Bitter Pill – 15.11

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I took notes in a notebook I had borrowed while I watched people come and go from the local jail.

We were a twenty minute walk from the Academy center and I could hear the noise the students were generating.  Smoke was rising from one point, and the riot was in full swing.  Only a few thousand students, all in all, but they weren’t happy.

The people I’d gathered for this particular task looked restless.  They wanted and expected to be out there, working alongside the rioters.

These were the delinquents, along with Rudy and Possum.  I’d given Rudy the task of finding Possum’s friend and told him to meet up with me later, and he’d ended up bringing her with.  The friend hadn’t been found, and she had decided to stick around.

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her being a part of this, but I could only do so much at one time.

A carriage pulled up.  Two security officers strongarmed someone who looked like they’d taken a combat drug.  They weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last.  Combat drugs were cost effective for a small Academy like this one.

I made a note, circled the description and drawing of the guard driving the carriage, and drew lines connecting it to other mentions.  I drew a cross-hatch and made a line connect it to the cheek of his drawn face.

Looking around, I saw Rudy standing close by.  I moved his arm, checked his watch, and then went back to my notebook to add a note about the time.  Two o’clock shadow.

Rudy, looking over my shoulder, commented, “When I first saw you taking notes, I thought it was a good thing.  Then I looked and I saw what you were actually doing, and I lost all of the confidence I’d gained in you and then some.”

I looked down at my notebook.  There were drawn faces with key features for distinguishing the guards, with nicknames attached.  Text was organized into blocks, and shapes, symbols such as circles, diamonds and triangles served as shorthand.  Lines connected ideas, with some thinner, some thicker or reinforced, and some unintentionally sketchy.  More shorthand shapes surrounded or were drawn to intersect different parts of what I’d laid out.  It was a very crowded page.

I turned the page over, tilting my head to look at the image on the backside.  Lines extended to the edge of the page and wrapped around to refer to text and the sketched out image of the jail itself.

“It’s not that bad,” I said.  “My memory is a weak point, and sometimes when I’m juggling something bigger I’ll do this so I don’t need to devote as much brainspace to doing what I’m doing.  A representation of my thinking.”

“You have very disorganized thinking,” Rudy commented.

“It’s actually very organized,” I said.  “Look, see, this shape-”

“Upside-down ‘L’ shape?”

“A gun, come on,” I said, annoyed.  “See the trigger?”

“It’s very sketchy, so it’s hard to tell.”

“It’s sketchy because I’m not sure if the gun exists.  But the way the scowling man carries himself and wears his jacket, I’m reasonably sure, so it gets a mention.  So there’s a gun, and it’s drawn with a line connecting it to the block of text about his behavior.  He’s aggressive.  We’ve seen him three times.  Always the first one to the carriage, right?  He’s like a stitched fresh from the wire, despite the scruff on his cheeks suggesting he got up early this morning.  And the line passes through this text-”

“Which makes the text hard to read, I have to say.”

“Exactly!  On purpose!  Because that’s text about his buddy, and I put the text there in advance so I could sort of cross it out if I wanted to, which I suspected I might do.  Now look how it also touches the down-triangle.”

Rudy screwed his eyes into a fierce squint.

“Okay, so the down triangle is weakness.  Just like up triangles are strengths and diamonds are resources and so on.  All very logical when you think about it.”

Rudy stared at it, his eye searching the page.  I turned the page to show him how it connected to the back.

“Nah,” he decided.

“Yah!” I countered, emulating his tone.  “Now look, here’s the neat part.  Draw a curve, imagine a line, a course of action that touches on all these shapes in a row.  Down triangle, down triangle, down triangle, down triangle… all of it clustered around things that relate to this side of the building.  See where I’m going with this?”

“Nah.”

“This is how we break them.  The up arrows, their advantages, like gun, like this carriage tends to have a lot of uniforms, they flow this way.  It crosses here-”

“I think,” Rudy interrupted me, “That the longer you try to explain it to me, the less I”ll understand it or believe in you.”

I frowned at him.

“I think,” he said, very firmly, as if he wanted to soften the blow.

“I need you to concede that it’s actually a brilliant piece of work.  Then I’ll leave you alone,” I said.

“Hmm,” he said.  “I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt.”

“Okay,” I said.  I paused.  “Tell me it’s really quite sophisticated.”

“That might be stretching the truth.”

