Danny didn't want to go. He loved their house with its creaky floors and high windows with shutters you could close at night and attics you could explore. He liked living there, and the idea of far-off boarding school didn't appeal to him. He didn't even like the name of the school: Heston Oaks. He imagined it full of muscled goons who were good at sports and not much else.
Danny was too small to be good at sports, and got a hard time on the football pitch. When he thought about it, he got a hard time more or less all the time at school. His eyes and his general appearance were the targets of constant cruel jokes. Because of an accident during an operation when he was young, his eyes were different colors--one blue and one brown. And if that wasn't enough, his face was a kind of triangular shape, with a sharp chin, and he had pointy ears. Danny the Pixie was the mildest of his nicknames.
The abuse was one of the reasons, his parents said, that they had decided to send him to boarding school. He doubted that Heston Oaks was going to be any better--it would probably be worse. But his mother had visited the school, and said it was perfect for him.
It wasn't as if they were going to miss him, Danny thought bitterly. His father, a tall stooped man with a high forehead, was away at work most of the time. And even when he was home he would walk into a room and look at Danny for a moment before recognition dawned on him. He would flash a smile, grunt a hello and leave the room. Friday had been Danny's last day at school. Friendlier classmates had said goodbye to him at the gate, and he had got on the bus, realizing with surprise that he was going to miss the shabby old building with its run-down classrooms and potholed playground.The other students had waved, even the pupils who had tormented him, and he'd waved back and tried to smile.
That night he had lain awake, listening to the familiar noises the house made: the hot water pipes groaning, the loose slate that always rattled in the wind, the leaky drainpipe outside his bedroom window. He knew that he would be back at the end of term,but it felt as if he was leaving forever. Late at night, his bedroom door opened and light from outside the room fell on his face, and he was vaguely aware of his mother looking down on him. Then he went back to sleep.
Like his father, his mother was always busy. She was rarely home when he got back from school, and often went out at night, leaving him alone in the house. Danny was used to it. There was always cold meat in the fridge, or pizza in the oven. Besides, she always seemed to be present in some way. There was a hint of expensive perfume in the air, a silk shawl draped over a chair as if she had just left it there. It wasn't much as mother's love went, Danny thought, but it was what he was used to, and he couldn'timagine swapping it for a cold dormitory.
The weekend dragged. He woke on Sunday morning with a feeling of dread. His suitcase was packed and sat in the hallway. His father had left the night before. Danny's mother had had to remind him to say goodbye to Danny. He shook his son's hand, looked as if he was about to make a speech, then merely grinned at Danny, swept up his coat and bag and was gone. His mother spent most of the day on the phone, making plans, it seemed, for the week ahead, when she would be free. His father had arranged for a taxi to pick Danny up at the house at three. Danny waited in the hallway, sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Three o'clock came and went and there was no sign of the cab. Outside, the sky darkened and the wind tossed the trees in the garden.
An hour passed, and then two hours. His mother looked anxious.
"I really must . . ." She frowned and looked at her watch. She tried to phone Danny's father to check the arrangements, but he didn't answer. At six o'clock she came into the hallway. She was wearing her coat and gloves, and Danny's heart sank.
"Danny, I hate to leave you," she said, "but there is somewhere I absolutely have to be. You'll be able to wait for the cab on your own, won't you?"
He could feel hot tears prick his eyes, but he refused to cry in front of her, so he nodded dumbly. She crouched down in front of him and took his face in her hands.
"You're going to have a great time," she said gently. "It won't be easy at first--I know that--but you'll make friends and learn lots of things you wouldn't learn if you stayed here. Make sure and write every week if you can."
She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, and for a moment he felt enveloped by her soft hands and her perfume. She released him, stood up and walked to the door. She opened it. It was getting dark outside. The wind tugged at her coat, and behind her he could see the storm-tossed trees. She put her hand to her lips and blew him a kiss. For a moment he thought he saw her eyes shining a little too brightly in the hallway shadows. She put a gloved hand up to her face, then slipped through the doorway and was gone.
