They called it the lipstick building, the barcode, or Elephant Tower back in the dry days, but now most of us just called it the Strata. I remember when it was first built, which is a big deal, ‘cos a lot of my memories from before the flood have evaporated. One day there were all these cranes stuck in the air and then the next, a shiny black and white, slanted skyscraper was standing in the middle of Elephant.
Strata had an odd history. In the dry days, it was mainly Poshes who lived there, or the flats were rented out by rich people from other countries. Then, the river flooded the city and a guy named Smasher became the Leader. Smasher was a triplet, his two brothers are what we call “nomads", those Londoners who don’t live in any estates, but they’re influential enough and cool with everyone so they just visit different towers, stay there, help out the Leaders, and bounce. The Smasher triplets are white, but they’re certified. From way back, they were well known in London. Never caused anyone any trouble.
When Smasher took over, the Poshes who didn’t get killed only really agreed to stay on the bottom floors because of his colour, I think. It’s known that Poshes tend to get along better with white elites than with black ones, and I think you know why. I guess the rest of us are just too aggressive for them. Just recently, me and Latoya went to one of the floating shops in Deptford and we were only patiently waiting our turn behind a Posh, but she kept shifting her eyes back towards us, like we were hiding weapons or something. Latoya had had enough and she’d asked the woman, “what?”, and then the woman just scuttled off like a mad spider. I can’t stand ‘em.
We’re not too sure what happened between Smasher being the Leader of Strata and it being taken over by Poshes again, but whatever happened, the guy just kinda’ neglected the place, and all his residents were left at the mercy of the Poshes on the bottom floor. That’s a bad sign—Poshes need to be subdued, and they need to have fear in ‘em, that’s what Hudson always says. Otherwise, as soon as you turn your head, there’ll be a bullet hole in the back of it. And because Smasher’s gone AWOL, the next most influential Leader of the area naturally needs to take the reins. That’s Levi. He’s short but he’s smart, and he’s married. He and Georgie went down to the registry office with a bottle of champagne and a Marks and Spencer’s cake. The wedding was lovely. Levi and them are from Aylesbury, he needed us lot to help invade the tower.
We cut the engines of the boats when the Strata appeared before us, sticking out the water like a shark fin. Levi’s guys were already ahead of us, letting the water carry them as close to the building as possible before being seen. Levi himself weren’t there, just his men. He was a rare sighting, Levi was. When we caught up, we joined them silently, eyeing the target, our hands resting on our utility belts, waiting, waiting.
“So how you wanna run this?” said Dogma, Levi’s right-hand.
“You lead it,” said Paris.
Dogma nodded. He was a massive guy. He wore knuckle dusters on his sausage-like fingers that were rusted with old blood. He gestured to a group of his men, and they took out paddles and began circling the other side of the Strata. They had no women in their crew, so whenever they worked with us, I always felt self-conscious: twelve pairs of brown, hungry eyes scanning me over, then flicking to Shanice, trying to judge who was the better looking. At last they rested on Paris, and then something would remind them that she’s Hudson’s little sister, and all the deadly street codes would come back to them, sunken deep into brick walls with spray paint. But it was funny to see their disappointed little faces. Paris was astonishingly pretty.
“Liz,” Shanice whispered.
“Yeah?” I said.
“How d’you feel about Jayden?”
I followed her gaze to Levi’s men, to the person at the head of the second boat a few feet away. Jayden wasn’t looking at us, he was fiddling with his utility belt, getting his towerclimber ready. His plaits came loose a little, fell from behind his ear and covered the side of his face. He still had dark brown scars on his cheeks from when he had spots back in the day, but his face had this clear peacefulness to it, I just don’t know how else to describe it. I looked back at Shanice and shrugged.
“Dunno,” I said.
“Well, it you do well today, maybe he’ll notice you?”
“I don’t want him to notice me!” I said, horrified. Shanice smirked. She was gonna say something, when Valentine turned round to face us in his boat, a bit too loudly. It made the boat rock dangerously, and Collymore and Andre almost lost their balance.
“Hush up!” he hissed. Shanice waved her hand at him, swatting him away like a fly, and then he whirled around again, mumbling to the other two about us. We tried to stop laughing, we really did, but seeing his expression, like some distressed uncle, was too much.
The explosion sobered us up quick, though. A series of fireworks, set off by the guys who went round to the other side. They popped and banged, lit up the whole area. These days, London was always so dark and grey; the clouds never seemed to clear, as if another storm was always just waiting for the right moment to appear and drench us again, so when the red, blue and electric green sparks started flying, the light really carried, making the whole area look brighter. I glanced around, and just as expected, residents from nearby towers, the quieter ones with less-influential Leaders, started peering out their windows, and those who’d been zipping through the streets, quickly cut the engines of their boats, watching the show.
