For Mum and Dad,
who taught me to never give up on a dream.
Another heavy drop of rain fell down the back of my neck and dribbled all the way down my spine. I zipped my hoodie up and shrugged, trying to keep the wet out. I don’t know why I was bothering. I was already soaked through and shivering. It was two in the morning. I’d been standing here, leaning up against a grubby wall, watching the rear exit of a seedy bar somewhere in Manchester for an hour. And it had been raining hard for the last twenty minutes.
The bar door opened and I leaned forward to try and see who was coming. A bearded man staggered out as if he was walking on the deck of a ship at sea, bouncing from the doorway to the bins. He propped himself up against the wall and promptly threw up into the gutter. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand and wove his way back into the bar.
“He’s not coming. Can we just go?” I moaned.
“Not yet,” said Aubrey, for what was probably the tenth time. She was huddled under a small outcrop of concrete and seemed to be avoiding the rain all together. Her hair was still perfectly dishevelled and her dark make-up untouched. I watched her watch the door and smiled. I still couldn’t believe that this girl, the Girl, Aubrey Jones, was my girlfriend, even after six months of getting to know me.
A crack of light appeared in the door way and I tore my eyes away from Aubrey to look back at the bar. Maybe this time.
The door took the longest time to open as if whoever was behind it was teasing us. Eventually, a heavy-set man wearing a pale blue T-shirt emerged. He pulled out a cigarette and tried three times to light it with a glinting zippo. It caught on the fourth attempt. He inhaled a lungful of smoke, sneered up at the grey sky and suddenly he was wearing a black bomber jacket.
“Got ‘im,” Aubrey said.
Adults weren’t meant to be able to Shift – to undo their decisions. It was supposed to be a power that only kids like Aubrey and I possessed; a weird ability that allowed us to go back over our choices and take alternative paths. I’d only learned I was a Shifter a year ago, when Aubrey found me lying at the bottom of an electricity pylon, looking pathetic and confused. Instead of arresting me for Shifting without a licence, she’d taken pity on me and explained the whole crazy thing. After that, my life got increasingly complicated. I killed my little sister, brought her back again, joined a top secret government division, almost got eaten – twice – and finally, uncovered the evil plans of a mad scientist to give the Shifting power back to a handful of adults. Project Ganymede.
There had been side effects. Going insane and trying to kill people was one of them. Not something ARES – the Agency for the Regulation and Evaluation of Shifters – approved of when the Shifters were children. And something they were especially not keen on when the Shifters were adults who’d been the result of a top-secret experiment ARES was doing its best to cover up. “Containment” had become the word of the hour.
Which is why Aubrey and I had been ordered to track these adult Shifters down and bring them in. Dead or alive, it didn’t matter to the new boss. Whatever it took to stop the word getting out.
The man we were watching would be number seven. If our information was right, he was up to his thick neck in underground cage fighting.
“Shall we take him down now?” I said.
“No. Let him lead us to the fight. See if there are any other rogue Shifters involved,” Aubrey said.
Number seven – whose real name was Jack Glenn – finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the wall. He immediately lit up a fresh one and stepped out into the rain. We waited for a few moments, then followed.
Glenn led us down increasingly tight and more pungent alleyways, his cigarette smoke leaving an easy trail to follow. Aubrey sniffed at it, like a cartoon character following the smell of roast chicken.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“I haven’t had a cigarette in three weeks, thanks to you!” she hissed back.
I pulled us both behind a black crate. But it was too late.
“Oi!” Glenn shouted out. I heard his footsteps stop and head towards us.
“Do you want to do the honours?” Aubrey asked.
I closed my eyes, focusing on the decision I’d made thirty seconds. I’d deliberately considered waiting a little longer before following him down the alleyway. And now I was about to make that choice a reality with a simple Shift. My stomach lurched slightly and Aubrey and I were still crouching at the mouth of the alley, while Glenn strode out the other end, oblivious to our presence once again.
He led us to the canal that cut through the east of the City, which had once, according to a tourist leaflet I’d picked up because it came with a map, been the industrial heart of Manchester. Now, it had been transformed into yet another place hoping to attract bright young business executives. Glass and chrome blocks of flats stood dark and empty, and large, plastic signs offering penthouse accommodation for reasonable prices flapped in the wind. The place was deserted.
Up ahead, on the other side of the canal, a glow of light came from an abandoned boatyard. A trickle of burly men was making their way inside. Glenn was heading that way too.
“Looks like we’ve found tonight’s fight.”
“Just don’t let there be dogs,” Aubrey said, chewing on her bottom lip.
We’d seen some unlicensed Shifter fighting last month when we’d raided a gypsy camp on a tip that number four was hiding out there. Turns out he wasn’t. But we did find kids as young as ten being forced to go up against each other while adults looked on and placed bets. One boy we took in had been put in a ring with a pit bull. It hadn’t been pretty. Aubrey had suggested we give the men a taste of their own medicine, although she’d said it wouldn’t have been fair on the dogs. No animal should be forced to eat anything as foul as them.
