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Authors: Kate Thompson

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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Tess stepped back and beamed at her friend. ‘I never dreamt that you'd come,' she said. ‘How did you know?'

‘How did I know what?'

‘How did you know that it was ...' Tess stopped just in time, alerted by a fierce warning glint in Lizzie's eyes. The oldest of the four children, a girl of about nine, bent down to retrieve Lizzie's stick and handed it to her. The others stood in a shivering huddle on the road. Behind them, another Land Rover pulled up and waited for them to move.

But Lizzie was in no hurry. ‘This is Mr Quinn, my neighbour,' she said. ‘I told you about him, didn't I? He keeps his cattle on my land, and he helped me out that time when the weather was so bad. At least, some of the time.' She cast a surly glance at Mr Quinn, who cleared his throat and looked the other way. ‘This here is Tessie,' Lizzie went on, ‘who came snooping round my place last year with her young friend. What was his name again?'

‘Kevin,' said Tess, nodding in greeting towards Mr Quinn. She was embarrassed now that her initial delight at seeing Lizzie had evaporated. Worse than that, she was unsure how she was going to explain the eccentric old woman to her parents.

‘And as for how I knows,' Lizzie was saying, looking pointedly at Tess, ‘I read it in the newspapers like everyone else.'

Tess nodded, shamefaced. The driver of the waiting Land Rover honked his horn and the small group began to make their way towards the opposite pavement, all of them moving at a snail's pace to accommodate Lizzie's arthritis. Tess's mother was waiting for them on the footpath, and Tess cast around in her mind for some way of explaining Lizzie. There was no time to think, and she had to say something.

‘Mother. This is Lizzie.'

The old woman stretched out a thin crooked hand, which Tess's mother accepted, a little reluctantly.

‘Elizabeth Larkin,' said Lizzie, pompously, ‘of Tibradden, County Dublin. I offered your daughter my hospitality during that cold snap we had that time.'

Tess's mother would never forget the ‘cold snap', when her daughter had gone missing without warning and not returned until the thaw set in. Tess watched her face. She had never told her parents anything about what happened when she went away the previous year with Kevin, and they had never asked. She could see her mother's perplexity as she took in this information, knowing that it would do nothing to explain her disappearance but merely add to the mystery. Tess was afraid that she would ask Lizzie for more information but Lizzie was, as usual, a step ahead of her.

‘This is my neighbour, Mr Quinn,' she said. ‘He has most kindly brought me in to get a look at this funny pheasant, and I mustn't keep him waiting around. So nice to meet you.' With an authoritative air, Lizzie struck her cane on the frosty pavement and began to make her way towards the end of the rapidly lengthening queue.

Tess looked after them, surprised by the strength of her feelings for the old woman. When she had first seen her a few moments ago, she had felt that she had an ally, that she no longer had to face the current confusion alone. Now she wasn't so sure. Her heart was heavy as she and her mother made their way back to her father, who had stayed behind to hold their place.

‘Who on earth was that?' he said.

‘Lizzie. A mad old woman I met last year.'

‘Where did you meet her? When?'

Tess was irritated by the questions. It hadn't been enough just to say hello to Lizzie. She badly wanted to talk to her. In the end it was her mother who had to fill the silence and answer her father's questions.

‘She put Tess up during the snowstorms, apparently. Why didn't you tell us about her, Tess?'

Tess shrugged. Her parents looked at each other. Tess had always been secretive about her disappearance, and they had learnt not to pry. Nevertheless, the silence was full of tension. After a few minutes Tess said, ‘Why don't you two have a cup of coffee? I fancy a wander around. I won't be long.'

Without waiting for a reply, she ducked out of the queue and made her way back along the side of the straggling crowds until she found Lizzie, standing a little to one side and leaning on her stick. People were streaming into the park now, some of them on foot, others in cars or coaches which pulled up beside the gates to unload. Tess was puzzled by the numbers. The capture of the bird had created a lot of publicity, but she wouldn't have expected so many people to turn out.

As though she were reading Tess's mind, Lizzie spoke.

‘People is looking for something,' she said. ‘There's nothing left to believe in, and people wants something new.'

