Либрусек (книги fb2)
A psychopath… an empath… a genius.
Three siblings who will save the world – or destroy it.
They know nothing of each other. They know nothing of the Telling.
But they’ll need to learn fast if they’re going to survive…
A gripping new series about a collision of worlds, the power of destiny, and the darkness in us all…
Leah Giarratano Disharmony
The Telling 01, 2012
I’ve been awake here since lights out, wondering how to lay all this out for you. The fact that they’ve entrusted me with this job is pretty freakin’ funny, but I’m not sure whether the joke is on me or on you. Maybe you could answer that if I could tell you where I’m sleeping tonight, but then again, it’d probably still be just as tough to figure out. Trust me, though, somebody’s laughing.
Anyway, I think I’m just gonna begin with the Witch. I mean, she’s the one who started all this, at least the stuff this century, anyway. And, personally, I think it’s best that whenever witches are involved you should get them right out in the open straightaway – you know, so you know what you’re dealing with. Especially this one. Morgan Moreau. The way I hear it is that Morgan has never given a rats about the Council, the treaty, or anyone other than herself. Except maybe that dragon-daemon she’s rumoured to hold captive. Of course, you can make up your own mind. Maybe you think it’s okay to breed and discard children until you get the right set?
No one is precisely sure when Morgan Moreau first heard of the Telling, and that means, of course, that we don’t know exactly how many children are out there. Maybe we never will. It was never any surprise, though, that if one witch was going to learn of the Telling it would be Morgan. She was always playing around with daemon-lore, delving into the para-illegal. Word is that at eighteen she murdered her best friend with a knitting needle through the eyeball. Harsh, huh? But her best friend was a succubus, and Morgan was trying to absorb some of her power – you know, on account of how you’re supposed to be able to steal some of their skills if you take out a succubus that way.
You have heard of the succubi, right? Sheesh, I don’t know how much I have to try to fill in for you. Well, they’re only minor daemons, but if you’d ever met one of these chicks, you’d remember her: completely irresistible. Which can cost you a lot – not resisting, I mean – like your money, your youth, your life.
I’d say that Morgan did end up absorbing some of her bestie’s powers, because she sure had her way with men, and that was half her strategy in trying to bring the Telling to life.
Look, if you haven’t heard of the succubi, then I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of the Telling. And that’s the bit I need to get to, so listen up. You’re not supposed to know about the Telling – hell, neither am I. For five thousand years, maybe ten people from every generation knew of this prophecy, and they passed it down, shrouded in secrecy spells, mouth-to-ear. But nowadays every elf and goblin knows the tale, and even the orcs have heard of it (not that they understand it any more than they do the theory of relativity, or even spaghetti bolognaise). Even humans now know about the Telling, but they’re not stupid enough to speak of it. Nobody wants to be jabbed with a shedload full of antipsychotic medication, if you know what I mean.
Still, you should be told about it. And that’s what I’m here for. Well, for as long as I’ve got to log this right now, anyway.
So, the Telling…
You know how we all live in disharmony? Chaos? War? And how more than half the world suffers in poverty, with disease? Well, it’s not only like that for mortals, you know, it’s Universal, and get this, it’s not supposed to be that way. But maybe five thousand years ago, when everything got so screwed up, it was foretold that three children would one day be born who could change all that.
One, a child with no capacity to feel emotional pain and no ability to understand the emotions of others.
Another, the opposite, a child of such pure emotional connection that she would have known where and why you had an itch before you even knew that a bug bit you.
And the third, a laser beam of concentrated brilliance – pure, personified intelligence.
And there you have it.
The Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius.
Together, they can create harmony. You know, heal the world. Peace, love and hummus, baby.
But the big problem was, according to the Telling, they could also be used as a weapon if the wrong person got a hold of them, schooled them up the wrong way. You see, they have to be taught about their Calling. They have to be instructed from their earliest years in how to use their powers, in how to fulfil their destiny, in how to save the rest of us. They need guidance, the right parents. They need love.
What they got is Morgan Moreau.
Well, sort of.
Look, I’ll do my best, but I’m not sure how much longer I can spend here with you. I can see torches in the hall. I hope the synthesiser is kicking in properly. Hell, they should really have got someone else to do this. If they catch me… well, let’s just say that the people keeping me here have a library dedicated to torture interrogation and truth extraction under psychosurgery. Believe me, I know.
Anyway, Morgan didn’t want to wait about for the Telling to eventuate. No, she wanted the prophecy here and now. She wanted to control it. Who wouldn’t want the world’s future in their hands? She knew that the trio had to be exactly right, so she set about trying to find mates who could sire babies just like the three in the prophecy. Unfortunately, the… um… recipes weren’t always exactly spot on. So, when Morgan gave birth to a child who didn’t fit the bill, so to speak, she just abandoned it, or let Welfare take care of it.
Well, the lucky ones anyway.
And we wouldn’t have known about any of this if one of her little darlings hadn’t almost killed her when making his way into the world. Word is, a Bedouin tribe found her almost bled out in a desert in Southern Jordan. When she recovered, and figured out the child wasn’t the right one, she left it behind. She took to deliveries in mortal hospitals after that.
We think it took about fifty years, but Morgan Moreau finally did it. The twins were born first, fifteen years ago. Can you believe it? The Psychopath and the Empath are twins. That little twist was never in the Telling. The Genius arrived a year later, and he proved to be just one too many babies. Morgan died screaming during childbirth.
But the plans, the prophecy, the Telling, had already been set in motion. Morgan Moreau had planned long and hard, and she knew that she had to split the siblings up. To hide them. After all, there’s just no way that beings so powerful could exist in one spot and not draw forth all manner of creatures. If she was smart, and believe me, Morgan Moreau was smart, she’d have found places for them that would sharpen their talents, draw out their gifts, teach them to fully become what they were meant to become.
So, where are they? Well, that’s not part of the Telling, but it is the next part of this story, and…
Oh, hell. You’re on your own for a while – the torches just stopped at my door.
June 26 8.41 p.m.
Luke Black slid his face out of the way at the last minute, smudging his cheek across the triple-layer flexi-glass, but Toad’s sledgehammer fist still clipped his ear before smashing into the shatterproof door. Luke dropped. Toad followed, using him to break his fall.
Luke tried to take a deeper breath: not easy with Toad sitting on his rib cage. Right now, Toad was dead weight, taking a breather, tired out by the exercise of giving Luke a flogging.
Through the one eye not pressed into the lino of the recreation hall floor, and to take his mind off being unable to fill his lungs with oxygen, Luke used Toad’s rest-break as an opportunity to check out everyone watching the fight. Well, not that it was a fight exactly, unless Luke’s one punch to Toad’s thirteen could technically be classed as a fight.
Luke didn’t understand the lustful glee in Jason Taylor’s eyes, any more than he could comprehend the tears in Hong Lo’s. Why did Hong always cry when someone got hit? It wasn’t like he was the one with Toad’s knee in his neck.
Luke’s vision narrowed as he felt his eye swell. Already. Oh well, at least that was gonna look impressive in the morning. And then he thought he spotted something crazy. He tilted his head a little.
What the hell?
Oh no, don’t do it, Zac.
Zac Nguyen had been here just two days; had only just completed orientation. He would have weighed – wet – around as much as a well-fed cat. Luke could feel him pumping up, tensing, readying to jump in. His face was blank, but his eyes were locked on Toad. For some incomprehensible reason, he was about to have a go at truck-boy Toad Wheeler. And that was suicide.
God, where are the screws? thought Luke. They should have been here by now to break it up. He licked his lips, spat out a dribble of blood and maybe part of a tooth.
‘Hey, um, Toad,’ he said.
‘What do you want, pussy?’ said Toad, using the name with which he addressed pretty much everyone. Luke suspected that this was because he’d already exhausted all downloadable space in his pea-sized brain and there was no room left to remember things like his fellow inmates’ names.
Luke could sense Zac preparing to spring.
‘Um, have you ever thought about cutting out the carbs?’ Luke said, as loud as he could with a knee in his neck.
His right shoulder was really beginning to ache now with his arm jammed up against the door.
‘It’s just that you’re pretty fat,’ he continued, ‘and what with you breathing so hard all over me I feel like I’ve got my head down a toilet. There’s this chemical overload thing that happens when the kidneys can’t break down excess carbs fast enough. Um, you stink, man.’
Although the shouts of laughter from the other forty-six inmates of Dorm Four were far louder, Luke heard only the shuddering intake of Toad’s breath. He could feel the energy of the anger above him and he found it quietly puzzling even as he prepared to roll before Toad could strike again.
Luke filled his lungs when Toad moved his knee and straddled his chest.
Wrong move, thought Luke, smiling up into Toad’s piggy eyes. Toad had time to blink once when he realised his mistake before Luke’s right fist, now free, slammed into his crotch.
‘Eww,’ said Luke, rolling out of the way as Toad fell, wailing, clutching his bruised bits.
Luke gave himself a moment on his back. He peered up at his world, sucking air. Shoe-view. It seemed he’d had this perspective often. Why did everyone want to put him on his arse? He’d never figure people out.
Although Jason Taylor he could pretty much figure out right about now.
Jason Taylor was not happy. Jason had expected his best bud, Toad, to get in at least a couple more good head shots, and he would have been hoping for a bit more blood. Instead, his show was cut short and he wasn’t yet sure what to do with all the adrenalin he’d accumulated for the anticipated viewing time.
It was coming to him, though.
Luke watched Jason move from shock to confusion to frustration to… there it was, rage.
Luke knew these words. He’d been on the receiving end of all these emotions, especially the latter. He’d just never played host to any of them.
Jason wanted his turn. And Luke had nothing left. Everything hurt, but that had never really mattered. It was just that Jason was all fresh, fat, furious and fifteen, and Luke, well, Luke was not. Okay, Luke was also fifteen, but right now – as usual – he was too thin, he felt like he had moths batting about behind his eyes, and he was pretty sure he had a cracked rib. The way that each breath tasted a bit like swallowing crushed glass reminded him of the time his foster mum’s boyfriend had thrown him into the garage wall.
He sat up. Coughed. Yep, just like that. He put out a hand to help himself to stand. Always best to have one’s head above kicking height in these situations, he’d found. He knew he wasn’t going to be fast enough, though. Jason Taylor had a scarlet-faced, bull-like charge thing happening and he was going to slam into him, right about now.
Except he didn’t.
Luke plopped backwards onto the floor as a black blur flashed across his vision, the whir of movement raising the hairs on his arms. One moment Jason Taylor was all red-faced and charging, the next he was white and seated and quiet, his arm folded funny. Half of the now-silent crowd had their eyes on Jason; the other half stared, open-mouthed, at Zac.
While Luke observed the others, hungry for their reactions, he allowed a small screen of his consciousness to try to replay the move Zac had made. But even on slow speed it was too fast. Was that some sort of cartwheel? A roundhouse kick? He’d never seen anyone move that fast in his life.
He found Zac’s eyes. And everything became quiet.
Zac had been to the same places he had. Hell, almost everyone in Dwight had been there: dark, hungry, angry places. Homes in which no kid wanted to be, with people who should never have had kids. But he had a feeling that Zac’s eyes had seen things Luke had never seen.
Zac grinned, and Luke felt something weird. Like a kind of jolt in his stomach. He felt his smile match Zac’s, except his grin tore his split top lip right open. Warm blood gushed down his chin.
He allowed himself to lie down as the screws busted into the rec room.
JUNE 27, 8.10 A.M.
Luke found that focusing on his running shoes stopped the soccer field gyrating quite so wildly. Foster mum number three always said that it was best to just stare at one thing when you were drunk or really hungover. Luke had never been drunk, and therefore never hungover, but right now he really felt a lot like his foster mum looked when in one of those states. Which was pretty much permanently.
Not that he hadn’t been banged up and busted down before, but at least one of Toad’s punches seemed to have done something funky to his eardrum. Lying in bed last night had been like trying to catch some sleep in a cement mixer, with the world spinning round and around. Closing his eyes was worse – he’d lost dinner, lunch and breakfast trying that. He’d finally fallen asleep, pretty much sitting up, to take the pressure off his rib cage. But even as he’d drifted into sleep, he’d been aware of Zac Nguyen in the next bed. He could have sworn that Zac was wide awake, watching him.
Right now, Zac’s duct-taped running shoes stood next to Luke’s in the icy, morning-wet mud of the soccer field. When Zac moved, shuffling his feet like everyone else to try to stay warm, his sock-covered pinkie toe peeped out through a split that the tape hadn’t covered. That had to be cold. He wondered why Zac wasn’t wearing the custody-issued sneakers that Matron gave everyone at intake. He also wondered what had possessed this kid to jump in to help him last night. People had jumped in when he was being bashed before, but only to help with the flogging.
Kitkat had warned him in his first week that he should try to change the way he spoke.
‘Like how?’ Luke had wanted to know. ‘Like Chinese?’
‘Like not so smart,’ Kitkat had said. ‘Sometimes you talk like you had dictionary for dinner.’
Luke changed nothing. He’d probably done less school than any of the kids in here, but he couldn’t help it if he had a brain bigger than Ronald McDonald’s.
Next to Zac, who was still shuffling to stay warm, Luke didn’t move. He could hear the ocean in his right ear, and the breakers were crashing hard. But he couldn’t feel the cold.
‘You can sit this one out, Black.’
Luke raised his head. Ms McNichol. Thank God.
‘You should be in the sick bay,’ she said.
Luke heard Toad snigger somewhere behind him.
‘I’d rather be out here,’ Luke said. ‘In the fresh air. It stinks in there right now.’
More laughs. Not Toad’s. Jason Taylor was in the sick bay with a broken arm.
‘Well, you’re not running. Not like that,’ replied Ms McNichol. ‘Take a seat in the stands.’
Luke shuffled up the steeply sloping hill towards the row of wooden benches at the side of the oval. By the time he got there and gingerly took a seat, he noticed that Zac had almost finished a lap. Between Zac and the next guy, Travis Roberts, was a quarter of an oval. Luke stared. In the four months since Luke had been here, Travis had always been the fastest. Everyone tried to catch him, and sometimes Luke got pretty close. But with Zac out there the others looked like they’d given up. Even Travis was only just ahead of the pack.
Jonas, Kitkat and Barry, Luke’s usual running mates, stamped and steamed through the mud. Behind them jogged the rest of Dorm Four, around forty boys in green T-shirts aged between eleven and sixteen, with Toad shambling along at the back of the pack.
Luke spotted Hong Lo, just ahead of Toad, flicking a nervous glance over his shoulder as he tried to ramp up his jog. Not many people wanted to run with Toad; if you didn’t keep ahead, you always left the track with a few extra bruises. Hong reached for his asthma inhaler just as he rounded the goalposts.
The freezing air felt great on Luke’s throbbing face and he angled it into the wind, towards the rear boundary of the secure complex. His left eye, swollen shut, oozed something, and he wiped it carefully, the moisture cold against his skin. The sensation was bizarre, and not just because the skin stretched over the puff of his eye socket was full of fluid and foreign-feeling, as though it belonged to someone else. Much more strange was the oozing liquid itself – Luke stared at his slightly wet finger. A tear. Huh. So that’s what they felt like. He’d forgotten. He put the finger to his tongue.
Sitting down was definitely best for the vertigo. He watched Dorm Four begin their third lap. And what with the hood up on his green standard-issue sweatshirt and the rushing sound in his ears, he didn’t even hear Mr Holt approach. His first warning was that vomit-sweet smell that always accompanied the senior warden.
‘Stand, Black.’ The voice was steel-capped boots crunching over gravel.
Luke turned to face the warden, swaying as he got to his feet.
‘Off with the hood,’ said Holt.
Luke peeled his hoodie back. The wind was ice on his brown buzz-cut.
Holt stared down at him silently. For a second Luke saw a smile in the warden’s eyes as he surveyed the wreckage of his face. Then the dead darkness returned. Clad in a great-coat and heavy-weather hat, he towered over Luke like a battleship over a dinghy.
‘Why aren’t you running, Black?’ he said.
‘Sick report, Mr Holt,’ said Luke.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
What do I say to that? thought Luke. No answer was going to work for Holt anyway.
‘Nothing,’ said Luke.
‘Nothing what, Black?’
Holt moved a half-step closer. Luke rocked back a bit with the vomit smell and the heat of Holt’s hatred.
‘Nothing’s wrong with me, Mr Holt,’ said Luke.
‘Well then, get your arse down there and run, Black. You’re three laps behind.’
It was never the pain that was the issue for Luke. He couldn’t explain it to anyone, but it was the injuries themselves that slowed him down. Pain itself was something much more remote, controllable. He made his way down the hill to the oval, Holt striding before him. By the time he reached the others he was invisible to Ms McNichol, as he knew he would be. He watched her hunch deeper into her coat and turn back towards the dormitories, her face studiously blank.
Luke was rounding the goalposts, a quarter through his first lap, when Zac Nguyen passed him, soundless, springing weightlessly over the sodden grass. Luke stared after him. Zac didn’t seem to kick up mud the way everyone else did. In fact, he didn’t seem to be making any footprints at all. Stupid, Luke told himself. Of course he’s leaving footprints. How could anyone see anything in this muck?
He’d made it to his first halfway point when Zac lapped him for his final circuit. The new kid made no sound. No laboured breathing, no sign of sweat or strain.
‘Can you believe that skinny bugger?’
Luke turned his head – Jonas was coming up beside him. Two years younger than Luke but almost as big as Toad, Jonas was a softly spoken Islander who bunked next to Kitkat and Barry.
‘Fast, huh?’ managed Luke.
He was taking small sips of air as he hobbled, attempting to limit the stabbing in his ribs whenever he took a deeper gasp.
‘You look like hell,’ said Barry in his too-loud, flat, nasal tone, pulling up beside him.
During his first night, Luke had watched Barry interacting with others. The scrawny blond kid always leaned in close, concentrating, like they were saying something really intense and meaningful to him. And then Barry had introduced himself.
‘I’m Barry and I’m deaf not dumb,’ he’d shouted in a singsong voice. ‘Don’t ever call me deaf and dumb. Some of the geniuses in here call me Deafy, but I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I’ve got privileges with Matron, and if you do, well, maybe you won’t get all your re-ups from your friends and rellos.’
‘What are re-ups?’ Luke had responded.
‘Resupply. You know, chips, lollies, snacks from your visitors.’
‘I won’t be getting any re-ups, Barry,’ Luke had said. ‘And how come you can hear me if you’re deaf?’
‘I lip-read. So talk straight. Whatchoo-in-for?’
Luke gave him the story that had impressed all the others. But it was when he’d tripped Toad on the way to giving ‘Deafy’ yet another friendly flogging that he’d won Barry’s loyalty and Toad’s undivided attention.
Now, Luke tried to keep pace with Barry, Jonas and Kitkat. They’d slowed it right down to help out.
‘Don’t look, but Holt’s watching,’ said Kitkat.
Kitkat was the tallest kid in Dwight, and definitely the skinniest. He looked as though he needed to eat a truckload of chocolate just to keep himself from snapping in half when he sneezed. Luke had assumed that this was where the nickname had come from. But who knew.
‘We’d better keep it moving,’ said Jonas. ‘We don’t need any more of Holt’s attention. Why does he have such a thing for you, Black?’
‘I’m just special, I guess,’ said Luke. The air tasted like metal, and he thought maybe he was bleeding inside somewhere.
‘Uh oh,’ said Kitkat. ‘Holt’s talking to Zac.’
‘Can you believe that friggin’ move Nguyen made last night?’ said Barry. ‘What was that? Matron reckons Taylor’s gonna need surgery on that arm. I didn’t really see what he did. Did you see it, Luke?’
‘I was pretty much just seeing stars,’ said Luke.
‘Do you reckon he’d teach us how to do that?’ said Kitkat.
‘I don’t know,’ said Luke, ‘but it looks like I might have competition for Holt’s number one on his Most Wanted list.’
‘God, I can hear Holt from here,’ said Jonas, wincing. ‘What’s he screaming about?’
‘It’ll be Zac’s shoes,’ said Luke. ‘At least, that’ll be his excuse.’
‘It’s bullcrap, man,’ said Kitkat. ‘Everyone here knows he’s gonna put a rocket up Nguyen just because he took out one of his boys last night.’
‘But mostly because he helped you, Luke,’ shouted Barry between breaths. ‘Why do you reckon he did that?’
Luke didn’t answer. Why does anyone do anything? He was the last person to ask about people’s motivations.
‘Whoah, Luke, you should sit down or something, man,’ said Jonas. ‘Your face is like white and green.’
‘And black and red,’ said Kitkat.
‘And purple,’ said Barry.
Luke knew that the only reason his shoes hadn’t met his breakfast was because he hadn’t eaten any.
‘I just wish we could get there faster,’ he said.
‘What are we gonna do?’ said Jonas. ‘Zac’s gonna cop it now. You don’t take out one of Holt’s bouncers and then get the whole Disneyland experience in Dwight. You know that, man.’
What Luke did know was that more than anything he wanted to get through the first lap to reach Holt and Zac, but he had no idea why. He knew that Jonas was right; he couldn’t help Zac right now. For some ridiculous reason Zac had hitched his wagon to the very worst star in here – him – and for that, Holt would make him pay. He also didn’t know why this was disturbing to him. He understood why it should be – he’d spent his whole life watching people bend and twist and flat-out breakdance under the influence of emotions like guilt and love and shame and rage. But these emotions were just concepts to him. He knew they were powerful. He’d just never felt their power himself.
Nevertheless, he tried to jog faster.
By the time Luke limped in, finishing his first circuit, the rest of the dorm stood at attention behind Holt. All except Zac, who stood before him, his head bowed.
At least he’s standing, thought Luke.
He shuffled to a stop next to Zac, seeing three of him. He longed to drop to the mud and lie there for a month.
‘What are you doing, Black?’ said Holt.
Luke concentrated on breathing and trying to remain standing.
‘Dorm Four,’ said Holt. ‘Standing before you are the two inmates who have cost you all your television privileges this week.’
Low groans from behind Holt. Luke closed his other eye.
‘And at the rate he’s going,’ Holt continued, ‘Black, here, might just cost you your lunch too, because we are all going to stand here just like this until he finishes his five laps.’
‘Aw, come on,’ mumbled somebody.
‘You are so dead, Black,’ called Toad.
‘Silence!’ said Holt.
Luke opened his eyes; well, as best he could, anyway.
‘Back in a sec,’ he said, and started to jog.
Ten steps in, it began to rain.
June 27, 11.45 a.m.
Without moving her green eyes from the rich woman’s face, Samantha White reached out her left hand and suddenly snapped her fingers closed. The droning of the blowfly stopped instantly.
‘Oh my. How did you do that?’ said the woman, Sam’s client, Mrs Nicolescu.
Tucking a long, caramel-coloured curl behind her ear, Samantha tried not to sigh. The Gaje always asked such silly questions. Not even the youngest child in the gypsy camp would have trouble catching a fly. And here was a woman, at least forty-five, who was so far removed from nature that she screamed and froze when one of the camp dogs sniffed her in greeting as she climbed out of her BMW. Sometimes Samantha wondered how these rich people survived at all.
She reached for another card and the errant curl flopped back into her face. God, it’s boiling in here, she thought. The frangipani incense thickened the still air in the caravan, but Lala insisted it must always be burning. The Gaje pay for the show, my Sam. You must give them the whole dream.
The Gaje woman didn’t seem to notice the heat. Each time Samantha’s hand moved to the well-worn tarot deck the customer would hold her breath, her small, black eyes locked on every move.
Sam turned the card very slowly for effect. She studied her fingers and decided that tonight she’d swap her acid-yellow nail polish for blue. Although the yellow did go well with her new emerald ring, she thought. Her cat-like eyes glinted with an almost-smile. A real emerald this size would buy her a castle in Pantelimon.
Before she flipped it over, she peeked at the card. Hah. That’d be right. She met her client’s eyes, now wide with fear.
‘That’s…’ stuttered the Gaje woman. ‘Is that…?’
‘The Devil,’ said Samantha. ‘Yep.’
Mrs Nicolescu’s hand flew to her throat, each fleshy finger choked in gold rings. She made the sign of the cross. Samantha hoped the woman’s prayer would work. Despite her genuine jewels and posh clothing, Mrs Nicolescu needed help: underneath her expensive make-up the flesh of her face was dimpled and yellow, and the smell of decay and cigarettes on her breath was doing a good job of competing with the cloying incense.
Samantha shifted in her chair. Now was the time she was supposed to ramp up Mrs Nicolescu’s anxiety, warn her that seven generations ago a dying woman had made a powerful deathbed curse against her family. Drawing the Devil card was proof that the curse was about to come into play, causing misery and pain for her and all she loved. Of course – with some rituals and a talisman, created especially for her – there were some surefire methods to counteract the curse.
For a price.
The woman coughed, her voluminous bosom wobbling wildly. The crepe skin of her chest moved at a slightly slower speed, like an oil slick surfing a wave.
‘The devil?’ she said, breathing hard, leaning forward, pink lipstick smearing her jaundiced front teeth. ‘O Doamne! Help me, please.’
Samantha’s snub nose crinkled and she leaned back a smidge.
‘Chill, Mrs Nicolescu,’ she said. ‘The devil card is a warning card, but it’s not as bad as you think.’
Wrong move, Sam, she told herself.
‘Tell me, what does it mean?’
Mrs Nicolescu reached her blood-red tipped fingers towards Samantha’s, but they seemed to reconsider at the last minute. They clutched instead at her wallet. Faux Gucci, Samantha decided. Birthday Jones had stolen one just like it from the market last Sunday. She wondered whether Mrs Nicolescu knew it was a knock-off. And whether she cared.
‘It’s the Temptation card, Mrs Nicolescu,’ said Samantha, dropping the gypsy witch voice. ‘It just means that you’re placing too much emphasis on the material world and its pleasures.’
‘I’m doing what?’
‘You’re eating too much, you smoke too much, and you drink a lot. Your kidneys are about ready to pack themselves a duffle bag and get the hell out.’
Mrs Nicolescu sat back in her chair, her painted eyebrows raised. Her expression told Samantha: this is not what I came here for. Sam had seen the look too often lately.
‘What? What are you talking about? That I eat and drink?’ said Mrs Nicolescu, her voice now shrill.
Samantha tried to wrangle the moment back. They never listen anyway, she thought. I should just stick with the script.
‘You’re disconnected from your spirit, Mrs Nicolescu,’ she intoned, gypsy witch voice back in place.
‘Disconnected from my spirit?’
You’re an alcoholic, said Samantha in her head. An over-fed, under-exercised Gaje woman who won’t make it to fifty; you need to eat salad and ease up on the whisky.
‘Ah, yes, the spirits are speaking now, clamouring for my attention,’ she said instead. ‘Silence!’ She sat bolt upright in her gilded witch’s chair, its golden paint chipped and scratched. ‘Ah, yes, it is just as I thought. A curse, and an ancient and powerful one at that. A mighty spell has been cast, Mrs Nicolescu. You have come to me not a moment too soon.’
Samantha placed her hands flat on her crimson-draped tarot table, eyes boring directly into those of her client’s. They met awe, fear, disgust, blind faith. Liver disease.
She sighed again and turned another card.
Samantha stretched in the doorway of the caravan, watching the dust swirl up from her client’s car as she left the camp. Mrs Nicolescu would be back tomorrow with nine candles, a chicken, a jar of honey, and three coins blessed in a church. Oh, and her wallet. Samantha had promised her a talisman ceremony. What she hadn’t told her was that three weeks of rituals were necessary to perfect the talisman spell, and that a visit each week would be required, each time with more money and gifts as offerings for the spirits.
She blinked in the brilliant sunlight and held up her hand to shade her eyes.
Oh my God! She ducked back into the van.
She raced over to the mirror framed in faded fabric roses and fairy lights at the back of the caravan. She leaned in close. What was he still doing here?
She tugged her fingers through her tangled hair, scowling at her reflection. She wished – as she had every day she could remember – for the liquorice locks and dark eyes of the other Roma in the camp. Her cheeks burned the same pink as the favourite singlet top she wore, and her heart scudded in her chest. Tamas. She grinned and rummaged quickly through the jewellery in the painted box on the table. She unhooked the small green beads dangling from her ears and looped through her big silver hoops. She tied a thin leather thong around her forehead and then skipped back through the van, poking a rose from the mirror into one of the tangles in her hair. She didn’t know why she bothered. Tamas always looked straight through her, the same way that he did all the little kids in the camp.
Well, I’m fifteen now, Tamas, she thought, jumping barefoot into the hot, dry grass. She ran across the paddock, her lime green skirt billowing behind her, the bells around her ankles clinking.
Bo, Esmeralda’s little boy, smashed two toy cars together in the dirt by the remnants of one of last night’s fires. He jumped up when she passed him.
‘You wanna race me, Sam?’ he shouted, already bolting along beside her, cocoa cheeks smeared with ash, heavy eyebrows framing squid-ink eyes. His older brother’s tiny dog, Hero, who resembled a bewitched yellow washing-up rag, tore in from the other side of the camp and flashed in and out through Bo’s heels, yapping. Bo managed to run without tripping while grinning up at her, his smile an irresistible blend of six-year-old baby teeth and missing six-year-old baby teeth.
She laughed down at him. ‘Not right now, Bo. I think your mamma is calling you. Shouldn’t you be getting cleaned up for lunch?’
Sam didn’t feel too bad about the lie. Esmeralda wasn’t calling him, but she would be soon. Cooking aromas wafted over from the other end of the camp. She ran on when Bo stopped, head cocked, listening for his mum. You didn’t want to be called twice when Esmeralda was looking for you.
Tamas stood under the trees with one of the ponies. The rest of their horses had been herded out with the men before light. Sam had half-watched them leaving, bundled under her quilt with Mirela and Shofranka breathing deeply either side of her. She’d frowned across the dying campfire, watching the dogs racing madly after the group, unused to such early-morning action. At the time, she’d figured that her day would suck – Tamas would be gone until dark came again – but there he was: red bandana, the bare skin of his back as brown as the pony, his jeans loose and low. Her stomach flip-flopped.
She skidded to a stop next to the pony, who blinked up at her.
‘Hey, baby,’ she said, rubbing her palm over its muzzle.
Tamas threw a rock out across the thirsty paddock. His favourite dog, Oody, bounded after it.
‘What are you doing here, Witch?’ he said, watching Oody. He twitched his head and his long, plaited ponytail whipped a fat, sun-addled fly into the sky.
As always, she could not take her eyes from his dark lashes, his gorgeous, strong nose.
‘Making money,’ she said. ‘What are you doing here, more like it?’
Tamas kicked at the dirt.
‘Well? Why aren’t you at the horse fair?’ she tried again.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘All the other men are gone,’ she said. She scratched at her bare midriff. ‘Oh, is that it? You’re too young?’
‘I’m seventeen,’ he said. ‘And I’d like to shoot Besnik.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s called patricide, and the Gaje lock you up for it,’ said Sam.
Tamas looked at her. Looked away. Looked back.
She bit her lip.
‘You read too much,’ he said. ‘No one understands you.’
‘Patricide,’ she said. ‘It means murdering your father. Apparently it’s frowned upon. You’re supposed to love your father.’
Tamas scudded another rock out across the field. Oody went crazy.
‘Well, you don’t have a father like mine,’ he said. He rubbed at his chin and blinked down at her. ‘Oh, sorry,’ he said.
‘That’s cool, don’t worry about it.’ Her throat tightened. She studied her bare feet. ‘The whole princess-stolen-by-gypsies story pulls in the punters.’
‘I didn’t mean…’
‘I said don’t worry about it.’
But she always did. For the Roma, family – ancestry – was absolutely everything. Everybody knew that x was the son of y who was the nephew of z and the great-grandson of abc. Hour-long songs were dedicated to the lineage of a family. Dirt poor or filthy rich, nothing was more valuable to a gypsy than knowing where you came from, who you were.
Samantha had no idea.
‘Well, you are bringing in a lot of rich Gaje these days, Witch,’ said Tamas. ‘Besnik and Milosh were pretty happy about the money they had to horse-trade today. You wait and see what they come home with.’ His full lips twisted like he’d just tasted sour milk. ‘I just wish I could have been there.’
Samantha was beginning to wonder when her recent luck was going to run out. It was true – she was raking in money for the camp. For the first time in years she’d been able to walk close to Milosh without copping a filthy look. Lala still kept a close watch and warned her with their secret whistle whenever he was on the move, but even she seemed less tense, smiled more often. Last week, Samantha had even watched Lala fall asleep before she did, and that had never happened.
For as long as Sam could remember, Lala had been the camp witch and Samantha her apprentice, but their main income had come mostly from the horses. Besnik was gifted when it came to spotting a potentially great horse and buying it at a dirt-cheap price. He had an eye for horses who were mistreated, underfed, whipped too often, worked too hard. He and Tamas would lead the limping creatures back to camp and Tamas would spend hours and hours with them.
Whenever she could, Samantha would steal away from afternoon chores to watch, leaning against a tree in the twilight until she grew too cold, too hungry, or it became too dark. Tamas didn’t let any of these things stop him, though. He’d sit in the paddock by the broken horse, whispering quietly, continuously, late into the night. The camp fires would spark and spit into the night sky, striving to rejoin the stars, but still Tamas would sit. As the light left, he seemed to merge into the dirt, become part of the evening.
Samantha had no idea how he could ignore the smells of the chicken fat dribbling and sizzling into the fire, the earthy beat of the beans boiling, the unbearably yeasty aroma of hot bread.
Sometimes he’d sing softly. Sometimes he’d just speak nonsense, on and on, describing, in ridiculous detail, the things around him. Sam would close her eyes and listen and feel the horse relaxing. She could sense their ears finely tuned to the sound of his voice; their taut, terrified muscles daring to let go; even their skin, tight as a drum under their hard hair, seemed to loosen, to yield as he spoke.
Tamas would draw closer and closer to the horse each day. Within a week or so, they would be inseparable. He’d brush them until their manes rippled in the breeze like silk, whispering into a flicking ear all the while. Before long, he’d be up bareback on his new charge, and together they’d break free of the paddock and canter away into the purple hills. And when Besnik ordered Tamas on to other duties, the new horse would wait, pressed up against its fence, hot-chocolate eyes scanning all movement in the camp until they again found his. In the meantime, every fifteen minutes or so, the horse would whinny softly, calling him.
She knew that at least seven of Tamas’s new horses were right now beyond reach of ever seeing him again. Tonight they’d be in their new homes, now valued, valuable horseflesh, each traded for gold or cash, or for at least five new nags who would resemble what they used to look like mere months ago. Samantha would bet Mrs Nicolescu’s fat wallet that they would be very old horses indeed before they forgot those couple of months with Tamas.
She smiled wryly. She had a lot in common with those horses. All of them just wanted a little more time as close as possible to Tamas.
‘What are you thinking about, Witch? You’re not putting a spell on me, are you?’
Samantha’s head snapped up. Tamas had stopped throwing rocks.
‘I – um, I’m just – I’m just thinking about the heat,’ she said. ‘It’s been such a warm midsummer.’
Oh no. She was so used to her daydreams about Tamas that she’d become lost inside one while he stood right next to her. What did she just say? Did it make any sense? Had she spoken at all? She raised a hand to her throat.
Tamas took a step closer. ‘Well, you do look a little hot, Sam,’ he said.
Samantha tried to swallow.
Somehow, she suddenly found this difficult.
‘What’s that in your hair?’ He leaned forward. As though in slow motion she watched his hand reach towards her face, the burnt-gold hairs on his tanned forearm muted by a light dusting of dry camp soil. He plucked the faded fabric rose from her hair, held it to his nose, smiled down at her.
‘Mmm. Smells gorgeous,’ he said.
This time when she tried to speak, nothing came out.
‘Hey, speaking of making money, looks like you’re on again, Sam,’ he said, his eyes leaving hers. She followed his gaze back to the circle of vans and trucks and the caravan. Lala was making her careful way over, phone to her ear.
Samantha watched the only woman she’d ever known as mother hobbling awkwardly towards her, her Gaje-designed specially built-up left shoe still leaving her with an ungainly limp so that she wobbled and weaved as a drunken Gaje might.
Damn. Sam felt like stamping her foot in the dirt as Tamas had, but instead she swung back to him and tried to turn her frown upside down.
‘I guess I’d better go then,’ she said.
‘Yeah. Looks like someone around here is needed.’
He whistled through his teeth, and Oody, panting in the shade of one of the trees, bounded to his side.
‘Um…’ she tried. She was acutely aware of Lala, hot in the sun, still speaking into her phone, painfully making her way over. ‘Are you going to the Carnivale this weekend?’
‘Um, are you on drugs?’ he said. ‘Of course I’m going.’
Lame, Sam. You are so lame. She figured her face would actually catch fire if she blushed any harder.
Tamas laughed, his white teeth flashing, and stepped out towards the hills, Oody at his side.
‘Later, Witch,’ he threw over his shoulder.
She watched his broad shoulders for a moment longer then turned and ran back towards camp, already ashamed that her crush had cost Lala a few more painful steps than was necessary.
JUNE 27, 12.30 P.M.
‘Ow! Ow! Lala, you’re killing me!’
Samantha tried to grab at Lala’s hands, but the old woman rapped her knuckles with the back of the brush and kept right on ripping at the knots.
‘Don’t you blame me for this mess, you bad cat,’ said Lala. ‘You could have a family of rats living in there.’
Samantha pouted, tears of pain pricking her eyes. She could feel Lala’s anxiety – it stiffened her neck and made her jaw hurt. She forced herself to stop grinding her teeth.
‘But why would the gypsy king come to our camp today? Wouldn’t he be at the horse-trading fair with the other men? Maybe your friend’s warning is a mistake?’
Lala tugged harder. ‘He’s on his way here,’ she said. ‘To visit you.’
‘You said that before, but it makes no sense. Maybe he told your friend he was coming to visit the witch, and he meant you, but she got confused. Why would the king of the gypsies come out to see me? He’s never even been here before.’
‘I know, I know. You think I don’t know? And Milosh is away. What is he going to say?’ Lala stopped brushing. ‘You are going to have to stay away from Milosh tonight, kitten, you promise me?’
Samantha was beginning to feel nauseous from the fear emanating from Lala. She couldn’t bear it any longer. She sat still in the chair and met Lala’s rheumy eyes in the mirror.
‘It will be okay, Lala. Everything will be fine.’ She spoke quietly, calmly.
‘Don’t you use that on me, Witch,’ said Lala, but Samantha could feel her shoulders dropping, the brush now more careful in her hair.
‘Lala, let me finish here,’ she said. ‘I’ll do my hair, please. Shouldn’t you go and see whether Esmeralda needs you? She must be shrieking by now knowing that she has to serve lunch to the king.’
Sam felt Lala’s tension ratchet up again. ‘It is a shame,’ she said. ‘A terrible shame! We should have feasting and music for his visit. What will he think of us?’
‘Well, maybe he’ll think about choosing a better time for paying a social visit,’ said Samantha. ‘Besides, from what I’ve heard, that man could live without a feast or two.’
The brush tugged extra hard and Samantha whimpered. Lala fixed on Samantha’s eyes in the mirror.
‘You will not be defiant today, Samantha White! You will not use your clever words. And you must promise me you will not try any of your… your tricks. The gypsy king can cause us many problems, and if you’re to blame, Milosh will leave you in the street when we move on. I have not kept you safe here these fifteen years to lose you now.’
The old woman’s eyes filled with tears.
‘Lala!’ Samantha spun in her seat and cupped Lala’s tissue-paper cheeks in her hands. ‘Please, don’t cry! You will kill me!’ She felt as though a fist had just been shoved down her throat. ‘I’m going to be good, I promise. I will be perfectly well behaved. Look, see?’
She grabbed the brush and began dragging it through her hair, the pain nothing compared to the sickness she felt when Lala was hurting. She concentrated her energy outwards, trying to make Lala feel better.
‘You’re a good girl, kitten,’ said Lala, slowly lifting herself to leave. ‘I will go to help Esmeralda. If she has not put that Bo and his crazy dog into the pot, he will be a very lucky boy.’
Samantha finished brushing her hair and re-tied the leather thong around her forehead. Despite Lala’s conviction, she was almost certain that the gypsy king was not on his way out to visit them. The Romani people adored gossip and rumours, and once someone had spun a good story, the tale would whip around the camps and cities like a summer fire.
She peered into the mirror again and ruffled through the well-used make-up bag on the table. She carefully blended midnight kohl along her eyelids, flicking it up, cat-like, at the corners. She smeared her eyelids in shimmering green and finally slicked on some pale pink lip gloss.
At least Tamas will see me all dressed up.
She jumped from the step of the caravan and skipped through the camp, waving at old Nuri, cross-legged in the grass, rocking Bo’s newest brother off to sleep. Swallows glided silently, high above her, looping lazily like fish in the blue, cloudless sky. She could smell and hear Esmeralda cooking. The scent made her salivate and the curses made her laugh.
She rounded the tarpaulin-covered flatbed truck she shared with Milosh and Lala when it was too cold to sleep under the stars. The girls bustled around the campfire like chickens just thrown a handful of corn.
‘What can I do?’ she yelled, trying to make herself heard.
‘Waaa! The Witch Princess herself. Here to grace us with her presence!’ Esmeralda took a cigarette from her lips and put one hand on her very round hip. The gold scarf around her head was dark with sweat. ‘You are the cause of all this catastrophe, I understand?’
Esmeralda’s voice had one volume: maximum.
‘Hey, I’m just a working girl,’ said Sam. ‘A very hungry working girl. Whatcha cooking? Is that lamb?’
‘Lamb? The Princess wants lamb?’
Esmeralda carefully manoeuvred between four black, fat-bottomed pots suspended over the fire, dipping bread into one and tasting. ‘Well, this here is supposed to be supper for the men, but because of this whole catastrophe this afternoon, yes, Princess, you shall have your lamb.’
Esmeralda’s first-born, Mirela, looked up from the pot into which she was dropping pieces of a carrot hidden in her hand. Each orange disc fell from her fingers as she expertly sliced it with a small silver knife. Although only thirteen, Mirela was a great cook, was wanted by the Gaje police, and was Sam’s best friend in the whole world. Well, not counting Birthday Jones…
When she bent to pick up another carrot from a bag at her feet, Mirela gave Samantha a big wink from beneath her heavy black fringe. Sam grinned back.
She spotted Lala scolding Bo and Hero over by the main town-car. While Esmeralda was busy with the rice, Sam bent to a foil-wrapped package at the feet of little Shofranka and gave her a can-I-steal-some-bread? raise of her eyebrows. Shofranka gave her a sure-of-course-you-can smile in return. Sam reached quickly into the foil and tore a chunk of bread from a warm, flat loaf within. She raised it to her nose and breathed, then scoffed it quickly. Smiling, she drew closer to Esmeralda.
‘You’re not buying this gypsy king crap, are you, Esmeralda?’ she said. ‘I mean, as if he’s coming out here.’
She made a game-show hostess sweep with her hand around the camp. Her favourite place in the world it may well be, but this was no Romani palace.
Esmeralda stopped stirring the huge pot.
‘I’ll tell you what I am doing, Samantha White,’ she said. ‘I am preparing the most important lunch that you’ve ever seen in your life. And I have no tables set up. And there is no band, no menfolk, and I have no roasted meat. I’ll be very lucky to find some whisky. It is a complete disgrace. Lala came to me just a half-hour ago with the news, and I was planning only chicken and rice for all of us.’
‘He’s not coming,’ said Samantha.
Esmeralda wore her favourite bright red skirt. It cascaded past her toes and into the dirt. Printed gold cherubs bearing harps and violins cavorted around the hem as she moved. The mud and oil smudges from the campsite only added to the cherubs’ party scene.
‘You are only a child,’ Esmeralda said, quietly.
‘What?’ said Samantha. Esmeralda felt funny. And she never spoke quietly.
‘Samantha,’ said Esmeralda. ‘I love you.’
Mirela was watching intently, her silver knife stilled.
‘I love you like a daughter,’ continued Esmeralda. ‘Like a child from my womb. I will always love you. But you are not Romani. I don’t know what you are. All of us have always known that the day would come when you would draw attention. I don’t know whether today is the day. I don’t know what is going on.’
Esmeralda put her cigarette back between her lips and spoke around it, the smoke trickling into her squinting, glinting eyes. ‘But what you do need to understand is that the gypsy king will be here shortly. And he’s coming to see you.’
Esmeralda threw the last of her cigarette into the fire. She reached down to the grass for her trademark knife, standing in the soil where she’d stabbed it. She wrenched it into the air – a curved, heavy machete that made short work of any animal the men brought for her attention. The pendulous chandeliers in her ears swung riotously with the movement. She gripped her knife waist high.
‘I can tell you, though, Samantha,’ she said. ‘We’ll be ready.’
Samantha felt her tongue dry around the last of the bread in her mouth and she coughed. Whether the king was coming or not, Esmeralda sure believed he was.
Sam squatted next to a bundle of corn still in their husks, and began wrapping them in aluminium foil. When she had a pile, she poked them into the ash at the edges of the fire. The sun beat down on the back of her neck.
‘Where is that lazy boy?’ Esmeralda suddenly shouted. ‘Tamas! Tamas! Get over here now!’
Mirela found Sam’s eyes and smirked. Samantha poked her tongue out just as Tamas loped around the corner of the truck, Oody at his feet.
‘Lunch ready?’ he said, flashing his grin.
His white teeth were perfect, and he wore a silver charm around his neck on a thick black cord. Samantha had made them for everyone last Christmas, first blessing each with gypsy luck with a midsummer’s night spell. It shone dully against his tanned bare chest. She dropped her squat and sat down hard on the grass, staring up at him. She’d known him all her life, but she’d never get sick of that view.
‘Go and put a shirt on right now!’ said Esmeralda.
Oh no, don’t do that, thought Samantha.
‘And then get back here immediately. I want you to set up three tables and twelve chairs under the trees over there.’
Esmeralda pointed her wooden spoon towards the copse of trees where Sam had spotted Tamas earlier.
‘What for?’ he said. ‘It’s too hot to move everything over there. We don’t need the tables today. Let’s just eat here.’
For a woman her size, Esmeralda could move fast.
She was by Tamas’s side in a second. Gripping him by the bicep, she started slapping her wooden spoon against the backside of his jeans.
‘Grandson of Nuri, son of Besnik! It is only for my love of your angel mother…’ Esmeralda took a deep breath and landed a slap with each of her next words: ‘May. She. Rest. In. Peace. That I do not use this spoon on your head!’
‘Argh! Aunty, what are you doing?’
Tamas swung his hips away from the blows. Samantha knew that although those shoulders could have picked Esmeralda up and carried her easily, he did not dare pull away from his aunty when she was in a mood like this. Although the spoon couldn’t be hurting him much, Oody raced around madly, barking like a machine gun, weaving in and out of Esmeralda’s legs.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ Tamas yelled. ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’
Oody’s barking drew Hero, the tiny dog racing in as quickly as his name would imply. Bo followed, waving a stick with a hanky for a flag, hollering at the top of his lungs, just because he could and everyone else was. Lala limped along behind them, shaking her fist in the air, yelling at Bo to calm down. Samantha hid her laughter behind her hands as Mirela stood up and did a special belly dance for her cousin, mimicking Tamas’s attempts to dodge the spoon. Mirela shouted with laughter and her black hair streamed around her face like ribbons.
Samantha’s chest felt warm, like her heart was smiling too. The Gaje might telephone the police if they were watching a scene like this, but this was her crazy family and they’d die for one another.
June 27, 9.50 a.m.
Luke sat in the locker room, wrapped in his towel, squashed between Zac and Jonas, all waiting for their turn in the shower. Rain hammered down on the tin roof above them, drowning the voices of the other boys also wrapped in towels, shivering, waiting.
Even with the noise of the rain, no one dared speak much above a whisper. Dorm Four had been told that in addition to no TV tonight, they were in ‘silent mode’ – no speaking until morning. Not that many people were talking to Zac and Luke.
Jonas moved to scrunch even closer to the strip heater on the wall. ‘It’s friggin’ freezing,’ he said, his lips blue.
Luke turned to Zac. ‘What classes have you got today, Zac?’ he asked.
‘Metalwork,’ said Zac, swimming in one of the towels that barely met in the middle around Jonas’s waist. ‘And um, landscaping, I think. You?’
‘Same,’ Luke grinned. ‘You must be in Section Six too.’
‘Man, Holt hates you guys,’ said Jonas.
‘What’s wrong with Section Six?’ asked Zac. ‘Metalwork doesn’t sound that bad.’
‘All the Sections get to do metalwork, idiot,’ said Jonas. ‘And everyone gets computer lab too – well, except Black, here. He could probably teach that class, but he’s banned from the lab. But that’s not what you need to understand about Section Six. Section Six is where they put all the crabs.’
‘Crabs?’ said Zac.
‘Yeah,’ said Luke. ‘Losers who don’t do what they’re told.’
‘People who screw everything up for the rest of us,’ said Jonas, frowning. ‘Do you know that Terminator III is on at eight-thirty? You guys better watch your backs tonight.’
‘Holt’s not on tonight,’ said Zac.
‘Holt’s not the only one you need to worry about in here, Nguyen,’ said Jonas. ‘Holt gets other people to do his counselling for him.’
‘What’s counselling?’ asked Zac.
‘What Luke got last night,’ said Jonas.
‘From Jason Taylor?’ said Zac. ‘And that fat Toad? Whatever.’
Luke laughed. His lip split a little and he tasted metal. He wiped the smear of blood with the back of his hand.
‘At least we got metalwork next,’ he said. ‘Best class of the week. Landscaping’s gonna suck in this weather, though.’
‘I don’t know…’ said Zac, standing as Hong Lo, Kitkat and Barry walked into the locker rooms, faces red from their hot showers. His eyes met Luke’s. ‘I’m pretty good with plants.’
‘Mr Blainey is one of the reasons that metalwork is the best class of the week,’ said Luke to Zac, pointing with his chin at the crumpled-looking man at the front of the cold room.
They were sharing the back work table, Luke ensuring he got there first, just as he did for every metalwork class.
Zac studied their teacher: his glowing crimson cheeks and nose; his oversized, stained woollen jumper. ‘So he’s good at metalwork?’ he said, frowning.
‘Oh, he’s a great teacher,’ said Luke. ‘You’ll see.’
‘Okay, Section Six, what are you up to today?’ asked Mr Blainey, flipping a page on a clipboard. ‘Ah, that’s right, still on toolboxes. Have to stay basic for you boys, don’t we? Clarkson, get up here and unlock the supply cupboard. Those of you who’ve got a toolbox started can approach single file and take your project. If you haven’t started making a toolbox yet, you’ll find instructions and equipment in the boxes on my desk. Take only one kit. And please remember, any screwing around and you’ll have no visitors this weekend and no privileges for the rest of your stay here. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Mr Blainey,’ chorused Section Six.
‘And don’t forget – it’s two people only on the grinder at a time. Fifteen-minute shifts.’ Blainey positioned himself back behind his desk.
Luke queued for the supply cupboard while Zac collected his starter kit from the teacher’s desk. He figured that he should be feeling a thousand times worse after the run this morning, but for some reason the exercise and the hot shower had actually helped. At least it didn’t hurt so much to breathe, but he figured that he wasn’t going to be seeing much out of his eye for a while.
When he’d collected his half-constructed metal toolbox, he made his way back to the desk where Zac waited.
Zac ran a finger down the instruction sheet in his hand.
‘Seems pretty lame,’ said Zac. ‘Who wants to make a toolbox? What am I gonna do with that?’
‘You’re right,’ said Luke. ‘I much prefer the actual tools myself.’
He reached carefully under the workbench, eyes on Mr Blainey who had reclined further in his chair and put his feet up on the desk.
‘Good old Blainey,’ he said. ‘Almost asleep already. He’s a drunk, you know.’
From under the bench he pulled out two pieces of metal: an oversized nail and a flat narrow piece that was as long as his hand.
‘What are they?’ asked Zac.
‘Not finished yet, is what they are right now,’ said Luke. ‘But what they will be is a pick and a torque wrench.’
Zac raised his eyebrows, his face a question.
‘A lock-picking set,’ Luke smiled. ‘I stashed these here last week.’
Zac looked sceptical. ‘How are you gonna pick a lock with them?’
Luke glanced around. Everyone was bent over their desks, filing. Clarkson and Hooley were on the grinder. Luke was up next. He checked his watch. Five minutes to go.
‘Have you ever even seen a lock-picking set, Nguyen?’ he said.
‘Ah, no. It’s not the kind of thing we had hanging around my house.’
‘Well, it’s exactly the kind of thing we had hanging around my house. Well, the house of Foster Parents Number Six, anyway.’
Good old Dick and Frances. I wonder whether they’re happy with their new kitchen, he thought. They never did thank me for setting fire to their old one.
‘My foster father was a locksmith,’ he said. And a violent bible-basher who flogged me every night to beat the devil out of me. ‘Best foster placement I ever had. I used to practise with his tools every night, and when I left, he donated them to me.’
Well, maybe not exactly donated.
‘Cool,’ said Zac. ‘So how do you do it?’
‘With a lot of practice. But once you get it, you just get it, and it’s so easy. See this nail? Watch this.’
He used a pair of pliers to bend the top quarter of the nail over to a ninety-degree angle. Then he tossed it high in the air, caught it, and twirled it in his fingers in front of Zac’s eyes.
‘See, now it’s a torque wrench. And now I’m gonna grind this other bit of metal so that this end bends up a little, and that’ll be my rake. You use the rake as your scrubber.’
‘You use the rake as your scrubber?’ Zac snorted. ‘What the hell language are you speaking? What are you talking about?’
Luke used the tools to demonstrate his words.
‘Look. You put both of these inside the barrel of most locks and you can open it in ten seconds. Inside the lock there are these five little pins, and you use the rake to scrub over them. It sort of loosens them, and then this torque wrench,’ he twirled the nail between his fingers, ‘will engage the lock. You hit the sweet spot and pop, it’s open.’
Zac stared at the nail and piece of metal and raised an eyebrow again. Yeah right, he said, without saying anything.
