We have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.Kurt Vonnegut
Shoving the phone back into her pocket, Allie shivered as the bitter February wind cut through her and moved closer to the tall pine tree that sheltered her.
She’d been waiting nearly twenty minutes. If it took much longer…
Her throat worked as she swallowed hard.
The gate in front of her was tall and imposing, topped with sharp spikes of black metal. As far as she knew, this was the only way in and out of Cimmeria Academy’s grounds. Nearly a mile from the school building at the end of a long drive, it was opened and closed by remote control. Only the headmistress and a cadre of carefully chosen security guards were allowed to operate it.
Cars were relatively rare at Cimmeria Academy. Most teachers and staff lived on site. Still, delivery trucks and post vans came and went each day, as did the security guards who worked for Raj Patel. She’d been observing the rare traffic for a few weeks and she knew a delivery van arrived just before four o’clock most days. It was nearly four now. If she was lucky, the van would enter through those gates before she was discovered.
Her hiding place was very close to where she’d been when Jo was killed. The memory of that night, eight weeks ago, tortured her. If she closed her eyes, she could see it all – the blanket of white snow, the blue moonlight, the fragile body thrown like a rag doll on to the road… The cloud of blood blooming around her like the petals of a deadly flower.
She opened her eyes.
Tonight there was only an empty dirt road.
She took a shaky breath.
Am I really going to do this?
She’d been asking herself that question ever since she’d reached the gate. Part of her wanted to cry. Part of her wanted to run back to her room. But she did neither. Instead, she steeled herself.
She had to get out of here. If she wanted answers about what was really going on, she needed to get away from this school and find them.
An icy breeze shook the trees, showering freezing raindrops down on her. Shivering, she wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck. The roar of branches swaying above her disguised the noise of the car engine for a long moment. By the time she’d clocked it, headlights were visible in the distance.
Dropping into a crouch well out of the path of the high beams, she waited, poised like the athlete she’d been before the attack. The stance hurt every part of her damaged body – her knee most of all – but she ignored the pain. Now wasn’t the time to listen to her body. Now was the time to run.
Breathless, she watched through the bars of the fence, invisible in the shadows in her dark coat and jeans. She expected a white van, but saw instead a dark, low-slung car.
Allie’s breath caught in her throat. Several of the security guards drove cars like that. It had to be one of them.
The sleek car approached the gate slowly and rolled to a stop.
In an instant Allie decided: she would do it anyway. Whoever was in that car, it didn’t matter. She was going to run.
She readied herself. This was her chance. Maybe her only chance.
But nothing happened. The throbbing in her injured knee became more acute. Staying still was excruciating. She couldn’t do it for long.
Closing her eyes, she willed the gate to open but it didn’t move. Something must be wrong.
Maybe they know. Maybe it’s a trap and Raj has already sent the guards to grab me. Maybe they’re coming for me right now.
Her mouth went dry. It was hard to breathe.
Then the big metal gate shuddered and, with a metallic creak, began to roll open.
Her lips moving silently, Allie counted eight breaths in and out before it clanged to a stop, fully open. The road beyond curved into the dark woods. In the deepening twilight it seemed to disappear just beyond the gates – as if there was no world out there any more.
Pulling the phone from her pocket, she dropped it on to the ground. She hated to do it, but its signal could be traced – it was no use to her now. She had to trust that Mark would do as they’d agreed.
All she needed was for the car to drive far enough into the school grounds to allow her to get out without being noticed by the driver.
But an achingly long moment passed and the car didn’t move. Its engine idled like a cat purring as it toyed with its prey. From where Allie crouched, she couldn’t see the driver.
What the hell is the problem? Frustration made her want to scream. Will you just drive?
Just as she was beginning to fear she’d been spotted, the black Audi’s tyres crunched on the gravel drive. Slowly, it began to move towards the school building.
Almost immediately the gates began to close again but she didn’t dare move. The car was still too close – the driver might see her in his mirror.
With all her muscles tense and burning she waited, eyes fixed on the gates as she willed the car to pass out of view. But it moved with slow deliberation. Almost as if the driver was looking for someone.
The thought made her queasy; she took a deep calming breath to steady her nerves.
Don’t lose it now, Allie, she told herself. Focus. If he knew I was here he’d get out of the car.
Watching the gate’s slow progress, she counted three breaths. Four.