“Lie to me if you have to.  I just want to hear it.”

“It’s not a lie either,” he said.  “But fine.  It’s really quite sophisticated.”

I grinned.

I glanced at my delinquents, then turned a few pages in the notebook, looking over my notes for them.  A list of faces, names, nicknames, and some names underlined where I’d remembered them long enough to write them down.  Rudy was one.

“Why does someone as smart of you need a cheat sheet for the people working under him?”

“Like I said, my memory isn’t great,” I said.  I glanced at the delinquent king and the top rooftop girl, then checked the sheet.

“I have down triangles around my head.”

“Yep,” I said.  I moved my hand so my thumb blocked the associated text.  “You have up triangles too.”

“You don’t need to block the words.  I can’t read your handwriting,” Rudy said.

I snapped my head around to look at him.  “Hey.  Just struck me, how’s our Possum doing?”

“She’s good.”

“Why don’t you check on her?” I asked.

“If you want me to go away, I’ll go away,” Rudy said.

“No, no,” I said, lying.  “But why don’t you go check on her?  Help her keep watch.  I don’t want her to be alone for any long stretches.”

“Arright,” Rudy said.

“Glad to have you with,” I said, as he walked away.  “Really.  Thanks.”

His reply was unintelligible.

I looked down at the notebook, then made a note by Rudy’s face.

Honest.  Calls me on my shit.

I spent longer than I would have liked to admit when it came to deciding what kind of triangle to draw.  I ended up drawing two overlapping ones.

The delinquent king was Neck.  He made a pair with Bea, the top rooftop girl.  They were, by the whisperings I’d caught and a number of observations I’d made, a troublesome pair when put together, and hard to put apart.  From the moment that we’d gotten this show on the road, they’d been a pair.  Old colleagues, friend rather than fancy, and each one prone to making the other behave badly.

Bea was the top girl because the others were scared of her when she was alone.  She was far scarier when paired with Neck.  She had been over the top angry long before this whole thing unfolded, I suspected, and Neck was fuel on the fire.  She validated him and I suspected she knew him better than anyone and she remained fond of him, which had to matter a lot to him, when he was an odd sort.

When just about anyone he knew talked to him, they used a different nickname, with only Neck really coming up more than once or twice.  Neck, Cake, Ethel, Nook, Nookie, and one I hadn’t quite heard straight that might have been ‘Vamp’ or Van or Vam.  The ‘Neck’ nick was more to do with the slang for kiss than for being a thick-necked Bruno.  He was as skinny as I was, just as well dressed, but he was also tall and good looking.

I’d seen some of his type in Tynewear.  Unusual and he carried a knife to defend his unusualness.

Which was enough said.

“Neck,” I said.  “Bea.  How would you like to set some fires today?”

Bea smiled in response, eyes glittering.

“Or throw a can of gas and place it exactly where we need it?”

“My throwing arm is better than his,” Bea said.

“My girl is a chronic liar,” Neck said, putting an arm around Bea’s shoulders, closer to a headlock than a gesture of affection, pulling her off balance.  “I’ll do the throwing.”

“I was on a sports team, once upon a time,” Bea said, hand on Neck’s chest.

They could only easily and comfortably do the one-arm headlock and hug and the hand on the chest because there was no attraction between them.

“Once upon a time,” Neck ruminated on the words.  “I hate to break it to you, Bea knees, but you’re the furthest thing from a fairy tale princess, and I’m still better at throwing.”

“If you mess this up, I’ll never let you live this down,” she threatened him.

I retrieved the last of my gas canisters, a mason jar and a bottle, and handed them over.

“The jar goes at the base of that window there.  Throw it hard enough that it breaks.  Hold on to the bottle.  If they come in with horses, hm..”

I paused, looking over my notes.  I held the book so others couldn’t see it.

“What about the horses?” Neck asked.

“Okay, hold on to it for the second batch of horses.  I need you to go find a carriage with a stitched horse.  Pay the owner…”

I trailed off, grabbing my wallet, and I handed over a wad of bills.

“…And then wait.  When they pull up with a horse and carriage, that’s when we start.  You throw the jar, I’ll do my thing, and then we wait.  When we’re reasonably sure they’ve mustered their forces, you take the carriage you bought, and you get that horse riding straight for the carriage they parked out front.  Are you with me so far?  Collision course.”

