Let's Race the Night
Lukas slammed the newspaper down onto his desk, the front page showing the latest picture of Peter Prendergast, laughing merrily at the summer festival, less than two weeks ago. Headlines blared in bold, black letters:
GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL AND FRIEND, PETER PRENDERGAST, MURDERED IN HIS SLEEP. NIGHT WANDERERS SUSPECTED.
“He said he didn’t work for the government,” Oliver commented worriedly, turning the page slightly so that he could read the columns beneath.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Toby asked dryly as he pulled a black jumper over his shirt. Marcus had just dragged him out of bed to see the newspaper headline, and dusk was still a couple of hours away. “He was certainly not asleep when we killed him. We left him on the floor, his eyes wide open.”
“Was that too disrespectful?” Oliver questioned.
Many of the Watch, including Lukas, rolled their eyes. “I don’t think the government cares whether we kill them respectfully or not,” said Lucy. “But there has to be a reason why they’re lying about the way he was killed.”
“It isn’t just that, either,” Oliver replied. “The paper says that he was stabbed through the heart.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Toby argued, although he knew it was pointless arguing with a printed paper. The words would not change at his command.
“I still have the blood on my coat to prove it,” Oliver added.
“It isn’t me, nor the Watch, that needs convincing,” Lukas stated, silencing the slowly growing volume of chatter in the small room. “Whether you stabbed him through the heart or slit his throat, we don’t care, as long as he’s dead. I’m sorry to hear that he gave you little information regarding the night of Jack’s death, but maybe the government will get their hands on some evidence and publish any information they find.”
“And lie about it, like they have with this?” Lucy demanded. “We should go back to the house and search it ourselves.”
“You risk running into Dark Keepers and other government officials,” Lukas pointed out. “I don’t doubt that they will be quick to search the house as well.”
“We risk running into Dark Keepers every time we venture outside at night,” Lucy countered coldly. Lukas acknowledged with a regal nod of his head. Lucy turned to address the rest of the Watch. “Is there anyone willing to accompany me to Prendergast’s home to search for evidence?”
“I’ll go,” Jason said. “We are both small and discreet. We don’t need to draw attention to ourselves.”
Toby caught the slight, amused curling of Lukas’ mouth, but the action was so small that he doubted anyone else saw it. He wondered whether Lukas found it funny that anyone could consider Lucy ‘small and discreet’ or whether the whole idea of searching Prendergast’s house seemed ridiculous to him. If it was the latter, Toby had to agree. Whatever Prendergast was doing that required the guard of the Dark Keepers, he could no longer continue it.
“You may both do as you please,” Lukas said, still sounding cool and collected, as always. “Dedication is always appreciated.”
Lucy nodded at him as though in thanks. She and Jason headed for the back rooms to prepare, dress in in the usual black clothes and grey coats, apply their signature war-paint and cover the lower halves of their faces in silk scarves. Lucy held Toby’s gaze as they passed him, like she were daring him to explain why he had not offered to accompany her. He tried to keep his expression passive, but the sheepish tilt to his mouth was too difficult to cover. He knew Lukas had other plans for him this night anyway, though Toby intended to talk himself out of it.
“I have no plans tonight,” Lukas announced to the rest of the Watch. “After Prendergast’s death, the government will be in search of Night Wanderers. You may patrol the city if you like, but the last thing I want is to risk your lives unnecessarily. You have an hour, maybe two, to get home before dusk falls, or you can sleep here.”
It was a moment before anyone moved. Lukas never gave them a night off, not even after a comrade was killed. Toby was just as surprised as the others, but he guessed Lukas’ reasoning.
Marcus subconsciously cracked his huge knuckles and dragged Alex by the elbow after Lucy and Jason to disguise themselves. Alex looked less than pleased at being forced to work when the opportunity of a free night was there, but Marcus was one of the few of them that loved his job. He had been known to purposefully pick fights with the Dark Keepers, but that was before their guns got bigger and more accurate. Oliver offered to walk Hannah home and the pair of them left before they could be dragged back into work. Lukas looked up once they left, meeting Toby’s steady gaze.
“Need I ask what bothers you?” he inquired lightly.