It was nearly shut now. The car was still within view but she had no choice – if she didn’t go now she might never get out.
And that was not an option.
Springing from her hiding place she tore through the trees, legs pumping, knee aching, breath burning her lungs. The gap between the gate and the fence looked tiny. Too tiny. Had she miscalculated? Was it too late?
Then she was there, hands clutching the cold bars as if she could somehow slow their progress. But the gate was automatic – unstoppable. Its movement was steady. Uncaring.
Allie didn’t hesitate – shooting through the tight gap as the bars yanked at her jacket like bony fingers, shoving her shoulder so hard her breath hissed between her teeth at the pain.
With a strangled cry, she ripped herself loose, tumbling to the ground on the other side just as the gates clanged shut.
She was free.
Allie hadn’t started out that day planning to run away. She’d started out intending not to go to class.
She’d been doing that a lot lately.
Studying just didn’t seem pertinent to her life any more. So why bother?
After being dragged, sullen and unrepentant, to class on several occasions, she’d begun using hiding places to avoid that unpleasant possibility. The rambling Victorian school building provided numerous nooks and crannies for this purpose – she was especially fond of unused rooms and servants’ stairwells where no one ever thought to look. The crypt, the chapel… really, her hiding options were limitless.
Today, after enduring a few morning classes, she’d climbed out of her bedroom window, tiptoed along the narrow stone ledge to a spot where the roof dipped low and made her way up to the rooftop where Jo had once danced madly with a bottle of vodka, and where Allie and Carter had saved her life.
There she’d sat for hours in the cold, alone with her memories, watching the students and staff on the ground below. It was amazing how they never looked up. The roof bristled with chimneys and ornate, wrought-iron decoration, so it was easy for her to observe without being noticed; a living gargoyle.
And so the day slipped away from her, as so many others had lately, until she heard familiar voices, surprisingly close. At first she tensed, wondering if she’d been discovered. It took her a moment to realise the sound was rising from her own bedroom, through the open window just below her rooftop perch.
Holding on to a waterspout elaborately designed in the shape of a dragon, Allie leaned over the edge of the roof to listen.
‘You haven’t found her then?’ Isabelle’s voice was taut.
‘No.’ Raj spoke so quietly Allie had to strain to make out his words. ‘My team is searching the grounds now.’
They wouldn’t find her. They never did. The thought gave her dull satisfaction. Maybe she was a complete failure at saving lives but she could outwit security guards who were supposed to be the best in the world.
Then Isabelle spoke again – her voice sounded closer now. Allie realised she must be standing by the window, looking out at the same view.
‘How is she… do you think?’ the headmistress asked hesitantly. ‘Has Rachel said anything?’
‘Better?’ Raj said. ‘Worse? Hard to tell. The same, maybe. Rachel’s worried about her. Is she still seeing Dr Cartwright?’
Allie frowned; Dr Cartwright was the shrink Isabelle brought in after everything happened.
‘Not any more,’ Isabelle replied. ‘She did at first, but he said he couldn’t get much out of her. He described her as “unresponsive”.’
They shouldn’t talk about that, Allie thought reproachfully. That stuff is supposed to be private.
She thought about the nightmares and the horrible thoughts – the very few things she’d shared with Dr Cartwright before shutting him out.
She didn’t want them to know about that.
‘How do you just go back to class after you’ve seen your friend die?’ she’d asked in one of the few sessions she’d actually attended. ‘How do you care about French verbs? Or the Spanish Armada?’
‘You just do,’ the psychologist had said. ‘You put one foot in front of the other every day. And you try. You keep trying.’
‘Bollocks,’ Allie had replied with venom in her voice.
He couldn’t know what it was like to be afraid of falling asleep because of the awful dreams. There was no way he knew what that felt like.
No one knew that.
Raj barked a humourless laugh that said he thought Allie was unresponsive, too.
‘He felt she wasn’t accepting Jo’s death – she’s looking for someone to blame,’ Isabelle said. Allie leaned further forward, eager for this insider information. ‘He said blame is a kind of crutch; it allows the anger phase of grief to extend indefinitely. Until she gets through it she will never accept what happened and learn to deal with it.’
Whatever, Allie thought with hot impatience. I’m angry for a reason. Because of you.
Still, underneath her anger she knew there was some truth in what Isabelle said and it nagged at her.
