Identity Unknown

"Being back here made me see how much it can get to you; the training, all of the lessons, even just the environment we are in. We aren't the same as everyone else. And everyone else can never know.'

After six months of searching for her father, Charlotte Goode returns to the Gallagher Academy. Exams and eager friends await, but something is wrong. When a phone call changes everything, Zach can offer the answer - but someone will stop at nothing to keep him silent. And when a double agent is revealed, Charlotte must choose who to trust - but time is running out, and the Academy's greatest secrets are at risk.

The stakes are higher, but is she ready?

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18. The Trip

The Rochester Estate was big. I mean, makes Buckingham palace look small big. And sure, if I was a normal teenager going on a normal trip, I would probably have been excited. But there was a tracking device in my diamante bracelet, comms in my ear and a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach as the Gallagher Academy van pulled up the gravelly path to the gallery.

"You'll rotate the position you are in with your partner's every 15 minutes," Mr Solomon instructed, and a cold feeling settled across my shoulders. My partner wore a smart suit, smelt incredible and had inherited the rugged good looks from our teacher. But Rick Solomon's smile didn't seem friendly to me.

Still, I knew I had to crush my nagging doubts. I gratefully accepted a flute of something sparkling on arrival and sipped delicately, admiring a gleaming vase of flowers to my left. I could taste elderflower on my tongue, my favourite, so I took another sip. The sounds of violins wafted gently through the air, and I nodded vaguely as our tour guide for the evening introduced himself.

"Good evening all, I am Mr Mogulsworth, and I will be showing you around the Rochester Estate." He twiddled his moustache nervously and clapped his hands together. Rick slipped his arm through mine, but I didn't pull away. Two can play at this game, I thought, shooting him a smile.

Mr M led us to the Grand Showroom. The walls were painted in a light raspberry shade, and the lighting was soft. The whole room was adorned with rich oil paintings. Even the ceiling had intricate paint swirls in deep violet and indigo.

Rick traced the mahogany frame of the painting nearest to us with his finger.

"How much do you think one of these costs?" he asked.

"I dunno," I said, moving to stand beside him. Bex shot me a glance across the room. I smiled reassuringly at her, adjusting the buckle of my shoe: silver platforms that Macey grew out of. I so wasn't ready for them though, as I stumbled, bracing for a hard fall against the polished wooden floor. But an arm snagged my waist, caught me.

"Easy Cinderella," Rick murmured, an easy smile melting across his face.

"Oh please," I said confidently, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, "I could kick Cinderella's ass."

Rick laughed, a smile spreading across his face and raising his defined cheekbones.

"I'm sure you could," he said, tucking my hand into his. His hair feel loosely across his face, brushing his jaw.

Go on Charlie.

I reached out to touch his face.

And then everything went black.

"What-" I started.

"Not already," whispered Rick, his voice cracking. He was afraid.

And then, as quickly as they had cut out, the lights snapped back on. Macey was wielding her clutch like a weapon, Cam was by the door, but Rick's stance was the most worrying. The shape was all too familiar, pushed into the side of his belt.

A hand around my waist. Bex mouthing 'run'.

It was a trap. Rick had a gun.

"Stay put, Ms Goode," Mr Solomon almost pleaded through my earpiece. But my pace was already matched with Bex's, our heels clattering as we ran. Musky candles lit the hallways and hushed chatter from guests echoed eerily, sounding more threatening than mingling should.

"Through here," Bex hissed, shoving me through a doorway. But I stopped suddenly, felt Bex bump into me.

This wasn't ordinary mingling, unless you count forty lords and forty ladies huddled against the walls as a single man clad all in black dropped paintings into the large sack at his feet. He hadn't seemed to have noticed us, so Bex backed out of the room silently.

"Get in here," a voice drawled casually. The man hadn't even turned his head. He was small in stature, so I was pretty sure that Bex and I could have taken him. But the four burly 'guards' by the french doors holding guns? Maybe not. I didn't even notice when one of them lifted their arm and aimed, so swift was the movement.

"Bex!" I yelped, as a bullet pierced the thick mahogany of the door, mere inches from her head.