Luke sighed. ‘It’s actually easier to do it than to explain it. Anyway, these are just the most basic tools. But they’ll crack any of the crappy old tumbler locks they use around this place.’
‘Well, I’d have to see that to believe it,’ said Zac.
Luke grinned. ‘Maybe you’ll get to one day, but right now, it’s our turn on the grinder. Bring your stuff. I need you for cover.’
He made his way over to the grinding table with his soon-to-be-very-useful tools hidden in the toolbox. He helped Zac unpack his kit, keeping half an eye on Blainey. The teacher had his open-mouthed-snore-thing going on. Pretty soon he’d have a stream of spit connecting his lip to his shirt collar.
Luke quickly shaped his rake, sparks flaring briefly from the screaming hot metal as he pressed it against the grinder.
The reshaping took just a couple of minutes. He studied his new tool, still hot from the grinder. He felt Zac watching him and gave him a quick grin before slipping the rake into his sock, next to the nail.
He straightened, studied Blainey: dead flesh, or as good as, anyway. He turned to Zac, who had deftly begun the first stage of his toolbox, his beetle-black hair a glossy hardhat.
‘You get used to it. The neglect, I mean. You know, I could be here welding your thumb to your ankle, and Blainey would snooze on regardless. What happens is that they send us all the teachers who have been kicked out of the education system. But you look like you’ve done this before, anyway.’
‘Well, it’s not that hard to read instructions,’ said Zac.
‘It is for ninety per cent of the kids in here,’ said Luke. ‘Most of them can’t read the exit sign over there.’
Zac continued to work with the tin in front of him.
‘But doesn’t everyone steal all this stuff?’ he said after a moment. ‘I mean, what with Blainey sleeping?’
‘We get searched,’ said Luke. ‘Well, we’re supposed to. He wakes up when the bell goes and does a basic search. But this is why I love Blainey. He’s never very dedicated at doing anything, if you know what I mean.’
Luke watched him, and decided to try his special guessing game – figuring people out. Understanding why people did things had kept him alive more than once. Let’s see, what would little Zac Nguyen be locked up in here for? Stealing a car? Hmm, maybe.
‘How long is your sentence, Zac?’ he asked.
Zac kept his eyes on his work. ‘That’s usually the second question people ask in here. Aren’t you supposed to ask me what I’m in for?’
‘Aren’t you innocent anyway? Everyone else in here seems to be.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Zac laughed. ‘Well, I got twelve months.’
Luke whistled. Okay, all right, so it’s either a repeat offence or maybe he screwed up a suspended committal – he got charged again when he was on a bond for something else.
‘Ever been in before?’ he asked.
Something pretty serious, then.
‘How many times had you been to court before this one?’ he asked.
‘Never,’ said Zac.
So… maybe he stole a car and someone got hurt?
‘Did you steal a car and kill someone?’ said Luke.
‘Ah… No. Not lately.’ Zac stared at him. ‘Why don’t you just ask me what I’m in for?’
‘What are you in for?’
‘Right. That makes sense. With the whole ninja thing you did last night. Thanks for doing that, by the way.’
‘I hate bullies.’
‘Well, you’re gonna love it in here then, Nguyen,’ said Luke, beginning to pack up. ‘Because that’s exactly how the screws control us. They’ve got their own little private army. They’re the generals, Toad and his buddies are the soldiers, and we’re the enemy. Oh, and you do know that Taylor, Toad and Holt are now gonna make it their life’s mission to make you sorry you were born?’
‘Come on,’ Luke said. ‘We gotta get off this machine. Watson’s waiting for his turn.’
Back at their bench, Luke shaped a handle for Zac’s toolbox using a spare piece of tin. ‘That must have been a pretty bad assault,’ he said, positioning the handle. He knew that first-offence assault charges usually didn’t involve a custodial sentence, let alone twelve months.
Zac’s mouth turned down a little. ‘He was a bad guy. I taught him a lesson.’
‘You must have done, to get twelve months.’
‘He had people around him with a lot of money and a good lawyer, that’s all.’
‘So what did you do to him?’
Luke always asked for the war stories. It was worth a shot to see whether something could shock him, make his heart race a little like he heard people talk about. It hadn’t happened yet. But Nguyen seemed different to everyone else.
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ said Zac, turning to face him. Luke was only average height, but Zac had to tilt his head back to eyeball him. ‘I’m here,’ he said. ‘Who cares how I got here?’
‘All right, all right. Don’t get all emotional, Princess.’
‘Why are you in here?’ said Zac. ‘Why don’t you tell me something about yourself for once?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ said Luke.
He laughed when he saw Zac’s face. This guy has anger issues. I like him. I’d like to have some anger issues. They sound like fun.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘We’ll bond later. The bell’s about to go.’
JUNE 27, 12.30 P.M.
In the dining hall, Luke took a seat in the Section Six area. He thought that maybe he was hungry now, but he wasn’t sure how well he was going to be able to chew with his mouth hurting this bad. He prodded gingerly at his jaw. He had a terrible headache radiating right from that spot.
A wrapped sandwich and an apple sat on his plate; two big plastic jugs of water waited in the middle of the table. Mmm, yum. Not.
Although they weren’t allowed to begin eating until instructed, Luke flipped the sandwich over to see what their lunch would be today.
Please don’t be tuna, please don’t be tuna, he told the sandwich. The smell gave it away. Tuna. He took a closer look. Tuna and mayonnaise. Ick. The bread was sodden; he could feel it limp and oozing through the clingwrap. Despite his still-healing lip, he smiled widely: Toad was on permanent kitchen duty and would be watching for his reaction. If he grimaced, he’d be eating tuna every day until he got out of here.
It was moments like these that he hated Zecko Sevic the most. He wouldn’t be in here if it wasn’t for him.
He’d dealt just fine with the welfare department until Zecko had been hired and appointed his case manager. For his first twelve years, Welfare didn’t make much of a fuss of Luke at all. And that had been fine by him. The only time they made contact was when he’d stuffed up another foster care arrangement. They’d give him a new case manager who would go about doing their best to find him another family. And that was that. Until case manager Zecko Sevic came on the scene. After Dick and Frances.
Although Luke had made certain that Dick knew he’d done the fiery redecoration of their kitchen, he’d also ensured that no one could actually prove it, so nobody came right out and accused him. But Zecko seemed to have it sussed and he made it his mission to take Luke under his wing. Maybe that could have been a good thing for a kid in the welfare system who actually wanted an adult to help them. But it wasn’t the fact that Luke didn’t need or want any help that made Zecko the biggest pain in the butt. The problem with Zecko was that every time he took Luke ‘under his wing’, Luke came close to being taken off the welfare books. Permanently. As in dead.
Like the time Zecko had arranged for him to clean the second-floor windows at the rec centre. And then pushed the scaffolding out from under him. Luke had managed to grab hold of a ledge at the last minute, yelling and shouting until help arrived; Zecko was well gone by then.
And then there was that weekend when Zecko arranged a camping trip for twenty under-privileged kids. Zecko had been in a great mood on the bus all the way to the river campsite. He’d been smiling fit to burst when he taught them all to make damper. And when he got a rifle out of the back of the bus and told them he was going to teach them all to shoot, he’d been positively beaming. Luke dodged two stray bullets that weekend and slept under the bus with one eye open.
He knew there was no point trying to tell anyone about Zecko – who was going to believe him? But he’d spent a lot of nights after that camping trip coming up with a plan to get him out of the way.
Then Zecko tried again. This time, on the way to a new foster placement, he’d gone all out. In a backstreet in Stanmore, Zecko gunned his departmental Holden up to seventy and aimed the passenger side straight for the corner of a factory. Luke had seen the crazy in Zecko’s eyes just in time and hurled himself across the seat, pushing with all his might at the steering wheel. The Holden got a new front end after it hit a row of wheelie bins. Zecko got a bravery award for wrestling control of the car from a suicidal juvenile delinquent. Two civilians on the street got twenty grand from the media for their mobile phone footage of the crash. And Luke got eight months in Dwight. His past computer-fraud charges didn’t help in court.
Now, in the Dwight dining hall, Luke cut his eyes to the Section One tables, suddenly salivating at the smell wafting over from there. Toad waved back at him, gesturing to his plate as if it were a prize. Oh my God. They had meat pies. Sausage rolls. Sauce. And in the centre of each table – two-litre bottles of Coke. Oh man. Luke waved back to Toad and blew him a kiss for good measure.
‘Get even fatter, Toad,’ he said under his breath. ‘It’s good for your heart.’
‘Did you say something?’ said Zac, opposite him. ‘Oh no. Tuna.’
‘Shh,’ said Luke, too late.
‘Nguyen. Are you talking?’
Holt was at their table in three strides. He stood as close as possible to Luke, speaking across the table to Zac. He didn’t shout, but the hall was silent as everyone watched the show.
‘I just said that I can’t eat tuna,’ said Zac. ‘I’m vegan.’
Idiot, thought Luke. Are you that stupid? Don’t tell Holt anything else he can use against you.
‘You’re a vegan, Nguyen?’ said Holt. ‘So you can only eat lettuce, is that right?’
‘No…’ said Zac. ‘Other stuff too.’
‘Do you think that your dorm mates might like to eat some actual food today, and not just grass and leaves?’ said Holt.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Zac.
‘Well, Nguyen, inmates do not speak during meal service. Inmates do not touch their food during meal service,’ said Holt.
‘But the meals have already been served,’ said Zac.
Luke put his head in his hands.
‘And you do not eat lunch at all today,’ said Holt. ‘Stand, Section Six.’
Luke scraped his chair back, making as much noise as possible. Watson made a sound like he was trying not to cry. Watson was chubby and he’d lost maybe half his body weight since arriving in Section Six.
‘Because of your bunkmate, all of you will now take your sandwich, like so,’ said Holt, lifting Clarkson’s sandwich from his plate and dangling it with two fingers. ‘You will then drop it onto the floor at your feet.’ Holt tossed the sandwich onto the floor next to Clarkson’s sneakers. ‘And then you will stamp on it. You will then wait in silence at your table until everyone else has finished their meal. Ready now – lift your sandwiches, Section Six.’
Luke heard Section One doing everything they could to stifle their delight. Holt was not above punishing even his boys if control was not maintained. He watched Zac, Watson, Barry and Hooley take their sandwiches from their plates.
‘Drop them on the floor now, Section Six, and stomp on them,’ said Holt.
Luke knew he should just do as Holt instructed. I mean, it wasn’t as though he wanted to eat the foul thing anyway. But he had that feeling again. He guessed the sensation was as close as he was going to get to the anger that everyone else seemed to feel. He’d pigeonholed it as anger because it always seemed to pop up in these sorts of situations – when he was being told to do something by someone in authority. But while people in books described anger as boiling and seething until they erupted in fury, unable to control themselves, Luke experienced exactly the opposite. He felt just a little more cool, more still, more centred and quiet, and everything zoomed into pinpoint focus.
Clingfilm-wrapped sandwiches burst on the floor around him, the sounds cracking like gunshots. The no-longer-controllable merriment from Section One bounced off the walls and it suddenly felt as though Toad Wheeler was standing even closer to him than Holt, shouting laughter into his ear. Luke put a hand on the table to steady himself.
‘Black, I will not tell you again,’ said Holt, very quietly. He took a step even closer. ‘Pick up your sandwich and tread on it. Now.’
The laughter died and Luke sensed everyone almost breathing in synchrony, watching him. He smiled at Zac.
‘Did you have garlic for lunch, Mr Holt?’ he said, picking the sandwich up from the plate and tossing it high. Forty-eight pairs of eyes watched the wrapped sandwich spin in the air and then land splat at Mr Holt’s feet.
‘It’s just that your breath is rank, man,’ Luke continued, and lifted his foot. He skidded the front of his sneaker into the package, hoping for the best.
He got it.
The plastic skin exploded and projectile-vomited its tuna innards. An arc-like stream of creamy fish splattered its way up the leg of Holt’s military-pressed trousers.
Nobody moved. Even the movement in the kitchen stilled.
‘Whoops,’ said Luke.
Without taking his eyes from Luke’s, Holt reached for a paper napkin from the table. He bent and wiped at the goop. It smeared. He stood up again.
‘You are going to hurt, Black,’ he said, calmly.
‘I know,’ Luke said. ‘But don’t worry about me. It’s just a headache and a few bruises. I’ll be right, Mr Holt, but thanks for your concern.’
June 27, 12.45 p.m.
Samantha, Shofranka and Mirela draped the battered fold-up tables in cloths of crimson, gold and turquoise. Samantha bent to the grass for the stack of plates she’d carried down from Milosh’s truck. It was cooler under the trees, and despite the knot in her stomach she was very much looking forward to lunch. She understood that the anxiety she felt was just the floating fear from Lala and Esmeralda. She knew that the king wasn’t actually coming. No, they’d all just enjoy a lavish lunch without the men, and with the added bonus of Tamas.
I’d like him for dessert, she thought, watching him striding across the paddock from the campsite carrying a huge platter of food. He wore a dark blue singlet now, which thankfully did not cover those muscular shoulders.
At the last possible moment, before she could look like a dumbstruck idiot, she turned away to scan the horizon.
Milosh and Besnik had done well in choosing this place to spend a few weeks. It was just far enough from Pantelimon to be out of the noise and rush, but close enough to visit whenever they wanted. She remembered they’d stayed here several summers before. Even then, aged ten or eleven, she’d been in love with Tamas, watching him and his big brother Luca and Mirela’s older brother Hanzi at the river swinging from a rope with some local kids.
She offered a quick prayer to Goddess Gaia that she wouldn’t have a client this afternoon. It was a perfect day for a swim, and because it was a school day they’d have the river all to themselves without the Gaje kids.
Shofranka set the good glasses out alongside the plates. The ruby, sapphire and emerald-coloured glass never showed the chips. Sam mentally chose her place at the table and swapped her red glass for green. She conjured a picture of Tamas sitting beside her, laughing at all the funny things she imagined herself saying over lunch.
‘So, where do you reckon we should seat the king?’ said Mirela.
‘Um, we’ll just wait for Tamas to carry down the throne, and then we’ll decide,’ said Sam.
‘We don’t have a throne,’ said Shofranka, blinking behind her dark-framed spectacles. Although she was only twelve, and still wearing pigtails, the glasses always made her seem sensible, serious. Which she mostly was.
‘Oh, well, that’s a relief, Sho,’ said Samantha. ‘On account of how there’ll be no king to sit in it.’
‘You really don’t think he is coming?’ said Shofranka.
‘Puh-lease,’ said Samantha.
‘Don’t be so certain, little witch.’ Tamas had reached the table. He set down his foil-covered platter and turned to her. He reached out a finger and stroked it once, slowly, down her nose. ‘I’d leave my palace in the city to come and find you.’
Samantha stopped breathing. She wondered whether she’d ever be able to start again. He did not just say that!
Mirela giggled and Tamas winked at her, grinning, before turning away.
‘So you think he really is coming, Tamas?’ said Shofranka, her face upturned eagerly towards him.
‘Hell no,’ Tamas laughed.
‘Well, what do you reckon that is, then?’ said Mirela, pointing out along the dusty road that led into the camp.
Sam held a hand up to her face, more because she couldn’t believe what she was seeing than to shade her eyes. The sun was directly overhead now and it beamed down upon the weirdest vehicle she had ever seen.
‘What is that?’ said Mirela.
At her fingertips and in her stomach Samantha could feel the electricity of her best friend’s excitement.
‘It must be the gypsy king,’ Shofranka almost whispered.
‘And he’s driving an Excalibur,’ said Tamas.
Sam had never heard of an Excalibur, but the car that was approaching their camp looked both old-fashioned and brand new, like a fairytale chariot tricked out by Mercedes-Benz. It was the colour of rich custard, with black windows and gleaming silver chrome, every part of the car glinting and sparkling in the sunlight. It sat low to the ground on fat black tyres that flashed with silver, kicking out dust behind them like plumes of smoke, as though the car ignited the road as it moved. Pumping from inside the midnight-black windows, a low boom of bass grew louder as it approached.
Of course, the dogs went crazy.
As Samantha stared, Mirela and Shofranka bolted across the paddock to meet the car. Bo was already there, running barefoot on the unsealed road in front of it, his hanky-stick-flag held high in the air. Oody and two other camp dogs flanked the vehicle, shouting their greetings, and Sam could just make out Hero dashing in and out around the shining front wheel, trying to take on the invading beast.
‘Looks like the king has come to take the princess home,’ said Tamas. The corners of his dark eyes creased in a scowl and he radiated hostility. Sam felt suddenly edgy.
‘Just be careful,’ he said. ‘Try not to say a lot. I know they call this dude the gypsy king, but he gave himself that name. Besnik told me that he started out as an underground criminal from Craiova.’
They slowly made their way up to where everyone else waited, wearing huge, warm smiles for their new visitor. Sam felt a fog of worry settling over her family. Nuri grinned toothlessly, juggling the baby on her hip. Lala appeared delighted, but she had a firm hold on Bo’s shoulder as he hopped from foot to foot. Esmeralda beamed, her lips blood-red; Shofranka pressed in close to her skirts, only one pigtail and the rim of her spectacles visible; Mirela stared boldly at the newcomers.
Samantha could see through the darkened windscreen that there were two people in the vehicle. As she and Tamas reached the others, a door opened and the gold-tipped boots of the driver stepped into the dirt. Is that purple snakeskin? thought Sam, incredulous. Who would wear that? Black leather-clad legs followed, and then the driver swung himself out. He wore a leather sleeveless vest to match the pants, each garment straining over a huge beer belly. A belt with a big gold buckle held the belly up valiantly, cinched low and tight around the driver’s waist.
Tamas stepped forward, Esmeralda by his side.
‘Welcome,’ Esmeralda said. ‘What a beautiful day!’
The driver said nothing. He reached back into the car and pulled out a large black cowboy hat. He put it on and that was the last Samantha ever saw of his eyes. He stuck a toothpick between his teeth and moved around the front of the vehicle. She spotted the handle of a pistol strapped into a holster belted around his chest.
The bonnet of the car was pretty awe-inspiring, Sam had to admit; she figured that was the effect the owner was going for. A rearing silver dragon, wings spread, was perched at the precipice, guarding a chrome grill resembling gnashing metal teeth. She took a second look at the licence plate. One word: Royal. Hmm.
The driver stopped at the other side of the car and cracked the passenger door. Sam had heard rumours about the gypsy king – hell, every Romani she’d ever met had something to tell – and she wondered how exaggerated the tales would be. But when he finally made it out of the car, she realised that, if anything, they’d downplayed his appearance. It wasn’t so much the fur-trimmed purple robes that fell from his shoulders and swept the ground. It wasn’t the gold walking stick topped with the head of a dragon. And it wasn’t even that when the king finally smiled all his visible teeth were gold. No, what made her lips part and her jaw drop was his size. Hugely fat were the first words that came to mind. Grotesque walking circus tent were the next.
Esmeralda rushed forward and bowed low, her earrings swinging wildly.
‘Welcome, your Grace, to our humble camp,’ she said. ‘We are so delighted that you have come to visit us. I am Esmeralda Florica Anghelescu, daughter of Djordji Boiko Gabor. I met you once before, twelve years ago or more at a festival in Craiova.’
The king made a noise deep in his throat. ‘You must forgive me, Esmeralda Florica Anghelescu, daughter of Djordji Boiko Gabor, that I do not recall our meeting,’ he said, gold teeth flashing. ‘However, I find that I recall very little, if anything, of that place. In fact, I remember nothing of my life before I came to Pantelimon.’
The cowboy driver spat in the dirt.
Samantha watched Tamas clench his fists at his sides.
‘Of course we forgive our gypsy king,’ said Lala, limping forward. ‘I am, however, afraid that I must lay claim to the poorest memory of the land. It is my age, you see.’ She smiled widely. ‘But you must be hot and thirsty, your Grace, and we have prepared something modest, if unfit, for our king. Would you please do us the honour of lunching with us?’
At the table under the trees, ashamed that she cared, Samantha felt suddenly conscious of every chip and scratch in their crockery and glasses. Still, for a midweek lunch, with less than half the camp present, it was a lavish banquet. Esmeralda’s chicken rice was to die for, as always, and she’d also prepared a sweet, garlicky, tomato-based stew with the last of their lamb. A giant glass bowl brimming with dressed salad leaves, young cucumber, cubed avocado and marinated olives sat in the centre of the table. Next to it was a plate of plump chicken livers seared with garlic and onions and served drizzled in olive oil. With the warm freshly cooked loaves of bread, hot buttered potatoes in their jackets, ears of corn, and a week’s worth of cheese surrounded by fat black cherries on a platter, Samantha could think of no table more deserving of the title: fit for a king.
Unfortunately, their guests did not seem to agree. Lala made certain their goblets were brimming with wine, and that their wide-bottomed water glasses were always topped up with whisky, but, with the exception of alcohol, the king accepted only a plate of salad and some cheese. And the driver merely moved food around on his plate with a fork.
Well, a low-carb diet might help each of them a smidge, thought Samantha, scooping up lamb stew with bread and shovelling it in. But did these two have to poke the food around quite so gingerly, as though they’d never before seen anything like it?
‘So,’ said the gypsy king, taking a sip from his glass, ‘this is the camp of the famous stolen Gaje princess?’
Lala laughed falsely. Next to Samantha, Mirela choked on an olive. Tamas sat bolt upright in his chair and Esmeralda gripped her fork tighter. Sam felt everyone at the table shift slightly. For the first time, she wished the menfolk were here.
‘Ha ha,’ said Lala. ‘Yes, yes. Step right up! See the Gaje princess stolen by gypsies! I apologise, your Highness, that we have stooped as low as to have adopted the ultimate Gaje stereotype: that the Roma steal innocent babies. But can you blame us? The world wants the fantasy! They want to believe that gypsies really do steal children from their beds in the middle of the night. As if we do not have enough difficulty fending for our own.’
Esmeralda coughed and Lala quickly changed tack.
‘Oh, but not that we Roma are not prospering in our own right, just as we desire,’ she said, smiling, her favourite orange lipstick smearing her front teeth. ‘It’s just that fifteen years ago we were left with a sick and suffering Gaje baby. A little girl. She was just dumped with us, with no one to defend her. Please, your Grace, you would surely understand – to take this baby to the Romanian police – how could we explain how she came to be with us, and who would care about our story anyway? The baby girl would have gone straight to a Romanian orphanage, and whoever had carried her to the police would have gone directly to jail.’ Lala took a quick sip from her ruby goblet and continued. ‘But our camp kept the orphaned baby and we have saved everyone the trouble. She is now a much-loved member of our family.’
‘And well you did too,’ said the king, raising his glass. ‘And this is why I am proud to be the king of the Roma. To the Roma!’
Everybody raised their glass in toast and drank.
And then waited.
‘And this brings me to why I have come to visit you all today,’ said the king. Beads of sweat pimpled the top of his bald head, and the neckline of his robes shone wetly. ‘Many have told me what wonderful people you are here.’
‘Thank you, your Grace,’ said Esmeralda.
‘And several people have mentioned that your witch is very skilled indeed.’
‘Thank you, your Grace,’ said Lala.
The king turned to face Lala. ‘And lately there has been talk that your understudy, the Gaje Princess, may also have some potential.’
Samantha felt someone kick her under the table and from the corner of her eye she saw Mirela sitting with a studiously innocent expression.
‘She’s but a child,’ said Lala. ‘However, she is doing her best to learn the basics. Maybe in years to come she will prove to have some talent.’
Hey, thought Samantha, thanks a lot.
‘Yes, well.’ The king daintily lifted a lettuce leaf to his mouth. Samantha was betting he’d have his cowboy drive him directly to McDonald’s when they left. ‘I am prepared to visit with her today to see how she is progressing,’ he said.
‘You are too kind, your Grace,’ said Lala. ‘It is good of you to try to encourage the youth in this way. However, I must insist that we offer you the very best of our hospitality. I regret that my son, Milosh, is not here to welcome you properly. But when it comes to offering you luck and blessings, as the senior witch I would be delighted to provide you with my service. After lunch, we will go to my caravan to discuss your needs.’
The king took another sip of whisky. ‘Thank you, no,’ he said. ‘The girl will be fine.’
Samantha was having a hard time sensing the mood of the king. From the driver she felt disdain, mild revulsion. She found it difficult to even look at him. But the king seemed to have no very strong emotions at all – his urbane speech did not seem to mask anything sinister. Perhaps he was just curious about her. Well, she didn’t have a problem with giving him a blessing or a good-luck charm. She just couldn’t understand why the rest of her family seemed so uptight about it.
Wait till I tell Birthday Jones about this, thought Sam. He’ll never believe me, of course, but when he hears it from everyone he’ll have to.
She went back for seconds of the chicken rice.
It was immediately obvious that the king was too huge to sit opposite Sam in the client’s chair. For a few tense moments, she’d been worried about him being able to make it into the caravan at all. The front step had been the first problem, but when he’d heaved his way up that with his driver pushing him from behind, there’d been the issue of the narrow front door. While she and Lala pretended not to look, the king turned sideways and scraped his way in. When the driver followed, the king turned towards him, his head stooped a little under the low ceiling.
‘We’ll be fine, thank you, Boldo,’ he said.
Boldo scowled, but turned around to leave. Tamas stood in the doorway.
‘What do you want?’ said Boldo.
‘I’m coming in,’ said Tamas.
‘The hell you are,’ said Boldo, hand on his holster.
Blazing emotions suddenly ricocheted around the small space, absorbing all the air. The room grew darker. Sam gasped.
‘Tamas, my child,’ said Lala from somewhere behind the king’s vast body. ‘Would you please be a good boy and bring cold juice for all of us? Or would you prefer something else to drink, your Grace?’
‘Coca-Cola,’ said the king.
‘Three cans of Coke, Tamas, please. In the fridge by the truck. It is very warm in here, so hurry along.’
Tamas stood still, eyes locked on the bodyguard’s.
Go, please, Tamas, thought Samantha. Don’t start something with a man with a gun!
She felt the heat in the van fall when Tamas spoke. He continued to stare at the driver as he answered Lala. ‘I’ll be right back,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring the drinks, and then I’ll be right outside.’
Able to think again, Samantha considered how strange this situation was. If the king had wanted a consultation so badly, surely he could have summoned them to his palace. Just last week, she, Mirela and Birthday Jones had walked past the huge, ornate gates in Pantelimon, trying to get a glimpse of the place everybody talked about, but the curved drive and the hostile guard had prevented them from seeing much. Man, imagine if she’d been invited right into the palace by the king himself!
This, though, was looking like it was going to make for an even better story. The king sat on Lala’s day bed, a tattered brown velvet double-seater lounge that she usually reserved for dream analysis. He fitted into it as though it were a single-seat armchair. Lala had taken the reader’s chair and Samantha sat in the client’s. They angled themselves to face the king.
She and Lala waited awkwardly for him to speak, but he sat silently, watching them. Still Sam could not read his mood. His aura felt guarded, as though he was deliberately hiding the way he was feeling. Why would somebody do that? She lowered her eyes a little so as not to stare, but she had a mental image of him sitting there, sprawled like a gigantic toad on a log. She felt like a fly.
Tension from the front of the van suddenly climbed again and Tamas appeared in the doorway. He made his way in with the drinks and she gave him a reassuring smile, felt him relax just a little.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked her.
‘Why wouldn’t she be all right?’ said the king. ‘What kind of question is that?’
‘Please forgive him, your Grace,’ said Lala. Samantha could sense her heart racing. ‘He is just a child, my son’s nephew. You can see he is too young to go with the men to the horse fair. His mother has passed, your Grace, and since then he has been a little touched in the head.’
Tamas drew a breath. Lala snapped her head in his direction. Whatever he was going to say went unsaid.
‘Well, he’s a very rude boy,’ said the king. ‘And now he can go.’
Tamas looked down at Samantha. ‘I’ll be outside,’ he said.
‘Which you already told us,’ said the king.
‘Get out, Tamas,’ said Lala.
The king cracked his Coke and guzzled. When he put the can down on the lamp table next to him, Samantha thought that it sounded near empty. He belched loudly.
‘Now, your Grace,’ said Lala. ‘How can we help you? Would you like a charm for your business dealings? A spell for your luck?’
The king raised a pudgy hand to his many chins and stroked. He faced Samantha. She met his eyes and finally felt something from him. Ravenousness.
‘I want a reading,’ he said.
Lala hissed. ‘A what!? My Grace, you know that we don’t read the cards for other Rom. Card reading is only for the Gaje! It is terrible, terrible luck, your Grace, to have your cards read by another gypsy. It is never done. We are happy to write a curse for your enemies or create great blessings for your wealth or health, but we can’t read your cards, my King.’
‘I am speaking to the child,’ the gypsy king said, staring at Samantha. ‘And I want a reading.’
Huh. Well, she hadn’t expected that. Samantha had never even considered performing a reading for another Rom. Lala had drummed the bad-luck thing into her for a year before she’d even allowed her to hold a tarot deck. Before today, Samantha would no more have read cards for a gypsy than strip naked and streak through the camp carrying Bo’s flag.
And yet, here she was, about to read for the king of the gypsies. She shrugged, and as the king watched her, she felt his greed swell further. Oh well, though she didn’t like to admit it, even to herself, she wasn’t sure that she believed a lot of the stuff Lala had taught her about the cards. I mean, what Lala told her they meant, and what she saw for the clients when she read, were usually two very different things.
She reached for the shiny, jet-black lacquered box containing her deck and Lala hissed again, quietly. Samantha sent calm towards the chair beside her. The king’s eyes widened as she did so, and for the first time she faltered.
How had he sensed that?
He smiled and licked his lips.
She loosened the gold cord wrapped around the box and opened it. As always, the sounds faded around her. The drone of the old electric fan on the lamp table became a mosquito in the distance. The heavy breathing of the king and Lala’s rapid gasps fell silent. Sam smiled, closed her eyes, and fondled the red silk wrapped around the deck, slipping into the fabric as though into a blood-warm river. The cards welcomed her, had missed her, swam with her, darting over and under, each clamouring to whisper their secrets. They tickled; she giggled. Then she opened her eyes.
The king regarded her hungrily.
She decided then and there to make this as brief a reading as possible – just three cards: his past, present and future. It was not Lala’s discomfort; it was the gypsy king’s eyes that warned her to get this over with quickly.
I wonder if he didn’t eat at lunch because his favourite food is teenager, she thought.
She slipped the silk from the cards and they hummed feverishly in her hands. She began to sweat.
‘Um, okay,’ she said, wiping a hand across her brow, ‘you need to think of a question.’
She decided to forget about the witchy-poo theatrics to set the mood. Nothing she could say would make this scene any weirder than it already was.
‘I have my question,’ he said, his eyes oil slicks.
‘Good. Do not speak it aloud,’ she said.
She shuffled the deck, eyes again closed, some cards battling to find her hands, others shirking from her touch. She listened as their whispers tumbled over and under one another as she shuffled: snatches of thought; cobwebs of consciousness; what will be, what is now, what will come nevermore. She stilled her hands, put the deck on the table, opened her eyes.
‘Cut the cards,’ she said. ‘Three piles, any size. Face down.’
She wrinkled her nose in distaste as he grabbed greedily at the deck, his fat fingers fracturing its symmetry as he spread the cards in his haste. He slapped down three piles on the table and lifted his eyes.
‘Put them back together again,’ she said. ‘Any order. Face down.’
She could feel Lala bristling at her lack of etiquette, but she sensed that her mentor also wanted this over with quickly.
When her deck was whole again on the table before her, Samantha rubbed her palms together twice and reached for it.
‘Hold your question in your mind.’
She turned the first card. ‘A spirit card,’ she said. The whispers began. ‘This card represents your present – what is happening in your life right now.’
The ornate picture was dominated by a giant hourglass, golden sand trickling through its transparent innards. In the background stood a man, eyes down, contemplative, worried, while looping the whole card, in dizzying rings, spun a series of concentric circles. A circular maze.
The king watched her, seemed to breathe her in.
‘The Waiting Game,’ she said. ‘You have a decision to make.’
‘That is correct,’ he said.
Samantha chewed her thumbnail. She worried about what to say next. Lala would tell her that these circles meant that there were numerous possibilities open for her client to take, but the card whispered the truth.
‘There are two options,’ she said. ‘You may select only one.’
The king made a guttural sound deep in his throat. ‘Go on,’ he said.
‘You have been setting your plan in motion for a long time,’ she said. ‘And the journey has been painful and dangerous. You realise that you are very close now, and you are waiting, waiting for the results to come to fruition.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said.
Samantha tuned out Lala’s worry. Nothing she had spoken had been taught by her teacher. Her words came from the cards themselves. She wanted to hurry now, learn what else they had to say.
She turned another card, placed it to the left of the first.
‘The past,’ she said. ‘This card tells where you’ve come from.’
The caravan was motionless as its occupants stared at the card. A study in blue: a beautiful woman draped in a deep-indigo dress stood, head bowed, in an inky ravine. The only other colour in the card glowed at the woman’s chest: a blood-red fabric heart formed the bodice of her dress, stitched up through the middle by the fasteners for the garment – a heart endlessly destined to be torn apart and constantly re-stitched.
An open wound.
‘Heartache and loss,’ she said. ‘Your history.’
The king’s fishy lips twisted into a sour, venomous smile. ‘Touché,’ he said.
What did that mean, she wondered. Does he think this is some kind of mental duel?
The card called her back.
‘You have suffered greatly in your past,’ she said. ‘And although you live now in a completely different world, this sorrow and disappointment still greets you every new day when you open your eyes. The love that you gave her is still inside you, available to heal you, to be given to another -’
This time the king made a hissing sound.
Samantha continued. ‘But you have kept the pain inside, fed and watered it daily. You’ve encouraged the toxins, nurtured them, sought them out and loved them. This agony is now a part of you. It is your closest friend and your most powerful, poisonous weapon.’
Suddenly, Lala heaved herself from her chair.
‘My King,’ Lala said, tottering over to stand between Samantha and her client, ‘I apologise. I tried to tell you that she is a mere baby. Sixty years I have been studying the tarot. I beg of you, please ignore this child and allow me to complete your reading. Or better yet, your Grace, let us leave this sweltering hotbox and find solace in some cold wine and fruit.’
‘Sit. Down,’ he said.
‘But, your Grace…’
‘You will sit down or I will make you,’ said the gypsy king.
The heat and the sounds of the caravan jerked Sam back into focus. She pushed her chair away, jumping to her feet. She felt violently ill with the fear emanating from Lala, but her anger overpowered it.
‘Don’t you dare speak to her like that!’ she yelled at the king.
A sizzle of filthy energy fizzed about the room. Samantha recognised it at once. Hate. It slicked her nostrils and tongue and she heaved and reached around for something to hang on to. The king laughed, a fractured, frightening sound, which opened in Samantha’s mind a sliver of a vision. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, and with it the foul energy. She could not understand what she had just glimpsed, but she sensed it slithering away – it felt like decay, dark magic, madness.
The king now smiled at her, a chalky offering of warmth.
‘Wait a moment, please, please,’ he said. He spread his fat fleshy hands before him and smiled meekly up at Samantha. ‘I’m sorry. I apologise for speaking so rudely. I will make it up to you and yours. And I promise you, good witch,’ he swivelled to face Lala, ‘no harm will befall anyone in this camp and only great goodness from me shall follow if you will peacefully allow your charge here to complete her reading. I see that you fear I am offended, but I assure you, my Romani sister, I am only charmed and delighted by her insight.’
‘Sit down, my kitten,’ murmured Lala, turning towards her and cupping her face. The aged skin of her soft palm was a feather-stroke. ‘Sit down now, child.’
Samantha dropped back into the chair; she felt as though a blowfly batted about behind her eyes.
‘Certainly we will finish for you, your Grace,’ Lala continued. ‘There is but one card left to draw – your future – and I am certain that the child will be able to complete the reading quickly.’
Lala looked down at Samantha and gave her a meaningful stare.
Samantha stared back, dazed. What is going on here, Lala? she asked with her eyes.
Please, just finish. And do it quickly, Lala’s eyes answered.
Samantha reached for the deck; the king leaned back against the day bed, and the whispers began again. This time there was heat behind the hushed voices and she thought she heard a muffled shriek from the cards. She turned the top card and placed it to the right of the hourglass.
‘Your future,’ she said coldly. ‘What will be.’
The king stared bug-eyed at the card. Sucked in air. ‘What is that?’ he said. ‘What does it mean?’
The card was almost completely black. But forming the centre, staring up at each of them, was a man in pieces. His head, shoulders, stomach, loins and legs had all been dismembered – as though he’d been wrenched from the card and, like a photo, ripped and torn before being crudely pasted back onto the blackness. His face was terrified, his arms clenched across his disembodied chest as though he scrabbled to hold at least this piece of himself together.
Samantha lifted her eyes to the king’s. His jowl quivered.
‘A major Arcana card,’ she said. ‘Your destiny – the Falling Tower.’
Samantha felt Lala willing her to deliver to the king the vanilla-version of this card: that this was a chance for him to be forewarned against a major change that would soon befall his life, and to see this disruption as merely an opportunity to transform things for the better.
Instead, she told the truth.
‘The foundations of your power are weak and rotten,’ she said. ‘Your tower will crumble.’
The lamp on the table before her flickered. She continued. ‘The two choices you are now struggling with will determine whether or not you escape the fall of your empire with your life. Choose one way and you will live on. Select the other option and you will die in agony, with your last breath poisoned by regret.
‘Either way,’ Samantha said, ‘your tower will crumble.’
June 28, 2.21 p.m.
‘So that’s what makes all that noise,’ Zac shouted, on his knees in the mud next to Luke.
‘Yep, that’s the swamp rat,’ said Luke, lifting his eyes from the garden bed. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’
‘She stinks,’ said Zac.
Luke nodded. A sheen of fuel oil shimmered in the air. He’d never been able to figure out whether the 1980 Holden Commodore had originally been red or blue. The panels that remained were a mix of both. At the moment, he couldn’t see much of either colour – the swamp rat was caked in dried dirt and splattered all over with fresh mud. It had no boot, bonnet, rear windscreen or doors, and the swamp rat’s driver, Mad Mike, was also head-to-toe in mud.
Through the hole in the passenger side of the car, Luke watched Mad Mike rip the handbrake up. The engine cut out. The sudden absence of noise was almost as disturbing as the roar of sound had been.
‘Oh my God, how loud is that car?’ said Zac, poking a finger in his ear. ‘What is that anyway? Is it even a car?’
Mad Mike swung out of the driver’s side of the vehicle and crunched over the gravel driveway leading to the Dwight Administration Building. He stopped at the folding chair near the steps leading to the entrance.
‘Mike, can you not do something about the noise from that ridiculous vehicle?’ said Matron Cole, blinking up at him from the chair in which she watched Luke and Zac weeding and the rest of Section Six raking, sweeping mud from the paths and clipping plants. ‘I mean, have you purposely modified that thing to produce that deafening racket?’
Mad Mike scratched at the grey stubble on his cheek. A wad of something brown flicked off his face with the movement. God, I hope that’s mud, thought Luke, grimacing.
‘No muffler,’ Mike mumbled.
‘Well, why do you not attach one, then?’ said Matron. ‘Do you know how sick we all are of hearing that thing tearing through the grounds?’
‘I like it loud,’ said Mad Mike. ‘That way, none of these here delinquents is gonna be able to steal it out from under me, are they?’
Luke wished like hell he hadn’t. Mad Mike had maybe three teeth left and Luke didn’t think those would be hanging around too much longer either. There looked to be even more fungus on them than the last time Luke had been lucky enough to cop a viewing.
Matron actually shuddered.
‘Well, get on with it, Mike,’ she said. ‘You know you’re not supposed to bring that thing out the front here. What if we have a visitor? You make us all look like a pack of hillbillies.’
‘Orright, orright, Mavis. I just gotta pick something up for the laundry,’ said Mad Mike, making his way up the steps.
‘You are not to move one step further, Mike Archer,’ said Matron, standing. ‘Just look at the state of you. We do not need you to traipse half of the soccer oval into Admin. What are you here for? I’ll get it. You watch the inmates.’
The moment Matron cleared the doorway, Mad Mike dropped into her chair.
‘You been good, Black?’ he said.
‘Always, Mike,’ said Luke. ‘And you?’
‘Aw, I’m never good,’ said Mad Mike, grinning widely. Luke’s breakfast flip-flopped in his stomach with another spew-view of Mike’s teeth. ‘My pa always told me, “You may be well, son, but you’ll never be good!”’
Luke smiled weakly. Mad Mike always told the same joke.
‘And what about Narelle?’ Luke asked. ‘How are things going with you two?’
Mad Mike dropped the smile. ‘Ah, the silly cow kicked me out again last night.’ He leaned back in the chair, angled his face to catch a feeble glimmer of winter sunshine. ‘I don’t know, Lukey, whether Mike and Narelle are meant to be.’
Luke straightened on his knees in the mud.
‘Oh, come on now, Mike,’ he said. ‘That’s no way to talk. Narelle has your ring on her finger. You’re not going to break her heart like that.’
Mike sat forward and his eyes met Luke’s. He scratched at what was left of the hair on his scalp. ‘Aw, I don’t want to break her heart, but why’s she gotta kick me out all the time. It’s bloody cold out, these nights. It’s only when she’s on the turps that she gets the wind up her. Usually she’s a beautiful bird; best in show.’
‘Well, you keep working on it, Mike. Relationships are never easy, and there’s nothing like family,’ said Luke.
‘True, very true, Lukey. Now you get on with what you’re doin’ there. Matron’s another woman who likes to tear strips off me.’ He reclined again in the chair.
Luke turned back to the weeding. She’s definitely gonna do something to him if he gets his crud all over her chair, he thought.
‘Friend of yours?’ said Zac.
‘Mike’s all right. When you’re on his good side. Hey, you know what sounds worse than the swamp rat, Nguyen?’
‘Being chased by the swamp rat when you’re trying to escape.’
‘Have you tried to escape?’ Zac looked sideways up at him, his glossy fringe hanging in his eyes.
‘Nope,’ said Luke. ‘But I was in orientation when I saw this big kid from Dorm One trying to run.’ He shook his head with the memory. ‘Mad Mike here went feral – well, even more feral than he is now. You shoulda seen it. He was hammering the swamp rat through the paddock after this guy, one hand on the wheel, the rest of him leaning out the window holding a lasso and screaming. You could hear him over the car.’
‘You are so full of it,’ said Zac.
‘I swear,’ said Luke.
‘Did he catch him?’
‘Brought him down with the rope on the second shot.’
‘Oh my God. How scary would that have been?’ said Zac. ‘That guy’s a freak.’
‘It was pretty funny,’ said Luke.
Zac gave him another look and pulled out some more of the thin, sprout-like weeds standing like an army of spears in the rose bed. ‘They’re never gonna get rid of these things this way,’ he said.
‘Well, if they keep us down here on our knees long enough they will.’
‘They’re onion weed,’ said Zac. ‘They’ll regrow, faster and thicker. All these and more will be back next week.’
‘Onion weed. So you’re a ninja gardener who’s gifted in metalwork?’
‘I told you I like plants,’ said Zac. ‘But not these. You should use some of this, though.’ He reached forward, negotiating rose thorns, and snapped off a large piece of a cactus-looking plant that bordered the footings of the building. ‘Aloe,’ he said.
‘Um, hello?’ said Luke.
‘Not hello, idiot. Aloe. Just take it.’ He dropped the spongy branch into the mud in front of Luke. ‘See that juice coming out of it?’
Luke picked up the piece of plant.
‘Now, squeeze it and smear it over your eye and lips.’
Luke stared at him.
‘If you get it in your mouth it will taste like crap,’ said Zac. ‘But it’ll heal your face fast.’
Luke sniffed. Yeah, like I’m gonna rub some cactus snot all over my face.
‘Um, thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it tonight.’
Zac dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘And I saw another plant when we were out running this morning that we could really put to good use around here.’
Luke raised an eyebrow.
‘It’s a species of mushroom,’ Zac said. ‘Agaricus xanthodermus. It’s also called Yellow Stainer.’
Okaaaay, thought Luke. What the hell is wrong with this guy?
‘Mushrooms? I, um, I don’t really like mushrooms, thanks, Nguyen,’ he said.
‘Well, you really wouldn’t like the Stainers,’ said Zac, smirking. ‘They cause stomach cramps and severe diarrhoea.’
Luke paused mid-pick and smiled. ‘Well… I could think of a few really good things to do with those. Yep, I definitely think we should collect some. How do you know all this stuff?’
Zac just shrugged.
JUNE 28, 5.26 P.M.
Luke stood with the other members of Dorm Four, waiting for the rest of the dorms to line up for head count before the march to dinner.
‘I can’t believe they make us march to every meal like this,’ said Zac, quietly.
‘Shut up, Nguyen,’ whispered Kitkat. ‘There’s no talking. Haven’t you got everyone in enough trouble since your skinny arse got here?’
‘Did you guys hear that we’ve got No Rules Basketball after tea tonight?’ murmured Jonas.
Luke groaned. Oh no. No Rules Basketball was Toad’s favourite game. He was pretty sure that had something to do with the fact that Toad kept ‘mistaking’ Luke’s head for the ball. No Rules Basketball was Holt-sanctioned crab bashing.
‘What’s No Rules Basketball?’ whispered Zac.
‘Your worst nightmare,’ said Luke. I’ve got to get out of playing tonight, he thought.
‘Shut up, you idiots,’ hissed Kitkat. ‘McNichol’s coming.’
Luke watched the least-hated screw in Dwight walking towards them, picking her way carefully through the mud. He wondered what was up – she was supposed to be on dining hall duty right now. He always knew where each of the supervisors was at any time. It was just something he’d always done, just as he guessed most of the kids in here would have. In the homes they grew up in, not knowing where ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ or ‘Uncle Dave’ was at any particular time could leave you in casualty for the rest of the night.
Ms McNichol fidgeted with the buttons on her trench coat as she walked. The jacket could not quite close over her belly. A couple of months back he’d just assumed she’d been eating too much lasagne for dinner, but now it was obvious to everyone that she was pregnant. As she entered the circle of light around Dorm Four she pulled the collar up on her coat and glanced around. She stopped in front of Luke.
‘Black,’ she said. ‘There’s no gym for you tonight. I need you over at Admin.’
Thank God, he thought. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Why?’
‘You just go where you’re told, Black. You don’t need to know why.’
‘Yes, Ms McNichol.’
‘I’ll need another Dorm Four boy,’ she said. ‘Nguyen, you’ll do. Wait at the front of the dining hall after you’re dismissed from your meal and I’ll escort you both over there.’
The sound of the others marching back from dinner to the halls faded into the night, leaving behind frozen silence. Luke shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his tracksuit pants and stamped his feet. Zac shuffled next to him. The cold made ghosts of their breath, and Luke blew it out in sinewy ribbons, watching them curl and vanish. The air felt wet, and the darkness outside the pool of light in front of the hall might as well have been an inky ocean for all they could see of it. With no housing for miles around, and the main buildings of the Dwight centre behind them, Luke and Zac could have been anywhere. Or nowhere.
‘We could just take off right now,’ said Zac. ‘Where is McNichol?’
‘I know,’ said Luke. ‘Too weird. They never leave us alone like this.’
‘What do you reckon she wants us for?’
Luke shrugged. ‘Something boring, no doubt.’ Whatever it is, it’s much better than being in the gym right now.
‘Do you reckon she feels sorry for you and is just trying to get you out of No Rules Basketball?’ said Zac, as if he’d read Luke’s mind.
‘Who knows? Maybe. I wish she’d hurry up, though. It’s friggin’ freezing out here.’
Zac blew smoke rings with his breath. ‘What if we did just run?’ he said.
From under the cowl of his hoodie, Luke gave Zac a sideways glance, paused a beat. ‘You just got here.’
‘Doesn’t mean I want to stay.’
‘You’d try to escape?’
Luke didn’t speak for a moment. He didn’t know how far he could trust Nguyen. Suddenly, he raised his head and squinted into the darkness.
‘Well, anyway,’ he said, ‘it looks like you’re not going to have to worry about being chased by the swamp rat tonight. Listen.’
They heard the engine of a car approaching before they saw the lights.
‘That’ll be McNichol.’
‘Will you be all right if I leave you boys to it for a while?’ said Ms McNichol, standing in the doorway to the biggest office in Admin. She put a hand against the doorframe for support. The skin around her eyes was pale and pouchy.
‘Are you okay, Ms McNichol?’ said Zac. ‘You look kinda wonky.’
‘I’m fine, thank you, Nguyen,’ she said, straightening. ‘Remember, I only need these boxes unpacked. You are not to touch anything else in here. Oh, and one each of the requisition notebooks in this box is to go into each of the pigeonholes over there.’
Gravel crunched at the front of the building and Luke looked up. Who could that be at this time? Ordinarily, the other officers would approach from behind the building, and he’d never heard of deliveries being made at night. Holt liked the place locked down tight; it was when he could make the most of his private disciplinary moments. God, I hope it’s not Holt come down to take us back to the gym, he thought.
‘All right, boys, that sounds like them,’ said Ms McNichol. ‘I do not want you to move from this room while I attend to this.’
The doorbell sounded.
‘Who is it?’ said Luke.
‘None of your business is who it is, Luke Black,’ said McNichol, fixing him with a stare. ‘Get on with your work. It’s just an intake.’
Luke thought he could hear the movements of several people at the door. McNichol turned and left the room. He stared after her. An intake? At night? That had never happened in the four months he’d been here. He wondered why she’d brought them down here without another officer. And why would she do an intake on her own? The screws usually worked in pairs. He felt Zac watching him.
‘Don’t admissions usually happen in the morning?’ asked Zac.
‘Yep,’ said Luke.
‘Huh,’ said Zac.
‘Mmm,’ said Luke.
‘You know, you never did tell me why you’re in here,’ said Zac, pulling hose-like wrapped cylinders from a huge box of disposable cups. The rolls were almost as long as him.
‘No, I never did,’ said Luke.
‘Here, catch.’ Zac speared a tube of plastic cups through the air towards Luke. The roll soared towards him, lost momentum and dropped, bouncing off his shoulder before sliding to the ground.
‘Oh really,’ said Luke. He picked the tube up from the floor and moved towards Zac, who had armed himself with another one. ‘You’re going down, ninja,’ he said, and swung.
Zac’s arm blocked the move instantly and Luke’s weapon slapped back into his face. He laughed and again raised the plastic roll. He swung and Zac’s arm shot out. The bag split and the cups continued their journey without it. An arc of plastic sprayed through the air as the cups rained down.
‘Damn,’ said Zac, smiling. ‘Good job, Black. How many do you reckon there are?’
Luke looked around. The floor was peppered with plastic; cups rested on every chair and desk. As he watched, one rolled from the top of a cupboard and fell.
‘Have to be a hundred,’ he said.
‘Looks like you’ve got some work to do, then,’ said Zac.
‘I have some work to do?’ said Luke. ‘You started it.’
‘Well, you lost.’
Luke grinned and began collecting cups.
‘What the hell is going on in here, Black, Nguyen?’ Ms McNichol stood in the doorway.
‘Everything’s cool, Ms McNichol,’ he said. ‘I just dropped a bag of cups.’
She scowled. ‘It looks more like something exploded. I do not have time for this, Black. You’d better have this mess cleaned up and the rest of those boxes unpacked within fifteen minutes.’
She stepped further into the room and for the first time Luke noticed that there was someone behind her. ‘Take a seat right there, Abrafo,’ she said. ‘And don’t move.’
Handcuffed and in ankle bracelets, Dwight Juvenile Justice Centre’s newest inmate shuffled into the office.
Luke blinked. And then the light left the room in stutters, darkening inwards from the edges of his vision. Luke reached out a hand to steady himself, the world now just a pinpoint of white. He found the back of a chair, which swivelled away from his grasp, and he was falling, blind.
‘Just stand back a little bit, Nguyen.’ He heard McNichol above him. ‘He’s just fainted. Can’t you see he’s not well? For heaven’s sake – look what that ogre did to his face. He should be in bloody sick bay, is where he should be. Not having the life beaten out of him playing No Rules Basketball.’
Luke breathed calmly, stayed down a while. Well, that was weird, he thought. He’d never hit the ground without someone giving him a helping hand first. Must still be punch-drunk from that fat Toad. I’ll get you back for that, Toad, he promised himself. He opened his eyes.
‘Hello, Lucifer,’ said the youth in handcuffs sitting in the chair above him.
Luke sucked in air and scuttled backwards.
‘Are you all right, Black?’ said Ms McNichol. ‘Don’t get up too fast. Just put your head between your knees for a bit. You fainted, that’s all. How are you feeling now?’
Luke shook his head. This new kid was superscary-looking. He had a broad nose and lips and tight wiry curls, but his skin was the colour of marble, his hair completely white, and his eyes… His eyes were ice-blue and too light, too bright; they seemed to glow like torches.
And what did he just call me? Luke wondered.
‘What did you call me?’ said Luke.
He became aware of Zac, standing just as he had in the rec hall when he took on Toad, almost humming with controlled energy, ready to spring. Ms McNichol turned to Abrafo with a small frown. The white-haired boy smiled, his mouth a shock of wet pink against his skin.
‘I said: hello, Lucifer,’ said Abrafo. ‘I’ve been very much looking forward to meeting you.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong bloke,’ said Luke. ‘I don’t know you. Who are you?’
‘Who are you? is a better question,’ said Abrafo, his porcelain face angled downwards, his empty, glowing eyes locked on Luke’s.
Luke wasn’t certain whether he was more surprised by Abrafo’s answer or by Zac’s growl.
‘All right, all right. That’s enough catch-up here. We have to get you processed, Abrafo. Seven p.m. is a ridiculous time to try to admit you, but you can’t stay overnight in an adult lockup.’
She bustled about the room, putting together an intake folder. ‘Might have done you some good, though, if you ask me – I don’t know what kind of a ruckus you caused up at the Thurston Centre that made them drive you through the night to us. Get up off the floor now, Black. Am I going to have to take you to sick bay and deal with you too?’
She rested a hand on her back, her belly just touching the edge of the desk in front of her.
