again, she was seeing something very far away.

“So where does Sniffer live?” Sparky asked.

“Gordon is one of the few I know who stays in the same place. It’s a hotel, the London Court, and he has the top floor.”

“All of it?”

“All of it. Why not? Apparently, Paul McCartney stayed there a few years ago, hired the whole top floor of the hotel for his entourage. Gordon quite likes that idea, so he’s done it as well. Except he hasn’t had to pay.”

“And he feels safe staying in the same place?” Jack asked. “Safe from the Choppers?”

“Of course,” Rosemary smiled. “He can smell trouble a mile away.”

“Hah!” Sparky laughed. “Sniffer!”

“Please don’t call him that to his face,” Rosemary said, suddenly serious. “He knows what he can do, but…he doesn’t like doing it.”

“Why not?” Emily asked. “That seems daft. If you can do something special, you should.”

“Well, dear, he finds it quite frightening.”

Emily looked at Jack and blinked, and he could almost hear the cogs turning in her mind. How awful to have something that scares you so much.

“But he’ll help?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m sure. He wants things to change as much as any of us.”

They gathered some food and drink together and shared it around their rucksacks, then waited in the hallway behind the front door while Rosemary checked that the coast was clear. She’d told them that they would be staying to the side streets, alleys, and residential roads, as Chopper patrols concentrated more on the old shopping districts.

“It’s quiet,” she said, clicking the door shut again. “I’ll go first, you follow in a close line.”

“How far?” Jenna asked.

“A mile,” Rosemary said. “Maybe less.”

“What will we be seeing out there?” Lucy-Anne’s voice was low and tense, as if she was waiting for something to happen. Jack had tried several times that morning to approach her, talk to her, but she had shrugged him off. He wondered whether they were even together anymore, and guessed not. Perhaps they never really had been.

His concern seemed so childish. And that made his sadness feel all the more indulgent.

“I know the route,” the Irregular said. “Hopefully, nothing.”

Hopefully. Jack squeezed his sister’s hand and she beamed at him, full of the fresh new day. Kids. He wished he hadn’t had to grow up so damn fast.

They walked the streets of London, past silent homes containing dark secrets, across roads that were already cracked with the soft green force of shoots tired of biding their time, passing shadows hunkered down in alleys and gardens like memories waiting to strike back at those who had made them bad, and for the first time Jack really understood the tragedy of what had happened. It struck him hard, and looking around at his friends he could believe that they were experiencing the same thoughts. Before today, back in Camp Truth, there had been mourning for their missing families and anger at the cover-up perpetuated by the government and military. That’s where all their thoughts and emotions had gone, all their mental energy spent mourning and hating, grieving and conspiring-personal things, all tied to them.

None of them had ever really spared a thought for London.

This once-great city was now a ruin. True, buildings still stood straight and square, but the life was gone from here. Each darkened window in a house’s facade promised only sadness contained within. The streets showed their age, now, without people and vehicles to pin them to the present. London was London no more, but a fading echo of what it had once been. A dead city.

Feeling sad, sensing London’s history growing wilder, older, and further beyond redemption with every missed heartbeat, Jack walked with the others and let the sights and sounds wash over him.

They saw a family of foxes sitting and playing beside a road. The adults looked their way, but they remained on the street, when two years before they would have scampered away to wherever the city foxes hid during daylight. The cubs yapped and rolled, snapping at waving fern fronds growing along the gutter. Emily turned her camera their way, and as if aware of what she was doing, the wild animals fled, and the street felt as though they had never been there at all.

“Lots more foxes,” Rosemary said. “And rabbits, badgers, weasels, squirrels, and rats.”

“Food for the dogs, at least,” Lucy-Anne said.

“It’s becoming a wilder place to live.” The woman smiled at Emily’s camera and then nodded along a narrow alley between two houses. “That way. There’s a body down here, but you won’t see much of it.”

The skeleton was almost completely subsumed by nettles and ferns, the stalks and leaves sprouting up between ribs and through eye sockets. Jack wanted to walk straight by, but Emily paused and moved some of the plants aside with her foot. She started a quiet commentary into her camera’s microphone.

“Who was this sad person, dead in an alley, killed by the lies told to everyone? They had long hair that might have been blonde, like mine. A leather jacket. A badge on the jacket, saying how much they liked the Dropkick Murphys, and a T-shirt, but it’s too faded to see what was written on it. Did they fall here and die quickly, or crawl from a long way away? Were they coming from somewhere, or trying to get somewhere else?” She trained the camera along the body, then stepped away and let the ferns spring back up. “Another grim statistic of the Toxic City.”

“Come on, Emily,” Jack said. She looked at him, scared.

“This could have been us, if we’d come with Mum and Dad. This could have been anyone. We might have been friends.”

“Come on.”

