Wham! The blast knocked me off my feet. I slammed down hard on my back, onto the floor. Winded, I lay there stunned. What was happening?
Everywhere had been peaceful and calm, pigeons scrounging in the dirt after waste food, market sellers shouting about their wares and shoppers wandering aimlessly through the market. And then suddenly, in a split second, something had broken the peace apart, ripped it at the seams. An explosion was the least of all the things I had expected to occur that day. The market had been surreal for a busy day, maybe that was the reason why. Normally when I came here the hustle and bustle of people shopping and selling dragged you along but today it hadn't.
My next thought was for Tahlar. Where was she? Just before the explosion she had been a few feet in front of me looking at a pair of shoes but now Tahlar was nowhere to be seen. Panic flooded through my body as a ripple of fear and dread sped toward my mind.
Turmoil surrounded me. People were screaming at the tops of their voices in horror or in blind panic at the temporary loss of friends and family; market stalls blocked passages and alleyways where bits of wood and plastic had been scattered in the blast.
"Tahlar! Tahlar!" I called in vain every few steps but never did an answer, a reply to my calls come.
I wasn't surprised. There were people swarming around like bees to a honey pot with all of them radiating a low drone or wail.
When I heard my name carried towards me on the sudden breeze I was shocked.
'Charlie! Are you near? Are you safe?"
I'd have recognised that voice anywhere. It was Tahlar's. Her voice had a unique lilting accent and was pitched at an octave I had never experienced before I met her.
"Coming Tahlar!" I shouted as loudly and clearly as I could.
I made my way through the crowds, pushing as gently as I could past mums with pushchairs and elderly ladies with walking sticks. Why would someone try and blow up an area with so many vulnerable people in, I wondered? But that could have been the exact reason, targeting a vulnerable population. What I really wanted to know, what my naturally curious brain was begging me to find out, was where this explosion had come from and what had caused it.
When I found Tahlar we hugged dramatically. It would be have been hilarious to watch our reunion, as though we were long lost siblings who had never met until now and had realised all the opportunities we had missed out on but this was almost natural for the shock we had just been through.
"Charlie. I saw a guy sneaking away over there." Tahlar pointed to a passageway a little further up from where we stood, somewhere that hadn't been blocked or ripped apart by the blast.
"What are we waiting for? Let's chase him. Maybe he's a wanted criminal or terrorist!" I said, smiling at the thought of being a detective for an hour or so.
I began running and Tahlar followed me. As I approached the corner of the alleyway the guy had gone down I slowed my pace and peered round. No one was in sight, I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Come on. We need to keep moving." I told Tahlar and she nodded in agreement.
We set off again, taking a gamble at the bottom of the road by turning left out of the main shopping area. I glanced left and right, checking every passageway we passed. The guy was nowhere to be seen.
"There!" Tahlar gasped, crashing into me as I halted.
"Where?" I asked, quickly scanning the crowd in front of me.
"See the guy with the blue hoodie and grey beanie? It's him!" Tahlar began to run again but I grabbed her arm, forcing her down an alleyway.
"This is quicker if he's going to leave the city. We'll be able to ambush him."
"Okay." Tahlar agreed.
However when we got to our ambush site the guy was just walking past the far entrance.
"We missed him!" Tahlar cried out.
I leapt forward and got to the entrance just in time to see the guy enter a building two doors along.
"Tahlar," I hissed, "I know where he is. Come on."
I walked nonchalantly into the building expecting to see a reception desk or assistant by the door. There was no one in sight.
At that moment the sound of raised voices caught my ear.
"Listen. Can you hear that?"
"I'm going to track it."
"Be careful Charlie. He's a dangerous guy."
I nodded at Tahlar, knowing I was doing a stupid thing and if I was caught the consequences could stretch beyond even my imagination.
As I reached the door, I noticed it was open slightly. Peering into the room I saw a tall, slim man in a baggy business suit sitting opposite the guy in the blue hoodie and grey beanie, the one we had been tracking.
"Reece, you're safe?" the business suit man asked in a low husky voice I thought I recognised.
"Yes. I have managed to eliminate Charlotte. You need no longer worry about her interference."
"Brilliant. She was too clever, too logical, for what we needed and the risk of her spilling evidence to our enemies was too great. Sorry Reece."
Reece removed his beanie and smoothed down his hair. I let out a subconscious gasp, immediately clasping my hand over my mouth in fear of the men having heard but no reaction came. That was a relief.