Luke got to his feet carefully. Abrafo flicked the tip of his tongue once across his lips, lizard-like, grinning slightly. His eyes glittered, a shock of colour against the correction-fluid white of his hair.
‘I’m fine now, Ms McNichol,’ said Luke, unable to stop staring at Abrafo.
And he wasn’t the only one. He cut his eyes to Zac, who stood completely motionless, watching Abrafo; it seemed as though Zac wasn’t even breathing.
These two must have a history, he thought.
McNichol dropped her paperwork onto the desk and shuffled around it, unclipping her keychain from the belt around her waist.
‘Right, well, Abrafo, you’re going to learn how to behave in Dwight, I can assure you,’ she said.
Luke wondered what Abrafo had done to get himself kicked out of Thurston. He knew the place was full of hard-arses; he’d spent a long two weeks on remand up there on the Central Coast. It must’ve taken them two hours or more to get him out here to Windsor. Couldn’t they have waited until morning? And why wouldn’t they have briefed McNichol on what he’d done?
Ms McNichol moved around the desk, approaching the new guy, and her eyes narrowed.
‘I’ll just call Matron to come up here, I think, and then we can all escort you down,’ she said. ‘You’ll be in Dorm Four for now. I think you’ll find that Mr Holt will teach you some manners.’
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and thumbed in a code.
‘Yes, Matron, it’s McNichol,’ she said. ‘I’m over in Admin with the new intake. Would you mind coming over to escort him down there with me? Yes, yep… I know… Thanks, Joan.’
She rang off and dropped the phone into her pocket. She moved a little closer to Abrafo’s chair and stopped. Luke thought she looked as ill as he felt. She took a deep breath and shook her head a little. He suspected she’d be on sick report for the next couple of days. Just great, he thought: Holt would be happy. Four weeks into his sentence, McNichol had attended a week-long off-site training course, and Luke had been treated to Holt’s ‘counselling’ every day. For some reason, he’d been the senior warden’s pet project since he got here, and this woman was the only person who seemed to get in the way of his plans.
Ms McNichol coughed and bent to unlock the cuffs around Abrafo’s wrists.
‘You’ve caused a lot of inconvenience tonight, Mr Abrafo,’ she said.
Her face now seemed almost as pale as Abrafo’s, who watched her quietly as she released him from the handcuffs. He flexed his wrists, twirling them slowly.
‘And I don’t know why they’ve put you in these ridiculous things,’ she continued, moving awkwardly to kneel at his feet. ‘I haven’t seen ankle bracelets on children for years. Good God.’
Suddenly, Luke felt the wave of giddiness hit him again. And right then three things happened, and everything got real fuzzy, real fast.
This time he tried to stay on his feet.
Ms McNichol, however, did not, which was the first of the three things to happen. As soon as she’d snicked open the cuffs binding Abrafo’s feet, she slumped to the ground, her trench coat fanned in a puddle around her.
The second thing that happened was that Abrafo rose from the chair, his pink lips drawn back across his teeth in a wide smile. He seemed suddenly much taller than when he’d first walked in. His glowing, empty eyes locked onto Luke’s, and Luke felt a spear of agony shoot through his temple. His neck snapped back with the force of the pain and he raised his hands to his face. Vaguely, he wondered whether his eyeballs were melting.
And then the third thing happened. Maybe. Probably not. Well, what Luke thought he saw was Zac fly. One moment Zac was on the other side of the room, furthest from Abrafo. And then he blurred. Luke blinked, and Zac had crash-tackled the white-haired kid. The two thrashed about together like some double-headed monster on the floor. Half the size of Abrafo but twice as fast, Zac’s limbs flashed furiously.
Oh God, what do I do now? Luke wondered. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear them. Everything was distorted. Clearly, Nguyen had some sort of history with this Abrafo. He took a step closer to them, but they were almost fused in a frenzy of movement and he wasn’t sure he could get in there, even if he wanted to.
Zac seemed to be throwing a hundred high-speed blows a minute, but the new kid wouldn’t stay down. He blocked each of Zac’s moves effortlessly, soundlessly. Luke could hear his own rapid breathing over the sound of the fight – he felt as though he was watching a kung-fu movie playing on fast-forward with the mute button on.
He glanced down at Ms McNichol. She wasn’t going to be any help. He stretched out a foot and prodded at her arm. Nothing. Her rounded belly rose and fell. She was breathing, at least. But what had happened to her? Abrafo hadn’t touched her, he was sure of it. She must have had the same attack of the giddies he was having. Could there be a gas leak in here or something? Foster mother number three had told him about two kids in the next suburb who went to bed with a leaky heater on and never woke up. Yeah, a gas leak could explain this.
He turned back to the fight. Whatever it was didn’t seem to be affecting these two. And the quietness of the fight was so weird. No grunting, no swearing. Are they even breathing? he wondered. The only sound was the whir of Zac’s hands through the air and the dull thuds as Abrafo blocked them.
The rhythm of the duel became hypnotic – as Luke watched, the walls of the Admin room faded around him. Now there was only light and dark – the back of Zac’s black head and Abrafo’s ghost-pallor face.
Abrafo’s eyes suddenly locked onto him.
Luke felt his own eyes begin to stream as he fell into the frigid pools of light. He wondered dimly how Abrafo was blocking Zac’s punches. But somehow that didn’t seem important now. Luke swayed with Abrafo’s movements, his body following the taller youth’s actions. Abrafo ducked and blocked, his hands a blur, as Zac danced and spun ceaselessly, trying to find an entry point for a body blow.
Suddenly Abrafo stopped. His eyes still locked on Luke’s, he shot out an arm just as Zac moved in again to strike. Abrafo’s forearm smacked into Zac’s neck and the smaller boy dropped.
Luke knew he had to do something. Now. But he couldn’t move. He opened his mouth to shout out. And then, from the corner of his eye, Luke saw Zac fly again. In slow motion this time. From the floor at Abrafo’s feet, Zac sprang upwards, his sneakers suddenly head-height. His legs scissored, midair, and one heel cracked into the albino’s forehead.
The blue eyes closed and Luke vomited all over his shoes.
‘Move, Luke, now!’ yelled Zac.
Still bent double, stomach convulsing, Luke recognised the panic in Zac’s voice and threw himself sideways. He’d learned long ago that if someone warned him to move, he moved. Fast. He registered a blur of movement flashing past the spot where he’d been standing, just as his ribs cracked into the side of the desk.
‘Oh my God! What on earth is going on here?’ Matron stood in the doorway, her radio in hand.
‘Code Nine Administration building,’ she yelled into the radio. ‘Officer down! Inmate at large. Black, Nguyen, on your knees. Now!’
Luke was happy to oblige. He allowed himself to slide down the legs of the desk. He sat back on his haunches and bent his head forward over his lap. The stench from his shoes filled his nostrils and he lurched upright again.
‘You stink, Black,’ said Zac, kneeling next to him.
‘Kill me now,’ said Luke.
‘I don’t think you’ll have to wait long to die, dude,’ said Zac. ‘Holt should be here any minute.’
June 28, 10.49 a.m.
Mirela blew a kiss to the middle-aged woman who was red-faced and screaming at them from the driver’s seat of her dilapidated Volvo station wagon. In the rear of the car, two children in school uniform pulled faces, their middle fingers raised.
Samantha tugged at Mirela’s bare brown arm.
‘Maybe if you didn’t just dawdle across the road, Mimi,’ she said, using Mirela’s baby name, ‘people wouldn’t be so mean to you.’
‘What are you, new?’ Mirela laughed. ‘The Gaje hate gypsies, and you know that as well as I do. They’d treat us that way even if I offered to wash that crappy car for them for free.’
‘Not all of them are like that,’ said Samantha.
‘Yeah, right,’ said Mirela. ‘That’s your opinion, but don’t forget – you believe in fairytales.’
They strolled up the main street of Pantelimon, peering into shop windows. Samantha smiled for two red-haired, sunburned tourists falling over one another to take their photo. Right when they sing-songed, ‘Cheeeese!’ Mirela poked out her tongue.
‘What?’ she said, when Samantha frowned at her. ‘You don’t think that’s gonna make a great photo? They’ll be back home one day, maybe ten years from now, looking at that photo of the two colourful gypsy girls. Of course, they’ll be stunned by the beauty of the dark-haired one sticking out her tongue. And then off they’ll go and pay to watch me star in a movie at their local cinema, and they’ll never know that they once almost met the most famous movie star in the world.’
Samantha laughed and linked arms with her.
‘You should be a writer, not a movie star,’ she said. ‘You spin enough bull-’
‘Hey!’ laughed Mirela. ‘Do you eat with that mouth?’
They walked past McDonald’s, and Mirela gazed in wistfully. ‘You wanna go in?’ she said.
‘You got any money?’ said Samantha. ‘No, you don’t, so I don’t want to go in.’
‘We’ve got some money,’ said Mirela.
‘Oh yeah, sure. We’re gonna use the cash your mother gave us for groceries to buy McDonald’s. That sounds like a great plan. Especially if we want to be murdered. Pass.’
Just ahead, Samantha spotted the two happy photographers at a stall selling overpriced junk for tourists. She watched them examining a coffee mug bearing a blurry transfer of Count Vlad Dracul, the Impaler.
‘They can’t ever get enough of Dracula, can they?’ said Mirela.
‘Well, they are in Romania, his birthplace,’ said Samantha. ‘But they should wait until they get to Transylvania for their souvenirs. They can buy underwear with his name on it then.’
‘You talk about him like he’s real.’
‘Well, not everything that exists is visible, you know.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I know. Once upon a time…’ Mirela laughed.
‘Shut up,’ said Sam. ‘Where do you reckon they’re from, anyway?’ This was her favourite game.
‘Oh, who cares,’ said Mirela. ‘Texas? Sweden?’
‘I’d love to go to Australia,’ said Samantha.
‘Really? Gee, you’ve never mentioned that before.’ Mirela rolled her eyes. ‘I don’t know why you want to go fantasising about riding kangaroos all day when you could be dreaming about moving to LA, baby.’
‘Meh,’ said Samantha.
‘Whatever,’ said Mirela. ‘So, where are we going, anyway?’
‘Now, where do you think?’
‘Aw, man,’ Mirela groaned. ‘Birthday Jones again? I thought you were in love with Tamas.’
‘You’re an idiot, you know that, Mimi?’
Samantha couldn’t explain why she was drawn to Birthday Jones. It would be like having to provide reasons why she loved Lala. Or Mirela, for that matter. Some people just meant the world to her.
Although Milosh’s camp travelled widely throughout Romania, they settled every year in the countryside on the outskirts of Pantelimon. And that’s where she’d met Birthday Jones. Five years ago, on the streets, where he lived.
‘But he’s not even Roma,’ said Mirela.
Samantha sighed. The fence between the Roma and the Gaje was as carefully tended by the gypsies as it was by the rest of the Romanian population. She found the whole thing completely boring. As far as she was concerned, she couldn’t have cared less about a person’s nationality or culture. It made no more difference to her than whether a person preferred Coke or Pepsi. For the past two years, every summer, she’d been using the internet at the Pantelimon library and she knew that the world was a much bigger place than Romania.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘You got anything better to do?’
They found Birthday working his favourite restaurant strip.
‘He is gorgeous,’ said Mirela. ‘I do understand the attraction.’
‘No attraction,’ said Samantha. ‘None. Zero. Zip.’
‘You must have it bad for Tamas, then,’ said Mirela. ‘That boy there is fine.’
They watched Birthday Jones and his crew at work. They relied on the younger beggars to get the ball rolling. When they’d first met Birthday, he’d been eleven and the absolute best beggar. Samantha suspected it was racism at play. Because Birthday Jones was a Romanian street kid with a thick mop of shaggy, light-brown hair, rather than coarse, wiry black, he stood out from the crowd. He appealed to the Western mums and dads with kids at home being babysat by Nanna while they took their trip of a lifetime. The guilt would bite hard and their wallets would be out before they knew it.
Perfect. The older pickpockets would take note – that’s where they kept the cash.
But Birthday Jones had an extra secret weapon. His eyes. An amber-gold colour and yes, damn it, sparkling; he would beam those eyes into yours and all of a sudden you’d forget he was barefoot and dirt-smeared. In fact, suddenly, he looked great, and it seemed like a good idea to buy him a meal, some shoes, a bed. Sam had watched him work plenty of times, and when Birthday brought out the big guns – his dimples – the tourists started speaking seriously about adoption and the plight of Romanian street children. Sam was at once sympathetic and repulsed by that attitude. Sure, she could understand the attraction of bringing this particularly cute street kid into western suburbia. These tourists would suddenly become the Angelina Jolies of their suburb in a single post-softball weekend barbeque. But what about the smaller kids they looked right through? Andre, with the cleft palate, only eight this year, and three when Samantha first met him. He was still begging, and had three years to go before he graduated to pickpocket. And Belinda, now fourteen – Samantha hadn’t seen her once in the last two years. Word was she was in Russia now, and was owned by the mafia.
Birthday was wearing his Invisible Outfit: black cargos, blue T-shirt, runners. Today, with his sunshine curls tamed by a black trucker cap, and those eyes hooded by its curved visor, he was just another street kid. He was making certain to keep the dimples in their holster. He didn’t want to stand out.
‘Can you see their handler?’ said Mirela.
‘Fat cow,’ said Samantha. ‘She’s right there. Stay down. She hates me.’
They squatted by a row of concrete rubbish bins separating the mall from the street. Birthday Jones had had the same handler for the past three years. Cici Illiescu. When Samantha had seen the woman beating the kids because they didn’t bring in enough cash or food, she’d sworn in protest and tried to jump in to help them. But Birthday had yelled at her, told her she was making things worse.
‘It doesn’t even hurt,’ he’d said later. ‘It’s just a bit of hose. But if you get her angry, she’ll tell Drago and then we’ll really cop it. She’s nothing. We all laugh about how winded she gets just giving out five.’
‘We can’t sit here in the gutters all day, Sam,’ said Mirela. ‘This is getting boring.’
‘Chill,’ said Samantha. ‘I’ll get his attention in a second.’
A shopkeeper on the other side of the street made a show of catching their eye and spitting onto the footpath. He swept the air theatrically with his broom to shoo them away.
‘Why do they call him Birthday, anyway?’ said Mirela, smiling languidly at the shopkeeper. It’d take the Gaje police to get her to move from a public street, and even then she’d give them plenty of chat.
‘It’s his actual name,’ said Samantha. ‘They don’t just call him that.’
‘For real?’ said Mirela.
‘Yep. He was dumped at the hospital on the day he was born. And he had no blanket, nothing. Some wise-arse at the hospital decided to memorialise the moment, I guess, and wrote down Birthday Jones as his name on his birth certificate.’
‘Nice,’ said Mirela, grinning.
‘It’s not funny.’ Samantha nudged Mirela’s foot with her shoe.
‘Hey! I know. It’s pretty mean.’ Mirela laughed. ‘It’s a cool name, though.’
Samantha glowered and turned back to watch the crew work the mall.
‘Maybe that’s why you like him so much,’ said Mirela. ‘On account of… you know… how you came to us and all.’
Samantha said nothing. She was sure that had to be part of it. When she’d first heard his story and the tales of some of the other kids out there, she’d felt guilty for having been so lucky as to have been left with Lala. Sure, there’d been some hard times growing up around Milosh, but it was nothing compared to life as a child in a Romanian orphanage. Even the streets were better than that, and that’s where most of them ended up.
‘Hey, get up,’ she said. ‘He’s coming this way.’
The restaurant strip was the most upmarket in Pantelimon, and a few of the restaurateurs did their best to warn their customers – mostly tourists – about the pickpockets and beggars. The kids would stay away from these cafes, concentrating their trade around the outdoor tables of the other venues, whose owners saved a fortune buying stolen goods from the street kids – often items thieved to order.
Right now, Birthday Jones was making his way through a cluster of people checking out the signposted menu of one of these establishments. Samantha watched him brush past a tall, slim woman in an expensive leather jacket. Waiting for a table with a shorter woman in a red sundress, she barely glanced at him, and didn’t notice that her handbag swayed slightly as he walked away.
From their concrete hideout, Samantha grinned. She gave their whistle. Birthday looked up, spotted her instantly. Other than a slight tilt of his trucker cap, his expression didn’t change at all.
‘Hey, hoodlum,’ she said when he reached the bins.
That got her the dimples.
‘Hey, yourself, superstar,’ he said, looking down at them. ‘Mirela,’ he added.
Mirela nodded. ‘What’s up?’ she said, blushing.
‘Well, you two should know. You’re the talk of the town.’
Samantha frowned. ‘Huh?’
‘Don’t get up,’ he said. ‘Cici will see you and then we’ll all have a very bad day. Just wait here a second. I’m gonna bail. You guys hungry?’
‘Always,’ said Mirela.
‘So you got any money?’ said Birthday Jones.
Samantha really was hungry now. The sights and smells of the food at the outdoor market always drove her crazy. They walked past a particularly fragrant stall. Mounds of deep-brown, sandy, red and golden-coloured ground spices filled the air with cinnamon, cloves, cumin, paprika. She took a deep breath. She felt like burying her face in one of the bowls.
‘You’ve always got money, Birthday,’ said Mirela, smiling up at him. ‘Can’t you buy us something to eat?’
She blinked lazily, her dark, thick lashes as long as Tamas’s. Samantha laughed. Mirela was only thirteen, but she could make most boys do exactly what she wanted.
‘Not right now, I don’t,’ he said.
‘But what about Mrs Leather Jacket?’ asked Sam.
She stopped in front of the glass cabinet of a stall selling fat, sticky chunks of chicken threaded onto skewers with sweet, charred onions.
‘I had to give that to Cici,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry about it. Wait here. I’ll be back in a sec.’
They watched him approach a table of backpackers, all laughing and speaking over one another in a language Samantha couldn’t identify. Under a red, striped umbrella, dressed in singlets and shorts, they drank beer and ate with their fingers and bread from plates and bowls covering almost every inch of the table.
Samantha watched Birthday, trying to predict his hustle. Backpackers were usually tricky. They kept their cash in their shoes, or strapped tightly around them in zipped belts. Birthday would have to get pretty close to one of them to lift a wallet.
In the end, he must have agreed – she watched him walk right past the group, his trucker cap low. He passed close to the next stall, selling boots, belts and other leather items.
‘Oh man,’ said Mirela. ‘What’s he doing now? Shopping for a key ring?’
‘Nope, a wallet,’ said Samantha, grinning, suddenly understanding. ‘Watch this.’
When he’d cleared the leather goods stall, Birthday Jones cut sharply left and ducked back around behind it. Before they knew it, he was standing at the rowdy table with the backpackers.
‘Hey man,’ they heard him say, leaning in over the loudest male in the group. ‘Did you drop this? It was right behind you.’
The big guy stood, swaying slightly. Blindingly blond in the bright sunshine, he towered over Birthday Jones, who, Samantha realised, had reached almost six foot this summer. The blond giant’s nose was sunburned and appeared to have been broken more than once. He wore a frown and half of his lunch down his white singlet, and he looked to have a good beer buzz going on.
‘What did you say?’ he asked with a heavy accent.
Birthday held something up.
‘It’s a wallet,’ whispered Mirela. ‘Why doesn’t he bring it over here?’
‘You don’t want that one,’ said Samantha. ‘It’s brand new, but empty.’
‘Uh ha,’ said Mirela, her smile igniting her ebony eyes.
‘I just wondered if one of you dropped this?’ said Birthday. ‘It was on the ground just here. But it’s cool, man. I can go. I don’t want any trouble.’
Samantha could almost see the man’s sun and beer-addled brain shifting gears. Clunk. Clunk. His friends at the table watched him.
‘Oh. My wallet!’ he said, taking it from Birthday. ‘Thank you, my friend! You must drink with us. Come on, sit. Sit.’
The big man put his arm around Birthday’s shoulders. For just a moment, Birthday turned his face in their direction and gave them a man-he-stinks grimace. Mirela laughed.
‘I can’t, I can’t,’ said Birthday, wrangling his body out from under the big blond bear. ‘I’m meeting friends. They’re waiting for me. Thanks though, man.’
He left the group toasting him and sauntered back to join them. He slipped Mirela a handful of cash.
‘Buy us some chicken,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’ll meet you girls over by the fruit stand.’
Samantha stretched her tanned legs out on the grass in the park adjacent to the markets. She rested her hands on her belly.
‘Oh man,’ she said. ‘I’m gonna die.’
She leaned back onto her elbows and squinted up through the branches above her. She’d never seen leaves on a tree so still. She searched, but could not spot a single leaf so much as swaying. The sky above the tree was a uniform powder blue, a single, flat stretch of colour that could have been a painted ceiling. No birds ruined the effect, and not a breath of wind blew. For a moment, everything felt unreal. What if she was in a room and the grass underneath her was carpet? She dug her fingers into the dry soil to check.
‘Well, you ate more than even I did, superstar,’ said Birthday. ‘No wonder your stomach hurts.’
‘Why do you keep calling me that?’ she said, flicking dirt from under her fingernails.
Birthday rolled over onto his side. He propped his chin in his hand and watched her. His trucker cap lay in the grass next to him, and his curls seemed alive, as though they grew like vines and might at any time reclaim his amber eyes.
‘Well, you’re the Gaje Princess, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Favourite of the king?’
‘How do you know about that?’ Mirela lazily stirred a raspberry ice with a thick straw, watching it melt.
Samantha sat up. Why would Birthday know about yesterday? The whole thing felt like a dream to her, and it had all ended so abruptly. She’d been completely exhausted when their visitors had left straight after the reading. She’d gone into the caravan to pack away her cards, intending to find Lala and quiz her about what she’d felt in there, but it had been so hot, and so still. The next thing she’d woken with a stiff neck and the camp was sleeping. She hadn’t even heard the men arrive home from the horse fair. And when she’d tried to find Lala before they left this morning, she’d seemed always to just miss her.
‘Everyone knows the king went out to visit you,’ said Birthday. ‘You know how word gets around out here.’
‘Yeah,’ said Mirela. ‘From your crew.’
‘For real,’ said Birthday Jones. ‘But not everyone knows everything. There’s a little bit more to tell.’
‘Spill,’ said Samantha.
‘You first,’ he said.
So Samantha told her friend about yesterday’s events. Mirela interjected periodically until Samantha reached the moment they’d entered the caravan, and then Mirela and Birthday listened silently as she took them through her reading for the gypsy king.
‘You are a freak, Sam,’ said Mirela when she stopped speaking. ‘Just so you know.’
‘A super-freak,’ said Birthday Jones. ‘Give me a sip of that drink, Mimi.’
‘Whatever,’ said Samantha. ‘Now it’s your turn.’
‘Okay, get this,’ said Birthday. ‘You know how my Aunt Crina has a job in the palace?’ He took a big noisy slurp from Mirela’s cup.
‘Yeah,’ said Mirela, snatching back her drink.
Samantha said nothing. Technically, Birthday Jones didn’t know any of his real relatives, but he’d adopted his own family of sorts, just as she had.
‘Well, Crina was working in the kitchen when the king got home from your little enchanted picnic,’ said Birthday. ‘And he was not a happy fatty.’
Samantha bit her lip. Why couldn’t she just have done the reading the way Lala had taught her? What was going to happen now?
‘Is he mad at me?’ she asked.
‘Mad at you? Ah, no. The king loves you, superstar. He was mad at everyone else, though. Came in screaming about how he had to have you, and how Boldo the bodyguard had better get on it and make it happen. The kitchens got a call that he was on his way home and hungry, so they had a spread laid on, but Crina reckons he took the first dish she brought him and threw it – smash – straight into the wall.’
‘What do you mean, he wants me?’ said Samantha.
Birthday twisted his lips. ‘Um, you’re a big girl now, Sam,’ he said. ‘I think you can figure that out.’
‘Oh my God, Sam!’ Mirela sat bolt upright in the grass. ‘First of all – yuuuck – and second, what are we gonna do? Lala will send you away before she’ll let that pig take you.’
Samantha shook her head. Memories of the tarot reading snaked through her mind like the incense smoke in the darkened van.
‘It wasn’t like that,’ she said. ‘He wasn’t there for that reason.’
‘Tamas thought he was,’ said Mirela with a half smile. ‘He was pretty jealous.’
‘He was?’ said Samantha. ‘What did he say?’ She pushed herself up from the grass. ‘You tell me right now, Mimi.’
Birthday sat up too. ‘Um, it’s been real,’ he said. ‘But if you’re gonna sit here and girl-talk about Tamas, I’m out.’
‘No, wait,’ said Samantha. ‘Sorry, Birthday. We have to talk this out a bit more. Tamas said this guy used to be a criminal, and his driver came along with a gun. I don’t want to bring trouble to the camp. I want to figure out what he wants with me.’
Birthday gave her that look again.
‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I seriously did not get that feeling from him. You know how I’m good at kind of knowing how people feel? If anything, I think maybe he might have felt that way about his driver.’
‘Well, I have heard that,’ said Birthday.
‘You see?’ said Samantha. ‘No, when he was with me he was much more excited about the cards. But there was also something more than that.’
She chewed a thumbnail, pensive.
‘What?’ said Mirela.
‘Just say it,’ said Birthday.
Samantha looked away. ‘Well, it felt like there was more than just me, him and Lala in the trailer,’ she said.
‘What, like someone was spying?’ said Mirela.
‘Yeah,’ said Samantha. ‘From inside his mind.’
‘You think that someone was spying on you from inside the gypsy king’s head?’ said Birthday.
She just looked at him.
‘You know, Sam,’ he said. ‘I was hoping you weren’t gonna go down this way. You know the gypsy fortune-telling bullcrap is all just a show for the Gaje.’
‘It’s not bullcrap,’ said Mirela. ‘And you’re Gaje, in case you’d forgotten.’
‘I’m not Gaje,’ he said.
‘Well, you’re not Roma,’ said Mirela loudly.
‘Neither is she,’ said Birthday, pointing his chin at Samantha.
‘Would you two cut it out?’ said Samantha.
Suddenly, she reached into the grass for her sandals. ‘Don’t look now, boys and girls,’ she said. ‘Birthday, isn’t that your new bestie on his way over here with some friends for us to play with?’
She scrambled to her feet, sandals in hand. Birthday Jones snapped his head around. Running full-pelt from the market into the park, the blond giant and his Nordic clones were going to crash their party in seconds.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ he said, leaping to his feet.
Mirela and Samantha sprinted after him.
The park led into a laneway and then a side street wide enough only for foot traffic. Birthday Jones ducked past a display stand on the sidewalk, but Mirela collected it, and brochures and magazines flew like birds into Samantha’s face. Her feet became entangled in the wire frame and she was suddenly airborne. But not for long. She crashed down into the gutter, palms first, chin next. She bit her tongue and tasted blood.
‘Ouch,’ she said miserably to Birthday, who was already standing over her, hands reaching down. She got the dimples.
‘Come on!’ yelled Mirela.
The shopkeeper raced out of his store pelting stale bread rolls and screaming like a steam train. While Birthday pulled Samantha to her feet, Mirela picked the rolls up from the laneway and, laughing, pegged them back at the enraged store owner.
Shouts from behind them sounded much too close. Samantha’s head pounded and her hands were on fire.
‘Seriously, Birthday,’ Mirela yelled as they began running again. ‘Why’d ya have to pick jocks as your marks? Couldn’t you have targeted a little old lady?’
‘That’s hardly fair, is it?’ he said. ‘This way.’
Skidding into the next street, Birthday abruptly jerked around a corner and into an enclave. ‘Up here,’ he shouted, running through a darkened doorway opening onto a set of concrete stairs.
‘Eww,’ said Mirela, halting at the foot of the stairs, her nose wrinkled. ‘It smells like somebody pissed in here.’
‘That’s because people do,’ Birthday called down to her. ‘A lot.’
He took the stairs two at a time, Mirela right behind him. Samantha managed them one by one, limping now, a hand on the rail for support. Birthday Jones disappeared into a room at the top and Mirela again paused at the threshold, hands on hips, sucking air.
‘Come on, Sam,’ she called down. ‘I’m not going in there without you.’
‘Hold up,’ Sam managed. Drums played at the back of her head and it felt like her jaw wouldn’t close properly.
‘You don’t look so good,’ said Mirela when she cleared the last step.
Samantha gave her a look. She wanted to say, Why don’t you look where you’re going next time? What she actually said was, ‘My head hurts.’
‘Well, you’re not gonna like it in there,’ said Mirela. ‘On account of how it stinks much worse than the stairs.’
Samantha could smell it already: solvent and fuel oil. Oh God. ‘Is this a -’ she began.
Mirela stepped aside. ‘Yep,’ she said. ‘A squat.’
The room was even darker than the stairwell and at first Samantha could only make out formless shapes a few shades darker than the general gloom. She felt despair, sorrow and emptiness wash over her before her eyes adjusted to reveal maybe six or seven kids. Some sat around, others were flat on their backs, and at least four of them held paper bags over their mouths, heaving in and out, as though the bags were external lungs. They were breathing in glue or petrol: the cheapest drugs in Romania. Grief clutched at her throat.
She could hear Birthday calling them, but it took another couple of seconds to spot him by a wall. She grabbed for Mirela’s hand and they crossed the room, stepping over mounds of clothing, discarded food containers, and a boy who had passed out with vomit on his chin.
When they reached Birthday, she realised that he stood next to a row of newspaper-covered windows.
‘You all right?’ he said.
Samantha held her hands out, the wounds red raw and weeping.
‘Poor baby superstar,’ he said, touching a finger, feather-light, to her bottom lip. She felt it still swelling.
‘Anyway, check it,’ he said. He turned and lifted a corner of one of the newspapers and a shaft of sunlight streamed in. Dust motes held a dance party in the glow from the window.
Samantha peered through the chink in the paper. She blinked in the daylight from the street. Tourists shopped and ate, Birthday’s crew begged and stole, and in the middle of them, flushed and furious, the Nordic jocks scanned the sidewalks, searching everywhere for them. She stepped aside to let Mirela have a look.
‘This place is charming, by the way,’ Mirela said quietly, as she elbowed past Birthday to reach the window. She peered through. ‘They’re gonna get themselves whiplash, looking around like that,’ she said.
She and Birthday laughed. Samantha smiled.
‘Ouch,’ she said, holding her jaw. ‘I hate you both.’
Samantha wanted to go home. She wanted to wash her hands and face and lie down. She also wanted to have a long talk with Lala – she didn’t know what was going on with the gypsy king, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t over. Most of all, she wanted to get Mirela out of here. Esmeralda would have a stroke if she knew her daughter was in a squat.
A dark-skinned, wiry boy, maybe a regular-sized nineyear-old, or a wizened eleven, moved from the shadows to join them at the window. Samantha didn’t recognise him and she hadn’t spotted him in the room before. She suddenly wondered how many other people were actually in here. The boy wore a man-sized black T-shirt and cut-off pants that didn’t reach his knobbly knees; he carried a paper bag in his hand.
‘What are you doing here, B?’ the boy said to Birthday Jones.
‘Hey, Fonso,’ said Birthday, giving the boy the super-fast, complicated handshake of the streets. ‘We’re just staying out of someone’s way. You?’ Birthday looked down pointedly at the paper bag.
‘Oh well, you know. This and that,’ said the boy.
‘Yeah, I can see. It looks like mostly that,’ said Birthday, making a swipe for the bag.
Birthday moved fast, but the kid was quicker. ‘Hey, B. Don’t go all parental on me, dude,’ he said, now safely an arm’s length from Birthday Jones. He reminded Samantha of the cats who mooched around the campsite every night. They purred and pranced for food, but come almost-just within touching distance and they were suddenly ten feet away again.
‘What do you do that crap for, anyway?’ said Birthday. ‘You don’t need it, man.’
The kid raised the bag to his face, inhaled and exhaled. ‘Maybe you don’t need it, but maybe you got less than me to forget about every day, you know?’ Fonso raised his bag again. ‘This here’s good for the memory, man. Makes it all go away.’
For the first time he looked over at Samantha and Mirela. ‘I see you got the Gaje Princess with you,’ he said. ‘I guess you got away from them ninja freaks, then?’
‘From who now?’ said Birthday.
Samantha’s heart ratcheted up another notch or two.
Fonso breathed into his bag again. His eyes were a glass doll’s. When he wasn’t speaking or breathing into the bag, his bottom jaw dropped open, as though he’d forgotten how to close his mouth. Samantha could barely feel him – he was far, far away. But how did he know who she was?
‘It’s just that this here’s prolly not a good place to hide from them,’ said Fonso. ‘On account of how they’ve already been here twice today that I know of.’
Birthday Jones whipped his eyes around the room.
To Samantha everything seemed the same as when they’d first entered. But suddenly Birthday reached up and tore a thick wad of newspaper from the closest window.
‘What’re you doing, man?’ said Fonso. ‘That’s not cool.’
Others moaned, injured by the reminder of reality that streamed into the room with the sunlight.
Birthday banged furiously at the lock on the window with the heel of his hand. It looked to Samantha as though her friend would break his arm before the mechanism budged. She reached down. Parallel to the skirting board a dull silver pipe was mostly hidden by a pile of rags. For some reason it had been one of the first things she’d become aware of after they entered the room. She picked it up.
‘Here, try this,’ she said, passing it to Birthday.
He did a double take, his eyes wild, panicked. He snatched the pole from her.
‘Stand back,’ he said.
Samantha grabbed Mirela by the arm and dragged her away from the window. Like a baseball bat, Birthday raised the pole up over his shoulder and swung. The window smashed on the first blow and the crash fractured the dazed stupor of the room. Dark shapes rose up from the floor around her. Samantha wondered how many people she had stepped on as she and Mirela had made their way across to the windows.
‘Sam, Mirela, get up here,’ yelled Birthday.
He used the pole to smash out the rest of the window, glass spraying everywhere. Then he picked up wads of filthy clothing from the floor around him and threw them out the window by the armful.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ said Mirela.
Samantha didn’t know either, but Birthday was obviously freaked out, so she quickly shovelled up another mound of rags. He snatched them from her and spread them over the windowsill. Then he stood back, waving Mirela forward.
‘Go!’ he said.
‘What! Are you crazy?’ she said. ‘We’re one floor up.’
‘There’s an awning,’ he said. ‘It’ll hold you. I’ve used it before. Just drop down. Now.’
Mirela faced him, hands on her hips. ‘Why can’t we use the stairs?’ she said.
From across the other side of the room, the doorway darkened. Samantha swung around. She could see only one new arrival to the squat, but she sensed there were others behind him. Then they locked eyes and the world suddenly shuddered by in blink-by-blink frames. She’d never seen or felt anyone like him.
She tried to focus through the gloom. At first glance, he appeared to be wearing a white vest over a long-sleeved, multicoloured shirt. With another blink, she realised that he wore only a singlet, and his arms were completely covered, shoulders to wrists, in blazing multicoloured tattoos. A strip of spiked black hair stood at attention along the crest of his otherwise shaved head, and a livid, puckered scar gouged its way through his bottom lip and down under his chin. Something dark and narrow protruded from behind his right shoulder, like a single, sheathed black wing.
‘Sam! Now!’ yelled Birthday, breaking her from her trance.
As Mirela began to climb gingerly over the rags, Birthday leaned down and with his shoulders shoved her, squawking in protest, through the window. Samantha didn’t have to be told twice. She could feel the man coming towards them, a boiling wave of violence. Without even looking, she turned and dived headfirst through the window. Right now, she didn’t care what was on the other side.
Just as she felt half of her body clear the window she saw, directly below her, Mirela scrabbling in the fabric awning suspended over the road. And then Mirela sat up and her head and shoulders hooked in under Samantha’s diaphragm and propelled her forward.
Samantha flew over the edge of the awning.
It took a couple of blinks to realise that time hadn’t actually stopped, but that she swung upside down, two metres from the ground, her ankles gripped painfully from above.
Blink. Staring up at her, a woman with a pram met her eyes and screamed.
Blink. The shopkeeper with the broom spotted her, stopped sweeping, and smiled widely, evidently immensely entertained by her sudden appearance.
Blink. The original Nordic jock, leaning against a wall, swung his eyes upwards; froze. His cigarette fell from his lips.
Blink. The concrete pavement rushed up to meet her as the awning gave way.
Samantha knew that she owed her life to the lady with the pram and to an older Romanian woman. Without any thought for themselves, they’d rushed to stand beneath her and caught her, all of them crashing to the ground.
For maybe a second, the world was silent, peaceful, as she lay shrouded with her rescuers under the heavy awning. And then her hearing exploded into life again as the canvas was wrenched away from them by shouting passers-by. She struggled to her feet with the young mother, both of them desperately scanning the street for the pram. Another shopper rushed forward, pushing the baby towards them, and Samantha burst into tears. Thank God the child was safe.
Birthday Jones wrenched her by the wrist, dragging her off-balance. And she remembered that man. Up there.
‘Wait!’ she cried, as he started running, pulling her along.
The older woman sat dazed on the pavement, people bending over her to try and help her to her feet. The young mum still had not looked up from her pram. She had to thank them. And where was Mirela?
Arms suddenly wrapped around her, almost tackling her back to the pavement.
‘Are you okay?’ yelled Mirela.
‘RUN!’ shouted Birthday Jones.
They took off again, the tears on Samantha’s cheeks drying as she ran. Pain smashed against her skull with every step she took. Her shoulder throbbed in rhythm with the pounding from her head, and she tried to breathe through the pain, open-mouthed. To distract herself, she sent a prayer to Goddess Gaia to bless forever the lives of the woman still on the pavement and the mother and child, and she pushed her legs harder than she ever had to get away from what she had seen up there.
They bolted along the footpath of the busy street, shoppers clearing a path. She was vaguely aware of whistles and shouts, and of bare feet slapping the pavement as members of Birthday’s crew ran with them – in front of them, behind them, flanking them and then dispersing. They turned right onto the next road, also busy with lunchtime traffic.
And then a terrible, paralysing dread reached into Samantha’s innards and squeezed. They were closing in. An image of the tattooed man with the scar almost tripped her and she screamed in fear.
‘Birthday! They’re coming!’ She didn’t recognise her own voice.
She tried to push her legs harder, but the ruthless intent emanating from those chasing them was an emotional lasso, looping around her ankles, drawing her to a stop. It was pointless anyway to run. She felt that for every step they took, the creatures behind them took at least two. She could sense no desperation or anxiety; only their focused objective. The cold certainty invaded her lungs, freezing the air as she gulped desperately, sapping her strength. She stumbled. They wanted her. For some ridiculous reason, they wanted her, and they were going to catch her within moments. Maybe if she just stopped running they’d leave Mirela and Birthday alone. She slowed.
Mirela was by her side in an instant.
‘No!’ Samantha yelled. ‘Just keep going!’
Ahead of them, Birthday Jones skidded to a halt. Whistles and hoots from his crew bounced around them like bat signals. He bolted back to her side.
‘You idiot!’ he said. ‘I hope you can fight.’ He turned to face their hunters, the pole from the squat in his hand.
Samantha tried to tell herself that things would be okay. Surely one of the staring shoppers would call the police if these people tried to hurt them.
They rounded the corner, loping like cats. Three of them. They were Asian, heavily tattooed and utterly terrifying. Like Scarface, his friends’ heads were buzz-cut bald and they held something dark in their hands.
‘Oh my God!’ Mirela gasped. ‘Who are they?’
‘They’re carrying nunchuks,’ said Birthday.
‘What do they want with us?’ said Sam.
‘Nothing good,’ said Birthday.
Sam tried to calm her racing thoughts. Maybe we can talk this out? Give them money? Find out what they need?
Mirela took a step to her right towards a garbage bin. She rummaged through it, came up with a beer bottle. Held it, ready. Sam put her fingers to her mouth and gave out three sharp whistles. Hanzi, Luca and Tamas were in town today. If they heard the whistles they’d come. Other gypsies might also follow the sound.
Scarface caught her eye and smiled. And then everything happened at once. His right hand flashed up across his chest and suddenly, in his hand, silver and shivering, was a four-foot-long sword. He opened his ruined mouth, shrieked, and sprinted straight for them.
When the tattooed strangers had first skidded around the corner, nearby tourists and shoppers stopped and stared. A couple hurried their two children from the sidewalk and into a shop. Two elderly Romanian men, playing cards at a table outside a cafe, glanced up indignantly, offended by the ruckus during their lunchtime ritual. A battered hire car screeched to the kerb, front doors flying open, and a couple of backpackers scrambled out, phones pointed at the action, recording the scene.
But when Scarface drew the huge sword, the street erupted. Everywhere, people screamed and ran. Car horns honked and shopkeepers ran out onto the road to shout and watch.
Scarface and his friends ran straight for them. Samantha froze. Mirela screamed.
Birthday Jones dragged Samantha into the street, pushing her down behind a parked car; Mirela huddled in next to her. Birthday stepped in front of them, the pole from the squat held high. Samantha could feel fear pouring from him like kerosene fumes from the old heater at home. But now, dropping from shop awnings, running from doorways and ducking out from behind parked cars, street kids, gypsy and Romanian, abruptly surrounded them. They were everywhere: climbing up onto the car bonnet and roof, armed with rocks and bottles, they pelted the tattooed attackers who were now almost upon them.
All of a sudden, into the middle of the chaos, spilling out of the alley across the road, four Nordic jocks wielding wooden posts came running at Birthday Jones, shouting obscenities. They hit the hail of rocks and bottles and became even more enraged.
And then they saw the ninjas. A little too late.
Samantha moaned as the tattooed ninjas mowed down all four of the blond giants with blurred flicks of the nunchuks. Then they turned on the street kids, sending them flying. Samantha watched in terror as Birthday’s pole swung and connected with a tattooed shoulder. Off-balance, the warrior flicked the jointed black bludgeon, catching Birthday in the chest. Her best friend dropped to the road.
Mirela screamed again. Samantha, tears streaming, stood up from behind the car.
‘STOP!’ she yelled as loudly as she could. She stepped into the street and faced Scarface. For the third time, he smiled at her. She followed his obsidian eyes into his mind, searching for mercy. She found murder, torture, death.
A silver Mercedes sports car screeched around the corner into the street, mounting the gutter and taking out the table at which the old men had been playing cards just moments before. Scarface reached out and gripped Sam painfully by the bicep. He dragged her, dry-mouthed and sweating, towards the car. She felt completely numb, powerless, gummy with apathy and defeat.
Just as they reached the black-windowed vehicle, Samantha registered faintly the sound of glass breaking. She turned her head to see Mirela launch herself onto Scarface, stabbing with a broken bottle at his neck and shoulders.
Using the elbow of the arm holding his sword, the tattooed man jabbed, hard, with his elbow and Mirela smacked to the ground.
Still gripping Samantha tightly, Scarface cast his eyes to where Mirela lay, unmoving. Blood pulsed and drizzled from several puncture wounds in his neck and shoulder. Samantha watched, mesmerised, as it formed a ruby road, snaking its way across a snarling, forked-tongue devil tattoo and then down over his unmarked hand, onto his sword. Samantha knew that he too watched the blood. She felt his arousal, his delight, his insatiable craving for more blood. He lazily swirled the tip of the sword over Mirela’s unconscious body.
Samantha felt a flood of love for her friend that was so powerful her knees buckled. Scarface yanked her upright, but she barely noticed. Rushing through every cell in her body ran a liquid energy, golden and sweet like honey. It shot tingles from the very centre of her heart out through her extremities. She’d never before felt anything like it.
Scarface loosened his grip.
‘Please,’ she begged, her eyes locking with his. ‘Please, don’t hurt her.’
The stench of his violent hate suddenly became less rancid in her nose and mouth. His sword dropped to his side. Without knowing what she was doing, she sent more of the honeyed light through her skin and watched her captor’s face. The hard angles slackened and he stared at her, amazed. His grip loosened further.
She heard sirens, but she knew they’d be too late. The street was already littered with bodies, moaning or out cold. Bystanders brave enough to remain in the open stood, hands over their mouths, watching as she was herded towards the car.
Tensing carefully, she tested Scarface’s grip on her arm and found it tentative, almost gentle. She looked up again into his face, and this time his eyes reflected light and he actually saw her. For some reason she knew that if she ran now he’d let her go. She turned her head slowly, trying to spot a place to run to, to hide. She readied herself to break free. She figured that with the police on the way she could run until someone stopped her – the goodies or the baddies. It had to be better than getting into that car.
And then the rear door of the Mercedes cracked open and a girl stepped out.
‘Kirra,’ whispered Scarface, as though beginning a prayer. The warm-glow thing winked out instantly.
And Samantha knew she had no chance.
The girl seemed clad in a black rubber membrane. Toe to throat, she wore a single skin-like sheath that slicked across lean limbs and muscles. She wore a high, shiny-black ponytail, a filigreed-blossom tattoo on her neck, and a smile like nuclear waste. Samantha’s first thought was to wonder whether they might be the same age; her second was to decide that she had never seen a more beautiful girl. Her third thought tore at her heart: who or what had created a creature so completely devoid of human feeling?
The buzz-cut boys flanked her now and she knew that she was going to be forced into the Mercedes. The girl Scarface had called Kirra stalked around to the passenger side of the car and Scarface shoved Sam forward. Where will they take me? I’m never going to see my family again! Am I going to end up like Belinda – stolen and shipped off to Russia, owned by the mafia? Did the gypsy king send these people? Am I going to die? The thoughts scudded through her mind like debris caught up in a hurricane.
They reached the car and Scarface thrust her towards the back seat. A frantic terror gripped her and she struggled, jamming her feet against the doorframe, screaming.
And that’s when the shooting started.
The first bullet caught Scarface. She felt the pain of the impact rip through his body like a lightning strike; the remnants of the fiery energy zapped out through his skin and into hers. He dropped her. And the sword.
She bolted towards the voice, all senses on fire. Gunshots continued to crack and whistle around her. Sirens were screaming now and she thought she might be too, but she couldn’t be sure.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a dark blur of movement and made the mistake of glancing back towards the car. Kirra had launched herself up and over the roof of the Mercedes, hitting the road in a crouch. And then, in the second it took Samantha to swallow, the cat-girl sprang from squat into flat-out sprint. Samantha pushed even harder. Ahead of her, Birthday Jones and Mirela waved frantically at her from behind a car.
More gunshots. Samantha reached her friends at the same time as police cars tore into the street. She risked a quick glance behind her. Scarface and the ninjas were no longer on the road. But Kirra stood there, a sliver of midnight that had somehow pierced its way into the sunshine. She met Samantha’s eyes and hissed, then turned and sprinted back towards the Mercedes.
Birthday Jones dragged her forward. Ahead of them Fonso and two other kids held up a grate in the gutter.
Birthday pushed her through the hole and down into the sewer.
June 29, 7.28 a.m.
When he opened his eyes Luke found – half-surprised, as he always was – that he’d survived the night after all, and in the shower block before breakfast he realised that he felt better than he had in the past couple of days. Whatever had caused that pain in his head last night seemed to have left him alone this morning. And what with the silent lockdown on all dorms and most of the staff out looking for the escapee, he’d slept like a dead person. Right now, though, he couldn’t wait for a chance to talk to Nguyen about their freaky new friend, Abrafo. Last night seemed like a dream, and he needed to know what the hell had happened in there.
Turned out, he’d have to wait until after breakfast. The screws in the dining hall maintained the silence rule throughout the meal. Although no one told them anything, it wasn’t difficult to guess that they hadn’t caught Abrafo overnight. Anyone could see from their worried glances and huddled whispers that they were freaking out about having lost an inmate. Curiosity steamed from the boys at the hushed tables, whiting-out the windows of the hall, fogging them in from the icy morning outside.
Luke absently kicked a foot against his chair, itching to leave the room. Zac seemed to be deliberately avoiding his eyes. He fiddled with a single-serve packet of strawberry jam, flicking the foil lid back and forth, praying that the screws would allow them out to the oval for a run. He glanced up with the clatter of a bowl on a table across the hall to find Toad watching him, brows lowered, top lip pulled back in a sneer. Toad indicated with his chin that his plate was empty, and then pointed his eyes deliberately down to the slice of uneaten toast on Luke’s plate. The other boys watched the silent interaction. You got pretty good at speaking without words when you were in Dorm Four. Holt kept them in silence half the time they were awake.
Luke raised his own brows and made a little O with his mouth. He dropped his eyes to his plate and then cast them over to Toad’s. Smiling, he picked up his piece of toast and turned it over a couple of times, studying it. Finally, he shrugged and took a quick look around the room for the screws. No one close. He raised the toast to his mouth. He opened wide and took a big lick, front and back. He stretched his arm across the table with his offering, his expression kind, warm: Do you want this, Toad? He let the bread drop back onto his plate. Kitkat and Jonas did a poor job of trying to muffle their laughter and Mr Singh headed their way.
When breakfast was over, Luke sighed with relief when Singh ordered them all into their lines to march up the steep hill to the ovals. He watched Zac’s back all the way up there, replaying that flying kick from last night. How the hell did this skinny kid get himself up that high? There were a lot of things he wanted to know about Nguyen.
It was freezing. When they reached the oval, for once everyone in Dorm Four stamped impatiently to begin the run. There was no sign of any sun again today, and with the gunmetal grey cloud low overhead, it felt as though dawn hadn’t yet broken. But even Toad seemed wide awake, rubbing his big red hands together for warmth, looking back over his shoulder at Singh, waiting for him to signal them to start. Everyone wanted a chance to find out more about the kid who’d escaped.
Singh’s whistle split the air and they were off. From the front of the pack, Zac took three bounding strides, and despite Luke being ready for the move, he had to flat-out sprint to catch him. He lunged forward and grabbed a fistful of Zac’s sweatshirt.
‘Not so fast, superman,’ he said. ‘You’re running with me this morning.’
Zac flicked a glance back at him. ‘You call what you do running?’ he said. He pointed with his chin. Luke saw Jonas, Kitkat and Barry jostling to catch them up. ‘Well, unless you want the rest of your girlfriends joining us, maybe you could at least make it a little more than a walk this morning?’
Luke put on a burst and ran with Zac, trying to match him, stride for stride. The freezing air burned through his lungs and his cold calf muscles cramped. He faltered, and Zac, springing along beside him, smirked, lifted an eyebrow. Luke pushed through the spasm. He and Zac were a quarter of the oval clear of the next runner.
‘What the hell… happened last night?’ gasped Luke.
‘What do you mean?’ said Zac.
‘Abrafo,’ said Luke.
‘Yes?’ said Zac.
‘How do you know him?’
‘We go way back.’
‘Why did you fight?’
Trying to breathe as he ran, Luke had to keep his sentences brief. Nguyen seemed to be strolling, but Luke only ran this fast during police chases. The stilted conversation frustrated the hell out of him. He wanted to know more right now.
‘It’s complicated,’ said Zac.
‘Aaarrgh! Well, what happened at the end there?’
Luke held his side as he ran. He had a stitch, but he wasn’t about to slow down now. ‘Why did you tell me to move?’
‘Abrafo was going to kill you.’
Luke faltered, then kicked it up again as Zac ran ahead of him.
‘He doesn’t even know me,’ he shouted at Zac’s back.
‘He knows you.’
Luke could just hear the words. He pushed harder to catch up. ‘I’ve never seen him before in my life,’ he managed.
Zac just ran.
‘He didn’t even know my name,’ said Luke.
‘He called me Lucifer,’ Luke tried again.
‘Maybe that’s your name,’ said Zac, putting on another burst.
Luke reached forward and grabbed Zac’s arm, wrenching it backwards, slowing him. ‘I don’t know what your problem is, Nguyen,’ he gasped. ‘But I want to know what the hell you and that freak are talking about.’
Zac stopped, faced Luke and looked him in the eye. They’d reached the goalposts and Travis was almost within hearing distance. Luke sucked in air while Zac spoke calmly, giving no sign that he’d been running.
‘Later,’ he said. ‘This is not the time. When we get to the woods, just step off the track and run for the trees.’
He began to jog again.
‘Are you mad?’ said Luke, stumbling along behind him. ‘Singh will put us in segro for a month.’
‘Just follow me,’ said Zac, over his shoulder. ‘And try to actually run, would you, you girl. I don’t know how you people get anywhere.’
Luke concentrated on trying to keep up, but it was impossible. Nguyen ran so fast he had no time to think about what was going to happen next. Travis Roberts now ran at his side. Luke kept his face averted – he didn’t want to have to answer anyone’s questions. Everyone knew that he and Zac were there when the new guy took off and Travis would want the lowdown.
The wooded area that flanked the oval was just ahead of Zac now. Luke glanced back towards the start line and saw Singh standing at attention, watching them all closely. Luke would bet his lock pick that all the screws had been told to make extra sure that no one was out of sight for a single second today. They’d have to call the police to find Abrafo this morning. He’d be long gone. And that would not go well for the screws. And if the media learned of the escape… He figured that Ms McNichol had better have plenty of maternity leave and a great union rep, or she’d be in the unemployment queue as soon as she’d popped out McNichol Junior.
With each step he took, he became even more certain that there was just no way they could run from the oval into the bush without Singh spotting them immediately and sending someone after them. Whatever. Luke figured he’d get at least five to eight minutes to question Nguyen, and later he might be able to talk his way out of being sent to segro. Yeah, right. He sighed. He did not need this. He didn’t need anyone. He’d had this place sorted before Zac showed up. He decided that he did not like this feeling at all – needing someone. The way he remembered it, he’d given up on that idea when he was two.
Luke watched the mist from the morning-wet soil swirling around Zac’s shoes as he ran. It only heightened the illusion that his feet didn’t even touch the ground. Zac was parallel to the woods now, and Luke put on an extra spurt to try to catch up. Zac had told him to stay close. At the same time he knew the plan was hopeless, and he felt vaguely disappointed.
It looked as though Zac was just going to keep running anyway. Of course he’s not going to try it, he thought. There’s no bloody point.
And then Zac disappeared.
Luke stumbled, but Travis ran on, breathing hard, running in sync with him. He didn’t seem to have noticed anything at all, which was bizarre, as Zac had been the only person ahead of them. What the hell? That kid is seriously fast, he thought. I must have only blinked and he was gone. Oh well. No way I can run like that. Nevertheless, he tried to draw even deeper breaths, ready to give it a go.
