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Authors: Kate Thompson

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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Why, though? What did he want? She remembered the message about the stone containers beneath the ground with a strong sense of unease. What was he after? Buried treasure? If so, was it right for him to be using his Switching powers for such purposes: getting the rats to do his dirty work so that he could become rich? Yet if it wasn't right, who was to say? What business was it of hers?

The bus pulled up outside the school and Tess joined the lines of dreary uniformity filing in through the gates. Not much different from the poor old rats, she remarked to herself wryly.

‘Still no sign of Algernon, I'm afraid,' her mother said as she began to peel the potatoes that evening. ‘I hope he hasn't been caught by a cat or something.'

‘So do I,' said Tess. ‘I suppose there's nothing we can do about it now.'

‘Never mind. We can see about getting another one if he doesn't turn up.'

Tess nodded. ‘Anything I can do?'

‘You can make a salad if you've finished your homework.'

Tess fetched lettuce and tomatoes from the rack beside the back door and rummaged in the drawer next to the sink for a sharp knife.

‘I'm sorry about yesterday evening,' she said. ‘About being late and saying you don't trust me. I was a bit tired. And I was upset about Algernon.'

‘No.' Her mother looked as though she had a lemon in her mouth, as though what she was saying was difficult for her, but necessary. ‘I was thinking about it afterwards, and you were right. You're fourteen now, and what's past is past. I can't go on treating you like a child any more. You do need to have more freedom.'

Tess stayed silent, aware of having won a victory but unsure whether she wanted it or not.

‘You have to begin making decisions for yourself,' her mother went on. ‘It's only right at your age. You know the dangers of the city, and if you don't understand them by now then you probably never will.'

‘It's not as if I want to go off and ...' Tess lost her thread. Her mother's words were enormously generous, but they also placed a new responsibility on her. It was a big moment.

‘I know that, I know that you're not going to get up to mischief. You see, despite ... despite everything, I do trust you, and so does your father. We were talking about it last night. We think that as long as you keep up with your schoolwork and provided we always know where you are, you ought to be allowed to make more of your own decisions.' She paused for a moment and then added: ‘Within reason, of course.'

‘You won't worry, then?'

‘If I do, it's my problem, isn't it?'

Tess put down her knife, wiped her hands on a tea-towel and flung her arms round her mother's neck.

‘Thanks, Mum,' she said. ‘You're great, you know that?'

Her mother smiled, a little sadly, and Tess saw her as though for the first time: just a woman doing her best in life, as human as everyone else.

The sense of closeness lasted until Tess's father came in a few minutes later. He exchanged the day's news with everyone, as he always did, then settled himself down to read the evening paper until the supper was ready.

‘Look at this,' he said, pointing to an item low down on the front page. Tess went across and read over his shoulder. With the first glance at the headline her heart began to sink.

RARE BIRD CAPTURED IN THE PHOENIX PARK

In the early hours of this morning, head zoo-keeper Jeff Maloney, with the help of two assistant zoo-keepers, netted a rare bird which was discovered in a tree at the edge of the Phoenix Park. The bird had been sighted the previous night, but was gone by the time Mr Maloney arrived on the scene. Last night, however, he was well prepared and arrived in good time to find the bird roosting on an outer branch of the tree. The bird offered no resistance to being captured and was clearly quite at ease when handled. This suggests that it has escaped from some other collection, perhaps a private one, but so far no one has reported it missing.

The bird is said to be about two and a half feet in length with small wings and long tail feathers. It is golden in colour and, unlike some species of domestic and wild fowl which are also described as golden, it has no black markings whatsoever. At the time of writing, the experts at the zoo have failed to identify the bird.

By the time Tess had finished reading the report, she was leaning against the back of her father's chair, willing her shaking legs to bear her weight. How could this have happened? Why on earth hadn't he flown away? And the worst thought of all was: would it have happened if I hadn't been fast asleep at the time?

‘There was some sort of activity going on outside here last night,' said Tess's mother, who was also reading the report. ‘I thought it was some people come back from a party, getting excited about something and banging car doors. Do you think it was something to do with the bird?'

‘It's possible,' said her father.

Tess's legs weren't responding as required, and she had slumped into an armchair in the corner. Now she dropped her head into her hands in despair. What would they do with him? How could she find him, let alone get around to setting him free?

Her mother checked the potatoes and drained them, then began to set out the meal. ‘Are you all right, Tess?' she asked.

Tess stood up. There was no way she could just sit there and keep her emotions hidden, pretending that nothing had happened. ‘I won't be having any dinner, if you don't mind. I have to go and look for someone.'

‘What? Look for who? And your dinner's on the table—why don't you just have a bite before you go?'

‘No, thanks.' Tess was already on her way out of the kitchen and collecting her coat in the hall.

Her mother followed. ‘But Tess ...'

Tess's emotions got the upper hand. ‘But Tess, but Tess,' she said angrily. ‘It's fine in theory, isn't it, saying that you trust me. In practice it's different, isn't it?'

There was a heavy silence between them, during which Tess could hear her father push back his chair and cross the room towards them. Then her mother sighed and turned away. ‘OK, Tess,' she said. ‘But be back before ten o'clock, all right?'

Tess nodded and shot out of the door, pulling on her coat as she went. As the door closed her father said, ‘What was all that about?'

Her mother shrugged. ‘She's a teenager,' she said. ‘What do you expect?'

Outside the door, Tess buttoned her coat against a damp westerly wind. She had let down her hair when she got home, and now it began to fly around, getting in her eyes and obscuring her vision. She felt in her pocket. There was loose change in there, and her door key, but no hair band. She stuffed her hair down the back of her collar and looked around.