And then, people started to see us, a group of faces they recognised, all wearing black leather hoods, with the best speed boats in London. They saw our utility belts. Curtains started to close, and those that were just enjoying the fireworks carried on with their business, pretending we were simply shadows behind a building.
Now, we needed to be quick. The Poshes in Strata would be distracted by the fireworks, but not for long. They’d soon see Levi’s men at the bottom of their tower, pointing rifles at their windows, and then they would start screaming and running for their lives—that’s how it normally went, but these Poshes were rogue and feral now. They might have weapons, and they might try to fight back.
On the count of two, us from Woodpecker all took the towerclimbers from our belts, and then hoisted them on our shoulders, all synchronised, in just two moves. We had docked ourselves in a diagonal line, with Paris’s boat in the front, and me and Shanice at the end. Levi’s guys watched the tower. I shot a glance at Jayden, he had his shotgun cocked and aimed at Strata.
“Now!” said Paris.
We shot our towerclimbers together. One loud boom, louder than the fireworks. Ravi jumped and ducked with he heard it, and then he just stared at us, and at the steel ropes that shot out of the guns, like harpoons, found their targets by blasting through the middle windows of the Strata, and latching onto the ledges. We secured the ropes on our ends quickly. Already, the Poshes were sticking their heads out the windows, screaming, throwing kitchen stuff at us. Gun fire started from Levi’s boys, and the Poshes ducked away again. Me and Shanice worked at the same time as everyone else from our team, hooking the towerclimbers onto the steel ropes, and then pulling a separate trigger, which made another loud boom, and propelled us upwards. We flew, the towerclimbers using the ropes as a guide, going up and up to the windows we’d each latched onto. I knew that Levi’s guys were watching us with those big round eyes like they always did. After all, it must have taken us, like, thirty seconds to scale the building—but we were Hudsons elite corps. He only ever got us to do operations like this. We were the best of his crew.
So, Paris would be on one floor by herself, Jason and Tyrone took the floor beneath her, Andre, Collymore and Valentine were on the floor below that, and me and Shanice were last, on the twelfth floor. Strata was a very tall building—the bottom, where most of the feral Poshes would have been, were from floors ten to four, with the fourth floor leading right out onto the water. Our routine was to always enter a building from the Middle, subdue the residents, and then make our way down.
Me and Shanice burst through the broken windows we had latched onto, rolled onto the floor as one, and then brandished our guns to the room. There was no one there, a small living room with a sheepskin rug, a battered telly, and an open plan kitchen in the distance—no lights. The views were great, though. We could see family photos on the walls, and I could smell cooking. Whoever was here must have left when we broke the windows, but it could have been a rouse, too. Residents sometimes cooperated with feral Poshes to make life easier for themselves, after all, this is how things used to be back in the dry days. It’s easy to slip back into that old mindset of being submissive to Poshes, falling into line. Toy soldiers.
“It’s like a time warp,” said Shanice, “this place looks like it hasn’t changed from the dry days! the furniture ain’t like how it is now.”
I nodded. I did feel funny, looking at the glass coffee table and the leather sofa. And even though the lights were off, they hadn’t put candles in them, just unscrewed the bulbs and left the empty fixtures. There weren’t any fire places, no water proofs, no vintage things. Nothing was fit for purpose; one small accident and the whole place would be destroyed. So much for the family photos.
“I just heard something,” I whispered, and then I listened again. Something was clattering in the room next to us. We both stood slowly, guns aimed at the next room. We started walking slowly, edging towards the door. I heard screams and gun shots above us, the rest of the crew had already got to work, and outside, Levi’s guys were obviously in a gun battle with the Poshes on the lower floor. My heart started beating a bit; we didn’t know how many people lived here, and how many of them had weapons. I’d been expecting a bit of a fight back, but I didn’t know the Poshes had become this brave. This operation would be harder than I thought.
The door in front of us burst open, and we started firing automatically, not thinking, not saying a word. The sparks from our guns were the only sources of light in the room. After fifteen seconds of shooting, we stopped because no one was firing back. Once the smoked had cleared, we edged to the doorway, and then stopped suddenly. My heart dropped down into my shoes.
A little ginger girl, wearing a little girl dress. Her skin was so pale, like marble. She was covered in blood, and her head was like a mass of rotting strawberries. We’d just killed her. We walked towards her in shock, my legs were shaking and I thought I’d fall over. We got close enough to her to bend over and pick her up. I could only make out one glassy eye, green. Just as Shanice reached out to touch her, the hidden gunmen in the hallway appeared, as if they’d peeled themselves away from the walls. They held their guns towards us, and started firing.