We’d brought some cadets along on the raid for training. Including CP Finn, my old ARES classmate. That had turned out to be a very bad idea. Being from a gypsy family herself, CP had not taken the whole set-up well. In fact, she’d gone crazy and knocked out three of the men. She kept screaming about family and how these people weren’t true gypsies. That true gypsies would never hurt their own. I’d had to throw her over my shoulder and carry her back to the van before she could hurt anyone else. For a tiny thing, CP sure could cause a lot of damage.
Glenn crossed over the bridge and entered the yard, pausing to talk to the huge man on the door. The two were in deep conversation. Now was our chance.
I looked left and right, checking that no one was coming, then darted out from the alleyway and towards the water’s edge.
As we approached, I saw the bridge was just planks of wood hammered together to form a temporary crossing. I hesitantly placed a foot on the plank and tested the weight. The wood creaked.
“Come on,” Aubrey said, simply running across without worrying.
I followed her with less enthusiasm, slipping on one of the planks and almost ending up in the canal. As I gratefully jumped off the bridge and onto the safety of the concrete on the other side, I saw two men walking towards us. The first had a shaved head that revealed intricate tattoos inked onto his skull. The other was small, slim and wore a tatty suit jacket that might have once been expensive. I gasped and looked around for a hiding place. I was about to Shift when Aubrey grabbed me by my collar and pushed me up against the boat yard wall. I banged my head and was about to complain when her lips silenced me.
I still hadn’t got used to kissing Aubrey Jones. Even though we’d been doing it a lot lately. Each time her lips pressed against mine, I felt my heart pound and my stomach do weird things. It felt a bit like Shifting. And once, I’d got so confused, I Shifted and I found myself back in my bedroom.
“My money is on the Beast tonight,” I just about heard one man say as they passed us.
“Nah, no one’s beat Bonecrusher yet. I’m putting a monkey on him,” another voice said. And I wondered, dumbly, if monkeys were fighting too.
Aubrey broke away and looked up at me, her expression soft and slightly dazed. I loved this moment. The seconds between the kiss and when Aubrey’s defences went back up, when I got to see the real her.
“Hello, you,” I said.
“Hello, yourself,” she said back.
There was a loud bang from our left and the moment was gone. Aubrey was back on the job.
“So, standard procedure?” she said, leaning around the edge of the wall to watch the two men approach the bouncer.
“You mean start with Plan A and work our way through to Z?”
“One of them’s bound to work,” Aubrey said. She turned to me and smiled. The smile she knew meant I would do absolutely anything she said.
We headed for the large doors, trying to blend in with the straggle of men milling about the entrance. Some glanced at us through tight eyes. Most simply ignored us. We were just another couple of feral kids come to see the fun after all. I could already hear cheering and chanting coming from inside.
Just as we were about to enter, a large hand landed on my shoulder.
“Where do you think you’re going, sonny Jim?”
I looked up at the bouncer. And up. He was at least six foot eight and built like a truck. I mumbled, trying to think of something to say.
That was Plan A – just walk in – down. Time for Plan B.
“We’re here to see our dad fight,” Aubrey said, in her best little-girl voice.
“Oh yeah? And what’s your daddy’s name, sweetheart?”
“The Beast,” she said.
The huge man hesitated for a moment. “The Beast doesn’t have any kids.”
“None that he told you about,” I said, trying to shake off his grip.
“Well, I think he’d tell me that kind of thing,” he said. “He’s my boyfriend, after all.”
Well Plan B was a dead end too. I looked at Aubrey, but she didn’t need telling. She Shifted.
This time she had slipped her jacket off her shoulder and told him she was here as “the entertainment”. The guy was still laughing.
I rolled my eyes. Aubrey’s Lolita shtick wasn’t going to work on this guy. Not when he went for muscle-bound men called the Beast. This was the problem with Aubrey forgetting previous realities so quickly and the problem with Shifting in general. It’s not time travel. You couldn’t just pop back, tap your past self on the shoulder and say: “Hey, you know what you need to do to get around this guy?” You didn’t find yourself back in the situation suddenly armed with everything you know from the future. I wish. It was so much trickier than that. You could only ever change a genuine choice, a real decision you had seriously considered at that time. That’s if you could remember it. And once the change was made, Shifters forgot there had ever been an alternative. Most Shifters anyway.
At this rate we could be here all night. I decided to take charge.
I Shifted and instead of bothering with sneaking or lying our way in, I went for the direct approach: punching him in his face. He was now on his knees holding a bloody nose.
“I’m here to fight,” I said.
The bouncer looked up at me. I thought he was about to return the blow. A couple of men behind us had laughed when he’d gone down so easily and his face was burning more with embarrassment than pain. Then he seemed to change his mind. He got to his feet slowly and looked me up and down.
“We’ll give you a fight,” he said, his numb nose muffling his words. “Joey,” he called through the doors, not taking his eyes off me.
A moment later a slim, blonde woman, dressed in a leather jacket and leopard print leggings, came out. “What now, Dave?”
“This kid wants a fight. Put him in with Bonecrusher,” the bouncer called Dave said.
The woman laughed and then noticed Dave’s broken nose. She turned back to me. “You did that, kid?”