The entrance hall was empty – all the teachers and pupils at their next class. Mr Rogerson, our maths teacher scuttled past, his arms full of textbooks.
‘Shouldn’t you be in a lesson, Nico?’ He raised his eyebrows.
‘On my way, sir.’ I pushed myself up off the wall and headed along the corridor towards my history class. Fergus was already in there when I arrived though the class hadn’t technically started. He raised an eyebrow at me, but didn’t say anything.
It was the day after I’d given Ketty the money for the Youth Marathon. She’d barely spoken to me since and I was going quietly mad with frustration.
I’d quickly realised how insane my ambition to learn to juggle seven balls in four days had been. But at least I could use telekinesis to help. I’d been practising like mad ever since, unable to concentrate on anything else, though I’d still only managed to keep four balls in the air so far.
Fergus made some announcement about a new boy who had started at Fox Academy that day. All the usual stuff . . . please make him feel welcome . . . blah, blah, like head teachers do. I drifted off after a few seconds. It was the same during science and then maths. In fact, the only thing – apart from Ketty – that I noticed in the whole of my maths class was that Mr Rogerson’s hair seemed to have slid slightly to one side.
‘D’you think he’s wearing a wig?’ Tom whispered in my ear.
I grinned. ‘I dare you to go up to him and pull it off.’
Tom grinned back. ‘After you.’ He glanced at the front of the classroom, where Mr Rogerson was busily writing an equation on the whiteboard. ‘Hey, you said you’d show me a picture of your fit new girlfriend.’
I frowned for a second before I realised he must be talking about Dylan.
‘Yeah, next time I see her,’ I whispered.
‘You’re making her up.’
‘Another whisper and you’ll both be in detention.’ Mr Rogerson’s clipped tones temporarily ended our conversation, but Tom didn’t let the subject of Dylan drop. In fact, he was still teasing me during lunch break. In the end I headed up to Fergus’s flat to get away from him. I used to live here, but last year I told Fergus I’d rather be in the dorms with everyone else. I still had a bedroom, though, and keys.
I let myself in and sat on the sofa. There was a bowl of apples on the table and I spent a few minutes attempting to juggle five of them using telekinesis. I could still only manage four.
Disgruntled, I put the apples back in the bowl and looked round. I hadn’t been in here for weeks, but the flat was as tidy as ever. Fergus’s timetable was clipped neatly to the fridge door, along with a picture of me and Mum from when I was about three.
I wandered over to take a closer look. Mum was smiling in the photo. What would she say if she knew about me and Ketty? I sighed. Chances were, that if she were alive, I probably wouldn’t tell her. Most boys I knew didn’t seem to talk to their mums about girl stuff.
The timetable showed that the whole of Fergus’s lunch hour today was taken up with a staff meeting. Jack’s instruction to look for information about the fourth teen with the Medusa gene suddenly popped into my head. Well, I might as well see what I could find while there was no danger of Fergus interrupting me. I could have another go at the juggling in a minute.
I scanned the bookshelves, then spent a few minutes investigating a cupboard that contained a load of private bank and tax info. Nothing remotely to do with the Medusa gene. I had a quick look round in Fergus’s bedroom, but there was clearly nothing in here apart from clothes and a few old car magazines.
Maybe all the really important stuff was in his office. I headed out of the flat and past the boys’ dormitories. I’d just reached the back staircase that led down to the ground floor when I heard a muffled cry coming from the storeroom at the top of the stairs. I paused. The light was on inside the room – a glowing strip at the bottom of the door.
The cry came again – like an animal in pain. I threw open the storeroom door. The two people inside both jumped – Billy Martin and a boy I didn’t know. Billy’s face was vicious – screwed up with anger. The other boy looked terrified. Billy’s hands dropped to his side and I realised that the other boy was holding his belly, like he’d just been punched.
‘What’s going on?’ I said.
Billy swore. ‘This loser just started in my Spanish class and he speaks and writes it perfectly.’
I looked at the other boy. He had thick, sand-coloured hair and blue eyes. He was tall, too. Taller than either me or Billy. But there was something gentle about him. Something just asking to be picked on.
