Authors: C.J. Daugherty
‘I hope Zelazny knows what he’s doing.’ Allie turned back to Raj, but he’d already gone.
Nicole was gone too. She was over talking to Rachel, whose expression brightened instantly as Nicole whispered something to her.
Seeing the two of them together sent a sharp stab of loneliness through Allie. They were so close now – always together. She and Rachel were close too, of course, but… not like that.
‘Allie.’ Katie waved for her attention.
It was annoying how she managed to look effortlessly beautiful even now. Exercise had brought a glow to her cheeks and sent her shoulder-length ponytail bouncing into copper curls.
‘This running thing…’ Katie cast her a coy look. ‘Do I have to?’
Allie rolled her eyes. ‘You’re going to fight this every step of the way, aren’t you?’
Taking her by the arm, Allie dragged her into the shadowy corridor.
‘Everything we do here? You have to do it, too.’
‘God. Running is so dull,’ Katie complained.
In that instant, her crisp, upper-class accent reminded Allie so strongly of Jo it made her chest ache.
‘Running is boring unless someone’s chasing you,’ she said. ‘Which around here is almost guaranteed. Let’s go.’
y the time
Allie and Katie emerged through one of the old Victorian building’s many hidden doorways into a moonlit night, the other students had already disappeared.
Allie didn’t like this – the group shouldn’t be separating right now. Especially when the younger students were out for their first night run. She could only hope Zoe and Lucas would keep them together.
Katie peered around them. ‘Where do we go now?’
‘Let’s just take the usual route.’
Katie held up her perfectly manicured hands. ‘Which is…?’
‘Which is follow me.’ Allie took off at speed, and Katie followed, complaining under her breath as they hurtled across he smooth grass.
When they reached the woods, all light disappeared. Allie knew the forest footpaths like the back of her hand, but Katie didn’t. Almost immediately in her struggle to keep up, she tripped over a tree root and nearly fell.
After that, Allie reluctantly slowed her pace. It was a quiet night – the only sound the rasp of their breathing and the drumming of their feet against the hard ground.
Allie cast a sideways glance at Katie. She had an easy natural stride and moved lightly, but she was already breathing heavily.
Sensing her gaze, Katie glanced up – her eyes a flash of green in the gloaming.
‘Are we there yet?’
Allie snorted. ‘You wish. We’re just getting started.’
They still hadn’t seen any of the others. Allie squinted into the darkness ahead, straining for any sign that they were gaining on them. But they were alone.
‘Could we… slow… down…’ Katie was panting heavily. ‘… just a little?’
Reluctantly, Allie gave up on finding everyone else and dropped her speed to a gentle jog.
‘Thanks,’ Katie gasped, clutching her side. ‘Dying.’
Her face was bright red.
‘You’re actually doing really well,’ Allie said. ‘You should have seen me on my first run. I nearly passed out. Carter practically…’
The sentence died on her lips. Saying his name aloud reminded her where he was right now.
It hurt like a punch.
The look Katie gave her then was surprisingly sympathetic. ‘He’ll be OK, you know.’
‘I know,’ Allie said, her voice low.
‘Nathaniel will have taken him for a reason,’ Katie said. ‘He doesn’t do things just to be a wanker. He’s too smart for that. He only does what he thinks will increase his chances of victory. He knows how you feel about Carter so he’ll want him alive. To him, Carter is a weapon.’
If this was supposed to make Allie feel better it failed dismally.
Nathaniel was ruthless. Carter was his knife.
Allie desperately needed Katie to stop trying to cheer her up.
‘I think I see Rachel and Nicole ahead,’ she said. ‘Let’s catch up to them.’
She increased her speed.
Behind her she heard Katie say, ‘Oh bugger.’
From then on, Allie ran as fast as she needed to in order to be certain Katie didn’t have the breath to talk.
They really did find Rachel and Nicole near the old stone wall that surrounded the chapel. Rachel had stopped to catch her breath; Nicole, who didn’t even look winded, was waiting patiently in a pool of moonlight when Allie and Katie jogged up.
Katie slid down the stone wall to the ground next to Rachel, her face dripping sweat.
‘Can’t… breathe…’ she gasped.
‘Right there with you.’ Rachel looked exhausted.
Allie turned to Nicole. ‘Any sign of Zoe or Lucas?’
The French girl shook her head. ‘I think they took a different route.’
‘And I’ve been slowing us down.’ Climbing stiffly to her feet, Rachel pressed her foot against the wall to stretch. ‘As usual.’
Nicole’s smile was indulgent. ‘It’s not a race.’
It kind of was a race, but it seemed mean to say that.
