When Polly left St. Trinian’s, she knew two things:
1) She was going to stay wonderfully, gloriously under the radar and;
2) She was going to keep in touch with Kelly and Annabelle, if no one else.
In three years time, she has done neither, her life is chaos, and despite years of planning and managing con jobs that even Interpol still can’t figure out, Polly cannot plan and manage her own life.
Upon graduation, Polly filters into the working world, and immediately snatches up an entry level job in the IT department of a corporate software company. That was that. She rents a flat, buys herself a plant that she names Alfred and kills within a week, and settles into the routine of her life. It goes something like this for three years:
Her alarm goes off at 6:30am. She wakes up and walks to the loo, where she accomplishes her morning toilet, finishing off by brushing her hair precisely one hundred times and tying it into a stern, tight bun. This takes approximately twenty minutes. Thereupon she reenters her bedroom, where she dresses in a simple blue dress suit, like almost every other low-level woman at her company. She wears flats, though, having learned that heels are not conducive to running.
Dressing takes five minutes at most, leaving her five minutes to enter her kitchen, grab a piece of fruit for breakfast, the lunch she packed the night before, and her briefcase. She carries a briefcase because everyone else at her work does, it helps her blend in, and because someday she may need one. Polly believes in blending in. No one ever thinks anything of a Geek.
Today, however, her routine goes like this:
Her alarm goes off at 6:30am. She wakes up, walks to the bathroom, and discovers that she’s out of toothpaste, which is unusual, as she is quite certain she had a fifth left in the tube. She frowns, a bit troubled, but ignores the twinge of concern in her gut and instead returns to the rest of her toilet. She uses the lavatory, and then steps into the shower. She picks up her shampoo and immediately sees that some of her shampoo has been used.
To attend St. Trinian’s and not only survive, but thrive, be best friends with two Head Girls, and be leader among the Geeks, you cannot be stupid. You need to be able to notice details. You need to be able to assess what they mean. And you need to be able to react quickly.
Someone has been in her apartment. They have used her toothpaste and shampoo. According to the security cameras and feeds in her bedroom that she looks at upon waking, they are not here now. Polly rinses her hair casually, steps out of the shower, towel dries her hair and pulls it back into a bun, walks into her bedroom, and completes dressing. Her hair is getting her suit coat wet, but there are some things that can’t be helped.
Just as casually, and she knows because she was best friends with Kelly, and Kelly was a study in casual, Polly makes a few minor adjustments to her security cameras and feeds, and then walks into the kitchen. She is two minutes behind in her regular routine, but if she picks it up slightly, she can make it appear that nothing has changed, and that she hasn’t noticed a thing.
By the door, she always keeps two briefcases. One, she takes with her to work every day. The other she has not taken out of her flat in three years. She grabs her fruit (a banana today, in case today is the day that wearing flats pays off), her lunch, and the briefcase she has never needed, but Kelly handed her as a perverse form of graduation gift.
Casually, just like Kelly, just like the girl Annabelle became, just like the girl that Polly never really was, she walks out the door.
Girls from St. Trinian’s become one of only a few things. A few lead fairly normal lives, and become actresses, politicians, musicians, writers. But most become either criminals or crime-fighters. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. They get sent to St. Trinian’s because they don’t fit inside the mold of society, and they’re not any different once they leave. Society is still society. Criminals and spies will never fit.
Polly has never been ashamed of this fact. She would be ashamed if they became bad criminals. If they became petty muggers or thieves that were on a first name basis with the police, she would cringe and hack her records, changing her background. But they’re excellent criminals, the best. They’re the ones that the police can never stop. Which is why there will always be several St. Trinian’s girls in the crime-fighting field as well. The police, the spies, they need them. No one knows a St. Trinian’s girl like a St. Trinian’s girl.
It’s why she washed her hands of it.
Polly knows she is one of the best hackers in the world, if not the best. She still hacks the CIA (her favorite unhackable government database in the world) when she gets bored at work. She routinely receives job offers from various government agencies around the world, offering her anything she could dream of if she will work for them. But Polly, she believes in a certain amount of solidarity. You stand by your sisters. Her sisters may be criminals. But they went to school together, and they worked on cons together, and you don’t con your own team. Polly will never help bring down a St. Trinian’s girl.
Her second briefcase has only the essentials. A new change of clothes. A few false identification cards. A camera. A flash drive. An extra laptop. The entire plan, just as she planned it.
Polly grips the briefcase tightly in her hand while she takes the taxi to work. She knows this plan, could recite it in her sleep. She will go to work, a study in obliviousness. She’ll go to the bathroom, change, and walk out the back. She will do this and act normal, and not betray that she is changing her entire life because of toothpaste and shampoo. And she will hope to whichever Deity is listening to her that Kelly has been paying attention.
Three weeks after graduation, Polly sits on the floor of her cheap, rubbish flat in nothing but her underwear and bra, holding a bottle of disgusting liquor in one hand and sobbing into the other. She’s smashed, which she never was at St. Trinian’s despite the parties, and she’s alone, which she also never was at St. Trinian’s, and isn’t it a bit fucked up that only three weeks out, her life always comes back to St. Trinian’s?
In three weeks, she has called Kelly almost every day, like a desperate, clingy ex-girlfriend who won’t take no for an answer, and Kel hasn’t called back, not once. Annabelle will be going back to school next year, but she’s in London now, and Polly has written her e-mails. In those last three months of school, after the Museum Heist, as she calls it in her head, she thought that she and Annabelle and Kel, that they had developed a rather unique friendship and that Annabelle had forgiven her for the Youtube broadcast. But since hols, Annabelle hasn’t answered a single e-mail, not even a quick, “can’t talk now, my daddy is a prick and my auntie is a lunatic.”
Everyone at work hates her. It isn’t hard to find out that she is a St. Trinian’s girl, and everyone hates a St. Trinian’s girl. Her neighbors won’t talk to her either, for the same reason. The exception is Mr. Brighton, who is convinced she killed his cat. She killed her plant. She went to a bar in an attempt to make friends only to discover that yes, she really is socially awkward unless talking about how to break into the Louvre, or something similar.
Polly is well and truly alone in a city that hates her.
She ignores the door when she hears the knock, unwilling to argue about Mr. Whiskers for the eightieth time. She couldn’t keep Albert alive, but she isn’t a cat killer.
Polly looks wistfully at Albert, who is beginning to disintegrate on her counter. She thought they had something really special.
Maybe it’s because she’s really, really smashed, but she doesn’t even hear the telltale sounds of picklocks, and the next thing she knows Kel is standing over her dressed in an all black catsuit, and Annabelle is standing next to her in a yellow sundress that the Posh-Totties would despise, and Polly feels a bit stupid. It’s an accomplishment, actually.
“Really, Pol, did you think that I would abandon you?” Kel asks, and hauls her to her feet, grabbing a convenient handkerchief from Annabelle and wiping off her face. Polly blinks owlishly at her. Her glasses are… somewhere. Maybe.
“I traced your mobile. I couldn’t find you anywhere,” she says.
Annabelle snorts. “Friendship at its best.”
And then it’s just like any other night at St. Trinian’s, the three of them huddled together on one bed around Polly’s computer, trading con and heist tips, teaching each other little tricks of the trade, hacking things they shouldn’t, and soon it’s dawn, and Kelly is standing up and dragging Annabelle along with her.
“Well, I have to get the princess back to the castle or she’ll turn into a pumpkin,” Kel says. She winks at Annabelle, and then pats her on the hip. “Go on, pumpkin, roll along now. I have to talk to the Geek Goddess alone for a minute.”
Annabelle grabs Polly in a fierce hug, which surprises her, because they were never the hugging sort. But Polly surprises herself more by hugging back, maybe a little desperately.
“You’re going to be ok,” Annabelle whispers, her voice a little tight with tears. “You’re going to be ok, and we’re going to see you again.”
And then she’s running out the door, every inch an inconspicuous teenager and not the rising St. Trinian’s Head Girl they all know she is. Polly watches her go, and then looks at Kel, because Kelly is smooth, polished, and gleaming, but Polly spent years with her and knows every single gesture and knows something is wrong.
Kelly walks over to the door, her heels clicking along the old wooden floors of her cheap flat, smiles brilliantly as she closes the door, and then finally, finally drops the façade. She’s exhausted, Polly can see it, and stressed, and there is more running beneath the surface of her skin than there ever was before, when Kelly was planning heists from the ease of their dorm room.
“Kel,” she says, and sits down. Kelly kicks off her heels, runs a hand through her hair, and smiles weakly.
“Don’t pull this shite with me, Kel. There’s something wrong.”
Kelly is across the room in a heartbeat, sitting next to Polly on her bed, holding her hands and shaking her head. “I can’t tell you, Polly, I can’t tell-”
“That’s bollocks! I’m your best friend! If you can’t tell your best friend…” Polly trails off, because Kelly looks close to tears, and she has a rule: best friends don’t make each other cry unless they must. This is not one of those times.
“I want to tell you, Polly, I do. But I can’t. I got a job.”
Kelly stands up and starts pacing, grabbing a cigarette from her purse and lighting it. Polly doesn’t interrupt the thought process. Secrets are a St. Trinian’s treasure. Some you tell, and some you keep. Kelly has told her her secrets before. And Polly has always been willing to wait for them, no matter how long it took.
“I got a job. And you might not see me for a long time.”
Polly stares at her. She met Kelly when they were both First-Years. They weren’t like Tania and Tara- Polly loved computers even then, and Kelly was already leaning toward Emo. They didn’t like each other at first, until Kelly came to her saying that she wanted to break into the teacher’s lounge and replace all the drinks with non-alcoholic substitutes, and needed Polly’s help to make it work. They were best friends ever since, even if they were in different Cliques, even when they didn’t talk every day. The longest they’ve ever been without seeing each other was the last three weeks.
But best friends don’t make each other cry unless they must.
“Ok. Tell me what you need me to do.”
After that night, she doesn’t see Kelly for three years, and can’t speak to Annabelle for just as long.
She keys into work and smiles politely at Mark, the security guard, the same she has done every day for three years. He is married with two children who are adorable. The youngest sounds like a potential for St. Trinian’s. She has given him the brochure and spoken positively about how St. Trinian’s saved her life. She hopes the same remains true today.
Polly walks past him and into the bathroom. She jams the door using a special goo that Tara and Tania developed as a graduation gift for all the girls in her year. It will seal any door for at least an hour. She gets to work immediately.
The briefcase gets thrown on top of the sink and snapped open. She rips off her suit and drops it in the trash, and immediately rips several paper towels out of the dispenser and drops them into the trash on top of her clothes. She grabs a pair of well-concealed scissors from the case, lets down her hair, stares for a moment, and then begins chopping.
She is no hair dresser, but she has made over enough Trinian’s girls in her time to avoid butchering the job, and in five minutes her hair goes from waist length to a cute bob that follows her jaw line. The scissors go in the garbage.
The clothes are next. Polly is known for wearing blue dress suits and, on Sundays, jeans and jumpers, so to avoid detection, Kelly and Annabelle gave her black leggings, a short black skirt, and a tank top. She hates the outfit instantly, but puts it on anyway. The shoes, she is pleased to see, are flat ankle boots. There are also contacts. Polly scowls fiercely. She hates the damn things.
Glasses in the trash, contacts in the eyes.
Details are important. She digs out a stick-on tattoo and sticks it on the wrist. It will get her to the first safe house, where she can get better ones. She applies a light foundation to her face that conceals most of her freckles, at least from a distance. She doesn’t plan on letting anyone get close enough to see them.
