"Look, don't want to pull rank or anything, but I'm your handler, and it's my call. You go first. Walk as fast as you can without looking like you're running. I'll wait here until you get up the next staircase before I make a move."
"You're ordering me to pretend we don't know each other, make my escape, while you stay behind and distract them?"
"Never know, we might both get home without being stopped."
May fixes me with a hard stare. I've lost this fight. She curls her fingers around mine and, while I'm distracted by how warm her skin feels, she holds our hands up in the air. Now the Coalies won't fail to spot us—and see we're together.
"That was so stupid," I say, pulling our hands down without letting go.
They've noticed us. Target acquired. Their stride lengthens to a march, and their hands tense around their weapons. Gotta keep my nerve. Once they see us run, the game starts. We can't try for home. That'd lead the Coalies straight to us and our families, and no one wants a visit from the ship's official police force in the middle of the night. Need to lose them first. Lucky for us, this boat's riddled with nooks and crannies and whole sections below deck lorded over by Neath gangs. There are places even the Coalies won't go without riot gear.
"OK. Stay close—don't want to slow down for you," I say. "Sure. Because you're so much faster than me."
We walk, easy as you like, away from the Coalies, back toward the nearest staircase. Fast enough to keep some distance between us and them, not so fast that we look suspicious.
"Head down the staircase and along the main service corridor. We aim for the rear of the ship. Once we make Neath territory, we'll be home free," I whisper.
"We're going below deck?"
"It's the only place the Coalies won't follow us. Worried?"
"I'm worried because every time you take me down to Neath territory, people act like I've got two heads."
"They're not used to seeing ticket holders down there. And anyway you're going to have to deal with it, because we can't make it all the way to Enid's with them chasing us. We need somewhere to hide until the dust settles."
"Fine. But you'd better be right about them not following us. It's bad enough that we're going into gang territory without an invite. God knows what they'll do if we lead Coalies down there."
"I can handle it. I know people," I say.
But she's not wrong. Silas Cuinn. Gang leader. Controls everything below deck. Mean streak as long as the 'Arcadia'. And whether he helps us, hides us, or hands us over to the Coalies could depend on which side of the bed he got out of this morning. Heading into his territory uninvited has me feeling more than a little nervous, though I'll do my best to hide it from May.
"You got your memory scrubber in case they take you?"
"This isn't my first day as a double agent."
"I've got the scrubber. Not that I plan on getting caught." She smiles, broad and toothy, like she owns the world.
"All right. Let's go," I say.
We both pull our scarves up over our faces—nothing suspicious about that; you've got to protect your skin from the salt. All I can see are May's big eyes and a few wisps of hair. She squeezes my hand, and the hammering in my chest gets worse. Two well-armed, well- trained Coalies are following us. We're about to run for our lives. And I'm still thinking about her fingers twisted into mine and the skin on my palm buzzing. I hold my breath.
Soon I'll have to let her go. "Go!" May shouts.
"Stay where you are!" a Coaly barks.
We run. Along the wooden boards of the deck, through the swinging door, into the covered staircase. They're the same all over the ship, metal stairs connecting the tiny landings. A big white number stenciled onto each door tells you which deck you're on. We plunge downwards, two steps at a time, shock waves striking through my legs. A short stretch of steps, then circle around the landing and take the next set of stairs down.
Somewhere above us a door slams, and then there's the heavy tramp of boots on metal, and I know the Coalies are just behind us. I jump, use the handrail to swing myself around a corner, and for a second I'm airborne. May could trounce me in any race, but she stays a step behind, a human barrier between me and the Coalies. If they start shooting, she'll put herself between me and the bullets. That's who she is.
I count the doors as we pass them, the numbers getting lower the further down we go. Deck Four. Deck Three. Deck Two. Sweat sticks my shirt to my back. My chest rages from running.
"Next one," I say, wheezing.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE LOVE MATCH by Priyanka Taslim.