"You should go," the business suit man continued. "It isn't safe for you here at the moment. I'll meet with you in two days’ time by the river at stop 3.2. Goodbye."
"Goodbye Caleb. I'll be there."
With that Reece left the office and Caleb sat down to write a note on a piece of notepaper.
It couldn't be. How could it be possible? Reece was a good guy not a gangster. Reece was smart, sporty and popular. Reece was my ex-boyfriend. This couldn't be true. He wasn't a murderer.
In the midst of these thoughts Caleb left the office and turned right. He went over to the stock cupboard where I had hidden from Reece and threw open the doors. Unable to find what he wanted he marched over to the bookcase which I was currently hiding behind and shoved it into the adjacent wall.
I stood, frozen and unable to move, staring into Caleb's eyes. They were an unmistakable turquoise. A colour I recognised from endless hours of gazing into them. This was my Caleb, my boyfriend Caleb, except I didn't feel as if this were my Caleb. The look in his eyes was murderous and a cruel smile had eaten into his face.
"Charlie," Caleb murmured in a sinister tone. "You shouldn't be here. You're supposed to be dead."
I stood firm, breathing rapidly and trying to look as composed as possible while searching for an escape route. Caleb was still standing in front of me, blocking any direct course of action. Suddenly it came to me. Why hadn't I thought of that before? The most obvious answer of what I should do was to talk to him and keep his mind distracted.
"Caleb, why have you got Reece working for you?" I ventured nervously, taking care to keep my voice guarded.
"Reece doesn't work for me. I am just his senior in this line of business." Caleb replied carefully.
"Are we still together," I asked out of pure curiosity, "or were you going to end it by terminating my life?"
"Charlie, now isn't the time or the place to discuss this."
"Well, Caleb, when will it be a good time to discuss? Now seems decent enough to me."
"Charlie, you don't understand. Get out of here now or I'll have to shoot you. And this is your second chance." Caleb lifted a small shiny revolver from his pocket and fingered it softly as though it were very precious to him. "You shouldn't be here. You're too dangerous, too risky." Caleb moaned, putting the gun away as I heard footsteps approaching.
Caleb darted through a door near where we were stood and disappeared. I was left stranded in a seemingly abandoned building.
Making my way out onto the corridor I had to quickly retrace my steps as a receptionist marched down past where I stood. She was on her mobile phone and I caught snatches of her conversation.
"Yes ... I'll check ... Strange noises ... Suspicious ... Gang hideout ... Under our noses ... Nothing ... No ... Yes ... Ok ... Goodbye." With that the phone call was over and, sensing the woman wouldn't be leaving the office she had entered for a few minutes, I raced down the corridor and into reception where Tahlar was sitting in a chair. I wanted to tell her what I had seen and ask what she had discovered but it was clear Tahlar had been drugged and that it wasn't safe to hang around in the building for much longer. I carried her to the nearest alleyway and dumped her on the ground. What was I supposed to do now?
"Charlie? Charlie are you there?" moaned Tahlar, waking from her drugged stupor.
"Yes I'm here."
I spent the next half hour consoling Tahlar and making sure she understood what I had seen happen.
"Ahh!" Tahlar let out a small gasp. "That's why when Reece saw me as he was rushing out, he looked so shocked at my friendly recognition and worried by my presence. He must have given me a drug shot to stop me following him. It all makes so much more sense now."
"I'm sorry about that Tahlar."
I sat back on my heels wondering what the next step in this mystery was. I knew who had set the blast off and I knew what the aim of the explosion was but why they had done it, that still remained unanswered.
"Tahlar, we need to find stop 3.2 which is somewhere near the river. That should provide us with some more answers. Are you going to be ok to search for it tomorrow?"
"Yes, but wait a moment Charlie. Stop 3.2. That rings a bell. I think I might know where that is. And what it's for."
"What?" I demanded. "How do you know about it?"
"Well," Tahlar began, easing herself up into a more comfortable position. "My brother belongs to the Rivendell Riders Gang and they meet every week in Shed 3.2. One week I shadowed him to see if he belonged to a real gang or if he was in a wannabe gang. They meet by the river and it's definitely real. The Riders are coordinated by a head gang in Newham. I know Reece is a member now and I think my brother still belongs."
"Wow!" I gasped. "Do you happen to have any other information about this gang?"
"Yes, one final thing. The motto is 'destroy all in ones path to gain the freedom and the power one desires.' Maybe you're blocking the way of Reece and Caleb to move up the ranks in the gang world."
