As I got closer to the block of flats that Woody had taken over I began to get the feeling that something had gone wrong. Normally he would have had someone out there waiting for me, because I always went to see him on the same day, but the only people I saw were people I didn’t recognise. Stopping, I bent to tie my shoelace, to give myself time to think about what my next step should be, and that was when two of the strangers took a couple of steps closer to me. It wasn’t impossible that something had happened to him, even though he’d always been careful. Like he’d always said I was vulnerable because I was female.
Slowly, I stood, and turned to find that someone was right behind me. “Are you lost?” he asked, sounding concerned, but when I looked into his eyes there was no emotion there at all.
“No,” I replied, as calmly as I could. “I was planning on seeing someone, but I just realised I forgot something that I really wanted to give her.”
“I’m sure it can wait until another day. The new owner of the block likes to meet anyone who visits, and if I didn’t take you up with me now he wouldn’t be very happy with me.”
Biting hard on my lip I looked around. If I’d remembered the gun Woody had insisted I take or there had been less men staring at us I would have made a run for it. Finally I did the only thing I could do and nodded, letting him step in front of me so he could lead me into the building. One of the other men stepped in behind me, which made me feel even more afraid, as we made our way up to the top of the block. Thankfully having to use stairs all the time had made me stronger than I had been before the injection and I kept up with them both.
The first man knocked on the door of number 17. “Come in,” a male voice called, and from the tone I was certain he already knew that I was there.
We stepped into the flat, the door closing behind us, and I heard someone lock it. All I could do was keep following the man, while hoping I would either be able to talk the new owner into letting me leave or that I would find some way to escape before anything happened to me. He, I found moments later, was sat alone on the sofa, and when he patted the seat beside him I knew he expected me to sit next to him. Shaking my head I stayed standing where I was, even though I knew I was probably making a mistake.
“What did you do to Woody?”
“I didn’t do anything to him. He was sensible, and decided to find somewhere else to live.”
From what I could see Woody had made the right choice, because he’d never have been able to fight all the men that the new owner had brought with him, but I was surprised that he hadn’t warned me that there had been a change in ownership. He was the man who had saved me from death by starvation and I thought I could trust him. Obviously I was wrong. Unless the new owner, who looked about a year older than me, was lying to me about what had happened. Personally I thought it was more likely that he was lying, but then the new world had made me paranoid. I’d never expected to be a survivor and some days I couldn’t help wishing that I had died the same way my parents and older sister had. Then I wouldn’t be standing in front of a man who was looking me over, as though he was seeing what I would be good for, in a way I really didn’t like at all. He didn’t appear to be someone that I would be able to convince to let me free and getting out… I didn’t bother to look around, it was easy to tell be the feel of all the eyes on me that there were too many people for me to be able to escape, so that meant I had to work out another option.
“Why did you come here?”
“Woody was my friend.” My voice, thankfully, was emotionless. “I used to visit at least once a month or so.”
“He didn’t ask you to stay?”
“Every time I came he tried to convince me I’d be better off here, but I wanted to stay at home. I feel more comfortable there than I do here.”
He nodded. “That I can understand. It took me a long time to leave my home and when I finally did… the world had changed in ways that I didn’t expect. I am the leader of this group because I challenged the idiot who was in charge before, knowing that I could do a much better job than him. Woody left because he knew he couldn’t take me on, and you’re attempting to work out how you can get yourself out of this situation, because Woody didn’t warn you that I had taken over his block of flats.” Smiling, he stood. “You don’t have to stay. I’m not going to make you, but I do want you to show one of my men where your house is so I can keep an eye on you. If you don’t agree to that I have no choice but to keep you here until you decide otherwise, because a female on her own isn’t safe.”
“I know. I have weapons. No one is going to touch me without my permission, and you aren’t going to keep me here against my will.”
“Exactly how are you going to stop me, sweetheart?”
That made me smile. “Don’t call me sweetheart. Not when I’m going to kill you.” I took a step towards him, knowing that I was probably making the biggest mistake of my life, but it felt, at that moment, like the only one I had. “I challenge you for leadership of your group.”
A long silence followed. I’m not sure anyone expected me to do that and if he hadn’t of mentioned that he’d killed the previous ‘idiot’ I wouldn’t even have thought of it. Thankfully he had. He had, unexpectedly, given me a chance to get out of the situation that I’d found myself in, even though that might mean throwing away the life that Woody kept telling me, over and over, that I was lucky to have.