Danny heard the sound of her car starting and wheels crunching on the gravel driveway. He got up and went to the old gilt mirror on the wall and looked at his reflection, the different-colored eyes and the pointed chin, and wished that he was someone else.
It was dark when he saw the lights of a car coming up the drive. He went to the window. An old-fashioned black taxi pulled up at the curb. The trees were swaying wildly, and Danny could see rain and dead leaves being driven almost horizontally in the car'sheadlights. The driver got out and came up the front steps. Danny went to the door and opened it, having to struggle to hold it against the wind. The taxi driver seemed to fill the doorway. He wore a black greatcoat and a black cap, like a sailor's cap. A large and bristling mustache hid his mouth, and large dark eyebrows almost concealed his deep-sunk eyes. It was hard to tell what color they were, but they gleamed from a great depth. "Taxi," he said, his voice deep and graveled, then turned and walked back down the path and got into the cab. Danny took a last unhappy look round the hallway. He touched the familiar chipped wood of the banisters one last time, looked up into the darkness of the stairs that led to his room, then lifted his suitcase and closed the door behind him.
Outside, the wind tugged at the suitcase so that he could barely carry it. He waited for the driver to get out and help him put the case in the cab, but he didn't move, so Danny heaved it into the backseat and slid in. The driver swung the taxi out into the road, sending Danny thudding back against the leather armrest. By the time he had straightened himself and looked back, the house was no longer to be seen.
They drove along the country road until they reached the main road. Ten minutes later they were on the motorway, but after half an hour they turned off, onto an unfamiliar road. Danny looked out the window for landmarks, but the rain was so heavy he couldonly see blurred lights, and then, after a while, nothing at all.
"Is this the right way?" he asked. "I thought Heston Oaks was further down the motorway."
"Diversion," the driver said, almost growling the word. Danny wanted to ask more, but something about the man intimidated him. In fact, the whole situation was so strange he didn't know what to say. It was bad enough going to boarding school without all this: The musty cab interior. The silent driver. Even the cab radio seemed strange, a voice coming through every so often, as happens in a taxi, but the voice hissed and crackled more than normal so that you couldn't make out what it was saying. Although, if he hadn't known better, Danny would have said that it wasn't speaking English, but a jagged and alien-sounding tongue.
They drove for a long time. At first there were the lights of passing cars, and then there were no lights at all. The cab was unheated, and Danny's feet were frozen.
"How much further?" he asked. In reply the cabdriver reached behind him and slammed the little window between the driver and the back closed. Danny reached up and tried to open it again, but he couldn't. He rapped sharply on it. The cab man turned to look at him. Despite the darkness, Danny could see his eyes. Or rather, he could see a gleam deep in the sockets, and knew that the man was much older than he appeared, and full of grim knowledge. The man held Danny's gaze for what seemed far too long. How was he keeping the speeding car on the road? He turned slowly back to the steering wheel. Danny fell back against the seat. His heart was pounding, and the palms of his hands were wet. The engine note of the car rose to a kind of howl. Although he couldn't see anything out the window, he knew that they were traveling at tremendous speed. On they went, the driver hunched unmoving over the wheel, Danny gripping the door handle, hardly able to believe what was happening.
"Checkpoint!" he heard the driver say.
And then suddenly the engine note started to fall, the cab decelerating quickly so that Danny was thrown forward. The glass partition shot back. The cab man's hand grabbed the front of Danny's shirt and hauled him up to the opening. Those eyes met his again, like chips of light in a dark tunnel.
"If you breathe a word, it'll be the last," the cab man said, almost in a whisper, his voice laden with menace. Danny was closer than he wanted to be to a face that was veined and wattled, with a big nose, and teeth that looked like tombstones. Danny nodded dumbly, and made a zipping motion across his lips.