A laptop bag is crammed underneath everything else, and so Polly shoves the laptop, flash drive, camera, and other random items into it. She isn’t Polly, corporate IT geek any longer. She looks at herself in the mirror and sighs.
Of course. She’s Polly, frightening mix of Kelly and Annabelle, trendy student around the town.
Slinging the laptop bag over her shoulder and sliding sleek, cool sunglasses over her nose that she would never, ever wear, Polly climbs ungracefully out the bathroom window, leaving debris of her former life behind for whoever manages to break the door down in a few hours.
That Kelly would work for the government in the end never really surprised Polly.
Oh, it surprised others. Polly had watched as so many of the aspiring criminals at St. Trinian’s begged Kelly to reconsider her goals. She was their role model, how could she betray them, they asked. And then, later, the solemn intonations of “it’ll be an honor to work against you, Kelly, it really will.” Polly thinks that she and Annabelle were the only ones completely unsurprised.
Annabelle, because Kelly had taken her under her wing, which no one else had done at St. Trinian’s. And if you’re truly criminal, if you’re born to be bad, you don’t take the weak one and protect her, you just let her suffer and laugh. Annabelle had a faith in Kelly that could not be extinguished. That faith was matched by Kelly, who believed that Annabelle could be more than any St. Trinian’s girl had ever been before.
Polly knew Kelly would work for the government because Kelly believed in justice. Kelly believed the little people, the outcasts and the misfits, could really rise up and make a change. She believed in the power of democracy. She believed in a lot of things. Polly didn’t think that the government meted out the sort of justice Kelly believed in, but Kelly was always an optimist while Polly was a realist.
That Kelly would never stop being a criminal didn’t surprise Polly either.
And so, that night in her flat, when Kelly had handed her a small microchip, a briefcase for emergencies, a signal for when to get out of her home, and a promise to come for her, Polly couldn’t claim surprise. She wasn’t angry, disappointed, scared, or any of the other things that normal people would be.
Like a proper St. Trinian’s girl, Polly was excited, determined, and began to plan.
The plan has been in place for three years, and while not completely flawless, because no plan can be, Polly has made it flexible enough to withstand damage. But the first parts go according to plan. She hops on a bus, pays the bus fare, and walks to find her seat. Before she graduated, Taylor taught her how to pick pockets, and so she slides by and lifts a wallet, a newspaper from someone’s bag, and considers taking a watch but decides against it. Then she settles in, opens her purloined newspaper, and pretends that she is just a student meeting a friend across the city.
At her stop, she gathers her things slowly, no rush, and drops out of the bus. Polly heads off in the wrong direction at first, for about five blocks before she decides no one is following her. She doubles back, and after about twenty minutes is standing in front of her first safe house. She raises her hand to knock, but the door is flung open, there is a cloud of blonde hair, and someone yelling, “You’re twenty minutes late, I told Yvette to have the new assistant here at eight sharp!”
As soon as the door is closed, Chelsea Parker looks at her in concern and says, “Did I do all right? Was I overacting? Yvette says I sometimes overact.”
Chelsea Parker, upon graduating, startled everyone by announcing that she was going to America to study literature.
“I mean, Kylie, really?” she laughed when she declared her intentions, and everyone had laughed with her.
Polly, of course, had not actually been there, but she still hacked the St. Trinian’s CCTV, had seen every moment of it and smiled. She wrote Chelsea a very nice e-mail, and Chelsea wrote back, and they’d been pen-pals ever since.
When Polly had begun planning her safe houses, she knew that her initial one would have to be with Chelsea. She didn’t want to implicate too many Trinian’s girls in Kelly’s plan, in her plan, but for a while she needed minds she could trust, people who knew everything. She had forty-seven safe houses planned, in the end, and most of the first ten were Trinian’s girls.
When she had provided Chelsea with the barest of information, Chelsea had been quite firm.
“We Trinian’s girls need to stick together. No one else is going to stick with us. If you need somewhere to go, I am always your girl.”
Yvette, as it turns out, is Chelsea’s girlfriend, and is helping Chelsea with her acting homework.
“It was a bit of a lark, really. I needed an elective and I thought that maybe my background would mean that I have some natural talent in acting! My professors disagree. They think I overdramatize everything,” Chelsea tells her, walking her through the halls of her ridiculously large flat. Polly follows her until Chelsea stops and throws open a door.
Inside are thousands of clothes and a wall that appears to be one long vanity. Polly stares at it in vague horror. Chelsea smiles and puts a comforting hand on Polly’s shoulder.
“Think of it as the first makeover,” she says, and oddly, it’s soothing. She sits down in the chair that Chelsea points her at, and for the first time today, relaxes. Chelsea’s hand is on her shoulder again, and Polly looks up at her.
Chelsea was always gorgeous in school, and she’s still gorgeous now, but it’s a more mature beauty. There are more smile lines around her eyes now, and she wears less makeup. Polly never minded the makeup when it was makeup, but too often it seemed like a shield. “Polly,” Chelsea says softly. “When has Kelly ever failed us? And more importantly, when has she ever failed you?”
Polly remembers when she was thirteen, and just beginning to really be a Geek. She’d been trying to set up the St. Trinian’s CCTV, and one of the cameras had exploded in her face, attracting the attention of Miss Fritton. She’d been lying on the floor of her office, face blackened, crying from the frustration of failure, certain she was going to get caught, when Kelly had suddenly appeared outside of the office and called Miss Fritton a truly foul name. While Miss Fritton lectured Kelly on the importance of originality in insults, Polly had slipped out the window and lived to wire cameras another day. When she thanked Kelly later, Kel had shrugged it off and said, “I’ll never help bring down a Trinian’s girl.”
Polly smiles and looks at Chelsea. “You’re right. Let’s get going.”
Chelsea beams. “That’s more like it! Now, are we thinking Chav, Eco, Emo, Posh-Totty, or would you like something a little more First Year?”
Two weeks before she graduates from St. Trinian’s, while working on her stock portfolio, Annabelle sits down on her bed and stares at her. Polly looks over. Everyone else is at yet another pre-graduation party, and she is the only one in the dorm, but here is Annabelle, and apparently that assumption had been wrong.
“Do you think I’m the right person to be Head Girl?” Annabelle asks without warning. Polly frowns, makes a small adjustment that will give her an extra thousand dollars in three weeks, and closes her laptop.
“Does what I think matter?” Polly asks. Annabelle immediately looks hurt and stands to go, but Polly grabs her skirt and tugs her down. “As it happens, I think you will be a fine Head Girl. Different from Kel, but no two Head Girls are alike. They aren’t meant to be.”
Annabelle, who is different from the Annabelle who arrived at St. Trinian’s in so many ways and yet the same in so many others, twists her hair in nervous concern. “Then why did you make it sound like you don’t think I’m the right person?”
Polly sighs and lies down. She’s tired. It’s been a long week. Kelly had been too busy breaking up yet another riot between a branch of the Chavs and the Emos to intervene in the riot of the First Years, which meant it was Polly’s job, and of course she’s advising her replacement, Lucy, and her stock portfolio is a mess, and the chatter from the spy networks is beginning to get interesting, she has a job interview in a week, and she may have bombed her chemistry exam. She gestures for Annabelle to lie down next to her.
“I asked why my opinion matters. And it’s important that you know that my opinion doesn’t matter. Neither does Kel’s. Or Lucy’s or Bianca’s or the twins’ or Miss Fritton’s or anybody else in this whole damn school.”
Annabelle twitches next to her, and Polly smiles slightly. Annabelle shows frustration in her whole body, but mostly her arms, like she wants to take a hockey stick to something. Kelly is a face person. It’s all about her lips. They’re so alike, and so different.
“It does matter, though. I’m in charge of the whole student body! If they think I’m weak, if they think they can, I don’t know, eat me alive or something, then I’m meat. Meat, Polly!”
Polly pushes herself on one elbow and looks at Annabelle. Her face is pale, and Polly feels some of her frustration drain away. She genuinely is scared. She can understand that. “There are two things you need to know. First of all, we’re all meat here. At any moment the balance of power could shift, and suddenly the First Years are in control and we’re shrunken heads in the case downstairs. Power isn’t absolute here. No one has all the power. We need it that way, because then it can’t corrupt absolutely. We’re all parts, Annabelle. But we do need someone to guide us when it comes time to be the whole.”
Annabelle stares at her for a long moment, and then exhales. Her breath pushes past Polly’s cheeks, and she notes absently that at least she brushed her teeth before she came to have this talk. Polly flops back down on her bed. After a long silence, Annabelle taps her hand.
“And the second?” she asks, not quite as timid as before, sounding more like the Annabelle who put that horrendous hockey girl in the hospital twice.
Polly grabs Annabelle’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “The second is that you’re never in this alone.”
When Chelsea is done altering her appearance, Polly has a much neater bob than she could accomplish in her company’s bathroom, she’s wearing understated makeup except for the thick, bold eyeliner that highlights her newly green eyes thanks to special contacts that Chelsea swears by, her ears are pierced twice rather than not at all, and she has a far more detailed, far better looking tattoo on the inside of her wrist, a Chinese symbol, which Polly protests because everyone has a Chinese symbol tattoo. Chelsea gives her a flat look. “Yes, that’s the point, dear.” Polly shuts up after that. She is given jeans to wear, keeps the tank top but gains a fashionable spring coat and keeps the boots.
Chelsea stares at her in the mirror for a long moment, and then drops a gentle kiss on the top of her head. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing for Kelly these past three years, but I’m sorry, and I’m glad, and thank you.”
Polly stares at the woman she’s become, the woman who could have gone to any school in the country except St. Trinian’s and nods. The information on her laptop could save hundreds of lives, but it doesn’t make the transformation any easier.
Chelsea picks up a pair of black, thick framed glasses and puts them on. Polly can’t help but grin.
“Smart Chelsea thinks that it’s time for a good cup of tea before you dash off to the next place and forget that lonely old me ever existed,” Chelsea says, bright and perky once again, and Polly swats half-heartedly at her.
“Smart Chelsea doesn’t need the glasses to exist, make it coffee, and I could never forget you.”
Chelsea laughs, drops the glasses back on the vanity, where Polly knows she keeps them as a reminder, and they spend the next hour catching up. Chelsea is taking a semester off after getting a cryptic e-mail from Kelly telling her that this was a good semester to pursue her acting career once more, and Yvette, despite her name, is Taiwanese-American, a philosophy student, a con artist, and the only one who didn’t think that Chelsea was an idiot just by looking at her. Chelsea still can’t make good coffee, despite her year in the States, and before Polly slides out the door, she slips her a piece of a paper with a name and an address on it.
“Just in case,” Chelsea says, the hostess gone again, replaced by the brilliant fourth partner in Kelly’s plan. “You can trust her.”
Polly stares at the name for a long time, slips it into her coat, nods, kisses Chelsea on the cheek, and disappears into the noonday sun.
It is not that St. Trinian’s girls think that women are better than men. There is no obvious battle of the sexes in their rhetoric. They are proud that they are girls and then women. There has never once been the cry of, why couldn’t I been born a boy? There have been battles against men before, against all-boys schools, against anti-women leagues, against people who hate women and girls for whatever reason, but in the end, St. Trinian’s girls don’t often go around saying that women are smarter, are stronger, are better than men.
But as any St. Trinian’s girl knows, sometimes you need a mantra to sustain you.