‘So you’re beating him up because he’s better than you at Spanish?’ I narrowed my eyes. ‘Or are you just annoyed’cos Ketty dumped you?’
‘She didn’t dump me,’ Billy snorted. ‘I didn’t want to go out with her – all she ever does is go running. And she’s butters.’
‘Don’t call her that,’ I spat, fury boiling up in my chest.
‘Er . . . I think I’m going to go,’ said the new boy.
‘No.’ Billy put out his arm to stop the boy walking past. The boy flinched. I gritted my teeth. The truth was I didn’t particularly care about this new boy – but I was itching to punch Billy. What had Ketty seen in him?
I pointed at the new boy. ‘So what’s he done to you then, Billy?’
‘I asked him really nicely to do my homework for me . . .’ Billy clenched his fists. ‘But the tosser said no.’
I glanced at the new boy. He must be the one Fergus had mentioned in history, earlier. He was standing perfectly still, his head bowed, like he was waiting for me and Billy to decide his fate.
I looked back at Billy. ‘He shouldn’t have to do your homework,’ I said, my hands curling into fists. ‘In fact, I’m telling you now, he’s not doing it ever.’
‘Or what?’ Billy squared up to me.
I glanced round the storeroom, searching for a weapon. There was a mop in the far corner. Maybe I could make that fly towards me. I caught the new boy’s eye. He frowned at me, as if he could see I was planning to grab a weapon – and didn’t approve.
‘Or what?’ Billy said more loudly.
‘Or this.’ I shoved him in the chest. Billy stumbled back a step, then lunged forwards. I darted out of the way, grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back.
‘Leave him alone, or I swear I’ll make you sorry.’ I wrenched at Billy’s arm.
‘Ow! Stop . . . you’re hurting me!’
‘I’m not hearing you promise you’ll leave him alone . . .’ I twisted Billy’s arm further up his back.
That’s for saying Ketty’s ugly.
‘Okay, okay, I promise.’
I released Billy’s arm. He rubbed it, then stormed out of the storeroom. Panting, I looked over at the new guy.
He was still staring at me. ‘Thank you,’ he said, his face breaking into an eager smile. ‘Thank you . . . thank you . . .’
‘I’m Nico,’ I said, mostly to stop him from gushing on.
‘Edward.’ He held out his hand.
I shook it – just for a second. It felt a bit awkward . . . I wasn’t used to boys my own age being this formal.
‘So, did you start here today?’
‘Yeah, my parents thought I’d be . . . better off at a boarding school.’
I grimaced in sympathy. From what I’d seen of Edward so far, he wouldn’t be better off anywhere this side of a home school. What with his gentle, geeky air and his eager-to-please face, he might as well have Beat Me Up stamped across his forehead.
‘You’re Mr Fox’s stepson, aren’t you?’ he said.
‘How d’you know that?’
‘He told me about you earlier.’ Edward paused. For a second he looked alarmed, like maybe he’d said too much. Then he burbled on. ‘Anyway, I know I said my name was Edward but most people actually call me Ed . . . My brother calls me ENOB. That’s from my initials. My full name’s Edward Neill O’Brien. Anyway . . .’
‘Edward O’Brien?’Where had I heard that name before?
‘Thanks for what you did, Nico.’ Ed was now walking hurriedly past me, chattering on at high speed. ‘I owe you but I ought to get back to the dorm . . . check where my next class is.’
He scurried off. I followed more slowly, the memory of where I’d heard Ed’s name before still niggling away at the back of my brain, just out of reach.
I tried, for a minute, to work out what it was. But then I reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Ketty in the distance – and all I could think about was my Saturday night problem again.
Friday. Another dull history class with Fergus. I was certain, now, that Ketty was avoiding me. We normally talked at the end of school, before she went running, but yesterday she’d rushed off to get changed without a word. That was Thursday – late-night shopping – so, to cheer myself up, I sneaked out of school and got the bus to Hanmore Park. It’s the nearest town to school, with plenty of phone shops on the High Street. Tom and Curtis agreed to cover for me if Fergus asked where I was. In the end I was out of school for about an hour and a half altogether. Risky, but worth it. I bought myself a great new phone with the money Ketty hadn’t wanted.