He and Travis hit the spot. Now or never, he thought, and bolted to the right, straight for the trees. He was sure that Travis would yell out in surprise, or at least stop and watch, but to his credit, Roberts did nothing. He just ran on as though nothing at all had happened. Good on him, thought Luke. That’ll give us a little more time at least.
The ground was much wetter off the track and boggy patches sucked at his feet as he sprinted. He felt freezing water slosh over the rim of his sneakers; his shoes squelched with each step. Great.
He reached the first of the grey eucalyptus trees, sentinels guarding the entry to this patch of woodland. He’d never been this far off the running track, and he was already way out of bounds.
Where’s Zac? he wondered, slowing as he passed the first of the dripping trees.
In here, the dim morning light was even weaker. Just beyond the first edge of the wood, it became pretty much dark. He stepped cautiously in the gloom, listening carefully, leaves and branches moving wetly underfoot. The trees huddled together in the winter fog, and Luke could hear nothing but his footsteps, his breathing, slowing now, and the blood still pounding in his ears. The sounds of the others on the oval had vanished completely.
‘Nguyen,’ he whispered. ‘You in here?’
Nothing. Great. Where the hell is he?
‘Zac?’ he tried again. Louder now.
The voice came from deeper in the wood and Luke frowned, annoyed. Any minute now Singh would notice them missing.
The events of last night were replaying in his mind, itching at his subconscious.
Nothing had seemed right from the moment Abrafo had walked into the Admin building, but it was obvious that Zac knew more about it than he did. And Luke did not like that. He made it his mission to understand everything he could about every environment he was thrown into. Until last night, Dwight had been predictable and was about as safe as anywhere else he could remember living. But now there was something he didn’t understand. He trudged further into the woods.
The air was frigid and he picked his way forward through mist and the steam of his breath. A deep, musty smell wafted up from the sodden soil and leaf matter.
‘Nguyen?’ he called.
‘Yep. Right here.’
Zac was crouched at the base of a tree, grinning. ‘These are those mushrooms I was telling you about,’ he said. ‘The Yellow Stainers. Here. Put these in your pocket, but whatever you do, don’t put your hands near your mouth until you wash.’
Luke stared. ‘You said you found these when we were out running the other day. Have you been in here before?’
Zac grinned and raised his eyebrows.
‘You’re a weird one, Nguyen,’ said Luke, holding out his hand and pocketing the mushrooms. They looked just like the mushrooms he’d seen in the shops. Whatever.
‘Who is Abrafo?’ he said.
‘Um, a bad guy,’ said Zac, squatting again.
In the gloom, Luke couldn’t see his face.
‘Why did he call me Lucifer?’ he said.
‘I don’t know. Do you?’ said Zac.
‘Um, hello. Why would I ask you if I knew that?’ Luke shook his head. ‘Why were you fighting him?’
‘To protect you,’ said Zac, looking up. The skin of his face seemed to glow, but his dark hair and eyes were like pockets of the forest.
‘Protect me? Why? What are you talking about?’
Zac shrugged and stood. ‘It’s why I’m here,’ he said.
Zac was a head shorter than Luke, and thin as a rake, but Luke had seen him fight. He didn’t mind that this kid was on his side, but he sure as hell had no idea why Zac would want to protect him. What was the catch? No one did something for nothing.
‘What are you talking about, Nguyen? You told me you were locked up because of an assault charge.’
‘Well, who did you assault?’
‘What! My case worker? How the hell do you know him? Why did you assault him?’
‘He was going to come after you again. That’s when the Council decided they needed to send someone in to protect you. I guess, though, after Zecko’s run-in with me, your enemies finally figured that he wasn’t going to get the job done. So they sent in Abrafo.’
Luke forgot about Singh and the others running on the oval. He forgot about the fact that he was standing in a freezing, boggy wood in winter. He sat down in the grass and put his head in his hands.
‘What are you talking about, Nguyen?’ he said through his fingers.
‘Well, don’t you ever wonder why you’re always getting hammered, Luke?’ said Zac, standing above him.
‘Not really,’ said Luke. ‘That’s life.’
‘Yeah, maybe. But you attract more than your fair share of haters, wouldn’t you say?’
Luke felt water seeping in through his tracksuit pants. He stood quickly, brushing at his backside, frowning.
‘Well, yeah, I guess so. Especially lately,’ he said. ‘But what have you got to do with it?’
‘They don’t tell me a lot,’ said Zac. ‘I’m kind of new at this.’
‘What are you new at? Being a bodyguard for kids in lockup?’ Luke shuffled in the grass, freezing now that his bum was wet. ‘And who’s they? Who’s this Council that told you to protect me?’
‘You don’t know them,’ said Zac.
‘Well, how do they know me?’
‘They’ve never met you either. But there are some people out there who want to help you.’
‘Why me?’ said Luke.
None of this made any sense, and he’d ninety-nine per cent made up his mind that Zac Nguyen was insane and was making all this up as he went along. He was suddenly much less curious and more amused by what this crazy kid would come out with next.
‘That bit I really don’t know,’ said Zac, bending over to pick a few more mushrooms. ‘I mean, you can’t run, and you definitely can’t fight. I don’t know what it is that’s supposed to make you so special. They just told me to do whatever I had to do to stop anyone killing you.’
Luke laughed. ‘You’re a nutter,’ he said.
‘Yeah, well, Abrafo’s still going to try to kill you.’
‘You are completely mental. Do you do drugs? Abrafo escaped. Remember?’
‘He’ll be around here. Waiting for a chance,’ said Zac. ‘And that reminds me. We should get back.’
‘Well, that’s the first thing we agree on, Zac. Let’s get me, these mushrooms, and your crazy arse back out there to cop our punishment.’
Trudging back through the woods, Luke figured he’d see where Zac’s fantasy story took him next.
‘What makes you think that Abrafo would hang around to hunt me after he’d already escaped?’ he said.
‘Because I would,’ said Zac.
Pausing at the edge of the trees, Luke was sure he’d see Dorm Four in army lines at the head of the oval, with at least four screws in the fields searching for them. But when he stepped out of the woods, what he saw was Kitkat, Jonas and Barry shuffling along on the track ahead of him, deep in conversation. Travis, Toad, Clarkson, Hooley and the others were also still running laps. Mr Singh stood tiredly at the starting point.
‘What do we do now?’ he whispered to Zac, next to him.
‘Just run in and join them,’ said Zac. ‘Come on.’
Luke stared after Nguyen running back to the oval. He waited for the whistle from Singh, but Zac rejoined the rest of the dorm without incident and quickly overtook everyone on the straight. Luke knew he’d never be as lucky, but he set off fast across the thirty-metre stretch between the woods and the running track. He fell into step next to Hong Lo.
‘Hey, Black,’ said Hong. ‘Did someone really escape last night?’
Luke blinked. Hong seemed not to have noticed that he’d just bolted out of the bushes.
‘Um, yeah,’ he said.
‘Cool,’ said Hong.
‘Yeah,’ said Luke, thinking, I can’t believe we got away with it.
‘Who was he?’ said Hong. ‘You saw him, didn’t you? Everyone’s saying he assaulted Ms McNichol and Matron and that you fainted! Is it true?’
‘Well, what does he look like?’ said Hong Lo.
‘Oh, just your average bloke, really,’ said Luke. ‘Nothing much to look at.’
‘You reckon they’ll catch him, then?’
Luke concentrated on his sodden sneakers for a moment.
‘Nah,’ he said finally. ‘I reckon he’s long gone, Lo.’
June 29, 3.38 a.m.
Oody kept her awake most of the night with his snoring and snuffling, but regardless, Samantha refused to let go of Tamas’s dog. She felt safer with him by her side. Although he slept deeply, Oody was always the first dog in the camp awake and barking if any stranger approached. But she doubted she’d have slept much at all, even if Oody had been settled. Her mind was an mpeg player programmed to random selection, and the images shuffled ceaselessly: from swords to nunchucks, glue-sniffing street kids to gunfire, tattoos to hissing ninja women.
And then to the wrath of Milosh and Esmeralda when she and Mirela had finally made it back to camp.
Breaking through the images were the thoughts about what she’d done to Scarface – somehow sending her energy directly into his mind, altering it. She’d always been aware that she could focus upon positive thoughts and concentrate her goodwill, and it seemed to calm people, but she’d assumed that it was the power of Goddess Gaia that gave them peace. But yesterday, she had felt her heart actually touch Scarface, inside him. And he felt different afterwards.
Lying on top of her soft, feathered eiderdown, Oody curled into her side, uncomfortably hot, she wondered what might have happened had she pushed harder.
Suddenly, it felt as though there were no sky. Nothing above her; the universe limitless, open to her. She wondered whether she could actually have made her captor use his sword to protect her. She dismissed the thought as soon as she had it. He’d felt sorry for her briefly, that was all.
And there definitely was a sky above her. An endless Romanian summer-night sky, an inverse inky ocean. She used the stars as a distraction, concentrating on mapping the constellations. But the memories of yesterday were too real. Two images in particular – Birthday being bashed, and Scarface tracing sword-circles above Mirela, unconscious on the road – made her shoot her thoughts up into the heavens. Somehow, imagining herself up there on a star, looking down at the camp, at herself cradling Oody, helped her to cope with the thoughts of what had happened yesterday.
But what had happened yesterday? She still couldn’t get it straight.
Down in the sewer, Birthday Jones had forced them to run through a tunnel thick with an almost chewable stench of rotten eggs. They’d splashed through filthy puddles and climbed over mounds of steaming, fetid refuse. And when she could run no further, when she was about to drop down into one of the green-sheened stagnant pools, the tunnel opened out into a room of sorts, a cavernous junction where other tunnels met. And there the street kids waited.
There was a flurry of whistles and catcalls, and then they’d cheered.
Samantha had bent forward, hands on knees, sucking air. Mirela had dropped to the wet ground beside her, cradling her head in her hands.
‘Are you okay?’ Samantha had managed, a hand on her best friend’s shoulder.
She got nothing.
‘Mirela, are you all right?’
‘Chill, Sam,’ said Mirela, breathing hard, her voice muffled by her hands. ‘I’m okay. But why are you so worried about me when you nearly became the wife of the fattest king in the world?’ Mirela raised her face and tried to smile. Stripes of blood were congealing on a livid graze on her cheek.
Fonso and several of the kids spread some rags and newspapers out on a concrete ledge. Samantha dropped gratefully into the nest, and looked up at Birthday. His eye was swollen shut. ‘Oh my God!’ she said. ‘Look at your face.’
‘You should see yours,’ he said, with dimples.
She prodded at her swollen mouth. She felt a few tears escape her lashes. Only feeling everyone’s eyes on her stopped her from giving in to the sobs that pushed relentlessly at the back of her throat.
‘I just don’t know why the king would send those freaks after us,’ she said, her voice cracking. ‘What the hell is going on? And who was doing the shooting up there?’
‘Well, firstly,’ said Birthday, lifting the bottom of his T-shirt to carefully wipe her face, ‘I don’t think it was the king who sent them.’
‘You don’t?’ she said.
‘Nope. Not his style. He would have sent his goons to bring you in. But I’ve never seen anyone like them around here before. How would he know people like that? And the way my Aunt Crina told it, he definitely wouldn’t have wanted you hurt. I think he likes you a little too much, Sam. Anyway, you should have seen who the shooter was! Okay, so there are these old dudes up there who play cards at lunchtime at the same table, every day, since I’ve been working – and I’ve been working those streets since I was five.’
‘Guaril and Gudada,’ yelled Fonso, beaming, slapping hands with the two kids closest to him.
‘Yep, that’s them all right. Anyway, Gudada does not like anyone wrecking his lunch hour,’ he said.
‘No, Gudada does not,’ said Fonso, letting loose with some breakdancing, his moves in time with his speech, unable to contain his happiness with this part of the story.
‘So when the Mercedes came around the corner…’ began Birthday.
‘Yeah, when the ninja-mobile took out their card table…’ Fonso interrupted, moonwalking.
‘Fonso, would you please…’ said Birthday.
‘Sorry, B,’ said Fonso. ‘You go ahead.’ He did some popping and locking to prove he meant it.
Birthday sighed. ‘Well, anyway,’ he said. ‘It was Gudada doing the shooting. I don’t know whether he was more pissed about them trying to abduct you or because they ruined his game. Whatever it was, he just took out that old pistola he’s always packing and started shooting. It was pretty cool, man.’
‘Too cool,’ said Fonso, eyes wide. ‘He shot that scarred freak holding you! And when he went down the party really started. Those Buddhist monk dudes dropped their nunchucks and pulled out Uzis!’
Fonso shook his head reverently, beaming a lottery winner’s smile.
‘Then they pulled their friend into the car,’ said Birthday.
‘And that catwoman-on-acid finally joined them,’ said Mirela.
‘And they took off, shooting at the cops,’ said Fonso. ‘Best day ever, man. For real.’
When Samantha woke again, she decided to give up on the sleeping idea. The moon was pale and fat, the sky bruised black-purple. Dawn herself was only just waking up and wouldn’t be dressed for another hour.
Samantha stretched silently. Spread out around her, mounds of bedding dotted the camp like mutant mushrooms sprung up overnight. Her family slept on under the stars, relishing these months when they could camp in the open before winter set in and sent them all, frozen and miserable, back to their trucks and vans. She could barely hear the horses, shuffling, asleep on their feet under the trees in the same spot they’d dined with the gypsy king. Although that lunch had been just the day before yesterday, it felt as though it had happened a month ago.
She hadn’t met any of the new horses yet. Last night Lala wouldn’t even allow her to walk as far as the paddock.
Upside down beside her, Oody twitched and spasmed, his paws padding the sky as he chased dream rabbits. She smoothed her hand gently over the soft down on his belly and wriggled carefully away from him. He rolled onto his side, stiffened his limbs in a stretch, and then snuffled back to sleep. When she’d tiptoed across camp just before midnight to ask Tamas if she could take him for the night, he hadn’t even glanced at her. He’d just clicked his tongue and nudged Oody out of his sleeping roll. What she’d done to him she had no idea. Did he really think she’d just enjoyed a lovely adventure in town? And he’d heard Milosh’s screams and banging from the caravan, so why did he have to give her attitude too?
She raised her hands to the sky and stretched. She loved this hour. Not even old Nuri was awake. She breathed deeply, the air sweet with wood smoke, black pine trees and horses. She shrugged her long-sleeved T-shirt over her singlet, grabbed her night bag and padded barefoot over to the remains of the fire. As quietly as she could, she removed a thick branch and a few sticks from the woodpile, adding them to the fire, prodding carefully at the red glow under the feathers of ash. Nuri would soon be here with the baby to tend the fire, but she’d find it a little easier this morning.
The previous night Lala had made her swear that she would not leave the camp alone, but Samantha knew she could get to the river and back before it was light. Stealing across the edges of the camp, she broke into a run when she was out of earshot. Her shoulder ached, but she found herself smiling anyway as the pre-dawn air swept across the skin on her face, hot with swelling and fatigue. She stopped running before she reached the horses – she didn’t want to startle them. Clicking softly, she gave them plenty of space as she cleared the trees. They flicked sleepy ears at her as she passed.
The sky had deepened from indigo to lilac by the time she reached the bush path leading down to the river. She paused, suddenly shaky, at the leafy entry. It was still night-time in there. The projector in her mind clicked on again with an image of Scarface jumping out from behind a tree, lopping her head off with the sword.
She shook her head to scatter the ridiculous picture and stepped onto the path. She’d walked this track a thousand times: with others and alone, in sunshine and rain, and at midnight. Scarface and his crew could not possibly be in there. They’d have had to have crossed the camp to reach this spot, and the dogs would have gone berserk.
For the first few minutes, until her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she had to make do with her memory of the way down to the river. She trod carefully, hoping to avoid sharp rocks and sleeping creatures. The path was narrow in places, and leaves and branches slapped and scratched at her when she strayed from the track. But when the path widened and she heard the water, her bunched shoulders dropped a little and she jogged lightly the rest of the way down to the river’s edge.
At this point in the river, the bush made way for a sandy beach of sorts, and the moon shone down, round and bright. Just around the bend, the trees marched all the way down, planting their feet permanently in the water. And over the other side of the river, almost impossible to see now, rocky ledges made perfect diving platforms.
With a shiver, Samantha stripped. She dropped her shirt, singlet and briefs onto a rock and, naked, squelched through the night-cold sand to the water. The full moon fractured and re-formed endlessly on the rippling surface and she paused at the edge, the river lapping at her toes. She took a deep breath and raised her arms high over her head. She sent a gypsy prayer out quietly across the shivering waters.
Oh Goddess Gaia, source of Gods and Mortals,
All-fertile, all-destroying, mother of all,
Immortal, blessed, crowned with every grace,
As You fly across the beauteous stars, eternal and divine,
Come, Goddess Gaia, and hear the prayers of Your daughter,
Draw near, and bless me.
Samantha walked into the river.
Despite the hour, the water was refreshing but not cold. It felt delicious on her bruised face and swollen mouth. She washed quickly and stepped out, dripping. It was a little lighter already. She had to get back. They’d kill her for coming down here alone. Lala had told her she wouldn’t be allowed to go to the Carnivale tomorrow, and she’d even hinted that she wouldn’t take her to the very last of the midsummer festivals tonight.
Sam knew Lala would never get away with that, though. The other witches would tell all their best clients that she wasn’t there and then there’d be trouble. She slipped back into her singlet and pyjama pants. Birthday Jones had told her that the Roma witches were now gossiping about her all the time, angry that many of their best customers were trekking out to their camp for Sam’s readings, abandoning the witches in town.
The old frauds, she thought. They’re just jealous. Maybe they’d keep their customers if they actually told the truth about what they saw in the cards, rather than always making up nightmares that would supposedly come true if they didn’t get more money.
She sighed. She and Lala had also done their share of that. They’d been paid by plenty of Gaje women to bless amulets and perform love spells tonight.
Lala will have to take me, she decided. If I’m not there, I’ll bet my tarot deck that those old crones will take out a newspaper ad to tell the world about it.
She gathered up some of the dew-wet herbs that grew close to the riverbank, wrapping them in her T-shirt. A peace-offering for Lala in case she was caught returning – herbs and flowers collected at dawn were required for the potions they needed to make for the rituals tonight.
Sam loved midsummer, and all the gypsy rituals and festivals built up around the season. Well, most of it, anyway. What she couldn’t get used to was the guilt she felt being associated with the Roma witches. She knew that most of them were just in it for the hustle. And whether they believed they had special powers or not – and most of them seemed to have convinced themselves that they did – they rolled out the same script to all their clients. It was pitifully simple really, she thought, moving quickly back along the brightening path. In the very beginning, Lala had told her that ninety-five per cent of their customers would be female, and that seventy per cent of them would have a love-life problem. The other thirty per cent was split fifteen (money issues), to ten (the cursed), to five (health problems).
As she’d been learning the craft, she’d felt worst about the Gaje who were sick, or who came to see them terrified that someone they loved was going to die. She could feel their fear, their desperation, but more than that, with the unwell, she came to smell, to almost taste, their illness: a foul and putrid energy sucking and gnawing at its host. The stench grew so strong it became in her mind a creature, a monstrously fat, syrupy slug – a blonde and sticky tubular beast grown fleshy and fetid on her clients’ innards. It was eyeless, with only a round needletooth-ringed mouth that was always open and feeding.
When the image had first popped into her mind during a reading with an ageing Gaje grandma – Mrs Ungur – Samantha had screamed. Lala had apologised profusely, and tried to take over the session, but Mrs Ungur had stood, obviously in great pain, begging for Samantha to continue.
‘You can see it!’ she’d cried, papery hands outreached. ‘You see it. It hurts. Help me!’
Samantha had stared at the woman, horrified. She’d tried to go back to the reading but she could only see the slug chewing flesh lazily, and before she could turn the next card she had run from the caravan, sobbing.
Her cheeks now burned with the memory as she ran through the bush. She’d prayed every night for Mrs Ungur, who had died within a week. She’d tried to forgive herself; she’d been only nine at the time.
Since then, she’d learned to ignore the slug. She’d discovered a way of making him see-through in her mind, translucent. It helped her to continue the session without any nausea, the way Lala wanted her to, and she’d embedded into every reading special prayers to the Goddess Gaia, asking Her to help her client. And something weird had happened. Many of her sick clients recovered. Like, much more frequently than they should have, according to their doctors. And word had spread, slowly at first, but by the time she was twelve, the Gaje knew exactly which towns Milosh’s camp would be visiting next, and she and Lala would almost always have a full day of work, five days a week, even when the roads were closed because of snow.
She’d heard Lala and Esmeralda arguing late at night, when they thought she was asleep, about the jealousy of the other Roma witches and what they could do to protect her. She’d also heard Milosh, constantly cursing in his drunken, ferocious voice, pressuring Lala to make her work harder. Lala always stood up to him, until one night Milosh had slapped her down – his own mother – sending her to the floor of the caravan with a closed-fist swing.
Drawing close to the camp now, Samantha thought about that terrible night. She’d sprung from her bed, ignoring Lala’s number one rule: never disobey Milosh. She’d launched herself, fists flying, at the only man who fit the definition of ‘father’, in that she’d lived under his roof for as long as she’d been conscious of anything at all. That night, though, he’d been her enemy. One of her blows connected, but it had merely landed harmlessly on his hairy chest.
He’d punched her to the ground, where she cowered next to Lala, and suddenly it had seemed as if the air in the van had become hot and blood-red, seared to boiling point by Milosh’s anger. It sprayed from his scalp, shoulders and eyeballs in a fine crimson mist, smearing all surfaces in fury. She had learned early on, when she was only four or five, that others didn’t see such things, but for her that red haze had been as real as Lala’s tears. And it had grown thicker as Milosh reached for her. Lala had wailed, clutching at Samantha, and her son had kicked out at Lala’s ribs, her cries ceasing with a woof of pain as the air was booted from her lungs. Then he’d reached for Samantha…
Right now, remembering, Samantha stumbled in the grass near the horses as she realised something.
She’d done it then too!
The buttery light, the honeyed energy, the glow through her skin. She had pushed. She’d been terrified for Lala and suddenly the red wash in the van became watery, as though someone stood with a hose at the door, jetting it away. Milosh had stared at her in astonishment and then terror; he’d dropped her and run from the caravan. Now his eyes hooded when they met, and he glanced away quickly.
And he’d never touched her again.
Samantha’s heart raced. So I made Milosh put me down, she thought. And I did the same thing yesterday with that psycho with the sword.
She tiptoed back through the sleeping bundles at the campsite. Only Nuri was awake, the old woman prodding expertly at the fire. Thank Gaia she hadn’t yet put the big black coffee kettle onto the coals – the scent of Nuri’s coffee could wake the dead.
What exactly did I do? she wondered. How does it work? Can I do it again?
As she approached the fire, Nuri caught her eye, gave her a wide, toothless grin, and winked.
June 29, 10.12 a.m.
Although every surface of the huge industrial kitchen in the Dwight Complex was polished to a gleaming shine, Luke always thought it smelled funny. Lurking beneath the soap and disinfectant was a very faint, dank aroma, something dark and dirty, like an old onion had rolled under a cabinet and was moulding and rotting away, reminding him that nothing in here was ever really clean.
Facing him, across the shining tiles of the kitchen, stood a less subtle example of this fact. Chef Nick. One elbow leaning against the handle of the giant upright dishwasher, the other hand, as always, holding a cigarette, Chef Nick looked like no one you wanted around your food.
‘He’s the head of the kitchen?’ whispered Zac.
Luke raised his eyebrows. Grinned.
During his second week here, when he’d first laid eyes on Chef Nick, Luke had determined to eat nothing that wasn’t sealed in a package. Nick had long, grey, greasy hair, and the top of his head was usually wrapped in a faded bandana darkened with sweat at the brow line. Luke had never seen him without a cigarette between his yellowed fingers, and he’d quickly joined Dorm Four’s obsession with watching and waiting for the inevitable long cylinder of ash to tumble from the end. Nick’s face was always glossy with sweat. Luke figured that the grease was doing a great job of feeding the twin patches of acne that pocked his cheeks. The white-tipped pustules were always plump and angry-looking.
But Luke had quickly learned that he didn’t have to worry about Chef Nick dropping ash into the food. Chef Nick did none of the cooking or cleaning in Dwight. That was what Catering Studies Lab was for. From week two on, every inmate of Dwight had CSL once a day, and if you were put on punishment, you got two or three CSL ‘lessons’ a day.
CSL stood for Child Slave Labour as far as Luke was concerned. He figured he’d peeled a thousand potatoes in here, scrubbed the gunk from two hundred twenty-litre pots, and had rubbed his hands raw at least thirty times making these tiles gleam.
Now that Zac had been here for a week, Luke thought, he had a lot to look forward to each day in CSL.
Chef Nick took a deep drag of his cigarette. Luke watched the ash. It held.
‘Bread today, maggots,’ Chef Nick said.
Kitkat groaned. Making the bread was heavy work and seemed to take forever. The eight members of Section Six, Dorm Four, moved towards the two massive mixmasters down near the ovens.
‘Black, Nguyen, take the flour down with you,’ said Nick. ‘Two bags.’
Luke sighed and led Zac over to the coolroom, stopping at a stack of sacks resembling large white pillows. Luke wished they weighed the same as a pillow. He bent his knees and grabbed one of them. ‘You get on the other end,’ he said to Zac. ‘And make sure you bend your knees or you’ll be on sick report tomorrow with a bad back.’
He and Zac hefted the twenty-kilo sack of white flour and began to shuffle their way down the kitchen towards the ovens.
‘Did you bring the Yellow Stainers?’ said Zac quietly, as they passed Chef Nick.
‘Yep,’ said Luke. ‘What’s your plan?’
‘We need to dehydrate them,’ said Zac. ‘I was thinking of using the clothes dryer in the laundry, but I figure that if we put them in an oven on low, it’ll work just as well.’
‘So are you sure these are going to make people sick?’ said Luke.
‘Sick as,’ said Zac. ‘I told you I know what I’m doing with plants. You wouldn’t even be questioning me, though, if you’d been using the aloe plant I gave you for those bruises. Your face still looks like a dropped pie.’
‘Charming,’ said Luke.
The sides of the sack were dusty with flour and thicker than a phonebook and Luke and Zac had to stop to reposition.
‘Here, pass me your Stainers,’ said Zac when they paused.
Luke pulled the handful of mushrooms from his pocket and quickly passed them over to Zac, who shoved them down the front of his sweatshirt.
Luke would bet his life they were harmless.
Hefting the heavy bag again, he said, ‘Anyway, supposing it works, I know who I want to use them on.’
‘Toad?’ said Zac.
‘Well, when we get there with this bag, you turn the oven on low. Real low. The lowest you can get it, okay? We don’t want roast mushrooms.’
‘And what’ll you be doing?’ said Luke.
‘When we get back with the second bag, I’ll slip them in. They’ll take a few hours to dry, though. We’ll have to find a way to get back in here this arvo.’
‘Oh, I can find us a way,’ said Luke.
By the time they’d joined the others with the second bag of flour, it looked like Kitkat and Barry had already sifted their flour into the mixer. Jonas was scooping up the pre-mix bread ingredients from a big bucket next to one of the mixers, while Hong Lo filled a two-litre jug of water.
Great, thought Luke. Looks like I’m on the losing team again.
Whoever got the job done first got to sample a slice of the finished product. In here, fresh, hot bread with real butter was as good as McDonald’s, especially when cold cereal was something worth fantasising over in this place. Luke didn’t make an effort in most competitions, but his stomach was flip-flopping now.
Chef Nick watched the show, every now and then raising a water bottle to his lips. The joke was that the bottle held straight vodka, but Luke knew it was no joke. He’d never seen anyone drain a bottle containing water as thoroughly as Nick. The only time he’d seen someone shaking out every last droplet from an upended bottle, there’d been a little something more in there than mere water.
Luke dug shovelfuls of flour into the mixer while Clarkson sifted in the bread mix. Hooley slopped warm water in on top, occasionally stopping to impatiently punch the pulse button to churn the huge mixing blades.
Impatiently, Luke pushed the safety guards of the mixer to the side; they got in the way of his shower of flour. If Hooley or Clarkson were stupid enough to reach in, he figured their forearm deserved to be blended into the dough.
He looked around for Zac – they needed someone to scrape the sides of the mixer bowl. When he didn’t spot Nguyen with a quick glance, he turned back to the task, shovelling madly. Chef Nick better not catch Zac stuffing around with his ovens.
Suddenly Zac was at his side. How do you do that? Luke thought.
‘You’re a sneaky little bugger,’ he said, handing Zac a long spatula.
‘So you’ve told me,’ said Zac.
‘Start scraping. Get in there.’
The dry ingredients were now a sticky mess in the bowl. Luke leaned on the pulse button, willing the gloop to form into a dough. The mixer groaned its way through the sludge. He heard the other team’s machine stop and he glanced to his left. Kitkat lifted the heavy arm of their mixer and popped out the mixing blades. Barry held the dough hooks, ready to slot them in for the next stage of the kneading. Luke let go of the button on their machine.
‘What are you doing, Black?’ said Hooley. ‘It’s not ready.’
‘Just give me the dough hooks,’ he said. ‘It’ll be right.’
‘No, you’ll stuff it up,’ said Clarkson.
Luke ignored him and ejected the mixing blades from the mixer arm, smacking them on the side of the bowl. Unmixed flour and ribbons of sticky dough spattered from the beaters.
‘Watch it, Black,’ said Hooley, wiping a white splodge from his face.
‘Would you shut it, you girl,’ said Luke. ‘You want Chef Nick over here?’
He shoved the two long dough hooks into the slots where the blades had been, and pushed the arm back into place.
Kitkat glared at him from across the bench; their lead had suddenly evaporated.
‘Don’t look now, Chef Nick’s on the way over,’ said Zac at the same time that Luke stabbed his thumb down on the pulse button.
Luke thought it was probably the sound that shocked him the most. A deafening, screeching scream of metal on metal as one of the dough hooks freed itself from the mixer arm. The other hook smashed against it relentlessly, trying to turn it into dough. Everything else in the mixer jetted itself into the air as though shot from a high-pressure water cannon.
Luke let go of the pulse button, dripping.
For maybe two seconds, the kitchen was very still.
And then the shouting began.
Chef Nick was the loudest. His outstretched arm, fingers still gripping a cigarette, was cloaked in a battered glove. Even knowing how much hell he was going to cop didn’t stop Luke taking a moment to admire the number of swear words Nick managed to get out without taking a breath. The language of the rest of Section Six was pretty imaginative too. Everyone dripped batter and flour. Hong Lo’s glasses had been completely whited out and he stumbled about, shouting words in Chinese. The floor, the walls, everything surrounding the giant mixer oozed and seeped.
‘Told you I’d get us another kitchen shift, didn’t I?’ said Luke, two hours later, elbow-deep in suds at the kitchen sink.
‘You suck, Black,’ said Zac, on his knees on the tiles, scrubbing.
‘Oh, you don’t even know about hating me yet, Zac. Just wait until you’ve peeled a few hundred carrots with me. Actually, maybe you should make up your mind how much you hate me after the onions.’ Luke pulled the last batter-spattered pot from the sink and rinsed it. ‘We’re really going to know our vegetables after today, aren’t we, Nguyen? What with your roasted mushrooms and all?’
Zac looked up, red in the face. ‘Why don’t you go and roast your -’
Luke laughed. ‘Hold that thought, bullet boy. I’m off to fetch us a sack of carrots.’
He dried his hands on a tea towel and made his way towards the supersized walk-in fridge at the opposite end of the room. He figured that Chef Nick wouldn’t be back any time soon. Luke had never had more than five minutes alone in the fridges, but he knew today would be different. When Chef had lost his cool and given him a backhander across the mouth, in front of everyone, he’d figured that old Nick would’ve needed at least a couple of his special water bottles to stop his hands shaking. After he’d barked out orders to Luke and Zac and left the room, Luke was pretty sure that they wouldn’t see him again before dinner.
The coolroom. Luke’s favourite place.
He yanked on the solid door handle of the massive refrigerator and rocked backwards on his heels to pull it open. The triple-insulated stainless steel door was as big as a single-garage door, and when it yawned wide the cavernous cold waited; a frigid mist whorling out indolently, beckoning him inwards.
Luke smiled. He’d been in the coolroom five times, and each time he’d felt more at peace, more safe, more himself than anywhere, anytime else. He stepped inside.
The cold was first. Un-ignorable. Everywhere. And the dimness, the almost-dark dankness. And then the stillness registered.
He breathed in.
The sounds next. Quiet, but not silent. Always a hum, a presence, a ticking, something waiting. Ready. He’d felt the same way since birth, or at least since he’d been aware he’d been born. The cold. The quiet, the ticking, the hum.
He breathed out.
Luke walked across the slick concrete floor of the cool-room, at one with its frigid heart.
He traced a fingertip along the metal of the floor-to-ceiling shelves, marvelling again at the jumbo size of all the stores. The margarine in huge buckets; Vegemite jars as big as bread bins; blocks of cheese that took two people to lift them. He made his way right to the dimness of the back where the vegetables were stored and then he heard the door creak. Zac had never seen the coolroom; he probably wanted his turn to check it out, Luke figured. And today was his lucky day. Chef Nick usually sent one of his crabs in here to make sure no one stole too many packets of jam, scoffed too many pieces of cooking chocolate. Luke smiled.
He didn’t turn, but he knew. Zac was not in the coolroom, but someone was. And this person wasn’t interested in the cooking chocolate. Casually, he bent forward and prised up the lid of a tin that stood taller than his knees. He heard the person behind him move closer.
‘Checking up on me, Zac?’ he said, still facing the back wall of the huge fridge. ‘At least you can come back here and help me carry this bag.’
The other presence was a hot spot in his cold cave. Maybe eight steps behind him now. Almost lunging distance, especially for someone that tall. Abrafo. Why he’d be here, he had no idea, but Luke knew it was him.
He bent again to the tin at his feet and pulled, crashing it to the ground. At the same time that Luke sprang sideways, ten litres of canola oil glugged from the tin, sloshing a syrupy wave of grease across the floor.
Luke grabbed the frigid metal of the shelving unit and climbed quickly, feeling the whoosh as Abrafo’s hand grabbed for him and just missed. Abrafo’s hiss, and the shooshing sound of his feet as he tried to stay upright, mingled with the hum of the fridge fans. Luke allowed himself a glance across his shoulder. He wished he hadn’t. Angled inwards, pointing towards his wrist, in a position that looked entirely too comfortable for him, Abrafo held a silver blade.
Luke pulled himself frantically along the shelving, towards the door, but Abrafo was quickly regaining his balance. His long arms were outstretched, his feet still slip-sliding, but he had discovered a way to half-skate towards Luke’s wall and Luke knew he had no chance. Abrafo’s pink lips twisted into a grin as he slithered closer. Another slide would do it.
Scrambling, using all his strength to pull himself a little higher up the wall, Luke spotted something. Knowing he had only a second, he hooked his feet into the metal frames of the shelving and reached as far inwards as possible. Stretching, his chest crushed into the sharp shelving, he just managed to hook his fingertip through the string. He pulled as hard as he could. The fat cylinder slid towards him, and he manoeuvred it sideways on the shelf to allow it to roll. From the corner of his eye, he saw it was too late. Abrafo would have a hand to his ankle in five seconds. Four. Luke clawed at the heavy tube, rolling it to the edge of the shelf, where it teetered. He held his breath and ducked. With just enough momentum, the fifteen-kilogram salami free-fell from the shelf and slammed straight into Abrafo’s chest and chin. Luke stared as Abrafo’s feet shot out from under him, and for a full second he was completely airborne. And then he fell. Luke heard the crack, but he didn’t stop to look, scrabbling along the shelving until he reached a clear patch of floor.
He dropped and ran.
JUNE 29, 5.40 P.M.
‘Some bodyguard you are, bullet boy,’ said Luke, wrapped in his towel, waiting his turn on the bench in the shower block. He huddled as close as he could to the strip heater, but goosebumps stood at full attention up each of his arms. The steam from the showers offered no warmth.
‘Well, at least I warned you he would come,’ said Zac, his eyes on the tiles, skinny shoulders slumped.
‘How’d he get past you then?’ said Luke. ‘It seems as though you’re not the only sneaky one out there, hey?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Zac, shaking his head. ‘I’m sorry. I failed you.’
Luke laughed. ‘You really are a bit mental, you know that, Nguyen? You failed me? Come on. Get over it; I’m joking. As if it’s your fault that some freak doesn’t like me very much. It is weird that you picked him coming back, I’ll admit, but the bodyguard crap is really a bit over the top. I mean, I like you and all, but you have seriously been reading too many comic books, bro.’
Zac just stared at him. Sighed hard.
‘Chef Nick is going to be in all sorts of hell right now,’ said Luke. He gave a laugh. ‘I swear to you, I don’t know what was worse, sprinting out of that kitchen straight into Holt, or seeing Abrafo in the fridge with the knife. Did you see Holt’s face when we told him we didn’t know where Nick was? I couldn’t believe how pissed off he was when he marched me back in there. How the hell do you think Abrafo got out of there without anyone spotting him?’
Zac chewed a thumbnail.
‘Anyway, Chef Nick’s gonna cop it,’ said Luke. ‘But I’m sure Holt will find some way to make it all our fault.’
‘Well, I don’t think we should hang around for that,’ said Zac.
Luke laughed. ‘Yeah. I’m with you there, bullet boy.’ He paused, wrapped his towel a little tighter and stared hard at Zac. ‘You’re serious?’ he said.
Zac stared back.
Luke forgot about the cold. He’d been planning on leaving this lovely establishment for a while now, but he hadn’t quite put everything into place. While it had been as good as anywhere else when he’d first arrived, Holt and Toad had taken the shine off things in recent weeks. When they’d first turned their attention to him he hadn’t been too bothered. Bullies and boofheads were standard fare where he came from, but he’d watched Toad gradually become so obsessed that he’d become the fat boy’s only prey. Toad looked at him as hungrily as he watched his dinner plate. And then there was Holt. Holt had a hatred for something. A cold, clinical revulsion that Luke recognised, but couldn’t understand. He did know that Holt would always have that hate. And he also knew that right now he represented everything Holt could not abide. Holt was bent on trying to crush him, and Luke didn’t feel like hanging around to oblige.
He had a plan to get out, but it had a few holes. The first of which being that they were watched in here twenty-four-seven. Okay, so this arvo was a one-off thing – Chef Nick’s love for vodka had temporarily overcome his attention to the rules. By age eight, Luke knew that vodka, beer, Valium or whatever – choose your poison – could overcome any rule, law, moral, or common human decency known to man. But addiction among the officers was not predictable. At least, not predictable enough to plan an escape around.
He had an idea about how to get out the gates. But it was getting out of the dorm that was the problem.
He gave Zac an appraising glance. ‘What are you thinking?’ he said.
‘Abrafo will be back,’ Zac said. ‘We need to leave.’
‘Like now? Should we just walk out?’
‘Tomorrow,’ said Zac. ‘We can’t afford to wait.’
‘You do realise that we’re locked up, right, Zac?’
‘I know. We have a few things left to do, but I’ve already got things underway.’
JUNE 30, 8.40PM
Luke twisted uncomfortably in bed. His jeans had bunched up under his pyjama pants and the lock-picking set in his pocket jabbed into his hip. He just wished that something would happen. He couldn’t spend the whole night like this.
‘Do you think you used enough?’ he whispered to Zac.
‘We’ll know pretty soon,’ said Zac. ‘Shhh.’
Of all people to have on dorm duty tonight, they had to have Holt. He sat ramrod-straight at the front of the hall, watching over the forty-eight beds, six per Section, that made up Dorm Four. The trusted inmates made up Section One, up the back of the Dorm. They were first into the showers and first in line to march to the dining hall. Lucky Luke was in Section Six, up nice and close to Mr Holt. No one moved past their bed without Holt’s say-so. If you needed the toilet after lights out, you pretty much had to plan it in advance. There was no room for holding on and a quick dash off to the dunny at the last minute. You had to stand at attention by your bed, and when the Dorm Warden noticed you and nodded, you could proceed. But if someone had gone ahead of you, you had to wait until he returned.
Luke was praying that people would have to use the toilet tonight. A lot of people. But so far, everything was quiet. Just another night. He sighed and shoved at the lock-pick set, trying to manoeuvre the spiky pieces of metal through three layers of fabric.
From the back of the dorm, he heard a faint groan and movement. He turned his head slightly on the pillow. Jason Taylor was standing by his bed, his plastered arm in a sling.
It’s probably nothing, Luke told himself. He was used to doing that: playing down any hopes that others would come through; it saved time feeling disappointed later. Just because Zac had assured him he’d laced the tea tonight with his powdered mushrooms, it didn’t mean a) that he’d actually done it and b) that anything would come of it, even if he had.
And then there was another urgent rustle of bedsheets from Section One.
They’d had the tea first. This time, it was Adam Friar on his feet by his bed, fidgeting. On his podium up the front, Luke saw Holt give a nod, and Jason Taylor walked up the aisle. Fast. Another groan, and more movement from Section One. Like others around him, Luke sat up to check it out. At the back of the dorm, five more boys stood by their beds. Tua Palau sat on the edge of his bed, holding his gut and rocking.
‘Oh God, I’ve got to go now, sir!’ Adam Friar suddenly broke ranks and began to jog up the aisle.
‘Friar! Back to your bed!’ Holt was now on his feet, torch in hand. He moved towards the steps of the raised platform at the front of the room. Friar froze midway up the aisle, gripping his hands around his stomach, bent forward, moaning. Rustling, stamping and moaning noises now bounced around the room, and Luke grinned as he saw kids from Sections Two and Three now standing restlessly by their beds.
‘Okay, Friar. You can go.’ Holt stood in the middle of the room now. He bellowed out orders. ‘Friar, return immediately when done, and tell Taylor to get his arse back here right now.’
Tua Palau began shuffling towards Holt, his hand over his mouth.
‘Sir -’ he tried.
‘Just get back -’ said Holt, holding out an arm.
Too late. Palau’s hand relinquished its role as gatekeeper, and he projectile-vomited over the Dorm Master.
Dorm Four erupted.
Section One was empty now; all of them had sprinted for the toilet block at the front of the building. Toad Wheeler, last from the back of the room, bolted past Luke’s bed, his eyes wild with worry. All around the dorm boys abandoned their beds and the rules, ignoring Holt, who now looked as green as most of them. Holt had his radio out and was shouting into it, calling for back-up. But Luke knew it’d be a while coming. Almost everyone in Dwight had drunk the tea tonight. With no Coke, chocolate or dessert, hot, sweet, milky tea was something everyone craved. Including the screws. With only four on duty tonight and at least a ten-minute drive from the cop shop, Luke knew he and Zac now had a shot. He threw back his covers and stumbled from his bed, clutching his stomach. The rest of Section Six sat blinking in their pyjamas at the edge of their beds. Jonas, Kitkat, Barry and Hong Lo each called to him as he moved past.
‘Are you all right, Black?’
‘What’s going on, Luke?’
‘Told you not to drink the tea,’ he said in a low voice as he made his way past them. He threw them a quick wave when he reached the inner dorm doors.
Zac was waiting. So was half of Dorm Four, spilling out of the shower and toilet block. The smells, sounds and sights surrounding them almost made Luke’s stomach turn as well.
‘This way,’ he said to Zac.
He led them quickly past the shower block and into the TV room. Although he was certain no one was watching them, he stayed close to the walls. He made it to the main House doors and reached under his pyjama bottoms and into the pocket of his jeans. He pulled out the bent nail and filed piece of metal, and leaned down to the lock on the door.
‘They’ll send someone over here soon,’ said Zac. ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’
Luke inserted the nail and file into the lock. ‘You know I need to concentrate to do this,’ he said.
He narrowed his focus and sharpened his thoughts into a tight beam and sent them with his tools inside the barrel of the lock. By touch – by slight changes in the vibrations at the tips of his fingers – he found the five tiny pins inside the barrel. He closed his eyes and saw them there. Softly, gently, he rubbed the rake in a minute scrubbing motion backwards and forwards across the pins until he felt the stiffness of their springs yield. Three of them popped backwards, open. Two to go. He tickled them, and then scrubbed harder, but they were sticky in the old lock. He switched to his torque – the nail – twisted it slightly and pushed. Click. The lock engaged. He smiled up at Zac, cracked the doorhandle and stole out into the night. He headed straight for the shadows.
‘Where are you going?’ hissed Zac, skidding to a stop next to him by the bushes on the road opposite the dorm. ‘It’s faster to get to the gates that way.’
‘Detour,’ said Luke. ‘We’re going to Admin.’
‘What? Are you mad?’
Luke ignored Zac’s hisses behind him and ran quietly, crouched low, along the bushes that flanked the main quadrangle. Dorm Four was furthest from the Admin block and they had to run past each of the other Houses along the way. All lights were on in the Dorm blocks, but there was no one walking the road between them. But as they approached Dorm One, the door swung open and Mr Singh stood framed in the glow from within. Luke hit the dirt. Zac was there first. They breathed quietly.
‘Matron will be in Admin,’ whispered Zac. ‘We can’t go there.’
‘No, she’ll come here,’ said Luke. ‘She must have had the tea too, or she would have been here ages ago. Look.’
Along the path ahead of them a torch beam bobbed into sight.
‘She’s got her work cut out for her,’ said Zac.
‘Don’t worry, she’ll call for an ambulance once she hits Dorm One.’
‘Well, that’s comforting,’ said Zac.
They watched Matron move into the circle of light at Dorm One. She and Singh had a rapid conversation and they entered the building.
‘Let’s go,’ said Luke.
They bolted across a boggy, grassed patch, exposed in the moonlight. Zac was first to the back door of the Admin building and Luke pushed past him, his pick set ready.
‘Move over, you oaf,’ said Zac, squeezing an arm past Luke. He tried the doorhandle and it opened. Matron had been too sick or too rushed to worry about re-locking it.
Luke raised his eyebrows and grinned. They were in.
‘Okay, now tell me. What are we doing here? We’re going to get caught.’ Zac was still whispering, but Luke was almost positive they were alone in here. He knew the staff roster inside out. Besides, he couldn’t sense anyone. The corridor was dimly lit. He headed straight for the main office. For a fraction of a second he paused at the doorway and then walked inside. He moved quickly to the wall of filing cabinets.
‘I want my file,’ he said. ‘You want yours – you’d better grab it now.’
‘Why would I want it?’ hissed Zac. ‘What are you wasting your time with this for?’
‘I need to know who I am,’ said Luke. ‘I need to know what everyone else seems to know.’
June 30, 12.01 a.m.
The very last of the midsummer festivals. A night of forest sprites, faeries and elves. Of love spells. Luck charms. Gifts for the Goddesses. An intoxicating, fire-filled, bewitching night.
This year, for the first year ever, Samantha wasn’t into it.
All day, just like every year since she’d turned five and become Lala’s apprentice, she’d helped Lala to prepare for the evening. Just as she’d guessed, at breakfast Lala had relented and told her that, despite the dramas of the past two days, she could participate, as long as she stuck to her like glue and performed only the standard spells.
And that’s when Samantha had felt deflated by the whole event. The standard spells. Her heart ached with the sudden realisation that the standard spells didn’t actually seem to do anything. Tonight, she, Lala and maybe thirty other Roma witches from around Pantelimon would gather at the river’s edge bearing seeds, flowers, honey, nuts and fruits; beaded and silver amulets; live chickens; a dagger and heavy cauldron; and hundreds and hundreds of candles. All year long, the people of Pantelimon had paid each of them in cash, services and goods to tonight perform rituals that would ensure business growth, pregnancy, freedom from illness, and love.
Especially love. Because late summer was when the faeries were most drunk on love, feverish with desire, open to assisting mere mortals to share in some of their happiness. All they required were a few special incantations and offerings. Some standard spells.
But Samantha had never seen a faerie. Nor a forest sprite or elf. In ten years, she’d never even sensed anything else out here at midnight under the full moon by the river. And despite the midsummer spells, each year the people of the village always seemed to go on dying and divorcing, declaring pregnancies, bankruptcies and infidelities, whether or not they’d paid for a witch’s aid. Where something ill befell them and they had not consulted the gypsies – well, there you have it. You had your chance, you blew it. And when they had paid a witch for luck and good health and these things had not come to pass, they believed that the curse upon their family must have been too ancient and too powerful, and that they should have listened when their witch told them that more money was required – yet again – to finalise the rituals. Most people in Pantelimon didn’t have an endless supply of money. And the handful who did were either a few blessed Roma witches themselves or, like the gypsy king, they kept a fleet of these consultants to hand.
But Samantha knew that the king’s wealth would certainly not last forever. No, the king’s empire would crumble very soon. The cards had told her that. And she’d warned him.
In the grass by the riverbed, listlessly weaving a wreath of ivy and flowers to float out with the other blessings, Sam thought about that hot afternoon in the caravan.
Unlike tonight by the river, then she’d sensed something Other. More than just the spirits within her cards. Something dark had been there too. And then there was the buttery light she’d conjured somehow and used on Scarface and Milosh. These happenings appeared real, but no one had ever explained them to her or seemed to be able to do the same thing.
Questions about where she came from arose again. Maybe someone in her birth family could explain why she was able to do these things? She slapped the thought away, furious with herself. Every time she thought about the people who’d abandoned her at birth, it felt as though she’d as good as spat in Lala’s face.
She shifted in the grass and yawned, heavy with fatigue. She’d been awake since three that morning, but she couldn’t relax. Nothing had felt the same since the king had visited the camp. And then there was Scarface and the shootout. A nagging tug of worry tightened the back of her neck. She stretched it from side to side to try to loosen it, to shake the feeling of dread. She tried to regain her sense of wonder in this evening. Fifty metres behind her, darkness waited, but here, along the winding riverbank, it seemed that midnight had laid a tablecloth of stars over the grass. Candles and lanterns blinked and winked, pinpricks of fire paying homage to their leader – the roaring bonfire in the centre of them all.
Next to her, Lala crooned softly, singing the spell-songs she’d taught Samantha since she’d been in the cradle. Some of the other gypsies were equally devout, bent over rafts bearing gifts, their lips moving soundlessly as they prayed. But many more of the women were less serene; they shouted in laughter, slurped from goblets, punched plumes of cigarette smoke into the night. Samantha watched as one of the wealthiest witches in Pantelimon, Violka Dragos, rose from the cluster of others fawning around her and lurched sideways, directly into a platter of candles. The molten wax caught the hem of her ribboned skirt and a corner of fabric flared orange with flame. Violka shrieked with laughter as one of the witches doused the fire with wine and then stumbled over to gossip with another group.
Samantha knew what they gossiped about. They made sure of it. She heard snatches of their whispers blowing down-wind with the candle smoke.
She’s ruining our business and she’s not even Roma… You know that they call her the Gaje Princess – stolen by the gypsies! It’s an insult… Have you heard that the king has fallen in love with her?… I’ve been told that she does a little bit more than read cards when she closes the doors of that flea-bitten caravan, if you know what I mean. Why do you think she is so popular?… She’s a fraud! She can’t even read the cards properly… I’ll be casting a special spell for her this enchanted evening, don’t you worry about that… Well, I’ll be doing a little more than casting a spell. I’m going to take this further. We can’t have Gaje harlots pretending to be respectable Roma witches…
The volume of Lala’s singing increased as she tried to block out their words, but Samantha didn’t miss the grief and worry emanating from her. She stopped weaving and placed her hand over Lala’s, willing her peace and calm. Lala raised dark, wet eyes and smiled sadly. A tear found a pathway through a crevice in her weather-ravaged cheeks.
‘I love you, my kitten,’ she said.
‘I love you too, Lala. Thank you for saving me.’
‘I haven’t saved you yet, my child.’
Samantha bowed her face back to her work to ensure her tears could not be seen by the crones on the riverbank. She told herself that the anxiety she felt welling inside her was just the fear from her Lala, residue emotion that always found its way to her heart.
Tonight, she knew she was lying.
June 30, 7.17 p.m.
‘Look,’ said Mirela. ‘We have to go. How can we not go? It’s the Carnivale!’
‘Yes, I do realise the Carnivale is on tonight,’ said Samantha. ‘It is only the coolest thing that happens all year. And I haven’t forgotten that we’ve both been counting the days since spring.’ She turned another page of her novel, and spoke into the book. ‘And then there’s the fact that you’ve been blathering on about it all week.’
‘So? Get ready! We have to go.’
‘Oh, okay, sure,’ said Samantha. ‘I’ll just pop out and let your mum know that we’ll need a ride into town then, shall I?’
‘Ha ha. You’re hilarious. Believe me, we don’t need to worry about my mother. And Lala’s already asleep because you guys were out until dawn this morning.’
‘Yes, I remember,’ said Samantha, stretching.
She was curled up on the lounge in the caravan, reading.
Sooking is what you’re doing, Mirela had told her when she’d found her.
‘And you know that my mother has Fifika over for cards tonight,’ said Mirela. ‘Can’t you hear them from here?’
‘I can hear them from here,’ said Samantha.
‘Well! They’re drunk as lords already. Fifika is sleeping over and in another hour they won’t know which country they’re in.’
‘Doesn’t mean they won’t notice we’re missing.’
‘Puh-lease,’ said Mirela. ‘Last time Fifika was over, you, me and the boys cooked up a midnight feast. We roasted half a pig!’
Samantha laughed. Esmeralda was a tyrant with the food. She always knew exactly how much she had of every little thing.
‘And then in the morning you convinced her that she and Fifika had cooked it and eaten it!’ she laughed.
Mirela snorted. ‘She still thinks they did. She talks about it sometimes, promises never to get so drunk when Fifika visits. But they only see each other once or twice a year, and tonight’s the night. And they’re already blotto. Come on, Sam!’
‘How would we even get there?’ said Samantha, a flutter of excitement growing.
‘The boys are waiting.’
Samantha threw her clothes on super-fast, Mirela making comments the whole time.