“Doable.  We just set it going and hop off?”

“Yep.  Set it on fire at some point before it arrives.  It’ll be more dramatic.  Then scram, get that head start.  If they come after you with another carriage and horses, throw down the bottle.  It’ll muck them up.”

“Got it,” Bea said.

“I need some bodies stationed on rooftops.  Pick out your capable people, get them to figure out which ones they can access.  Spread them out.  The rooftops need to be ones where they can actually climb up, yeah, but also where they can hide until later or where they can easily un-access.  It kind of defeats the purpose of a jail breakout if half of us end up getting caught and imprisoned.  You get caught here, the odds aren’t good… not that they’re liable to keep anyone or everyone either way.  I don’t think they can afford to, with the hit they’re about to take.”

“You want the rooftop girls on the rooftops?” Bea asked, with a smile.

I blinked.  “I didn’t even make the connection.  Yes.  Absolutely.  Three major hand signs, like this, this, and this.  For danger, caution, and clear.”

“I’ll pass it on,” Bea said.

“Excellent.  We’ll make rebels out of you yet.”

Neck said, “We’re already rebels.  But if you make us rebellion and don’t make us regret it, then that’s perfect.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “I told you where to meet when all is said and done, if anyone gets split up, or when you’ve burned one horse carriage and smoked any pursuers?”

“This would be the third time you’ve asked,” Bea said.  “We got it.”

“Good,” I said.  I looked around.  “Get to it.  I’ll see you there.”

Rudy and Possum were together, approaching.

“A task for you, Rudy,” I said.  “I need you to go to this address.  Check the coast is clear, that you can go there without any fuss.  We’re going to start gravitating in that direction over time.  If there are any problems, then, hm…”

Rudy waited patiently.

I got my bag, rummaged in it, and got chalk.

“Big, bold, white letters on an easy to see surface.  Write ‘I love rabbits.'”

“Rabbits?” Possum asked.

“Absolutely.  Then just hang out around there.  The rabbit will find you.  Tell him what’s going on, and he’ll let everyone important know, myself included.”

Rudy gave me a long, critical look.

“The rabbit is real,” I said.  “I promise.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But don’t call him a rabbit.  I mean, he’s clearly a rabbit, but don’t call him a rabbit.”

Rudy returned to the long, critical look.

I avoided the look by turning my attention to Possum.  “How are you managing?”

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said.  Then she amended it to, “Really overwhelmed.”

“Don’t be,” I said.  “I won’t promise I won’t put you in the line of fire, because every time I say that, I do the opposite.  So just rest assured I have no plans to put anyone in danger that doesn’t want to be in danger.”

“Plans,” Rudy said.

I glanced at him, then back to Possum.  “I’ll have you know that I showed my plans to Rudy, and he said they were downright sophisticated.

“I did,” Rudy said, with zero enthusiasm.

Possum nodded.

“Want to be on watch?” I asked her.  “Or I can send you somewhere further away.”

“Can I go with him?” Possum asked.

I looked at her, then at Rudy.

Was there a line extending between them?  Was it sketchy or bold or both?

“I want to see the rabbit you’re talking about,” she said.  “Who gets very easily offended.  I’m imagining something adorable.”

I thought of Pierre.  Adorable wasn’t what came to mind.  The head that looked like a badly taxidermied rabbit head, expression that of a rabbit mid-stroke, eyes bugging out, the sheer height of him, and how it all made him an eerie figure…

“He’s a good friend and an excellent messenger…” I said, trailing off.  I tried to think of a way to put it politely.  Pierre was a friend, but he was a queer one, and I didn’t like to talk poorly of friends, in case it got around to them.  Especially when it came to dealing with more sensitive recruits, who would hear me say something negative about one person and then imagine me saying things about them behind their backs.

So, how to say that Pierre was a bit disconcerting, without calling him disconcerting?  How did I outright reject the notion that he was ‘cute’?

“Sylvester,” Bea said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I gave the instructions to the girls.  They’re going to the rooftops now.  Neck is looking for the carriage.”

“Good,” I said.  “Other groups are in place?  Ready to cause a stir?”

She nodded.

“That should be my cue to get going.  I don’t want to let things get ahead of me.  Do buy the carriage, don’t steal it and pocket the money.  I’ll know.”

She gave one pocket of her coat a pat.  “There’s a reason I have the money.  I know Neck.  I’ll do things as instructed.  You’ve already stressed how important that is.”