“I can’t go back to that apartment.” Toby launched straight into it. He did not want to be persuaded otherwise. Lukas opened his mouth to argue, but Toby ploughed on. “My rent was being paid for by the Academy, and once I stopped turning up, the payments will have stopped. Someone else will be living there.”
“You are right, someone else is living there. But the apartment is still in your name.”
“How can that be possible?” Toby asked with a scoff.
“Elsa has been living there for the past eight months.”
Toby felt the blood drain from his face. He wanted to return even less. “How could you know that?”
“She took your disappearance badly, Toby. She has been living there waiting for you to come back. Since there was no proof that you died, despite what everyone said, she never believed it. I have been keeping an eye on her.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
Toby ran his hand anxiously through his hair. He began pacing, the limp in his leg reduced to little more than an annoyance. Lukas watched him passively, sitting absolutely still while he let Toby calm down enough to talk.
“I can’t go,” Toby said finally. “If I don’t scare her to death, she will hate me, and then I will have nowhere to live. If she screams, it will attract the attention of the Guard and then not only will I have to run for my life, but it’s likely that the city will realise that I might not actually be dead.”
“Tobias.” Lukas adopted the firm tone that showed his impending impatience. Toby quietened. “I ask you to return to Elsa now because the Dark Keepers are interested in recruiting her.” This shocked Toby. Lukas continued before he could say anything. “I fear she may join them if she is given no incentive not to.”
“And my return will be the incentive?” The conversation just kept getting worse. The thought of the Dark Keepers sniffing around Elsa made him feel sick. “What would they want with her anyway?”
Lukas sighed softly. “Did you ever really believe that the Academy was set up for the benefit of the young people of this city?” he asked quietly. “Have you heard of a student that has graduated to go on to do anything other than join the Guard?”
Toby suddenly understood what Lukas was saying. “The Academy was designed to train Dark Keepers?”
Lukas nodded gravely. “I grabbed you when I did because I needed someone with intelligence on the Academy. Elsa is a remarkably wise individual and I would much rather her to be on the side of the Night Wanderers, both for your benefit and mine-”
“She won’t be a Night Wanderer. I won’t let you recruit her,” Toby interrupted sharply.
“I don’t need to recruit her, Toby,” Lukas answered patiently. “If she knows you’re alive, she won’t need to be recruited in order to be on side.” He looked straight at Toby, his bright blue eyes piercing Toby’s brown ones. “If you don’t return to her, you will lose her to the Dark Keepers.”
Two and a half hours later, Toby stalked through the alleyways back towards his old apartment, his face masked in the scarf and war-paint. He preferred to travel on the roofs of the towers, but tonight was not a night to risk detection. The alleys provided a safer cover from the helicopters whirring overhead, their spotlights brushing dangerously close to him, but he barely noticed them.
He stopped immediately, a scrape against the concrete ground alerting him to someone close by. No matter how distracted his mind was, his senses were always focused on his surroundings. Toby drew back against the wall, waiting for a guard to emerge from an adjacent alley. No one did. He waited, listening to the silence, for at least a minute before he decided it was safe. He continued at a run.
His foot caught on something solid and Toby fell straight to the ground, barely getting his hands down to prevent hitting his head. It took him less than a second to organise his limbs and jump straight back up, drawing a knife as he did so.
Simon Blakewell stepped into view, dressed in the traditional red shirt and brown military jacket. He, like Toby, wore a thick weapons belt, but instead of the assortment of shiny silver knives, he carried a large gun on one side and a long sword on the other. The young men faced each other, ten feet apart. Toby held the knife tightly by his side, while Simon’s weapons remained in his belt. Toby wondered, vaguely, whether the Keeper recognised him through the disguise.
After several moments of silence and stillness, Toby threw his arms wide. “Shoot if you’re going to.”
Slowly, Simon shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’d much rather watch your kind suffer.”
The statement confused Toby, but he had no desire to question it. Keeping his eyes on the Dark Keeper for any sign of his reaching for the gun, he sheathed the knife and continued down the alley. There were no shouts or gunshots. Simon had not wanted to kill him, because he was a Night Wanderer. But that did not explain how it would lead him to suffer.