‘Jeans! You can’t wear jeans! It’s summer.’
Mirela flitted about the cramped caravan, wearing Samantha’s favourite top: a frilly white bodice that was laced with pink ribbon up the front. Her crimson skirt, ringed at the hem in tiny mirrors, fell past her ankles and sat low on her hips, leaving her flat, brown midriff bare. The filmy fabric jangled with bells each time she moved.
‘I don’t feel like wearing a skirt,’ said Samantha.
‘I told you Tamas was coming, didn’t I?’
Samantha poked out her tongue.
‘Move over,’ she said, as Mirela pulled clothes from the chest under the dining table. Sam hopped about the room, struggling into her super-skinny black jeans.
‘And Birthday Jones will definitely be there,’ said Mirela.
Samantha pulled on an aqua T-shirt. Her nails were mandarin orange today. She thought it worked quite well.
Mirela dangled a white sundress between two fingers. Samantha sighed. That’s exactly what she would have chosen for tonight, with gold gladiator sandals – if it had been two days ago.
‘I’m not wearing a skirt,’ she said. ‘What if we have to run?’
‘Oh, are you still thinking about that?’ said Mirela, pushing her down into the chair by the mirror. She used a comb to tease Samantha’s curls into even more of a tangle. ‘I’m over it. Those ninjas will be long gone. I agree with Birthday – they had nothing to do with the king. Luca reckons they would have moved into Croatia or somewhere by now, trying to snatch kids who are easier than us to take down.’ She laughed. ‘I reckon they’ll give Roma kids a miss from now on.’
Samantha thought about it while Mirela brushed. She’d read on the net that street kids were being abducted from all over Europe. Some said they were used as slave labour in homes of the almost-wealthy – people with plenty of money, but not so much that they wanted to spend it on hired help who required holiday pay and sickness benefits. And then there were the terrible sex-industry stories. Samantha shuddered. Was that the reason they were trying to push her into that car? And she’d read one article on Yahoo claiming that kids were being stolen to use in private armies – like child soldiers.
I hope you’re right, Mirela, she thought. They’d better be out of Bucharest, and out of Romania altogether.
She made cat’s eyes using her darkest kohl liner and smudged charcoal eye shadow across her lids. The darkness hid the bruises still developing, and besides, she didn’t feel like more colour tonight. She dabbed clear gloss on her swollen lips. Her green eyes popped and fizzled from beneath their hooded frames.
‘You don’t really look like you’re going to a Carnivale,’ said Mirela, standing back from the mirror, one hand on her hip.
‘What then?’ said Samantha.
‘Not enough colour,’ said Mirela.
Samantha sighed. She scanned the caravan and spotted her tarot cards. Perfect. She grabbed the shiny black box and unravelled the golden rope wrapped around it. She tied the glinting, golden cord around her forehead and turned to face Mirela.
‘Yep. Okay. You’ll do. Let’s go,’ said her best friend.
Samantha slipped into sneakers and grabbed her favourite bag on the way out the door. She dropped her lip gloss and tarot deck into it. Made of a soft, dark fabric, the satchel had a way-too-long shoulder strap and a faded transfer of a Harley Davidson motorcycle on the front. Underneath the bike, in faded words, it read: Ride it like you stole it.
June 30, 8.53 p.m.
With a single click, Luke popped the small lock on the ancient metal filing cabinet. Zac shuffled from foot to foot by his side. Luke creaked open the drawer marked BL-BZ, and hurriedly flicked through the first few files. Close to the front he found BLACK, Aaron, then BLACK, John Peter, and then BLACK, Luke. He lifted the plastic-covered manila folder from the drawer and pushed it closed again.
‘Take your pjs off, Nguyen,’ he said. ‘You don’t look like a proper prison escapee in your jarmies.’
He ripped open his own pyjama top and struggled out of the pants. Getting them over his jeans and runners was not easy and, reluctantly, he had to put his file down. He kept his eyes glued on it as he tried to get his pants leg over his shoe. He was dying to read what was in there. He’d never really been told anything about his parents – just that his mother had abandoned him. Because of the events of the past few days, he was beginning to feel he needed this information more than ever. It seemed that there were people out there who knew much more about him than he did. And for some reason, they didn’t like what they knew.
Tossing the pjs into the wastepaper bin by the desk, Luke lifted his sweatshirt and flattened the file against his chest, tucking it into the waistband of his jeans. The plastic was ice-cold against his bare chest and he shivered.
‘You want your file or not, Zac?’ he said.
‘I want to get out of here,’ said Zac. ‘As in yesterday.’
‘We’ll take the front door,’ said Luke. ‘We can buzz the gates open from the inside.’
He ran out of the office, Zac close behind. When they reached the heavy, ornate front doors, Luke paused with his hand on the buzzer and said, ‘We’re not going straight for the gates, Zac.’
Zac groaned. ‘Why did I think you were going to say that?’
‘Listen, I’ve had time to plan this for a while,’ Luke said. ‘I know there’s a lot of bush around here and we can go to ground in there for a while, but -’
‘I know the bush,’ said Zac.
‘Yeah, well, the rest of Windsor is full of houses and they’re gonna have a full search out for us as soon as they know we’re missing. If we were closer to some form of public transport, I’d risk it, but we’re ten kilometres from the train station.’
‘So what are we gonna do?’
‘Just trust me,’ said Luke. ‘Turn left when we get out the door.’
‘Back into the complex?’
‘The screws won’t head-count for a while yet. There’s too much happening and they have no reason to think we’re not locked in there, pooing and spewing with the rest of them.’
Zac sighed. ‘It’s not the screws I’m worried about,’ he said. ‘Abrafo’s on the grounds somewhere too.’
Luke pulled the front door open and peered out into the night. All quiet. He took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer for the front gates and from the darkness heard them rumbling open. Now they really had to hurry.
‘Come on,’ he said.
He and Zac bolted down the front stairs and into the garden bed. Hugging the walls of the building, they headed back into the main complex. This time, the quadrangle lay between them and the dormitories, and as they ran up the steeply sloping grounds, the quad fanned outwards and upwards, taking them further from the lights of the Houses.
Luke warmed up quickly, sprinting up the hill behind the hospital building. His breath steaming, he ran past the gym, mentally wishing it good riddance. He had no intention of ever again being the surrogate ball for No Rules Basketball. When they reached the silent dining hall, he glanced over at Zac, who looked as if he were merely strolling along, giving no sign that the sharpness of the incline had now increased dramatically. Luke breathed hard, trying to concentrate on negotiating the sucking mud and hidden rocks on this side of the complex.
His heart beat even faster when he spotted the workshop in the darkness ahead. He didn’t see any lights on, but that didn’t necessarily mean things would be okay. Everything hinged on whether Mad Mike and his fiancée were fighting tonight. Since he’d come up with this part of the plan a few weeks ago, he’d been working hard on getting to know the psycho groundskeeper. During Landscaping Lab, three days a week, he’d learned about Mike’s love-affair with his fiancée Narelle, her love-affair with rum, and how once every fortnight or so Mad Mike spent the night in the workshop at Dwight, when Narelle was too juiced up and had kicked him out of their caravan. When Mike had threatened to leave her altogether, declaring that he’d prefer to stay here in the shed until he could find a new place, Luke had gone to work, encouraging Mike to persevere with the love of his life. He knew Mad Mike was meant for Narelle, but hell, if he was wrong, Mike could figure that out on his own time; after Luke had left Dwight for good. Luke figured he wasn’t doing anything too terrible. He couldn’t imagine any other woman taking Mike in.
Exhausted, he slowed to a walk and motioned to Zac to do the same. Quiet now, they crept closer to the workshop. He couldn’t hear anything, but Mike could be in there, lights off, sleeping. If he was in there, he’d have no idea what was going on in the dorms, Luke reasoned. The screws wouldn’t have thought to call for assistance from the workshop; no one but Luke knew that Mike spent his Narelle-free nights there. He moved around the side of the building to where the moonlight hit the window; he figured if he could just get a glimpse inside he could be sure this plan would work. But if Mad Mike was in there, they’d have to find another way out.
Carefully, he tiptoed up to the window, but it was no good. He wasn’t tall enough to reach the ledge. He thought about jumping up and grabbing hold, but if Mike was in there he might hear the noise. He chewed his lip in frustration – all this was taking much too long.
‘Let me do it,’ whispered Zac by his side. ‘Tell me what you’re looking for.’
‘Mad Mike,’ whispered Luke.
‘Great,’ breathed Zac. ‘Move over there a bit.’
Zac took three steps backwards and suddenly, before Luke could even register what had happened, he had sprung forward and run up the side of the building. Luke didn’t catch it all, but somehow Zac managed to leap up onto the very side edge of the window ledge and flatten his back to the wall, his left hand gripping the top of the window frame and his left foot on the ledge. Impossibly, his other hand and foot hung free. He balanced there, silently. No part of his body could have been visible from inside the window unless someone was standing right up against the glass, looking for him.
Luke stared, his mouth open. Zac smiled down at him. Then slowly, Zac turned his head towards the window, angling his face to the glass.
He dropped noiselessly to the grass. ‘Nobody in there,’ he said.
Luke closed his mouth and shook his head. ‘Okay, come on.’
He raced around to the front of the workshop and there she was.
‘Oh. No. Way,’ said Zac.
The swamp rat. Parked exposed-engine forward and facing the steep incline, gaping holes where the doors should have been, the car hunkered down in the moonlight like some malformed beast. Luke jogged around to the driver’s side. ‘Get in,’ he grinned.
‘Oh, so this is the plan,’ said Zac. ‘The plan that was better than us running clear out the gates when we had the chance, running quietly into the bush until we could mingle in with others and get away. Could you just confirm for me that this is the plan?’
‘It’s the plan,’ said Luke. ‘But we have to go now, while everyone’s still in the dorms and they won’t see us. Get in.’
‘Oh, of course, now I get it,’ said Zac. ‘No one will see us. But they will freakin’ hear us a hundred kilometres away, you lunatic!’
‘I said, trust me,’ said Luke. ‘Get in, now. Or stay here. Decide.’
He took two steps to the front of the car and bent towards the tyre. Even in the near darkness he could tell that the steel belts of the tyre were protruding – the rubber was worn almost completely through. He hoped this thing could take the surface of the road. He shoved hard with his foot at the wooden wedge that stopped the car rolling forward. That was going to be the other problem, he thought. The swamp rat pretty much had no brakes. Mad Mike would stand up on them to slow down, and would finally stop her by rolling into something.
With the wedge gone, the vehicle started to move slightly. Luke jumped into the driver’s seat. He leaned over towards the passenger door.
‘Coming?’ he said to Zac, who was still standing out there.
Zac swung himself in and looked around for a seatbelt.
‘There aren’t any,’ said Luke.
He turned the key around to Accessories, but didn’t start the car.
‘The keys are just left in here?’ said Zac.
‘Someone would steal this?’ said Luke.
The swamp rat started to gather speed.
‘I have to ask,’ said Zac. ‘What are we going to do when you start this thing and they come running, Luke? They’ll see us driving and call the cops straight away. Even if we make it out of here, this is not the sort of car we can just slip into traffic with.’
‘By the time they hear us, we’ll have a good head start. You’ll see,’ said Luke.
He stuck his foot out of the car and pushed against the ground. The swamp rat rolled faster.
‘Push,’ he said to Zac.
He’d watched Mad Mike do this maybe twenty times. And Darnell Coffee, an older kid he lived with in a refuge when he was between foster families, had taken him out car ‘borrowing’ once or twice, and that was where he’d first learned to pop a clutch.
The extensive grounds of the Dwight Juvenile Justice Centre were built up along the broad flank of the steepest hill in Windsor, and aside from the out-of-bounds-never-used swimming pool and tennis courts, the workshop was perched at the highest point of that hill. From the workshop, straight down past the dorms, through the quadrangle, past Admin, and directly out the gates, ran a gravel road. Mad Mike used this hill every day to get the swamp rat going. The engine had long ago stopped turning over with the key, he’d told Luke, but just give her a roll with the ignition on, foot down on the clutch, and when she has a bit of speed – not too much, boy, or you’ll lose control – lift your foot off the clutch, and bang! Up she starts!
The bushes along the gravel road flicked by faster and faster now. Luke was thankful for the wan moonlight. He couldn’t have risked turning on the one remaining headlight, even if he’d needed to. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands, trying to stop himself from looking around for a seatbelt that he knew didn’t exist. He kept both feet stamped down on the pedals, one on the clutch and the other on the all-but-useless footbrake, trying to keep some sort of control. The swamp rat rattled and bounced as it gained momentum. From the corner of his eye, Luke saw that Zac had his feet up on the dash in crash position.
As they rolled with gathering speed towards the open expanse of the quadrangle, Luke allowed himself to really start to worry about the next bit of this scheme. Mad Mike had done his part of the job, keeping Narelle happy and staying out of the workshop, but Luke now had to hope that he and Zac had been fast enough to get back to the gates before they automatically closed.
The swamp rat skipped and bounded over the uneven gravel road, breaking clear of the bushed area and into the open quadrangle, and tension began to creep up Luke’s neck.
For the first time he began to doubt his plan. What if they had been too slow? What if the gates had already closed?
The swamp rat was now unstoppable. She hurdled and leapt along, sometimes hitting a rough patch and becoming airborne for a couple of seconds. Luke clenched his teeth to stop himself from biting his tongue, his foot jammed down on the brake, which was doing absolutely nothing as far as he could tell. He glanced to his right and there was Dorm Four, brightly lit from within, but still with not a soul to be seen. A flick of his eyes to the left showed Zac, white-faced, bouncing in his seat, his arms wrapped around his knees.
Dorm Three flashed past.
The swamp rat clattered and jangled now, and Luke had a feeling that this crazy car was just waiting for her master, Mad Mike, to lean out the window, whirl his lasso and start whooping. They shuddered and skidded past Dorm One, gravel spitting and scattering away from the bald tyres. Admin was straight ahead, and beyond that the gates.
Luke planned his next move. If the gates were open, he’d lift his foot and pop the clutch, then hang on to the steering wheel for dear life when the engine started. He would bet anything that not even Mad Mike had let the swamp rat roll this fast before engaging the engine. He knew that the road immediately outside the Dwight Complex was rarely used by locals, and he prayed that none of them were on the road tonight.
If the gates weren’t open… Luke closed his eyes for a split second. He took a deep breath. If the gates weren’t open he’d pop the clutch and ram down on the accelerator. Maybe they’d make it through. But deep down he couldn’t imagine that the swamp rat, even at full speed, would take out the front gates of a secure complex like this.
Even the swamp rat seemed to sense something big was about to happen. A worrying, whirring sound was building as they hurtled forward. No matter how positive he tried to be, Luke couldn’t believe they’d made it here in under five minutes. It was true he’d busted a gut getting up that hill, and that he had been running with bullet boy, but it just felt as though they’d left the Admin building later than that.
As they flashed past Admin, Luke suddenly remembered his file. He could feel it jammed into his jeans, the plastic stuck to his chest. I hope you were worth it, he thought. He slapped his stomach, making sure it was secure, and put his hands back on the wheel. The gates were dead ahead now, maybe fifty metres to go – still too far to see whether they were open, but he squinted into the night anyway.
Then he spotted them through the gloom ahead.
Oh my God!
‘Luke, they’re closing!’ Zac yelled.
Luke popped the clutch, dropping the car into third gear.
The explosion from the rear of the swamp rat wrenched the wheel from his hands and rocketed the car to the left. Luke grabbed for the steering wheel and pulled with all his weight to the right. The car screamed in protest. Luke gunned the car full-pelt, straight ahead, as the gates closed. What else could he do?
He looked to his left to meet Zac’s eye, in warning, in apology, for comfort.
Zac was gone.
Bucking and wailing, the swamp rat shrieked towards the gates and Luke squeezed his eyes shut, bracing for impact.
It never came.
The car kept hurtling forward, deafeningly loud. He opened his eyes just in time to see the gates flash by – and they were opening again. Mouth wide open in shock, he whipped his head to the left, and there sat Zac, knees up in crash position, grinning at him.
‘Ambulance, dead ahead!’ yelled Zac, over the noise of the swamp rat.
Luke swerved the car to the left on the gravel road, out of the path of the oncoming ambulance. The swamp rat’s bald tyres skidded off the gravel and she bucked like a bull, trying to tear off into the bush. He held onto the steering wheel with everything he had and pulled it back in time to screech right out onto the street that led away from Dwight and into the suburb of Windsor.
He straightened the car out on the road. Heart rapidly decelerating, Luke allowed the frozen muscles in his foot to ease off the accelerator a little as he tried to learn to drive this thing while the engine was running. He kept his eyes on the street ahead, pretty sure that the ambos would have something to say about the two kids in the busted-out vehicle who’d almost taken them out in the driveway.
So there goes the head start, he thought.
He decided to get as close to the train station as he dared and then find a place to dump the car. He figured they had another five to eight minutes before the cops could get mobilised; that is, unless they were already cruising. Oh well, nothing he could do about that if they were.
He was more interested in what had happened back there.
‘What happened back there?’ he yelled.
He could hardly hear his own words. Freezing wind rushed through the doors, adding to the noise from the uncovered engine.
‘What do you mean?’ Zac yelled back.
‘I mean, where did you go?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Zac yelled.
Luke’s brow furrowed. I could have just imagined it, he thought. It was pretty stressful. But…
‘What about the gates? They were closing,’ he said, eyes streaming from the wind buffeting about his face.
‘Lucky, huh?’ said Zac. ‘Someone must have opened them again just in time for the ambulance.’
‘Yeah, lucky,’ Luke said. That’s me. Lucky.
Still, he had to admit that so far tonight things could have been worse. They hadn’t yet passed a house or another car, and he was hoping that the first vehicle they met wasn’t going to have flashing blue and red lights.
On the road up ahead he spotted a railway crossing.
That’ll do me, he decided.
‘Hold on,’ he said to Zac.
He pulled the swamp rat over to the side of the unsealed road and crawled along, searching for an opening through the trees. With the car rolling out of gear, it was now no longer as loud as a Mack truck. He spotted a stand of scrubby bushes he figured he could drive his way through.
‘We’re going in,’ he said. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, keep your hands in the vehicle at all times.’
He steered the swamp rat into the bush.
June 30, 7.38 p.m.
Right now, Samantha was positive that any punishment she and Mirela copped for sneaking out would be worth it.
Because she was squished into the back of Besnik’s Toyota HiAce van, and her knee was jammed up against Tamas’s thigh. Right now, she felt that lunch with the gypsy king had been a mere diversion, being chased by the ninjas had been but a game, and the gossiping at the moonlight ceremony had never even happened.
Tamas’s older brother, Luca, was their driver, nineteen now, and old enough to satisfy any Gaje policeman that he was legal to drive. Samantha remembered plenty of trips when they’d had to use fake IDs, fast talking and/or running when pulled over by the cops. Hanzi, Luca’s cousin and Mirela’s big brother, had the prized front passenger seat. Sam, Mirela and Tamas’s little sister, Shofranka, were in the back. Of course. Samantha didn’t think she’d ever had a ride up the front. She was cool with that.
Tamas was not.
He sat glowering, cross-legged on the van’s hard floor, one leg jammed up against two bald tyres and a spare sliding door, and the other pressed against Samantha’s knee. She felt his indignation sparking in periodic bursts through the clothing over their skin. She also sensed something else from him. It made her cheeks burn and her palms itch.
For as long as forever, Samantha had watched Tamas fight his big brother and cousin for a spot in the front seat of the HiAce. Given over to storage, a bedroom for up to six little kids during winter, and daytrips into town for the teenagers, anyone under thirty thought the HiAce was the coolest vehicle in camp, maybe even the coolest car in Romania. Diarrhoea-yellow, handpainted with an old house-paintbrush – back window and all – the HiAce was nevertheless always there when you needed it. Although you had to make room for the junk. It was a kind of mobile wrecker’s yard: always full of spare parts found on the side of the road. Lala told Samantha that this was because the van was cursed. It broke down more than any trailer, bike, car, wagon or horse the camp had ever owned. Still, Sam had watched knock-down brawls in the dust as the boys fought to ride up front of the golden chariot.
At this very moment, she’d have paid money for her spot in the back.
‘Why are you so cranky?’ she said quietly to Tamas, pretending that Mirela and Shofranka were not listening to every word.
‘Stop being witchy,’ said Tamas. ‘I’m not cranky.’
Tonight he wore jeans just like her, and a soft, dusky-brown T-shirt the same colour as his skin. It was almost as good as his usual uniform: jeans-and-that-was-it. Although the T-shirt was loose at his midriff, it gripped tightly around his upper arms. He wore his silver amulet out over the top of the shirt and a red bandana to hold his hair back from his eyes.
Samantha watched him blink those outrageously long lashes a few times. She outright stared. She couldn’t help it. Her mouth felt dry. She licked her lips.
And then she felt Tamas lean – maybe it was only two millimetres – a little closer into her.
She had to blink a couple of times. And then she coughed. Why did her mouth get so dry when she was around him? I swear to Goddess Gaia that I would kiss the gypsy king for a glass of water right now, she silently declared.
Music pumped from the front of the van. She didn’t think she’d ever heard the song before.
‘What’s that song?’ she said, suddenly in love with it.
‘It’s olden-day music,’ said Shofranka.
Tiny Shofranka, a year younger than her thirteen-year-old cousin, Mirela, didn’t say much, but whatever she said, it could always be relied upon.
‘It’s Huey Lewis and the News,’ Shofranka continued.
‘What?’ said Samantha.
‘That’s the name of the band,’ said Shofranka. ‘Huey Lewis and the News. The song is called “The Power of Love”.’
‘How do you know that?’ said Samantha.
‘Why do you know that?’ said Mirela.
‘Are we there yet?’ said Tamas.
Shofranka said nothing. She leaned back against a greasy carburettor and mouthed words along with the song.
‘Don’t you wish you were up front with the big boys?’ Mirela said suddenly to Tamas.
Samantha could have killed her.
Tamas reeled right back until there was nothing but air between her jeans and his. ‘Why don’t you shut up, Mimi,’ he said. ‘Unless you want me to tell Aunt Esmeralda exactly what you’ve been doing from five minutes ago until the second we get back to camp.’
‘Well, she would bust you boys just as bad as she gets me,’ said Mirela. ‘On account of you taking us when she told you not to.’
‘Yeah? Well, what’s she gonna do to me?’ he said. ‘I’m not scared of Esmeralda. It’s you who asks how high when she tells you to jump.’
‘Oh really?’ said Mirela. ‘I guess that’s why I’m in the back of the van on the way to the Carnivale, hmm? And if you’re not scared of my mamma, you sure put on a pretty good act the other day, dancing around like Beyoncé to the tune of that wooden spoon.’
Samantha tried to zone out to their bickering, but they were on a roll, and although she knew they were just arguing to pass the time, the verbal arrows they shot at one another ricocheted around the small space in the van, glancing off walls when they missed their target and piercing her skin instead. They stung slightly, minor irritations, but because she was already so on-edge they dragged her mood down further.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on emitting calmness. Within a minute or so, Tamas and Mirela laughed more as they hurled their insults. Their emotional darts disintegrated to dust as soon as they touched her.
She’d always been able to do this and never really thought about it properly until now. She’d just put it down to the power of positive thinking. She’d read about it online: if you think good thoughts and wish people well, you can send out positive energy.
Suddenly, she snapped open her eyes and hugged her knees up to her chest. What if I can make it stronger, she thought. Much, much stronger? What if that’s all the honeyed light is? She thought about the two occasions that she’d felt the light: with Milosh and with Scarface. Both times I’ve been overwhelmed by two emotions: terror and love. Do I have to feel both for it to work? Can’t it be just one or the other?
She decided to try to find out. And love, she figured, was much nicer than terror.
She closed her eyes again to focus and thought about what she loved about Tamas. Her lips parted. A slow, delicious smile lit up her face. She leaned back against the wall of the van, breathing deeply. The music and voices around her faded and she wished she could lie there forever, dreaming about him. She flicked open her eyes to find Shofranka staring at her.
Sam smiled tightly and turned away, determined to press on. She forced herself to turn her thoughts to Mirela; to find the reasons that she loved her crazy friend. She pictured some of the mad things they’d done together and soon giggles bubbled up from her stomach; she pressed her lips together to stop them bursting from her mouth.
So now I have these feelings, she thought, what do I do with them? She tried to imagine gathering the happy sensations together, squishing them all into one big lump. And in her mind they became a slowly spinning sphere, made up of billions of dots of brilliant energy, fizzing, spitting and spinning about one another.
And now what? she wondered. In her mind, she kind of nudged the ball, prodding it carefully. Immediately, she felt its edges blur, particles breaking away, dispersing into a soft light that radiated from her skin as it scattered, like glowing dust motes. She buzzed and tingled all over.
She fell back against the wall of the van. How great is that?!
Suddenly, feverishly excited by the feeling, she gave the ball a great push.
The ball of light exploded, spraying outward from every part of her body.
And then everything happened at once.
First thing she thought was that they’d been in a car accident: Shofranka, Mirela and Tamas were piled on top of her and the van had screeched to a stop.
And then Tamas began kissing her neck.
Mirela, pushing her hands past him, groped at the tangles in her hair. Shofranka was at her feet, stroking her hands, her eyes glazed.
‘Hey! What are you lunatics doing?’ Sam yelled. ‘Get the hell off me!’
And then the sliding van door slammed open. Luca and Hanzi pushed through the doorway, wrestling one another to be first to climb into the back of the cabin.
Tamas was crushing her now, and Mirela’s efforts to push past him were becoming increasingly frantic. Samantha struggled to shove them off her, but one arm was pinned and the other hand was gripped by Shofranka in a death-hug. She couldn’t move; it was becoming difficult even to breathe. Over Tamas’s shoulder, she saw that Hanzi had overpowered Luca and his huge shoulders now took up the very last of the space and the air in the van.
She freaked out.
‘GET OFF ME!’ she screamed.
Her heart bashed about in her chest like a trapped bird and she felt it pumping pure panic into her bloodstream.
This time a white energy blasted out through her system and Shofranka immediately dropped her hand as though burned. Hanzi desperately wriggled his way back out through the doorway of the van. She breathed in as the night air flooded into the cramped space.
Mirela slid backwards, leaving Tamas, still on top of her, staring blankly into her eyes. She pushed him back a little and he sat up, dazed.
‘What happened?’ he said.
She glanced about the van. Shofranka and Mirela seemed just as bewildered, as though they’d been woken suddenly from a deep sleep.
‘You don’t know?’ she asked.
‘Why are we stopped?’ said Shofranka. She sounded as though she wanted to cry.
‘Did we crash?’ Mirela said, spotting Hanzi at the door, with Luca behind him, scratching his head.
Samantha thought fast. No way did she want to tell them the truth about the last few hideously embarrassing moments. ‘No, but almost,’ she said. ‘Great driving, Luca. I don’t know how you didn’t hit that horse in the middle of the road.’
‘Is the horse all right?’ said Tamas, sitting bolt upright, banging his head on the ceiling of the van.
‘Of course he’s all right,’ said Luca, sticking his head through the doorway. ‘I can drive, dummy. But you guys look like you took a bit of a tumble.’
‘Well, what do you expect – with you screeching all over the road like that?’ said Mirela.
‘Yeah, how did you get your licence anyway, bro? Did you bribe the Gaje?’ said Tamas, rubbing his head.
‘We’re all just lucky we’re safe,’ said Hanzi, blinking. ‘You should have seen Luca swerve around that horse. It came out of nowhere.’
Oh my God, they’re just filling in the gaps as they go along, thought Samantha. She figured she’d better move things along a little before the horse became a unicorn that Luca had ridden bareback into the forest after he’d saved all their lives from a fire-breathing dragon.
‘Um, well, do you think we could get going then?’ she said. ‘Because I’ve kind of set my heart on going to the Carnivale some time this year.’
Everybody knew that the Gaje owned the carni, but the Roma ran it. And while in a perfect world the Gaje would have preferred that the Roma stayed away, they also knew they’d have eighty per cent fewer customers if that were the case.
They’d also have ninety per cent fewer pickpockets, but that was beside the point.
The Roma ran the show, scammed the show, loved the show. The Roma were carni people, and when the carni was in town, the Rom lapped it up.
The party began in the makeshift carparks. Two sports ovals, sacrificed for the cause – oh, and for a lot of cash. After waiting ten minutes in a fuel-fogged car queue, Luca paid a dour gate attendant for a parking spot. Whether there were any spaces available was not his responsibility, Samantha heard the attendant mutter, his words running together like a song so that she’d had to replay them a few times before she figured out what he’d said.
They cruised the dustbowl that was once a soccer field. Sam crouched with Mirela behind the front seats of the HiAce, watching everything going by. Each time she’d passed this site when the carni was not in town, the grass seemed to be struggling valiantly to grow back, but during midsummer – specifically, during the two weeks of Carnivale – the seedlings were always nuclear-blasted back into the dirt. She guessed that some government official had bought himself a couple of new cars and a boat for selling the community out this way.
She’d heard that plenty of people never even left the parking lots. Parking itself was a festival, you see. It was like this: the Roma virtually never bought their food pre-made. They liked things killed and cooked a certain way, so the battered hotdogs on sticks and the fries and bowls of salty, greasy onion rings were devoured almost exclusively by the Gaje. The Rom made their way back to the carpark when they were hungry.
Samantha noticed that at least every second parked car had its boot open, and inside each lay an Aladdin’s treasure-trove of food. They passed an eighties Peugeot weighed down with drinks, breads and salads in the boot and not one, but two, roasting spits fired up before it. A lamb and a pig. The scent of the unbearably delicious roasting meat wallpapered the HiAce, and her mouth watered.
Gypsies, decked out in their glittering, gaudiest finest, moved from vehicle to vehicle, sat around the cars on striped deckchairs, and clustered, gossiping, right in the middle of the makeshift road. And just like the previous year, some party-person had hired a karaoke machine. A gypsy wearing sprayed-on gabardine slacks, gold front teeth and a funeral-suit jacket that Sam would swear on the Bible was covering the open fly of his unfastened pants, was belting out Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way’.
The HiAce found a spot squished between a trestle table and a flatbed ute. Following a brief conversation with Luca, the ute owners gathered around the clothed table, which groaned with open bottles and food, and carefully shifted it a metre to the right. Enough for the HiAce to slide on in. But before they’d allow them to leave the parking lot, the ute owners insisted they each grab something to eat or drink.
Samantha scanned the table: everything looked and smelled amazing. She figured she’d go for a lucky dip. She’d never been frightened of food. Mirela would sniff and prod everything before she put it into her mouth, sticking to the food she knew, rejecting anything she’d never seen before. Samantha didn’t get it. Without exception, her favourite foods had begun with an experiment into the unknown.
She stabbed a plastic fork deep into a lake of grass-green olive oil, which sat viscous and dormant, obscuring something dark, moving torpidly, inside a stainless steel tray. Whatever was in there was going to taste great; she would bet her tarot deck on that. She pulled out a fat piece of marinated eggplant and had slurped down the whole thing before Mirela and Shofranka even made it out of the back of the HiAce.
Wiping her greasy lips with the back of her hand, she stumbled a little as she headed with the others towards the lights of the Carnivale. She noticed that the rest of the group were also a little unsteady on their feet. Hanzi gnawed so conscientiously on a chicken drumstick that he stumbled right into a pothole, dropping to his knees in front of a campervan full of partying gypsies. The adults toasted him uproariously, raising their glasses high, while the children cavorted around him madly, ecstatic with their remaining entertainment for the evening – another drunk adult to ridicule.
Hanzi wobbled to his feet and Sam’s family gathered around him, grinning, slapping him on the back. Sam wiped the back of her hands against her jeans, suddenly tense. They all looked out of it. Even tiny Shofranka giggled like a fifteen-year-old drunk on her parents’ schnapps for the first time ever. But none of them had been drinking.
I’ve gotta watch what I do with that new trick of mine, she thought.
And then from the fairground ahead came a crack like a gunshot, and bursting into the night sky above the rainbow lights of the Ferris wheel were fireworks. Spits, stars, blurs, bolts and bangs of colour, the firecrackers exploded in sky-slashes and pinwheels of noise and light.
Mirela squealed and ran towards the Carnivale.
Samantha was right behind her, her green eyes on fire.
June 30, 9.25 p.m.
When Zac took a window seat in the back row on the lower level of the train, Luke kept walking.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he said on the way past. ‘Got some reading to do.’
He pulled the folder out from the waistband of his jeans and dropped into a seat two rows ahead.
At this time of night, he figured that this would be one of the last trains out of Windsor. It was obviously an action-packed town. He’d seen only three other people, two on this level. A man wearing what looked to be a bus driver’s uniform sat right down the front of the carriage. Another man was slumped in the seat behind, leaning his head against the window, probably asleep already. And when they’d first walked onto the train, a girl, dressed totally in black, sat on a bench seat facing the doors. Walking past her, he’d thought she was either brave or stupid to be travelling alone at night. Still, with all those facial piercings and the multi-buckled platform boots, she probably scared off more people than frightened her.
He’d seen no more of sleepy Windsor during the day than a quick glimpse through the back of a paddy-wagon. Still, he couldn’t say he was sorry to see the back of it now.
Goodbye, Holt, he thought. See ya, Toad. Later, Abrafo.
Well, maybe he could do without seeing Abrafo later.
He flipped open his Dwight inmate file and leaned back into the seat. Now, let’s see who I am, he thought.
The first page was brief. Name, photo, date of birth and admission and a big red warning: DO NOT ALLOW ACCESS TO COMPUTERS. He studied his pre-intake, pre-head-shaved photograph. His dark brown hair hung across his eyes. He liked it that way – first thing on the agenda tomorrow would be to find himself a cap. He always felt better when people couldn’t see his eyes.
The second page of the file was full of his charges. He skimmed through them. Itemised like this, it was quite the laundry list.
Unauthorised access to data with intent to commit serious offence; unauthorised modification of data with intent to cause impairment; possession of identification information; fraudulent appropriation of data; obtaining financial advantage; making false documents; reckless endangerment, yeah, yeah, yeah.
He flipped the page and was surprised to see the charges continue. Well, what do they expect, he thought, when they hit you up for every little thing they can think of every time you get pinched?
He turned another page.
Aha. This looks promising. A psych report. He wished he had a dollar for every psychologist/social worker/psychiatrist he’d been sent to see. He’d once asked a psychologist what the difference was between her and his psychiatrist.
‘Around a hundred thousand dollars a year,’ she’d answered.
He didn’t understand what she was talking about, but that was the case most of the time when he had ‘a session’ with these people. How does that make you feel? they wanted to know. What do you feel about that? How do you think it would make your foster mother feel that you ran away/sold her car on eBay/set fire to her kitchen? Blah, blah, blah.
He hated the word.
At first he’d told the truth when they asked.
That just got him week-long assessments in specialised clinics and more therapy sessions. So he’d learned to listen to the other kids speaking about their ‘feelings’ and had tried to copy. At first it didn’t work. He mixed ‘excited’ up with ‘angry’, and ‘sad’ with ‘scared’. And what the hell he was supposed to do with ‘embarrassed’ and ‘ashamed’, he had no idea. As far as he was concerned, emotions were a super-big waste of time. Everybody seemed so miserable carrying those things around.
But by age twelve, he’d learned enough that he could fake it around adults. He could speak to them for an hour or more without them cocking their head to the side, making that funny screwed-up face, and deciding that he couldn’t play with their little Johnny any more.
And now, at fifteen? Well, now Luke could take those feelings that others had told him about and tell people things that would just about twist and turn them inside out. He’d found all that ‘empathy training’ he’d had in therapy over the years had come in very handy indeed: now he knew what was supposed to make him feel sad, scared, happy and ashamed, he could use those scenarios to make other people feel those things. In fact, when he wasn’t locked up, where staff had access to this file, he could make most people do just about anything he liked.
The psychologists, on the other hand, well, they sometimes required a little more care. Not all of them, mind you. Like Mrs Grayson – a shrink he’d been sent to between foster families four and five. Life is a tapestry, she’d told him. We need to unravel some of the intricate stories that make up your life.
She’d set him homework after their first session: Write a story about the most important moment in your life.
Three hundred words and two re-runs of Touched by an Angel later, he’d had Mrs Grayson sobbing at her desk. He passed her her own box of tissues and that had sent her right over the edge. She’d cancelled her clients for the day and taken him out for pizza and a movie – The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift – so cool. Mrs Grayson had tried to suggest something else, but he’d given her the puppy-dog look that worked with all the Mrs Graysons he’d met, and she’d handed her credit card over to the dude at the box office. After the movie, when it was time to go home, he’d remembered that it was Thursday, and Thursday was tuna pasta bake (yuck) with foster family number five, so he’d told Mrs Grayson that today had been one of the best days of his life, that he felt he’d had a breakthrough, and that he felt safe with her.
Following a few more tears, and a hug – ick – that night he’d had dinner with the Graysons. Her son and husband hadn’t seemed too impressed, but it was a barbeque, so it was all good in the end.
He turned his attention back to his file and wondered what the next shrink would have to say.
As soon as he’d taken a seat in her office, he’d known that Dr Pettinger was no Mrs Grayson. She wanted to be. He could tell. She tried hard to like him, tried to trust him, but with every word he spoke she’d reeled herself in a little further. Her smile stayed the same, she remained always pleasant and encouraging, but with each response he gave to her questions she coiled herself a little tighter, retreating.
He’d tried for sympathy.
She’d asked another question, and his answer – which would have bought him lunch from Mrs Grayson – had sent her further back into her seat.
He’d gone for anger; teenage indignation. That always got them going, trying to win him back again.
But what it got him was a questionnaire. Three hundred items long. He’d done dozens of these things before, and knew they had built-in lie detectors. To be honest, he found them quite entertaining, especially when his responses generated pages of problems with which he was supposedly afflicted: generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks. He liked to vary his responses to generate some of the more exotic disorders. He was still trying for picquerism.
Panic attacks came up all the time. Ha. He thought that was probably because he’d actually love to have had a panic attack. They sounded fun. Heart racing, adrenalin, dizziness. Kids in his last neighbourhood paid good money for feelings like that.
He ignored all the psychobabble in Dr Pettinger’s report and skipped straight to the ‘Diagnosis’ section. He was used to seeing a list.
Dr Pettinger had typed only one line.
Antisocial Personality Disorder. Probable Type I psychopath.
Huh. He’d never had that before. He decided to read the rest of her report. He didn’t like it.
The first section of her report was entitled ‘Psychosocial Background’, and in the first three paragraphs he learned more about himself than he had in his entire life.
Abandoned at birth.
Those weren’t the words you wanted to see typed out about yourself in black and white. Abandoned equalled thrown away.
He’d always known, of course, that he’d been fostered out at birth, but he’d always imagined that his parents had handed him over to the hospital, snug as a bug in a rug, praying for someone else to give him a better life than they could provide.
Instead, freezing cold on a train, on the run from juvie lockup, Luke Black learned that he’d been found, umbilical cord still attached, in a hard-drive computer box – without a rug – in the housing commission driveway of a Miss Janelle Wilson.
Janelle had three other children, but as they were all then in the care of the state while she was in a psych unit recovering from her latest overdose, neighbour Jacquie Freeman and her then-significant other had taken him in. That is, they’d spotted the computer box, figured there could be something in it that they could sell, and carried it over to their house.
Which was where, apparently, Luke had spent the first twelve months of his life.
Jacquie and her boyfriend, wrote Dr Pettinger, had a significant substance abuse problem. When Welfare got around to actually investigating the welfare of their three children, they’d discovered that there were in fact four people not old enough to vote living beneath their roof.
Jacquie, said Dr Pettinger, had eventually explained how she’d come to be in possession of him, and had apparently wondered whether she might, perhaps, be due any back-payments from the government for her tender loving care for the first year of his life. Not really, Luke gathered she’d been informed. Along with: we will spare you gaol time, though, if you hand over anything else the baby had on him when you found him.
And that’s where his birth certificate had come in.
On the next page, actually. It was a photocopy, of course, but still, it was a piece of him, a piece of him declaring who he was before he learned how to make the world believe he was whoever he wanted to be.
It took a great deal for Luke’s heart to make itself known in his chest. In fact, he’d spent many years wondering whether he actually had one at all. Right now, he finally understood the phrase his heart skipped a beat. Three basic pieces of information were responsible.
His mother’s name was Morgan Moreau – his father’s name wasn’t listed.
His mother had christened him Lucifer Black Moreau.
And he had a twin sister.
‘Luke, you’d better come sit back here.’
Luke tucked his Dwight file back into his jeans and made his way to Zac’s seat at the back of the carriage.
‘What?’ he said, dropping into the seat next to him.
‘We’re coming into Blacktown station,’ said Zac.
‘And?’ said Luke.
‘I don’t know,’ said Zac.
Me neither, thought Luke, but he could sense something wasn’t right. Something bad was waiting. The train crawled into Blacktown station. Eight uniformed officers stood clustered on the platform.
‘Cops,’ said Zac.
‘Transit cops, actually,’ said Luke. ‘But bad enough.’
‘What are the chances they’re not here to find us?’ said Zac.
‘Around zero to none,’ said Luke. ‘We need a plan.’
‘We’re going to wait right here,’ said Zac.
‘You need to brush up on what making a plan means,’ said Luke.
‘You’re just gonna have to trust me, Black.’
‘How about this, then,’ said Luke. ‘I’ll sit here until I think we’re gonna get busted, and then it’s every man for himself.’
Ordinarily, Luke would have taken off already, bolted through the carriages and skipped out a door at the last minute. It would mean another chase when the officers saw him run, but it was better than just sitting here, waiting to get caught. But he’d seen enough in the past few days to know that Zac wasn’t ordinary, and to be honest, he was kinda curious to see what this kid would come up with next.
The transits spread out. Four boarded the train up front and the rest at the rear. They were going to be sandwiched in by them. The minutes ticked away. The train didn’t move.
‘Find anything in your file?’ said Zac.
‘You could say that,’ said Luke.
‘Like I have a twin sister.’
Zac sat bolt upright. ‘Anything else?’ he said.
Luke half smiled, bemused by Nguyen’s intensity. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Something good,’ said Zac.
‘Well, I learned that I’m not good. You probably shouldn’t play with me any more. Apparently I’m a psychopath.’ He grinned.
‘Goddess Gaia!’ said Zac, his pale face now even paler, his dark eyes huge.
‘Who?’ said Luke.
‘Never mind. They’re coming.’
Right about now, Luke really wished he had that cap. He felt completely exposed as two transit cops stomped down the stairs into their carriage. He almost closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep, but every muscle screamed at him to spring from the seat and run up the stairs behind him.
Any moment now, he knew he’d have to do just that. The transits passed the two men at the front of the carriage, giving them cursory glances. The short one swept his eyes over the rest of the seats, passing blankly straight over them, then turned to his mate, a huge Islander.
‘Well, they’re not down here,’ said Shorty.
‘They’re probably not even on the train, bro,’ said the Islander, walking straight past them.
Luke could have reached out and taken his radio if he’d liked. Stunned, not daring to even breathe, he listened to the two men meeting their partners at the top of the stairs and watched them step off the train.
‘What was that?’ said Luke. ‘What happened?’
‘There are still four to go,’ said Zac. He was trembling and sweat was beaded on his upper lip. ‘It’ll be harder this time. Just be quiet.’
Right then, they heard doors above them whoosh open.
‘That’s the other doors,’ whispered Luke. ‘The ones that lead to the tracks. What are they doing?’
Zac said nothing. His eyes were closed, his skin tinged faintly green.
Now, from behind him, Luke heard the connecting doors open and the boots of the other transit cops entering the carriage above.
‘Are you looking for two boys?’ he heard a girl ask.
It has to be that punk chick, he thought. She’s gonna give us away!
‘Get ready, Zac,’ he said, primed to run.
He listened to the transit cop’s answer. ‘Yes, we are. Have you seen two males, aged around fifteen?’
‘They just pushed the emergency button,’ Luke heard the girl say. ‘And they jumped down onto the tracks. They took off that way.’
What the hell?
Luke met Zac’s eyes. He looked just as surprised.
They heard the transit cops clatter out of the train, yelling into their radios.
Moments later, the train pulled away from Blacktown station. Luke let his head fall back against the seat.
What a freakin’ night.
June 30, 8.00 p.m.
As usual whenever they went anywhere together, the boys took off as soon as they reached their destination. After paying for them all to get into the Carnivale, Hanzi and Luca began jogging towards the rodeo.
Samantha and Mirela grinned at one another; the whole Carnivale was open to them. Now, where to go first?
‘Rides,’ said Mirela.
‘Animal farm,’ said Shofranka.
‘I was thinking sideshow alley,’ said Samantha.
Shofranka and Mirela groaned.
‘You want to find Birthday Jones,’ said Shofranka.
‘Are you still hanging around with that little thief?’ said Tamas.
Samantha spun on the spot. ‘What are you still doing here?’
‘Nice,’ said Tamas, theatrically raising a fist to his chest and ripping out an imaginary knife.
Samantha blushed. ‘It’s just that you always go off with the guys to the rodeo,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ said Mirela, smirking.
Samantha stomped on her friend’s toe.
‘Well, that was in the days when kings with guns and mutants with swords weren’t running around after you,’ said Tamas, looking down at her.
He seems to be growing about a foot a day lately, thought Samantha. And those shoulders! She blinked up at him. To her left, she noticed a group of giggling girls doing everything they could to attract his attention. She moved over a couple of steps to put herself between him and them.
‘You think we’re just gonna let you go around this place unchaperoned?’ Tamas continued.
‘Well, Luca and Hanzi seem to have done just that,’ said Mirela.
The two older boys were now lost in the crowd.
‘Yeah, well, they know I’ll look after you,’ said Tamas.
‘And exactly how would you handle a ninja with a sword?’ said Mirela.
Tamas’s dark brows drew together and he opened his mouth to retort.
‘Would you two please give it a rest?’ said Samantha. ‘Please. Look where we are. Let’s just have fun.’
‘Yeah,’ said Shofranka, her eyes serious behind her heavy spectacles.
‘I’ll be good if you will,’ said Mirela. She spat on her hand and held it up for Tamas to shake.
He looked down at her. ‘Oh, I’ll be good,’ he said. ‘But I am not going to touch your spit.’
‘Well, just for that,’ said Mirela, ‘we’re going to the rides first.’
And she took off fast, weaving in and out of the moving crowd as though they stood still. Samantha and the others hurried to keep up.
One of the best things about this carni, thought Samantha, is that they have so many rides. And one of the worst things is how old and rickety they are. She stood behind Mirela and Shofranka in the queue for the Ghost Train, acutely aware of Tamas standing right behind her, so close she could feel the heat of his body through her clothes. At least it felt that way.
It was a warm night. The stars were outshone by the gorgeous carnivale lights, but nothing outshone the moon, still fat and full, but not quite perfect, a day’s worth of silver shaved from the sphere.
To distract herself from Tamas, Sam focused on the crowd. It seemed that half of Pantelimon was here tonight. Children cried and shouted, tired and wired from all the sugar and sights. Girls squealed, trying to out-shriek their friends. Bells rang, hammers clanged and mechanical rides screeched and sang. The night smelled of gunpowder and magic.
Samantha wrinkled her nose and shuffled another few steps forward as the queue moved up.
‘Don’t you think the Ghost Train is just a little bit lame, Mimi?’ she said.
‘The Ghost Train is fabulous,’ said Mirela.
‘It is kinda lame,’ agreed Shofranka, walking backwards so she could join in the conversation. ‘But I still get scared every time.’
‘Well, don’t worry, Sho,’ said Mirela. ‘You’ll have your big tough brother to sit next to. He’ll hold your hand.’
‘Eww,’ said Shofranka. ‘I’m so not sitting with Tamas.’
‘Well, you’ll have to ride alone then,’ said Mirela. ‘Because Sam and I always sit together.’
Shofranka stopped shuffling. A gap formed ahead of her in the queue. She put her hands on her hips. ‘I am not going on there by myself,’ she said.
‘Hey, move!’ someone yelled behind them.
Samantha turned towards the shout, as did Tamas. She couldn’t see his face, but the girls behind them obviously could. The ten or so closest female faces stared openly at him.
Tamas turned back around before Sam did, and she felt a rush of blood to her cheeks. She dipped her head to try to hide the blush. You are so lame, Sam, she told herself. Can’t you be a little more cool?
‘What’s the matter, little Witch?’ he said.
He reached out a hand and put a finger under her chin, lifted her face. ‘You should never hide that face from me,’ he whispered. ‘It hurts when I can’t see it.’
She just stood there. Open-mouthed.
He put his hands on her shoulders and spun her around. ‘But I’m going to have to survive,’ he said from behind her again now. ‘Because the line is moving.’
He did not just say that, Samantha, you idiot. He said something else entirely. He probably said that it hurts to look at you, or something. That’s what he meant. But her cheeks were already beginning to ache because her smile was so wide. And he was standing even closer to her now, if that was possible. Every few moments she felt their clothing touch and the fleeting movement raised goosebumps over her bare arms. She closed her eyes as she moved forward in the queue, vaguely aware of Mirela and Shofranka arguing up ahead. What if I just lean back right now, she thought, right into that chest? Into those arms?
‘Um, wakey, wakey, nutbag,’ said Mirela. ‘We’re up next.’
They’d reached the edge of the platform. Staring at them was a bleary-eyed attendant and a faded monster’s face, plastered across two red doors.
‘Two at a time,’ the attendant sing-songed. ‘Keep your arms in the carriage at all times.’
The red doors crashed open, splitting the monster’s face in half, and a dilapidated cart jerked out. A bored-looking Gaje couple readied themselves to alight from their flight into hell.
‘Looks like you get to ride with your boyfriend,’ said Mirela, whispering the last two words. ‘On account of how Shofranka’s gonna spit the dummy if one of us doesn’t ride with her.’ She ramped up the volume on the last sentence and gave her younger cousin a scowl.
‘You’re welcome.’ Mirela gathered up her skirt and climbed into the cart with a nervously grinning Shofranka.
Samantha had known Tamas her whole life. She’d thrown rocks at him, raced horses with him, shared a plate of food with him many times. When they were younger they’d even slept in the same sleeping bag, just as she had with every other kid in camp. She’d always fought for his attention, and gabbled away about anything she could think of just to get him to talk to her.
Now, she could not think of a single thing to say.
He towered over her with an amused smile on his full lips. ‘So, I get to go on the Ghost Train with a witch,’ he said. ‘I’m kinda scared.’
‘You’re scared,’ she said. She couldn’t look at him.
Tamas gave a laugh. ‘You’re not scared of little me, are you, Sam?’ He hooked a finger through one of her curls and pulled.
‘As if,’ she said, straightening her shoulders and meeting his eyes as they roamed her face. ‘I am a witch. I might put a spell on you.’
‘Too late,’ he said, tucking the tangled tress behind her ear.
Fireworks went off in her stomach.
Their carriage lurched to a halt in front of them and Tamas climbed in first. He held out his hand to help her in and she grabbed it quickly, before he saw hers shaking. He lifted her into the cart as though she weighed no more than a saddle. When he let her go she wished he hadn’t and her chest hurt.
My God, what is happening to me? she wondered. She felt burning hot and shivery all at the same time.
As they moved towards the black fire-painted gates, they each sat rigid, separate. But by the time they’d cleared the gates of hell, Tamas was on her side of the carriage. She turned to face him, dizzy, unable to think.
He cupped her face in his hands. They were warm and dry, and scratchy with work. She pushed her head closer, butting into him like a cat. She entwined her jeans with his. Her mind was still blank and she couldn’t catch her breath. He bent his head towards hers. Stopped when their noses touched.
‘Are you doing this to me?’ he whispered. His lips almost touched hers with each word.
She said nothing. She’d forgotten how to speak.
They sat there like that. She slowed her breathing to match his, inhaling when he exhaled, breathing him in. Headless horsemen sprung from gloomy corners, damsels screeched, and a henchman’s axe swung through the air. A child cried piteously, on loop-tape.
Samantha raised her hand to the back of his neck. She had no idea what she was doing. She had very little idea where she was. In fact, had someone asked Samantha White right at that moment to identify herself, she’d have nothing for them.
She snuck her hand underneath Tamas’s ponytail and trailed her fingers across the soft skin there. She felt his shiver through her whole body. He closed his eyes. She pulled his face closer.
Back again. Where are we up to? I’ve only got a few minutes…
Oh! Samantha White has had her first real kiss in the Ghost Train at one of her favourite places on earth. The Carnivale. And it’s with Tamas – the boy she’s loved her whole life. He loves her too – she feels it.
Well, I saw that coming a mile away.
And at that moment everything was perfect. Smiley, smiley, happy, lovely…
But hang on. Not everything is perfect. Didn’t you notice that the moon was not quite right? That a sliver of silver was missing? Enough maybe for a dagger? Or a sword?
You are going to need to stay on top of these anomalies. Pay attention for me. I wish I could help you more but I’m not exactly a free agent.
Speaking of which, someone’s coming. Must run. Work hard. We need you.
June 30, 11.11 p.m.
Luke had never seen a home so huge. Well, maybe on TV, but he’d never even dreamed he’d actually spend a night in a house like this. Even so, he couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the thought: so much had happened that he was just counting down the minutes until midnight so that this freaky night would be over.
‘You seriously live here?’ he said again.
Georgia laughed. ‘It’s really not that big a deal,’ she said.
Luke stared at the Goth girl who’d come to their aid on the train. She just did not match that house. Long black hair in pigtails, black biker jacket, tartan mini skirt with black tights, and those frightening boots riding up over her knees. The platform soles on the boots gave her a good couple of inches on Luke and she towered over Zac, who’d been very quiet since they’d left the train at Kings Cross station.
Walking the twenty minutes from the station, from city craziness here to perfect Elizabeth Bay, he’d found himself wondering more than once how she’d managed to put on her black lipstick over the two thick rings piercing her bottom lip. As he studied her while she supposedly rummaged through her backpack for the keys, he realised that the stud in her nose was actually a tiny silver dragon, its tail curled about itself as it slept.
