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Authors: Kate Thompson

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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‘Oh? Why's that?'

‘Maybe they're afraid he'll disappear.'

Her father began to say something more, but thought better of it. Tess returned to the paper.

US COLLECTOR TO BUY PHOENIX PARK PHOENIX

Officials of the Dublin Zoo have today confirmed that the mysterious bird captured two nights ago in the Phoenix Park is to be sold to a private collector based in Missouri, USA. The figure involved has not been disclosed, but it is said to be ‘fabulous'. Zoo officials say that it will allow for a complete refurbishment of certain areas of the zoo compound, as well as providing funds for the purchase and housing of a number of new animals: endangered species in particular.

The government has sanctioned the decision, on the condition that the ‘phoenix' be kept for one week at the Dublin Zoo, and made available for public viewing. To this end, a special display unit is under construction, and the zoo will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday 16th to Sunday 2nd February.

The Head Keeper at the zoo, Mr Jeff Maloney, confirmed that there had been initial difficulties in finding out the diet of the mysterious bird. While this had caused serious concern, it has now been resolved. The phoenix has revealed a partiality for fresh apricots, cashew nuts and spring water, and is now feeding regularly. Its condition is described as ‘excellent'.

Tess handed the paper over to her father and waited while he read the article. As soon as he had finished, she said, ‘Can I go?'

‘Of course. I'll go with you, if you like.'

Tess spent the morning in town with her parents, struggling against a growing frustration and impatience. She urgently wanted to get to Phibsboro and find a way of looking up the boy, but she couldn't push her luck with her parents. Saturday-morning shopping was a ritual, and so was Saturday lunch in town.

It was after two when they got home. Tess ran upstairs and changed into a new pair of jeans that her mother had bought for her, then came back down.

‘What's time's dinner?' she asked, pocketing a banana and an apple.

‘The usual time, I suppose,' said her mother. ‘Why? Where are you going?'

‘To visit a friend in Phibsboro. I won't be late.'

Before her mother could reply, Tess grabbed her jacket and raced out into the street. She ran across the corner of the park to the Navan Road and began to walk quickly, checking over her shoulder from time to time for the bus. By the time one came and stopped for her, she had walked half-way to Phibsboro, but she felt so anxious about the captured phoenix that every minute mattered. It was an expensive two stops, but worth it to her.

A few young children were playing soccer in the street where the Switcher lived. They looked Tess over suspiciously before resuming their game. The door of the red-headed boy's house was closed. There was no car parked in front of it and no sound of a television or radio coming from within. Tess hesitated before knocking, aware of the eyes of the soccer players returning to her, aware that despite spending most of the morning trying to work out what she would say when that door opened, she still hadn't come to any firm decisions.

Her stomach was in knots. It would be so much easier just to turn and walk away. But without help, how was she going to go about releasing the phoenix? She hadn't even come up with a plan yet.

Tess knocked and waited. If there was no one there it would at least solve the immediate problem. She was just raising her hand to knock again when she heard the latch turn. The door opened a crack and the face of the pale woman peered out.

‘Yes?'

Tess's mouth moved, groping for words that didn't come.

‘Can I help you?'

‘I was looking for ... have you got a son? Red hair?'

The woman opened the door another inch but only, it seemed, to scrutinise Tess in an extremely suspicious manner.

‘Who are you?' she said.

‘I ... I'm a friend. I wanted to ask him for some help.' She would get herself into deep water if she wasn't careful.

‘Martin hasn't got any friends. What sort of help are you looking for?'

Tess's mind went blank. The thin woman opened the door and folded her arms.

‘It's a sort of project,' said Tess, lamely. ‘To do with birds.'

For a long moment Martin's mother stared hard at Tess, but gradually her gaze began to soften and be replaced with something slightly less hostile.

‘Well,' she said at last, ‘you can only try. He's in his room sleeping, probably. Why don't you go on up and see if you can get him out of bed?'

Tess nodded and stepped inside.