She had come out with no clear idea of what she was going to do. Her first thought was to go to Phibsboro to try and find the Switcher and enlist his help, but she realised now that she had no idea of what she would be asking him to do. Until she knew where the phoenix was, there could be no plan made for releasing him.

She walked along the street until she felt safe from watching eyes, then she crossed over into the shade of the trees, where she was hidden from the street lights. It was a short walk across the park to the zoo, but in human form she would have no chance of getting inside and looking around. She cut across an open space, checking to be sure that there were no people around, and made for the cover of a small stand of trees, where she Switched into an owl. Within a minute she was approaching the zoo, but it became apparent that her choice of bird was not of the best. The buildings were ablaze with light, which blinded her so badly that she became disorientated and had to make an emergency landing in a nearby tree. She considered trying a bat, even though she knew it was their time of year for hibernation, but when she thought about it further she realised that would not serve her purpose either. The bat's sonic system would tell her a certain amount and avoid the confusion of light, but she would have no way of seeing inside the buildings since the sound would bounce back from the glass windows and tell her nothing of what lay behind them.

She needed sight. What creature could find its way through the darkness but not be dazzled by bright light? A cat would do it, but then a cat might attract too much attention and be too slow to escape. The last thing she wanted was to be collared herself.

The answer came to her in an instant. When they had lived in a wooded area of the countryside, she had made the acquaintance of a pine marten, who had often come to visit even on days when she didn't Switch and go to find him. The pine marten had become a sort of family pet, and they left food out for him on the porch outside the back door. The house lights had never bothered him, and he seemed to be able to see perfectly well when he came to the kitchen door and poked his nose in.

As she Switched, Tess realised that the pine marten had other advantages, too. It was as fast as greased lightning if threatened, and it could climb; not only up and down trees, but on surfaces that were almost smooth. She shinned down the tree in which she had made such a clumsy landing, and raced across the grass towards the zoo. As she ran, she remembered how the long, sinewy body felt from inside; its wiry strength and its quickness and its cunning. The pine marten was afraid of very little in life. There were few dangers which it could not avoid with its remarkable speed and agility.

A guard stood at the entrance gate of the zoo. As Tess watched, a taxi pulled up and let out a group of men and women in smart clothes. The guard checked their identification, then made a call on a portable phone before letting them through and pointing out their destination with a series of gestures. While his attention was taken up with that, Tess slipped beneath a turnstile and into the grounds.

There was plenty of cover for a pine marten. The areas between the roads were covered in low shrubs which smelt enticingly of domestic fowl: ducks and peacocks and guinea-hens. With an effort, Tess brought her mind back to the business in hand. The new arrivals were making their way towards the hexagonal aviary, and Tess followed at a distance, on silent paws. Outside the aviary door a second guard was standing, and he, too, talked into a mobile phone before opening the door with a key and locking it again behind them.

Tess lay low and watched carefully. All around the outside of the building were wire pens which connected to the cages inside, so that on fine days the birds could be allowed out into the open. They were all vacant now; the sharp eyes of the pine marten could have picked out a roosting bird no matter how well camouflaged it was. If the phoenix was in there, and the flow of activity suggested that it probably was, she would have to find some way of getting close enough to the door to see inside. That was going to be tricky, with the guard standing there. A pine marten is as big as a cat, and there was no cover close to the door; no way to stay hidden.

Tess used both her minds together and eventually came up with a solution. The outside pens were enclosed by strong wire netting, and if she could sneak around and scale the furthest one, round the other side, she would be able to cross the tops of them until she got to the front again, where she would be in a perfect position to see into the door the next time it opened.

Taking a long way round, she approached the pens. With a jump and a scramble she was up, and slinking silently along the top of the cages to the door. There she settled herself to wait.

It seemed like hours before the door eventually opened again and a group of people came out; many more than Tess had seen go in. A man at the back was talking loudly, and Tess knew that he was feeling very proud of himself even though she couldn't understand, with the pine marten's brain, what he was saying. She edged forward, stretching down to try and see through the door. No one looked up; all were too busy talking in excited voices. Tess stretched still further, her body becoming longer and longer as her front paws walked down the edge of the net and her back paws held tight, keeping her anchored. Still she couldn't see around the angle of the door, and in another minute the last of the people would be out and the door would close again. In a moment of desperate courage, Tess made a flying leap and landed on the ground between two of the departing guests, who sprang back in shock. She was only on the ground for a split second, but that split second was all she needed to get a glimpse inside the door. Then she was gone, racing away through the undergrowth and leaping up the netted wire which ran between the zoo and the main road through the park.

The various experts on birds and wildlife who had been inspecting the strange new find were puzzled by the sight of the pine marten, but not as puzzled as Jeff Maloney was. Before he left for home that evening, he checked the enclosure where the pine martens lived, and was even more surprised to find that neither of its occupants was missing.

CHAPTER SEVEN

T
HE SOUND OF THE
morning paper being pulled through the letter box woke Tess. It was Saturday, and there was no reason for her to get up for another hour or two, but she jumped out of bed and pulled on her dressing-gown.

Her father was making coffee when she got into the kitchen. The paper was folded beside his place at the head of the table, but Tess got to it first. On the front page, beneath the main item on the failure of peace talks in the North, was a feature about the golden bird.

‘Your mother was worried about you last night,' her father said.

‘Why? I was back before ten o'clock, wasn't I?'

‘And why do you have to be so mysterious about where you were?'

Tess felt her irritation rising. She wanted to read the piece in the paper without a cross-examination. ‘I was visiting a friend.'

‘What friend? Since when have you had friends that you go to visit? You never bring them here.'

‘I can't, not this one, anyway. He's not allowed out.'

BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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