"I said get in here!" he growled. I detected a hint of Russian in his thick accent. He spoke in a low tone, rough, almost like he'd swallowed a handful of gravel. His shoes clicked firmly against the floor as he took well-placed steps, admiring another painting, prodding the bobbly surface of the canvas rather excitedly, much like how a young child would daub with a gloopy mass of paint.

"Er, you really shouldn't do that," a rich English accent piped up amongst the crowd. A man stepped forward, fairly tall, with round glasses perched on the end of his nose. He rearranged his bowler hat atop his head of thick wavy hair and waited for the man's response.

"And why's that?" he hissed.

"Well, these paintings are thousands of years old, and true masterpieces, and also, if you lay your hands on another one of them, I will have to intervene." The man said these last words matter-of-factly, as easily as someone would announce that it had just begun to rain.

A cackle of laughter echoed across the large room as the thief/assassin/bad-guy stepped forward.

"And how do you plan to do that? You have no back-up, no weapons." Another laugh.

"Well, not carrying a weapon, in my opinion, is good." The last word was subtly emphasised, but I got the message, as the man with the glasses had slipped my surname into his conversation slyly. I was his backup. I glanced as Bex and she nodded her head slightly. We knew what to do.

"Well, I don't think you'll have the same view when I have you shot on the spot for talking back to a man who does in fact carry a gun." He slowly produced his weapon from the back of his belt, a sinister smile creeping across his face.

At this point, we could have freaked out. But instead, Bex produced a small explosive from her shoe, no bigger than a small stone, and threw it towards the French doors.

Screams, panic and a lot of shattered glass followed. The man with the glasses grabbed my arm. "Hurry!" he whispered, pulling me out through the frames of the door, glass crunching beneath our toes. Most of the guards had been thrown back by the impact, now strewn across the floor, studded with glass. But their leader was still a threat.

How did I know? Because he had Bex at gunpoint.

"Don't take another step, or the girl dies!" he yelled, making me shudder. Bex tried to wriggle free but he grasped her arm and pulled her closer. I felt sick.

"Y'know, I may have told a little lie back then," glasses-man said.

"And what would that be?" he growled, shoving the gun right in Bex's face.

"I always carry a weapon." Triumphantly, the man so impeccably dressed produced a gun and fired. The man crumpled to the floor, his lifeless arm falling from Bex. 

"Now let's go!" he insisted. I didn't know who he was, or what he was doing here, but it was clear that this man was an ally. So, with Bex at my side, we rushed outside, enveloped immediately by the cool air of the evening.

"There could be more of them," Bex panted, wiping a smear of blood from her forearm.

"Unlikely," the man answered, adjusting his glasses as if he was not yet familiar with them.

"Then what should we do?" I asked, turning to our new friend. But he had disappeared.

"Bex..." I whispered, grabbing her hand. "Where did he go?" The dense foliage of a forest lay before us, shadowy and gloomy, the branches shrieking in the wind.

"I'm betting he went in there." Bex jabbed her finger in the direction of the forest that looked too menacing for my liking, prompting me to say, "But what about the people back at the Estate? Surely we should go and be of some help?" But Bex shook her head.

"That guy had answers, whoever he is," Bex insisted, pulling me behind her. Her feet crashed against fallen twigs as she took confident steps. Bex always had a head for danger and adventure, but I was more wary, wincing as an owl screeched from the depths of the forest.

"Look!" I cried, moving forward to a tree trunk, gnarled and ancient, clearly marked with a symbol I knew.

"Rosa Escuro..." I muttered, thinking back to the name that Rick's friend had given me when I asked about this emblem that he wore on a ring.

Rick.

"Bex?" I said unevenly, fearing the worst as I clenched my palms, all too aware of the fact that I had let go of her hand.

But the voice that spoke next didn't belong to a friend.

"Hello sweetie," someone said coldly,  just as a swarm of clouds encased the silver light the moon had shone with, leaving us in darkness. And in all my years of training, all I could do was stand helplessly, waiting for the trigger to be pulled.

 

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