Within twenty minutes of leaving the house, Jack craved the sight of another human being. Rosemary led them along sidestreets, through alleys, and, at one point, over several garden walls and through the small enclosed places that had once been so private and contained. He felt like an intruder, passing across family spaces once used as play areas for children, or barbeque areas for their parents. He saw children’s garden toys hidden amongst the long grass and shrubs gone wild, and in one garden he noticed that the French doors leading into the house were open a few inches. He tried to see inside, but a slick green moss covered the inner surface of the glass, turning everything into shadow. He did not feel watched.

“Where are the other Irregulars?” he asked Rosemary as they paused beside an overturned lorry. It had been carrying boxes and boxes of books, the last bestseller now swollen into unreadable humps all across the road.

“We’ve been seen,” Rosemary said. “There was one in a house just back there, watching from an upstairs window.”

“Did you know them?”

“Don’t think so. They’d have probably said hello if I did.”

“So is everyone alone, now?” he asked. “Is this how it always is?”

“Oh, no, Jack,” she said, apparently surprised at how he felt. “I do have some friends. There are people I see regularly, people I mix with. Many of us live on our own most of the time, of course, because it’s far safer that way. But we have…not really a community, but an existence. There’s plenty of hide and seek, but the Choppers don’t bother us constantly. We just have to keep watch for them. And there are Irregulars with gifts that can do that for us.”

“So when do we meet Gordon?” he asked, feeling his friends’ eyes upon him as well as the lens of Emily’s camera. “It’s not just Lucy-Anne who wants to know about her family.”

“It’s not far now. We have to cross a couple of main streets, but we’ll be fine.”

“No dogs?” Lucy-Anne asked. “Wolves, lions, bears?”

“I’ve never heard of a bear being seen south of the river,” Rosemary said, and Jack was not sure whether she was joking.

They crossed the main roads carefully, running in pairs, and very little changed. Jack saw a dozen cats sitting together in front of one smashed-up shop, licking their paws, lazing in the sun and watching the humans rush across the street. It was an unsettling sight, because he’d never seen more than two cats sitting together before. It was as if the loss of their erstwhile owners had given them free reign to exist and adapt as they wished.

After the main roads, Rosemary led them along a lane beside a tall, grand looking building. Several cars had been burnt out here, and they had to climb over the scorched metallic ruins because there was no room between the walls. Jenna slipped on the last car and gasped as raw metal sliced her ankle.

“I’ll see to that in a minute,” Rosemary said, and Jack stared at her with amazement once again.

Past the cars, the woman opened a heavy grille gate, which had a chain and padlock placed around it as though locked. When the others filed through after her she replaced the chain, hanging the padlock so that it did not quite click shut.

Jenna groaned, leaning on Sparky for support. Blood dripped from her boot.

“At least he’ll have smelled us by now,” Rosemary said, kneeling beside the wounded girl.

“Make him sound like a bloody vampire,” Lucy-Anne said.

“There’s no such things as vampires,” Rosemary muttered, and that made them all laugh softly. She looked up, surprised at first, and then smiling along with them. “Fair enough,” she said. “Maybe there are, and I just haven’t met them yet. London’s full of secrets.”

She rested Jenna’s foot against her leg and touched the cut, growing still and silent as her fingers did their work.

A door opened behind them. Something long and dark emerged, aiming their way, and behind it was the most terrified face Jack had ever seen.

“It’s me!” Rosemary said, jumping up and holding up both hands, the right one still bloody. “Gordon, it’s me.”

The man behind the gun blinked and looked at all of them, one by one. “They’re from outside!” he said.

“Yes, of course. I told you I was going.”

“But I never thought you’d come back.” Gordon lowered the gun slightly, and a smile struggled to break his expression. But he still looked frightened. “Come inside, quickly. There’s been lots of patrols. I’m sure they know I’m here.”

“If they knew, they’d have come for you by now,” Rosemary said. “It’s nice to see you, Gordon.”

He swing the rifle down by his side, and at last the smile looked almost at home. “And you.”

Rosemary went first, and the others followed, with Gordon closing the door behind Jenna and throwing bolts, turning a key and clipping shut two heavy padlocks.

“Nothing like home security,” Sparky said.

“Peace of mind,” the man said. “That’s all it gives me.” He was a short, thin man, with closely shaven hair, a small goatee and piercing blue eyes. He looked exhausted, with dark bags under his eyes and heavy jowls. But Jack guessed he always looked like that, and probably had before Doomsday. He wondered what Gordon had been: Stock trader? Doctor? Shop keeper? He almost asked, but decided he didn’t really need to know something so buried in the past. Nobody was what they used to be.

Gordon’s eyes also looked haunted, as if he already knew why they had come to see him.