‘First door on the left at the top of the stairs. Let me know if you need anything, won't you? Like a straitjacket or a tranquilliser gun.'

Tess turned to share the joke with the woman, but she was merely looking up the stairs, her white face drawn with anxiety. With mounting apprehension, Tess started up.

The house was unusually dark. The window at the top of the stairs which ought to have lit the landing had been replaced by dimpled yellow glass; the type that is sometimes found in bathrooms. There was something eerie about the silence up there which made it difficult for Tess to muster the courage to knock on the bedroom door. Martin, he was called. She remembered his charming smile. Surely there was nothing to fear?

She knocked and waited. Nothing happened. She knocked again, and then a third time.

‘Martin?' she called. ‘Hello?'

Nothing. She knocked again, then leant against the wall, wondering what to do next. There was no sound from below, and she wondered what the boy's mother was doing down there. She had the impression that the rest of the house must somehow be as dark as this landing, and it gave her the creeps. She longed to turn back, to just slip quietly down the stairs and out of the door without telling anyone, but she knew that if she did that she would never have the courage to come back again. If she was going to make contact with Martin, it was now or never. Steeling herself, she reached out and quietly turned the door handle.

It wasn't locked. The door opened stiffly, rubbing against the dark grey carpet within. The curtains were drawn and only a suggestion of daylight made its way through them. In the opposite corner was a bed, and as Tess's eyes grew accustomed to the gloom she could just make out the shape of the boy, lying on his back.

‘Hello?' she said, but quietly. The atmosphere was so heavy that she dared not speak any louder. There was no response, so she crossed the room, taking care not to disturb any of the clutter which covered most of the floor.

Martin showed no sign of hearing her approach. His face, when she drew near, was not as pale as his mother's, but there was a darkness around his eyes as though he were in the habit of not getting enough sleep. Tess wondered whether she was making a mistake in coming to wake him. Perhaps there were family troubles? Perhaps he was an insomniac and this was the only sleep he had managed to get in days?

‘Martin?' she said, gently. Still the boy's eyes didn't open, and Tess realised with a shock that she could see no sign of movement from his chest to signify that he was breathing. What if he was dead and his mother didn't know? What if she did know?

Suddenly Tess had had enough of the darkness and enough of feeling afraid. With a new sense of purpose she strode across the room, knocking her knee against a stack of magazines as she did so, then pulled back the curtains. The rings squealed on the rail as though protesting against the flood of early-evening light.

‘Martin!' said Tess, with as much firmness in her voice as she could manage.

The boy cried out softly as though he had been robbed of something precious, then opened his eyes.

‘What is it?' he said. ‘Who's there?'

‘It's me. My name's Tess. I saw you on the street a few days ago, remember?'

Martin looked at her blearily for a moment, then sat up.

‘Have you come to help?' he said.

‘Help with what?'

Martin looked away for a moment, then turned back. Once again his face wore the sweet smile that had stayed in her mind's eye for so long.

‘Do you need help with something?' she said.

He laughed and shook his head, and Tess had a strange sense of having missed some kind of opportunity.

‘Are you sure?' she said.

‘I'm sure.'

‘Well, I do.'

‘Oh?'

She stopped, remembering the difficulty that Kevin had encountered when he tried to convince her that he knew she was a Switcher. It was something that had been private for her all her life, and it was a subject not easy to approach. She had been defensive and dismissive. She had no reason to believe that Martin wouldn't feel the same way.

‘It's a friend of mine,' she said at last. ‘Sort of a friend, anyway. He's been taken prisoner.'

‘By who?' Martin's face seemed to be open and full of concern, but Tess was aware of some darkness which flitted behind his eyes.

‘By the zoo,' she said.

‘The zoo?' said Martin, his voice full of incredulity. Tess had hoped that it might have been enough of a hint; that if he was a Switcher he would empathise with her having animal friends and open himself to her. But instead he went on, ‘Are you serious? Are you the full shilling?'