He slowed back to a walk as he approached his tower building, his eyes floating automatically to the floor of his apartment. If Lukas was right in thinking that Elsa was living there, would she allow him back into her life? Toby had no doubt that keeping Elsa away from the Dark Keepers was Lukas’ main goal, but he had also mentioned that he needed to integrate back into society. Not only did he have to tell Elsa the truth of his whereabouts for the past year and pray that she would understand, if not forgive, but he would have to lie convincingly to his family and friends of the life before the Night Wanderers.
Toby stopped between his tower and the next, looking out at the street he had not seen for nearly a year. It was completely devoid of the life he remembered it to have; the ponies and carts full of fresh produce, the paperboys waving newspapers under people’s noses, the workmen headed for the mines out in the favelas. There was none of that now, in the dark, other than the shadows of Dark Keepers patrolling the streets. Toby’s apartment looked out onto the street, but he could not risk climbing the front of the building where men would be more likely to see him. Instead he climbed the wall facing the alley, where the shadow would hide him for the majority of his ascent. The climb was slowed by the damaged muscle on his lower leg, which no longer hurt him but he did not yet trust it to hold his weight completely.
He spent less than a minute scaling sideways across the wall facing the street before he located his window. Toby forced his rising anxiety and fear back down as he pushed the window silently open. There had been no need to fear thieves when the city was built. Night Wanderers never stole, but propaganda said otherwise.
Toby ducked through the window, quietly closing it behind him, and was immediately hit with a strong wave of nostalgia. The room looked exactly as it had when he had left it. A shirt of his still lay across the back of the sofa, and the ornamental pinecones sat on the kitchen counter from the last time Jake had moved them. Toby paced towards his shirt and picked it up. It was checked blue and made from cotton, very unlike the black and grey clothes he wore now.
Toby’s head snapped up. Elsa stood in the doorway to his bedroom, dressed in her night clothes. Her face was hostile but guarded, and she held a knife in her right hand, the tip pointed towards him. His grip on the shirt tightened, as did the constriction on his heart. She had changed, aged too much in the past year. The skin around her eyes had tightened. But she was still beautiful, still his Elsa.
“Did you hear me? Get out.” She jerked the knife at him threateningly.
He took a breath to prepare himself for her reaction before slowly bringing the scarf down from his face and pushing the hood down off his head. Elsa’s eyes widened, her mouth opened as her breath caught in shock, and the knife clattered to the floor.
“Toby, are you listening?”
Toby looked round lazily to meet Jake’s amused gaze across the table. His plate was empty, almost to the point it had been licked clean, while Toby’s was still half full. Next to him, Finn tapped irritably on the table top.
“What was I supposed to be listening to?” Toby asked.
Jake rolled his eyes. Finn answered in a low voice, “There are rumours that the Night Wanderers are planning another attack on the Dark Keepers.”
A little twinge of excitement stirred in Toby’s chest, but his expression did not change. “Good luck to them.” He started pushing his food around his plate absent-mindedly, his attention drifting back to the waitress, who was busily wiping down tables as customers began to leave the restaurant. “Why are you worrying about it?”
“We aren’t worrying,” Jake argued. “I thought you might be interested.”
Toby narrowed his eyes at him. “Why would I be interested?”
Finn leant forward and lowered his voice further. Toby mirrored him in order to hear his next words. “The Dark Keepers have been murdering civilians for over twenty years, just for being outside after dark. Now that people are beginning to fight back, shouldn’t we all be interested?” Toby remained quiet, feeling scolded. “Jake mentioned that you stood up for a Night Wanderer in front of a Dark Keeper the other day.”
“There was no reason to suspect he was a Night Wanderer,” Toby argued, although he knew he was lying. “I was protecting a customer, that’s all.”
“Elsa was impressed with you,” Jake added.
Toby could not help the next sentences that escaped his tongue. “I can’t imagine she’s very impressed with you right now. You haven’t looked at her once since you’ve been here.”
Jake frowned. “She’s working.”