Polly remembers the family stories. The families who thought their daughters would amount to nothing, were trash, were a disgrace to the family name. She remembers the quiet tears in the night, when a strong, brave St. Trinian’s girl just couldn’t be strong and brave anymore. She remembers the hysterical laughter at the letters announcing more daughters were disowned from the families. She remembers the girls who came home from the summer hols with fading bruises and tried to cover it up, laughing it off. And Polly remembers the girls who came back protecting their bellies, saying that they were just getting a bit fat, was all, it was all that greasy food. She remembers the girls who protected their bellies all term long and then came back with no belly but hollow eyes. She remembers the girls who came back with just the hollow eyes for different reasons. And she remembers the girls that Miss Fritton protected and defended and built a fortress for when angry parents tried to collect unwanted daughters who brought little babies into the world. It is a fiercely kept secret, St. Trinian’s Nursery.
Miss Fritton said, “One man’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter.”
Polly thinks that women may not naturally be smarter or stronger or better than men, but by God, the world has made it so that they have to be to survive.
Chelsea taught Polly how to drive a moped several months ago, and so she takes hers and goes speeding off and before she can let her nerves get the best of her, she is knocking on Chloe’s door, and Chloe’s oldest daughter is answering the door.
Hannah is two and half, and was born five months after graduation. Chloe married her father, James, and then they had Hazel. Now James is gone, and it’s just Chloe, Hannah, and Hazel. Polly has monthly tea with them.
“Hello, Hannah. Is your mum home?” she asks, and Hannah just stares at her. She looks just like her mother in so many ways, with bright gold hair and blue eyes, and at this age she looks like an angel. Polly knows better. She’s been there to put the girls to bed.
Before Hannah can do much more than stare at her, Chloe is there, sweeping Hannah up into her arms and staring accusingly at Polly. Then her eyes soften, she opens the door wide and sweeps Polly inside. Polly watches as she looks around outside for a moment longer, and then closes and locks the door soundly behind her.
“Hannah, this is Aunt Polly. She just looks a little different today, ok?” Chloe says soothingly, and then deposits her in Polly’s arms so she can close the blinds and curtains in the family room. Hannah brightens and tugs cheerfully at her newly short hair, and Polly smiles.
Polly is actually Hazel’s godmother, along with Peaches, while Hannah is Kelly’s and Chelsea’s, but that doesn’t matter much to Hannah, who adores everyone instinctively, so long as she knows them. Hannah plays at her hair for a moment longer, tugs at Polly’s earrings, frowns thoughtfully, and nods.
“You’re Aunt Polly,” she declares, and Polly grins.
“I know that, darling.”
“Well, I didn’t. And now I do.”
“Yes, you do, angel,” Chloe says, stepping in once all the blinds and curtains are shut. She takes Hannah and sets her back on the ground. “Why don’t you go play with Hazel for a while? Aunt Polly and I have business to discuss.”
Hannah gives Polly a swift hug, and then toddles quickly away. Polly watches her go, and looks back at Chloe.
“You’ve been with Chelsea,” Chloe accuses immediately, before Polly can say anything. She points to the sofa and grabs a hair tie from the coffee table, tying her hair back with it. Some blonde strands fall down in her eyes, which seem tired. Her jeans have fresh paint stains on them. She’d mentioned something last month about painting Hannah’s room. Polly grimaces mentally. She never wanted to come to Chloe.
“Was it the clothes or the moped that gave it away?” Polly says dryly. Chloe grins as she sits down next to Polly, their legs pressed together.
“The tattoo, actually. It means ‘my beautiful geek’ in Posh-Totty. It’s a cue for any Posh-Totty to take you in.” Polly raises an eyebrow, and Chloe’s grin widens. “You don’t think you’re the only one with a plan, are you, silly? We Posh-Totties may be pretty, but we’re not dumb.”
Polly grabs Chloe’s knee. “I never thought you were dumb, Chloe.”
Just for a moment, Chloe’s face turns cold and brittle, the effect of three years of hard living and bitterness. “Like hell you didn’t.” But then the smile is back, and she stands up, the perfect mum in jeans and a jumper, a little bit worn, but always ready to protect what is hers. “Would you like tea?”
She groans. “Do you all offer tea? Is it something you learned at St. Trinian’s?”
Chloe smirks and walks away, and Polly sees the seductive lilt to the hips rather than the mom march that has been Chloe’s walk for three years. “We learned how to serve a perfect Japanese Tea Ceremony, but that was part of an extracurricular project. I think it’s because you look exhausted. Kelly contacted you, didn’t she?”
Polly holds up her laptop bag. “This morning. Toothpaste and shampoo, just like she said she would. Theoretically, there is a bomb in my apartment, set to go off any minute.”
Chloe is back in a moment with her own cup of tea and looks hard at the laptop bag. She considers it for a moment, and then shakes her head. “Better for Peaches or Taylor. Maybe Celia. Or maybe another contact.” She looks at Polly, hard and cold where before she was warm. “I can’t have these people near my children.”
Polly shakes her head. “I would never let them near them. Hazel is my godchild. Hannah is Kelly’s.”
Chloe studies her for a moment longer, and then nods, pleased with whatever she saw. She stares into space, and Polly just enjoys the peace and quiet for a bit. It’s only a little after noon, and nothing has happened, but her heart feels like it could run out of her chest at any moment. She never wanted to come to Chloe. Chloe is the Vice President of a successful company, has tea with Polly once a month, attends charity events wearing dresses she designed herself and has children that she would kill for. Has killed for. Polly will not endanger them. But Polly needs Chloe, and Chloe would never turn Polly away if she needed her.
“Well, let’s get you some money, then,” Chloe says, grinning once more, and stands up, leading Polly to where she conducts her side business.
One year and two months after Polly graduates from St. Trinian’s, she receives a distressed phone call from Chelsea during her summer hols. She rushes right over to Chelsea’s flat of the moment, and discovers a very scared, bruised, and bloodied Chloe, huddling on Chelsea’s bed with a baby and a toddler.
“What in the hell?” she asks, upon entering the flat. Chelsea is sobbing, Chloe is sobbing, the children are sobbing, and Polly has called off sick from work in order to deal with a clusterfuck of proportions she doesn’t understand.
After several hours, the story comes out. Chloe’s loving husband snapped and started hitting Chloe. She escaped with the children and ran to Chelsea as she was closest. Peaches is on her way, but was in Togo and no one knows when her flight will arrive. No one can reach Kelly, but Polly doesn’t know why they bothered trying.
“Well, it’s obvious what you need to do,” Polly says, finally, when everyone has calmed down a bit. Hannah is in her lap, and Hazel is being passed back and forth between Chelsea and Chloe, depending on who is calmer. Chloe looks at her blankly. “You need to report him to the police.”
“No!” Chloe exclaims, jumping to her feet. “He’s my husband, I love him!”
“He could have killed you, Chloe!” Chelsea says, and she begins to cry again. Chloe rubs frustrated tears out of her eyes.
“He didn’t mean to. He was- he just had a bad day, was all. He’s never done anything like this before. It won’t happen again.”
Polly sets Hannah on the settee and calmly stands up. “And what if he starts on the children next?”
Chloe slaps her, begins screaming at her, and Chelsea walks her out, looking apologetic.
Two weeks later, Peaches, Chloe, and the kids show up at her doorstep. Chloe is catatonic, wrapped in bandages. Polly takes them in, puts them all in her bed, and finally turns to Peaches.
Peaches folds her hands and says simply, “After he got past her, he went after the children. She shot him. He was dead before he reached the hospital. I’ll make sure it’s a quick trial. No one will argue that it was self defense.”
Chloe stays with her for a week and a half. Shortly afterwards, she’s named as Hazel’s second godmother.
Chloe holds out three new credit cards after about forty minutes, and smiles. “Credit card fraud. Really not that hard.” She stands up from her desk and reaches into her filing cabinet, pulling out a wad of cash. “And for you, my dear, because I like you, five hundred pounds of my personal savings.”
Polly immediately protests. “No. Chloe, no. Put that in Hazel’s university fund or some such, or toward her St. Trinian’s fund, but don’t give it to me.”
Chloe’s face goes dark, and she grabs Polly’s wrist, the one with the fake tattoo, and twists it around so she can see the fake ink that Chelsea so lovingly painted there. Chloe points at it with one beautifully manicured fingernail. “Do you know what this means?”
Polly is beginning to perhaps feel a like she said something wrong. “You said it meant ‘my beautiful geek’.”
“It does. It also marks you as ours. As an honorary Posh-Totty. We all have one of these, somewhere on us. We learn how to read and write Chinese, and then we modify it so that it isn’t Chinese any longer. Someone who knows Chinese would think it’s nonsense, but it looks vaguely Chinese, so no one looks twice at yet another stupid blonde girl appropriating someone else’s culture. Then we can tattoo on each other’s skin a symbol that tells a story of what we once were to each other. This means I’m yours, and you’re mine, and you’ll take my damn money.”
Chloe shoves Polly’s wrist back at her and swipes angrily at her eyes. Polly stands there, stunned. After a moment, Chloe looks at her again, calmer.
“You Geeks aren’t the only smart ones. It’s all networks, dear. You use computers. We use the body.”
Chloe hands her the money, and Polly takes it without protest this time. She follows Chloe upstairs and tucks the money and the new, fraudulent credit cards in her laptop bag. She goes upstairs to say goodbye to Hannah and Hazel, who are playing with dolls that they’ve massacred with makeup and scissors, and who look a bit like Emos if they had a run in with First-Years. She gives them both big hugs.
“Tell your mum how much you love her, ok?” she tells them. She signs it to Hazel, who is Deaf. Hazel nods solemnly, and Hannah grins.
“I tell my mummy that I love her every day.”
“Well, tell her twice today, ok? She needs it.”
Hannah nods, and Polly skips quickly down the stairs, where Chloe is waiting by the door.
“I’m sorry,” Polly says. It’s a year too late, but at least she’s saying it. “I’m sorry I didn’t say more, or less, and I’m sorry I didn’t do more.”
Chloe smiles faintly. “You were what I needed. Now, go save those people, go get Kelly out of whatever heist she messed up this time, and when you’re back for next month’s tea, we’ll discuss making that tattoo permanent.”
She ditches the moped. She isn’t going to make it easy for people to follow her. She walks from Chloe’s house to a local teahouse where she uses the restroom, and then sits down, picking up a newspaper and watching the television. After a few minutes, Celia sits down across from her, passing her a scone, a glass of water, and a disposable mobile.
“I would make you tea,” Celia says, her voice soft and amused, “But looking at you, I’d say you’d been with Chelsea and Chloe, and they’re always the perfect hostesses.”
“Is it always that obvious where I’ve been?” Polly asks, grabbing the scone with a delight she hadn’t thought possible. She hates scones. Celia knows it, too, which is probably exactly why she gave her one.
“No, Polly, but we’ve been over this plan ten thousand times,” Celia says, and Polly has to give her that.
Because Polly is an operations manager for cons and heists, Kelly likes to call her an operator. She’s always been good at it, for a number of reasons. There were always girls at St. Trinian’s who were good operators, but very few were capable of impressing Polly. Celia isn’t as good as Polly, but she’s impressive. Impressive enough that Polly never hesitated to show her the biggest operation of her life. She’s never understood why Celia chose to open a teahouse after graduating. A teahouse known for back room dealings, granted, but a teahouse all the same.
“Variations can always be made to plans,” she points out.
“Not on a plan that’s been in existence since Kelly left,” Celia says, and it’s as though the air is sucked out of the room.
It’s not that Polly is stupid. It’s more like she chooses to shape her reality in more congenial terms. It isn’t that Kelly left. It is that Kelly had to go. It’s that Kelly has work. It’s that Kelly’s on a mission, and it’s just like good old times, where Polly is her operational manager. Except this time, she hasn’t seen Kelly in three years, and Celia has just reshaped her reality in a way that Polly has carefully avoided for those years. She inhales deeply and maintains the calm, precise manner that she was always famous for.
