Len calls Finley in; he has tea with us. Len finds some biscuits, puts a hand up when we try to say anything. ‘Be quiet. I’m thinking.’
Finally Len looks at me, then gestures at Finley. ‘You didn’t tell him what you found out?’ I shake my head. ‘Keep it that way.’
Finley looks about to protest, but Len holds up a hand. ‘Listen to me. We might be in some trouble. If you don’t know, you can’t say. You can try to play innocent. Bit of a stretch for you, I know.’
‘They don’t care about innocence,’ I say, bitter as I think of the Slated children. Children? Some of them were more like toddlers.
‘This is what I think you should do,’ Len says to Finley. ‘Go home. Slip back in like nothing is happening. I think chances are low they’ll connect you with her.’
‘Can’t he come with me?’ I ask.
‘No. If Finley is reported missing now they will put the two of you together. They’ll be more likely to make the leap that it was you two they were looking for on the hill yesterday.’
‘No, you can’t just send him back! It’s too dangerous.’
‘Listen to me. Something is funny about all of this. If you really found something the Lorder government wants to stay hidden, they’d have jumped on the whole county like a ton of bricks: road blocks, searches house to house, the works. And there has been nothing.’
‘What does that mean?’
He scratches his head. ‘Haven’t a clue, but for now I think it works in our favour. My usual thought would be to lie low until things settle down before we try to move you anywhere, but this time I think the faster we get you out of town, the better.’
‘Right. I’ll be off then, or I won’t be able to sneak back in before morning.’ Finley gets up, comes over to me awkwardly. Stoops down to give me a hug. ‘Look after yourself,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right.’
Len goes to the door with him, they murmur to each other too low for me to hear, then the door shuts and Len comes back in.
‘Do you really think they won’t track him down?’ I ask.
He hesitates. ‘No, and he knows it. He’s buying you some time. Don’t waste it.’
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
* * *
‘Are you sure about this?’
‘Unless you can flap your arms and fly, then yes,’ Len says. ‘Trains are out: even if we could get you another fake ID quickly, they’re watching for you now. They’re unlikely to be fooled. It’s the only way.’
The truck, a goods transport, is parked behind an isolated workshop. These are the only sort of vehicles that do long road journeys with the environmental bans on private long-distance car travel. The truck’s cab has a false floor Len has taken up, with a small – and I mean small – space underneath. It’s only ever been used to move around tech for MIA; I am to be the first passenger.
‘Let’s see if you fit,’ Len says, and I lower myself in, nesting a blanket around me. Trying different positions to get my arms and legs in. ‘I’ll try the floor on now,’ he says. ‘Knock or yell if it gets too tight.’
I give him a thumbs up, and Len slowly lowers the floor in place above me, and I’m plunged into darkness. He lifts it up again. ‘All right?’ he asks.
‘I think so, just had to flatten my shoulders. Go on.’
He puts it back into place. The noise of the drill as he replaces the screws is unbelievable, and I try to stuff my hands in my ears, but can barely move enough to do it. There is an irrational feeling of panic, like I’m being buried alive in a coffin. The driver is having lunch. He’s not in MIA, but bribed regularly to leave his truck unattended. While he knows he is transporting something, he’s kept in the dark about what it is. He doesn’t know I’m in here. What if something happens to whoever is meant to extract this ‘delivery’ at the other end? No one but Len knows I am trapped in here: he judged it too dangerous to get a message out that might be intercepted. Even though he has drilled out some air holes, already I feel like I can’t breathe.
There is a tap-tap outside some place, and I imagine Len giving the side of the truck a double tap for luck to send me on my way.
I half smile, then it falls away. I owe Len and Finley so much: please stay safe. I’d got out of Len that he’d told Finley a safe bolt hole if he gets wind of trouble, but if the Lorders come for him it is more likely that he won’t have a chance. It was luck that had me down by the lake when Nico, Astrid and the Lorders came; if Stella hadn’t managed to get Ellie out with that cryptic message, they’d probably still have got me. What would they have done with me? Nothing good, I’m sure. Maybe hauled me off to the prison Len thinks Madison is in. Maybe, I’d be dead.
Time passes. A door opens, then slams shut. The truck’s engine starts up, and it lurches along bumpy minor roads for what feels like forever. Then it is motorway, smooth and fast. The rocking motion is almost soothing. The small confined space warms with me in it, and lulls me to sleep.
I bolt awake, hit my head hard on something above me, then remember where I am. That noise, reverberating through my skull: the screws are being removed. Are we there, wherever that is, or have we been stopped along the way? I have no sense of how much time has passed. But now that I’m awake every muscle in my body is screaming to move and stretch; one way or the other, I’m getting out of here.
The last screw out, the floor is lifted and I sit up as it is pulled away.
There is a startled face above me and the floor is almost dropped on my head.
‘Oh my God. It’s a girl,’ he says.
The floor is pulled away and out; another face appears. Both men, in overalls. Clearly not Lorders. I breathe a sigh of relief, swing my legs out. ‘Ouch. Give me a hand?’