Tess nodded, looking round at the faces in the crowd. There was something in what Lizzie had said; a deeper emotion than simple curiosity shone in the expressions of the people all around her. There was an eagerness, almost a hunger, to witness the mystery that was residing in the zoo buildings ahead.

Lizzie left firm instructions with the youngest of Mr Quinn's children to hold her place in the line. The child nodded, an expression of utter terror on her face. Her father ruffled her hair and offered to help with the job, and the child relaxed. Lizzie's body might have been old and frail, but she had a powerful personality and Tess could well understand how a small child might be intimidated by her. She smiled encouragingly and wondered, as she often did, whether that child had discovered the ability to Switch and, if she had, where it might lead her.

The sun was just rising as she and Lizzie made their slow way towards a stand of sycamore trees on the other side of the road. Sunlight might be beginning to overpower the streetlights, but it would be a long time before it made any significant impression on the crisp white frost underfoot.

‘You's worried, girl,' said Lizzie as she propped herself carefully against the scaly trunk of one of the trees.

Tess sat down on a protruding root and nodded. ‘Do you know who this bird is?' she said.

‘Of course I do!' said Lizzie. ‘He would have had something to answer for if he hadn't come to see me!'

‘I suppose so,' said Tess, though somehow she couldn't imagine the phoenix answering to anyone, no matter what the call. ‘The question is, though, how do we get him out of there?'

Lizzie nodded slowly and looked over towards the zoo. ‘I suppose he has to come out, sooner or later.'

‘But of course he has to come out! How could you think of leaving him in there?'

‘Well, he can't come to any harm, can he? He'll always rise up again, won't he, whatever happens? He'll be rising up again after you and me and the zoo is long since gone and forgotten.'

‘But he can't stay in captivity all his life! Or all his lives, whatever way you want to put it. And we've only got a week to get him out!'

‘I wouldn't say it bothers him too much where he is,' said Lizzie. ‘He is what he is; here, there, or anywhere else he might happen to be.'

Tess tried to resist what Lizzie was saying, but when she thought about it, she had to admit that it was true. The bliss of the phoenix existed in being, not in doing. Why should it matter to him where he was?

But Lizzie, true to form, had not finished confusing Tess yet.

‘Still, he has to come out, all the same,' she was saying, ‘though I isn't sure it'll be enough to make the difference.'

‘Make what difference?'

Lizzie sighed and shifted uncomfortably. ‘I's sure you knows already, girl, but if I has to explain it then I will. As best I can, that is.'

‘Go on.'

‘There is a great light in this city, and within the next hour or two people are going to be pouring in through these gates to see it. Every person who sees it is going to be affected by it. You mark my words: that bird in there will change people's lives.'

‘Really?'

Lizzie nodded. ‘For a while, anyway. But the truth about this world is that wherever there's light there has to be darkness, and as soon as that bird came into existence some nastiness was born to balance it out. What's more, I's as sure as I can be that where the evil is based isn't a million miles from here.'

She looked pointedly at Tess, who felt her mind cloud over with suspicion. What did the old woman know? What business was it of hers, anyway? For a moment the sunlight which was beginning to break through the branches overhead felt intolerable to her. Then, as quickly as it had come, the feeling passed away, leaving Tess in a turmoil of confusion.

‘But what should I do, Lizzie?' she said, trying to hide the desperation which was edging into her voice. ‘How do I choose?'

Lizzie shrugged. ‘We all has to choose at some stage, girl,' she said. ‘But it may not be as difficult as you thinks it is. Sometimes it isn't choices that is difficult, but the way we looks at them. It's not always what we are that needs changing, but the way we thinks. You know what I mean?'

‘No!' said Tess. ‘I have no idea what you mean.'

Lizzie was about to reply when her attention was caught by Tess's father running towards them across the grass.

‘They've opened the gates early,' he called breathlessly. ‘We'd better get back in line.'

Tess stood up and took Lizzie's elbow to help her back to Mr Quinn and his family. She seemed to move infuriatingly slowly, and Tess could see her mother nearing the gate as the crowd flowed forward.

Lizzie stopped abruptly. Mr Quinn was making towards them across the road.

‘You get along now, Tessie,' she said. ‘And mind you take care, you hear?'

‘Are you sure you'll be all right?'