Toby glanced over Jake’s shoulder at the waitress again. Elsa smiled at him as she met his gaze, but it was a tired smile. He wondered whether she had been working all day, and dusk was not far off. He wished there was something he could do to help her. “Perhaps you should offer to stay and help her,” he suggested to Jake, trying to keep his voice uncaring.
Jake shook his head, sanded his hands together and pushed away from the table. “I want to get home before dark.”
“Dusk is over an hour away,” Toby pointed out, furious at Jake’s selfishness.
“And I value my body without holes in it,” he countered. “Are you coming or not?”
Toby stared down at his half-eaten meal. “I’ll go when I’m done.” Jake shrugged and dropped a note on the table to pay for his food. Finn followed suit, giving Toby a brotherly pat on the shoulder as he passed. As oblivious as Jake was to Toby’s feelings towards Elsa, they had not escaped Finn’s notice.
Whilst he ate a few more mouthfuls of his meal, now cold, he watched as the restaurant’s manager approached Elsa. She was a stern-faced woman from the Suburban District with little or no care for any of her employees. It was just unfortunate that Elsa was the only one there at the time.
“I need you to take care of ze restaurant for ze last hour,” she said to Elsa, speaking with a French accent that Toby did not quite believe was genuine. “I need to go ‘ome before my ‘usband returns.”
“An hour?” Elsa repeated. “But it will be dark by then.”
The manager shrugged. “You can sleep ‘ere if you need to.” She swept out of the building before Elsa had a chance to argue. Toby and a romantically involved couple were the last customers in the restaurant, with only Elsa to manage them. Toby left his plate and bravely approached her.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, aware that she could refuse his help and send him away. He was not sure whether his pride could cope with that, but he could not leave her to sleep on cot that was little better than the floor, as he had experienced himself many times. She glanced up from the countertop, wiping it down with such vigour that the top layer of wax should have come up with the dust.
“I just need you and those two to leave so I can clean up and lock up,” she answered, her voice cool, but Toby could hear the slight tremor behind the words. He looked over his shoulder towards the couple, who were just leaving, and thought that the day seemed to be ending rather quickly.
“Listen, if you let me help you-”
“No, the last thing I need on my conscience is having you outside after dark,” Elsa said with finality. “I can sleep here. I can be safe.”
“But uncomfortable,” Toby pointed out. “I’ve spent my share of nights at the café, and they are unpleasant enough to send me outside to race the night.” This drew a reluctant smile to Elsa’s face.
“You make it sound exciting,” she mumbled.
Toby grinned. “If you let me help you, we can clean the place in half the time and I can walk you home. You won’t even see the sun hit the horizon, I promise you.”
“That’s one hell of a promise.” She threw her cloth over to him. “If you can wipe down the tables and sweep the floor, I can deal with the kitchen.”
Toby set to work, collecting plates from the tables as well as payments from customers that left a short time ago, before he set about wiping crumbs from tables onto the floor, leaving the tops gleaming. Cleaning the café in a hurry for at least two years had left him a quick and efficient worker and the restaurant floor was swept and mopped in less than half an hour. Elsa reappeared from the kitchen, changed out of her work clothes, and seemed stunned by Toby’s work.
“I should ask you to help me every week,” she said, beaming up at him. The smile faded as she glanced outside, where the sky was beginning to turn pale red. “How long do we have?”
Toby guessed, “Half an hour, maybe.” He looked down at her and grinned. “Let’s race the night.”
Race the night they did, racing each other as they went. Toby’s playfulness eased Elsa’s worries of the forbidden night and she led him straight to her home on the outskirts of the Suburban District, a small townhouse in which the electricity had already been switched off. Toby guessed she still lived with her parents, who would either expect her to stay at the restaurant or would be awake, waiting for her. Toby looked to the west, where the sun still hovered.
“I told you,” he said through panting breaths, pointing.Elsa laughed and threw her arms around his neck. Toby, taken completely by surprise, held her awkwardly. “I owe you one,” she said, and leant back to kiss his cheek. For the first time in his life, Toby hoped it was dark enough to hide his blush. He waited at the steps to her home until she disappeared inside, wanting to be completely sure she was safe. He then turned and bolted down the street, into the Tower District, heading for home. He had less than twenty minutes.