‘We should get going,’ Allie said instead.
She glanced down at Katie who had folded her torso over her outstretched legs and was pressing her face to her knees with apparent effortlessness. ‘You ready, Katie?’
‘Yep.’ The girl’s tone was curt. She lifted her head and fixed Allie with a sharp look. ‘If we can go at a less suicidal pace.’
‘Stick with me.’ Rachel answered before Allie could. ‘I’m all about slow and steady.’
They all heard the noise at the same time. The crack of a twig breaking. The rustle of branches. Footsteps.
Rachel’s voice trailed off.
Allie and Nicole exchanged a frozen glance. In silent unison, they grabbed Rachel and Katie and pushed them behind them.
For once in her life, Katie didn’t argue.
Allie crouched down, prepared to spring. She looked around for a weapon – a heavy stick, anything. But there wasn’t time.
The thick shrubs that lined one side of the path shook violently as someone crashed through them.
Allie held her breath.
Two of Raj’s black-clad guards burst out of the shadows. With them was one of the new trainees – a lanky boy, about fourteen years old, dark hair in a tangle, glasses askew. He looked pale and scared. Allie thought she’d seen him somewhere before but she couldn’t place him.
Dropping her fists, Allie drew a deep breath.
As soon as they spotted the girls, the guards’ expressions changed from tension to relief. They murmured something to each other then turned towards them.
‘This one got lost,’ one of the guards explained, pushing the boy towards them. ‘Could you take him back?’
The next morning Allie awoke early. At first, she wasn’t sure what had disturbed her but when she climbed out of bed, yawning, she discovered a square, ivory envelope on the floor of her room near the door.
She eyed it with suspicion.
The envelope paper was thick, creamy. Soft as fabric. No name was written on the back.
It opened easily to reveal luxurious note paper. At the top, the paper was engraved with a simple ‘I’ in deep blue.
The message was terse. ‘There’s a meeting at 7.30 a.m. in the grand ballroom. Please be there.’
Instantly wide awake, Allie looked at the clock. She had fifteen minutes.
Senior staff meetings were held early in the morning. She knew this because Sylvain and Jules always went when they were prefects. Allie had never been invited before. Isabelle had told her she’d be stepping into Lucinda’s shoes.
Now it was happening.
After showering quickly and throwing on her uniform, she ran downstairs, damp tendrils of hair clinging to the shoulders of her blazer.
The air smelled enticingly of bacon, but there wasn’t time for breakfast.
When she reached the grand ballroom, she skidded to a stop. Took a calming breath. And knocked politely.
The door was opened by a guard, who waited impassively for her to walk in then locked it behind her.
A table had been set up in front of the towering fireplace.
Isabelle sat at the head. Around the sides were Eloise, Zelazny, Dom, Raj, Rachel, and Lucas. Two guards stood by the door, like sentinels.
‘Welcome, Allie,’ Isabelle said.
Allie gave Rachel a ‘You, too?’ look. Rachel mouthed ‘prefect’ at her.
It made sense. And Lucas must be standing in for Sylvain.
She slid into an empty seat.
‘We were just beginning to discuss Dom’s plans,’ Isabelle explained. She turned to the tech. ‘Please continue.’
Neatly turned out as usual in an oversized blazer and perfectly pressed blue button-down shirt, Dom stood to speak, a notebook in one hand.
‘I’m assembling a small group that can work twenty-four hours. They’ll be listening in on Nathaniel’s comms and attempting to hack into his computer system. It’s well protected but I’m convinced we can find a way to crack it.’ She flipped a page in her notebook. ‘I’ve chosen students and guards who’ve demonstrated technical abilities beyond the norm. Rachel is the most obvious one.’
Rachel flushed and looked down at her hands.
‘Also two younger students – Alec Bradby and Zoe Glass. They’ve both shown a natural ability. In addition, Raj, I’d appreciate it if you’d allow me to borrow your guard, Shakir Nasseem. I’ve checked his background files.’ She gave Raj a pointed look. ‘I can’t believe you never told me one of your team was an ace hacker.’
‘I was hoping you wouldn’t steal him.’ Raj’s tone was resigned. ‘But you can borrow him for this purpose. Anyone else?’
‘Katie Gilmore has offered her assistance,’ Dom continued, glancing at her notes. ‘She has no technical skills to speak of, but her personal knowledge of the locations Nathaniel might be likely to use as a base could prove invaluable.’
‘This is all fine with me,’ Isabelle said. ‘When will you start?’
‘I’ve already begun.’
Raj briefed the group on security patrols, how many guards, which areas each covered.
‘No attempted incursions have been noted since the parley,’ he said. ‘But we believe that could be simply because Nathaniel is regrouping.’