“Kelly didn’t leave,” she says carefully, and takes a sip of her water. Celia shrugs haphazardly and drinks something that she probably invented. Polly has never tried one of Celia’s inventions. She is not that foolish.
“Fine then. Annabelle did, though.”
No, she didn’t. Annabelle just disappeared.
As per Kelly’s careful instructions, Polly and Annabelle didn’t speak after graduation. But Polly kept her surveillance open, and spent a year watching one of her best friends be as good a Head Girl as Kelly was, maybe even better. She was proud of her.
Everyone expected great things from Annabelle. But when she graduated, she completely disappeared. No job, no movement on the grid, nothing. Even Polly could no longer track her. And three months after she graduated, Polly received a phone call from Camilla Fritton.
“I was wondering, Polly, if you might have seen my niece, Annabelle. I remember what dear friends you were in school, and she hasn’t been home since she left the school, not even to see my insufferable twit of a brother.”
Miss Fritton sounds bleak, tired, weary, and as though Beverly didn’t have enough pills to bring her up or enough yoga to settle her soul. She can hear Matron in the background whispering gentle, encouraging things. Polly smiles faintly to herself, but she’s worried. Miss Fritton, of all people, should not sound like that.
“I’m sorry, Miss Fritton. I can’t say I’ve seen her. I’ll keep an eye out for her, though.”
Miss Fritton hangs up sounding more defeated than before, and Polly wants to destroy her mobile, the plan, the mission, Annabelle, and Kelly, in no particular order.
“Isn’t that your flat?” Celia says, interrupting Polly’s train of thought, and she looks up to see her flat on the evening news, on fire.
“Well, that’s earlier than expected,” she says.
She thanks Celia for the scone and the water, and especially the disposable mobile, which Kelly set up for her years ago, and runs. She needs to be there. She needs to see if- well. It’s silly, but she needs to see. Her flat is only five blocks from Celia’s shop, and she’s always been a decent sprinter, and Taylor showed her shortcuts through her neighborhood years ago.
Polly sprints down sidewalks and through a few alleys and arrives much sooner than her projected ten minutes, and then casually, like Kelly, strolls up to her where her flat is still aflame, laptop bag clutched beneath her arm. She scans the crowd, finds exactly who she is looking for, and ambles over slowly, casually, like Annabelle. Like Chelsea or Chloe or any number of St. Trinian’s girls who were never Polly.
“What happened here?” she asks. The woman looks at her with mild boredom, and looks back at the building.
“Well, the coppers are claiming it’s a gas leak, but it’s easy enough to see that that’s a load of bogus shite. Place been blown up, hasn’t it? By a bleedin’ bomb, I’d say. Big ‘un, I’d think. Spies and all that. You can’t trust the pigs,” the woman says, nodding wisely. Polly rolls her eyes.
“I think it’s far more likely that it’s a gas leak than spies.”
“They haven’t found any bodies yet, but them spies, they have ways. My flatmate, she says that the vampires are working with them, and that vampires can walk through walls and such. ‘Course, my flatmate’s barmy, but there you have it.”
Polly rolls her eyes again, and the woman eventually wanders away. After a moment, she wanders in the same direction. It isn’t long before Taylor is shoving her into the boot of a car that has certainly seen better days. She slams the hood shut, and Polly is left in darkness with her laptop bag and a bottle of water that is probably from Andrea. Taylor never remembers to leave water bottles in the trunk for the people she kidnaps.
If Kelly working for the government was stunning to most people, the only thing that stunned everyone was the news that Andrea and Taylor were going to be flatmates.
“Yeah, well, the Corpse Bride didn’t turn out to be too bad in the end,” Taylor says, brushing off the questions the Chavs keep throwing at her.
“There’s a darkness in her soul that I find poetic,” Andrea says when the Emos push her.
Kelly and Polly just roll their eyes. Annabelle doesn’t quite get it, but then, Annabelle hasn’t been there long enough to know that while the Cliques are a good way to help people find a niche, they aren’t walls. They don’t stop people from being friends with others. And that while Andrea and Taylor may have spent the entire year fighting, bickering, and leading an ongoing Emo and Chav war, they also spent the entire year focused entirely on each other. They were friends who found antagonism to be their muse. It happened.
Every year there is a project or two at St. Trinian’s that brings everyone together. While most of the time they are off in their own little world, St. Trinian’s is ultimately about working together against whatever would destroy them. Sometimes it was something like a foreclosure. But more commonly it was a teacher who was determined to bring order upon their ordered chaos. Or a disaster that left part of the school in ruins. Or sometimes a family catastrophe that effected everyone. But in times of trouble, St. Trinian’s always came together.
Andrea and Taylor came together in trouble, and decided to continue to make trouble in order to stay together.
“Well, it’s good to see that your kidnapping ring is still flourishing,” Polly says as Andrea helps her out of the car. The car is parked in a terrifying looking concrete garage with a chair in the middle, a single light bulb hanging overhead. Taylor puffs up with pride and looks at Andrea.
“I told you she’d like the light bulb effect. Adds a little drama, I say. Makes a person really fear for their loved one.”
Taylor opens a door and escorts her to a plush little room to the side where a minibar and couch rest, as well as a table full of wires, computers, and other technology. Polly raises an eyebrow. It’s Andrea’s turn to beam.
“Those last few months of tutoring really helped, Polly. I manage all the tech part of kidnapping. We really couldn’t have done it without you,” she says.
“You don’t actually hurt these people, do you?” Polly says. She’s an investor in their business, and keeps track, but she always likes to double check. Andrea shakes her head solemnly.
“I saw a therapist right away after St. Trinian’s. Turns out I was on the wrong dosage of meds. I’m all squared away now. Taylor and I send scary videos, mostly edited, they send us the money, we send back the loved one all in one piece and mostly annoyed because Taylor eats sardines-”
“They’re good for you!”
“-And her breath smells, we skim a portion off the top, and the rest of the money is sent to a bunch of charities.” Andrea takes a breath and looks at Polly, suddenly fierce. “We send our largest amounts to domestic abuse charities.”
Taylor walks back in, carrying a beer for herself, a bottle of water which she hands to Andrea and looks at Polly. “If you want something, get it yourself. Also, don’t tell Celia we drink bottled water.”
“I have sensitive teeth,” Andrea says.
“So they burned down your place, eh? That’s rather harsh, don’t you think?” Taylor says, and she flings herself down onto the couch. It’s pink. Polly can’t tell if she should be amused or scared by this fact. She also can’t figure out which one of them would have picked it out.
“Better than the bomb I was expecting. Kelly must have heard their plans, and that’s why she put our plan in motion. We weren’t supposed to meet there, but I had to check…”
“Just in case,” Andrea says, and shrugs. “It makes sense.”
She walks over to her workstation and begins sweeping aside kidnapping plans, old coffee mugs, some spare computer parts, a voice modifying device, some spare copies of Cosmo, and, randomly, a toothbrush. Polly points at it and looks at Taylor. Taylor shrugs.
“Our last job really wanted to brush his teeth before he saw his husband again. True love like that, I’m not going to say no.”
Andrea clears her throat and points to the now clear space. “You can hook up the laptop there, Polly. That should be pretty good, right?”
“That’s perfect, Andrea, thank you.”
And so Polly gets to work.
Polly was not the leader of the Geeks because she had an excellent stock portfolio, could hack better than most anyone in the world by age twelve, could do complex Calculus in her head, or because she wore glasses and knee-length skirts. Polly was the leader because she was all of those things and because she could find information and patterns where no one else could. Where one person saw a list of static numbers, Polly saw what the economy would be in four, five, six years time. In a list of book titles, Polly could find eighteen different ways the books were similar, dissimilar, and completely irrelevant. Polly could see war in one ship leaving port on one side of the world while an agribusiness announced its daily profit. And in people, Polly saw the connections that no one else could find.
For three years, Kelly has fed her a steady list of names. People Polly does not know, people Polly has not heard of, people that have no apparent connection. The only thing she knows is what Kelly told her.
“They’re beginning a long term investigation. They’re interviewing people. Interrogating them. They said it will close down crime rings around the world.”
It’s a list of over three hundred names that Kelly has leaked to her for three years. Polly created an encrypted database for it and has been running software that she designed in order to find the connections. It’s been running nonstop for three years, readjusting every time she added a name. But now it’s out of time, and she needs to do it manually.
Drawing up the names, she begins.
At four in the morning, she cracks it.
At four in the morning and a few seconds, she lunges for the trash can and vomits the scone she ate earlier. Taylor and Andrea, who fell asleep on the couch hours earlier, startle awake. Andrea rushes toward her while Taylor makes a gagging sound.
“You figured it out? You- you figured it out and it’s bad, then? It’s really bad? It’s really really bad?” Andrea asks. Polly pushes her hands through her hair, frustrated that it’s too short to do so properly. Taylor nudges her face and hands her a washrag. Polly wipes her mouth, and looks at them.
“Kelly knew exactly what this was. She knew. It’s a database of people who’ve had any sort of contact with certain types of criminals, victims or hired thugs or witnesses or whatever. And all the criminals? Are St. Trinian’s girls. They’re either planning to arrest us in one fell swoop, or kill us and erase the evidence. I think you know what option they’re leaning toward.”
Andrea and Taylor stand there for a long moment. True to form, Andrea freezes and begins gasping for air. Taylor moves her quickly to the couch and grabs another bottle of water from the minibar, shoving it at her. Then she turns to Polly and puts her hands on her hips.
“How many are there? Any we know?”
“Well, you two, for starters. Me. Chloe, for her credit card fraud business for abuse survivors. Peaches. Apparently drugs aren’t important, because they don’t have Celia. Nearly fifty other names. And not just small names, like Chloe. Some of the big ones. The crime doesn’t matter. Just the association. St. Trinian’s women.”
Polly helps herself to a water bottle, offering a small apology to Celia and hoping she’s sleeping soundly in her bed tonight. She sits on the rickety table and looks at Andrea. She’s pale, as usual, but she looks calmer now. The momentary fierceness she saw earlier is beginning to creep back into her features. Taylor is biting her lip.
“Why did Kelly give you this? Do you know what she’s doing with it?” Andrea asks, and Polly favors her with a long, flat look.
“Kelly went government, but she never went good. She wouldn’t have given me this as just a notice that she’s taking us down. No. Kel would never do that.”
“Annabelle disappeared,” Taylor says softly. Polly jumps up angrily.
“Annabelle isn’t on this list!”
“Maybe she’s not on the list because they already disappeared her,” Andrea responds, and Polly shakes her head.
“Absolutely not. This is Kelly we’re talking about. Annabelle is her best friend. We’re her best friends. She wouldn’t just give us up like this.”
Taylor shakes your head. “Your flat was destroyed this afternoon. We don’t know who done it! It could have been her bosses, it could have been Kel, it could have been someone else. Point is, Polly, we don’t know. We don’t have a story here. We’ve all been trusting Kelly blindly for three years, and now we’re on some list, and you could have been killed.”
Polly looks at them both, and sighs. They’re trying to protect her. She understands. But she knows Kelly. She knows her. And she knows how to find out. She takes a deep, steadying breath and clutches the list in her hand. She turns back to the computer, grabs the flash drive from her bag, quickly copies the file and hands the drive to Andrea.
“Guard that with your life. You might actually have to. Taylor, you and Andrea go get Chloe and the kids. Get them somewhere safe. Not here- you’ll terrify Hazel. Chelsea’s, maybe. They have a safe house that I know where to find. I’ll bring you back the truth.”