Tess swore to herself in Rat. There was no easy way into this. ‘Look,' she said, ‘let's not beat about the bush, eh? I know who you are, I know what you can do. You don't have to pretend with me.'

The boy ran a hand through his thick red hair and looked at Tess with a bemused expression. ‘What, exactly, do you know?' he asked. Again his face seemed open and friendly, but again Tess was aware of a shadow passing behind his eyes, as though there were someone else in there apart from the charming boy, looking out through his eyes.

Tess took the bull by the horns. ‘I know that you're a Switcher. I know that because I'm one, too.'

‘A Switcher?' Martin's face wore a puzzled frown. ‘What's a Switcher?'

‘You know very well, because you are one.'

‘I know what I am, all right,' said Martin, and there was an edge to his voice as he said it which went along with the sinister shadow in his eyes. ‘What I don't know, though, is what it has to do with you.'

‘I've already told you. I need your help to rescue my friend. I don't know how I'm going to do it on my own.'

Martin looked thoughtfully at his feet for a moment, then said, ‘Tell me about your friend.'

CHAPTER EIGHT

T
ESS WASN'T SURE WHERE
to start. She realised she was still standing up beside the bed, and took the opportunity to get her thoughts together while she looked for a chair. There was one beside the table, but she had to move a pile of books off it. She noticed as she did so that they were all horror stories, classics as well as modern writers.

‘How old are you?' she asked, as she brought the chair over to the bed and sat down in it.

Martin resettled himself as well, propping himself up on pillows and pulling the covers up around his waist.

‘Fifteen,' he said.

The wind was knocked out of Tess's sails, and for a moment she wondered if she was making a terrible mistake.

‘You can't be!' she said.

‘Well I am, almost. Why shouldn't I be?'

Tess breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Because if you were, if you'd had your fifteenth birthday, you wouldn't be able to do it any more.'

‘Do what?'

‘You know very well, what. Change your form, become something else.'

The look in Martin's eye was, for a moment, openly hostile. In an instant, though, he had recovered his poise, and the charming expression of puzzled interest returned.

‘Go on,' he said.

‘Well, you need to know that, because whatever you are on your fifteenth birthday is what you'll stay. You need to have time to think about it.'

Martin shook his head. ‘Not me,' he said. ‘I already know what I'm going to be. I mightn't even wait until my fifteenth birthday.'

It was the acceptance that Tess had been waiting for, but she was careful not to show her satisfaction.

‘I feel like that, too,' she said. ‘But I can't do anything about it until I've got my friend out of the zoo.'

‘Ah, yes. Your friend. You were going to tell me about your friend.'

Tess relaxed and began to tell the story of her meeting with Kevin and the adventure which had brought them to the Arctic Circle to battle against the krools. It was wonderful to be able to relive her experiences once more, with someone who understood and seemed to appreciate them. She told him everything, right up to Kevin's return and his capture by the zoo authorities, and then she fell silent. Martin was silent, too, and Tess had the impression that he wasn't sure whether.to believe her or not. In any event, it was clear that he wasn't going to admit that he was impressed. Outside a few birds were beginning their evening song, and on the street below the game of soccer was still going on. As the two Switchers sat there, each engrossed in his or her own thoughts, Martin's mother appeared in the doorway, looking anxious and eager to please.

‘A cup of tea?' she said.

Martin nodded without a word, and his mother smiled in acknowledgement. ‘Everything all right?'

Again the boy nodded. His mother departed, as though she had been dismissed. Tess was shocked. She turned to Martin, meaning to remark on the nature of his behaviour, but he was smiling so sweetly that she was disarmed.

‘How did you find out about me?' he asked.

Tess told him about Algernon and her journey through the city in response to his call.

‘What do you want with those stone boxes, anyway?' she asked.

Martin rubbed his chin and looked heavenward, musing. Then he said, ‘Let's just say that I have a certain interest in archaeology, shall we?'

BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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