Since then I’d spent my entire time attempting to achieve my ludicrous juggling ambitions. I could now keep six objects in the air at any one time, though only for a few seconds. I’d stopped practising with balls – tennis balls were too big to manoeuvre and I couldn’t find any smaller ones. Anyway, using different objects looked cool. The whole thing was cool actually. I loved watching the objects zoom around each other. However, I was only too aware that making stuff move on my own was one thing and doing it in front of other people, especially Ketty, was something else.
I’d spent most of the lesson so far with my new phone under my desk, looking online for tips on normal juggling that I could adapt to fit my own, telekinetic version.
Fergus asked Ketty a question. I looked up. She was a few seats over. Her hair was loose today, resting on her shoulders. I got the distinct impression she was using it like a veil . . . hiding from me. But maybe I was being paranoid.
Ketty answered Fergus’s question, then looked round. She caught my eye and smiled.
My confidence surged. It was going to be okay. Ketty might have been a bit withdrawn the past few days, but we were still friends – I just needed to make her believe that I won that stupid juggling competition. I decided to catch her after class and make some definite plan about Saturday. I turned back to my mobile.
‘Nico?’ Fergus’s exasperated voice cut through my exploration of juggling4dummies.com.
I glanced up. The whole class was looking at me.
‘At last,’ Fergus said. ‘Am I interrupting something?’
‘No, sir.’ I slid my phone into my trouser pocket.
‘Then perhaps you can tell me which highly important historical document we’ve been discussing?’ There was a sardonic edge to Fergus’s voice. He only used it on me – and maybe a small handful of genuine school troublemakers.
I glanced at the textbook on my desk, desperately hoping the open page would give me a clue. But all I could see was a map.
‘Er . . .’ I looked round the class, hoping for help or inspiration.
Ketty was mouthing something at me, but too fast for me to follow what she was saying. Billy was smirking in the back left corner. Lola and Lauren were sitting on either side of him, both looking anxious.
And then I caught sight of Ed. He was up at the front, his thick, sandy hair all tousled up – making him look even geekier than when I’d found him in the storeroom. But the eager-to-please smile was gone. Instead, he was frowning in my direction – his blue eyes intense.
‘Stand up, Nico,’ Fergus barked.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
I stood, my eyes still drawn to Ed’s.
‘Right, if you can’t tell me what we’ve been discussing, I’d like you to empty out your pockets,’ Fergus went on. ‘Then maybe we’ll discover what’s so distracting that you appear to have failed to follow the past fifteen minutes’ discussion.’
No. My thoughts careered ahead of me. If Fergus found my phone, not only would it be confiscated but he would want to know where I’d got the money to buy it. How was I going to explain that?
‘Nico?’ Fergus repeated. I shook my head. It wasn’t fair. Fergus would never ask an ordinary student to turn out their pockets. As usual, he was picking on me.
Ed was still staring in my direction. All of a sudden, his gaze shifted and he made direct eye contact. I knew only a few seconds had passed but suddenly it felt like time had vanished. That everyone had disappeared apart from him. And then I heard his voice in my head.
Say this: Sorry, sir. We’ve been discussing the Magna Carta, sir.
I opened my mouth and said the words. As I spoke I knew that Ed was inside my mind, telling me what to say.
Like, I was present. And yet, not present.
It was, without doubt, one of the freakiest experiences of my life.
‘And the Magna Carta is?’ He folded his arms, and stared at the floor, clearly expecting me to crumble.
I stood, my heart racing. Ed’s voice sounded in my head again, but I was panicking so much I could barely follow what he was saying.
Calm down, Nico.
Just listen, Ed’s voice went on. The Magna Carta was an English charter, issued in 1215, which limited the powers of the king and which has been used as the basis for constitutions around the world. Many of our rights and freedoms come from that one document. That’s what we were discussing. How an ancient piece of writing still affects our lives today.
As he spoke, I repeated the words. I knew I wasn’t saying them in the way I normally spoke, but there wasn’t time to personalise them. It was my voice, but it was, undoubtedly, Ed speaking.
‘Very well, Nico.’ Fergus looked up at me, sounding puzzled. ‘You may sit down.’