Below her, Isabelle was still talking. ‘But then Allie decided she didn’t like him. He’s meant to meet with her this afternoon and’ – Allie could almost visualise Isabelle’s weary shrug – ‘right on schedule she’s AWOL.’
Raj’s voice grew louder – even from the rooftop Allie could hear his anger. ‘This can’t go on, Izzy. You have to take action. My entire team is out looking for her right now when they should be working to keep the school safe. We still don’t know what Nathaniel is planning. He could hit us at any moment. She is wasting our time. We can’t keep doing this. Allie is behaving like a —’
‘Like she used to behave,’ Isabelle said, interrupting him. ‘This is exactly how she was after her brother disappeared. She’s just angry and I can’t really blame her. I’m angry, too. But I’m not sixteen so I have ways to channel it. She doesn’t.’
The sound of someone knocking interrupted them.
Who could that be?
Straining to hear, Allie leaned over further, until her head and shoulders were hanging right over the edge of the roof. But Raj and Isabelle had clearly gone to answer the door. She could hear the murmur of voices but they were too far away for her to make out their words.
After a moment, the door closed with a decisive bang. Then… silence.
They were gone.
Disappointed, Allie pulled herself back into a safer position on the roof; as she did, her eyes swept downward.
Two of Raj’s security guards stood on the ground below. They were staring right at her.
Allie’s heart leapt to her throat.
Panicked, she scrambled out of view, her shoes skidding on the wet roof tiles. When she thought she was hidden, she leaned forward just far enough to peek down. Below her, the guards gestured for someone she couldn’t see to join them. After a second, Raj walked out to stand beside them. They pointed to Allie’s spot on the roof. Crossing his arms, he locked his unforgiving gaze on hers.
Allie swallowed hard.
Time to find a new hiding place, she thought.
Leaping to her feet, she ran across the rooftop to the place where the roof dipped down, sliding down the slope on her behind. Her short pleated skirt, not made for such activity, bunched up beneath her and water from the wet rooftop soaked through her dark tights. Holding on to the gutter with her fingertips, she slid along the stone ledge to her open window and vaulted through it on to her desk.
Once safely inside, she straightened triumphantly, only to find Isabelle standing in front of her with her arms crossed.
The headmistress didn’t wait for her to make excuses.
‘This is too much.’ Her tone was angry but Allie could hear the sadness in it. ‘You can’t keep doing this, Allie.’
Some part of Allie felt guilty for hurting her. But she easily suppressed that voice. Instead, she gave a disdainful shrug. ‘Fine. Whatever. Totes reformed. Never do it again, etc.’
Isabelle drew in a sharp breath. Her wounded expression threatened to make Allie feel something so she didn’t linger, heading straight for the door.
Isabelle seemed to gather herself. ‘I am not your enemy, Allie.’
‘Aren’t you?’ Standing by the door, Allie studied her as if she was a specimen on a tray.
‘Allie…’ Isabelle reached for her arm then, rethinking it, let her hand drop to her side. ‘I’m worried about you. And I want to help. But I can’t help you if you won’t let me.’
There was a time when Allie would have gone to Isabelle for help and advice – when they were close. When she trusted her.
Those days were over.
She fixed the headmistress with an uncaring look. ‘The thing is, Isabelle, your help gets people killed. So… no thanks.’
A direct hit. As Isabelle’s face crumpled, Allie ran out of the door.
Fighting the urge to cry, she limped down the grand staircase. Her knee ached, and the sound of her uneven footsteps (thump-THUMP thump-THUMP) echoed in the quiet like a cruel laugh.
With her head down, she took no notice of the polished oak panelling covering Cimmeria Academy’s walls. Or the grand oil paintings – some of which stood twice her height and held the images of long-dead men and women draped in gleaming silk and jewels. She was oblivious to the chandeliers made of hundreds of pieces of faceted crystal sparkling in the faint afternoon light, the heavy candle-holders that stood five feet tall, and the tapestries of wan medieval ladies and horses pursuing unworried foxes.
She saw none of it as, ducking into the great hall, she shoved the door to behind her. The vast ballroom was empty, illuminated only by weak afternoon light filtered through enormous windows at one end of the long room. Allie’s footsteps echoed hollowly as she paced the floor, her mind teeming with angry thoughts that pestered her like demons.