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The Assassin Game
Author: Kirsty McKay

Chapter 1

   It is about 4:00 a.m. when they come for me. I am already awake, strung out on the fear that they will come and the fear that they won’t. When I finally hear the click of the latch on the dormitory door, I have only a second to brace myself before they’re on me.

   “Do as we say!”

   A rasping voice, sudden and violent, in my ear.

   I swallow my scream as a hood—a pillowcase?—is shoved over my head. A large hand clamps across my mouth and nose, mashing my lip against my upper teeth, and I taste blood. Weight presses down on my pajamaed chest, and panic rises as I wriggle a little to clear my nostrils to breathe. Silently, I’m lifted from my bed. Efficiently. They’ve done this before.

   They bundle me to the floor and flip me on my stomach, yanking my hands behind my back. My gut lurches with panic. A pinch of plastic, and my hands are trussed so tight that I can feel the blood thudding out a frantic heartbeat back and forth from wrist to wrist.

   “One noise from you, Cate, and this is over.”

   I want to puke. I try to nod, but my neck is twisted at an awkward angle, and that hand is still clamped over my hooded face. But they must understand my compliance, as the hand is removed; I’m forced to my feet and pushed forward, one bare foot stumbling after the other. The urge to pee is extreme, but I have to fight it with everything because, hey, if I wet myself, I’m dead for sure.

   We walk; there’s the shove of shoulders to either side of me, and the hands are there again, on my arms this time, pulling me to one side then another. Light seeps into the pillowcase from somewhere, but I still can’t see anything other than shadows. My feet tell me we have exited the dormitory as the carpet briefly gives way to a strip of bare boards before they find the hall runner and turn left, left toward the short staircase down to the ground floor. The staircase! Will they push me? Will I fall? My fears are unfounded as suddenly my legs are swept up from under me and, with a grunt, someone carries me downstairs.

   I know that grunt. He remembered to disguise his voice when he spoke but not the grunt. Does the fact that it’s him carrying me make me feel better or worse?

   Dark again. The cool September night air hits me; we must have left the building by the side door. And then I’m lowered, surprisingly gently, and I feel cold, damp metal beneath my PJs. A hard rim under my shoulders and knees. A box? Some kind of coffin? Would they go that far? The panic comes back. I’m tilted, and I draw my feet inside to brace myself against the rim. There’s a wobble, a crunch of stone, and then a squeak.

   OK, a wheelbarrow. The squeak gave it away. I breathe again. I’m being pushed in a wheelbarrow, my bum rubbing in earthworms and soil. This is their idea of funny.

   Slowly we travel over the gravel, silently except for that tiny, little squeak every rotation. I’m sure someone was tasked to oil it, but not well enough. They’ll get into trouble for that.

   There’s a slight bump as the terrain gets softer. I sink and wobble again, and then we take off, much faster than before, a wild ride. The squeak becomes a constant whine. I wish I could hold on to the sides, but all I can do is push down on my feet to wedge myself in there as we bump along, my abs burning in a half crunch. I hope the ride will be short. Which way are we heading? North to the woods or east to the causeway? Please, please, not south to the cliff path; surely they wouldn’t risk that? I don’t have much idea, no sense of direction, but as we jog on, I hear a few muted giggles and pants, even a whisper that is quickly shushed. Three of them with me? Four? One pushing, the others running alongside.

   We stop. I strain to hear the sea, but all I can hear is the blood in my ears. And then:

   “Woo-woo!” goes the world’s least convincing owl.

   “Twit-twoo!” No, strike that. The second one is worse.

   “Coooo-oo!” The third sounds like a drunken dove, and suddenly the first two seem very realistic.

   Muted giggles. We’re off again, faster this time, and I hear a rumble to my left, a rumble to my right. More wheelbarrows? Yes, without doubt, and we’re racing. I’m not the only one who has been taken, and that’s reassuring. The race is almost fun at first—apart from the sheer terror, of course—but it’s exhilarating at least. Just when I’m thinking I can no longer hold on, my knees are burning and my feet are turning to ice, I sense my kidnappers are tiring as well, and we slow. There’s more panting, unabashed and unconcealed this time. Someone mutters, but I can’t hear what’s said. Almost there. The fear comes back.

   We stop again, this time for good. I’m lowered with a thud, pulled out of the wheelbarrow and on to my cold, bare feet. Blood wells up into my face, and I sway a little. I squeeze my toes, trying to find my balance.

   I’m standing on sand. Cool but not damp. And yet, no sound of the waves hitting the rocks…where are we? There’s a smell too, but it’s not of salty air—at least, no more than this whole island smells of the sea. It’s an acrid, oily smell. Something is burning.

   I dare to open my eyes, and through the pillowcase, there’s light out there. Orange, glowing balls of light, suspended off the ground. Of course. Suddenly, I know exactly where we are.

   My hood is whipped off. Shadows slink away into shadow. I squint and try to stop the ground from spinning.

   An amphitheater, carved into the side of a hill, and I am onstage. Oil lanterns hang from stands, lighting the scene. There’s also the full blood moon—but it only winks at us as blue-gray clouds blow across it, obscuring its light. My kidnappers gone. I turn around to see my fellow captives, blinking and swiveling their heads, all of us nodding dogs, taking it in.

   Martin Parish is next to me, bent over, panting and grinning his goofy, gap-toothed grin. He’s just stoked to be selected; he doesn’t care what they might do to us. Tesha Quinn stands to his right, eyes wide and also swaying on her bare feet, her dark-blond corkscrew curls standing out in shock from her head. She doesn’t look at me—trying to hold the panic down—because if she does, she might break. Both kids have tied hands, both in night attire. I thank luck and good judgment that I’m wearing modest pajamas; Martin is shivering in boxers and Tesha’s not much better off in underwear and a cami. They’re cold and vulnerable. At least I have flannel to hide behind.

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