At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.
Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.
He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.
Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.
Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.
“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.
“No,” Mark replied. “You?”
“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”
There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”
“What did you do before?”
“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”
“Nuffin’,” Mark said.
Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.
Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”
“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”
Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.