Most bars would be closed at four thirty in the morning, but this bar is unique in so many ways. Polly never comes here, not just because she doesn’t drink much. Kelly specifically told her to avoid this bar unless she was looking for the truth, and at that point, Polly and Kelly needed to rely on secrets. She never wanted the truth. Not until tonight.
The bar is a favorite among the international community, Kelly had said, which is shorthand for spy bar. People trade secrets. They make deals. They take the night off. And sometimes, Kelly had said, her eyes sparkling with mischief, they talk to their bartender.
“Anoushka, dear, a shot of something that won’t blind me,” Polly says, swinging her long legs up and rubbing at her sore temples. Her hair is soaked. It’s downpouring outside. Anoushka smirks at her, amused, and looks around the near empty bar. There are two men in the back corner, but there appears to be some serious negotiating going on, so Polly isn’t particularly concerned.
“So nothing from twins, then?” she says as she hands over a glass of what looks like rum.
Polly smiles exhaustedly. “You actually buy what they sell?”
Anoushka turns the bar sign to ‘off’ and comes to sit next to her. “Ever since Flash went away to prison, business has been hard. I encourage entrepreneurs. And Tania and Tara will be the best when graduate.”
“I thought they preferred explosions.”
“I suspect they will have multi-talented company. I buy from Matron as well. The Gerald, very popular. What can I do for you? You, I don’t see here so often.”
Polly drags herself off of the bar with effort, takes a sip of her drink and then looks at it. “Coca-Cola, Anoushka? Really?”
“I cut people off when they can no longer handle their liquor. You cannot handle a drop tonight. Come, tell the bartender your problems. Have you come for business troubles, or pleasure troubles?”
“Business. Of the worst sort,” Polly says, and shows her wrist to Anoushka. Anoushka raises her eyebrows. A different sort of Posh-Totty she may have been, but a Posh-Totty she will forever be. She looks at the two men in the corner.
“You two! Out! My bar is closed!”
The two men begin yelling at her in two different languages, and she yells back in the same different languages, and in five minutes, they are both gone. Anoushka sits down smugly. “They think I do not speak Estonian and Urdu, but now I sell their secrets to whoever pays me first. Silly men. They see a pretty woman and think, ah, her head is fluff and I can say whatever. But you, tell me, my beautiful geek, what sends you here.”
“Kelly. I need to know what she’s involved in,” Polly says, and explains the situation. Anoushka listens thoughtfully, nodding every now and then, asking the occasional clarifying question, and then lets out a long sigh.
“You know she told me not to tell you.”
“I have money.”
“I never make St. Trinian’s women pay. I also never tell the state secrets of St. Trinian’s women. You put me in difficult position, Polly.”
Polly waits, patient. Anoushka believes in two things: family and honor. She knows that Anoushka’s mother was a diplomat who disowned her when she was twelve, after she blew up part of the embassy building. Anoushka has no family except St. Trinian’s.
But she also has her personal code.
Anoushka contemplates her hands. “They say Russians are all about honor,” she begins casually enough. Polly blinks, and Anoushka smiles. “It is what everyone thinks. It is in all the films. But I am more St. Trinian’s than Russian, I think. And my honor tells me to keep my secrets, all of them. But St. Trinian, blessed saint of fucked up women everywhere, says that we need to protect each other because no one protects us. I will tell you.”
Kelly has rules that she follows, and one of them, which she taught Polly, is that she will never help bring down a St. Trinian’s girl.
So when she discovered she was hired to do specifically that, it is natural that perhaps she felt that maybe, just maybe, she couldn’t do it. Sent on mission after mission where she faced St. Trinian’s women, Kelly ensured that they failed, and never told her bosses who her opponents were. When presented with files of people, places, and crimes, she promised to figure out which Trinian’s criminal was behind it, and sent it all to Polly, trusting that she would figure out which St. Trinian’s women were involved. And when she wasn’t in the field, she was on her computer, discretely tagging the files of known St. Trinian’s operatives.
Her handlers had used the word “terminate.” Kelly knew a bad thing when she heard it. She needed to get them out. She needed to make sure they knew who was coming after them. A double agent with no agency to be her double; just herself, with an operations manager on the ground. A few contacts with preparations in place. And a list of people that her bosses would kill to get their hands on.
“She failed, of course,” Anoushka said, tipping back a shot. Polly froze, still considering the immense task that Kelly had set herself up for.
“What do you mean, she failed?”
“They know she has the list. I heard it this morning. They take you all down, one by one, like dominoes. They get her first, they get your name, they get your list, and then… you either disappear, or a gas leak tragically causes your home to explode,” Anoushka says, and tears well up in her eyes. “So many good friends go that way. I hear so many of your deaths over the bar.”
Polly grabs her hand and drags her up. Anoushka is tall, but so is she. “No more deaths,” she says roughly. “I’m an operations manager. I’m the best. I will get Kelly out alive, I will get Chloe out alive, I will get us all out alive. And you’re coming with me. No one else is disappearing. Not like Annabelle.”
She starts leading Anoushka out of the bar, but Anoushka stops cooperating all of a sudden. “Annabelle?” she asks.
“Yes, Annabelle. She was Head Girl after we left.”
“No, no, I know who she is. But she’s with Kelly, Polly. She’s alive. She’s been with Kelly since she graduated.”
It turns out that Anoushka knows how to hotwire cars, which is excellent, because Taylor and Andrea dropped Polly off at the bar. She gives Anoushka the address of the safe house that she needs to get to, and takes the hotwired car to her final stop of the evening. It’s a long shot, a desperate long shot, but Chelsea said that she could trust her, and if what Anoushka said is true, they need all the help they can get.
The paper is wet by now, and crinkled, and the ink is smeared, but it has survived car rides, moped rides, running, a friendly kidnapping, and the burning down of her flat. It can survive for thirty minutes longer. She’s not particularly surprised when she pulls up to a neat little house, but she doesn’t have time to roll her eyes right now, because it’s just about dawn, and she needs to get back to the house to begin working on the heist with the others.
She parks the car and runs up to the door. Her hair is plastered to her face, her makeup is running, she generally looks like a soggy mess and there is no chance she will recognize her, but she has to try. So she pounds on the door and shivers.
A minute later, a sleepy looking Miss Dickinson opens the door.
“Miss Dickinson,” Polly says gratefully, and tries to smile broadly. She’s always been one for small, tight smiles, but for Kelly and Annabelle, she’s willing to try.
“Polly? What on earth are you doing on my stoop at five thirty in the morning?” she asks. Polly begins to answer, but Miss Dickinson waves her hands in the air and ushers her inside. “Come in, what a silly question when it’s raining so hard. Are you quite all right dear? You look a frightful mess.”
Miss Dickinson had not been Polly’s favorite teacher. She’d been too naïve about life, and like the four English teachers before her, she’d liked rules and discipline that imposed upon others. She’d wanted to be an Authority Figure, and Polly had never appreciated people who were more interested in being one of those than actually understanding the environment they were in. But whenever she said something negative about Miss Dickinson, Chelsea nearly took her head off, so she had slowly warmed to her. Besides, she had a bit of charm. She was certainly a Geek.
“I need your help, Miss Dickinson,” she says.
“Is it the drugs?” Miss Dickinson says solemnly. Polly blinks. “I know of several good rehabilitation programs, dear, and it’s always the ones who push themselves too hard that turn to them in the end.”
“I- no, Miss Dickinson, it’s not drugs.”
“If you’re pregnant, there are several options available to you.”
“Miss Dickinson. Please. When a young woman is in trouble, it is not always pregnancy or drugs. Nor am I being abused, nor have I been raped, so you can stop opening your mouth.”
Miss Dickinson looks sheepish enough, so Polly forgives her. She supposes there aren’t many other reasons for former students to show up at a teacher’s doorstep anyway. She looks around at the plastic-coated furniture, and keeps her eye roll internal out of respect for Chelsea, and takes a seat. Miss Dickinson follows suit, sitting in what is obviously a well-loved rocking chair.
“You remember St. Trinian’s,” she begins, and Miss Dickinson lets out a sharp bark of laughter.
“How could I forget!”
“Well, a large number of us need your help. Kelly Jones has discovered that a number of us are at risk of being exposed for our… less than legal activities. She’s in trouble, we’re in trouble, and I need your help to keep us out of trouble.”
Miss Dickinson regards her steadily. Even at this early hour, her brown hair is in a perfect bun. Polly had modeled her corporate hairdo after hers. She’s wearing a ridiculous robe with cats on it, and her slippers look like they’re fifteen years old. She looks exactly like the prim little teacher that Polly remembers her as, which is why she’s not surprised when Miss Dickinson says, “And why should I help you continue your criminal ways?”
Polly wants to lose her temper. She’s been up nearly twenty-four hours, first thinking she was engaged in saving a few hundred civilian lives from nefarious government dealings, only to discover she has to save fifty of her sisters’ lives as well as her own. She’s barely eaten. She’s thrown up. She’s had emotional reunions and realizations and has had a routine of three years completely upset. The plan for her entire life, to just sink into the wallpaper and fade, is gone. She wants to slap this teacher silly for being willing to abandon them all so quickly.
But she didn’t tell her to get out. She gave her a chance to convince her.
“Because Chloe provides fraudulent credit cards to abused women on the run. Because Taylor and Andrea donate the money from their crimes to charities, a wide variety of them. Because Peaches is a crime boss for all of London that, among other things, seeks to protect prostitutes from abuse, give them regular health care checks, take care of their children, and make sure they don’t die on the streets. Because I provide financial support and tech support to all four of them. Because Kelly and Annabelle both spent three years finding out who was gathering this information and might be killed for it. Because all fifty or so people on that list have similar stories. Because you never help bring down a St. Trinian’s girl. And because Chelsea Parker said I could trust you, and I wanted to believe her.”
Polly stands up, too tired to argue anymore, but she doesn’t get further than the door before Miss Dickinson sighs and says, “At least let me change.”
St. Trinian’s is not the most expensive boarding school in England, but it is not the cheapest, either. While a number of the girls who attend come from wealthy families who would prefer that their daughters disappear, some are sent by families who are poor and desperate to provide some sort of life for their delinquent children. And so there are scholarship girls. Some of the wealthy girls enjoy mocking their poorer counterparts, but most don’t concern themselves with money much because scholarship girls always find a way to make their own money eventually.
When Peaches first arrived at St. Trinian’s, wearing a hand-me-down roller and a smile, most assumed she was yet another scholarship girl. They learned the hard way when, after a week of intense bullying, Peaches’ mother arrived at the school for an after hours lecture about the effects of bullying on the psyche of adolescent girls. What it turned out to be was a calm notification that Peaches was the heir to a massive crime syndicate and that her mother had attended St. Trinian’s as well, was Head Girl, and thought that her old blazer would show sufficient school pride. The lecture concluded with Peaches’ mother announcing that if anyone ever wanted to succeed in entrepreneurial ventures upon graduating, they would be wise to not make her Peaches cry.
No one called Peaches a scholarship girl after that, and Peaches never stood by and allowed scholarship girls to be picked on.
And everyone thought it was cool that her mum was a mob boss.
The safe house is really more of a safe mansion, but all of Peaches’ places are like that. By the time Miss Dickinson pulls up the drive, the sun is beginning to rise. Polly’s skin feels rough and is tingling. She needs tea or coffee or maybe an IV drip of pure caffeine. Once the car is parked, Miss Dickinson follows her quietly. They hadn’t spoken the entire drive, except when Polly gave directions. She knows perfectly well that she is only there for Chelsea.
Polly pulls out a key that she has never used before but has never let out of her sight, and opens the door. Inside, Peaches is waiting, looking trim in her designer black suit. She raises an eyebrow at the figure behind her.