But he wasn’t holding his breath for the keys. Because behind her, spotlit by lamps embedded in an emerald, carpet-like lawn, rose a three-storey sandstone mansion. Two storeys high, the wrought-iron front gate was entwined and twisted with spirals, curlicues and vines. He wondered what a set of keys would even look like for a gate like that.
Surrounding the home was a park-like garden, impossibly lush in the middle of winter. Hundreds of fairylights climbed palm trees, danced and twinkled in bushes, sparkled through hedges.
Luke closed his eyes against the overwhelming brightness of it all. He was exhausted. He just wanted to sleep, and try as he might, he could not convince himself that it would be inside this house. The quiet clanking of boats in the dark harbour behind the house sedated him further. Even to just drop onto that carpet of grass and sleep until the frozen dawn would be enough for him.
‘Oh, here they are,’ said Georgia. Incredibly, she dangled a set of two keys from her fingers. A filigreed silver cat kept them company on the key ring.
Zac gave a soft growl.
Luke ignored him. ‘So you actually live here?’ he said.
‘I think you’re faulty,’ she said. ‘There’s a scratch on your disc somewhere. You keep saying the same thing.’
She turned away and inserted one of the keys into the lock. It creaked. She pushed it inward, holding it open with a hip.
‘Coming?’ she said.
Luke smiled. He was very rarely surprised any more.
The gate opened into a courtyard. A broad sandstone pathway led to the actual entry to the home: a shiny, red-lacquered door, twice as tall as he was. The sandstone path was flanked by stainless steel spears, each topped with a blue-orange flame. A snarl of black smoke curled skyward from the very tip of each as they walked by.
Behind the fire was water. Jade-green ponds filled with luminous darting fish whorled and bubbled on each side of the path. From the corner of his eye, Luke thought he saw an enormous golden tail the width of his thigh. He shook his head. I really need to get to bed, he thought.
Georgia stood at the red door. Luke watched her, wondering what lay beyond it. She put her key in the lock and turned the big brass door handle.
‘I am so starving,’ she said. ‘Anyone else hungry?’
Zac hadn’t said a word since the station.
Luke could quite understand that; he was also having trouble putting a sentence together.
He sat propped on a barstool at a big black marble serving bar in the most amazing kitchen he’d ever seen. But that hardly did it justice, he considered. Because before this, the most amazing kitchen he’d ever seen was one in which the dishes had been washed. He’d never even lived in a house with a dishwasher.
Well, this kitchen looked like it belonged in a restaurant and had that photo-clipped-straight-out-of-a-magazine look. Georgia, this freaky chick from the train, was making them bacon and eggs. If everything hadn’t smelled so good, he’d have been sure he was dreaming.
‘Do you really live here?’ he said.
She sighed. ‘You are becoming boring,’ she said. ‘I really live here.’
‘Who with?’ he said. ‘Where are your parents?’
‘Well, I think my mother may be with her lover,’ said Georgia, spooning mounds of buttery scrambled eggs onto a large green platter. ‘But please don’t ask me who that is at the present time, as their names change with tedious rapidity. I’m pretty sure that she just refers to each of them as “darling” because she has difficulty remembering them all. And my father – well, my father is in a place I’m sure you’re both very familiar with.’
She used tongs to drop sizzling bacon rashers onto the plate of eggs.
‘What are you talking about?’ said Luke.
Georgia slid a tray of thickly sliced toast out of the enormous oven.
‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ she said, using a knife to scrape wads of butter over the toast. ‘He’s in gaol, just like you were.’
Luke stared. Zac said nothing.
‘What do you want to drink?’ she said.
‘What makes you think we were locked up?’ Luke said.
‘Well, mostly your shoes.’ She carried the platter over to the oversized dining table. ‘I had a boyfriend who was locked up in Dwight. I used to visit most weekends. He wore those shoes. What are we drinking?’
‘Lots of people wear these shoes,’ said Luke.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘But you were in Windsor and so were the transit cops who were looking for you. Also – um, I don’t mean to be rude, but have you seen the state of your face? You look more like someone stomped on it than that you spent the past couple of days reading poetry at your private school. I knew straight away you’d run away from Dwight.’
She walked back towards the fridge. ‘I’ve got juice, Coke, coffee, milk or wine,’ she said. ‘And pretty much everything else, actually.’
‘What were you doing in Windsor?’ said Luke. ‘When you live in a place like this?’
‘I have friends there,’ she said. ‘Drink?’
‘Coke,’ Luke said.
‘Zac?’ she said.
‘Water,’ said Zac. ‘And I don’t eat eggs.’
‘That’s a shame,’ said Georgia. ‘You haven’t tried mine, though. Maybe I can change your mind. Still, there’s heaps of bacon here.’
‘I’m a vegan,’ said Zac.
Georgia threw back her head and laughed. ‘Well, of course you are!’ she said. ‘How gorgeous. A vegetarian escapee from a juvenile detention centre.’
‘I’m vegan, not vegetarian,’ said Zac.
‘And we didn’t say we escaped,’ said Luke.
Georgia sighed and pulled two cans of Coke and a bottle of water from the massive stainless steel fridge.
‘You know, champagne would have been great with these eggs,’ she said.
June 30, 9.09 p.m.
As they approached the exit doors of the Ghost Train, Samantha felt like crying. Tamas would have to let her go.
‘Sam, what’s the matter?’ said Tamas. ‘Are you mad at me? You look sad all of a sudden.’
A flash of fake fire, the ride’s last hurrah, lit up his face as she met his eyes, the flame reflected in their inky blackness.
‘You’re going to let me go when those doors open.’
He laughed. ‘You’re crazy,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry. Boyfriends tend to hold their girlfriends more than once.’
Boyfriend! Her heart leapt. But the red doors loomed ahead like a waiting mouth and the feeling of doom redoubled. She couldn’t help it – for some reason, cheesy and lame as it was, she felt compelled to say it.
‘I’ve loved you my whole life, Tamas,’ she blurted. And then cringed in embarrassment. But she hadn’t been able to keep the anxiety from her voice as disquiet buffeted the cable car, blown in with the wind beyond those red doors.
He smiled and pulled her close, but she caught the worried look in his eyes. Then their cart crashed through the doors.
And the world really went to hell.
The first person she saw was Mirela. And Mirela was screaming.
Tamas pushed Sam down into the cart.
The next person was Boldo, the gypsy king’s bodyguard. He stood by the gates to the ride, his pistol held loosely by his side. He seemed relaxed. In the other arm he gripped Shofranka by the shoulder, her pigtails swinging, mouth trembling, her spectacles reflecting the carnival lights.
Tamas reared up beside Samantha. She could feel the anger fizzing inside him. He reached into his jeans and pulled something from his pocket. She heard a snick, and then the attendant coughed.
‘Um, you need to get out,’ the pimply boy said.
Tamas now stood over her, a switchblade knife in his hand. He completely ignored the attendant.
In the queue waiting to board the ride, somebody screeched, adding to Mirela’s screams for help.
A knife versus a gun. This was not going to work. From the hard plastic seat underneath Tamas’s straddled legs, Samantha frantically tried to summon the honeyed light to send it out towards Boldo. She didn’t know how the stuff worked, but maybe if she could send some his way he’d decide that the world would be a nicer place if he just packed up his gun and bought a kebab on the way home.
But nothing happened. Instead, Boldo told Tamas, ‘Send your witch over here. You’re making a scene.’
Tamas politely declined the request. ‘She’s not going anywhere with you, you pig,’ he called.
Boldo moved Shofranka a little further in front of him, tightening his grip. She whimpered in pain.
At the sound, Samantha felt fear and love jet into her bloodstream. She began gathering the energy into a ball, just like she had in the back of the van.
‘This will not go well for your family, Tamas, son of Besnik,’ said Boldo. His cowboy hat hid his eyes, his voice was gravel. ‘That little Gaje witch is not even your blood, our blood. She’s filth.’
There was silence for two seconds. Samantha used the time to gather energy.
But then Tamas spoke again.
‘Boldo, you need to listen to me very carefully,’ he said evenly. ‘I promise you, right here and now, that you will have to kill me to get her out of this park.’
The anger emanating from Tamas was white hot – Sam felt as though she stood in the centre of a bonfire. Her stomach recoiled at the strength of his emotions, and her focus shifted. The golden sphere in her mind dispersed into dust motes. Panicked, she tried rapidly to re-form it while she waited for Boldo’s reaction.
‘Be careful what you ask for, little boy,’ he said.
The ride attendant was on his radio now, his face milk-white. People had been drawn by the screams. Some held phones to their ears, but most used them to record the show.
‘Looks like you’ll have to shoot a lot of people then, Boldo,’ said Tamas, using his knife to indicate the growing crowd. ‘And the cops will be here soon.’
Boldo was silent for a moment. ‘Yeah,’ he said, finally. ‘I think I’m gonna split.’
He began to walk backwards, gripping Shofranka’s arm. Shofranka began to cry.
‘When you’re ready to swap your sister for the witch, you know where to find us,’ Boldo yelled over his shoulder.
‘No!’ Tamas leapt from the carriage and bolted after him. Mirela followed, still hollering for help.
Samantha scrambled to her feet, shoving past the ride attendant. She had to stay close enough to Boldo to use the energy. That’s if it was going to work this time. But the crowd had other ideas. They would not get out of the way. Samantha pushed and wriggled through the wall of people, but the Rom among them had recognised the gypsy king’s bodyguard and were not willing to give up their viewing position of the action. And the tourists had their lasting holiday memories to capture – a man dressed like a cowboy with a gun, dragging a little girl, being chased by a gypsy! Half of them would have their video footage uploaded to YouTube before they hit the pillow tonight. And the Gaje? Well, they were not about to step aside for a dirty gypsy girl any time soon.
Samantha almost screamed in frustration. She couldn’t even hear Mirela, Tamas and Shofranka, let alone see them. She shoved at a woman with a back as wide as a bed, but got nothing more than a hate-filled stare for her trouble. This was never going to work. These people would never move.
Except suddenly they did. They began to scatter. She rushed forward, spotting Tamas and Mirela ahead. Somehow, Hanzi and Luca had found them, and they’d surrounded Boldo and Shofranka.
And then Sam registered that the energy around her had changed completely. She felt puzzlement, shock, fear, and now people were yelling and running. She managed to turn around, almost doubled over as the feelings threatened to overwhelm her.
Behind her stood Scarface, with his sword, his two friends with Uzis and the tattooed cat-woman chick. Kirra.
They moved towards her.
Samantha couldn’t help it. She screamed. More than the weapons carried by the men in black, the look of focus in Kirra’s eyes left her feeling completely helpless. Those eyes told her there was no way she was going to get away this time. Sam swivelled her head, desperately scanning for somewhere to run. To try to hide in the Ghost Train would mean running back towards them. She’d be lucky to make her rubbery legs run the other way, let alone in their direction. And there was only a food tent to her right – no shelter in there. She could run back towards her friends, but that would put them in more danger.
Too late, Tamas had heard her cry.
She felt him coming before she saw him, sprinting across the gravel towards her.
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘They’ve got guns!’
But it wasn’t a bullet that shattered her heart into a million pieces.
Trapped in a slow-motion nightmare, she turned her head towards the sound of a bloodcurdling battle cry. Without breaking stride, Kirra raised her hand and threw something. A whir of metal flashed past Samantha, straight into Tamas’s throat.
His eyes widened, confused; they locked with hers as blood spouted in a red arc from his neck. And then Tamas fell, his big body crashing into the dirt.
She could feel nothing. And everything went silent, even peaceful.
She didn’t see the police cars screeching around the corner, lights flashing. She didn’t see the people running, nor hear Mirela on her knees, hysterical.
She could see only Tamas, stretched out, waiting for her. She was by his side in an instant. She flopped to the ground next to him, bundled his head into her lap. She smoothed his hair carefully, while his warm blood – his life – pulsed from him.
Shhh, she told him in her mind. His eyelids flickered.
She saw the metal object in his throat. A star.
Tamas had been killed by a star.
She plucked the piece of metal from his neck and blood gushed even faster from the jagged wound.
And her emotions returned, ripping through her body as though she’d swallowed a hurricane. Because it was right then that she felt him leaving her.
She fought the hysteria struggling to claim her. She lowered his head to the ground and stood. Oblivious to everyone and everything around her, Samantha White focused inward. She gathered the internal hurricane into a fluorescent globe. And then, with every cell of her being on fire, she hurled the energy from her body into his.
And the world went white.
July 1, 12.20 p.m.
Luke squeezed his eyes tighter to block out the light and threw a pillow over his ears to mute the sound of wind and rain buffeting against the windows. He tried everything to remain in dreamland a little longer. But it was the cat that finally woke him.
At first he felt a soft push, a gentle smudge against the side of his nose. He moved to roll over, and a needlepoint of pain snapped his eyes open.
‘Hey!’ he yelled.
Still within paw distance, the sapphire eyes of a Siamese cat regarded him disdainfully. He sat up.
It had been too dark last night to see much beyond the windows of Georgia’s house. When he’d climbed between these lush sheets he’d been so exhausted that it hadn’t registered that he was about to fall asleep in a room with one of the most expensive views in Australia.
Carefully negotiating the cat, who was cleaning itself haughtily, watching every move he made, he dropped onto the lush carpet and moved over towards the windows.
Despite, or maybe because of, the rain, he had never seen a more beautiful sight. There was nothing between his bedroom and Elizabeth Bay but a rolling green lawn and a turquoise swimming pool. Perched right on the edge of the harbour, the pool seemed the epitome of excess, as though to prove to the world that the owners of this mansion could have absolutely anything they wanted – a whole ocean to swim in, and a swimming pool, just because.
Super-yachts, moored in the bay, rocked and rolled in the wind, while rain speared into the sea around them. And although last night he’d been aware that this home was on a well-populated street, he could see no other house nearby. The tropical gardens hid the mansion from view, as though this was the only house in the world.
He stretched and wondered where Zac had slept. Wherever it was, it was infinitely better than Dorm Four. This room alone could have held the beds of the whole of Section Six. He walked around, opening drawers, peeking into cupboards. One of the doors opened onto an opulent private bathroom, and when he noticed some super-huge towels he’d at first mistaken for blankets, he decided to take a shower.
Under the double-headed steaming shower jets, he wondered whether Georgia’s father really was in prison. He’s probably just on a business trip somewhere and she figured the gaol story matched better with her piercings and attitude. Either way, Daddy wouldn’t be terribly thrilled that little Georgia had brought home two escapees, one of them a psychopath to boot.
Luke wanted to not care about that label. He’d never cared about the psychiatric pigeonholes they’d tried to shove him in before. But he still felt weird about what he’d read in his file. Also, being ripped apart from his twin sister and thrown away by his mother pretty much sucked. But why did she have to call him Lucifer on top of that?
The devil. Who would name their baby after the devil? She must have really hated me, he thought. Or else she was insane. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.
He dried himself off and stepped back into his jeans. Having only one set of clothes was going to get old pretty soon. He’d have to do something about that first up. Although he wasn’t particularly worried – money was never too hard to come by.
He wondered whether his sister had grown up in homes similar to his own. Or had she been raised in a place like this? Did she get lucky and have one set of adoptive parents? Or had she been passed around from one whack-job to the next, just like him? Maybe she’d grown up just down the road from him in Campbelltown. They could have gone to school together and not even known it. Not that he ever really went to school very often, but still…
Did she know he existed? Did she know and not care?
Suddenly, he really wanted to know the answer to the second question.
What if he was the way he was because there was a part of him missing? What if she was that missing part?
He knew, suddenly, that he had to find her.
Luke found Zac squatting in the hallway outside his bedroom. He’d been wondering whether Zac had actually even bothered to stay here last night. Now that they were out of Dwight, there were probably plenty of places Zac could go. He’d mentioned brothers. He must have had friends or family he could hide out with.
But Zac was there, waiting patiently at his bedroom door.
‘Don’t you ever sit like normal people?’ said Luke.
‘I’m comfortable like this,’ said Zac.
‘What is a vegan, anyway?’ said Luke.
‘What’s that got to do with how I sit?’
Luke shrugged. ‘I don’t know. You are weird, though. What are you doing in the hallway?’
‘I don’t like it here,’ said Zac.
‘Yeah, I can really understand why you feel that way, Zac,’ said Luke. ‘I mean, it really is rundown and dirty, and there’s hardly any space for us. I suppose it would have been much better to sleep under a bridge or out in the freezing rain last night.’
‘Have you seen the cats?’ said Zac.
‘I’ve seen a cat.’
Zac gave him a meaningful stare.
Luke laughed. Cats? Now he doesn’t like cats?
‘You’re freaking me out, Spiderman,’ he said, reaching down a hand and dragging Zac to his feet. ‘Where’s our host?’
Zac shrugged. ‘When are we leaving?’
‘Where do you want to go?’ Luke began walking down the hall, towards the kitchen.
‘Where do you want to go?’ said Zac.
‘I want to find my sister,’ said Luke.
‘Agreed,’ said Zac. ‘I think we need to do that, fast.’
Luke stopped walking. Suddenly, thoroughly, he’d had too much of the riddles. He turned and prodded Zac in the chest with his forefinger. Hard.
‘We’re not going anywhere, Nguyen,’ he said. ‘In fact, I’m going to take off right now and have nothing to do with you, unless you tell me who you are and who you think I am. And why you’re so interested in helping me find my sister.’
‘Deal,’ said Zac, moving back a step. ‘I think I now have something I can tell you. I really didn’t know before why I was sent to help you, but if you are who I now believe you are, you’re gonna need all the help you can get.’
Zac turned and began walking.
‘But if you ever poke me in the chest like that again,’ he said, throwing the words back over his shoulder, ‘you’d better be prepared to live with only nine fingers.’
They found Georgia upstairs in a decked-out lounge room ranging across half of the middle level of the home. The entire back wall of the room was glass, looking out over the harbour. Georgia curled cat-like on a sprawling red leather lounge, her eyes on a massive flat-screen, killing aliens with the gaming control in her hands.
Another haughty Siamese cat sat on an armrest next to her, staring down its long nose at them. A black-and-white cat sat like a miniature panda beside her, cleaning its belly. It raised its lime-green eyes to judge them, and then resumed its duties with particular gusto.
‘Well, don’t you ladies sleep forever,’ Georgia said, without taking her eyes from the screen. ‘Help yourselves to whatever you want in the kitchen.’
Luke figured they may as well eat before they left, so he and Zac headed back downstairs. He cracked the door of the fridge and leaned in. A giant chocolate cake beckoned at face height. There were strawberries, a cling-wrapped bowl of fried chicken, a two-litre bottle of chocolate milk and half a leg of ham.
‘This place,’ Luke said. ‘I love this place.’
He pulled out the ham, a jug of orange juice and a block of Swiss cheese.
‘What can you eat?’ he said.
Zac peered over his shoulder into the fridge. ‘Just pass me the strawberries,’ he said. ‘And I’ll have some toast.’
‘How do you live like that?’ said Luke. ‘Not eating meat?’
‘Well, I don’t know how you live like you do,’ Zac said. ‘You see, when you realise that all animals are sentient, and they just want to live like we do, it seems rather, um, disgusting to murder them and eat their flesh.’
Luke grinned, slicing ham. ‘You don’t seem particularly fond of the cats, though,’ he said.
An orange cat sat on the granite benchtop watching them. His fat hindquarters spread out across the surface like a giant puddle of marmalade.
‘I’m not happy with these cats,’ agreed Zac.
‘Well, I like them,’ said Luke. ‘And I like their house a lot. You reckon you can figure out how to use the griller on that oven?’
Luke sliced more ham and some cheese while Zac grilled four slabs of bread. He decided that now was as good a time as any to find out more about himself.
‘Tell me what you know,’ he said.
‘I don’t think this is the right place to talk,’ said Zac.
Luke stabbed his knife into the wood. ‘Well, I’m not waiting any more, Zac. I thought we agreed.’
Zac met Luke’s eyes and then dropped his gaze to the floor. He raised his left foot and rested it against his right leg. He lowered it, and balanced on the other foot. Finally, he blew a huge sigh.
‘Well, firstly, I’m an elf. So there’s that,’ he said.
Luke left the knife where it was. He didn’t think he could trust himself with it right now.
‘Come on, Luke,’ continued Zac. ‘You know I’m not like you. You people are sooo slow. You’ve seen me run.’
‘So you can run fast.’
‘You’re a good fighter.’
‘And what I did with the mushrooms.’
Luke snorted. ‘So, you’re not a gardener or a cook. That doesn’t makes you an elf or a pixie or whatever. Oh my God, Zac, why would you even choose to be an elf if you were going to go all fairytale on me? Couldn’t you at least have been a vampire or something? They’re all the rage at the moment.’
‘You’re hilarious,’ said Zac. ‘Well, how did I open the gates at Dwight when we were about to crash the swamp rat right into them?’
‘You said the guards did it,’ said Luke, faltering. ‘To let the ambulance through.’
‘How did we leave the running track without Singh or anyone else seeing us? Why did the transit cops walk right past us on the train, and not see us at all?’ Zac pulled the bread out from under the grill.
‘Lucky?’ said Luke.
‘Magic,’ said Zac. ‘I have a little. Some elves have a lot. We can draw upon the forces of nature to change the way people see things. And we’re very fast.’
The orange cat stretched out along the benchtop, head on its paws, listening carefully.
‘There’s no such thing as elves,’ said Luke. ‘There are such things as psychiatrists, though. And we need to hook you up with one.’
Zac cocked his head to one side. ‘Black,’ he said.
Luke raised his head.
Zac leapt up onto the bench in one lithe bound, grabbed the knife from the chopping block, flung it across the room and then disappeared. Luke blinked and Zac stood on the opposite side of the large kitchen, holding the quivering knife.
The marmalade cat hissed, scrabbled fat feet on the granite, and took off.
Luke climbed onto a barstool. He needed to sit down.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘that changes things.’
June 30, 8.29 p.m.
Samantha tried to sit up, decided that was probably not going to work, and lay back down. Her head hurt so much that it felt like her brain was a lump of metal and a magnet beneath the floor was doing its very best to suck it out of her skull.
She opened her eyes.
‘You look like crap,’ said Birthday Jones.
‘What are you doing here?’ she said. ‘And, um, where is here?’
The ceiling above her was pitched to a point and painted in thick pink and lime stripes. The colours were a tad bright right now, and she closed her eyes again.
‘We just saved your arse,’ said Birthday Jones.
‘What was wrong with my arse?’ she asked, eyes still closed. ‘And who is we?’
She had a feeling that something bad had just happened to her, but exactly what, she was not sure. And right now she was thinking that maybe that was a good thing, because of her metal brain and the magnet and all.
‘Sam, this is Seraphina Woods,’ said Birthday.
Sam opened her eyes. A beautiful woman’s face appeared.
‘Call me Sera,’ said the woman, smiling down at her. ‘Hi.’
‘What’s going on?’ said Samantha.
She raised her head and managed to lean up on her elbow. Her stomach lurched with the movement. And suddenly everything flooded back – Boldo and Shofranka, the ninjas…
‘Tamas!’ she screamed, struggling to her feet.
The room spun, faded to white and she would have fallen had the woman not grabbed her.
‘Samantha, honey. You’re weak right now. Don’t panic,’ the woman said.
‘Where is Tamas?’ she managed, panting.
‘He’s out there,’ said Seraphina. ‘The paramedics are with him.’
‘Is he -’ Samantha couldn’t think it, let alone say it.
‘He’s going to be okay, thanks to you,’ said Seraphina.
‘I need to see him.’
‘You can’t go out there, Sam,’ said Birthday. ‘The Yakuza took off when we snatched you and the police arrived -’
‘But they’re still out there,’ said Seraphina. ‘And they’re Japanese mafia, Sam. They will take on the police if they believe they can capture you.’
What do the Japanese mafia want with me? thought Samantha, followed by, I have to sit down. Right at that moment her knees gave way.
‘Birthday, bring me that chair, would you,’ said Seraphina.
Eyes closed, Sam heard a chair being scraped towards her and she dropped into it, guided by the woman holding her. She put her head between her knees and tried not to vomit. The musky smell of Tamas’s blood saturating her T-shirt and jeans didn’t help with those efforts. But it was much more than that – she had never felt so incredibly weak and exhausted.
What is wrong with me? she wanted to know.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she groaned.
‘You performed a very powerful healing spell, Samantha White,’ said Seraphina. ‘And given that you’ve absolutely no training, you’re lucky to be alive.’
Oh great, thought Samantha, eyes on her sneakers. This must be some Roma witch who’s spun so much bull to the Gaje that she’s convinced herself it’s true. I need to get out of here. Is Tamas really going to be okay?
The image of blood pulsing from his throat caused a sob to rise to her mouth. She bit down on it. Did Boldo still have Shofranka? What if Lala had woken up and was frantic for them? Was Mirela okay? She needed to find them now, and Birthday Jones and this woman were not going to stop her.
The woman knelt in front of her, dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail. Her skin was fresh cream, flawless. Underneath a khaki trucker’s cap, her eyes glowed amber, multifaceted, golden. They emitted so much warmth and kindness that Samantha had to blink. Why did this stranger seem to give a damn about her?
‘Who are you?’ she said.
‘I work for Save the Children. We help street kids all over the world. Birthday Jones is my friend.’
‘Are you Gaje?’ asked Samantha, not because that mattered, only because she was trying to figure things out.
‘I’m not from Romania,’ said Sera.
‘Samantha, you’re being rude,’ said Birthday, folding his arms across his black T-shirt.
A khaki trucker’s cap hid his curls and Samantha suddenly did a double take. Sera was wearing the same outfit, right down to the cargos.
‘What are you, my private army?’ she said.
‘Um, kinda,’ said Sera.
‘You don’t look like a social worker,’ said Samantha.
‘Well, thank you,’ said Seraphina, with a wink.
Did she just wink? thought Samantha. I have to get out of here. She doesn’t have a clue how bad all this is. ‘I have to go back out there to them,’ she said.
‘Not going to happen,’ said Sera. She smiled sadly. ‘Best I can do is allow you to peek outside at what’s happening, but then we’ll have to go.’
‘Go?’ said Samantha.
‘Yes, honey. We have to get you out of Romania. Tonight.’
Okay, so she’s crazy, thought Samantha. At least we’ve established that.
‘Riiight,’ she said. ‘Okay, then.’
She gave Birthday a look which clearly said: what-the-hell-are-you-thinking-hanging-around-with-this-fruitcake?
She put on her most reasoning tone of voice. ‘Well, maybe I could just have a look at what’s going on out there. I am really worried about my friends, my family.’ And as soon as I get near the door I’m getting the hell out of here. Ninjas with killing stars, kidnapping cowboys and now some psycho social worker. Why the hell didn’t I stay in camp tonight, like Lala told me to?
‘Of course, honey,’ said Sera. ‘Just make sure you keep all parts of your body inside the Funhouse.’
Samantha took a better look around the room. The candy stripes from the ceiling continued jauntily down the walls, giving the effect of a striped circus tent, although, as far as she could tell, the walls looked solid. The floor was a giant checkerboard; its glossy black-and-white tiles looked as though they’d never been walked upon. Opposite them, against the wall, leaned a giant mirror in an elaborate gilded frame. The chair she was sitting on was heavily padded in deep red velvet. It was the only chair in the room. And other than a royal blue door with a glass doorknob, that was it. She had definitely never seen a place like this at any other carni.
Her heart began hammering at her breastbone. She turned to Birthday.
‘Are we still at the Carnivale?’
He stared at his shoes. Not good.
‘It’s just out there, Samantha,’ said Sera, nodding towards the blue door. ‘Take a look.’
She raced across the tiles and grabbed the door handle, pausing for just a moment. What if the ninjas were still there and they spotted her? There was nowhere to hide in here. She’d be cornered. But the need to know was too strong.
She hid her body behind the door and cracked it carefully, peering out into the night. She knew that with the bright lighting behind her inside this freaky room she’d be lit up as though on stage, but she had to see what was going on.
She could glimpse just a little from this angle. The gravel road of the carni met the front door of the Funhouse, and she spotted the food tent opposite; it looked like the same one she’d seen when the ninjas were chasing her. But now it seemed to be closed for the night. A couple of carnis walked by, smoking and talking; she could hear them grumbling about losing money.
It appeared as though this room was just a few metres down from the Ghost Train, right where she’d been standing when Tamas had been hit by the star.
But that can’t be right, she thought. I would definitely have noticed this place.
She could see strobing police lights against the night sky, but not the spot where Tamas had fallen. She needed to move further out the door to see what was going on.
‘Can we turn the lights off in here?’ she hissed, frustrated that she hadn’t thought of doing so earlier.
‘They can’t see you, Samantha,’ said Sera. ‘You can open the door as much as you like. Just don’t try to go out there.’
Samantha gave Sera a tight smile and turned back to the door, rolling her eyes. Yeah, like I’m gonna listen to the crazy woman. Still, she could see no light switch by the door, so she risked showing a little more of herself in order to see further down the street.
And there he was. Tamas! Her hand flew to her throat. He was on a stretcher, medics bending over him, and in a huddle behind him were Mirela and Luca, Hanzi and Shofranka. They looked exhausted and upset. A police car waited behind them, its lights flashing.
That was enough for her. The police had scared the ninjas off last time – well, with a little help from Gudada and his pistola – so she decided she’d take her chances. I’m not going to hide in here all night, she thought. She stepped out the door.
And found herself back in the red velvet chair.
‘What the hell just happened?’
‘Imperceptible spell,’ said Sera, now sitting cross-legged on the tiles.
Birthday Jones leaned against the candied wall, near the mirror. He rubbed a hand across his forehead and still would not meet Sam’s eyes.
‘Say what?’ Sam said, moving forward and standing over the woman, her fists clenched.
‘An imperceptible spell,’ said Sera.
While Samantha stared, incredulous, the woman pulled an emery board from her pocket. ‘It means that no one can see the Funhouse,’ she continued, filing her nails. ‘It also means that no one can go in or out of that door.’
Samantha grappled to stay patient with the lunatic. She tried for logic. ‘Well, how did we get in here then?’
Seraphina used her nailfile to point to the mirror.
Samantha closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She spoke quietly. ‘Listen, lady,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what kind of drugs you’re taking or what kind you should be taking, and I don’t know what you’ve done to my so-called friend over there…’ The volume pumped up with the last few words. ‘But I am getting the hell out of here.’
‘Sam -’ Birthday walked towards her, arm outstretched, his face miserable.
‘Don’t,’ she said, hands held out towards him like a stop sign.
Her heart ached at the realisation that he was not the person she thought he was. What was he doing not even trying to help her?
‘Birthday, it’s okay, let her go,’ said Sera.
‘Like he could stop me,’ said Samantha, marching back to the door, yanking on the crystal doorknob and heading out into the night.
Back on the velvet chair, she screamed and then burst into tears.
July 1, 1.30 p.m.
‘So, what else do you know?’ said Luke.
The toasted sandwich and orange juice had gone a long way towards making him feel normal again. Well, towards what he thought normal was supposed to feel like.
Georgia was still upstairs. He pulled the chocolate cake from the fridge. As confused as he was about everything – Zac, himself… hell, the whole world – his greatest wish at the moment was that Toad could see him right now.
‘Wait,’ he said, before Zac could speak. ‘You say you’re magic. Is there any way you could make Toad watch me eat this cake while he’s still sitting in Dwight?’
Zac studied his nails. ‘You’re not taking this very seriously, Luke,’ he said.
‘But I would seriously like Toad to watch me eat this cake in this house.’
‘You’re the psychopath, Luke. A lot of people will be looking for you right now.’
Luke left the cake on the bench and shut the door to the fridge. He leaned his back against it to have contact with something solid, real.
‘The psychopath,’ said Luke. ‘Not a psychopath. You said the psychopath.’
Zac said nothing, just met his eyes.
A grey cat, mean-faced and battle-scarred, limped – as though with arthritic knees – in an ungainly swagger into the kitchen. The small cat tried to leap onto a benchtop; failed. Instead, it propped against a cupboard, cleaning its face, as though nothing at all had happened.
‘So I’m the psychopath,’ Luke continued. ‘What does that mean, Zac? Am I gonna become, like, the new Hannibal Lecter?’
‘Not all psychopaths are serial killers, Luke.’
‘Well, that’s a relief. Because otherwise I’m a long way behind all the other psychopaths in my career so far.’
‘You’re still not taking this seriously,’ said Zac.
‘Well, you’re still speaking in tongues,’ said Luke.
Zac moved silently across the marble floor tiles and stopped in front of the little grey cat. He squatted. There was silence for a beat and suddenly the cat reared up on its hind legs, mouth open, teeth bared, hissing. Doubled now in size, the fur on its back and tail standing bolt upright, it made a lightning-fast vicious swipe for Zac’s face. Zac rocked backwards in a move that would have put anyone else on their arse. The cat missed. Zac hissed. And the little grey warrior limped painfully out of the kitchen.
‘I think these cats are spies,’ said Zac.
‘Spies,’ said Luke.
They stared at each other.
Zac looked away first.
Luke sighed deeply. ‘Are we gonna talk properly, Nguyen, or do you wanna tell me more about the 007 cats?’
Zac looked away from Luke for a moment, and then stood. ‘More than five thousand years ago,’ he said, ‘there was a very brief time in history when peace reigned between animals, mortals and immortals.’
Luke picked up an apple and began tossing it. ‘Were you there?’ he said.
Zac gave him a sour look.
‘What?’ said Luke. ‘Why is that so stupid? I mean, you’re the one who’s supposed to be a magic elf, and I’m supposed to just know that you’re not thousands of years old? Aren’t elves supposed to be immortal?’
‘Well, we’re not mortal,’ said Zac. ‘And we can live for thousands of years. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t die and that we can’t be killed.’
Luke’s scalp itched, as it always did when something didn’t make sense. He’d always figured it was his brain’s bullcrap detector, and right now it was in overdrive. But Zac really believed what he was saying, and he had thrown a knife and caught it before it hit the wall. Maybe Zac wasn’t actually an elf – Luke definitely wasn’t living life in the Disney channel – but he wasn’t the slightest bit ordinary, either.
‘Okay,’ he said, scratching his head. ‘So you weren’t there five thousand years ago in that peaceful hippy time, but how old are you?’ He braced himself. He didn’t know how he was going to speak to Zac again if he learned that he was ninety, or three hundred and eight.
‘I’m fifteen,’ said Zac.
‘For real?’ said Luke.
‘For real. I guess that’s why they assigned me to you. One, they thought we could relate; two, they wouldn’t have to tell me anything because I’m pretty much considered an infant.’
‘But why wouldn’t they want you to know what’s going on?’ said Luke.
‘They probably figured I’d freak out,’ said Zac.
Luke sighed. ‘Well, that’s very helpful. So, five thousand years ago there was this big love fest, and everything was happy families. Next.’
‘And then there was this terrible disturbance,’ said Zac. ‘This awful disruption that spread across the whole world.’
‘Like an earthquake?’ said Luke.
‘More a poisonous gas leak,’ said Zac. ‘But the poison was like a toxic emotion, a volcano of hate. All this rage and fear suddenly erupted into the atmosphere. The elves who were alive back then reckon they could see and smell it – rotten, grey-yellow filth oozing out from the soil, bubbling up from the oceans, bursting into the air as a putrid gas. Trees died. Climates changed. Wars began. People fought and killed so that they could own more than they could ever use. Some would watch their neighbours – even their family members – starve, just so that they could have more and more. Hoarding it, keeping it for themselves.
‘Some of the worst of these people rose to the highest ranks in governments around the world. Or to huge positions of power. Millions starved. Animals were slaughtered for the hell of it. For fun. And the most evil of all things happened. For the first time ever in history, people began to torture other creatures – making others suffer just to give themselves some kind of sick pleasure.’
Luke’s mind was filled with images of people who fitted that bill. Officer Holt, Zecko Sevic and Foster Daddy Dick led the parade. He gave a bitter smile.
Zac walked over to the window facing the ocean. White rain slashed down from the sky, hurling itself at the glass, each sliver sacrificing itself in its efforts to break through, to reclaim nature.
‘It was called Disharmony,’ Zac said. ‘But it wasn’t just a division between mortals and animals. The immortals were also affected. Many witches and warlocks became black overnight. Orcs – ordinarily dumb as rocks – chose the dark, as did goblins, the succubi…’
‘But not the elves,’ said Luke.
‘No, not the elves,’ agreed Zac. ‘Nor the vast majority of mortals. But the tiny number of the worst of the worst grew. This small group of mortals and immortals seemed to have no feelings at all for others, no empathy, no remorse; they made their way through life with one aim only: to please themselves, regardless of what it cost anyone else.’
‘Psychopaths,’ said Luke.
‘So, basically, I’m the bad guy,’ said Luke.
He wanted to feel something right now, but mostly he wanted to feel nothing, like usual. Unfortunately, he was somewhere in between. And what that felt like was uncomfortable, kind of itchy.
‘Well, sort of,’ said Zac. ‘But you see, you’re not just a psychopath.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Luke. ‘I’m the psychopath. Like the big daddy of all psychopaths.’
‘No, idiot,’ said Zac. ‘But you are part of the Telling.’
‘It’s a prophecy. All immortals are taught the basics of it before they can even fly.’
‘You can fly?’ said Luke.
‘The Telling,’ Zac continued, ‘decrees that one day three siblings will be born who can rid the world of Disharmony forever.’
‘Make everything all happy-happy again?’
‘Yep. Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that, of course,’ said Zac.
‘Well, what else do I need to know?’
‘I don’t know the whole prophecy. There’s a saying that if you don’t know something about the Telling, then you’re not yet meant to know that part of it.’
‘That makes no sense at all,’ said Luke. ‘I’m finding this is a theme with you, Nguyen. Anyway, you said that one of the siblings is a psychopath?’
‘And my sister?’ Luke really wanted to know more about his sister, and…
‘Wait – did you say three siblings?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Zac. ‘You’re the psychopath. I’m betting that your twin sister is the empath. It’s a symmetry thing. It makes sense. Nature loves symmetry.’
‘What’s an empath?’ said Luke.
‘Um, someone, like, not you,’ said Zac.
Okaaay. ‘And what’s the third?’ said Luke, his mouth dry.
‘The third would be your brother,’ said Zac. ‘We know he’s a boy. He’s a year younger than you. And he’s a genius.’
Zac moved closer to Luke, reached a hand out towards him, then dropped it again.
‘And your mother died giving birth to him.’
‘And I thought girls were supposed to talk a lot.’
Luke raised an eyebrow and turned. Zac hissed quietly. Rich-punk-bad-girl Georgia stood in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the jamb, arms folded. This morning she was even more Goth than yesterday. A long-sleeved black fitted T-shirt, black micro-mini skirt, black leggings, bare feet, black toenails. It seemed she hadn’t gotten around to the black lipstick yet, but she’d definitely found the eyeliner.
For some reason Luke felt mildly guilty. As though he’d been caught talking about her. He wished his conversation with Zac had been about something so simple.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Great house.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ She dropped her arms and sighed. ‘And do I really live here? We’ve done this before.’
‘You want us to go now?’ he said.
‘Ah, no,’ she said. ‘You just got here. You’ve done nothing remotely entertaining, and I’m terribly bored. It’s raining, I’m alone, and I thought you two might be something I could play with.’
‘Play with?’ said Luke.
This chick was an accident waiting to happen. The kind you read about on the web, after she’d been missing for twenty-four hours. She’d just invited two strangers into her home, and she wanted to play. They could have been anyone. Well, actually, they were a psychopath and an immortal, he reminded himself, so she hadn’t exactly made good choices. She was your typical spoiled teenager, looking to shock the oldies, to find an experience that money couldn’t buy. Maybe she’d found it.
‘Yeah,’ Georgia said. ‘Aren’t you two supposed to be villains? Don’t you want to go and do something illegal?’
‘Actually,’ said Luke. ‘I just want to go shopping for some new clothes.’
‘Yeah,’ said Zac. ‘So we’ll be leaving now.’
‘Thanks for everything, Georgia,’ said Luke.
Georgia walked over and opened a kitchen drawer, then she turned and began digging with a fork into the cake.
‘This is great,’ she said, chocolate on her lips. ‘You guys haven’t had any.’
‘We’re good,’ said Zac.
‘Well, you don’t need to leave right now, anyway,’ she said, grabbing another forkful of cake. ‘There are heaps of clothes upstairs – they’re my brothers’. They’ll never know they’re missing. They won’t want them by the time they get back anyway.’
‘Where are they?’ said Luke.
‘Why aren’t you at school?’ he said.
‘Well, I am,’ said Georgia. ‘I’m tucked away nicely at boarding school. Out of harm’s way. That’s what my parents think.’
‘Why didn’t the school tell your parents you’re missing?’ said Zac, arms folded.
‘Because my parents wrote them a lovely letter explaining that I’ll be away with them for the winter.’
‘But you wrote it?’ said Luke.
Georgia smiled widely.
‘Now what’ll it be?’ she said. ‘Cake first or clothes? You don’t want to go outside today. It’s pouring. Plus, I’ve got the latest Halo game.’
Georgia led them up the stairs to the third floor.
‘Those are my brothers’ rooms,’ she said, pointing to two closed doors. ‘Help yourselves.’ She kept walking, pushing open a door that was part of a double set. Luke glimpsed Elizabeth Bay through the opening. That had to be one hell of a bedroom, he thought.
‘This is mine,’ she said. ‘Stay out.’ She stepped in and closed the door. But before they could even look at one another, the door reopened.
‘Oh,’ she said, black pigtails swinging with her sudden reappearance. ‘That door -’ she pointed a black fingernail at the far end of the corridor, ‘- is off-limits. That’s my older brother’s room. He’s away at school too, but he’s kinda – ah, funny about people touching his stuff. So stay out of there. Otherwise, have fun. I’m going to have a nap. I find sleeping when it’s dark such a waste of the night. Later.’
She pulled her door closed again.
‘She’s crazy,’ said Luke. ‘She just said she wanted to play. We could take off with anything.’
‘I think we should go,’ said Zac. ‘I don’t trust her. Who lets strangers walk around their house while they sleep?’
‘Well, I think she’s right,’ said Luke. ‘It’s freezing out there. And I’m in no hurry to take off. I mean, it’s best that we lay low a while. I know we’re not going to be broadcast on Australia’s Most Wanted, but it can’t hurt to stay off the streets for a couple of days.’
‘A couple of days!’ said Zac. ‘I thought you wanted to find your sister?’
‘Well, I’m sure Georgia’s got a great online set-up. I was going to head to the library to do some searching, but I bet I can get everything I need right here.’
‘I think we should go back to my house,’ said Zac. ‘They could know more about where your sister is. What can you find online?’
‘You’d be surprised what I can find online, Zacster,’ said Luke. ‘You take that room, I’ll take this one. See if you can find some clothes to fit your skinny arse.’
Luke emerged from the bedroom wearing the coolest jeans he’d ever seen, brand new Adidas sneakers and a badass hoodie. Zac was waiting impatiently for him outside the door, dressed in similar gear.
‘Not bad,’ said Luke.
‘Can we get on with it?’ said Zac.
‘I wonder where the computers are.’ Luke moved across the carpeted hallway and tried the door next to the off-limits room. He pushed it open.
‘So cool,’ he said. ‘You have to check this out.’
They stepped into a study wrapped floor to ceiling with bookshelves. Hundreds of books filled three walls of shelves, with a ladder waiting nearby to take the happy reader right to the top of the stack if there wasn’t enough available within reach.
But it was the fourth wall that made Luke hold his breath. Five computers: the latest Apples, all widescreen, two touchscreen, and all of them in sleep-mode, blinking quietly, waiting for him to wake them. Who needed books? So far, there was nothing he had ever wanted that he hadn’t been able to access online.
‘Let’s get to work,’ he said to Zac, cracking his fingers.
‘What about Georgia?’ said Zac.
‘What about her? If she has a problem with us using this stuff, she’ll tell us.’
Luke took a seat and randomly stabbed his fingers into the two keyboards closest to him. The machines whirred efficiently, flashing into life.
Zac plonked down next to him, scowling at the two Siamese cats who’d just sashayed through the door.
‘I don’t like it here,’ he said.
‘Yeah? Well, that’s getting old,’ said Luke, typing rapidly.
Within seconds he was negotiating the Births, Deaths and Marriages website. Using one of the hundreds of false IP addresses he’d created before being locked up, he registered as a random civilian.
He clicked Next, Next, Next, as screens popped up, informing him about privacy policies, security information and blah, blah, blah. Finally, he arrived at a screen he was happy with.
Enter a name and date range, the website invited, cursor blinking.
M-o-r-g-a-n M-o-r-e-a-u, he typed. 1947-1997. That should do it, he thought. That made his mother any age up to fifty when she died. If his brother was born in 1997 he would be fourteen now. The thought of having a younger brother sent a teensy thrill flashing through his stomach, surprising him. He hit Enter.
The website shot up a warning screen.
You cannot search for any person born after 1909 due to privacy considerations.
Luke snorted in frustration and read on to learn that accompanied by three forms of identification, he could personally attend the registry office, and then they would assist him with yada yada yada.
I don’t think so.
He began typing furiously, navigating out of the program and into the one-zero world he loved so much. The world of logic, of cold, clever code, where emotion was irrelevant, irrational, completely useless. Perfect.
This was his favourite place. And it loved him right back.
‘Where did you learn how to do that?’ said Zac, watching reams of digits scroll the screen before them.
Luke had forgotten Zac was even there.
‘Foster parents three,’ he said, tabbing, scrolling, typing. ‘They liked the welfare cheques, but not me so much. She worked for Telstra, though, and she had unlimited download access. So they left me alone with the laptop. They liked it when I was quiet.’
‘But how did you learn to do that?’ said Zac.
Luke pulled himself from the moment to consider his flying fingers. Sometimes he wondered how he could do what he did online. Most often, though, he just did what he did and thought about that.
‘Um, I just kind of understand it,’ he said.
He couldn’t explain that the numbers made beautiful patterns for him, artwork that he loved to explore and manipulate. And that the security that people set up to try to encrypt their data, lock down their sites, restrict access, were irresistible puzzles to him – challenges that he became obsessed with until he had broken through.
‘And I met some people online,’ he added, aware of Zac gaping at the screen. ‘They kinda showed me stuff too.’
Those faceless hackers had been his only real friends, but they stayed that way only when they stuck to speaking about code. Once they began posting about birthdays and ballgames and current affairs, he blocked their mail. If they were smart enough to break back through his lockout, he resumed the friendship, but only on the proviso that they kept their gossip for their girlfriends.
He’d moved in with foster family number three at age ten. By eleven, he was mentoring the hackers who’d taught him the basics.
‘Ah, here we are,’ he said. ‘Their admin area. That’s much more helpful.’
He again typed his mother’s name, linking it with the name she so kindly gave him at birth – Lucifer Black Moreau. A hyperlink to his birth certificate popped up immediately. He had that already. He wanted to know the names of his siblings. He set up a search for all children registered to his mother. The results were almost instantaneous.
‘Oh my God,’ said Zac, watching closely.
Eight hyperlinks had popped up.
Luke flopped back in his chair. He had eight siblings? He’d always been alone. Eight?
‘There,’ said Zac, pointing. ‘That would be her: born 1996. The same year as us.’
Slightly dazed, Luke clicked on the link.
‘Samantha White Moreau,’ read Zac, now peering over his shoulder. ‘The Empath.’ He spoke the words with awe.
Luke quickly scanned the dates within the other links.
‘Are you sure you got your fairytale right, Nguyen?’ he said. ‘There isn’t a link for 1997, the year the so-called Genius was supposed to have been born.’
‘It’s not a fairytale,’ said Zac, frowning. ‘I don’t know what it means that he’s not listed there. Maybe he wasn’t born in Australia. Your mother could travel anywhere she wanted, you know. I have no idea why she used a mortal hospital to give birth to any of you in the first place. I mean, she was a witch.’
Luke spun his desk chair around, aiming to smack straight into Zac and send him flying. Instead, with one backwards bound, Zac was already on the other side of the room. Where he stood, palms out.
‘What?’ Zac said.
‘My mother is a WITCH?!’ Luke shouted.
Zac coloured. ‘Oh, didn’t I mention that before? I just thought you knew. I mean, everyone knows that Morgan Moreau was a very powerful witch.’
Luke buried his face in his hands and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath.
‘Zac?’ he said, through his fingers.
‘Yes, Luke?’ Zac was sounding extra polite.
Luke raised his head.
‘Would you mind, in future, not presuming that I know anything about anything that you couldn’t find in an encyclopaedia?’
‘Witches and elves are in the encyclopaedia.’
‘Okay then. How about this?’ said Luke, speaking super-slowly. ‘Any pieces of information that you think an ordinary mortal might not be familiar with, would you mind letting me know about it? Especially if it has to do with my family!’
‘’kay,’ said Zac. He cleared his throat. ‘Um, but Luke…’
‘You’re not an ordinary mortal.’
‘Thank you, Zac. I think I’m beginning to get that.’
Luke turned back to the screen. The world in there made a lot more sense to him. Well, it used to. He stared at the hyperlinks.
‘Hello, brothers and sisters,’ he said, and began clicking the links.
July 1, 7.58 a.m.
Samantha hunched in a booth in the British Airways business club lounge with her knees up on the seat, a resting place for her chin. She half sat on her Ride it like you stole it bag, her only luggage, worried someone would take it if she fell asleep. She was bone tired. Beyond exhausted. She felt she’d aged ten years in the past ten hours. But she knew there was no way she could fall asleep with so much going on inside her head.
Besides, she had to board her flight at 0830 hours.
Samantha had never told the time by the 24-hour clock before. She’d never been in a club lounge. She’d never been to an airport. And she’d definitely never been on a plane.
A cheery attendant bustled past her table, removed her empty apple juice glass, and gave the table a quick wipe. The woman was Gaje – cleaning up after her! The attendant had been past five times already in the few hours Samantha had been here, and still she could not comprehend it. She dropped her feet to the floor, worried she’d be in trouble for having them up there.
‘Thank you,’ she said to the woman.
The woman smiled and moved her trolley to the next table.
Samantha tried for a return smile, but didn’t make it. Right now, she doubted she’d ever smile again.
She did another sweep of her surroundings. She’d never seen a place so plush, so expensive, so airless. So completely alien to her life at home. She had to keep forcing herself to unwrinkle her nose. Everything smelled terrible! A disinfected, chemical fog that set her already tear-swollen eyes to watering again. She had an awful headache. Right now she felt that one gulp of camp air – the mountain breeze, Nuri’s black coffee, horse – would blow the pain right away. She sighed and drew her knees closer. When would she get to smell those things again?
Over the past few hours, especially since sunrise, she’d noticed a change in the type of passengers strolling past the wall of glossy magazines she’d parked herself behind. At first she’d seen tired couples with silver hair and sensible shoes, and young families bundling along with impeccably dressed, heavy-eyed children. But since six a.m., men and women marched in as singles, wearing suits and towing behind them black bags.
She wondered whether they could be some kind of army. They all smelled the same, dressed the same and constantly watched their watches. She focused on them – a little paranoid after everything Sera had told her – and wondered if perhaps they were some sort of secret service, here to monitor her. At first she figured that some of them were quite mad as they murmured quietly into thin air, until she noticed little earpieces. Her anxiety increased. She’d seen movies with spies wearing those.
She found only one difference between them – attached to most of their identical, expensive-looking wheelie bags was a little charm: a yellow ribbon wrapped around a handle, a glittering star clipped to another, a plastic green frog lolling about on a zipper. She figured these must be amulets that had been blessed for luck.
Her stomach grumbled; whether it was with grief or hunger, she was beyond caring. Although Seraphina had told her repeatedly that she could eat anything she wanted in the lounge – for free! – she’d had nothing but juice. Mostly because the juice bar was just to the right of the magazine wall and she’d watched several people pour glasses for themselves. She figured she could do that without breaking something, bursting into tears, or setting off an alarm.
She had passed the food bar on her beeline to the corner booth. Her senses already completely dazzled by the lights of the airport shops, she’d stolen just a quick glance at the food laid out in cabinets of stainless steel and glass. Other than fruit and bread rolls, she hadn’t recognised anything there, and nothing smelled real. Not even the apples.
Once she’d sat down, she’d moved again only three times. Twice for juice and once for the toilet.
The toilet experience had threatened to bring the tears back.
Everything was so clean it almost stung. She’d tiptoed into the shiny, empty room, shocked by all the reflections of herself. She turned away from the wall of vanities but met herself again, sneakers to curls, in a full-length mirror.
And for a second – in the most opulent toilet she could imagine – she saw herself as the Gaje must. She wore her favourite sneakers – pink faux-Converse. She noticed holes that she’d never before cared about, and one of the laces had freed itself from the plastic tip on the end that had held it together. It was fuzzed up like a stringy afro, and had apparently gone about gathering up burrs and grass seeds for extra adornment.
The waistband of her black faded jeans didn’t quite meet the hem of her aqua T-shirt, and she tugged it downwards to try to cover her flat, brown stomach. It snapped back, settling just above her hips, and for a moment she saw the now-clean T-shirt as it had been before Sera had hovered her hands over it in the Funhouse: covered in Tamas’s blood.
She pressed her fingers into her eyes to try to blur the sudden vision. It wasn’t until she’d been in the rental car that she’d realised her shirt was spotless and the stiffness of Tamas’s dried blood on her jeans had vanished.
Hating the sight of the shirt, she zipped up the black jacket Sera had given her. It smelled like leather, so she assumed it was, and right then she was glad she had it. The air in the airport seemed to be skin-temperature, but she felt she’d break out in shivers at any moment.
She studied her face in the mirror. There was no sign of the bruising from the skirmishes in Pantelimon – another apparent ‘gift’ from Sera – but her green eyes accused her from behind tear-swollen, red lids. Why are you doing this to me? they asked. She shrugged. She had no answers. She’d untied the golden cord from around her forehead. Her curls flopped into her eyes, but she thought she now looked maybe a smidge more like some of the other travellers she’d seen so far.
On the toilet, she’d pulled her tarot deck from her bag and wrapped the cord back around it, shoving the shiny box back inside before the deck made her cry again. It was the cards that had caused her all this trouble.
