There was a respectful silence for a minute after Mrs Deco had finished talking. Gran took a deep breath and put her hands up to her head and untied her bun. She pushed her fingers into her long, thick greying hair so that it cascaded over her shoulders, and surrounded her head like a halo. The action made her look immediately younger and seemed to give her renewed energy.
“I wasn’t with him when he was killed,” she said, and her voice was filled with anger and pain. “They put me on the Naughty List, and I was in lockdown with Mock and Tinsel from then until they decided I was too noisy, and they took me away. But his diary, found in his pocket when he died, was passed over. Nobody bothered to read it. It was thrown aside and one of the Resisters who had survived gave it to me later. I treasured it, because it was all I had left of him. Most of it was just teaching notes, but still I felt his love for his students and his sense of humour.” She paused, remembering. “Most of it. But not all of it. Anyway, when I was finally locked up, a few years later, I managed to conceal it amongst my things.”
Another pause. Then Holly spoke. “Right then,” she said firmly. “What else was in the Diary?”
“A code. I suspect, instructions that will lead us to the secret Control Centre the Suits have used for many years. It was the place they took Daniel to, just before he was killed.”
Holly jumped to her feet. “Mrs Allbright, if you got instructions in that diary, we gotta act fast.”
Gran shook her head. “Mmmm. I never managed to work out the message. I tried at first on my own in the Home, but then – well, somehow you lose your sense of time and purpose in that place.”
Holly sat down again. Amaryllis said eagerly, “Can we look? Try and figure it out?”
“Of course. That is what we must do before anything else. You will need to read the very last entry in the diary.”
Mrs Deco had the diary open before she had finished speaking. Everyone except Gran crowded round the little book, open on a round wooden table. The pages were yellowed and the writing, in what seemed to be black ink, was faded and written with the letters joined together.
“Who can read this?” said Mrs Reindeer, looking confused.
“I think I can,” said Sham quietly.
“Wonderful!” Gran exclaimed. “Read it, Sham-boy!”
Sham peered at the writing on the small, damaged book. It reminded him of Gran’s letters, and he wished that Priya was there to help him. Then he realised he could read the words.
“If you’re not sure, I think I can remember some of it by heart,” called Gran, from her chair by the fire. “It begins, “When we feel…”
“It’s okay – I see it,” said Sham. He started reading slowly. “‘When we feel out of – out of – control, nothing has the power to help us like the feeling of –’ I don’t know this word.”
Rudy, looking over his shoulder, said “Chuh – rist – mas? What does that mean?”
Gran nodded. “Christmas,” she said. “That was the old way of spelling Krissmas. Notice that he underlined that word. I think that is a big clue, but I am unable to work out why. Keep reading, Sham.”
“ ‘When we feel out of control, nothing has the power to help us like the feeling of Christmas. It makes a pro- a protection round us and it keeps us from harm six days a week. My past was different. When I was a teen I had to work down the mines. I spent each day assembling coal and the st – structures we had for doing this were primitive.”
“Is that true?” asked Rudy. “Did he really work down the mines?”
“Not at all!” said Gran with a short laugh. “He was a thoroughly spoiled and loved child! None of it is true. That is why it is obviously a code.”
There was silence while the diary was passed around and each person looked long and hard at the words. Sham realised then that his mother could read as well as he could – it was as if he had lived his whole life blind, not like Gran, but blind to the truths right in front of him.
“If ‘Christmas’ is the clue…” Mrs Deco said finally.
“…then maybe the letters of the word are important!” finished Amaryllis.
Mrs Reindeer said slowly, “So if we look for all the words beginning with those letters…”
“…and put them together…” cried Rudy and Sham.
“…then maybe we will have the message,” finished Gran calmly. “Sham, we need a pencil.”
“Wooden pencils everywhere in this museum!” cried Mrs Reindeer happily, and everyone immediately turned to find one. Sham found himself with several dropped noisily on the table in front of him within seconds.
With shaking hands, he picked one up and started underlining every word beginning with any of the letters in Christmas. Then he read out what he had written…
“’Control has the to help the Christmas it makes a round us and it harm six…’ read out Sham. His voice trailed off…
“It don’t make no sense,” said Holly, voicing what they were all thinking. “Too many words. Remember ‘ow Red and me used to ‘ave to pick out the naughty words beginnin’ with ‘d’ from elf-mails? Well, this is kinda like that. I think you gotta look for the letters in order. I mean, first a ‘c’ word, then the next ‘h’ word you come to, then the next ‘r’ word and so on.”
“You do it, then,” said Sham, not understanding, but handing her the book and the pencil he’d been using, which had a small eraser on the end. Gran was nodding, waiting with a small smile on her face. There was a silence as Holly worked quickly, her tongue protruding from her mouth. When she had finished rubbing out some of the lines that Sham had written, just nine words were underlined. She read them out slowly:
“Control – has – round – it – six – teen – mines – assembling – structures.”