I nodded.

I turned my attention to Rudy and Possum.  “Go on.  No need to hang around on my account.  Be good, be safe.  No need to be adventurous.”

Rudy nodded.  I watched them go, and saw how he talked with Possum.

That was nice.  They were probably talking about me, but that was nice.

I turned my attention to the jail, and looked down at my notebook.

I missed Jessie.  Jessie would have been useful here.  Timing, layout, it was the key element missing from my notes.  I could write things down and I could intuit, but I couldn’t do what Jessie did.  I couldn’t even approximate what Jessie did.

Jessie recalled things and was slow to adjust.

I was quick at adjustment, but I didn’t recall.

Let’s do this fast, do it well, and impress the new recruits.

I chose my angle carefully as I approached the station.  I crossed the street using a path that would let only barred windows see me.  The people on the other side would be the jailed rather than the jailers.  I then walked so my arm brushed against the side of the building, casually and calmly, too close to the ground to be easily seen from any of the windows overhead.

Grabbing the edge of a planter, I dragged it ten feet and moved it further from the building.  It made noise, but that was a minor thing.  It held a shrub, but the cold weather had stripped it of half its leaves.  The remainder littered the planter itself.

I did the same for the next planter, then another.

Through the wall and window, I heard the screech of a chair on floor and I ducked back and hugged the wall.  I moved on quickly, no doubt while curious eyes scanned the area and tried to figure out what the sound had been.

Delinquents and rooftop girls huddled on rooftops and standing in alleys across the street watched, puzzled.

I circled around to the other side of the building, and I found the side building of the jail where carriages were often parked.  There was only space for two carriages and their horses.  It was empty, the door to outside open, the door to inside secured.

I’d hoped that some of the horses here would be living ones, and that there would be hay and other things.  But the spaces where the horses would stand were unsecured, the floor hayless, and the wall set up with the wires and connectors required to provide a voltaic charge to the systems of a stitched.

I had to climb up a bit to get to a good vantage point to reach the wires.  I then started hauling them free of the wall.  They were secured into place with wooden pegs, which were nailed to the wall in turn, but the nails and the pegs were designed to bear the weight of the wire, not the weight of an adolescent male pulling in a complete other direction.

The peg popped out of the wall.  My weight dropping to the ground helped pull another two down.

From there, I had enough slack to free the remainder of the wire.  A bit of twisting, unwinding, pulling, and general abuse got the length of wire free.  It thrummed in my hand, sometimes even feeling uncomfortably thrummy, depending on where I touched the wire.

Awkward, awful stopgap technologies.

I went to work, rigging one coil of wire to the door handle, my heart pumping as I worked.  I wrapped the insulated part around first, then, working carefully, touching only the insulated parts, I guided the exposed end through to knot it, and into the gap between knob and door fixture.

The other set of wire, I worked to pin against the floor, using tools and other stray items.  I made sure that it was sufficiently exposed.

Then I emptied the buckets of chemicals for the stitched onto the floor of the stable, backing away swiftly as the puddle grew.

As the puddle reached the wire on the ground, there was a violent crackle, fizzle, and pop.  It continued making all sorts of little violent noises as I backed swiftly away, moving on.

Stepping out, I could see girls on the rooftops here and there.  They had arms out, and they were gesturing.

The carriages were coming.

I moved quickly.

The one proper exit that wasn’t through the front door had been booby trapped.  Next were the planters.  I piled up the leaves I scavenged from piles on the ground, containing them in the planters.  The dry fall leaves and the wood made for fine tinder.  The near-dead shrubs themselves would burn, hopefully.

The repositioned planters produced smoke, and the smoke blew near and in front of windows.  It made for a more dramatic effect.

I moved on.  Past the stable, circling around to the back of the building.

I could hear the curses and swears.  There were shouts.

The jar had been thrown.

I scaled the wall while the attention of the jail’s staff was on the front of the building and the smoke to the side.

There were only a few windows without any bars over them.  One was high up.  It was locked, but I could handle locks.

I had relied on intuition here, spotting the window and reasoning where it might lead, and intuition had served me well.  The office was nice, spacious, and had windows on two sides.  The door was heavy and fortified.  There were filing cabinets along the wall, and there was a great deal of paperwork across the desk, which had two different lamps on it.