“You what?” he asked, disbelief filling his voice, as he stared at me in such a way that I knew he hadn’t thought that I would do something like that. Even though he had been the one to grab me off the street because I happened to have come close to the building he’d taken from my friend. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“Strangely, and I know this will come as a surprise to you as I’m female, I do know exactly what I’m doing. People like you are what was wrong with the world before, what’s wrong with the world now, and, sadly, will be what’s wrong with the world in the future, but I will, if I can, rid the world of you.”
“I did nothing to your friend.”
“That doesn’t matter. You did do something to me. If one of your goons had come up to me, told me what the situation was and gave me a chance to make my own decision, instead of bringing me up here against my will, we wouldn’t be in this position now. Maybe I would even have given you the benefit of the doubt when you told me that you didn’t hurt Woody, but, because of how you acted, I don’t believe you. He would have told me what had happened if he could, so his failure to do so makes me think that you either killed him or he’s trapped here to make certain that he doesn’t warn anyone about the change of ownership.”
He studied me, before our eyes met and I could see that he’d made his decision. “What weapons do you have?”
“Are you accepting my challenge?”
“What’s your name?”
For a moment I hesitated, but then I realised it didn’t matter. One or other of us was going to die. It was as simple as that. Giving him my name wasn’t going to hurt me in any way. “Lauren,” I replied, smiling because I couldn’t stop myself. “What’s yours?”
“Fenwick.” He didn’t smile back, unsurprisingly. “Lauren, I think you’re making a huge mistake, because there is no way you are going to survive against me, but I am accepting your challenge.”
“Do you truly believe that?” The short nod he gave me told me he’d really had misjudged me. “I’ve survived alone and you think I don’t know how to fight.” I shook my head. “Woody taught me how to protect myself and I took it further, because I knew, if I wanted to live out there, I needed to be better than anyone who might come calling. Being female, being short and female, means that people have certain expectations that I like to teach them are wrong. Especially people like you.”
“I look forward to it.” Fenwick still didn’t look worried, but that was to be expected. “Weapons?”
Without really stopping to think about it I removed the sword I had hidden under my coat and that was when he seemed to realise that he might have made a mistake. The sword was one Woody had given me from his father’s collection, before teaching me how to use it, but it wasn’t my only weapon. It was just my favourite one, because it would never run out of bullets. I did still have a gun, though, as other people did and I wasn’t stupid, so I knew that I wouldn’t be able to protect myself without one.
It seemed like Fenwick was staring at my sword for a very long time, but the ticking of a clock told me that it was for a maximum of a minute. Back when it had all happened I hated clocks, because they were a reminder of everything I had lost, and yet having them around was a reassurance that some little things were still the same, no matter how bad things became. All I could do was stand there, holding my weapon of choice, waiting for him to make some sort of decision. Even though I really had no interest in being the leader of their group I wasn’t going to back down, not when that meant, possibly, becoming one of a strange sort of harem. There were no women around though, only men, so I had no idea, really, of what he was going to do with me.
“Where did you get that from?”
“A friend gave it to me.” I smiled. “The same friend you’re telling me is absolutely fine, but chose not to tell me that you have taken over his block.”
“He is fine.” Fenwick shook his head. “I told him he had the option of staying here, with me in control, or he could leave, and he chose to leave, because he couldn’t accept me taking over his little kingdom.” He bit his lip. “We could always compromise – fighting is such a nasty way of doing things.”
“Yet it was the way you chose to do things.”
“That time I had no choice. He was not a good person. I like to think that I’m different, although I do make mistakes, and getting my goons, as you put it, to grab you off the street was one of them.” Fenwick shrugged. “Making a mistake doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person.”
“Okay, if you want me to believe that then you need to tell me why you took over Woody’s tower block, because until I have a valid reason for that I’m not going to accept any compromise.”
“Woody was someone I’d heard about, and I thought we might be able to work together, as we did, I believed, have the same aims. Both of us wanted to build a community for the people who had survived the injection, the few who’d been able to pay the fine, and the children who’d been left alone by the death of their parents. I came here, alone, to put my proposal to him, knowing that bringing everyone here would be a mistake. Then he would think he was under attack and I wasn’t here to do that. So, when I was brought to this very room, I suggested to him that we combine our resources, as I thought it was the best thing we could do. My luck since the injection has been good enough that I’ve had the time to start up a couple of farms, with the help of the people that I rescued, and I thought he would appreciate that, but his answer wasn’t what I was expecting it to be.”
