She’d stay here, huddled in the ruins, until dawn broke. She’d get in trouble, she’d get laughed at, but so what? A few hours, and this place would be crawling with tourists. By then she’d probably laugh at herself. Right now those tourists were asleep in some air-conditioned hotel, dreaming of the day ahead, and of Angkor Wat, the temple of the ancients: civilisation overrun by brute nature. Wildness and beauty, sacredness and fear. So romantic and mysterious, for a tourist or a stranger.
A few hours. It wasn’t so long to wait.
There were voices now in the night: distinct, hushed, but tense with the thrill of the chase. Maybe she shouldn’t wait after all. Maybe she should run now. She couldn’t decide. Ferociously, she rubbed her temples.
You idiot, what are you doing here anyway? You never did fit in.
A rattling flutter of wings on her cheek. She slapped at the cockroach, but only succeeded in brushing it on to her neck. It scurried down her chest and she sobbed out loud. Slamming her palm against her breastbone, she felt the bug explode into black gunge and shell fragments. She whimpered: a high-pitched noise.
The sticky roach blood made everything real. This was no dream. Out there something was hunting her down, and it was more real than school, than home, than him. Of course he hadn’t come. Who did she think she was? Sad little, stupid little scholarship girl. He’d left her here alone and now they were coming …
Only twenty-four hours ago they’d been together, getting drunk in the streets of Phnom Penh. In love – she’d thought – and wildly excited about the flight to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. She remembered his high laughter, both of them cheering on her beautiful, funny best friend as she struck poses and sang ‘It’s Raining Men’ in the karaoke bar. Thrilled with her happiness, she’d turned to trace her finger across his cheekbone. Loving him …
She froze. A voice, clear now, close and hungry. A familiar voice, but no longer a friend’s. Not singing, not flirting, not joking, but baying for her. Close. So close. And she knew it for sure. She knew that voice. She should run, but her blood was liquid ice in her veins.
Please. Pleasepleaseplease …
The voices, and a cool breath, were in her ear. ‘Gotcha.’
Just for a moment, one crazy hopeful moment, she thought it was OK. Yeah, it was all a prank. A cruel joke. Hazing the girl who didn’t fit in. Oh, thank God.
She smelled skin and sweat, tasted electric excitement and fear on the air.
‘It’s you,’ she whispered hoarsely.
A smile, a hand reaching out to stroke her cheek. ‘Not quite.’
And then she could see them clearly.
She screamed and bolted, out of the ruins, back into the jungle. She heard running feet and panting, hungry breath; saw a fast figure hurtling through the trees; smelled her own terror. And she ran.
But she knew, even then, that she could never run fast enough.
I don’t belong here.
Cassie Bell came to an abrupt halt, almost tripping up the woman behind her.
With a flurry of glossy shopping bags the woman stalked off, tossing another curse over her shoulder.
Cassie’s temper flared. ‘Waste of breath!’ she yelled. ‘I don’t speak French!’
Either the woman didn’t hear or she didn’t care. Cassie felt herself shrink once more.
‘Oh, hell,’ she muttered. ‘I really don’t belong here.’
The buildings around her were just like that woman: tall, proud, impossibly elegant. The air was heady and rich, an elusive combination of expensive scent, late summer and exhaust fumes. Even the name of the street mocked her, since she could hardly pronounce it. What was she doing in a street with a name like that? Whatever made her think this would be a good idea? Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré! Her second-hand trainers must be an affront to the paving stones. She belonged back in Cranlake Crescent, in what they liked to call ‘care’. She didn’t belong in Paris.
Shoving her streaky brown hair out of her face, Cassie glanced at the scrap of paper in her hand. Considering she’d made it this far, all the way from the Gare du Nord, it’d be kind of embarrassing if she failed to find the school now. But she’d expected something in-your-face, architecturally speaking. There were some huge mansions on this street, but they were almost missable, set behind imposing walls and wrought-iron gates. The street stank of money, but not much of it was directly on show, except in the boutiques she’d passed with her jaw gaping.
Come to think of it, maybe it would be better if she couldn’t find the school. It’d be a good enough excuse, because this had been a Big Mistake. OK, so she’d have to slink home to Cranlake Crescent looking like an idiot. OK, so she’d have to stomach the jeers of the other kids, the snotty told-you-so smirks from the hateful Jilly Beaton. Even worse, she’d have to face the sad disappointment in Patrick’s eyes that he wouldn’t quite manage to hide.
But it’d still be better than making a fool of herself like this …
Her heart jolted.
Cassie had barely realised she was still walking, trundling her battered suitcase behind her. She didn’t know what made her glance up and across the road just at that moment. In her daze of dislocated panic she must have been on autopilot, because she was staring at a gleaming brass plaque set into a stone pillar.
THE DARKE ACADEMY
Nothing else, not so much as an invitation to Please Ring the small brass bell-push set into the stone below. It all seemed very understated. Cassie could almost have been disappointed, except that even from this side of the road she could see a suggestion of the building – imposing stone pillars and pediments, the green-bronze curve of a half-hidden statue in the courtyard – behind the elaborate wrought-iron gates.