‘I'll be all right, and so will you if you takes care. I trusts you, girl. If you trusts yourself half as much, you'll know what to do when the time comes.'

She shook herself free of Tess's grasp and latched on to Mr Quinn. Tess wanted to hear more, but it was too late. Her father was moving in another direction, and was just about to be swallowed up by the crowd.

‘That all sounded very serious and profound,' he said, as she caught up with him. ‘Far too obscure for an old dunce like me. What was it all about, anyway?'

‘I haven't the faintest idea,' said Tess, ‘but I wish I had.'

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

‘I
T MUST BE BECAUSE
of all these people that they're opening early,' said Tess's mother as they approached the turnstiles. ‘I'm sure the adverts said the zoo would open at ten.'

Tess looked back. The line stretched as far as she could see, back along the road between the zoo and the main gates of the park. A few gardai had arrived and were standing at intervals beside the queue, but so far there was no need for them; all was quiet and orderly.

Tess's father paid a harassed young woman in the nearest of the wooden kiosks at the gate, then grumbled about the price.

‘Better be worth it. Awful lot of money just to look at one bird.'

‘You can see all the rest of the animals as well if you want to,' said Tess.

‘Leave him alone, Tess,' said her mother, good-naturedly. ‘His life wouldn't be worth living if he couldn't find something to complain about.'

Once inside the zoo gates, there were several directions that a visitor could take, but not one person deviated from the line which dragged slowly on towards the centre of the compound. To Tess's surprise they passed by the aviary where she had used the pine marten's sharp wits to get a look at the phoenix, and headed on towards another building beside the cafe. It was a huge grey warehouse of a place with nothing in the way of architectural imagination to recommend it. Tess had been inside it once before, when it had housed a rather boring exhibition of model whales and dolphins. Now it had clearly been given over to displaying the phoenix. As they drew near, a man was in the process of changing the queuing time notice beside the door from ‘two hours' to ‘three hours'.

‘Glad we got here early,' said Tess's mother. ‘We'd have been waiting all day if we'd got up an hour later.'

Inside the entrance to the building a pair of uniformed security guards were making cursory checks of everyone's hand luggage. The family's picnic basket got a slightly more thorough examination before they were allowed to move on, and Tess noticed two or three shooting sticks leaning against the wall, waiting for their owners to reclaim them as they left.

‘They're not taking any chances, are they?' said Tess's father as they moved forward with the crowd.

‘I suppose that bird must be fairly valuable,' said her mother. ‘It seems to be the only one of its kind.'

‘We don't know that,' said Tess. ‘I think it's ridiculous. Why couldn't they leave it alone to get on with its life? For all they know it might have a family somewhere.'

She peered around the side of a heavily-built man in front of her, but the crowd was still too thick to see anything. For a long time they didn't move at all, and the guard at the door had stopped any more people from coming in behind them. Then, after what seemed an age, the line began to dribble forward again.

The phoenix's cage was in the corner diagonally opposite to the entrance door. A wall of hardboard partitions ran down the centre of the building and prevented anyone seeing around the corner until they got there. The wait was infuriating; the long, slow crawl to that corner. But when they turned it, the endless queuing all seemed worthwhile.

The light hit them before they saw the bird itself, and it produced a powerful sensation. The glass-panelled cage was lit from above by a double row of fluorescent tubes, but the radiance that flooded out of that corner was far greater than what they could produce. Tess knew as soon as she saw the light that in some way or other, it was being produced by the bird itself. And its effect was extraordinary. The moment she came within its aura, and long before she saw the phoenix itself, Tess felt her mood shift; elevate, as though she had received some wonderful news or been given an unexpected gift. When the phoenix first appeared at her window she had felt like that, but she had assumed her joy came from knowing that Kevin had survived. Now she knew it was more than that. The bird had some sort of mystical power of its own, and as Tess looked around her in wonder she could see that it was affecting everyone in the building in the same way. There was still a certain amount of shoving going on behind them, but all those who had stepped into the light were completely at ease; in no hurry at all despite their proximity to the source of the light. Even the zoo staff, there to keep the visitors moving, were relaxed and smiling, in no hurry to move people along.

BOOK: Midnight's Choice
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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