They followed him through the kitchens, store rooms, and back-of-house areas of the hotel, eventually coming to the service staircase that took them up twelve flights and six floors. By the end of the climb Sparky and Jenna were panting, and Lucy-Anne grinned at them both.

“You need more exercise!” she said. Emily was filming her, and she gave the camera two thumbs-up. Jack was pleased to see her smile.

“Give me a second,” Gordon muttered, disappearing through a door and leaving them alone on the top landing.

“Where’s he gone?” Jenna asked.

“Security measures,” Rosemary said. “He must like you all.” They heard some strange noises from beyond the door-a whirring sound, clicking, and the clinking of dozens of bottles-and then the door opened and Gordon peered around the jamb.

He offered them a weak smile. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

The door opened onto the junction of two long corridors, perpendicular to each other. From the decor, carpet, furniture, and mirrors placed along the corridor, Jack could tell immediately that this had once been a plush hotel.

They followed Gordon along the left hand corridor, passing a complex arrangement of bottles, wires, and metallic stands that he must have just decommissioned. Jack wondered whether it was just a warning system, or something more sinister.

Gordon unlocked the door and waved them into a room.

“What’s this, the Presidential Suite?” Sparky asked, but beneath the bluff and bluster, Jack could sense his awe.

The room was huge. It contained the largest bed Jack had ever seen, and even that was swallowed by the space, standing on a pedestal to one side and surrounded by a heavy oak four-poster frame and fine drapery. There was a large seating area with three full-sized sofas, a dining table that would probably sit a dozen people, and close to the main panoramic window there was a sunken area scattered with low tables, floor cushions, and what looked like a small water fountain.

“So, where’s everyone else sleeping?” Sparky asked, leaping onto the bed. He wriggled his eyebrows at Jenna and patted the covers beside him, and she gave him the finger.

Emily giggled and aimed her camera somewhere else.

“I’ve never slept in here,” Gordon says. “There are several side rooms, and I have one of those. More than enough for me. But I do spend a lot of my time sitting here, reading, looking out over London…” He wandered across to the far wall, stepping down in to the sunken area and standing before the huge window.

“Can’t you be seen from outside?” Jenna asked.

“Reflective glass. The only way anyone out there will see in is if I light this place up at night, and I never do that. A candle in the bedroom, that’s all I allow.”

“Plumbing still work?” Lucy-Anne asked.

“Not for over a year.”

“Oh.”

Gordon turned around and smiled apologetically, and Jack thought he was enjoying this human contact. Maybe talking to people without having to wonder at their advanced, evolved powers was a refreshing change. “There’s somewhere you can go down the corridor, room 608. The bath’s filled with water and a bucket. Not the most luxurious of flushes, but it works well enough.”

Lucy-Anne nodded her silent thanks but remained where she stood. There was an awkward silence. Gordon glanced around at them all, and Jack saw something pass across his face, the shadow of the same haunted expression he’d seen downstairs. He knows what’s coming, and he hates it.

“Gordon,” Rosemary said, “you did something for me a long time ago, and now these people need your help in the same way.”

Gordon nodded, then sat down slowly on a pile of floor cushions. “They know how it works?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

I wonder what he saw of Rosemary’s family, Jack thought, but right then it did not seem like something he could ask. Maybe later.

“I’ll go first,” Sparky said. He hopped from the bed, crossed the room, and dropped down beside Gordon. “Name’s Sparky,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Sparky.” Gordon shook.

“Yeah, well, you don’t look that pleased, mate. But my brother, he was here when it happened. And Rosemary said you can help. And I’d really…I want to…” Sparky trailed off. Jack had never seen his friend looking so scared. He could face wild dogs and drunken men looking for a brawl, but now he was close to the truth about his brother Stephen, and reality these days was known to bite.

“I can try,” Gordon said. “None of us can work miracles, and I never promise anything. But I can try.” He looked at Rosemary strangely then, frowning and glancing around at Jack and his friends.

“They know,” Rosemary said. “They’ve already had cause to see what I can do.”

Gordon slumped down, almost as though the cushions were swallowing him up. “Well then, Sparky, I’ll need a drip of your blood.”

Sparky pulled his knife and flicked it open.

“Just a speck,” Gordon said.

Jack and Emily went forward, as did Jenna and Lucy-Anne. The air of the large room suddenly became heavy and uncomfortable, as though there were too many people breathing at the same time, and that reminded Jack of his strange dream of following his mother along the airless street.

“Are we really ready for this?” Jack said, and foolish as the question sounded to him, nobody treated it as such.

“I think so,” Sparky said.

Emily nodded.

“I am,” Lucy-Anne said.

“Good luck,” Jenna said. “Really, all of you. I should leave.”

“No!” Jack said. “You didn’t lose anyone on Doomsday, but you’re part of our gang.”

“Right!” Lucy-Anne said.