“Sixteen mines?” said Amaryllis, “Sixteen MINES!” she repeated loudly, nodding and looking excitedly at Mrs Reindeer. “The ones marked on the map.”
“Map? What map?” said Sham. Every minute brought a new surprise.
“The old map of Yuleport and its surrounding area,” said Mrs Reindeer importantly, producing a paper folder with a flourish from under her enormous dress. “I found it in the museum earlier! It’s here to show where all the forests were that provided the wood for the toys. But there were also many old mines, in this part of the country. Look – here, and here and here!” She pointed to tiny symbols that looked like two pick-axes crossing each other.
“But I don’t understand,” said Rudy. “What does it mean ‘control has round it sixteen mines’…?”
“Well,” said Gran, “The mines must be around the Control Centre. The mines were the first places that they made into Cloud Assembler factories. They must have been launched from there and then sent off around the country.”
Sham and Rudy were peering at the map together, counting the mines clearly marked by crosses. “There ARE sixteen!” they cried together. But Sham had also noticed that the mines seemed to be in a sort of circle, and in the middle…
“Someone give me a ruler!” he said excitedly. His mother looked around, and from somewhere produced a long wooden ruler, decorated with Krissmas trees. Quickly, Sham drew lines connecting the different mines that seemed to be almost opposite each other in a circle. There was one point on the map where the lines all crossed.
“Here!” he cried. “It must be here – this is the control centre!”
They were all staring at the crossed lines. All except Gran, who was waiting quietly in her chair, smiling expectantly.
“It can’t be…”
“It’s right ‘ere.”
“At least, near enough. That’s Yuleport all right.”
“To be exact,” said Mrs Reindeer, peering closely at the map, “it’s just outside Yuleport – our side of Yuleport. Look – there’s Chestnut Avenue.”
“It would have to be somewhere large,” added Gran thoughtfully, “But not like a factory. Maybe a large private building…”
Sham and Rudy looked at each other and spoke together again: “It’s the school!”
“Of course,” said Mrs Deco. “That would make sense! Mr Rajapakse was living in our street – just down the road from where he worked. How did we not realise?”
“Because it would all be underground – not in the building itself. I remember Daniel saying that their Control Centre was underground.”
“You mean all that time we were in school, they were underneath our feet?” said Rudy. “That’s just creepy!”
Holly jumped to her feet again.
“We gotta get another message to Red! I gave ‘im the plans for the Cloud Assembler – now we know the place to go! ‘E’s been roundin’ up the other Resisters, and e’s waitin’ for us to send ‘im news.”
“I’ll do it!” said Amaryllis quickly.
Holly nodded, pulling her coat back on. “Tell ‘im we’ll meet ‘im and the others at the school.”
Amaryllis rushed off to the museum office without another word.
“I’ll get the dogs ready,” said Holly.
“I’m going with you,” said Sham, jumping up. As Rudy started to leap up too, his mother grabbed his arm.
“Don’t even think about it!” she said. “You’re not going anywhere!”
“Nor are you,” said Mrs Deco quickly to Sham. “Too dangerous.”
Sham was about to protest, when Gran raised her hand to speak. It was strange how they all seemed to look to her for leadership, and they all waited, looking at the elderly lady in her rocking chair.
“Don’t stop him, Tinsel. Red may need him. He’s a Resister now. It’s what his grandfather would have wanted.”
Everyone looked at Sham. He didn’t need to think about it – his anger at what Mr Noel and The Suits had done to Gran gave him courage.
“I have to go, mum,” he said. Mrs Deco put her hand over her mouth as if to stop herself from opposing Gran.
“Well done, Sham-boy,” Gran said, holding out her arms. “Now come and give me the biggest hug you can!” Sham ran to give her a hug, and she squeezed him fiercely, as she whispered, “I’m so proud of you. I know you will be safe – your grandfather will make sure of that.”
Sham’s mother watched, her eyes filling with tears.
“Now go,” said Gran, releasing Sham, who turned to give his mum a quick hug too, before he started doing up his coat, which he had never taken off. He could already hear the dogs barking excitedly outside. But at that moment, Amaryllis rushed back into the vast room, her voice echoing as she called to them all: “Red’s not answering! Something’s wrong, I know it! What should we do?” She was tearful and her face was filled with anguish.
Again, they looked towards Gran, who closed her eyes and thought for a moment. “Go to the school anyway. I think you may find him already there.”
“Don’t worry. You go on, and we’ll just keep sending messages on the versatelly,” said Mrs Reindeer, who was putting more wood on the fire.
“I’ll do it!” said Rudy. “I’ll keep calling until someone answers! I know the code!”
“Well done, sweetheart! I’ll make us all a nice cup of tea…”
Sham’s head was buzzing with everything he had heard and learned, and he wished he had time to think. But Holly and Amaryllis, suddenly careless of the need for caution, raced the sleigh through the streets of Yuleport, ignoring the blizzard that was still raging.