I looted the drawers, found nothing, and moved on, unlocking and opening the door just enough to peer outside, before opening it wide.

With everything going on, the same people who would be staffing the jail would be handling the riot or getting the last few batches of people that had been put into custody.  Even with all hands now on deck, the staff being stretched thin and the distraction at the front and side meant that I had a clear path.

I walked through the staff area with no trouble.  I checked desks and the coats that were on pegs until I found a keyring.  With this many keys, I knew what it was for.

Outside, I heard the crash as the burning carriage collided with the other carriage.  I heard running footsteps, and stepped behind a filing cabinet as three men in uniform ran past.

Three men, I made a mental note.

I found the area with the cells.

Half of the occupants wore school uniforms.  Rioters.  Delinquents.

Some voices raised as they saw me, and I raised a hand, shushing them.  Too late.

“Shut up!” a guard called out.  He hadn’t left with his friends.  “Who’s there!?”

The ones inside were armed with sticks, not guns.  I stayed where I was, facing the man.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.  “Did you get out of your cell?”

I stretched a bit, rolling my shoulders, giving him my darkest stare.

He reached for his belt, and he drew his truncheon.

The student council president and vice president were standing at the bars of their cell, watching.  There were two members of the Greenhouse Gang that had been spreading the word, and there were others who looked more like delinquents.  Ones we’d had stirring the pot.

They’d done a good job to work against what we were trying to do.

“If I don’t get a good answer out of you, I’m going to have to take measures,” the guard said.  He smacked the truncheon into one palm, then, stone faced, stern, he added, “Don’t make me take measures, kid.  It’s been a shitty enough day already, I don’t want some kid with the teeth smashed out of his face on my conscience.

There was a progression.  Two access points to the building.  The disaster happened at the front.  The prison’s carriages were parked out front so that prisoners had the shortest possible walk to the front door.  The collision, with luck, would make accessing the door hard.  Fire had a way of scaring people.

They would realize what was up.  That this was a distraction, all arranged.  They would pass around the side, possibly running into others, who were investigating the burning shrubs, too far away from the building for the fire to actually set the building itself aflame.  The carriage out front might, but there would be enough people out there that they’d probably handle it before it got too bad.

They would reach the side of the building, and they would see the water, the wires, the crackling.

As a trap, it was mild.  But in terms of getting the result and effect I wanted…

I spread my arms, dramatic.

“What’s this?” he asked.

I waited, patient.

“Final warning, boyo.”

He took a step toward me, and when I didn’t scare, he took another.

Eight seconds had passed from when I’d raised my arms.

If this went on for too much longer, I was going to look so dumb.

The power went out, the lights dying abruptly, with nary a flicker.  Disabling the booby trap and freeing them to enter the building.

“There we go,” I said.  I chuckled, loud, mocking, and the prisoners picked up the sound, laughing as well, cheering.

The sound covered my running footsteps as I moved to one side of the man, using darkness and gloom to make myself hard to track.

He wasn’t looking at me.  His eye was on the walls of prisoners.

I stuck my elbow out, hand braced at my shoulder, and drove myself full force into his lower stomach.  He crashed into the bars of the nearest cell.

Hands reached out and grabbed him, pulling at uniform, seizing his arms.

“Hold him.  Keep him safe.  We’re going to want to use our hostages carefully.  Student council, if you’d take these?”

I threw the keys to the student council’s cell.  Then I got another ring of keys from the guard we’d secured.

By the time the three men returned to the cells with the rest of the group with them, half of the cells had emptied and more were in the works.

Standing with only the light from a scant few windows illuminating us, I gave the signal, and it got a response from both sides.  The guards ran, and the prisoners charged.

I tucked my notebook in between the waist of my slacks and my side, fixed my jacket to cover it, drew my weapon, and led the exodus from the jail.

A few more recruits, now.

The student council fell in step with me.

Time to check on Jessie and Fray.

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Bitter Pill – 15.10

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“Stop!  Stop!  Give me a chance to speak!”

His voice was nearly drowned out by the crowd.

“I’m as angry as you are!”

I wasn’t sure that was possible or likely.  The mass of students who had gathered in the street between the dormitories and the classrooms were pretty upset.

This was a special kind of hurt, to take someone’s hopes and dreams, already tested a number of times over, stretched out over years, dash them to the rocks.  That special sort of pain and loss demanded to be expressed, yet the very fact that it was being experienced by everyone here made it impossible to do so.

