When a highly classified espionage operation breaks down, an MI5 prisoner escapes from a transport vehicle on the busy ring road outside Oxford. Now an armed and desperate man is on the loose. He has taken refuge in a preschool, where a collection of teachers, parents, and students were about to start their day. No one understands what Jaime Segura wants, and he refuses to speak to anyone but an MI6 spy named Ben Whistler, a coworker of Jaime’s boyfriend, Milo, who has gone missing. Now, as law enforcement descends upon this quiet corner of Oxfordshire, Jaime holds the preschool hostage as his collateral, and one teacher, Louise Kennedy, finds herself in the terrifying position of protecting innocent children from the terrible decisions of the adults around them. As Louise steels her nerves and weighs her every decision, she also begins to put together the fragments the truth from the chaos around her—and no one is fiercer or more resourceful than a teacher on the trail of justice.
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In cartoons, when the alarm rings, the cat, mouse, dog, whatever, hauls a mallet from under the pillow and BAM!—cogs, levers and coils go everywhere; the clock face droops from its casing like a cuckoo on a spring . . . Morning is broken. In the real world, you simply reach a slow hand out and depress the button so the ringing stops. And for the moment it takes this to happen, you’re held between two worlds: the dream life in which mallets are hidden under pillows by pyjama-clad animals, and the default waking mode in which you blink twice, remember who you are, and feel detail seep back into you the way light infiltrates the room—you’re Louise Kennedy, you’re thirty-two years old, and today is either the first day of the rest of your life or the last day of your old one, depending on how things work out. It’s Tuesday, April 3rd. The weather’s set for fair. Sunlight has already reached the bedspread, drawing upon it a range of shadow mountains whose outcrops and valleys exactly match the folds and ridges of the curtaintops. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up.
Louise muffles a sigh, and pulls herself out of bed.
This is where it begins.
And this, too, is where it begins; an hour earlier, and some five miles from Louise’s bed: in a grey lay-by, shielded from the A40 by a row of gasping trees.
This stretch of the road, this time of the morning, most traffic is headed the other way; the first leg of the pilgrimage into London, hauling workers on to the motorway and firing them through the chalk cutting on the county border, where red kites ride the thermals overhead; then on past the redaubed stretch of graffiti (Why do I still do this every day?) to the stilted Westway and the congestion-charged canyons beyond. But George Trebor’s on the homeward leg of the Lille/Birmingham run, and this lay-by is where he parked overnight; partly because the legislation won’t let him ply his sixteen-wheeled trade twelve hours at a stretch; partly because there’s a loo here; but mostly because the back of his cab’s a fine and private place, unlike a two-up/two-down containing three teenage boys and a harassed wife. Which is maybe why he’s overslept, and is still in the cab sorting out shaving gear when a car pulls off the road, passes his rig, and parks outside the brick toilet. There’s another truck behind George’s but nothing in front, so he has a clear view of the car, which is a dark blue BMW with two occupants, neither of whom emerges. They’re both male. No clue as to what they’re doing: checking a map, maybe. Drawing straws to see who takes the first leak.
That’s when he sees the boy coming out of the toilet.
Most days, Louise played the radio softly during breakfast; the Today programme, or—if reality pressed too heavily on her—Radio 2. This morning, though, she opted for silence, or what passed for it in this stretch of South Oxford, where the early morning hum from the railside works plugged any gaps left by the Abingdon Road traffic. Her kitchen window looked out on a meadow—the Ham—beyond which lay the railway line, where Railtrack operated a pick-and-mix gravel concession, or that’s what it looked like. Trucks and what the Darlings called digger lorries shunted to and fro around it from the early hours, their diesel-powered belching blunted by an eight-foot baffle without which—presumably—everything would have been much noisier. It was part of the background hum, and throbbed beneath the morning like the area’s heartbeat. Louise was barely conscious of it; was utterly irony-free in choosing radio silence.
Besides, she wasn’t at liberty to make noise these days.
The bedroom above the kitchen—there were two bedrooms in this almost comically narrow house, whose front door opened directly on to the living room—had, until lately, been the other bedroom; the one that wasn’t Louise’s. And now it had become her mother’s bedroom instead; that M attaching to other to produce a wholly opposite shade, the way dawn changes to dusk, one letter at a time—down, mown, moon, moot, most, must, musk . . .
Above her head her mother slept, while Louise prepared breakfast in silence.
The boy saw the BMW and came to a halt, middle of the lay-by. George Trebor, watching for no special reason—except that’s what you did, watch, when something was happening—had a plain view of this; enough to realize that already, even before he was fully aware of paying witness, his version had come askew from reality. Because this wasn’t a boy, precisely. More like twenty—bumfluffed rather than bearded, but beyond the point at which the mouth seems too big for the head; the nose too small for the face. He was dark-skinned, and looked, George thought, exhausted—like the next big wind would blow him away. He wore jeans and a dark green bomber jacket, and a rucksack hung from his left shoulder; he grasped its strap with his left hand, while his right was thrust into his pocket. No: it hung from his right shoulder, and all those details were reversed. George had trouble with left/right when applying them to someone facing him. Anyway, middle of the lay-by, halfway to the car, the young man stopped and dropped his head to one side, as if assessing the occupants. Working the rent, was George’s appraisal. He himself had worked the roads long enough to be unshocked by the probability. Working the rent: but Jesus, kid, you really don’t want to be getting into a car with two men. Any professional sex situation involving two on one: you’ll be torn apart.