“I brought reinforcements,” Polly says tiredly, and Peaches grins.
“You’re not the only one. Please, come in. We’re in the kitchen. Miss Dickinson, let me take your coat.”
Peaches escorts them to the kitchen, where Polly is expecting to see Chloe, Andrea, and Taylor. Instead, she sees the three of them, Celia, Chelsea, Anoushka, Tania, Tara, Miss Fritton, and Matron. Polly lets the laptop bag out of her grip for the first time in a day and stares at the gathered crowd. Peaches goes and sits at the head of the table, and Miss Dickinson moves past her to accept the drink that Matron holds out to her. Apparently, St. Trinian’s put an end to her teetotaling.
“I made a few phone calls,” Peaches says casually, carefully holding out a spoonful of applesauce to Hazel, who is sitting in her lap. “Tara and Tania could be quite useful, if what Anoushka tells us is true. And of course they need a chaperone. Miss Fritton seemed the obvious choice.”
Polly picks up the laptop bag once more, and sits down next to Celia. Celia smiles beatifically. “We’re also connected with Trinian’s CCTV, so if we need any of their resources, they are prepared to help.”
Peaches signs “apples” cheerfully at Hazel a few times, and then looks back at Polly. “I have a few agents out and about in case something comes up in the streets we need to know. I’ve also arranged for a few of the top priority women on that list to conveniently take a holiday. Right now, Kelly’s bosses will be focused solely on us.”
“Which means we need a plan,” Polly says, finally back on firm ground. She pulls out her laptop and begins setting it up, but Celia puts a gentle hand on her wrist, stopping her.
“No, Polly. Look around.”
Polly looks around in confusion and sees a bunch of women. St. Trinian’s women, all of them, battle-hardened and ready to take on the world. But when she looks at Celia in confusion, Celia gives her a stern look, and she looks again. This time she sees what Celia sees.
They look exhausted. Miss Fritton looks like she’s lost twenty pounds and is clinging to Matron’s arm like it’s a life preserver. Perhaps it is. Tania and Tara are fourteen now, and while still young and innocent looking, they’ve been in a car with Miss Fritton driving- or worse, Matron- for an hour, and they look it. Andrea’s makeup is running, Taylor looks like she got mugged, rather than doing the mugging, and Chloe looks like a combination of ready to cry, ready to scream, and ready to kill. She’s holding a still sleeping Hannah in her arms much too tightly. Anoushka, Chelsea, and Celia are the only ones who don’t look like death, and Polly thinks that has more to do with a clever makeup job and drugs rather than actual feeling. Miss Dickinson simply looks ill at being surrounded by the girls she left behind three years ago. She closes her laptop slowly and looks at Peaches.
“What do you recommend, Peaches?” she asks. Peaches smiles brightly.
“You have the mobile still?” she inquires, and at Polly’s nod, stands up. “I propose that we all get a few hours sleep. We have no information to make a real plan right now. Kelly will call, and we’ll go from there. Now, let me show you to your bedrooms.”
Polly and Miss Fritton rarely interacted while she attended St. Trinian’s. It had nothing to do with Polly’s fondness for Miss Fritton, or with Miss Fritton’s fondness for her, it was simply that they never had any real reason to have a sit down conference. Polly is certain that Miss Fritton became aware of the CCTV almost immediately upon its debut, and she’s certain that Miss Fritton knew that Polly kept a special feed specifically for her.
She believes in a certain amount of privacy, so she didn’t watch portions of Miss Fritton’s day. The Geoffery Thwaites tapes are locked away in a box somewhere, despite the amount of money she was offered for them. As an operations manager, Polly learned secrets over the years and she learned damn well which ones to keep and which ones to give away. She has always prided herself in her ability to tell the difference.
So when she wakes up from her morning nap, instead of going to see her godchild and Hannah first, she instead goes to the study, where Peaches tells her Miss Fritton is reading.
She is sitting by the bay window, the pages of her book illuminated by the sunlight that pours across them. Polly smiles to herself and crosses the room as silently as possible, but Miss Fritton is not Headmistress for nothing. She looks up, sees Polly, and gestures for her to join her.
“Annabelle says that you love to paint. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because you always position yourself in such picturesque ways, and have always wanted to be painted,” Polly says, sitting across from her. Miss Fritton smiles and closes her book. It is, of course, a Jane Austen. Polly has always wondered if Miss Fritton wanted to die a little when Chelsea got that answer wrong in the quiz show.
“Art in the blood, my dear, art in the blood. You’re here to apologize, aren’t you?” Miss Fritton says, and before Polly can say anything else, Miss Fritton raises a hand and waves it away. “No need. I understand completely.”
Polly smoothes her blue wool skirt. She is allowed to dress in any way she pleases here, and when facing Miss Fritton, she cannot help but turn to old comforts. “I did not want to lie to you. I didn’t know where Annabelle was. I still don’t. And I wasn’t sure if she was with Kelly. I wanted to say something, though. I wanted to make sure you didn’t worry.”
Miss Fritton sits back with a long sigh and clasps her book against her chest. Polly waits, because she recognizes Miss Fritton’s thinking face. Some of the most inspiring speeches have come out of that face. Of course, some of the most nonsensical drivel has as well, but Polly is patient enough with either.
“You know, my mother was an actress. Carnaby and I, we hung on her every word because every moment she paid attention to you, you were part of her world and it was magical. She used to travel the world at a whimsy, whenever she heard there was a new role that she wanted to try. And whenever she left, she left Carnaby and me with our father, who was a wonderful man, but very practical, very boring, not magical at all.
“And oddly enough, though I loved Mummy and forgave her, and Carnaby never could, he grew up to be the globetrotter and I set up a school for people like me, who loved the magic of whimsy but needed someplace they could set their feet upon and ultimately call home.”
She laughs suddenly, and looks cheerfully at Polly. “You don’t need to apologize, Polly. Annabelle reminds me of my mother. And my mother, no matter her fancy, always came home again.”
The call comes at seven in the evening, but it doesn’t come from Kelly.
After a delightful five-course meal, Peaches suggests they assemble in the family room to see if the phone call will come. The safe house is large, she points out, and she doesn’t want to run around trying to gather everyone when Kelly finally gives them instructions.
Polly is debating linguistics with Miss Dickinson, Chelsea and, oddly enough, Tara, when suddenly Peaches shouts, “Shut up!” and the room goes silent. The phone is ringing. Polly stands up, grabs it, answers it, and turns it on speaker phone.
“Kelly,” Polly says, all business. There’s a pause over the phone, and for a moment Polly thinks that she broke the phone somehow, that in all the running around she somehow managed to knock it the wrong way, but then a voice begins.
“No, she’s in trouble,” Annabelle says, her voice distorted over the phone, but unmistakably Annabelle in every particular. Polly’s heart clenches in a distinct way, and Miss Fritton rockets to her feet.
“Annabelle, are you all right?” she asks before Polly, Peaches, or anyone else can get her to sit down.
“Auntie? I- yes, I’m fine. I’m fine. But we need help.” Annabelle rattles off a quick address, and Polly can tell that she’s running now. “I know it’s terribly inconvenient, but if you could please hurry, we really are in a spot of trouble.”
The phone line goes dead. Polly doesn’t need to look around to the room to know that they’re all gearing up. She turns on her laptop and brings up Google Maps.
As far as secret lairs for interrogation of spies goes, it’s a horrible cliché. It’s a warehouse, and Polly can’t imagine what agency in the world hired these people. If it’s her government, she’s especially ashamed, because they ought to know better. It’s a public warehouse, over fifty years old, which means that Polly pulls up the blueprints without having to hack anything difficult at all. It’s a bit boring, really, and as a rescue mission goes it’s straightforward.
Since Annabelle couldn’t give them numbers, they’ve prepared a tiered strike. Polly just needs to sit in the first van, directing the extraction team, while Celia sits in the second, directing the distraction team. Peaches arranged for the vans, the drivers, and would have given them anything else they needed, but in some ways, old school is the best. They’re armed with iPod earbuds and handmade explosives, infrared goggles and tasers, and packfuls of other things that could come in handy. In other words, they are ready to go.
The second they pull up to the warehouse, Polly starts typing. She can hear Celia through her iPod, and within seconds they have access to all the security cameras. It’s an old system, not the best, but the warehouse is largely used for overstocks now and no one really cares much if someone takes a VCR that no one is going to buy.
“All right. Girls, it looks like there are two security guards on the outside. They’re uniforms, though, so they’re probably not involved with Kelly and Annabelle. We don’t want to do much to them. Inside we’ve got fifteen men with guns. I don’t have eyes on either Kelly or Annabelle yet, but I’ll keep looking. First strike, get ready to go.”
Next to her, Chloe flexes her hands nervously. Polly looks at her and tries to smile, but she doesn’t quite make it. She doesn’t have to, though, because Andrea reaches out and pats Chloe on the knee.
“Nothing is going to happen to your children,” she says gently, and Chloe looks blankly at her.
“Of course not. Peaches has seven armed guards on them, four of whom graduated from St. Trinian’s. I’m not worried about them right now,” Chloe says, and then places her hand on top of Andrea’s. “Kelly and Annabelle are family, too. I have more than enough worry to spread around.”
The van descends once more into silence; the continuous hum of the computers, TVs, and other equipment are the only sounds other than their breathing. Polly normally finds it soothing to listen to her equipment, but she’s too stressed right now to force her heart rate to match it.
“What’s taking so long?” Taylor complains, and Polly shrugs.
“Waiting for Celia’s mark.”
“Well, tell her to bloody hurry up already, the Freak Queen here is getting nervous,” Taylor says, jerking her head at Andrea, who does indeed look a bit queasy.
“You’re not first strike anyway, Taylor,” Chloe says. “You’re extraction.”
“Yeah, but the quicker they get their job done, the quicker we’re in and out and figuring out what to do with the list that has our names toward the top. Sorry Andrea,” Taylor says, seeing what that remark does to her partner’s complexion.
“First strike ready to go,” Celia’s voice says in her ear, and Polly raises her hand. Instantly the tension in the van increases. Polly glances around, takes a deep breath, and turns her eyes back to the computers. She can see the patterns. She can see the intersections.
“First strike, on my mark. Three, two, one…”
A guard rounds the corner…
Polly cannot see the first strike head out, but she can hear a quick flurry of muffled boot steps, and she can imagine masked black figures running off into the night. Chloe reaches over and flips the switches for four TVs, and instantly she can see the viewpoints of the entire team.
“I don’t see them yet,” Celia says in her ear, and Polly shakes her head. They’re only now nearing the building with different angles, different approaches, working in teams of two. With a job like this, Polly would have preferred more people. She needs more eyes. In a last minute mission, though, she knows how to work with what she has.
“Peaches, guard approaching on your right,” Celia says, and Polly watches as Peaches and Anoushka’s cameras begin waving around wildly while they look for the guard. They’d adjusted the microphones so they would only come on when activated, so Polly can’t hear any conversations. It’s unnerving. They all watch as Peaches and Anoushka dispose of the guard quickly enough, with a simple slink of the body and kick of the leg. Polly can’t believe people still fall for that one.
On another screen, Miss Fritton and Matron are climbing up to the roof, while on a third Tania and Tara begin down into the sewers to start their assault from below. The fourth screen is devoted to Chelsea and Miss Dickinson. Oddly enough, Miss Dickinson appears to be picking the lock.
“Looks like Miss Prim and Perfect got herself some skills,” Taylor says, whistling. Andrea giggles.
“Wonder which one of us taught her that.”
