Chapter 18

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Danielle gapes openmouthed as a riot swirls around the stage. She can't believe how fast it happened. The moment the police lines broke, the demonstrators became a mob, a whirlpool of violence and chaos, and an eddy current has already surrounded them. The stage was placed not far from the police barricades, a media move, to ensure that TV cameras would capture the menacing ranks of gendarmes in riot gear looming behind the speakers. That placement now seems like a major mistake.

Small knots of police battle black bloc members all around the stage, while around them, a frightened melee of protestors try to get out of one another's way. Clouds of light-coloured smoke rise from the Esplanade, mostly where the crowd is thickest. Tear gas, Danielle realizes. A darker cloud of smoke is visible closer, between the stage and the police lines, and pale flames flicker beneath. Danielle recognizes the smell. Burning gasoline. Some of the black blocs must have brought Molotov cocktails.

The smoke-smeared scene by the barricade line looks like a vision of civil war. Police with their backs to a wall, gas masks making them look like giant menacing insects, fire into a crowd of protestors with bullets Danielle devoutly hopes are rubber. The gunshot sounds are lost in the roar of the crowd. A half-dozen black bloc members, in gas masks of their own, regroup, shouting at one another, one of them on a cell phone, apparently waiting for instructions. A dozen police surround a pair of wounded comrades, one with a visibly broken leg, bent at a sickening angle, the other a small woman with bloodsoaked blonde hair, weeping and covering her eyes with her hands, affected by the gas after her mask was torn off. Civilian protestors with useless rags tied around their eyes, their cheeks awash with tears, stumble blindly around, moaning with pain, arms extended and groping like zombies in a horror film, colliding or tripping and tumbling hard to the ground. A woman in a peace-symbol T-shirt sits wide-legged on the concrete with a comical expression like she just remembered something amazing, clutching her stomach and trying to breathe. Danielle thinks of the lathi she was struck with in India and winces with sympathy.

"We need to get out," Estelle says. Danielle didn't notice her appearing. Almost everyone on the stage has clustered in the middle, in front of the big screen, as far away from the fighting as they can get. Danielle has stayed in the back corner, looking for an opening in the brawl, an avenue of escape.

Danielle nods. Just beyond the edge of the stage, maybe five feet in front of her, the tops of their heads level with her feet, two men in black with crowbars and body armour exchange blows with two gendarmes armed with clubs and plastic shields. She can hear the grunts as they swing their weapons. She can't believe they are actually trying to hurt one another. Far easier to believe it is some type of paintball game or Medieval Times re-enactment.

"We just have to wait, it'll cool down," Danielle says.

Estelle shakes her head. "I mean before the tear gas hits. We're no use if we're blind. It's drifting this way."

Danielle looks over her shoulder. The crowd has been thickened by the thousands flooding out of the Tour EDF, many of whom have been swept up in the confusion of the riot. The cloud drifting towards the stage isn't so much a colour as a visible shimmer, like heat-warped air on a hot summer day. A wave of humanity flees before it, many of them clutching their faces as if they mean to tear their eyes out. When the front line hits the stage it shudders as if struck by an earthquake. Danielle realizes to her horror that people are being crushed against the stage's scaffolding as others climb desperately over them and onto the stage.

"Now," Estelle says sharply. The four warriors have moved twenty feet away. There is another whorl of chaos on the other side, a half-dozen ordinary protestors with no weapons or armour clawing and kicking two gendarmes barely able to keep their feet in the chaos, but there is a little space between. Danielle vaults down, lands on all fours. Estelle does the same, stumbles but rights herself, and they join the escaping protestors, a panicky throng, half-blinded, keening with pain and terror. About twenty seconds after joining this mob Danielle realizes it was the worst thing they could have done.

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