One of them hastens to do so, and I step out of the truck, then almost fall over again, my legs protesting after so long in the same position. I steady myself, one hand on the side of the truck. We’re outside in the cold behind some buildings, and it’s dark.
‘Where am I?’
They exchange a glance.
‘Oh, sorry. I’m here for the final act of The Winter’s Tale.’ Len had given the words to say, coded words that should get me to authority in MIA quickly.
Things move fast after that. I’m hustled inside a workshop and run to their disgusting bathroom, then beg a cup of tea while hurried conversations happen on the other side of a door. I’m strangely calm. Is it because what happens next is out of my hands? I don’t know.
A car appears; I’m bundled into the back seat. A man and woman sit silently in front. I watch out the windows; we go through an industrial estate, and then into more and more built up areas. Not London, and not familiar, but then I see a sign: Welcome to Oxford. So close to home! Or what used to be home: my old school, Lord Williams’, is just miles away in Thame. Our village not far beyond that.
The streets get more crowded with old buildings, busy with pedestrians. We weave down narrow back streets and pull in. I’m given a different coat to wear, a hat, and walked by the driver along rambling, cobbled streets, past grand old architecture. I long to gawk and stare upwards at all around me, but don’t dare draw attention to myself.
We duck through an archway, down a path along a quadrangle surrounded by buildings, then to a door where we are met by a smiling girl a few years older than me. The driver leaves me there. I follow the girl down twisting passages to another door. She taps lightly. ‘Go in,’ she says, and leaves.
I pull the door open: a study lined with bookshelves. And there, at a desk? A very startled-looking Aiden.
‘Kyla? You’re our new witness? Thank God you’re all right.’ He jumps up from his chair, scoops me in his arms for a hug, and I cling on a little tight. Something is melting inside: Aiden is here; he’ll know what to do. Am I safe, at least for a while? He finally lets go, but keeps hold of my hand, laces my fingers with his. And I stare at him, shaken by how tight I want to hold on to his hand, how much I missed him. His deep blue eyes. Merry eyes, despite the risks he takes. The way his hair catches the light, fiery glints of red. I smile.
‘Ahem.’ A throat clearing noise. I turn and see there is another person in the room, a woman in a chair by the fire: older than Aiden; a fierce hungry expression on a face pale with dark-ringed eyes. ‘I hope we’re not using all these resources for girlfriend transport now.’ She frowns.
‘Len wouldn’t have sent us anything that way that wasn’t vital. Not with an emergency code.’ Aiden’s voice is calm, but a creep of red climbs in his cheeks.
‘So, what is so urgent? Tell us,’ she says.
I look at Aiden. ‘I’d rather talk to you alone.’
She scowls. ‘That won’t be happening.’
‘Who are you, then?’ I demand.
‘It’s all right, Kyla. This is Florence – we run MIA together, since…’ And he stops. ‘Anyhow, we always work on a double system for hearing witnesses. If more people know, then information is safer.’
‘Okay, then,’ I say, and get my camera out, fiddle with it to enter the password for the folder, and to find the screen projection control. ‘These photos were taken at the Cumbrian Care Facility near Keswick. An isolated fenced orphanage. I saw children walking along the inside of the boundary, moving unnaturally. I went for a closer look, and this is what I found.’
There are no blank walls so I point the camera at the door, and hit the button to show the shots: three small boys, wrists extended. Levos clearly visible.
They both gasp. ‘Oh my God,’ Aiden says, and they look at each other.
‘By how they were acting, all the children at the orphanage were Slated. From these little ones up to age eleven or twelve. About fifty children in total.’
‘We can’t wait any longer,’ he says. ‘Not with this and all the other evidence of Lorder atrocities that we have. It’s time to get the information we’ve gathered out to the people. They can’t ignore this – it will be the beginning to the end of the Lorders.’
Florence shakes her head. ‘We need verification. Photos can be faked.’
‘No! We have a witness.’
They continue, back and forth, and I get the sense of a long-standing argument with different variations, but feel removed from it: I’ve passed along what I know; it’s not my burden any more. There are other things I want – I need – to tell Aiden; personal things. But not here, not now. Not with her in the room.
‘Excuse me,’ I say once there is a lull. ‘Any chance of something to eat?’
Aiden is contrite. ‘Of course. But let’s get those photos.’ He holds out a hand for the camera.
‘I want to keep the camera; there’s my stuff on here, too.’
He connects it to a computer, and downloads the orphanage shots when I give him the password. Hands the camera back.
‘But I thought Len said the MIA computer system is compromised?’ I ask.
Aiden sighs. Nods. ‘It’s been an absolute nightmare; our techies are working on it. We’ve been aware that they monitor the site for years, but this time they’ve hacked through defences and were able to trace backwards to MIA website administrators. It’s a mystery how they got in, and we’re not sure how long they’ve been spying on us through it or how much information they’ve extracted. But this computer is offline. So for now the photos are stored here, and still there, of course.’ He gestures to my camera. ‘Keep it safe.’
I slip it back deep in my pocket. Aiden looks pointedly at Florence. She sighs, gets up. ‘I can take a hint.’
‘Could you bring Kyla some dinner?’ Aiden smiles his most charming smile, and it is pretty good, but she scowls.