Chloe just shakes her head. “A different shampoo, contacts, just a little bit of makeup… the poor dear could have been beautiful.”
They watch as everyone enters, and for once Polly wishes she weren’t an operations manager but an actual operative, because the suspense is killing her. She still can’t see Kelly anywhere, and she assumes that Annabelle is avoiding the cameras, but some sign would ease her aching stomach. Miss Fritton and Matron appear in the middle of one of the security cameras, rappelling down from the roof, and in another camera or two she sees the two ground teams quietly- she assumes- take out a few guards. Then, as if on cue, all three teams locate a camera and give her a thumbs up.
Polly doesn’t wait for Celia. She thumbs on a switch. “Tania, Tara, are you in place?”
A microphone clicks, and Tara says, “Whenever you are, Polly.”
Chloe hits the remaining three switches, and Polly hears the reassuring rush of snow in her ears. Her heart lifts. Three years at a shitty desk job, hoping for anonymity, but she was a born operator, and here she is.
“Extraction team, enter ready phase,” she says, and behind her, Andrea and Taylor are up and making final adjustments to their equipment. She grins. “Team, we are a go. Let her rip.”
She hears Tara’s microphone click off, and then feels, rather than sees the explosion. It’s immense. She hears their driver give a shout before he returns to silence, a perfect employee for Peaches. Andrea and Taylor burst out of the back of the van and are gone. She can’t track them through the dust of the explosion, but after a few minutes, Chloe reaches over and turns on a fifth TV, and their monitors are added to her extra sets of eyes.
Celia is shouting instructions to her teams in the chaos, but Polly’s job is to focus solely on extraction. It takes a special set of eyes to be able to read a blueprint and put together the inside of a building from ten different cameras, not to mention the security cameras, but Polly can do it, and she filters out all sound except the breathing of Taylor and Andrea, who have to keep on their microphones at all times.
“Turn right here,” she says, and they do. Polly knows which rooms the team has been in, and which they haven’t, and she knows which are most likely to be used to interrogate uncooperative operatives who have a list that someone wants. There are three candidates.
“Another right. Fritton and Matron are ahead. There’s a door on their left. Go through it,” she instructs them. She sees them on their cameras in a moment. Matron is beating one man with what looks like a lamp, still in its wrapping, and Miss Fritton is Macing the other gentleman to the ground and beyond. Thankfully, they’re all wearing gas masks. Andrea steps over the man, and bursts through the door, Taylor right behind her.
“Nothing here, Polly,” Andrea says, a bit breathless. Polly shakes her head.
“I didn’t think there would be. Smuggler’s cove underneath the fake Persian rug.”
“Oh, really. Fake Persian. That is so tacky,” Taylor grouses even while ripping the thing from the floor. Polly can see her aim the taser gun she’s equipped with at the hatch, and the camera bobs. A nod to Andrea. Andrea’s hand appears in the screen, and the hatch is yanked open.
There is nothing inside except heroin, and what looks to be a dead body.
“Wrong room,” Polly says. “Take a left when you exit.”
“That body is going to hurt the heroin’s value on the market,” Chloe says with a sigh, studying her nails for a moment before returning her eyes to the screens. Polly doesn’t comment. The drug trade is really more of Celia’s thing anyway.
“Take the first staircase you come to and go up it,” she tells them, and then takes a moment to listen to what Celia is saying. She’s yelling something about more guards coming. Polly studies the screens and sees about ten more men appearing from nowhere. “They’re prepared, girls. There are more men on the way.”
“Any in our way?” Andrea asks, hitting the stairs first, Taylor right behind her.
Polly visualizes, and curses. “Celia, send a team to my girls. We don’t have time to be both extraction and distraction.”
“Corridor?” Celia says sharply.
“C if they can get there in one minute, D if they need to push it to two.”
Polly doesn’t bother to listen to which team she sends, and returns instead to her girls, who have reached the top of the stairs and are waiting impatiently. “Go straight down the hallway,” she says, and they take off running again.
She sees another group of monitors hitting the stairs just as a group of men begin closing in on her team. They won’t be precisely on time, but Andrea and Taylor are St. Trinian’s girls, and they can handle themselves. “Turn right here. You’ll run into some guards, but reinforcements are on the way.”
Taylor and Andrea make their turn, tuck low, and barrel headfirst into the group of men heading down the hall at them, just like the good old hockey players they are. They go down in a hard tumble, and Polly hears the clicks of two microphones turning on as Chelsea and Miss Dickinson join them.
In close quarters, there is really no room for the usual Trinian’s tricks, and it’s just up to whoever is the better fighter. Polly watches as a guard goes to hit Andrea, wincing in anticipation, but blinks when Miss Dickinson takes him down in a flying tackle that would do any hockey player proud. And then she watches in astonishment- as does everyone else, from how the cameras are angled- as Miss Dickinson proceeds to take down two men at once with a series of kicks, punches, holds, and flips. Taylor drops the last one, and there is silence over the microphones.
“’Cor, lady, when did you learn to do that?” she asks, sounding impressed.
Hair tucked away in a ski mask, gas mask hiding her face, Miss Dickinson still manages to convey prim correctness as she dusts imaginary dirt from her military pants. “A woman needs to know how to protect herself. Come, come, we have work to do, ladies!”
Polly stops staring at the screens in astonishment, clears her throat, and tells Taylor and Andrea, “At the end of the hall is a room with no security cameras inside it or near it, even though the blueprints say there should be. Proceed carefully, girls.”
Taylor leads the way, Andrea limping slightly behind her. They reach the door, and as before, Taylor points the taser and Andrea yanks open the door.
Inside sits Kelly, tied to a chair, looking annoyed. Around her are two men and a woman, who look surprised but quickly move to infuriated. Polly jumps to her feet, clutching at her earbud and microphone. She watches as Taylor releases the first taser shot at one of the men and Andrea throws in smoke grenades even as Chloe flips all switches up and Polly screams “Redirect to corridor D! Operative found! Hostiles in area!”
Microphones click on in Polly’s ears, and her snow is replaced with the harsh sound of chaos. There are too many people talking at once, breathing hard, cursing to themselves. She can hear parts of the building crumbling in the background, gun fire, and the groans from guards. It doesn’t matter. Polly can filter anything.
It’s because she can filter anything that she hears one soft voice come through saying, “You got her?”
Polly’s eyes widen, and she turns to Chloe. But Chloe, of course, can’t hear all feeds. Only Polly can. Chloe has a regular earbud and no microphone, but Annabelle learned from the best.
“Chloe. Take the monitors,” she orders. Chloe looks up at her, startled.
“But I can’t operate! This is a major mission!”
“It’ll just be fighting for the next minute or so. I need thirty seconds. Take my damn headset. Give me yours.”
Chloe really can’t argue, because Polly has yanked off her headset and shoved her own at Chloe. She hops out of the van and walks about fifty paces and then looks around before adjusting one piece of Chloe’s headset and making it into two-way instantly. She slides the earbud into place, using the other as a microphone, and scans the area.
“We’re extracting her now. Where are you?”
“Close enough, but without your headset. I can’t hear anything. Tell me when she’s out, when you’re all out,” Annabelle says. Polly frowns.
“You’re coming with us?”
“Of course. But I have one tail left, and I haven’t quite shaken him. Just announce into your headset, very loudly, that you’re all out, and I’ll know. Then I’ll join you.”
Polly considers. She would consider longer, but she’s a born operator, and Chloe isn’t, and this mission depends on her being on headset. “I’m trusting you, Annabelle,” she says, and she hears Annabelle let out a quiet, huffy laugh.
“You never should have stopped. Now go get our girls out.”
Polly yanks the earbud out and jumps back in the van. Chloe looks terrified, but determined, and is shouting “Just- just go until I tell you not to go anymore!” into the microphone. Polly grabs it from her, puts it on, shoves Chloe out of her chair, and looks at what they’ve got.
In the thirty seconds she was gone, they have retrieved Kelly. Miss Fritton appears to be carrying her, judging by the cameras. The microphones are blaring voices at her, but she takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, opens them, and nods.
“Turn left in that corridor. It’ll take you to a back staircase. Your path is clear.”
Andrea’s ankle is twisted, Polly works out, and Kelly is drugged. Anoushka might have a concussion. Tania is shouting frantically at Tara repeatedly, but her camera keeps moving, so Polly can only figure that at least she’s walking. They’ll work with what they have afterwards. Peaches is leading the way.
They reach the staircase. Celia says in her ear, “Police have been called. It was the woman.”
Polly doesn’t know what woman, but she’ll figure it out later. “You have thirty seconds, girls. Pick up the pace if you can. You have a clean ride home. Triage in my van.”
She turns off her microphone and looks at Chloe, who is pale around the lips. “I need you to go to the other van.”
“I know first aid,” Chloe says firmly. Polly sighs.
“Bandaging kid’s knees is not the same as triage.”
“My husband beat me nearly to death before he went after my children, and I still drove us to the hospital afterwards. I know triage,” Chloe growls, and Polly swallows. She saw them after the hospital visit, apparently.
Peaches arrives first and immediately begins clearing the floor of weapons and putting down blankets from underneath the pull down seats. Then she shoves the seats aside, nods congenially at Chloe and Polly, hops out of the van, and makes room for Miss Fritton.
Polly has not seen Kelly in three years. In three years, Kelly has lost some weight, grown her hair out, and gotten the hell beaten out of her by some very angry people. She’s conscious and she waves a hand at Polly.
“Hey there, Polly,” she croaks, her voice lilting a bit more than usual. It must be the drugs, Polly decides. Chloe pushes Polly back into her workstation, the only bit of furniture in the van that can’t be removed, and starts working on Kelly.
Taylor deposits Andrea in the van, patting her on the shoulder, and gives Kelly’s ankle a squeeze before disappearing over to the other van. Anoushka arrives on her own two feet, but Polly, with almost no knowledge of medicine, can see that she’s concussed. Matron, Tania, and Tara arrive all together, and Polly gasps. Tara has wood shrapnel all up her side, including in her face.
Matron sees her face and shakes her head. “She’ll be all right, then, just as soon as we’re back at Peaches’ where I can have some nice sterile equipment. Most of it is caught in her uniform, anyway. Nothing life threatening.”
Tania looks grim, but Tara grins at her, the wood moving with her smile. “Think of it, Polly. It’ll make a wicked scar!”
Tara shoos her twin away, and that’s the last of them for this van. Polly swallows hard when she sees Miss Fritton looking around. She knows who she is looking for.
“Celia, we are all out,” she announces loudly, as loudly as she can. “Kelly and all others are out safely.”
“Yes, I know that, now let’s go!” Celia snaps. “Police will be here in less than a minute.”
Polly looks around for a moment more, hoping for a miracle, or at least for Annabelle, but she doesn’t appear. So she gestures for Matron to close the door. A second later, she hears the other van close the door. And a second after that, the building they were in explodes.
“Oh my God!” Chloe yells, making the hand gestures to go with it. Sprawled out next to Kelly’s head, Polly wonders if Peaches and Chelsea are doing the exact same thing in the other van. Kelly starts to laugh. Polly presses her headset to her ear and yells, “Drive! Now!” Then she looks at Kelly, who may be drugged and beat up, but is still Kelly.
“Where’s Annabelle?” she demands. Kelly reaches up and puts her hand on Polly’s cheek, her hysterical laughter fading to a fond smile.
“You cut your hair. You said you would never cut your hair.”
Polly tries to ignore her, but the soft smile is one hundred percent apologetic Kelly Jones, a flavor of Kelly that Polly has always been fond of, if only because Kelly only apologizes to her closest and truest friends. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Annabelle isn’t with them and that she doesn’t know if they can plan another suicidal rescue mission tonight.