As Fergus looked up, Ed looked away. His presence inside by head vanished completely. I sat down, shaken. For a few seconds I was unable to take in what had happened. And then the bell rang for the end of class and everything fell into place.
Edward O’Brien was the name of the boy with the Medusa gene that Jack had told me about – the one who hadn’t wanted Jack’s help all those months ago. Jack had been convinced Fergus would know about the boy and he was obviously right.
Ed had psychic powers, just like me and Dylan – except, in his case, the Medusa gene had clearly given him the ability to read minds . . . and to communicate without speaking.
Everyone around me was moving towards the door. Ed was still at his desk, loading books into his bag. I leaped up. Ed glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. He sped up, hauling his bag onto his back, almost running out of the room.
Completely forgetting my decision to speak to Ketty after class, I grabbed my textbook and pushed my way to the door.
Ed was already out. I looked both ways down the corridor. There. He was scurrying away, round the corner.
I ran after him, praying some teacher didn’t appear out of nowhere and stop me for speeding down the corridors.
I caught up with him just outside the back door, in the so-called Tranquillity Garden. It’s a small patch of grass with a bunch of flower beds. You’re not supposed to talk or run around out there.
Needless to say, it’s hardly ever used.
‘Ed?’ I said. ‘Wait.’
He kept on walking.
‘Stop.’ I reached out and grabbed his arm.
‘What?’ He hung his head, as I let go of his arm.
‘What did you do back there?’
‘What d’you mean?’ Ed assumed an extremely phoney look of puzzlement. ‘Nothing.’
For God’s sake.
‘You got inside my head, man.’ I frowned. ‘Told me what to say.’
‘You’re imagining it.’
‘You did,’ I insisted. ‘You can read people’s minds. You’ve met Jack Linden. He told me about you. You’ve got the Medusa gene. Why won’t you admit it?’
There was a pause. The wind rustled in the trees above our heads. Then Ed looked up, slowly. ‘It’s wrong, what I can do,’ he said. ‘Getting inside people’s heads is . . . it’s evil.’
‘No.’ I stared at him. ‘That’s what Fergus wants you to think.’
‘My parents think so too,’ Ed insisted. ‘Mr Fox told them about the Medusa gene a year ago. He offered me a place at school then . . . said I’d be safer here. But they didn’t believe him. Then I started being able to communicate telepathically and—’
‘Telepathically.’ Ed reddened. ‘It means I can “hear” other people’s thoughts and they can “hear” mine, if I want them to.’
A worrying possibility struck me. ‘So . . . so how many of my thoughts could you “hear” just now?’
Ed shuffled from foot to foot. ‘Not many,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I wasn’t prying. You’d know if I was. I was just sensing the surface stuff, really – mostly all I felt was how freaked out you were about the idea of Mr Fox seeing whatever was in your pocket – which would have been obvious to anyone looking at you anyway.’
‘God, Ed, you can read people’s minds . . .’ I grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t you see, it’s amazing. Didn’t Jack make you see that?’
Ed shook his head. ‘We only spoke for a minute. It was horrible. I mean, he turned up out of the blue outside my old school, about a month ago, telling me I was going to develop some mad genetic ability . . . that I was one of four people implanted with this deadly virus-type thing. My parents were really cross he’d come to me directly rather than going through them.’
I frowned, suddenly remembering what the Medusa gene had done to my mum. ‘You keep talking about your parents,’ I said. ‘Isn’t your mum . . . didn’t she . . .?’
‘She died when I was four.’ Ed looked away. ‘Sandra’s my stepmother, but I think of her as my mum. I mean, I don’t remember my real mum much.’ He looked at me. ‘It must be the same for you?’
I shrugged, embarrassed. Then I realised what he’d said.
‘How did you know I had the gene too?’ I said. ‘I never said.’
Ed sighed. ‘I saw it in Mr Fox’s mind the day I got here. He made me look him in the eyes and when I do that to someone, it’s really difficult not to just go straight into their head. Mr Fox was trying so hard not to give away that you had the gene that I couldn’t help but see it.’ He paused. ‘Look, I only helped you out today because you helped me with that boy yesterday. But we’re quits, now. I thought you’d understand, seeing as you’ve got the gene too. Mr Fox and my parents are right. The Medusa gene is a curse – it kills people. I’m not going to use it any more, so please leave me alone.’ And with that he scuttled away, back into the school building.