I studied Fenwick. Woody wasn’t the sort of person to turn down help, even if it was from someone he didn’t know, so I wasn’t certain that I believed what I was hearing. At the same time I didn’t think Fenwick was lying, unless he happened to be very good at it, because there was something about lying that, to me, would change the way the speaker’s voice sounded. Biting hard on my lip I waited for him to continue, not wanting to express my doubts when I couldn’t help thinking that I might not know Woody as well as I thought I did. That wasn’t really a surprise. The new world had changed everything and everyone.
“The only thing I asked Woody for was help. He had more people than I did, people who could help at the farms, and I needed all the help I could get if I was going to get everything done before winter.” Fenwick glanced out of the window. “Without him I would have wasted at least half of what I’d grown, which was something I really didn’t want to do, so I offered him everything that his people harvested, in order to keep everyone here alive through the winter, as payment for the help. Maybe after that we could work out something long term. I remember the way he looked at me when I asked him for the help – it was as though I was nothing more than a bug he wanted to squash beneath his shoe, even though I was offering him food. One of his people came to me when I was leaving. If it hadn’t been for her I would have walked away.”
A sound from the door made me turn. Anastasia stepped through it, a key in her hand, and our eyes met. “We didn’t know when you were coming again, otherwise I would have been waiting for you.”
“Stasia was the one who stopped me, told me that Woody had changed, he was becoming more difficult to deal with – more dictator than the leader than they’d once looked up to.”
“Next time you visited he was going to make you stay, even though you said that you didn’t want to, because he thought it was important that we had plenty of people here for when the World Government came.” Anastasia shook her head. “He was paranoid, kept thinking that people were watching us, waiting for the time when we let down our guard, because then they could grab everyone here and take us to to the place they’d got ready for us, in order to repopulate the world.” She sighed. “When Fenwick came to offer us food it was something he shouldn’t have turned down, but his paranoia made him certain that all Fenwick had come for was to see what we had, if we’d be able to fight, whether we were worth taking. I went after him because I knew we needed the food, otherwise we were all going to die.”
“When did it get that bad?” My eyes met with Anastasia’s. “The last time I came everything seemed fine.”
“As much as I hate to say it Woody was very good at hiding his problems when you visited. He didn’t want you to know there was a problem, because he kept hoping he’d be able to convince you to stay. He truly believed you were in danger out there, that you wouldn’t be able to protect yourself when, not if but when, the World Government came looking for people to take back with them for their breeding schemes.” Anastasia shook her head. “Nothing anyone here could say would convince him that they’d died too and he took to gathering weapons, without thinking about anything else, so our food stocks were dwindling rapidly, even though some of us were going out scavenging without permission. It wasn’t enough.”
“So you went to Fenwick?”
“I didn’t have any other option, Lauren. The last thing I wanted was for us all to starve because of Woody’s paranoia. Some of the group did go with him, which isn’t a surprise, and Fenwick took over, because I had no interest in being the leader of any group. He had experience doing it anyway, so…”
I nodded. “It was the only sensible option.” I nibbled the inside of my cheek as I looked over at Fenwick – jumping to conclusions had been a mistake, but the world was such a different place. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You did what you could to protect yourself. Normally there would have been other women in the room, but there are only so many people that I trust with certain information.” Fenwick sighed. “Moving in here is something I would suggest, because there is a chance that Woody might come back for you, and he isn’t the sort of person to take no for an answer.”
“He isn’t now,” Anastasia said, sounding sad. “Woody used to be, until he changed. Honestly, Lauren, if you leave I believe he will go after you. I think he would have been watching for you, knowing that you’d come here eventually, and after all the times you turned him down…” She shrugged. “In the end it’s up to you, but…”
“You never asked me to stay before.” I didn’t want to stay – leaving my home meant leaving my family, but it might have become, thanks to Woody, my only safe option. “If I did where would I live?”
“We have some spare flats. You wouldn’t have to share with anyone if you didn’t want to, or you could stay with me. I have a spare room.”
For a moment all I could do was stare at her. “Your sister went with Woody.”
Blinking, as though she was trying not to cry, Anastasia nodded. “She came to believe that he was right about the World Government, and when we asked Woody to leave she chose to leave with him, even though I tried to convince her to stay.”<<< Kim’s Earth: Kate: Heading Home***Kim’s Earth: Anastasia: Lauren’s Arrival >>>