How could someone turn to a friend for support when that friend was in the exact same position?  How did one shout to vent their anger when they went unheard with so many other shouting voices around them?  How did they find release in tears when their tears were but drops in a bucket?

It was a situation that would have left countless students floundering and frustrated to begin with, and rather than feed into the anger, the crowd was feeding into that frustration.  It was an important and interesting distinction.

I wondered what Mauer would think or do here.

The student council vice president was standing off to one side, while the treasurer took the ‘stage’ – a set of stairs by one of the dormitories.  She was a very feminine and demure looking girl with straight black hair.  The sidelong glance she gave me said a lot, however, about the thought processes going on in her head.

She knew this wasn’t working, but she wasn’t getting flustered.

“Listen!” the student council treasurer belted out the word, pushing his voice to its limit.  But the body of students already had some who were shouting at that volume or close to it.

Not a proper unified body, but a collection of individuals.  The school had made it so, pitting them against one another.

I beckoned the vice president.

I was around a corner, so only a small few students saw as she came to stand a short distance from me.

“You either have a great deal of trust in me,” I told her, “Or you still feel you can seize control of this situation.”

With the clamor, I doubted she heard everything I said.  She seemed to infer my meaning well enough.

She had to lean in close to my ear to make herself heard, “About fifteen percent the first, eighty-five the second.”

I pulled out the letters, took a mostly blank paper and tore off enough that there was no writing on the paper that was left.  I scribbled a note on it, folded it in three, and showed her before leaning in closer to tell her, “Take over.  Tell them this to get their attention.  Say what I told the treasurer to say.  Then direct them.”

Speaking into her ear, I could see over her shoulder.  The student council president was standing by the stairs, watching us very intently.  He was a skinny guy, but with immaculate attention to his appearance.  Anyone else might have looked a little stiff with their brown hair so neatly parted and their academy so crisp, face like stone, but he managed to look regal.

Recruiting the student council had been easy as pie.  I’d headed over to the stretch of lawn by the water, told them things had started, and they had been mine.

Things were never all that easy, however.  I’d talked to Ralph from the Greenhouse Gang, who had once been a part of the student council, and things left unsaid had left a loose thread of thought untied in my head, drifting this way and that, grazing against everything I saw and everyone I met, looking for a conclusion.  Now I suspected I’d found it.

The groups of this particular Academy fell on a spectrum, and the student council was on the opposite end from the Rank.  The rooftop girls were close to the Rank in disposition and attitude toward the school, yes, but when Gordon Two had said that the student council and the Greenhouse Gang didn’t mingle much, there was likely more to it.

There was a gulf, and this petite, beautiful young lady of good grooming was likely the culprit.

“When you go up,” I said, “Bring the student council president with you.”

“United front?” she asked.

“Something like that,” I said.  “Take the paper.  Hold it, but don’t show them and don’t say there’s proof because that’s going to be letter number three.  But it’ll be something the crowd can fixate on.  Don’t swear, don’t incite them too much, and try not to point fingers.  They’re incited enough.”

She took the letter.  “I don’t cuss.”

“You might be tempted to in an effort to win over the crowd.  But it’ll be the whipcrack that sets the horse running, and you might get dragged down into that stampede.”

She gave me a nod, then walked off, still giving no evidence of the agitation that seemed to have struck everyone else.  For anyone else it might have looked curious that she could be so calm.  For her, it was part of her mystique.  I watched carefully as she put her hand lightly on the student council president’s arm, and he was brought along as if she was a giant with an iron grip.  His eyes, however, were on me.

Calculating, suspicious.

The vice president of the student council was a breaker of hearts, it seemed.  I could piece together where things stood.  Ralph, the heavyset, glasses-wearing member of the Greenhouse Gang was number two in the student rankings and the student council president there was number one, while this young lady was number four or five, and yet they were subordinate to her when it came to their hearts and her ability to toy with them.  Perhaps Ralph had escaped.  Perhaps he’d put some distance between himself and her because he knew he hadn’t.

The crowd drew a little quieter as the pair joined the treasurer at the top of the stairs.  They were joined by the secretary, boy’s rep and girl’s rep.

The vice president held up the paper I’d given her, pinching one corner of it so it stood up and out from her hand.  She waited patiently.

The shouting boiled down.