“Kelly. Where’s Annabelle?”
Kelly’s smile broadens, revealing bloody teeth. She shuts her eyes and lets her hand fall into Polly’s lap as Matron begins to press and prod and make reassuring noises around her.
“She’s driving, silly.”
When Annabelle hops out of the driver’s seat at Peaches’ safe house, Polly is torn between throwing herself at her and never letting go, or beating her over the head with one of her old laptops. As it is, she doesn’t have the option for either, because Miss Fritton is upon her immediately, alternating between hugging her and hitting her with the handbag she insisted upon bringing on the mission.
Even though she wants to go to the infirmary where Matron is leading Kelly, Anoushka, Andrea, and Tara, and even though she wants to go hug Annabelle, missions always have their aftermath. For Polly and Celia, that has always meant breaking down the base camp. She slides her headset down around her neck and sighs, dropping her head on her keyboard, only for a second. She needs to breathe.
After her breath, she sits upright and carefully makes two copies of the chaos she recorded tonight. Polly has always recorded every mission. Every camera feed, every bit of audio, even the bits she couldn’t hear at the time, everything. Later she’ll analyze it for anything she missed at the time, for important information that could haunt them later, but for now it’s safely contained as ones and zeroes and can wait another day. She unhooks her personal laptop, and begins unhooking the extra TVs.
When she jumps out of the van, she sees Celia doing the same and grins at her. It’s nearly two in the morning, they smell like sweat, they look like shite, but they had a successful mission and they’re all home in one piece. All of them.
“What do you say we fuck this rubbish and go inside?” Polly suggests, and Celia’s tired smile is like the sun at the beach.
Peaches meets her at the door, once more dressed in a sleek black suit, not a hair out of place. Polly has never quite figured out how Posh-Totties do it. Celia puts a hand on her back and glides around her, mumbling something about tea and the library. Polly just waits for Peaches to say something.
“You always were the best operator,” she says finally, and Polly smiles. She hands over one of the flash drives, the other on a cord around her neck. It will not leave her neck until she puts it in her safe. Peaches pockets the drive and hands Polly a cup of coffee. “Kelly is sleeping, but Annabelle has asked to see you.”
Polly starts walking down the hall. She sees Chloe in the family room, curled up with both children in her lap, two armed guards standing in front of her. “Miss Fritton is allowing her visitors?”
“Miss Fritton isn’t being given a choice,” Peaches says, amused. “Besides, I think she just needed to see that Annabelle was fine. They’ll catch up later. Good job tonight, Polly. She’s waiting in your room.”
Peaches gives her a quick air kiss, runs her thumb over the ink tattoo that Polly has nearly forgotten about, and disappears back down the hall and into the family room. Polly begins her walk up the stairs, sipping her coffee, her mind whirling.
Before she graduated, Polly knew Annabelle for a grand total of six months. She doesn’t count the year on CCTV, since they couldn’t speak, and Annabelle couldn’t see her. Six months of friendship versus two years of absence can make a difference in one’s life, Polly knows. She sets the coffee mug down outside her bedroom door, knocks once, and walks inside.
Annabelle is sitting on her bed, looking awkward and sheepish. She looks up when Polly walks in, lights up, and wraps Polly in a hug so tight she isn’t sure that oxygen is reaching her brain.
It’s quite all right. She’s certain she’s suffocating Annabelle as well. She feels tears prick uncomfortably at her eyes, and she blinks them back hurriedly. When she pulls back from Annabelle, they both wipe at their eyes and smile.
“Before you say anything else,” Polly chokes out, “you have to tell me how in bloody hell you came to be driving my van.”
Annabelle laughs, but it sounds more like a snob. “They had a sniper on the roof that was following me. When your explosion went off, he lost me as I took cover behind your van. I slipped inside, told the driver to move aside, and pressed my ear to the wall and hoped to God I could hear you when you had her.”
Polly doesn’t even bother holding back the tears anymore. “And the final explosion?”
Annabelle smiles. “Well. I had an hour to kill while some friends arrived, and some old school lessons that came in mighty useful.”
They talk for an hour or two, then Annabelle disappears to her own bedroom and Polly catches up on some much needed sleep. When she wakes in the morning, it’s closer to the afternoon, and it’s because Hazel has crawled on top of her and mashed her stuffed giraffe in Polly’s face.
“What?” she yelps, eyes snapping open. Hazel gazes soberly at her, and slams Pickles, her giraffe, into Polly again. She untangles a hand from the covers as soon as possible and signs, “What, Hazel?” before Pickles can make his descent once more.
She sits up, and Hazel crawls into her lap. She gropes for her glasses, Hazel waiting patiently until she can see before signing, “Hungry.”
Polly starts to ask about Chloe, but remembers how exhausted everyone was last night, so instead scoops Hazel onto one hip, shoves her feet into slippers that must belong to Peaches because they’re pink and fluffy, and heads for the kitchen with a slobbery giraffe and hungry one-year-old in her arms.
The kitchen is deserted, so Polly sits Hazel on the counter closest to the refrigerator and, keeping one hand on her, rummages around for something a baby can eat. They go through bananas, cornflakes, peas, and corn before Hazel agrees to applesauce, and Polly decides to forego a bowl and just spoon feed it right out of the jar. She carries her over to the table, puts her in the high chair, and gets to work.
When Kelly walks in ten minutes later, she’s still trying to spoon feed Hazel and getting nowhere fast.
“Eat,” she signs desperately, and demonstrates. She hates applesauce.
“You hate applesauce,” Kelly comments drolly, and Polly looks up.
Her face is a mash of bruises, and she’s walking stiffly, but she’s walking, which is more than Polly was hoping for. Polly kicks out a chair for her, which she collapses into with a look of gratitude.
“I do hate applesauce,” Polly says, signing along with one hand. Hazel doesn’t sign much yet, but according to all the books Polly read on Deafness and BSL, language acquisition in Deaf toddlers is very similar to that in hearing toddlers; that is, they pick it up from the adults around them. “But according to the books I’ve read on raising children, sometimes if you show them how to do something, or that a food is good, they’ll mimic you.”
Kelly raises an eyebrow and then, with a glance at Hazel, raises her hands. “Your face doesn’t show good. It shows gross. Let me show her.”
She takes the spoon from Polly and scoops some applesauce from the jar. “Yummy,” she signs, and then eats it, making a production of loving it. Hazel immediately starts laughing and reaches for the spoon. Polly sighs, takes the spoon back from Kelly, and starts feeding a suddenly more enthusiastic Hazel.
“When did you learn to sign?” Polly asks, and Kelly shrugs, walking carefully over to the refrigerator and pulling out bowls of fruit. She walks back over and puts them on the table.
“When I heard what happened. I’m not any good; I had to learn on the go, so it’s all out of books. But it’s something, I guess. A start.”
She drops every third or fourth word, and her grammar is atrocious, but Polly is impressed that she tried to learn. Most of the others are at a slightly higher level; Chloe, Peaches, Chelsea, Polly, and Taylor are the only ones fluent in BSL.
“You’re not bad. Everyone else is about the same, and they’ve actually-”
Polly stops before she says it, but she’s said enough for it to be too late. Kelly waves a carefree hand, covered in scratches and bruises, shrugs and smiles at Polly, popping a strawberry between her teeth.
“Actually been here? I know.”
Polly puts down the spoon carefully, and folds her hands. Hazel looks at her, and then looks away. Chloe’s daughters know when to look away. “Kelly. That was not an accusation or a condemnation.”
“Not exactly absolution, either.”
“You don’t need it.”
Kelly eats a grape quietly, and Polly watches as she swallows. There is a burn on her neck. It makes her sick to think about it being put there.
“I made a right good mess of it, Polly. I dragged you and everyone else into it. And I couldn’t be the friend that I should have been.”
Polly rolls her eyes. “First of all, you couldn’t drag us into it. We were already there. We’re criminals, Kel. We’re on those lists for a reason. Second of all, I think the fact that you played double agent for three years in order to get us that list shows what sort of friend you are.”
Kelly and Polly stare at each other for a long time, Kelly searching Polly’s eyes for something that she will never find. Polly has been frustrated with Kelly over the years, has missed her horribly, and has occasionally hated playing Kelly’s game, but she knows that Kelly plays a long game, and that she gets results, and that above everything else, Kelly is a St. Trinian’s girl. To people like them, that means something.
That means not making your best friend cry.
“Ok,” Kelly says finally, sitting up and signing once more. Hazel notices the motion out of the corner of her eye and looks back from splashing Pickles with applesauce.
“Ok,” Polly signs, and sighs when she sees Pickles.
“So, we have this list, and only you have it, and what is the point of this whole mission again?” Taylor asks.
They are all sitting in the family room, spread out over whatever space is left available. Peaches had planned each of the safe houses to be huge, to encompass multiple families at a time, but she had never built one to encompass a horde of St. Trinian’s girls. Polly smiles to herself. She can already see Peaches planning another, bigger safe house, this one just for future runaway St. Trinian’s girls. A halfway house for adult criminals, she thinks to herself, and positions her hands over the keyboard, watching as numbers scroll across her screen.
“I collected all the information I could, not just on the girls,” Kelly explains. She sounds tired, but she’s leaning against Anoushka, Hannah is sitting on her lap, and Matron is pouring her a drink, so Polly isn’t worried. “I also found out everything that the agency had on them. All the evidence. And I tagged it. And now Polly is going to delete it, and they are never going to find a St. Trinian’s girl as long as they live.”
A cheer goes up around the room as Polly sifts through data, digging out the carefully tagged files. It’s her personal signature, the one she taught Kelly in her flat three years ago, before Kelly disappeared and all this began. It makes the process quicker and easier. She could find herself in any database in the world, but no one else could.
Miss Fritton is holding Annabelle’s hand and squeezing it, talking grandly to Matron about making a new school award, and Chloe is signing “criminal” and pointing to everyone in the room so that Hazel can learn a new word before she goes home. Celia is complaining about not being on the list and brainstorming with Peaches about what she can do to really take off in the world. Taylor is fussing over Andrea’s ankle, and Tara is bragging to Tania about her awesome new scar, which Tania claims isn’t as awesome as the one she has on her leg from when they blew up the philosophy classroom. Chelsea is painting Anoushka’s nails while telling Miss Dickinson about what she plans to do after University.
All in all, it sounds just like Polly thinks it should.
“And what will you do with the list that you made?” Andrea asks.
“I’ll be keeping it,” Peaches says. “They need to be protected, and eventually, they may need a job.”
“And if someone comes after it?” Miss Dickinson asks, the permanent frown line from her year at St. Trinian’s deepening. “There are still people who want it.”
Celia smiles serenely at her. “Miss Dickinson. In a competition between all the government agencies in the world, all the terrorists and assassins and rogue agents, and a bunch of former St. Trinian’s school girls, who do you think would win?”
Miss Dickinson coughs slightly and takes a sip of her tea. “Well, yes. I see your point. Peaches, perhaps it is best you keep it here.”
Polly finds the last file, separates it, and clears her throat. “This is it, girls. Four thousand and twenty-three files. Fifty-three St. Trinian’s alumni. God knows how many hours of hard work by the agency. All gone in three, two, one…”
She presses the delete button.
Another cheer fills the room, and she’s being hugged by so many people that she can’t tell the arms apart. She smiles and laughs and hugs back as tight as she can.
They’re not free. They’ll never be completely free so long as they’re criminals and St. Trinian’s girls and so long as there are people who try to hunt them down.
But looking around a room of happy, laughing, misfit women, Polly thinks that next time, they’ll be waiting.