I stood in the silence of the Tranquillity Garden for a few moments. Ed was so wrong about the Medusa gene. I checked the time. I was already late for my next class. A few more minutes wouldn’t make any difference.
I took out my new phone, called Jack and told him everything Ed had done and said.
Five minutes later I strolled back into school, a smile on my face – juggling seven pebbles perfectly in the air.
Saturday afternoon, and almost everything was in place. Once I’d mastered the juggling on Friday I’d been tempted to show Ketty straight away, but I knew that doing it privately was one thing – and making it work in front of her was another, so I kept practising.
As soon as Jack had heard about Ed he said he wanted to meet up with us both on Saturday night. I’d explained that I was supposed to be seeing Ketty then, but Jack was undeterred.
‘There’s a pub called the Saracen’s Head not that far from your school where we can all hook up,’ he said. ‘I’ll make sure no one hassles you and your girlfriend for ID and your drinks won’t cost a thing. You’ll look good in front of her, while I speak to Edward.’
‘Great, er . . . but she’s not my girlfriend,’ I explained. ‘We’re just friends.’
Jack laughed. ‘Well, maybe Saturday night will change that.’
I was worried Ketty might have changed her mind about us going out, but she agreed to go to the Saracen’s Head straight away. She still seemed a bit reserved with me, though – not easy-going and relaxed, like she used to be.
It was simple enough to get permission slips to be out at the movies until 10 p.m. on Saturday night. I had no intention of either going to the cinema or getting home that early, of course, but it’s easy enough to fool adults. You just have to keep updating them with texts:
Bus broke down outside cinema, have to wait for another
Now bus stuck in heavy traffic cos of accident, should be back in 30
Still stuck . . . driver says at least an hour
That sort of thing.
Which left the one crucial detail that was threatening to spoil everything. How was I going to get Ed to come too? He didn’t look like the kind of teenager who’d be comfortable in a bar, even a small, local one. The idea of him having fake ID was laughable.
I walked into our year group common room. Ketty wasn’t there – she always runs on a Saturday, even when it’s pouring with rain like it was today – but almost everybody else was. Billy, Lola and Lauren were sitting in one corner, laughing over some magazine. Tom and Curtis were playing table tennis.
Ed was perched on the sofa by the window, flicking through a history textbook. I shook my head. Somebody should really tell him how uncool it is to be seen studying on a Saturday afternoon. Movement outside the window caught my eye. Ketty was jogging past, her sweats and hair plastered to her body.
I looked back at Ed. He was watching her too. Which gave me an idea. I sauntered over and sat down next to him on the sofa.
‘Hey, Ed,’ I said. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Fine, thanks.’ He smiled.
I watched him warily. Was he going to try and read my mind again? But Ed’s eyes were guarded and not quite focused on my own. I realised, with a jolt, that this was how he always looked at people – not quite making eye contact. What had he said about it before? That if he looked into someone’s eyes, it was virtually impossible to avoid reading their thoughts . . .
Making a mental note to avoid looking directly at him myself, I cleared my throat. ‘Got any plans for tonight?’
Ed shook his head. ‘I thought I’d catch up on some reading. I mean, the syllabus here is different from my old school, so I’m behind in a couple of subjects.’ He held up the history textbook.
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes at this latest display of Ed’s geekiness. ‘I thought you might like to come out with me?’
Ed’s expression grew wary. ‘Where?’ he said, cautiously.
‘Just a bar in Hanmore Park – that’s the nearest town to here. It’s nothing special.’ I made a face. ‘We only get permission slips to stay out till ten, so you won’t see much action down there, but it could be a laugh.’
Ed shrugged. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘My parents wouldn’t like me going somewhere where they sell alcohol.’ He frowned. ‘How would we get in, anyway?’
‘Oh, there won’t be any alcohol,’ I lied. ‘The early part of the evening’s just for under-eighteens. They’ll kick us out by nine-thirty.’
I held my breath. Surely even Ed wouldn’t fall for that? But he did.