Back in her booth, Samantha chewed her thumbnail. What if it doesn’t work? she asked herself for the millionth time.
On a plastic seat just inside the glass doors of the airport, Seraphina had given her a few more items. The first was a wallet containing two boarding passes.
Sam now studied the pass. Surely they would have called her flight by now? What if she’d missed it? She couldn’t imagine how that could be the case – she’d memorised the flight number so many times it was on constant replay in her head. BA887. British Airways, Business Class, to Heathrow airport, London. A ninety-minute trip that would take her countries away from all her friends and family. And Tamas.
But it was the next part of the journey that really made her heart flutter. She’d been trying not to think about it. After a three-hour wait in London, she’d board a Qantas flight for Sydney, Australia. And she’d be in the sky for twenty-seven hours.
That wasn’t just countries. That was a universe away.
The only other thing in the wallet was a ticket of another type. Hours ago, she’d sat staring at it, her backside numb on the plastic seat just inside the airport doors.
‘Um, what’s this?’ she’d asked Sera, her voice thick. She hiccuped. She’d stopped crying half an hour or so before, but her body hadn’t seemed to have caught up with the fact.
‘That’s your passport,’ said Sera, matter-of-factly. ‘It’s also your visa, and any other travel document you’re asked to produce.’
‘Um, no, it’s not,’ said Samantha.
‘Yes, it is,’ said Sera.
Samantha looked at her, and then back at the small piece of paper in her hand. She blinked. Hiccuped again.
‘It’s a ticket,’ she said finally, ‘to ride the dodgem cars at the Carnivale.’
‘Is it?’ said Sera.
‘It is,’ said Samantha.
‘Well, maybe you think so, pretty one,’ said Sera. ‘But to everyone else it will look exactly like your passport documents or your visa or anything else it needs to look like when asked.’
Samantha had stared at the floor. She could not possibly be any more miserable and confused. Every brain cell screamed, ‘Not possible!’ But she’d been shown things tonight that made her believe that the ticket probably would do just as Sera said. It didn’t make her feel any better, though.
‘What if I lose it?’ she’d said.
‘I shouldn’t do that if I were you, honey,’ said Sera.
Sera had then given her a story to tell in case anyone asked why she was travelling alone to Australia.
‘But you won’t need the story,’ Sera had said. ‘Whoever inspects your travel documents will merely feel that they’re having a particularly great day, and that you are a most bewitching fifteen-year-old – as indeed you are – and they will wave you on through. You just have to be cool and follow the signs.’
‘The signs at the airport?’ Samantha had said.
‘Yeah,’ said Sera. ‘Those too.’
What Seraphina had told her about the Admit One ticket was true. A woman in a uniform in the queue for Departures had asked to check her paperwork, beamed at her, and ushered her through to another lane, cordoned off by red rope, with virtually no one in it. And it had been like that all the way through to the lounge. So she knew that some of what Sera had said was true. But she actually didn’t want to believe any of the other stuff Sera had told her.
From the back seat of the car on the way to the airport, she hadn’t been able to see Birthday’s face as they both listened to what Sera told her. Sam would have loved to have seen whether his had registered the same shock and surprise as hers, but in some ways she was glad she hadn’t had the chance. Her heart couldn’t take any more shrapnel at the moment, and she feared that learning that Birthday had known all this stuff about her for years, without telling her, would be a betrayal too hard to bear.
Her thoughts were startled back to the lounge when the PA piped up.
‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We would like to advise that Flight BA887 is now ready for boarding at Gate number eight. Would all passengers departing for London on BA887 please make your way to Gate Eight for immediate departure.’
The apple juice soured in Samantha’s stomach and she wished she had time for another trip to the toilet. She grabbed her bag and hurried towards Gate Eight. Towards London. Towards Sydney. Towards the twin brother she never knew she had but could now feel, just as she always had felt him without knowing what it was.
Inside her chest, something clawed mercilessly at her heart, shredding it even further. She thought maybe she could taste blood at the back of her throat.
July 1, 4.47 p.m.
‘Now what are you doing?’ said Zac. He pulled his desk chair close to Luke’s computer and watched, mesmerised, as Luke’s fingers blurred over the keyboard.
‘Hunting,’ said Luke.
‘For the empath or the genius?’ said Zac.
‘Yep and yep,’ said Luke. ‘But also anything else I can get on Morgan Moreau or any of these other names we just pulled. Now move over.’
Zac slid his chair backwards and Luke rolled over to the next computer.
‘How are you going to find them?’
‘I’m hacking into a few databases,’ said Luke. ‘The Department of Community Services, the AFP and Interpol.’
‘This is how you got locked up, isn’t it?’ said Zac.
‘Well, it helped,’ said Luke. ‘But I figured out what I did wrong last time.’
He skated his chair back to the other computer, typing furiously again. ‘It’s all about timing. I’ll dip in and out too fast for them to catch me.’
‘So I don’t need to prepare to get you out of here when the Feds come and bust in the door?’
‘Nope,’ said Luke, eyes glued to the screen. ‘I’ve never needed anyone to get me out of anything. Besides, this time I’m using two cloaking sites before launching simultaneous dictionary, brute force and pre-computation attacks on their networks.’
‘Have you ever heard anyone speaking Elvish?’ said Zac.
Luke kept typing.
‘You’d probably understand about as much of it as I understood what you just said,’ Zac continued.
‘It’s simple,’ said Luke, sliding back to the other screen. ‘I’m hiding within a web of thousands of people across the world to prevent anyone learning of my physical location, and I’ve launched multiple-platform software weaponry that sniffs out and cracks the encrypted passwords I need.’
‘Yep, that sounds simple,’ said Zac.
Luke grinned. ‘But I might not be able to chat for a while now,’ he said. ‘I’m going in.’
‘Going in?’ said Zac.
‘I’m just going to be concentrating for a while. I might not answer when you speak to me – I sort of zone out a bit.’
Luke tuned out to the sounds around him and unfocused his eyes. Instinctively, his fingers continued to seek and find the keys he needed. The numbers on the screen became maps and pathways. The pathways transformed into three-dimensional streets and laneways. A pulsing light scudded down an alleyway ahead of him. He dived in and followed it.
JULY 1, 8.14 P.M.
Although he was starving, fully dressed – shoes and all – and not remotely tired, Luke couldn’t make himself leave the bed.
Zac’s knocking and calling from outside the locked door made no difference.
It wasn’t the plush pillows and the super-soft bedding that kept him there, even though he’d never experienced anything nearly so comfortable. And it wasn’t the mesmerising view of the boats through the rain-smudged windows.
It was what buzzed about his head that kept him from getting up – information about who he was, why he was, and who had planned for him to turn out like this.
Morgan Moreau. Mother.
Welfare had a lot to say about her. Nothing nice. They had a record of eight children she’d given birth to over a fifteen-year span. She’d raised none of them. And two hadn’t even made it out of nappies. The Feds had a detailed file – they’d begun it after baby number three had died under suspicious circumstances. They’d questioned her, even detained her following the drowning death of baby number four, but there was never any hard evidence that she’d actually physically harmed her children.
Welfare didn’t care about the evidence. After finding her next two children malnourished and neglected, they’d made them state wards until the age of eighteen, finding her unfit to parent ever again.
Luke noticed that the data trail on his mother had then been dormant for a couple of years until a pre-set alarm had been activated on a computer in a Sydney hospital, prompting the nurse on duty to call authorities. Morgan Moreau had been admitted to the maternity unit. And she’d just given birth to twins.
Welfare sent the district supervisor and two case workers, accompanied by a police officer from the local area command.
The Feds sent an agent, Fairlie Merryweather.
There’d apparently been a complication during the birth and the obstetrician on-call had insisted that no one have access to the patients until he gave the all-clear. But by the time he’d done that, Morgan Moreau and her babies, a boy and a girl, were nowhere to be found.
Luke had read Merryweather’s report. It had been particularly scathing of the hospital’s lack of cooperation with authorities. The obstetrician, and the nurse who’d called in the alarm, had both been transferred from the hospital. Given her reports to the AFP, Fairlie Merryweather had apparently searched the country for the trio, but the trail in Australia went cold.
But Luke’s tracking software found it. Interpol had picked up the case. He learned that Interpol had logged the last known sighting of Morgan Moreau in Geneva, Switzerland. It was one year later, June 1997, and she’d been in the state’s largest hospital, giving birth.
He found the birth certificate – Jake Grey Moreau.
Next, he found the death certificate for his mother, Morgan Moreau, signed off by her midwife, Jamala Creole.
He read Fairlie Merryweather’s Interpol report about his mother’s death. Merryweather had actually travelled from Australia to Switzerland and had interviewed nursing staff, the on-call doctors and Jamala Creole. Morgan Moreau is deceased, the agent had coldly concluded in her report. There was no mention of Jake, or the whereabouts of his twin.
But Luke had the names of his three other siblings. They were in Australia. There were no fathers listed for any of them. Samantha White Moreau, his twin sister – the empath; Jake Grey Moreau, his younger brother – the supposed genius; and three older siblings, all born in Australia: Kyle Green Moreau, Daniel Brown Moreau and Liza Blue Moreau.
What was with the ridiculous colour thing?
He’d found the Welfare files on Daniel Brown and Liza Blue. After being removed as babies from his mother they’d both apparently been adopted into happy families. Their case files were minuscule, with brief yearly notations about their progress until they turned eighteen, and then their files had been closed. His own Welfare file, well, that was not so thin. He’d sent everything to his online storage files – maybe he’d go back to it one day, but the parts he’d seen were not exactly happy reading. Besides, he’d lived it, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go over his memories so soon.
Luke pulled the quilt up to his chin, freezing on the inside. He supposed he could track down Liza and Daniel, but they probably wouldn’t want anything to do with their old life, especially if they knew anything about their mother: the witch and child killer.
And she dumped me like trash, he thought.
He pulled the quilt up over his head, shivering.
JULY 1, 9.03 P.M.
‘Get up, already! It’s night-time!’
Luke peeled the covers back from his face. Although his eyes had been closed, he was wide awake and he was still freezing.
Georgia stood in the doorway.
‘Why, do you want us out of here?’ said Luke.
‘No, dummy,’ said Georgia. ‘I want you to eat. I’ve been cooking since seven.’
‘What time is it?’ said Luke.
‘Nine,’ said Georgia. ‘At night.’
‘I’m starving,’ said Luke.
‘Well, of course you are,’ she said.
‘What have you been making that takes two hours to cook?’
‘Why don’t you come and find out, instead of just lying there interrogating me?’
Georgia left the room and Luke climbed out of bed. The rain had really kicked in again, battering at the windows and causing the boats to bob and bounce about on the bay. He realised how lucky they’d been to find Georgia; it would have absolutely sucked to be sleeping outdoors tonight. He wondered where Zac was, but, more importantly, he wondered about the food. He really was ravenously hungry.
After visiting the bathroom, he stepped into the hallway, and… yep, he should have known.
‘Why do you do that?’ he said to Zac, who was squatting by his door.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Zac. ‘Why don’t we get out of here now? We can go to my house. My brother, Anthony, wrote a thesis on the Telling for his post-doctoral degree. He could give us a lot more information.’
Luke shook his head. He wanted to say: One, why didn’t you tell me this before? And two, are you for real: elves study prophecies that human beings have never heard about?
Instead, he said, ‘I am so hungry.’
‘Me too,’ said Zac.
They made their way downstairs, Luke’s face brightening with every step. He didn’t notice that Zac’s became more morose. All his senses were acutely focused on the kitchen. The smell was absolutely amazing.
‘Roast lamb,’ said Georgia as they rounded the entrance to the kitchen.
Glowing flames spattered and sparkled merrily in a modern gas fireplace set into the wall closest to the ocean. The whole kitchen radiated warmth and comfort.
‘I didn’t see a fireplace there last night,’ said Luke, rushing over to it and warming his hands.
‘I forgot to turn it on,’ said Georgia.
‘Roasted potatoes and pumpkin and buttered corn on the cob,’ said Georgia, pointing to the dishes that sprawled across the table. ‘I’ve made heaps too much gravy, that’s cheese bread and it’s freshly made, and I found a jar of a secret-family-recipe mint jelly. Oh, and I’ve made butterscotch pudding with banana custard for dessert.’
Luke grinned. ‘You don’t really look domestic.’
‘Boarding school,’ she said. ‘Zac, could you bring the lamb over? It’s just resting there by the oven.’
‘No,’ said Zac.
‘Whoops,’ said Georgia, smiling, with a hand on her hip. ‘I forgot. You’re vegan. Oh well, you can still eat the vegetables.’
‘Not when they’re covered in butter,’ said Zac.
‘Well at least you can eat the bread. It’s still warm.’
‘Pass,’ said Zac. ‘It’s cheese bread. Vegans don’t eat any animal products.’
Georgia laughed. ‘No wonder you’re so skinny,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing in the whole world you can eat.’
‘I’ll have a banana,’ said Zac.
‘Except that I used them all for the custard,’ said Georgia, grinning. ‘But it’s great custard.’
‘Made with milk,’ said Zac.
‘Of course! How else do you make custard?’
Zac sighed. ‘Enjoy your murdered baby sheep,’ he said, stalking from the kitchen.
‘He’s a weird one,’ shrugged Georgia, scraping a chair out from the table.
‘You know, he really is,’ said Luke, carrying the roasting tray over, dodging the cats twirling and twisting about Georgia’s chair legs.
He grabbed a plate and piled it super-high.
Outside, the wind howled.
July 1, 10.00 a.m.
In Terminal Five of Heathrow Airport, Samantha White cleared the covered walkway for the British Airways flight, and froze, wild-eyed and panicked. A sea of people frothed and boiled around her. She stood stock-still in the middle of it, drowning. She had never seen so many people, so many signs, so many moving walkways in all directions. The worst thing was she had never felt so many emotions, all undercover in some hideously huge building. They darted, seeped, echoed and flung themselves at her from every direction. She thought she might vomit.
A motorised cart driven by a man in a grey uniform whizzed past her and she spun, tracking it with her eyes. But now she’d turned herself around, and she didn’t even recognise where she’d come from.
She read English well and spoke it clearly, as did all the gypsies in her camp. English-speaking tourists always had money to spend or to steal and it paid to be able to communicate well with them. And she’d rote-learned that she was supposed to make her way to Terminal Three and find the Qantas Club so that she could wait out the hours until her next flight. In Romania, that waiting time had seemed like it would take forever. But right now, she had palpitations – would she get to where she needed to be on time?
There were supposed to be a few options to make her way there – a free shuttle bus, an underground train, or else a terribly long walk for the very bored. Problem was, she couldn’t see a sign for any of these selections; everything had blurred together into one horrible, colourful, nauseous mess. She knew she had three hours before she had to fly again, but she figured it was going to take her at least that long to move from this spot.
I am so lost, she told herself.
‘If you don’t mind me saying, miss, you look very lost.’
She spun around. A man wearing a grey uniform stood behind her. He had an Indian accent, dark eyes and a warm, comforting smile.
She shrugged, then nodded and gave her best shot at a smile. She didn’t have a lot of faith in her attempt.
‘Very lost, indeed,’ he said.
‘Um, thank you?’ she said.
The Indian man gave a laugh.
‘My name is Amit,’ he said. ‘And I am especially interested in the lost.’
Samantha eyed him cautiously.
The man laughed again. ‘I am very sorry,’ he said. ‘My wife tells me to not all the time tell jokes. My name is Amit and I can help you to get to where you need to go. That’s my job here at the airport. Would you please show me your travel documents?’
Samantha pulled the plastic wallet from her satchel and handed it over.
He studied her flight ticket and the Carnivale Admit One ride pass and beamed.
‘Oooh, you need to get to the Business Class Qantas Club,’ Amit said. ‘Aren’t you a lucky young lady?’
Yeah right, that’s exactly what I am, Amit, very, very lucky. Sam tried her best not to scowl.
‘Do you know where it is?’ she said.
‘I know where everything is, Miss White. Follow me.’
Amit set off at a rapid pace. Samantha trudged along behind him, her mind numb. She thought she now knew how the horses must feel when Milosh and Besnik ordered that they pack up camp to move on. Mustered. Herded. She’d been herded and mustered a couple of dozen times already today and it was only a little past ten a.m. She kept her eyes on the back of Amit’s shoes.
A woman carrying a red-faced, screaming baby girl stepped into Amit’s path.
‘Excuse me,’ the woman said. Samantha could feel the woman’s fear and fatigue emanating in waves. It was so strong she could almost see it. ‘Could you please tell me where -’
Amit stepped around her as though she and her distraught baby were completely invisible.
A tiny tingle buzzed at the back of Samantha’s neck and her footsteps slowed.
Why would Amit ignore the woman if it was his job to help people who were lost?
Suddenly, the tingle became an electric jolt. Why couldn’t she feel him?
She stopped walking.
She could clearly sense the emotions of this woman and her little girl. She widened her awareness – and felt the sadness of an old lady just over to her right, taking a breather on a bench. And why could she feel that a man talking on a phone nearby was ashamed, and that the woman walking beside him seethed with quiet rage, and yet from Amit: nothing?
He noticed that she wasn’t following him and he turned, a small wrinkle appearing between his brows.
‘It’s this way, Miss White,’ he said, smiling widely. ‘I know you have a while until your flight, but you’d be surprised how quickly the time passes, and I’m sure you’ll want to spend some time enjoying the amenities of the Qantas Club lounge.’
‘Um,’ she said, heart pounding. ‘Actually, Amit, I think I’d prefer to do some shopping first, look around for a bit.’
‘Why would you want to do that?’ he said. The tiny wrinkle had become a deep scowl. ‘We’ve got to get you to where you’re going next. I have a car waiting.’
He took three large strides towards her.
Samantha took three backwards.
A car waiting. I don’t think so. Maybe Amit really was just the kind of guy who focused on one job at a time, but she’d had enough of being encouraged into waiting cars. She decided to try sending him some positive energy.
She focused on the centre of her body and pushed. Her skin tingled and she thought this time she actually saw the buttery light drifting from her skin. She wondered whether anyone watching could see it.
‘Miss White,’ said Amit, baring his teeth.
She couldn’t feel any change in him at all. In fact, now he just looked scary.
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me,’ he continued. ‘We can’t have people just wandering aimlessly around Heathrow. It’s a security risk.’
He reached out a hand and Samantha took another step backwards, right into someone else. She spun around. Another man in a grey uniform locked his big hands around her arms.
‘Come with us quietly, Samantha,’ he said, his head bent close to her ear. His grip was vice-like, his breath smelled like death, and again she could feel nothing from him.
‘I don’t think so,’ she said.
She lifted her foot in front of her as though she was going to try to walk away, but then, as fast and hard as she possibly could, she swung it backwards and smacked the heel of her sneaker full-force right on target: exactly where the trousers of the grey uniform met in the middle.
The man with death breath let her go. In fact, he dropped to his knees, his screams drawing a crowd.
Sam bolted through the people, losing Amit in moments.
Mr Grey Pants will need to see a doctor to get some ice on that, she thought. Huh. No Roma boy would’ve fallen for that move.
Weaving through the crowd, putting more and more people between her and the men, Samantha mentally reviewed at least ten other ways she could have got out of that hold.
The thought cheered her. She set out to find the bus to transfer to Terminal Three.
July 1, 2.14 p.m.
Reclining in the huge business-class seat of the Qantas jet on her way to Australia, Samantha finally felt sleep catching up with her. She’d been up until dawn with Lala just two days ago, performing rituals for the moonlight festival. She blinked tiredly and sighed. Already that night felt like months ago. And then she’d snuck out with Mirela to the Carnivale. She’d been wide awake ever since.
But she had to admit, it was not difficult to relax on this plane. On the flight from Bucharest to London, she’d been too overwhelmed and intimidated to try to figure out how to use the instruments around her, but by watching the man in the seat next to her, she’d figured out on this flight how to make her seat recline and the footrest extend so she could lie back almost completely.
When the heavy-set, bald man in the suit next to her kicked his shoes off, she felt like doing the same, but she was pretty sure that her socks had holes in the toes and she thought that maybe – she bent down to check – yep, they didn’t even match. She left her sneakers on.
Surreptitiously checking out the cabinet to the left of her seat, she found a soft pillow and a rug. She felt guilty for touching these things, worried that she would be reprimanded at any moment. But the bald man was now breathing deeply, wearing earphones, so she ripped the rug and cushion from their plastic packaging and settled down into the seat. The moment she threw the light, warm rug over her clothing she felt safe. As though it was a shield. Right now, she belonged; she was part of the plane, protected by a piece of it.
She closed her eyes for a moment, opened them again. Everything was just as it had been. Two impossibly regal women moved quietly about the cabin, filling a glass here, offering a hot towel or sweet there, leaning intimately over people’s seats to ensure that absolutely everything one could possibly desire was made immediately available.
At least, that’s how it felt to Samantha.
On the earlier flight to London from Bucharest she’d sat frozen in her seat, shaking her head when the stewards tried to encourage her to have some breakfast. The plump Gaje woman next to her had had no such reservations. She’d devoured a veritable feast as Samantha had watched from the corner of her eye. It began with a glass of wine before the plane had even taxied from the runway. At eight-thirty in the morning. Champagne, the woman told Samantha, raising her glass in the air. Samantha stared. This was the only word that passed between them during the flight.
But on this trip, Sam hadn’t been able to resist the food offered for lunch. The moment the flight attendant had smilingly passed her the menu, her mouth had begun watering. Nothing on the menu looked familiar. She recognised ‘salmon’, ‘lamb’ and ‘salad’, but the meaning of the words between them eluded her.
‘I’ll have what he’s having,’ she’d said quietly, when the flight attendant asked.
What he had came with a glass of red wine. Samantha had had red wine before – during festivals, occasionally with dinner, but never anything that tasted like this. The wine in camp had been a transparent, rosy colour, and sour. She didn’t especially enjoy it. But this wine was thick and syrupy and almost black. It looked like blood. It tasted of spice and soil and flowers and magic. She shook her head when the hostess offered a refill. Her neighbour did not.
No wonder he had fallen asleep.
Her head spun a little, but mostly she felt calm for the first time since the red doors had crashed open on the Ghost Ride. She knew she shouldn’t feel calm – she had no idea of what was coming next and how she was going to find her brother, but right now she could do nothing about that. She’d have to figure it out then – she’d done her best for now.
After she’d escaped Amit and his friend in grey at London airport, she’d decided she’d best stick close to people she could feel. That, and her newfound confidence at having outsmarted her enemies all on her own, helped her to make her way unobstructed to the Qantas Club. There, she’d gone straight to the computers and had learned as much as she could in ninety minutes about Sydney airport, especially about possible escape routes.
That she was going to need to know them, she was reasonably certain. Why would these people stop now when they knew exactly where she was going? But of pretty much everything else she had no idea. Like, who were these people after her? And if she did get away from them in Sydney, where exactly was she going to escape to?
Follow the signs, Sera had said. Huh. Great help there. I’m so sure there’ll be signposts in Australia to tell me exactly where to find Luke Black, my brother. Right. And if Sam really admitted it, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to meet her twin. The very little Seraphina had told her was not exactly promising.
‘What’s he like?’ she’d asked.
‘Well, he’s a lot like you, really,’ said Sera. ‘Except pretty much the opposite.’
When Samantha had spat a stream of words that would have made Lala cry and Esmeralda shove a piece of soap down her throat, Sera had made herself a little clearer.
‘All right, all right,’ she’d said. ‘Well, what the Grand Council has been able to learn is that your mother – endeavouring to conceive your brother – teleported herself into the cell of Harlan Craven. He must have been pretty surprised. Your mother was a very beautiful woman, Samantha.’
‘Did you say into his cell?’ she’d asked.
‘Well, yes. Unfortunately, Harlan Craven was a serial killer serving life in permanent solitary confinement at the SuperMax correctional facility in Australia. We think he may have been a daemon.’
The droning sound in Samantha’s ears had increased. This isn’t really happening, she’d told herself. Ever since she’d entered the Funhouse, she’d been repeating the line like a mantra every few minutes.
‘Anyway, what we’re assuming your mother did not know – because it was not part of the Telling,’ Sera continued, ‘is that this terribly romantic liaison would result in her conceiving not one, but two babies. Twins. You, and Luke, your brother.’
‘My father was a daemon?’ said Samantha.
‘Probably just a minor one,’ said Sera.
Oh, much better.
And then Birthday Jones had found his voice. It sounded anxious, and that had made Sam feel vicious. What did he have to be anxious about?
‘Are you sure you want to know all this right now, Samantha?’ he’d said. ‘A lot has happened tonight, and you’ve got a massive trip ahead of you. Aren’t you tired?’
‘Oh, thanks for that advice, Birthday,’ she’d said. ‘And the next time I want advice from a deceiving, lying thief masquerading as a friend, I’ll be sure to call you.’
Now her cheeks coloured, remembering the dripping sarcasm and the pain she’d felt it cause Birthday. She pulled her feet up onto the seat and buried her face in the rug.
‘Anyway, Sam,’ Sera had said gently, ‘the most important point is that you seem to have been born with exceptionally strong empathy skills. Your brother was not. You understand what people want and why and you care about those things. And your brother – well, he doesn’t.’
Sera’s last sentence was spoken so quickly that Samantha had had to mentally rewind it and play it back.
‘So I have empathy,’ she’d said, finally.
‘Oodles,’ said Sera. ‘You’re an empath.’
‘And my brother, Luke, doesn’t have empathy.’
‘Not a skerrick,’ said Sera.
‘What does that mean? Is there a name for that? What’s wrong with him?’
‘Well, there is a nasty name for people like that,’ said Sera. ‘But you need to understand that there are extremely complex forces and factors going on here, and then there’s the fact that you and he were born simultaneously. We don’t know what that adds to the mix – he could be… fine. The Telling reveals that -’
‘The name,’ Samantha repeated. ‘You said that I’m an empath. What’s the name for my brother?’
‘Well, he’s a psychopath.’
July 2, 12.40 p.m.
When Luke rolled over and spotted the time on the alarm clock by his bedside, he couldn’t believe it.
Afternoon already! He never slept late and he never slept well. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever having made it through a whole night without waking numerous times to check out what was happening around him in the dark. He’d lived in too many places with drunken ‘uncles’, brawling foster parents, or other kids in refuges and lockups who wanted to steal his stuff. He always slept lightly, and he rarely changed out of his day clothes, sometimes even sleeping with his shoes on, ready to run.
But there was something about this bed, this house, this view over Elizabeth Bay that relaxed him. Relaxation was a feeling entirely new to him. He’d always considered the idea of it overrated: who wanted to let their guard down? What a stupid idea. But here in Georgia’s house, it seemed to come easily. He reminded himself to become filthy rich sometime in the near future.
Luke sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched. Today, I really should do something about finding my family, he thought. He tried to ignore the other voice in his mind asking, Why? Why do you need to find them? You’ve only got information on Liza and Daniel anyway, and they’re hardly gonna be thrilled to find their jailbird bastard brother on their doorstep. And what are they going to know about an empath and a genius?
The whole Telling mumbo-jumbo was starting to sound decidedly lame. Probably Zac actually was nuts.
He shook his head, still feeling sleep-addled.
His door burst open.
‘I’ve made brunch,’ said Georgia.
‘Get dressed,’ said Zac, right behind her. ‘I need you to come with me.’
‘Don’t you knock?’ said Luke.
‘You don’t need him, Zac,’ said Georgia, smiling sweetly. ‘You’re a big boy; you can go out on your own.’
She was obviously in a good mood today. She’d given in to a splash of colour: under a black mini-dress, a blood-red tulle skirt frothed and foamed over black-and-white-striped tights.
‘There’s a shop on the corner,’ she said to Zac. ‘There’s fifty dollars in the jar by the front door. Buy whatever you like.’
‘Luke,’ said Zac.
‘Zac,’ said Luke.
‘Could you come to the shop with me, please?’
Luke wavered. It would be good to get some fresh air…
Georgia stalked across the room and grabbed Luke by the elbow, dragging him out of bed.
‘No, he won’t,’ she said. ‘Just because you want to buy soy sausages and hay, it doesn’t mean you have to spoil our pancake breakfast. Now, shoo.’
Luke grinned over his shoulder at Zac as he was dragged down the hallway by Georgia.
‘Pancakes!’ he mouthed silently, his eyebrows almost meeting his hairline and his dimples out for a rare showing.
‘Breakfast time was over hours ago,’ said Zac loudly. ‘It’s past lunchtime now.’
‘Oh, um-ah!’ said Georgia, even louder. ‘Someone should do something about that. Maybe you should find a vegetarian policeman while you’re out, Zac, and make a full report. They can come and arrest us for sleeping late and murdering butter.’
Luke laughed as Georgia led him, barefoot, down the stairs to the kitchen.
JULY 2, 2.40 P.M.
Luke absolutely massacred the Halo aliens on Level Four.
‘I’ve never made it that far,’ said Georgia, sprawled out on the red lounge beside him, striped-stockinged feet in his lap. She alternately flicked through a magazine and watched his progress on Halo. The black cat lay upside down beside her, spread like an oil slick across the couch. Every now and then the cat made a noise like an old man with a back problem lowering himself into a chair.
‘More nachos?’ said Georgia.
‘I’m good,’ said Luke, and belched, hovering his thumb over the control to enter Level Five.
He tried to ignore Zac, perched on a corner of the lounge opposite, almost humming with tension. The rain splashed and smashed at the full-length windows on the other side of the room. Green-black clouds, pregnant with more foul weather, scudded across grey skies over the bay. He still felt strangely super-tired.
‘Are we going to do anything today, Luke?’ said Zac.
‘Like what?’ said Luke, grabbing a handful of nachos from the big bowl in front of him, even though he was already uncomfortably full.
‘Like finding the empath?’ said Zac.
‘What’s the empath?’ said Georgia. ‘Some kind of animal activist? Maybe you should search for it online, Zac? There are computers upstairs.’
‘Luke?’ said Zac.
‘Busy,’ said Luke, pressing the button to enter Level Five.
July 2, 12.09 a.m.
Samantha woke to find that she’d just slept for ten hours straight.
She had meant to use her time in the sky to plan her Sydney airport escape. She quickly calculated her remaining hours in the sky. When she realised that she had almost another whole day just sitting there, she figured that if she couldn’t come up with some kind of plan in that time, she was never going to.
She knew that these people – whoever they were – would try again. They’d been there in London, and she assumed they could arrange for someone to grab her in Australia. Seraphina had assured her that the gypsy king was nowhere near her greatest threat, and that his reach did not extend beyond Romania. But because of this Telling thing, the other people trying to capture her would use any means necessary to do so, and they wanted her alive. But Sera hadn’t been able to tell her if the gypsy king was part of the whole prophecy drama or not. But he had to be: why else had he suddenly turned up and wanted to own her, whatever the cost?
The Telling made absolutely no sense to Samantha and she’d told Sera exactly that.
‘Well, that’s because I’ve only told you bits and pieces about it,’ Sera had said.
‘Well, isn’t it about me? I need to know everything,’ she’d responded.
‘It’s not only about you, Samantha,’ said Sera. ‘It’s about everyone, and I’m not authorised to tell you more than you need to know.’
‘Who says so?’
‘The Grand Council.’
‘Well, who are they?’
‘That’s another thing you don’t need to know.’
This was one of many times during those frustrating conversations that Samantha wanted to just walk away and ignore everything this woman had told her. Only one thing stopped her – Seraphina had warned her that her family and friends would never be safe while she remained in Romania.
‘Their next strategy,’ said Sera, ‘will be to hurt one of your family, to weaken you. They’ll then abduct someone else you love and force you to come to them.’
‘How do you know that?’ said Samantha.
‘Because they know that everyone has a weak spot, and it’s usually their family,’ said Sera. ‘The only way that Lala and the rest of the camp will be safe is if you’re as far away from them as possible, if they have no idea where you are, and if you stay on the move until you find your brother. These people won’t stop.’
So on the plane, Samantha leaned her forehead against the window, peering out into the night, and tried to come up with as many strategies as she could to make it out of Sydney airport. She began by thinking through every chase she could remember – running with the other kids from Gaje farmers, shopkeepers, police – recalling just how high she could climb and how small she could make herself when she needed to jump over, under or through something.
Then she reviewed the scams. The long cons – requiring days or weeks to set up – obviously wouldn’t work here, but a short con might, playing a hustle to recruit an ally to defend her. She thought through every trick she could remember to make money, to evade detection, and to escape when the latter failed. She filed them away as possible strategies.
She sighed. The biggest problem was that she didn’t know how they’d come for her. If somebody approached her, it could be someone genuine who Sera had asked to help her; or it could be a trap.
Oh God, I need to walk, she thought. She had never sat still for so long in her life. She grabbed her bag, slipped past the man asleep beside her and through the heavy curtain that screened Business Class from the rest of the passengers. She began padding down the aisle of the aircraft, mentally perusing all the good luck, bad luck and curse spells she’d been taught by the gypsies. She discarded each of them fairly quickly. The only good she’d ever seen them do was to open the purses of the Gaje, and they did that because of what she told them, not because the spells actually did anything.
She met other sleepless souls walking the aisle and nodded when they smiled at her. Her appearance was unremarkable in the Economy section. Plenty of people were dressed like her. In that way, she would have felt a lot more comfortable back here than up the front with the posh people, but halfway down the aisle she turned back. There were so many more people in the main cabin and thousands more emitted emotions – they wafted up from each seat with nowhere to disperse. Frustration, lust, envy and grief blasted endlessly back into the cabin with the recycled air.
She hurried back to her seat, breathless, shoving her bag back beneath it. She pulled her knees up to her chest and chewed a thumbnail. How am I going to be able to get away from them, she worried. Why would Sera just send me out here on my own? Couldn’t this mighty Council have sent someone to guard me if I’m so important to the Telling? And how the hell am I supposed to pay for anything when I get there? I mean, Sera didn’t even give me any money!
For what felt like the hundredth time, Samantha mentally face-palmed over this fact. What kind of nutjob plan was this anyway? In the car and at the airport, she’d been so bewildered by everything that she hadn’t even thought to ask about money. Sera had told her that all she needed was in the wallet.
There had to be something else in there. She decided to go through everything she had to look for anything that could possibly help her. She bent forward and dragged her bag out from under the seat. From the only pocket of the bag, sewn into the fabric, she removed the plastic wallet and emptied it out onto her tray. Her boarding passes. And only one other thing: the Carnivale ride pass.
She picked it up and turned it over, studying it from every angle; she even held it to her nose and sniffed. It was just cardboard. Her lips turned up in a small smile. How did it work? All she could see was a crumpled ticket lined with faded green stripes. In large green capitals right through the middle were the words ‘ADMIT ONE Dodgem Cars’. And yet it had got her through every gate and checkpoint so far, and faster than anyone else had cleared them.
In spite of her anxiety, a thrill of excitement fluted through her stomach. What on earth did all the airport people see when they looked at the ticket? She had supposedly been around magic her whole life, but no one had ever showed her anything like this. She wondered what else Sera could do. Sera didn’t feel like most people. In fact, she didn’t feel like anyone Samantha had ever met before.
Suddenly she dropped the smile. Sera wasn’t here right now and she’d just sent her across the world alone. She gathered the tickets up and put them back into the wallet, then shoved it into the bag. Her fingers hit something hard. And this? What was she thinking, giving me this? She pulled the phone out of the bag and turned it over in her hand. It was pretty old-school. She flicked the cover open with a finger. The screen stayed blank. And it would be staying that way for a while, given that it had no battery! So, no money, a dead phone and unknown enemies waiting at Sydney airport for her. Great.
She sighed and threw the phone back into the bag. Her hands found her tarot deck, or maybe her tarot deck found her hands. Through the lacquered box she could feel the cards inside jostling. They whispered to her. She closed her eyes, fingering the gold cord around the box.
‘Is there anything I can get you, Ms White?’
Samantha snapped open her eyes.
One of the serene, supreme, scented stewardesses stood there. Smiling, of course.
‘Um, no,’ said Sam. ‘I’m good.’
‘Okay, then.’ The smile stayed stuck, but Samantha felt the woman’s annoyance as she bent towards her. ‘You’ve clicked on your attendant’s light,’ she said.
‘Oh, sorry,’ said Samantha. ‘I didn’t mean to.’
‘That’s no problem,’ said the stewardess. ‘Everyone does it. It’s very sensitive.’
And then something weird happened. As the woman leaned over Samantha to depress the Call button, their hands touched briefly. And this time Samantha saw an image. It was the woman in her uniform, standing by a doorway, a black wheelie luggage bag by her side. A young child, a girl, maybe five, was crying piteously, her arms outreached. An older woman held the child back, terribly upset for the woman by the door – her daughter – and for her granddaughter who couldn’t understand what could be so important outside that door that would make her mummy leave her. Again.
The stewardess clicked off the button on Samantha’s console and straightened in the aisle. The image vanished.
Samantha squinted through the gloom at the woman’s name badge.
‘Thank you, Rebecca,’ she said.
‘You’re very welcome, Ms White,’ said the stewardess.
‘My name’s Samantha,’ she said, mentally gathering up some of the love she’d felt by the doorway in the image. She gently pushed the energy particles outwards. ‘What’s your daughter’s name?’ she said.
‘Daisy,’ said Rebecca, blinking slowly.
‘Daisy loves you very much,’ said Samantha. ‘Are you on your way home?’
‘Seventeen hours, thirty-nine minutes,’ said Rebecca, glancing at her watch.
‘She’s a lucky girl,’ said Samantha.
‘I’m a lucky mum.’
Samantha eased up on the emotion-emission.
A register of surprise flashed through Rebecca’s eyes. She straightened her shoulders and smiled, genuinely this time.
‘Are you sure I can’t get you anything?’ she said. ‘I make the absolute best hot chocolate, and I have to be awake now, anyway. You’d be doing me a favour.’
‘I’d love a hot chocolate,’ said Samantha. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had one before.’
The stewardess turned, still smiling, but Samantha saw her shake her head, as though to clear it, as she walked away.
Samantha grabbed her tarot deck. This time, the cards whispered urgently. She figured she had time for a single-card reading before Rebecca returned. The thought gave her comfort. She had other skills she could draw upon besides running from people.
Hungrily, now, she scrabbled to undo the cord, wrapping it around and around her wrist to keep it safe. She opened the black lacquered box and withdrew the cards, immediately raising them to her face and breathing them in. She wasn’t aware that she smiled widely. She lost herself as she shuffled the deck, no longer airborne but in a lake where the cards swam about her, darting playfully. She joyfully tumbled with them, but a nagging worry tugged at her, finally pulling her back into herself. The single-card draw.
She never drew a single card. Why would you? If you posed a question of the cards and drew only one answer there was nowhere to hide. What ambiguity could there possibly be? What hope for better things if one drew an ill-fated card? She always felt it better to draw a suite – to paint a picture of possibility – than to draw a single card. A destiny card.
And yet the cards flew through her hands, butting against them insistently, urgently.
And one card forced its way into her palm.
Wait, I haven’t asked the question, she thought. This was not how to draw the single-card reading. The most important thing was to have the question uppermost in the mind when shuffling the cards. Nevertheless, she clutched the card in her hand.
The others were now silent, still, waiting.
Am I doing the right thing? That will be my question, she thought.
The cards jostled. Nope, wrong question, scratch that. She knew she was doing the right thing – she had no choice but to leave Romania. Tamas had almost died because of her.
What will happen at the airport?
Um, wrong again. The cards would warn her of danger if that was coming, and she already knew that was coming. Would there be any use in frightening herself even more?
What do I need to get through this?
The card grew warm in her hand. She opened her eyes. She straightened the rest of the cards and put all of them but one back into the box, pushing forcefully to close the lid. The deck knew a member was missing. She heard them hex and spit as she dropped them back into her satchel. She kept the golden cord wrapped around her wrist and the answer card face down under her tray table. The cord itched and the answer card hummed with heat.
‘Samantha?’ Rebecca appeared, beaming, and carefully transferred the contents of her white-linen-draped tray to Samantha’s tray table: a lovely silver teapot, a jug full of milk, and a tiny saucer heaped with pink marshmallows.
‘You’re gonna love it. It’s melted chocolate. From Belgium. We never give it to the passengers.’
Samantha smiled back, tightly. The card called, almost burning now, from beneath the tray table.
What do I need to get through this? Her single-card question. As soon as Rebecca turned away, she pulled the card from under the tray table and flipped it over.
Huh. She stared at the picture on the card and breathed deeply. A monk, small of stature, robed in deep green and gold, stood calmly, head bowed in thought. Behind him, filling the rest of the card, the monk’s spirit towered over him. His spirit was a giant, his robe thrown backwards, baring a broad chest and huge, powerful arms. The arms were raised high, holding up a cracking, crumbling ceiling.
Samantha gave a small smile and reached for her bag. She found the lacquered box and slipped the card back inside. Then she poured herself a hot chocolate. Rebecca was right. It was absolutely delicious.
She leaned back into the seat and thought about her answer. A spirit card, representing spiritual strength. The cards were telling her that even though she may be frightened and weary, this was no time to rest. A great danger was poised above her, but ultimately she was strong and had everything she needed within her to survive.
But it still seemed that everyone had more faith in her than she did. Because she still had no idea how she was going to get out of Sydney airport without being captured.
And then there was the small matter of searching a country she’d never set foot in, to find a boy she’d never met and wasn’t sure she wanted to – her twin brother, the psychopath.
JULY 2, 5.17 P.M.
Samantha followed the other Qantas passengers shuffling towards the immigration gates at Sydney International Airport. With her only luggage slung across her shoulder, she was not in any particular hurry to clear customs and race to the luggage carousel.
She still didn’t have a plan. She felt like she was walking towards her doom.
Let them wait, she thought.
Standing in the custom’s queue, she spotted Rebecca, the stewardess, moving with the other airline personnel through the staff exit. Rebecca caught her eye and waved. I’m an idiot, Samantha told herself. I should have asked her if there was a staff exit I could take. No one would think to look for me there. Too late now. She watched Rebecca’s back clear the doorway. At least Daisy will be happy to have her mum home, she thought. It was sad that she had to be without her mum for days at a time, but at least she had a mother who loved her.
For the first time, Samantha felt anger towards her real mother for leaving her with Lala. She’d always assumed her mother just couldn’t cope, and she was grateful she’d been left with someone who had cared so much for her. But now she knew that her mother had left her in a gypsy camp as a science experiment – or maybe that should be a magic experiment – as though she was part of a recipe that required more ingredients before it could be used.
She wasn’t sure what made her more angry – that her mother had separated her from her twin brother and then abandoned them both, or that she’d had the hide to go and die before she could meet her and tell her off. Sera had clammed up when she’d asked whether the baby her mother had died giving birth to – the genius – had survived, and Samantha had felt too sad and sore to push it.
She realised she was next in the queue to have her documents checked to clear customs. Clutching her plastic wallet, she stepped forward, certain as she had been going through every other checkpoint, that she was about to be detained and arrested.
Maybe that would be a good thing, she thought. It would be one way out of here. But then she’d still be trapped.
But when she held out her travel documents, she watched the instant change in the dour expression of the middle-aged woman behind the custom’s counter. Holding the Carnivale ticket, she stared at it as though she were checking the paperwork of her favourite movie star.
‘Welcome to Australia, Samantha White!’ she said, loudly and so proudly.
Samantha thought that maybe the woman had a tear in her eye. ‘Um, thanks,’ she muttered.
And then a sort-of idea popped into her head. A not-quite-there-yet idea that needed some more thought, but she had no more time.
All senses alert, she followed the other passengers down the Arrivals ramp, feeling emotions buffeting her as she drew closer to the throng of people waiting for their relatives and friends to disembark. She peered anxiously into the crowd. Everybody smiled and waved, some cried in joy, holding balloons, signs, flowers. She didn’t sense anything sinister, but there were so many people. As she drew closer to the end of the ramp she scanned further out beyond the edge of the crowd.
And a block of ice the size of a brick dropped into her stomach, freezing her instantly.
Maybe ten metres away, a bank of windows and glass doors led out to twilight in Sydney, Australia. And in front of them stood four people dressed completely in black. Samantha had seen them too many times already in her life, but she only knew one of their names.
And Kirra saw her. She smiled, as though in greeting. And then she lifted an arm above her head, and Samantha could see that she held something between her fingers. It glinted slightly under the artificial lights and Samantha almost cried out, remembering the last time she’d seen Kirra, the whistle of metal flashing past her, and then Tamas, his life bleeding out of his throat. She blinked rapidly, trying to rid her mind of the agonising image. A sob formed. Was this how they were going to take her out?
But as she blinked, she began to feel that she hadn’t got it quite right. She stared across the expanse between them, still standing rigid, oblivious to others jostling around her. She squinted her eyes to try to see clearer, and now she was certain – whatever Kirra held aloft in her black-sheathed arm, it wasn’t a throwing star. And suddenly Samantha realised what she was looking at. Kirra waved her destiny at her – a syringe. So. Scarface and the other two goons were going to grab her and Kirra would inject her with something that would knock her out.
And they were on the move now. Coming closer, fast.
She stumbled sideways, pushing a big guy with a guitar case strapped to his back into the path of a giant luggage bag. He tripped, sprawling, crash-tackling another man who had two young boys in tow. The children shouted in surprise and people began to stare.
And even though her brain felt as frozen as the rest of her innards, Samantha knew she had to make her move. She couldn’t outrun them. Even if she did manage to make it through this crowd and bolt screaming for help, Kirra was so super-fast she’d be on top of her, have her sedated and have a convincing story for the authorities before they had any idea what was going on.
It’s now or never, Sam thought. She squeezed her eyes shut and conjured up memories of Lala, Esmeralda, Bo and Mirela. And then of Tamas and their legs tangled together in the ghost train. A searing wave of homesickness and love instantly blasted the ice from her stomach. She amplified the feelings, whipping them faster and faster into a burning sphere that roiled within her, a mushrooming, molten mass of emotion that she knew she could not hold inside much longer. With no idea whether it would work, and feeling as if surely people around her could see she was irradiated, she bent forward, as though to help the men she’d knocked over.
Instead, she said, ‘My name is Mirela. And I’m the most famous movie star in the world.’
She spoke as loudly as she could manage, and she was sure that only a few people could have heard her. But it would have to do. The energy inside her demanded urgent release. She stood up straight, focused on the heat, and pushed.
The sphere of light exploded and for a mind-blowing second she felt as though she’d splintered into a billion points of energy. She stood there, trembling. Unable to breathe, let alone think clearly, she wondered whether it had worked.
And then the screaming began.
Sam cried out as the mob swarmed her. She couldn’t hear her own voice, and the sound made absolutely no difference to the noise level – the decibels were already through the roof. All of them had their mouths wide open, screaming and sobbing her name – well, not her name. Mirela’s. Mirela had always wanted to be famous, so she’d used hers at the last minute. But not even Mirela would want this much adoration.
The only thing keeping the pack of hysterical people from tearing her apart was the big bloke with the guitar case and the man she’d pushed over, both of them using their luggage as battering rams to keep people back.
What have I done?
Sam could feel that the men saw themselves as her personal bodyguards and would die fighting before they’d let anyone touch her. Unfortunately, that was beginning to look like a possibility. The crowd was in an absolute frenzy. They surged forward, and hands from everywhere reached for her. She screamed again when, from behind her, someone grabbed a fistful of her hair. She stumbled backwards, and, panicked, struggled to stand upright before she was dragged into the crowd. Too late. Whoever it was had a full handful of her hair, and terrified, face streaming with tears, she was yanked into the riot.
Blurred body parts. People kissing her, groping her, trying to shred her jacket, rip her bag away from her – its strap digging into the skin of her neck. They fought each other, scratching and punching, scrabbling and climbing to reach her. And their emotions – lust, greed, envy and an insane desire to possess her, to be her – choked her airways, until she lost all sense of direction, of who she was. Her senses reached maximum capacity and tripped out. She no longer knew whether she was standing or being carried along, upside down. And she felt nothing. Nothing more than a faint sense of regret that she was about to be torn apart and she would never again get to kiss Tamas.
Dimly, she heard air sirens. The hands around her stopped grasping as people covered their ears, trying to block out the noise, moaning and wailing. Samantha was sure she was doing the same thing, but it just didn’t seem to matter any more.
And then she saw the commandos. Heading straight for her, two blue-uniformed men with buzz-cut scalps and necks the size of her waist cut through the crowd like butter. They had batons in their hands and ear-mikes to their mouths, and they seemed oblivious to the deafening roar of the sirens. The darker-skinned of the two reached her first, and with a single arm, scooped her up from the tangle of writhing people around her and slung her over his shoulder.
Bumping along upside down, peeking under a boulder-like bicep, Samantha saw three things.
She saw that they were marching straight for the exit to the airport – outside, into Sydney.
She saw that standing in a cordoned-off section by the doors, Kirra, Scarface and company did not look happy.
And she also saw that waiting outside the doors were three vehicles resembling army tanks, with the letters AFP stencilled across the front. She recognised the acronym from the airport website – Australian Federal Police. She’d read that they were trained to handle just about any terrorist situation, and she figured that even the ninjas were a little under-equipped right now.
A wave of relief washed over her. Looks like I’m going to make it out of here today, after all.
When she and the man-mountain were parallel to the barricade, Samantha raised her head, exhausted.
With the very last of her energy, she gave Kirra a smile and a special single-digit salute.
Samantha pressed her chipped, orange-painted fingernails into the flesh of her palms. She tried to smile at Mason and Ruben, the two AFP officers who’d just dragged her out of the deliriously murderous crowd.
Mason and Ruben. They smiled back at her, eyes glazed, goofy-looking.
I really must learn to control whatever it is I did back there, she thought. I wonder when it wears off?
The relief she’d felt at escaping the mob and the ninjas had dissipated, and now she was beginning to wonder how on earth she was going to get out of the back of this truck. She took another look around the insides of the AFP urban military vehicle. With bench seating for maybe twelve normal people and six Mason-Ruben-sized people, the rest of the space was occupied by computer screens, blinking lights, riot shields, facemasks and racks of weapons. She could hear the muffled sound of rain beating down on the armoured truck.
She stopped forcing her fingernails into her palm when she felt them break the skin.
‘Um, this is a great… place you have here,’ she said.
Mason grinned wider. His blond hair was cut so close to his skull he seemed bald. She imagined that would look pretty scary to a bad guy, especially when the body underneath the bald head was the size of a fridge-freezer combo.
‘But I think you can send the other cars away now,’ she said to Ruben, the other giant, who’d slung her over his shoulder and carried her through the airport.
Ruben looked as though he could bench press the truck. And like he ate a whole cow for breakfast. He pressed a finger to his ear.
‘Yeah, we got her,’ he said quietly into his mike. ‘Make sure the crowd’s dispersed and then report back to base. Roger that.’
He swung his face back towards her, awaiting further command.
Cool, she thought, in spite of herself. My own private tank. The thought gave her another idea.
‘Um, Ruben,’ she said. She felt Mason sulking because she hadn’t talked to him. ‘And Mason,’ she continued.
He snapped his eyes to hers, gave her full attention.
‘There are these four fans in there who kinda follow me everywhere,’ she said. ‘And they’ve been a little, um, threatening. I wonder whether your guys could ask them to…’
‘Describe them,’ they said, in unison.
So she did. It wasn’t too difficult. Two minutes later, Ruben had issued instructions for Kirra and Co to have a bad day at the hands of the AFP.
‘Now, where can we take you?’ said Mason.
‘And where are your handlers?’ said Ruben. ‘Why don’t you have bodyguards here to protect you?’
All very good questions, she thought.
‘Well, there was a mix-up,’ she said, thinking fast. ‘And my entourage ended up booked on the wrong flight, but I absolutely had to get here for an engagement, so I came alone.’
As she spoke, Mason nodded and Ruben shook his head.
‘And they’re all waiting for me at the, um, hotel.’
‘Which hotel?’ said Ruben. ‘We’ll escort you there.’
Samantha just wanted to get out of the truck before the magic spell thing wore off. Problem was, she didn’t know the names of any hotels and she didn’t think these guys would just drop her in the street.
‘Oh, you know, it’s the…’
‘Ritz-Carlton?’ said Ruben.
‘Park Hyatt?’ said Mason.
‘That’s the one,’ said Samantha.
‘I got it riiight,’ said Mason, poking his tongue out at Ruben.
Ruben flexed a bicep and his jaw twitched.
Sheesh. Get me out of here, thought Sam. I do not want to be in here when these gods hurl lightning at each other.
‘Um, I’m really tired,’ she said. I’m reeeally tired, she thought. And I need to have a shower and change my clothes. Except that I have no other clothes, no money, and nowhere to shower. Still, she did think it best to be away from the police when they figured out that she wasn’t actually a movie star but a fifteen-year-old runaway gypsy from Romania.
‘If you wouldn’t mind dropping me at that Park hotel whatsie, that would be lovely,’ she said.
Mason and Ruben hadn’t been too happy about leaving her unaccompanied at the front of the Park Hyatt hotel in Circular Quay, but she’d assured them that she had staff and friends waiting for her, and that she didn’t want to cause another scene.
‘Please,’ she’d smiled, extra wide, and they’d relented.
She stared morosely after them as they pulled away from the curved driveway of the elegant hotel. Now she really was on her own. And the love-spell or whatever she’d performed at the airport had obviously not reached the hotel. A beautifully dressed woman took a step away from her and huddled a little closer to her escort. A dark-suited attendant stepped to her side.
‘May I assist you with anything this evening, madam?’ he said, smiling.
‘No, I’m okay, thanks,’ she said, turning away.
I didn’t think so, she knew he was thinking.
She huddled into her jacket, trudging along beside the curved walls of the building. The rain was just a miserable drizzle now, enough to further wound her aching heart as she thought about the golden sunshine that would be drenching Romania. Cars slid like dark eels in the gloom along the road beside her. Everything felt wet, worrying and winter-like.
Even though she’d read on the website that it was winter here in Australia, she’d still somehow expected it to be warm. That’s how she’d always pictured Australia: kangaroos, beautiful beaches, sunshine and…
The Opera House!
