There were thirteen drops-a number not chosen intentionally, but which the four gang members were pleased with-where unknown people would leave them information about London. They checked them alclass="underline" a hollow fence post, the space between two half-moon shaped stones, another hole in a fallen tree trunk. And it was only at the thirteenth that they found something.
Lucy-Anne dug the tin from beneath a crab apple tree's roots, lifted the small lid, and squealed in delight when she pulled something out. “It's from Jenna!” she said. She fumbled with the white, flower-painted envelope.
“What does it say?” Jack glanced around to make sure they were alone, always fearful that one day this would be a trap, and there would be soldiers waiting for them. He and his friends would fight to the last, but they could not win, and they'd find themselves taken where all the disappeared went. Into the Toxic City itself, some said. Into the heart of dead London.
“Okay, okay.” She unfolded the paper and read the note. “It says, ‘My house. I have a nice surprise.’”
Jack's eyes grew so wide that Lucy-Anne uttered a short, quiet giggle.
“We should go,” he said. ‘A nice surprise’ was the code the four of them had agreed upon for something earth-shattering.
And as they ran across the open field separating Tall Stennington from the forest, the moon began to emerge from the darkening sky.
Breaking News: A suspected gas attack in Central London has left hundreds dead or injured. Hospitals have been put on Major Incident alert. UK Threat Level raised to Critical. Homeland Security Threat Level raised to Severe/Red. More soon.
Jenna answered the front door, looking excited and scared.
“Come on!” she said. “Sparky's already here.”
“How did he get here so quickly?” Lucy-Anne asked.
“I went to his place on my bike. Don't worry, I didn't use the phone.” Jenna turned and disappeared back into her house.
“I bet she bloody did,” Lucy-Anne said as she stepped over the threshold. “Bet she called him.”
Jack shook his head and followed his girlfriend inside. They were all careful, but sometimes she was ready to take caution too far. They always went under the assumption that the authorities listened to all telephone communication, but if any eavesdropper heard a girl calling a boy and saying, Come over, I have a nice surprise, it was doubtful they'd press the panic buttons.
He immediately noticed the strange atmosphere inside the house. There was nothing definable, nothing he could put his finger on, but the place had an air of…change.
A shadow filled the doorway to the kitchen, and the thunderous voice that followed was familiar to them both. “Hey, you bastards, finished playing with each other long enough to join us?”
“Hey, Sparky,” Jack said, smiling. They'd become friends through circumstance, brought together because of their beliefs and suspicions, but Sparky was a boy Jack would have got on with anyway, even if Doomsday hasn't happened and London was still there. Sure, he had a wildness about him. Sometimes he acted as if he had a fault-line running along his spine. One day he'd blow. Sparky's brother had blown long before Doomsday, taking to drugs, stealing cars, and running with a gang in the suburbs of London. But Jack was confident that Sparky would keep it together. If he ever did quake, it would be on the shoulders of someone that deserved it.
“Sparky,” Lucy-Anne said, “I never play.” Her false-seriousness made them all laugh, but something about Sparky's mirth sounded different.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
His friend stepped into the hallway. He was sweating, short blond hair pasted to his forehead. His eyes were wide and wild, and Jack thought he'd never seen the boy this worked up. “Something you've got to see for yourselves.”
Jenna appeared behind him in the kitchen doorway, short and slight, and wearing her beautiful long dark hair in its usual twisted mess on the back of her head. “You guys coming, or what?”
“Where are your parents?” Lucy-Anne asked.
“They went out. Come on!” Jenna turned and went back into the big kitchen-diner at the rear of the house. Sparky pressed himself against the wall and gestured for them to follow, bowing slightly.
As Jack walked past his big friend they swapped glances, and Sparky's eyes were alight.
There was an old woman sitting in a chair at Jenna's kitchen table. A pot of tea, several used cups, and crumbed plates cluttered the table's surface. The woman looked up and smiled. There was nothing particularly outlandish about the way she was dressed. She had grey, unkempt hair, heavy boots which looked as though they'd suit Lucy-Anne better, old clothes that had seen better days. But a vivid red scar above one eye gave her a wild look. And her smile hid a deep sadness.
“Hello,” the woman said. “My name's Rosemary, and I'm from London.”
Jack shook his head and backed against the wall. No one comes out of London, he thought. They shoot the things that try. They burn them!
Rosemary's smile grew. “Don't believe everything you see in the media. But then, you're the last people I need to say that to.”
“Did you…read my mind?” Jack asked.
“No, not me,” Rosemary said, “although I know a young woman back in the city who can do just that.”
“Isn't it wonderful?” Jenna asked. She stared at Jack and Lucy-Anne, as if expecting her enthusiasm to wash over them as well.
“Bloody miracle, is what it is,” Sparky said.
“How did you get out?” Jack asked.
Rosemary took a glass from the kitchen table and sipped at the water it contained. She closed her eyes and sighed; the sweetest thing ever. “Tunnels. There's a whole network under London, and not all of them are guarded.”
Jack shook his head. It didn't make sense. “So why haven't more people come out before now?”
“The route's only just been found. There's a man called Philippe who can see the lie of the land. A three-dimensional map in his mind, that's how he explains it to me, and he discovered this way to escape the city. We're afraid that a larger escape would be spotted, so I came alone to meet Jenna's father.”
“Why?” Jack was still pressed against the wall, and he felt his friends’ eyes on him; Jenna angry, Sparky challenging, Lucy-Anne…he could not read her. She was a blank. He hoped it was caution.
“So many questions,” Rosemary said.
“What the bloody hell do you expect?”
“Jack,” Jenna said, stepping forward. She touched his shoulders and looked up at him. She was sweet, her caramel skin impossibly smooth, and in other circumstances he could have seen them being together. But she was usually so filled with sadness that she rarely let anyone close.
“It's just something I never expected.”
“It's something we've always hoped for!” Jenna whispered.
“So what can you do?” he asked over his friend's shoulder.
“I'm a healer,” Rosemary said.
Jenna squeezed his arms, but he would not catch her eye. She could have been sent here by the Capital Keepers, he wanted to say. And the more he thought about that, the more likely it seemed. If that were the truth they were already doomed, and they'd be whisked away, and even if they were allowed back home they'd be changed like Jenna's father. Ghosts of their former selves.
“Need an open mind, mate,” Sparky said.
Jack shook his head. “It just can't be.”
Jenna sighed, and rested her head on his shoulder to whisper into his ear. The closeness surprised him. “Always the doubter,” she said.