‘Oh, well that’s okay then, but I’m still not sure I should. I mean, I do have all this reading to do.’
Unbelievable. I sighed.
‘That’s a shame,’ I said. ‘Ketty was really hoping you’d come along.’
‘Ketty’s going?’ Ed’s face brightened.
I grinned. ‘So you’ve only been here two days but you know who Ketty is?’
Ed blushed. ‘I’ve just . . . I’ve seen her running. She’s . . . well, it’s different. I mean, she’s different, isn’t she?’
More than you’ll ever understand, mate.
‘Yeah, Ketty’s cool,’ I said. ‘She’s a really good friend of mine . . . tells me everything.’ I paused. Here goes. ‘Actually, I think she likes you.’
‘Really?’ Ed’s face flushed scarlet.
‘Yeah,’ I lied, praying he wasn’t going to suddenly break his own rules and attempt to read my mind. ‘Ketty was going on about you earlier, before she went running. Said how good-looking she thought you were. And interesting.’
Ed’s dark blue eyes lit up.
‘Don’t expect her to make it obvious, though,’ I added hurriedly. I wondered if I’d gone too far. I was sure Ketty hadn’t even noticed Ed existed. And she was certainly way too cool to go for someone so geeky. ‘Ketty’s much shyer than she looks,’ I went on. ‘She might seem like she’s not interested but she’s actually just really unsure of herself.’
‘Okay.’ Ed leaned forward, like he didn’t want to miss a word I was saying. ‘Thanks, Nico. I really appreciate you telling me all this.’
For a split second, he almost made eye contact with me, then his gaze dropped again.
A throb of guilt pulsed through me. I pushed it away. I was only doing this so that Jack would get another chance to speak to Ed . . . to make him see how special his mind-reading abilities were.
I was doing Ed a favour here.
‘Right, well we’re meeting out the front at seven-thirty.’ I stood up, then punched him playfully on the shoulder. ‘Good luck, man.’
The Saracen’s Head in Hanmore Park was already crowded when we arrived just after 8 p.m. I hadn’t really enjoyed the twenty-minute bus journey over here . . . I was too preoccupied – mostly with my impending juggling but also, slightly, over how Ed was going to react when he realised he’d been tricked into a meeting with Jack.
I hoped Jack would show up soon. While he was talking to Ed, I planned to slip outside with Ketty and give her a juggling demo. Once I’d proved that I could do what I’d claimed, I was hopeful that she’d stop acting so withdrawn around me. Actually, I was hoping for a lot more than that. But now really wasn’t the time to get ahead of myself.
At least Ketty hadn’t seemed to mind Ed tagging along. And Ed himself was surprisingly at ease with us both. I’d called Jack beforehand.
‘I’m not sure a pub’s the best place for you to meet Ed,’ I’d said. ‘He’s not exactly experienced in the night life department.’
Jack had laughed and told me not to worry about it – or our ID. ‘Just give the password “white flag”,’ he’d said. ‘That’ll sort everything.’
And now we were standing beside the bar. It was ultra-modern, all mirrored walls and pale blue lighting.
We were the youngest people in here by several years. I was cool with that and Ketty looked like she fitted in okay, but Ed – dressed up like a middle-aged yuppie in a crisp shirt and chinos – looked very uncomfortable.
I looked round. Most people weren’t taking any notice of us, but a few of the older ones were giving us extremely dirty looks.
A man beside us bought a beer and Ed turned to me.
‘I thought you said there wouldn’t be alcohol,’ he whispered. ‘And where are all the teenagers?’
I grinned. ‘I may have misled you on the exact parameters of the evening, Ed, but just because they serve beer here, doesn’t mean you have to drink it.’
Ed opened his mouth to say something, then glanced at Ketty and clearly thought better of it.
I smiled to myself. He didn’t want to look uncool in front of her. Some chance.
‘I’ll get the drinks,’ I said. ‘What d’you want?’
Ed glanced at Ketty again.
‘Coke please,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ Ed said, clearly relieved she hadn’t asked for an alcoholic drink.
I rolled my eyes and turned to the bar. I had my fake ID all ready to ask for a beer, but decided to try Jack’s password instead. As soon as I said ‘white flag’, the barman nodded.