She rounded the final corner of the hotel and stepped into a postcard. Ahead of her spread a wide, sandstone forecourt dotted with fairylights; beyond lay an inky harbour; and glowing incandescently directly ahead of her was an image she’d only ever seen in photographs: the Sydney Opera House. It seemed to float on the dark water like a full moon fallen from the night sky.
She made her way across a boardwalk that ran along the other side of the Park Hyatt hotel. The guestrooms, glowing warm gold, were just above her, wrapped around the harbour, around this view. She was sure it must be the most beautiful hotel in the world. She reached the edge of the walkway, the edge of Australia, and stared at the Opera House. From the first time she’d seen its image, she’d dreamed of coming here. She could never have imagined that it would be under these circumstances.
A solitary tear escaped her lashes. She stopped the others immediately, certain that if she began to cry now she would never stop. With all of the panic and despair at the Carnivale, the shocking news about her past, and the terrible knowledge that she’d brought mortal danger to everyone she loved, Sera’s plan to spirit her out of Romania had seemed her only option. She saw now that it was the most ludicrous action she could ever have taken. How could she have been so completely stupid to have trusted that woman so blindly? And how could Birthday Jones have gone along with everything?
Her bottom lip trembled and she bit down on it, hard. They’d promised to explain everything to Lala. Would they do that, or would they just let everyone think she’d been abducted, or worse? How could she trust either of them? How could they send her here with nothing, no one?
Although the rain was little more than a frigid mist now, the chill had saturated the leather jacket; she tugged the collar up around her ears and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. There were very few pedestrians, and those who passed her wore coats and scarves. She began to walk again, left this time. She imagined herself up there in one of the hotel rooms with Mirela, Tamas and Shofranka. And a hot shower and food and a bed.
Well, that’s not going to happen, Samantha, she told herself. And it’s not like you haven’t slept outdoors before. And they call this winter? Winter in Romania would give these people a lesson about winter, she thought, trying to rally her spirits, fearing that if she didn’t, she would sit down in a puddle right there and give up.
Find somewhere drier, away from the wind and rain and bunk down for the night, she told herself. Tomorrow’s another day. You can look for Luke tomorrow. She ignored the other voice telling her that tomorrow that would be just as impossible as tonight.
She rounded another corner. And gasped. Right above her, rearing like a massive grey dragon, was the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Even from underneath its enormous belly, there was no mistaking it. She hugged her arms about her chest, staring upward, open-mouthed, and was so captivated by the bridge that she missed the feeling of threat until she heard voices. Drunk males. Three of them, twenty metres ahead and closing.
Sam knew they’d seen her. A thread of adrenalin wired its way into her bloodstream. She quickly scanned the ground for something she could use as a weapon: a bottle, a rock. Nothing. She reached into her bag, eyes on them, sizing them up. She knew she could easily outrun the two fat ones; they looked to be having a hard time of it just walking, let alone chasing her. The shorter skinny one, wearing a knitted beanie pulled down almost to his eyes, looked as though he could run, and like he knew what he wanted. Her.
Sam pulled the phone from her bag. If they thought she was talking to someone, or that she could call the police, they might leave her alone. And besides, it was the hardest object she had. If she did have to run and Skinny could keep up with her, she’d make sure she took all his teeth out with it if he tried to touch her.
She flipped open the scarlet case of the phone and almost dropped it. Impossible! The screen glowed green. A cursor flashed patiently, waiting for input. Oh my God! But there’s no battery? She stared at the phone, stunned. Her heart began to race with excitement.
The drunks had reached her. Skinny, who’d greeted her, already stood too close.
Oh, I so do not have time for this, she thought. Not now.
‘GET LOST!’ she screamed at the top of her lungs, pushing out a wave of anger-emotion.
To her surprise it worked. They backed away and shuffled off with curses she was glad she couldn’t understand.
She turned back to the phone. How was it working? What else could it do? Suddenly, she realised that Seraphina had given her this phone for a reason. Maybe she’d be able to talk to her? What if it could somehow connect her to her brother, to Luke?
The cold air transformed her rapid breaths into steam, and her fingers trembled as she hovered them over the keypad. There was no number she knew to dial – she only hoped the phone knew what to do.
Holding her breath, feeling more optimism than she’d experienced in more than two days, she pressed the Send button. And waited.
The cursor flashed just as before. She frowned at it, struggling to think of something else to try, when she heard a footstep immediately behind her.
She spun, ready to attack or bolt. Or both.
A boy stood there. She jumped back quickly, her hand over her mouth. He felt familiar. He felt confused. He felt strangely broken.
‘Luke?’ she said.
The boy just looked at her, blinking. She stared back.
Taller than her, and older, she guessed, by maybe a couple of years, the boy wore jeans and a black-and-white-striped T-shirt. She glanced down at his feet – no shoes. He had to be freezing. He had brown-black hair, blue eyes and full lips. He wore a slightly worried half-frown. She had a sudden, ridiculous urge to reach up and stroke his beautiful face. He seemed so puzzled, so childlike.
‘Who are you?’ she said. He wasn’t Luke, she instinctively knew that.
The boy said nothing.
Okay, she thought. I must just be tired. This boy doesn’t have anything to do with me. The thought made her desperately sad. She had so wanted something to happen. Maybe he’s lost, she thought. Well, I’m definitely the wrong person to look to for help. She began to walk away.
She heard him following and turned again, preparing to scream at him too. But she couldn’t do it; he stared down at her so innocently.
‘What do you want?’ she said.
He reached a hand around behind his back and she tensed, ready to run. But he pulled a folded notepad from his back pocket, holding it out towards her.
She frowned. Maybe he couldn’t speak and he had something written on there, to help him if he got lost. He certainly didn’t look as though he should be out here alone tonight. Knowing she couldn’t help him, she took the notepad anyway.
‘What have you got here?’ she said, opening it. ‘Are you lost?’
It took her a couple of seconds to register what she was looking at. When she did, she threw the notepad as though it had burned her. She stood there, wild eyed, trying to process what she had seen. The boy ran after his pad, retrieved it and held it to his chest. He faced her, head slightly askance. She felt suddenly weak at the knees.
He’d shown her an ink drawing of a person that was unmistakeably her, standing right here in the shadow of the bridge, holding a phone. And beside her was the boy, wearing a striped T-shirt and no shoes and clutching a notepad.
What the hell?
‘Were you watching me?’ she said. ‘Why did you draw that?’
The boy stood there morosely. The drawing astounded her – there was such incredible detail. She couldn’t have been here for more than five minutes – how had he captured everything so perfectly? Actually, not perfectly, she suddenly realised; there had been other people in his depiction, and a bus pulled over to watch fireworks over the harbour.
Sam shook her head tiredly. She turned to walk away, unable to deal with this strange stalker-artist after everything else that had happened tonight.
And right then a bus rounded the street corner ahead and the harbour exploded in coloured pinwheels and shooting stars of light.
Sam sat down hard on the footpath and stared at the cascading fireworks, at the bus, and at the tourists piling out to snap photos. Beyond the railing a frigid mist rippled over the harbour.
She could not find a word to say.
July 2, 7.20 p.m.
Luke bumped into the wall on the way to the bathroom and giggled. He frowned. He’d never giggled before.
Suddenly all thoughts were ejected from his mind as he was shoulder-charged from his feet, into the air, through the doorway to his bedroom. He scudded chin-first across the carpet. The door to the room closed.
‘What are you doing?’ hissed Zac, standing over him.
‘What are you doing, nutjob?’ said Luke, pulling himself into a sitting position. ‘What the hell did you push me like that for?’
He touched his fingertips to his chin and they came away red.
‘Ouch,’ he said.
‘Ouch?’ said Zac, throwing his hands in the air. ‘That’s all you can say? We’ve just broken out of lockup and escaped an assassin; I’ve told you that you are a part of destiny and that you’re being hunted; and I’ve told you that we need to find your twin sister and younger brother as fast as possible. And you’ve just spent the entire day playing computer games and eating!’
‘Well, no wonder I’m tired after all that,’ said Luke, standing. ‘Can’t we relax for a bit?’
He had to admit he couldn’t remember ever feeling this tired, especially when he’d had so much sleep.
‘Um, no,’ said Zac. ‘This is my whole point. We can’t relax. We need to find out more about the Telling. And we need to get out of this house.’
‘You really don’t like Georgia, do you?’ said Luke.
‘I don’t trust her. I don’t trust the cats. And I don’t trust this house.’
‘The cats again.’ Luke rolled his eyes. ‘That’s pretty harsh coming from such an animal lover.’ He moved towards the bathroom. ‘Are you going to follow me in there, too?’ he said.
Zac stood there, fists clenched.
Luke splashed his face with cold water. He poked at the green-yellow puffiness around his left eye, surprised to see it there; he’d become accustomed to a narrow view of the world and had forgotten about the black eye. He sighed. He understood that he should be feeling pretty wrecked, given what they’d just been through, but still, he couldn’t believe how tired he was. He’d planned on catching a nap, as Georgia was doing, but Zac’s sense of urgency was beginning to worry him. Why didn’t he feel that way too? He remembered feeling a pressure to discover who he was, but the drive had left him. He felt as though he was drunk.
He left the bathroom. ‘We’ll leave first thing tomorrow,’ he said to Zac. ‘But I really need to get some rest tonight.’
‘It’s only seven o’clock,’ said Zac.
‘I think she could be drugging the food,’ said Zac.
‘You’re paranoid.’ But the suggestion set off a tick in Luke’s mind. ‘Why would she do that?’ he said.
‘Maybe she knows who you are.’
‘How do I know?’
Luke shook his head. ‘It’s impossible,’ he said. ‘Even if she somehow knew who I’m supposed to be, how could she possibly be on the exact train we were on when we broke out of Dwight? I didn’t even know we were going to be on that train.’
‘Well, she’s up to something. Listen, you know how she told us that all her brothers are away at school? Well, I’ve heard something in that room she told us to stay out of.’
‘A couple of times,’ said Zac. ‘I reckon there’s someone in there.’
‘I doubt it. Why haven’t we seen them? They’d have to eat sometime, right?’
‘Well, Georgia’s in her room, asleep, or doing whatever she does in there,’ said Zac. ‘Come and listen for yourself.’
He followed Zac quietly up the stairs to the third level of the house. The doors to the two rooms they’d raided for clothes were slightly ajar. Georgia’s bedroom doors were shut, as were those of the off-limits room. They tiptoed towards it.
Zac put his ear to the door, motioning to Luke to do the same. Luke tilted his head close, feeling sort of stupid. What if Georgia walked out here right now? She’d told them to keep away from here.
He wrinkled his brow when he thought he heard a sound from inside, like maybe a door being gently closed.
See? Zac’s eyebrows asked him.
Maybe the sound came from outside, he thought. This room must face the street. He reached out and ultra-carefully tried the door handle. Locked. Hmm. Shouldn’t be a problem.
He turned back towards the stairs, motioning Zac to follow.
Back in his room, he went straight to the middle pillow and reached a hand into the pillowslip. He turned to face Zac.
‘You really wanna know what’s in there?’ he said, holding out the torque wrench and rake.
‘Are you crazy?’ hissed Zac. ‘No. I just wanted you to know that this chick isn’t telling us everything, that’s all. Let’s just get out of here.’
‘But aren’t you a teensy bit interested now?’
Suddenly, Luke felt much more alert. The locked door was a puzzle, just like the riddles online. He wanted to know what was behind the door.
He raised his eyebrows, asking without speaking, Coming?
They made their way quietly back up the stairs.
July 2, 7.20 p.m.
Samantha felt unnerved by the tall boy standing silently above her. He’d been holding that notepad out in front of him for several minutes. She didn’t want to touch it. How could there possibly be such a picture? Who had drawn it?
The boy had arrived right after she’d used the phone – had Sera sent him? Maybe he was the next part of her destiny. Maybe she was just crazy with fatigue. In any event, her bum was cold. She reached out her hand and the boy took it, pulling her up from the wet pavement.
‘Who are you?’ she tried again.
He twisted his full lips into a worried grimace and held the pad out to her. She took it.
He’d turned the page to a new picture. She felt a thrill jangle painfully through her stomach – excitement threaded with fear.
She recognised the railings bordering the harbour – she was standing right next to them. But there was no Opera House in this picture. What there was, though, was an image of herself standing next to the boy in the striped T-shirt, this time viewed only from behind. They stood facing a small structure, maybe the size of a phone-box, situated right on the edge of the water.
She looked up at the boy, frowning with confusion. ‘What is this?’ she said.
Her gaze followed his arm and she gasped. Maybe eighty metres from where they stood was the white structure from the picture. It resembled a miniature lighthouse. She hadn’t noticed it before, but given her extraordinary surroundings and the even more bizarre things that had taken place in them, this did not surprise her.
So – what did this mean? Was she supposed to go over there with him? She took another look at the picture.
‘Let’s go,’ she said.
They reached the small building within a couple of minutes. She realised that it was not quite as tiny as it had seemed. She guessed that it was some sort of historical structure with a maritime purpose. It didn’t seem to be of much use – it was windowless and would fit maybe four people standing upright, and given that it was right on the edge of one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, it seemed to be pretty much wasted space. And whatever was in there was closed off to the world by a blue door.
‘What now?’ she said, looking up at the boy by her side.
She realised that someone viewing them from behind right now would be looking at the precise image captured on his notepad.
He reached into a pocket in his jeans and pulled out an old-fashioned key. He held it between thumb and forefinger, a question in his eyes.
‘You want me to go in there with you?’ she said.
I don’t think so, she thought. I don’t know you. Once we’re in there anything could happen. Maybe you think I’m some lost, naive little girl, but I’ve been running with Birthday Jones for five years…
At the thought of Birthday, the indignation melted away, leaving a residue of grief. Still, she wasn’t stupid. She opened her mouth to tell him to come up with another suggestion, and he gave her a lopsided, apprehensive smile. She supposed he was trying for reassuring. What he looked like was a kid trying to convince his mum not to take him to the dentist.
A train rumbled over the bridge behind them and she glanced up at it, startled from the moment by the sound. Rain began to fall again, spitting down onto her upturned face.
What the hell. She couldn’t sense any danger from him. She didn’t feel that he wanted to hurt her. And at least it would be dry in there.
‘Open it up,’ she said.
She watched him push open the door, and peered around his broad shoulders. It was nothing but a dark, empty room. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. Maybe this could be a safe place to stay until morning; although it looked as though she’d be sleeping sitting up, given its size.
At least it didn’t look as though her night was going to get any weirder.
July 2, 7.21 p.m.
‘Harder,’ said Kirra Kiyota, draped in a towel, lying face down on a massage table in the penthouse suite of the Shangri-La Hotel. ‘I’m not going to tell you again.’
The Yakuza assassin massaging his boss cringed at the tone in her voice.
‘I’m sorry, Kirra,’ he said, applying more pressure to her petite shoulders and neck. He was stripped down to his waist, full-torso warrior tattoos the only thing covering his martial-arts-honed chest and arms.
Kirra wanted the rest of her crew to see Golden Tiger, one of the most feared fighters in their Yakuza family, humiliated this way. He and the rest of the crew had failed her.
She turned her head towards the spectacular view of Sydney spread out three hundred and sixty degrees around the room. But she did not see the glamorous jewellery box that was Sydney at night from thirty-five floors in the sky. She saw only the image of the gypsy witch and her gesture of contempt at the airport. If anyone else had dared disrespect Kirra that way, she would not have rested until she found them and personally cut out their heart.
Kirra sent her thoughts out into the night, hunting her. Where are you, little witch?
Despite the expert massage – Golden Tiger had trained under Takashi Shadow, studying many forms of healing as well as killing – her muscles were taut. She hated the cold, and had the room-heating pumping. She was definitely not happy that they’d missed the female in Romania – twice. She’d been looking forward to summer in Europe once they’d completed their mission. But then losing her at the airport had been inexcusable. She knew that she had lost face with the Chairman. She could not afford to fail again.
The girl had help. Kirra knew that now, but she also knew that she was facing something more than their usual enemies like the law, rival Yakuza, other gangsters. No, this gypsy seemed to be protected by spirits of some kind. Kirra did not know what had happened at the airport, but she had never seen a crowd whipped into a frenzy like that. Their eyes had been blank – as though they’d been possessed.
At least they’d been able to outrun the police who had come after them. Did the gypsy have them on her side too?
Kirra hoped that the Chairman had obtained a fortune for this contract. There was definitely something supernatural going on here. And now there was another mark. A boy. Same age, same instructions: bring them both in alive. She’d issued multiple photographs of their new target to her crew. They’d all studied them thoroughly.
Her ringtone sounded. She gathered the thick towel about her slender body, pushed Golden Tiger away and sat up.
Her number one soldier, Dagger’s Breath, held the phone out towards her, his eyes hooded with hate. Since he’d let the gypsy girl go when he was shoulder-shot in Romania, the beautiful scar through his lip had glowed vivid white, as it did only when he was enraged. She knew that the scar would not return to normal until he had the girl in his hands again.
‘Thank you,’ she said, reaching for the phone. She held it to her ear for a moment and then disconnected, tossing it onto the bed.
‘Saddle up,’ she said to her team, who watched her soundlessly. ‘We know where they are.’
July 2, 7.24 p.m.
If they were caught this time, they couldn’t just pretend to be curious.
Luke had his tools in under the handle of the only door Georgia had told them to stay away from. If she walked out of her room right now, there’d be nothing they could say but see ya, thanks for the memories.
Georgia’s home was much older than any Luke had been in before and he wasn’t used to this type of lock. Like most internal doors, it had no keyhole, but this one also had a lever-lock mechanism. And while he would have been inside the locked door of a regular bedroom in sixty seconds – even if he only had a matchstick, bobby pin, credit card or paperclip – he’d been working on this one for a good three minutes.
One step away, Zac shifted from foot to foot. Luke ignored him and breathed out. He allowed his thoughts to slide one more time into the lock, and yep – there it was – he popped the lever. He looked up over his shoulder at Zac. Grinned. It’s now or never, his smile said.
He opened the door.
Other than some furniture, the semi-lit room was empty. Luke walked in, squatted beside the big four-poster bed to peer underneath – just to make sure – and then checked out the rest of the room. Waste of time, really. Nothing to see in here. He turned around and shrugged.
‘Pretty boring,’ he said.
‘Someone left the lamp on,’ said Zac, pointing with his chin to the desk.
‘People with houses like this don’t worry about electricity.’
‘Yeah, well, I still think I heard someone in here,’ said Zac. ‘And I still have a really bad feeling. I just think now’s the time to get out of this house.’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ said Luke.
He walked up to the window and cracked the blind a fraction. The lamp-lit street beyond the tropical garden was slick with rain. Out there waited the real world, the wealthy and the wannabes of Elizabeth Bay. And around the corner was Kings Cross, where the dark and damaged of Sydney did business.
Suddenly, he wondered what he’d been doing in this house for so long. It was time to move. Something big was definitely going on, and playing PSII was not going to help him learn what that was.
Zac froze on his way to the door and Luke heard it a split-second later. He dropped and rolled, but even though Zac had been further away, he was still first under the bed.
They both locked eyes on the source of the sound. The wardrobe? They waited. Nothing.
Luke had half made up his mind to crawl out from under the bed when one of the cupboard doors squeaked open. He scuttled backwards silently, grateful that the desk lamp wasn’t powerful enough to banish the shadows hiding them.
The door opened further. Who hides in their own cupboard? he wondered. This oughta be interesting.
Although he was completely focused on the wardrobe, he barely noticed the barefoot kid in the striped T-shirt who stepped out of it.
Because there was someone else in there behind him. He could sense her. And he was already halfway out from under the bed when she spoke.
‘Luke?’ she said, stepping out of the wardrobe.
‘Samantha?’ he said.
He stood up, ready to meet his sister.
Luke wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when he met his twin sister. He hadn’t really had time to think a lot about it. Two days ago, he didn’t even know that this girl – with her arms locked around his neck in a death grip – existed.
But now that she was here, he realised that somehow, somewhere, he’d always known.
And everything felt wrong. Not wrong, exactly – more like right. Everything felt right. But not right, exactly. More like something he had never felt before. As Samantha clung to him, sobbing, Luke felt his heart pulsing in synch with hers, he felt each beat becoming more noticeable, more painful, more loud. He hugged her back. This stranger. The only family he’d ever known.
A sob rose in his throat. That hadn’t happened since he was four and foster mummy two had drunkenly pushed him into a kerosene heater and his pyjamas bottoms had melted into his thighs. The memory flared a moment of panic and he dropped his arms and pulled away.
When they broke connection, the drumming in his chest stopped mid-beat; his heart instantly became cold and quiet again. The tears in his throat evaporated and his brain clicked in, razor-sharp, as the rest of his body became comfortably numb.
What the hell was that? he wondered.
Samantha teetered there without him, her eyes bereft.
‘What happened to you?’ she said, tears streaming.
How do I answer that? he thought. He didn’t try.
For the first time, Luke noticed that Zac wasn’t behind him, crawling out from under the bed. He was standing at the open doorway of the wardrobe. Luke wasn’t surprised. It was difficult to be shocked by anything Zac did any more. Besides, there was also the fact that his twin sister had just stepped out of a cupboard. He’d never done surprise very well, anyway.
And who was the other kid?
He turned to face the taller boy who was staring back at him. The kid was completely panicked. Fear crouched in his dark eyes and he ducked his head, cowering, as a newbie might in his first week at Dwight when he was about to be ‘counselled’ by Mr Holt and his henchmen.
‘Who -’ he began.
And then the wardrobe door creaked again.
Oh, for God’s sake.
‘Seraphina!’ yelled Zac and Samantha simultaneously.
That was a little too loud, Luke thought. He didn’t know whether Georgia knew that she had all these people chilling out in her hanging space, but she was gonna be aware of it pretty soon if everyone kept up with that volume.
‘Quiet!’ hissed the woman, stepping down from the wardrobe and quickly scanning the room.
Her eyes stopped at Luke, and he stared right back. Well, she was beautiful. Definitely hot, even in her Rambo outfit. But who on earth was she?
‘Um,’ he said. ‘What’s going on?’
Seraphina spoke first. ‘We haven’t got long,’ she said. ‘Samantha, I trust you’ve met Luke, your brother?’
‘It was a terrible risk of me to give you that phone, and I hope one day you’ll forgive me,’ said the woman.
‘What phone?’ said Luke.
‘How does it work?’ said Samantha.
‘It’s an ancient object embedded within a communication device. It calls me to you when you desperately need me. But it also attracts others. We had to risk it when we lost track of you in Windsor, Luke.’
‘But I’ve never seen you before in my life,’ said Luke. ‘And what the hell are you doing hanging around in a closet?’
Seraphina’s golden eyes glinted. ‘Obviously, Luke, you realise that it is not an ordinary wardrobe.’
‘There are extraordinary wardrobes?’ said Luke.
‘There are many things you need to learn, but now is not the time. You and your sister are in immediate danger. I’ve no doubt the creatures hunting you are on their way. Whoever created this portal -’ she pointed at the wardrobe, ‘- is a very powerful being. Using it requires much skill.’
Her eyes locked hard on Luke’s, and then she turned quickly. ‘Zac Nguyen, your mother would be very proud of you.’
Zac blushed and bowed. Luke stared at him. He’d never seen anyone bow before.
‘And who is this?’ said Seraphina, turning towards the boy wearing no shoes and a terrified expression. The boy looked wildly around the room and then at the door.
He’s either gonna bolt or cry, thought Luke.
‘I don’t know his name,’ said Samantha quietly. ‘And I don’t think he can talk, Sera. But he can draw. And he’s really, really frightened.’
Luke’s eyes turned to his sister. Every word she spoke made him want to hear more.
Seraphina moved very slowly towards the boy, her palm outstretched as though approaching a trapped animal. Her lips moved, but Luke couldn’t pick up what she was saying. The boy’s head stopped thrashing about, but his eyes still looked freaked.
‘Please, would you tell us who you are?’ said Seraphina.
The kid reached around behind his back and pulled a notepad out of his backpack. He flipped back the cover and Luke could see some writing at the top of the page.
‘Kyle Greene,’ read Seraphina. ‘Is that your name?’
The boy chewed his bottom lip and then inclined his head, once.
‘Kyle Greene?’ said Luke. ‘Samantha, I think he’s one of our brothers!’
‘One of our brothers?’ Samantha stared at Luke.
‘What?’ hissed Seraphina. She grabbed the boy by the arm. ‘Kyle, why did you bring Samantha here? Who sent you to find her?’
Kyle wrenched his arm away and barrelled out of the room. Samantha hesitated, but the trail of fear and despair he left behind was too strong and she bolted after him.
And as she left the room, the world changed forever.
July 2, 7.32 p.m.
‘Are you certain that this was all that was at the front desk?’ asked Kirra, standing before the door of Room 323 of the Shangri-La Hotel.
Dagger’s Breath stood beside her, his scar glowing, sword sheathed across his shoulders. She could feel the heat of his need for revenge.
‘There were no other messages?’ she repeated.
‘Nothing, boss,’ said Golden Tiger, eyes averted.
Kirra turned the electronic pass-card over in her hands, her stomach muscles cramped.
The Chairman himself had called her. That was the first bad sign. When he ordered an important execution he liked to be personally involved on some level – but never directly, never like this.
Had she angered her boss so much that what lay beyond Room 323 was the afterlife? He’d want to have sent a pretty good crew if that was the case. She mentally reviewed the weapons she carried. Nine, all lethal, none visible.
She ran through everything again. The Chairman had told her that he knew where the two targets were hiding. Send someone to reception, he’d ordered – your instructions will be waiting.
And this was what Golden Tiger had brought her. The key to a room on the third floor of their own hotel.
She knew that the Chairman could have organised to have anything on the other side of this door. But could he possibly have captured the gypsy witch and had her brought here? Was that what he had summoned her to see – that others had succeeded where she’d failed? She would rather he had set up a trap for her crew – she would have preferred to meet her ancestors than face that humiliation.
If the gypsy witch was behind these doors, the Chairman would expect her to bring her to him, alive, as instructed. But he would always remember that she had failed the most important part of the mission and forever more she would have to watch and wait for his retribution.
And she knew that he was a very patient man.
But if the witch wasn’t in here, well…
She smoothed a single errant hair back from her flawless face and flicked her glossy ponytail off her shoulders. She knew – without vanity, and without make-up, for that matter – that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. But she was more than that. She was a Yakuza assassin, feared in all dark corners throughout Japan and everywhere else she should happen to be.
And if she died tonight – on the night of her twenty-first birthday – well, she would ensure that people would still be speaking about it on the hundredth anniversary of her death.
Kirra Kiyota inserted the passkey into the electronic lock of Room 323 and pushed the door open.
The moment she pushed through the heavy hotel door, Kirra knew they were walking into a trap. The room was dark, but it wasn’t that: it felt far too small, as though it had been boxed up to cage them.
For a microsecond her instincts told her to back out, to run. But she squashed them immediately, ashamed. If it was her destiny to die today, punished by the Chairman for failing in her assignment, then she would die with honour. Not in a year from now, hunted down in some alley by a fellow Yakuza.
She led her crew into the room with her. They were Yakuza, all, and she knew they would react the same way.
But once crowded into the cramped, airless space, she became confused. The barricade restraining them was wooden, flimsy, as though they were ordinary doors. She could see light and hear voices beyond them.
She put her eye to the crack in the doors and hissed quietly.
The gypsy and others. And there is the boy!
A massive sense of relief overrode all instincts telling her there was something bewitched about the situation. The Chairman still trusts me, she thought. The job is still there to do properly. I will be redeemed.
Kirra silently thanked her ancestors and turned to face her crew. Suddenly she was again proud of them all; their names would live forever.
She manoeuvred a little so that her beloved, Dagger’s Breath, could see through the crack in the doorway.
‘Keep the targets alive,’ she whispered. ‘All others are disposable.’ She waited for each of their murmured assents.
‘Dagger’s Breath,’ she breathed behind him, ‘on your go.’
July 2, 7.36 p.m.
The cupboard door smacked back and a nightmare stepped through. A screaming, sword-wielding, tattooed freak. Luke threw himself sideways as another shrieking black-clad daemon leapt into the room. But this one was definitely female – even in his shock, Luke registered her icy beauty. And behind her were more.
Before his mind could process what was happening, the female ninja launched herself right at him. He sprang up onto the bed just as Seraphina crash-tackled her and Zac hollered his name.
He whipped his head up to see Zac straining with everything he had to push the cupboard doors closed. He had no idea how Zac was keeping at bay whatever roared and smashed against the inside of the doors, but he knew he needed help fast.
Luke flew from the bed and shoulder-charged into the doors. He heard the door lock-snap into place, felt the wardrobe immediately become still, and then, much too late, registered the swipe of silver from the corner of his eye.
JULY 2, 7.36 P.M.
Samantha froze in the hallway, hearing the shrieks from the room she had just left, and flattened herself against the wall. Every sense told her to get the hell out, start running and never come back. But her brother was in there. She couldn’t leave him.
Her heart firing like a machine gun, she peered around the door frame.
The scarred monster from the Carnivale seemed to fill all the space in the room and she plastered both hands over her mouth to smother her scream.
Samantha watched, horrified, as Luke dived a split second before Scarface landed in the spot he’d been standing. Scarface hit the ground hard, and rolled.
Samantha made herself small behind the door frame, terrified that he would see her when he stood up again.
And then Kirra leapt through.
Kirra screamed the same bloodcurdling battle cry Samantha had heard at the Carnivale – the sound that accompanied the whistle of the throwing star that had buried itself in Tamas’s neck. The sound Samantha heard replaying in her mind every time she closed her eyes.
Sam pushed her fingertips into her ears, praying to just curl up on the floor and disappear, and watched, horrified, as Kirra flew towards Luke. But before she could even take a breath to warn him, Seraphina sprang from a standing start to head-height in a blur of frenzied movement, and brought the black-clad ninja to the ground.
For a single heartbeat they each lay on their backs as though stunned, and then, in a near identical move, both women propelled themselves from flat out to kickboxing without making a single sound. Samantha would have cheered, but while the two women fought viciously hand to hand, Zac threw himself at the wardrobe.
She rushed forward to help.
Right into the chest of Scarface.
This close to him Sam suddenly felt the past deaths he’d been responsible for. Their ghosts wailed and moaned, and her legs jellied as the stored-up emotions of people he’d crushed and killed seeped through his pores and into her own. He grabbed her arms as she almost collapsed, and she was swamped by his hatred for her; it scalded her skin at every point of contact between them.
He threw his head back and howled.
Whimpering, incoherent with terror, Samantha tried, but failed, to close her eyes as he bent down to her head height to make her face him. His teeth were bared in a broken-lipped snarl and she saw in his black eyes that he was beyond human reach, beyond compassion. Her legs gave out completely and she bowed her head, waiting for his sword to fall.
But, as though from somewhere far away, deep inside, she heard a voice trying to tell her something. You’ve done it before, it whispered. In the street in Pantelimon – you reached him then.
Samantha White, you’ve done it before.
Although she wanted nothing more than to just allow her mind to go blank – to do what it wanted to do: overload its circuitry and shut down – she forced herself instead to search for the yellow light inside her.
But this close to Scarface, it felt impossible. The only energy streaming through her right now was wound-red and burned-black.
She tried to shut him out, she managed to close her eyes, but she could taste blood, and the charred stench of his rage filled her nostrils.
She needed an image, a place, a time to help her channel the light.
And suddenly, it came to her.
The burning stench Scarface emitted transformed in her mind to wood smoke, to the campfire crackling in preparation for Esmeralda’s evening meal. She found herself sitting cross-legged in the long grass, her lime-green skirt fanned out around her, the purple twilight warm upon her skin. She smiled, because behind the fence, within an arm’s-reach, Tamas whispered patiently to a broken horse, his brown face just visible, nuzzling its muzzle, swapping scents.
Tears streaming, Samantha gathered his whispers, his tender promises to the horse, and sent them out as quiet energy through her skin and into Scarface.
She felt it immediately.
Scarface hissed. As though a bucket of water had been thrown over white-hot coals, the fire of his rage evaporated. His eyes, locked with hers, became panicked, confused. He swung his head around wildly, as though for the first time properly taking in his surroundings.
What have I done? she thought, as she felt fear flood through him, replacing the hatred. She sensed him slowly losing his grip on reality.
He let go of her arm and swivelled completely, swaying on his feet, gazing back at the wardrobe from which he’d come. The wardrobe Zac and Luke stood pressed against, holding back the rest of the hell-people.
And, with a deafening, demented shriek, Scarface suddenly bolted towards the wardrobe, sword raised.
‘No!’ Samantha screamed, as Scarface struck.
JULY 2, 7.36 P.M.
Luke did not hear Samantha scream.
In fact, he heard nothing at all. The world became completely silent and everything slowed to a syrupy crawl as he watched the tattooed arm swinging its sword down towards Zac. Only these two players were in pinpoint-focus on the board as the rest of the room faded to sepia. His brain computed the microseconds it would take him to pull Zac from the path of the sword, even as it continued its lethal trajectory directly into his friend’s chest.
Zac crumpled to the floor and Luke knew that there was nothing he could do. He jumped anyway, leaping up onto the madman standing over Zac, roping his arms around his neck, heaving with everything he had to pull him down.
The swordsman teetered, Luke wrenched desperately, and they fell.
Luke felt the sword piercing his heart, just as Samantha’s agonised face appeared above him. Her hand grasped his. A dark, wrenching pain ripped through him and he gasped. An aching anguish (could this be sorrow?) filled him at the thought that he was about to die and he’d never get to know her. But in that moment he was also inexpressibly grateful. Grateful that even though this would be the last time he would experience it, somehow his sister had again helped him to feel.
And finally he got it – finally he understood what everyone meant when they kept asking him, What do you think it would feel like if someone did that to you? He finally knew how someone else felt, and he was glad that the other person was Zac, his first real friend.
As his life pumped from the wound in his chest, Luke managed to drag himself a few centimetres closer to Zac.
He reached a hand out to touch his dying friend’s shoe, smiled up at Samantha, and then closed his eyes.
July 2, 7.37 p.m.
From the age of seven, Kirra Kiyota had been able to out-fight any grown woman.
And at that age, no male under the age of sixteen could beat her in hand-to-hand combat.
She’d begun her martial arts training while still in nappies, chosen and schooled by Heaven’s Thief himself. She’d been told, even then, that when he’d had his dream about her destiny, her family had had no choice but to hand her over to the Yakuza.
She had no memory of her parents and wanted none. Heaven’s Thief had been her father, the Chairman her benevolent uncle.
When, at twelve, she’d knocked senseless their best adult male fighter, the Chairman had offered her the right to take the defeated man’s life. Still shamefully soft, she’d declined, so the Chairman had bought her a Lamborghini as a prize for her win, and forced her to sleep for a mid-winter’s month on the stones in the courtyard for refusing the kill.
All of this knowledge flashed through Kirra’s mind when she was high-kicked onto her arse by a woman. She could have sat there for another twenty-four hours trying to figure out how that could be possible, but her body was already kicking, blocking and striking, even as she hit the ground and bounced back to her feet.
Her opponent kept up, then ramped it up, and Kirra suddenly wanted to laugh, to rejoice in what she realised was going to be a rare – and maybe never again experienced – battle.
‘Who trained you?’ she managed through gritted teeth.
‘Kimi,’ said the woman, escaping Kirra’s hold and striking her to the kidneys. ‘She who is without equal.’
‘Liar!’ hissed Kirra, ignoring the pain. ‘Kimi Kana has been buried for a thousand years.’ And I am her equal.
She twisted out of a hold and into a back-arch, smacking into her enemy’s jaw with each foot as she flipped back up onto her feet.
As they battled, she tried to ascertain the whereabouts of the rest of her crew. She knew that Dagger’s Breath would appropriate the targets, but she could not see Golden Tiger or Tanabe Yukio.
Suddenly she sensed that something was very wrong. From the corner of her eye, she saw her number one – her beloved – Dagger’s Breath – staggering in through the doorway of this cursed room past her towards the wardrobe. Dagger’s Breath would not stagger, would not stumble, she thought, still blocking blows instinctively, unless he was mortally wounded, or maybe bewitched.
Then Dagger’s Breath raised his sword.
Her opponent froze at the precise moment Kirra did.
They both spun on the spot and screamed, ‘No!’
Too close! The thought flashed through Kirra’s mind. You are too close to the target, Dagger’s Breath! We have orders to bring him in alive! She readied herself to spring over to the wardrobe. But a heartbeat after the first child fell, the male target launched himself at Dragon’s Breath, and they both crashed to the floor.
Two seconds later, Kirra Kiyota was fairly certain she would not live to see another day. But if she managed to, she was prepared, right then and there, to bet her ancestors’ souls that she would never forget this one. Because when the male target fell, reality fractured.
As Kirra stared, some Thing ripped a hole right through the middle of realness and bludgeoned its way into the bedroom. Kirra fell to her knees as the shrieking she-daemon raised itself up to ceiling height. But even as it towered terrifyingly over them all, red eyes blazing behind whipping Medusa locks, Kirra found herself thinking: Why would a powerful devil wear a frilly red skirt and black-and-white tights? She would never be seen like that.
And then, four things happened.
One, the woman she had been battling gaped in horror at the terrifying creature and shouted at the top of her lungs, ‘Morgan Moreau!’
Next, the seven-foot nightmare flicked a massive hand towards the two boys sprawled in front of the wardrobe, bleeding-out on the carpet (beyond help, in Kirra’s considerable experience), and an iridescent blue light shot from her fingers, cloaking them entirely.
Thirdly, and most disturbingly to Kirra, the Thing reached up to her giant face and ripped a piece of silver jewellery from her nose, hurtling it down onto the carpet where it immediately began to double, quadruple, mushroom monstrously, clanking and grinding from the size of a coin to that of a toy truck, then a dog, and finally to a horrible, terrible, snarling metal dragon-thing that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be described.
The fourth thing that happened would require many years for Kirra to mentally and emotionally process.
It involved the metal-dog-dragon thing.
It involved her only-love, Dagger’s Breath.
And it involved a lot of blood.
Kirra had seen some things in her twenty-one years. She’d heard many other things over breakfast that had made grown men cry or vomit. But she had never seen anything like this.
She knew that this seven-foot chick and her mutant dragon were not of this world.
She also knew that when a battle was done, it was done, and that leaving right now was not shameful, merely prudent.
But her heart bled for what her beloved had just suffered. So she took a moment, just a fraction of a moment, to weld forever the pain of his death to the karate-liar in khaki, to the cursed gypsy and her brother, and to the bitch-daemon with no dress sense. She vowed that she would see them all again, if not in hell, then before. And she ran to the window.
Ripping the white wooden blinds from the frame as though pulling a tissue from a box, Kirra Kiyota took one last look around that damned supernatural room and at what remained of her beloved, and then, using an elbow sheathed in Kevlar catsuit, she smashed the glass and cartwheeled out, dropping silently down into the wet Sydney night.
As she ran for the shadows, Kirra wondered if there was anywhere in the world she was safe to go.
She had no crew.
She’d failed another mission.
Would the Chairman comfort or kill her?
As she dodged vehicles to find the darkest corners of the city, an image flashed up before her: Dagger’s Breath with his throat in the jaws of that metal thing.
She banished the image and replaced it with another: a twenty-first birthday cake, candles blazing. She heard the rumble of a train and headed for it, keeping the imaginary candles burning bright.
When she’d tucked herself into a corner seat in the bottom carriage of a train heading to Sydney’s Central Station, two dark-haired youths looking for trouble spotted her and made their way over.
She raised her eyebrows, doing her best to tone down her rage. They hesitated and she lifted her lip in a snarl. They moved away quickly.
‘Yeah, get!’ she yelled after them, almost disappointed.
She closed her eyes, watched the pretty candles, and blew them out.
Then Kirra Kiyota made her twenty-first birthday wish.
She’d never tell a soul what she wished for.
Because then it wouldn’t come true.
July 2, 7.40 p.m.
‘Luke! Get everyone into the cupboard. Now!’ screamed Seraphina.
Luke wasn’t sure how he was supposed to do that when he was dead.
Except he wasn’t.
Even though his shirt was saturated in blood, he felt pretty great, actually. He sat up.
Zac didn’t look so good, but he was breathing. And Seraphina looked to be pretty busy.
‘The Witch healed you,’ yelled Seraphina.
Georgia – a witch?
Now that was definitely not Georgia.
Luke gazed in awe at the Goth girl he’d eaten dinner with the last two nights. Except then she hadn’t been seven foot tall, and she hadn’t been jetting red lasers from her fingers.
‘Georgia is Morgan Moreau,’ coughed Zac, pale and panting, pushing himself up on one elbow. ‘We have to get out of here. Sera won’t be able to hold her off forever.’
‘My mother?’ said Luke, his senses threatening to pack up and leave again.
He watched Seraphina face the monster, green light streaming from her fingers and rippling through the air like flame before meeting Georgia’s blood-red lasers in a deluge of sparks and lightning-like flares.
Samantha seemed to be frozen to the spot, staring with fixed concentration at the fireworks.
‘Samantha, I’m fine,’ Seraphina yelled. Luke didn’t think fine was quite the right word. ‘Please, Sam, you don’t have to help me. Save your energy. Help the boys. Luke – get into that cupboard now!’
Samantha was helping Seraphina? How? Luke stood, swaying a little on his feet. He knew that he had died – he’d felt the sword puncture his lungs, pierce his heart. And the pain. He had never felt anything like it. He had no idea how these things could be happening, but right now he was thankful for the total numbness that overtook him whenever things were out of control. He squinted in the glare of the flame-battle. Yep, this would definitely meet that category.
The giant-Georgia countered a laser of light hurled by Seraphina; the energies met in an explosion of brilliance.
The mutant metal dragon thing sat on its hideous haunches, watching the lightshow. From its malformed mouth hung a clump of blood-matted hair left over from the mess of the swordsman on the ground. After one glance downwards, Luke kept his eyes above floor-level. That dude didn’t have a scar any more. He didn’t have a face, either. He wondered why Georgia-Morgan didn’t sick her freak mutt onto Seraphina to end the battle once and for all.
Right then Zac tugged desperately at his arm and Luke turned towards the wardrobe. He’d rather be in there than out here if the doggie-dragon did decide it was up for seconds.
‘Locked,’ said Zac weakly, trying to stay upright. ‘You have to use your tools. You’re the only one who can do it. It all makes sense now.’
‘Oh yeah. It all makes perfect sense, Nguyen,’ Luke said. ‘This is all completely understandable.’
Luke picked the lock in three seconds flat, grabbed Samantha’s hand, and stepped through the door.
Are you there?
Oh my God. None of us can believe this has happened! And that Morgan Moreau is alive and kicking. I’m still in shock.
The battle’s over. My source says Morgan vanished when the kids portalled out of there. And Seraphina’s okay.
Morgan set that whole meeting up – we know that for certain. She wanted to bring the kids together. I mean, it’s not as though my source could have that part wrong. Although I’m betting Kirra’s appearance was a bit of a nasty surprise. And Seraphina probably wasn’t part of the plan either.
What is Moreau up to?
At least we know now that she doesn’t want the twins dead. She could have compelled her dragon-daemon to take them all out. But she protected them, healed Luke, and it looks as though Zac might have been lucky enough to catch some of that magic too.
Whatever you do, though, don’t go thinking that Morgan’s found religion or something. She brought those kids into being for a purpose, and I promise you that it’s not to play happy families one day.
Something big is coming. And Morgan’s had centuries to plan for it.
Hell, there are so many spybots in here; this place is crawling with them. I’ve gotta go down low. If I can’t reach you again for a while, keep your ears open, for Gaia’s sake.
July 2, 11.30 A.M.
On his twenty-third lap of the twenty-metre swimming pool, Jake Grey decided that he was definitely not going to enrol in his PhD this year. Nor maybe the next.
For the next five laps, he tried to figure out how the hell he was going to explain this to his uncle.
His decision had nothing to do with the fact that he’d only just completed his Masters degree in Neuroinformatics. He wasn’t the slightest bit fatigued by all the study. The program at the Institute of Technology in Zurich had been great, and his dissertation concentrating upon the development of a computational model to map human emotions was fascinating.
And even though his uncle would assume it was all because of George, that wasn’t it either. Sure, he was sick of having that big ape following him everywhere around campus, but he knew that the university would never have allowed him to board there if he hadn’t been chaperoned. Even with his uncle guaranteeing that George would be constantly by his side, it had been difficult to persuade the Dean that he was emotionally mature enough at age eleven to begin his first degree at the university. Now, at age fourteen, he and the Dean were firm friends, and he could probably have convinced him over a chess game that he no longer needed a bodyguard.
The Dean was another person who would not take this news well. Dean Bachmann would definitely feel the loss of their weekly game over dinner in his private dining room, but Jake was under no pretence that what he would miss more was the funding and study grants that Jake’s research attracted.
As he climbed out of the pool after his fiftieth lap, he felt more certain than ever about his decision. He towel-dried his dark-blond hair, and slicked his too-long fringe back out of his blue eyes.
He was beginning to conclude that formal academia was just too one-dimensional and constrained. When he’d put the very basics of his idea for his next project to two of his professors, they’d laughed. When they’d realised he was serious, they’d wasted the next hour of his life trying to tell him how unattainable his plans were. During their three thousand and eighty-eight words, he’d counted the term ‘impossible’ seventeen times.
And that was the very hour when this ridiculous notion arose. That Jake Grey would not enrol in his doctoral studies upon immediately attaining his Masters was unthinkable. He’d completed primary school by age seven, high school at ten, and had his undergraduate degree in neuroscience under his belt by twelve-and-a-half.
But when he’d begun unwittingly counting the number of words his professors spoke, he knew that he was bored. It happened whenever his mind was under-stimulated – it would just begin recording things of its own accord: the licence plate of every car in a carpark, the number of acorns on a tree, the chapters of the book he was speed-reading.
He climbed onto the ancient sandstone wall behind the pool and stared down the wooded hillside out to Lake Geneva. Even though this view was permanently etched into his brain, he never tired of looking at it. Today, in the middle of summer, the lake, bordered by the Swiss Alps, was a seamless, shimmering mirror, its blue brilliance reflecting endlessly the flawless, cloudless sky.
Suddenly starving, he headed back up to the house.
In his uncle’s family for six hundred years, the house could be best described as a mansion, although with its multiple sandstone wings and turreted roofs and spires, many people mistook it for a castle. Some tourist websites, promoting the region, took advantage of this and advertised it as such, but Jake stuck to the literal definition of a castle. He’d traced the building’s history and it had never been used by royalty, nor had it served for protection of the realm.
But he never forgot how lucky he was to call it home. If his uncle hadn’t taken him in when his parents had died in a car accident, who knew where he’d be right now. Maybe in an orphanage. His uncle wouldn’t speak to him of his brother, Jake’s father, telling him only that his parents had had a brief relationship before they’d both been killed in the collision.
He stepped into the ultramodern kitchen and leaned into the huge stainless steel fridge. As great as the house was, he kinda wished his uncle hadn’t ordered the multi-million-dollar refurbishment of the interior. He’d loved the stone walls, the intricate moulded cornices, the original, sweeping ballroom. But when his uncle had dug into the hillside to create his three-level underground laboratory, he’d hired a decorator and ordered the builders to completely gut the place. Jake had come home during semester break to what felt like an entirely new house.
Except for his room. After weeks of pleading, his uncle had agreed to leave Jake’s room just as it was. Jake didn’t know what he would have done if he hadn’t been able to persuade him. His room was his muse – the place where most of his ideas came to him. It was his heart, his home. When he was away during semester he pined for it as though for a pet, a best friend, a sibling.
‘May I assist you, Master Jake?’
Adelheid appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, a crystal goblet in one hand, a polishing cloth in the other. Adelheid was something else Jake missed like crazy when he was away. He kicked the fridge door closed with his foot, balancing jars, a plate, and storage containers. He dumped them all onto a vast steel benchtop and rushed over to her. Taller than Adelheid for the first time, he gripped her around her slim, aproned waist and twirled her around like a ballerina in a jewellery box.
She slapped him across his bare shoulder, hard enough for the sound to echo off the shiny surfaces and to leave a crimson mark.
She frowned fearsomely, steel-grey hair scraped back from her face and imprisoned in a bun. But when she bustled by him into the kitchen, he glimpsed the tiniest upward tilt to her full lips. As usual, all of Adelheid’s attempts to appear formidable were undermined by the ageless beauty of her face.
She carefully placed the goblet up against a wall. Adelheid was another non-fan of the mega-renovation. She treasured the heirlooms now buried in glossy, handle-free cupboards, and whenever the Master was away she found them all and tended to them just as she always had.
‘Sandwich?’ said Jake. ‘I’m making one. Roast beef.’
‘Please, allow me,’ she said, moving towards the Tupperware. ‘And you know I’m a vegetarian.’
‘Uh uh,’ he said, moving in close to her. He knew that would do it. He was right; she stepped away from the bench.
Adelheid hated to be touched. That made him inexpressibly sad, because he remembered when he still wore nappies and she would smother his face in kisses and squeeze and hold him close every chance she got.
Jake knew that these memories really shouldn’t exist. Science told him that he couldn’t have these memories – that until the age of at least three he should have no verbal-pictorial recall of what had happened to him. The brain was simply not sufficiently developed to store such data. But Jake remembered many things, some seen from between the bars of his cot, and every one of his memories featuring Adelheid was well-worn and treasured.
As soon as he’d learned to walk and talk, however, the hugs had ceased. He missed them still; their absence was like a constant, faint toothache.
‘Let me make you a sandwich,’ he said. ‘It’s lunchtime.’
‘That’s my job,’ she growled.
‘I don’t care,’ he said.
Jake knew that Adelheid’s work in this house was more important to her than anything in the world, but he wanted to do something for her, for once.
‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘I’ll make us both one.’
‘I’m busy. I don’t have time to stop.’
‘But I’m going to be using a knife,’ he said. ‘And what if I break something, like that glass you just left there?’
‘I could move it,’ she said, hands on hips.
‘Or you could sit down,’ he said, ‘and let me make you a sandwich. Don’t you like me any more?’
He sensed that she wanted to smack him again, but instead she climbed up onto a leather-and-steel bar stool.
‘I hate these chairs,’ she said.
‘I hear you,’ he responded.
He kept the grin from his face, watching her restraining herself from taking over while he made the sandwiches. Then he headed up to his room.
After walking through the clean lines and glittering glamour of the rest of the home, he smiled when he reached his doorway. It could not have been any more at odds with the rest of the house. A wide wooden arch inlaid with intricate carvings of leaves, berries and curlicues surrounded the heavy wooden door. He turned the handle and entered the tallest turret of the mansion – his bedroom and study.
He locked the door behind him.
Books and science journals lined the curved walls, squatted in corners in perilous towers and covered most surfaces of his sprawling desk. Six PCs took up the rest of the space, their cords and wires snaking across the mosaic-tiled floor. An arched window behind the desk overlooked the slate tiles of the rooftop and down to Lake Geneva.
He took his lunch to the back of the room and climbed the spiral staircase. He shoved his laptop aside and dropped down onto his bed. As he munched his sandwich, he stared absently at the view through another arched window, and thought about the note.
Even though he had every word – and even the shape of every letter – memorised, he reached behind him and felt around with his fingers until he found it, wedged into one of the curved nooks in the carved bedhead. He bent his legs and smoothed the paper out on his knee.
He wondered why the note was written in English and not German or Italian. Jake was fluent in six languages, including all of these, but English was not commonly used by the Swiss. He read the brief message again.
You are being watched. An enemy has learned of your emotion-synthesis model and seeks to use it for weaponry. I have further information about this and about the distillation of emotions 3, 7 and 9. Meet me on Saturday night, Level 4, in the campus library, 8.30 p.m. If anyone is with you, you’ll never hear from me again.
He slapped the note down on the bed. Since it had been delivered two days ago in an envelope with his academic transcript, he’d been trying to figure out who had sent it. One of the professors? How did the writer even know about his labelling system for the emotions? He’d never published it. Emotions three, seven and nine: fear, envy and shame. And who else out there could have realised the application of his research for weaponry?
He’d already decided that he would be at the library tonight. He just hadn’t completely figured out how he was going to get off the property without George finding out. But with his uncle away on a lecture tour, it was perfect timing…
A muffled crash sounded from downstairs in his study.
Jake sprang from the bed, praying that he hadn’t lost the order of the books stacked next to the fireplace. All of them were opened to the pages he was up to.
He bolted down the stairs, two at a time, and scanned the room, confused. Everything looked just as it had a few moments ago.
And then the noise sounded again. It was coming from -
Jake had never really believed that a person could actually faint from shock. But when the door to the storage cupboard under his desk swung open and a girl crawled out, the blood left his head in a rush and he saw stars.
When his vision cleared, two boys stood next to her, the shorter of the two leaning heavily on the other.
He would have cried out, but he’d forgotten how to do that.
‘Jake Grey?’ said the taller boy, the front of his shirt covered in blood.
Jake took a seat, right there on the tiles.
Sending love, luck and many thanks to Jeanmarie Morosin for opening the portal.
Thank you so much, Jane Godwin and Katrina Lehman. How it is possible to have two such adorable bosses, I’ll never know. May we have every editing meeting atop a skyscraper at dusk.
Many thanks to Marina Messiha for the amazing cover art and design of this book. And thanks to everyone at Penguin for your help and support. I’ve collected psychological profiles for each of you, and find you all, if not sane, at least thoroughly delightful.
A massive thank you to my family and friends, who love me in spite of my invisibility. Whether we’re together or not, you’re always in my heart. A special thank you to the real Zac, Kirra, Luke, Jake and Samantha. I’ve spent almost every waking moment thinking of you while writing about your adventures. I love you and all my other nieces and nephews – you’re all in a book if you look hard enough. Don’t fight!
Thank you my darling mum for everything, ever, including finally reading one of my novels! I know, I know… the others are too scary. My dad would have loved them. I miss him too.
And my Joshua. Thank you can never be enough. Our lives and minds run through every page of this book.