“Yeah.” Sparky nodded, then prodded the knife at his left thumb. He hissed, then stared at the dribble of blood that bloomed and then flowed down his hand and onto his wrist.

Gordon leaned forward, hand held out. “May I?”

Sparky offered this stranger, this Irregular, his shaking hand.

Gordon touched the wound on Sparky’s thumb with his index finger, just enough to pick up a smear of blood. Then he went to the huge window and pulled on a cord, opening five fanlights at ceiling level. A breath of fresh air and the cooing of pigeons came in, and Gordon put the bloodied finger into his mouth.

They all watched him, and he must have sensed it because he lowered his head as he withdrew his finger. Jack edged to one side, trying to see the man’s expression, and then he wished he’d remained where he was.

Gordon was cringing, almost gagging, as though he’d put something rotten and rank onto his tongue, rather than a droplet of a living person’s blood. A tear squeezed from his eyes and spotted the expensive carpet at his feet.

Jack saw Rosemary’s face drop, and she looked down at her feet. He knows, he thought. She’s seen this reaction before.

“His name’s Stephen,” Sparky said. “He lived in Peckham, last I heard. Taller than me.” Gordon did not react to his voice, and Jack could see desperation creeping over his friend. “Tattoo on his arm. His name.” He stood and approached the man, reaching out but pausing just before he touched the Irregular’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Gordon said, “but your brother’s dead.”

Jack expected shouting and raving, denial and fury, and for a second he saw that and more behind Sparky’s eyes. All that, and the temporary madness of grief.

But then Sparky stepped away from Gordon and slumped back down onto the floor cushions, holding his head in his hands and trying to cover his eyes, his ears, trying to shut himself off from the cruel world that had destroyed his family and left him like this.

Jack wanted to go to him. He saw Jenna take a step forward as well. But Emily grasped his hand, and Jenna looked at Lucy-Anne, then across at him. Being the one out of all of them who had not had family in London, she was aware that there could be more grief to come.

“Me next,” Lucy-Anne said. Her voice was gruff. She jumped down beside Sparky, snatched the knife from his hand and drew the blade harshly across her palm. She hissed and grimaced, and blood spattered the cushions and carpet as she strode to Gordon.

“I only need a speck,” Gordon said.

“Take as much as you want.”

She held out her hand.

There are wolves howling in the distance

Her hand was shaking, she couldn’t help that. Part of it was the pain of the cut, but most of it was because of what this man could do. What he was going to do. He moved closer and dabbed a finger in her blood, and Lucy-Anne squeezed her eyes shut.

Closer by, between clumps of exotic plants, a more level spread of ground

“I’ve dreamed this,” she whispered, and if any of the others heard her, they said nothing.

She watched Gordon turn and approach the window again. He stepped so close that she saw his breath condensing on the glass. Then he took a deep breath and touched Lucy-Anne’s blood to his tongue.

and deep down, the faces of the dead she still loves.

“No,” Lucy-Anne moaned, and she knew that nightmare at last.

Gordon cringed again, quivering in the sunlight slanting through the window. Then he grew still, and he spoke without turning around or looking up. “Your brother is alive north of here. The rest, I think you already know.”

“No,” she moaned again, hand clenching tight around the knife handle, her other hand dripping blood onto the lush carpet. “We walked over them. I could have seen them, I knew they were there…” The whole nightmare came to her now, a solid, dreadful memory that refused to go away.

She screamed, raised the knife again, saw the startled expressions on her friends’ faces, and threw the blade over Sparky’s head towards the bed. Even before it bounced from one of the corner posts she was running, screaming again, raging, venting fury and hatred as spittle-strewn invectives.

“We can’t have her making too much-” she heard Gordon say.

“Her mum and dad are dead!” Emily snapped.

Lucy-Anne reached the door and hauled it open, swinging it so hard that the handle knocked a chunk from the plasterboard wall behind. She went with no destination in mind, bursting through doors, sprinting along corridors, trying to outrun the nightmare that had been stalking her since yesterday. And for a while, in that place of endless corridors and rooms that all looked the same, she lost herself to grief and rage.

As his girlfriend disappeared out into the corridor, and Sparky looked up as though he had never seen any of them before, Jack only wanted to hear about his father.

“You really need to stop her,” Gordon said. “There are Superiors about, I sensed them earlier.”

“Superiors?” Jack asked, confused.

“Later!” Rosemary said, grabbing Jack’s arm. “Go after her.” Lucy-Anne’s screams were fading as she ran.

“But my father…” he said.

“I can tell you about him soon enough. And dear Susan, your mother. But stop her making that noise, or we’ll all be in trouble.”

My father? My mother?

Rosemary glared at Jack, and he nodded, signalling Emily to stay with the others and then running for the door.

Just as he exited the plush suite and started along the corridor, he heard Gordon say, “Oh sweet Jesus, they’re already here.”

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