‘Sure. No charge, mate.’
Wow. For a second, I was tempted to get myself a triple vodka or something on top of the beer. Then I remembered why I was here – and that, as soon as Jack took Ed away, I was going to have to show Ketty I could juggle with seven objects. Better to keep a clear head and stick to a small beer.
After a few minutes, while the three of us sipped our drinks and looked round, Jack sent me a text:
Back room. Left of gents. Come alone.
I made an excuse and left Ketty and Ed by the bar. There was a bouncer on the door next to the toilet. I said the ‘white flag’ password again. The bouncer opened the door and stood back to let me pass.
Feeling a little unsettled, I walked into a small cloakroom, where a woman in a silver dress was checking in coats and bags. I didn’t have anything with me, so she just yawned and waved me through to the main room. It was buzzing, with slot machines against one wall, four card tables at one end and a roulette wheel in the middle. Staff wearing silver shirts (for the men) or silver dresses (for the women) wandered about with drink trays. Another man was calling out numbers by the roulette table, which was crowded with people watching the wheel spin.
Silver lights made the room sparkle. Both the walls and the floor seemed to be covered with dark red velvet. I’d only ever seen rooms like this in films.
Jack appeared beside me in another smart designer suit.
‘Is this a casino?’ I said.
He nodded. ‘A small one.’
A couple walked past. The woman stared at me. I suddenly realised how out of place I must look – at least five years younger than everyone else in the room.
‘What’s the plan, then?’ I said, wondering why Jack hadn’t come out to speak to Ed in the main bar.
He laughed. ‘That’s what I love about you, Nico, you’re up for anything.’
I glanced at him, suddenly worried. Did he expect me to play cards or something? I had no idea how to do anything more complicated than ‘snap’.
‘Don’t worry,’ Jack said, misunderstanding my anxiety. ‘The owner’s a business contact of mine. No one’s going to challenge you.’
‘Okay, but . . .’
‘So Edward and this girl of yours are out by the bar,’ Jack interrupted.
‘She’s not . . . er, yup, but . . .’
‘And they’re friends too? I mean, I know Edward’s only just met her, but he likes her . . . they get on?’
‘Yeah.’ I thought of Ed’s smile when I’d told him Ketty was interested. ‘I think he likes her a lot, actually, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. I mean, I don’t think Ed’s going to be able to handle this room,’ I said. ‘Even if he gets over the shock of seeing you, which I doubt.’
‘He just needs a nudge.’ Jack grinned.
He glanced across the room at a middle-aged woman in a smart black dress. She was watching us talk, an expression of deep interest on her face.
‘What d’you mean?’ I asked, feeling confused. ‘I thought you just wanted to talk to him?’
‘Mmm . . . slight change of plan,’ Jack said. ‘But don’t worry, you’ll still end up with loads of cash.’
‘But . . .’ I knew that I’d told Jack I wanted money. But that had only been in order to impress Ketty. Now that I’d realised flashing expensive stuff in her direction really wasn’t going to work, I just wanted a chance to talk to her alone. ‘You are going to take Ed off, aren’t you?’
‘All in good time.’ Jack grinned. ‘Now, I want you to go back outside with Edward and . . . what’s your friend’s name?’
‘Okay, go outside with Edward and Ketty and wait. Act normal. Don’t say you’ve seen me. And, whatever happens, just go along with it. Everything’ll be okay. Remember I’m pulling the strings.’
Pulling what strings?
But Jack was already propelling me out of the casino and towards the bar area.
I made my way back to Ed and Ketty feeling more troubled than ever. What was Jack going on about? And when was he going to take Ed and leave me and Ketty alone?
Ketty and Ed were so deep in conversation that they didn’t notice me coming until I was almost on top of them. Ketty looked really pretty, all smiling and fresh-faced in her jeans and red jumper. Beside her, Ed just looked geeky – his shirt even had ironed-in creases down the sleeves.
‘Ed did orienteering at his last school,’ Ketty said, as I walked up. ‘It’s like running with maps.’
‘Right,’ I said, Jack’s words still racing through my head. What did he mean about ‘pulling the strings’?
‘What’s the matter?’ Ed said.