"I guess. You are amazing Tahlar! Which of your brothers am I secretly thanking?"
I hid my look of shock at her handsome talented older brother being a member of a seemingly notorious gang.
"We should go home." I suggested. "It'll be dark soon and we need to be safely indoors."
Tahlar agreed and we hurried home, arranging to meet in two days’ time to discover more about the gang and the blast.
* * * * * *
The river was grey and dull, raindrops sputtered over the surface of the water. I hunched up in my waterproof coat and glanced at Tahlar. She was hiding inside a waterproof jacket too. It seemed like the only option in weather like this.
"Stop!" I whispered sharply. "Do you think that’s them over there by the barn?"
"Yeah. That's the place." Tahlar replied.
I snuck along the river edge until I was close enough to the group of gang members to hear most of the conversation. I settled down in the grass and waited. Tahlar came up shortly after and camped next to me. We were silent.
"Reece attempted unsuccessfully to get rid of our barrier, Charlotte Noble. We can act no further with her presence so close to our main base. If any of us here make a wrong move, she will find out and go to Prior Raid who will immediately know of our whereabouts and movements meaning we cannot carry out our master plan.” Caleb spoke in a low undertone as though he were worried someone may be listening to the conversation. “Her current existence is now increasingly dangerous because she now knows of us but not where we are actually situated. We cannot trust her. And now that is more than it was before. Reece was her boyfriend and now I, but still she has not been lulled into a false sense of security. She still believes in her innocence. Charlotte does not realise the risk she is as an agent of Prior Raid."
I leaned over to Tahlar and whispered, “I never realised that being a member of Prior Raid was such a dangerous thing.”
Tahlar glanced at me with confusion written all over her face. “What is Prior Raid, Charlie? I’ve never heard of it.”
I felt a wave of nausea pass over me, I shouldn’t have let slip about Prior Raid. It was a military organisation which my mum belonged to and had enrolled me into when I was five. We tracked gangs and prevented them turning into terrorist organisations. It was a secret organisation and hardly anyone but members and suspects knew about it.
“It’s an organisation I belong to.” I said cautiously, “It’s nothing majorly important.”
I turned my attention back to the conversation between Caleb and the gang members. I needed to know why they thought I was going to turn them in but I seemed to have missed that part of the conversation.
"Reece has been working on a new, more effective and fool proof plan. One which will ensure Charlotte will no longer be a problem for us. Would you like to present it please Reece?"
"The plan I have invented involves Caleb, myself and another member working as a team to lure her into a building site or deserted area where we will use a deadly grand grenada weapon to create another explosion which either destroys everything, kills Charlotte or kills us. It’s a risk we're going to have to take though."
After a pause it seemed as if Reece must have finished and returned to his seat.
"Brilliant! Well done Reece!" Lucas, Tahlar's brother cheered.
"Who wants to volunteer to take part?" shouted Caleb, trying to get everyone's attention.
"I will." Lucas said. "She's a friend of my sister's and I don't want here being led astray by corruption of any kind."
"Excellent. That’s all sorted then. Into the shed everyone."
The gang members disappeared and Tahlar and I crept away.
* * * * *
The next Wednesday as I was walking home from school Caleb appeared from the shadows lining the street.
"Hey Charlie! How are you?"
He put his arm round my shoulder and brought me towards him. We kissed softly and gently before he steered me down to an alleyway into a large deserted open space surrounded by flats. Caleb raced away from me as soon as we reached the centre if the space. Young men then leapt out of all the connecting alleys and amongst then I saw Lucas and Reece.
"Die, traitor. You'll never be one of us." they spat in unison.
"I don’t want to be one of you." I stuttered, losing my composure under the pressure.
“You can’t be.” Reece called over to me, “Any member of Prior Raid is an enemy to us.”
"Die." they hissed again.
"Goodbye Charlie!” Caleb’s voice was the final thing that I heard.
Wham! The blast knocked me off my feet. I hit the ground hard and rolled away from the scene of wreckage. This time I knew what was going on, I knew what was happening. I scrambled to my feet and turned to the destruction behind me.
"You missed again, you clumsy cowardly gangsters. You'll never get me now. You should have just let me be in the first place. Maybe you’d have been better off in a jail cell." I yelled at the hollow, empty space surrounding me.
Then, I stepped over a broken milk bottle and walked away from the scene.
"Goodbye Reece." I whispered under my breath to the shadows which had already begun to haunt the site, "Goodbye Caleb. I still love you."