As they headed towards Sham’s side of town, he could hardly believe that his school was the keeper of such secrets, or that, even as they had been enjoying their lessons with Miss Bell, somewhere beneath them The Suits had been gradually perfecting their plans to reduce the country to this snowy standstill. No wonder Mr Noel had been there each day, keeping them all under observation whilst, at the same time, supervising the development of the Cloud Assemblers.
They avoided Chestnut Avenue, and the huskies hauled them up a steep back street towards the top of the hill where the school hid under its blanket of snow. Holly pulled the sleigh over before they reached it, and ordered the huskies to lie down, while Sham quietly extracted the ice-melter from under the seat and gripped it tightly in his gloved hands. He felt a sudden panic that, whatever they were about to find, he wasn’t going to be able to do anything to help. Then he remembered Gran’s confidence in him and realised that he was ready for anything.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Red?” he whispered.
They stood hesitantly for a few moments by the sleigh, but the sound of someone shouting nearby seemed to decide Holly.
“Let’s go – we’ll wait for ‘im nearer the school.”
The three of them approached the school as silently as possible, but unable to stop their feet crunching in the newly-fallen snow. There was no sign of Red.
As they came close to the building, Sham remembered the day he had met Priya, when she had spoken the first words he ever heard her say: “Looks like they grew the trees to hide the school.” How right she had been – but she had been right all the way through about everything! Sham took in the trees and the high walls, and behind them, the school building standing silently, its jutting roof edged with dozens of huge, pointed icicles. Even the school looked evil now, Sham thought. There did not seem to be anyone there – no guards, no lights, nothing. This seemed very strange for somewhere that was so important to The Suits. Sham suddenly had a terrible sense of foreboding. He grabbed Holly’s arm and shook his head.
“What?” hissed Holly.
“I don’t know – something’s not right. Let’s wait – let’s go behind the trees first.”
Holly looked at him sceptically, but they all did as he said. Sham clutched the ice-melter even more tightly. It was the only weapon they had. He pressed the switch that would heat it up.
They were only just in time. There was the sound of feet crunching rapidly through the snow and a group of people appeared from a side road. At the front was a face that had haunted Sham since the day he appeared in the Star Room with the Wenceslas Women – Mr Noel. And he was carrying a blue folder in his hands. All the others were Suits, and they, like Mr Noel, were wrapped in the fake, white fur coats that Holly had worn. Forming a striking contrast in the middle of them all, coatless and shivering, was Red. His head was down and his shoulders sagged. Holly and Amaryllis both gasped.
The Suits continued to drag Red forwards towards the school, and they heard Mr Noel’s cold voice:
“Did you think that you could find freedom this way?”
He lifted the blue folder and opened it. Tipping the contents into the snow, he stepped on them, grinding them to wet pulp. For a moment Red lifted his head and looked him in the eye. Sham could see now that his face was bruised and that blood dripped from his nose. His eyes, however, were still fierce and blue, and they did not look defeated. His mouth lifted slightly at one corner.
“Inside my head there is freedom,” he said loudly, though his teeth were chattering with the cold. “You can’t take that away.”
Mr Noel laughed, a cold, hard laugh with no humour in it. He nodded at the other Suits, who forced Red back against the wall of the school.
“If you kill me, you won’t stop the Resisters,” growled Red.
“We have already stopped them,” jeered Mr Noel. “Your base is destroyed and your people scattered. You are alone.”
Beside Sham, Holly and Amaryllis were whispering frantically. Amaryllis looked terrified, almost frozen with fear. Holly was trying to move forward, but Sham held on to her. “We can’t let it ‘appen,” whispered Holly in agony. “We gotta do somethin’.”
She was looking at the Suits, who were pulling their vicious Inuit knives from their canes. Then she rubbed the tears from her eyes and her lips tightened.
“You both stay ‘ere then,” she hissed. “But I gotta be with ‘im, whatever ‘appens.”
“No! Wait!” Sham tried to hold on to her, but she wrenched her arm away. As she raced forwards through the gates, shouting, he saw the shocked faces of the Suits as they turned to face her.
The ice-melter was still in Sham’s hand, and Holly had no weapon at all. There was no time to think. Sham knew only that he had to help. He had to do what he did best – running. He felt Amaryllis try to grab his arm, but then he was speeding out from behind the trees, skidding, regaining his footing and racing through the gates. He stopped dead, seeing The Suits already clutching at Holly. Then, as Mr Noel’s furious face turned towards him, he braced himself and hurled the ice-melter as hard as he could towards the roof of the school. He barely had time to aim, but somehow it gained momentum as it flew, hitting its mark and smashing into the packed snow on the roof, before sinking in. There was a cracking sound that sounded almost like an explosion, and an avalanche of snow slid off the roof, taking with it the icicles above the heads of The Suits, who were ducking, shouting and running.
Sham tried to take advantage of this uncertainty, and ran towards Holly and Red, aware that there were other sounds, of huskies barking and loud crunching in the snow, as if dozens of people were running up the hill behind him; but almost immediately, something fell from somewhere above his head, and he briefly felt a sharp pain on his skull before the world went black.