‘Nothing. Er . . . d’you want more drinks?’
‘I’ll get them.’ Ed fished out his wallet and turned to the barman.
I raised my eyebrows. Where was all Ed’s confidence coming from?
Ed bought three Cokes and we chatted on for a bit. Ketty was clearly having a great time, explaining various school customs and procedures to Ed. He was all silent smiles and encouraging nods. I hung back, grim-faced, wondering what was about to happen. I didn’t have to wait long.
After about ten minutes a youngish man in a suit and tie wandered over, his eyes on Ketty.
‘Hello, miss,’ he said with a frown. ‘I need to ask you to step into the office for a minute.’
I froze. I wasn’t expecting anyone to challenge us for being here. Hadn’t Jack said that he knew the manager?
‘White flag,’ I said.
The man ignored me.
‘I’ve got ID,’ Ketty squeaked, picking up her bag. ‘And we only drank Coca-cola.’
‘That’s not it, miss,’ the man went on. He took the bag from her. ‘I’m afraid we have reason to believe you are in possession of class A drugs.’
‘What?’ Ketty and I spoke together.
Ed’s eyes widened into circles.
‘That’s ridiculous.’ Ketty’s lip trembled. ‘Look in my bag if you don’t believe me.’
The man thrust his hand into her bag. He slowly pulled out a small tube of pills.
Ketty gasped. ‘They’re not mine.’ She looked at me.
‘They’re not hers,’ I insisted. ‘Someone put them there.’ The idea that Ketty would take pills was ludicrous. Of all the people I knew Ketty was the last person who’d ever use drugs.
And then it struck me. This must be what Jack had warned me about – what he’d been referring to when he’d told me: Just go along with it . . . I’m pulling the strings.
The man remained impassive. ‘Like I said, please, no fuss, miss. We’d just like a private word.’
I was too shocked to think straight as we crossed the crowded bar towards the casino room. Why had Jack arranged to have drugs planted on Ketty? It didn’t make sense.
The man took us into the little cloakroom with all the coats and bags.
‘I don’t understand.’ Ketty was shaking now. ‘I’ve never taken drugs. Not even the tiniest bit.’
The door from the casino swung open, letting in a shortlived burst of light and chatter. The woman in the long black dress that I’d seen watching Jack earlier swept in.
She had short blonde hair cut in a sharp bob and smelled of a deep, musky perfume. Her dark, hard eyes took us in, then she turned to the man. ‘Please take the girl outside, Scott.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ The man opened the door and indicated that Ketty should leave.
‘Where are you taking her?’ Ed’s face was pale under his freckles.
‘What’s going on?’ Ketty looked over her shoulder at me, her eyes full of fear as she was led away.
I stared down at my feet, unable to meet her gaze. What was going on? Where was Jack? I forced myself to remember what he’d said: Whatever happens, go along with it. Everything’ll be okay.
Ed looked like he was about to be sick. ‘This isn’t right,’ he said. ‘We weren’t taking drugs. Oh, God, please don’t tell my parents.’
I bit my lip.
‘Don’t worry, Ed, dear.’ The woman smiled. ‘Nothing’s going to happen to you or Nico or Ketty, providing you do what I tell you now.’
Ed stared at her. ‘How do you know our names?’ he said.
‘Oh, I know a lot more about you than that, Ed.’ The woman smiled again. ‘In fact, there’s something inside you both that was named after me.’ She glanced at me. ‘I’m Geri Paterson.’
‘Sorry, but I don’t think I have anything called Geri Paterson inside me,’ I murmured.
A flicker of amusement crossed the woman’s face. Like she was acknowledging the fact that we both knew the drugs thing with Ketty was a fraud but we weren’t going to let on to Ed.
I decided I didn’t like her.
It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ Geri Paterson smiled.
Ed shook his head, clearly completely baffled. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘What d’you want? What have you done with Ketty?’
‘First things first.’ Geri smoothed down her sleek blonde bob. ‘I think you’ll both understand when you hear my code name.’
‘Your what?’ Ed frowned.
I just raised my eyebrows, determined not to let her see that I was almost as confused as Ed. ‘So what’s your code name, then?’
Geri’s smile deepened.