"Not a word," he wheezed, half strangled, "promise." The cab man released him. Danny could see lights up ahead, as if someone was carrying a torch. The cab slowed to a halt. There was a sharp rapping on the driver's window, and the cab man slowly wound it down. A torch was shone into the driver's face. Danny found himself sliding across the seat to the far side of the cab.
"Good evening, Mr. Fairman," a clipped military-sounding voice said. The cab man grunted in reply. Danny could see the hand that held the torch, the jacket cuff above it like that of a uniform. The torch swung toward Danny. He held one hand up to his faceto ward off the dazzling light.
"A human cargo tonight, Mr. Fairman?" the voice said, an oily quality creeping into it. Once again the cab man didn't reply.
"And a suitcase? What is in the suitcase, Mr. Fairman? No breaches of the treaty, I hope?" Danny made to speak, then remembered what Fairman had said.
"None of your business, Sranzer," the cab man said gruffly.
"You will let me search the vehicle."
"You know that those given passage are outside your jurisdiction. You can't touch anything. Now get out of my way, I'm in a hurry."
"It's my job to make sure the treaty isn't broken."
"Be about your business, Sranzer, you know I'm the only one allowed to cross these days," the driver growled. The torch moved away, and the cab shot forward. Danny caught a glimpse of a cold, pale face at the window, and then it was gone.
"What was that?" he gasped. "Who was he?"
"Never mind who he is," Fairman said.
"I don't understand," Danny said. "What's going on?"
But instead of replying, Fairman floored the accelerator. If the cab had been moving quickly before, then the speed was blinding now. Danny was thrown from side to side, and the vibration was so great that he could hardly see. He didn't know how long this went on. It seemed like hours. He closed his eyes and wedged himself in the corner of the cab and tried to shut out the noise of the engine and the wind whistling past outside. Then, with a great shudder, the noise stopped.
Danny opened one eye, then cautiously stretched his cramped limbs. He looked out the window. They were on a long avenue that wound upward. To either side there were trees, their dark limbs covered in lichens. As the car went upward the trees began to give way, and the cab was driving through lawns. In the headlights he saw moss-covered urns standing on plinths. And then the drive turned to the left and the headlights swept across a large building five or six stories high, its weathered front punctuated withmany diamond-paned windows. There were turrets spiraling up into the sky, and buttresses, and niches containing statues. Ancient ivies clung to the redbrick walls, hiding much of the building from view. The roof met the walls in many different shapes and at many angles, and great tangles of ivy hung from the guttering, obscuring the upper stories. Imposing stone steps led down from large oak doors in the middle of the building, and it was in front of these that the cab jolted to a halt.
"Where are we?" Danny asked. "This doesn't look like a school. . . ."
"This is as far as I'm paid to take you," Fairman replied, getting out of the cab. He opened the rear driver's-side door, grabbed Danny's case and threw it onto the steps.
"But I don't even know if I'm in the right place. . . ."
Danny scrambled toward the door. Anything was better than another minute in Fairman's cab. His feet hit the gravel in front of the building and he looked up at it. It could be a school, he supposed. And in fact, when he looked, he saw a weathered sign over the door saying reception.
"Is this where I'm supposed to go?" he asked.
"I don't know anything about that. I was paid to bring you over and I brought you," Fairman said. He leaned over Danny until his face was just inches away, his gleaming eyes the only spark of light in his dark bulk. "I done what I was paid to do," he growled once more.
The taxi man swung away from him, and before Danny could do or say anything, Fairman had leapt into the driver's seat of the car and slammed the door. The black cab turned hard, sending gravel flying in all directions, and sped off the way it had come, leaving Danny staring after its taillights. A gust of wind struck him in the face and he realized how cold and hungry he was. There was nothing for it. He lifted the suitcase and marched up the steps. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Ring of Five by Eoin McNamee. Copyright © 2010 by Eoin McNamee. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.