Maybe that’s what the boy was thinking. Either way, he moved no closer to the car. Looked, in fact, kind of scared.
George wasn’t even pretending he wasn’t watching now, but it wasn’t like anybody knew. Height of the cab, he might have been sitting in the royal box. The boy wasn’t looking his way anyway; his eyes were fixed on the car, and his lips moving—saying what, George couldn’t tell: might have been a price-tag; might have been a name.
The car door opened, and one of the men stepped out.
Elsewhere, alarm clocks weren’t necessary.
Eliot Pedlar lay on his back, eyes open, and listened to family life unfolding along the corridor—his wife’s happy murmur; his children’s giggling—the way it did every morning. The children were awake by six—hell, six was a good day—and two seconds after their first stirring, Christine was out of bed and through the door; his last glimpse of her, the flash of a dimly remembered bottom under a solely functional nightie.
“The wheels on the bus—”
“go round and round round and—”
“round round and rou—”
“nd the wheels on the bus go—”
Round and round. Sometimes he couldn’t tell where his sons’ voices broke off; where his wife’s began. As if, together, they formed a perfect circle, outside of which he was always hovering; going round and round, without ever breaking in.
The twins were nearly four; his wife almost exactly three decades older. And he couldn’t tell them apart? That wasn’t cute so much as kind of disturbing.
It was 6:50. He had time for another ten minutes’ sleep, but his chances of achieving it were zero.
Waking thoughts were supposed to be creative thoughts—the hinterland of dreams was where consciousness dipped into the myth kitty, and pulled out useful images. That was the theory, but actually he’d woken up drenched in the Memory again—the Memory being less of a series of mental pictures tied to emotions than an actual physical state he’d been imprisoned in for almost a week . . . His right hand reached for his cock. His eyes remained fixed on the ceiling. Chris bustled into the room. “Are you still okay to do the boys this morning?”
Eliot eased both hands from under the duvet.
“Of course,” he said.
“You hadn’t forgotten?”
“No,” he said. “Of course not.”
Forgetting wasn’t his problem, recently. Remembering was what was driving him crazy.
And then there was Judy . . .
There was a clock-radio on Judy’s bedside table, which was paid for. When she opened her eyes, it read 6:55. Waking—coming round to what the clock said—was the usual brutal infraction: a list to be ticked off—what the world owed Judy; what Judy owed the world. The equation always weighed heavy on her side of the maths. The world should know this by now, but feigned ignorance.
Judith Ainsworth turned the radio off, and dragged herself out of bed. The light creeping through the curtains pointed out her surroundings’ imperfections, but then it always did.
I don’t want to be a burden.
You’re not a burden, mum. I like having you here.
Don’t let me stop you doing what you want to do.
You don’t. Honest.
Have you thought about getting some nice ornaments for that mantelpiece? It’s a bit bare.
(Louise lived in fear of returning home to find an unacceptable ceramic the new centrepiece of her living room: a thank-you gift it would be impossible to overthrow.)
I won’t be with you longer than I have to be.
And how did Louise respond to that? Which meant what, anyway? That death was so imminent there was little point in Louise increasing the milk order? Or that her mother, Susan, would be heading home soon; the heart attack filed away under Unpleasantnesses We Don’t Talk About, Thank You Very Much?
Louise buttered toast, and wondered whether not putting the radio on was because she didn’t want to hear it, or because she didn’t want to disturb her mother (I don’t mind you listening to the radio in the morning, dear. It doesn’t wake me). You were always ten years old when you were watching TV with your parents and a sex scene erupted. And you were always prone to the most painful guilts when your mother told you what she didn’t mind: Go on and rip my heart out, Louise. Trample it into the carpet. I don’t mind. It’s been attacked once already.
She gave up on her toast. There were more important aspects to breakfast. Fishing the back door key from its hook, she let herself into the yard—twelve square feet of cracked, uneven paving, hemmed by a low wall bordering the Ham—and lit a cigarette; the first of her daily pair. Giving up had never been a problem for Louise; it was only the first and last of the day she had trouble forgoing. Those were the two she’d hung on to when she’d discarded the habit, along with her previous job, a lover, her London flat, cocaine bingeing, and the sense she’d somehow—it didn’t have a name, this feeling; was simply a cloud that descended in the early hours—that she’d somehow fucked up everything, even if from the outside it had looked like she was fast-tracked to the glittering prizes. Not smoking between the bracketing pair was made easier by the fact that she rarely smoked in public. Secrecy (she preferred to consider it discretion) was something she’d had to learn anyway. Her lover, for instance, had been her married boss.
Who today, of all days, was likely to weigh heavy on her mind.
Resting a palm on the wall, Louise looked out across the meadow. Mist curled round the trees at its farthest edge, but it would be fine later—this was a simple rule: days you felt low were likely to shine, just to make you feel worse. Besides, this had been the pattern lately; mist giving way to bright warm weather.
She smoked her cigarette to its filter, and dabbed it out on a mossed-over patch of brick. One tiny coal survived its bludgeoning, until a gust of wind whipped it out of existence.
It was 7:14.