‘Agreed,’ Isabelle said. ‘We should maintain the same level of security until we have better awareness of what Nathaniel is planning.’
And so it went until all the adults had given their reports, and the information had been fully discussed. Allie’s stomach was starting to rumble and she was thinking longingly of breakfast when Isabelle spoke again.
‘I have one final announcement.’ Her gaze lingered on Allie. ‘A funeral will be held for Lucinda tomorrow afternoon at the chapel. Her… body will arrive tonight.’
Allie went cold. She didn’t know what to do – what expression to have on her face. She felt as if everyone was looking at her.
‘The story in the papers,’ the headmistress continued, her face devoid of expression, ‘is that she fell while walking on the heath late at night, and suffered a heart attack.’
Everything involving Orion and Night School was covered up. Orion owned newspapers, TV stations. Its members had huge influence over the police and the courts. As a result, they had control over how things were reported. When Jo was murdered, the papers said it was a car accident. When Ruth died, it was reported as suicide. Allie knew the drill. But she hated the lies.
Resting her hands on the table she stared down at them. Her nails were ragged and uneven. Suddenly this bothered her. Lucinda valued neatness.
The headmistress was still talking. ‘I’ll be handling the arrangements. You’ll all be made aware of the time for the funeral. No one is required to go but all students and staff will, of course, be welcome to attend.’ She paused. ‘Now. On to other business…’
For the rest of the day, Allie tried to pour herself into her work and forget about the fact that her grandmother would be buried the next day.
It wasn’t easy.
Part of the problem was, while everyone else was busy working to find Carter, she really wasn’t. She had no technical skills – nothing to offer that would help right now.
At lunch time the others bubbled with excitement. Dom had set up an action centre in her office.
‘We all have laptops,’ Rachel enthused. ‘And this guard, Shak, he’s an ace hacker. He’s teaching us all how to do it.’
‘It’s amazing,’ Zoe joined in. ‘He taught us how to hack into unprotected systems first. This afternoon we’re going to start on Nathaniel’s system.’
For her part, Katie had spent the morning briefing a detail of guards on the homes of the country’s rich and famous.
‘Basically we sit with a map and a list of my dad’s friends and track down all the houses they hide from the tax man,’ she said, her green eyes glinting in the light like gems. ‘There are loads of them. I had no idea my parents’ friends were such hideous liars.’ She paused to reconsider this statement, pressing one perfectly manicured fingertip against her lips. ‘Well, maybe I did, actually. They’re all perfectly ghastly.’
Their enthusiasm and newfound hope left Allie feeling oddly left out. Yes, she got to go to the strategy meetings now – Isabelle and Raj asked her opinions. But the others were actually doing something.
When classes ended for the day, she couldn’t find any of the others. She searched the library, the common room and the gardens without success. They all had to be up in Dom’s office. Looking for Carter.
Allie made her way back to the common room. The big, windowless room was busy with students doing their homework and chatting, and guards off-duty, still in their black uniforms but sprawled on the deep leather sofas, mugs of coffee clutched in their hands.
Finding a seat in a corner, she pulled out her history book. But her mind wouldn’t focus on medieval Europe in a time of plague. No matter how she tried not to, she kept thinking about Lucinda. And Carter.
She hadn’t phoned him once since he’d left for France. She told herself it was because his family needed him right now. But she knew the real reason was because she was afraid he’d hear in her voice that she had chosen Carter. Not him.
The very thought of telling him the truth made her feel like a cheat and a liar. She couldn’t even imagine how much it would hurt him.
Guilt unfolded in her heart like a knife.
Allie slammed her book shut with such force, nearby guards snapped around to look at her.
Shoving her books into her bag, she jumped to her feet and ran from the room into the school’s wide hallway. She ran past chatting students and patrolling guards, under the gaze of the elegant nineteenth-century men and women who gazed down at her dubiously from the oil paintings hung high on the walls. When she reached the section where the school’s wings met and the hallway widened to hold marble statues on heavy plinths, she turned into the classroom wing. She pelted up two flights, and down the shadowy corridor, skidding to a stop in front of Dom’s office.
The once peaceful room was now a crowded hive of activity.
Rachel sat with Zoe and a young guard, all of them typing furiously on laptops. A gigantic map had been spread across one wall and Katie stood in front of it with two guards talking animatedly. None of them even noticed Allie.
A low hum of voices crackled through the speakers.
Dom was at her desk, talking on a cell phone. Spotting Allie hovering in the doorway, she motioned for her to enter. ‘Anything you can do to get us some of that satellite time?’ she said into the phone.