“Thank you,” she said.  She gave the paper a little shake.  A few hundred eyes watched it move, curious.  “The Academy knew what was happening and they prepared for it.  They invited security from other Academies to come here because they knew we would be upset.  Some of us have already seen a lot of unfamiliar faces wearing security uniforms and moving in large groups.  There were going to be more a month from now.”

The crowd was hers.  The scenario she was painting was clear in their minds.  The fact that she knew meant she had answers they wanted.  She could have told them the Academy planned to murder them all, and they might have believed her for a long moment.

She remained seemingly at ease as she laid out the facts.  “In the meantime, they planned to deal with any students who they thought might cause any particular trouble, lock down the labs so we couldn’t access our experiments.  They would have broken the news to us in a way that they could manage.  I can tell you this because we knew.  We put the letter up on the bulletin board, by way of a colleague.”

Murmurs and concern swept over the crowd.

Before it could take hold, before the crowd could direct that pent up frustration at the student council, the student council president took a half step forward, raising his hands.  The murmuring died down.

“We heard whispers before the semester even started, we found out for certain only a month ago.  We’ve been debating this for a long time and when we came to a decision, we decided to do it this way.  So you could all know and you could make your decisions instead of the Academy making it for you.”

It was so nice to work with people who were good at what they did.  Both student council president and vice president were people who had talked to crowds before.  They’d been filled in before this, and they adapted to new information and necessities easily.

Not on Mauer’s level, obviously, but I really liked how the vice president had worked the mention of the experiments being locked away in the middle of that one statement, then moved away from it.  I’d written it down to get her to drop that seed, but she had actually done it gracefully enough that she had to have known what it was I was intending.

“Our focus has always been you students,” the student council vice president said.  She raised her voice where I imagined Mauer might have lowered it to sound more intimate.  She clenched a fist and it seemed somewhat ineffectual.  But there was honesty in her not being perfect.  “I know that sounds sappy and lame, and a lot of you won’t believe me.  We have spent hours and hours down on the knoll where we meet, debating what we can do for you.  For a lot of you, we’re the only people who have rooted for you that aren’t your families, and we’ll be the only ones who root for you until you build a family for yourselves.  We wanted this school to be a good school for all of us.”

I winced a bit at that last segment.  Family wasn’t what we needed people to be focusing on when we were trying to get them to do the reckless thing and run away with Sylvester’s rebellion.

“With that in mind,” she said, speaking louder, “please take what I say with the deathly seriousness I mean it!  Stay together!  Be safe, but don’t take ‘safe’ to mean you have to be happy about this!  Believe me, your student council certainly isn’t!”

And with that, the crowd started shouting again.  More of a group than a series of individuals.

I saluted the student council and let them continue to reassure the students, drawing them together into a unit while shaping the frustration with the Academy and the nature of the danger.  The Treasurer started speaking again, talking about what to do in case of gas, if things went that far.

Things would go that far.

There was more to do, but it had to wait.  In the meantime, I moved through the outskirts of the crowd.

One fellow stood off to one side, arms folded, eyes on the ground, while he leaned against a wall.  A matter of three or four feet separated him from the rest of the crowd, but from his body language, it might as well have been a mile.

He was a muscular guy with a many-times broken nose that had flattened out at the bridge.  Those two things put together might have explained the distance and disconnection as people avoided the tough guy.  But if it did, then those people weren’t really paying attention.  The look on his face was painful to see.

He wasn’t seeing or hearing any of this.

The student council was breaking up, mingling at the front of the crowd instead of holding the stage.  The throng had leadership.  People were taking up a chant, and the student council let them.

Broken-nose pulled away from the wall as if he’d been stuck there with something tacky and he needed some force to do it.  I had to jog to catch up to him, at which point I started walking alongside him.  He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice me right away.  When he did, he looked almost animal, and it was a kicked animal at the end of its tether.  One that was liable to bite.

“Want a job?” I asked him, raising my voice to be heard.

The bite didn’t happen.  Confusion crossed his features.

I shrugged.  “Making an offer.”

“Fuck you on about?” he asked.  A few heads turned to glance our way, he was so loud.

“I’m giving you an option.  I’m offering you work.  Do you have anything left to lose by giving it a shot?”

“What the fuck do you know about me?”

“I’m good at reading people!” I said, taking the foul language in stride.  I did my best to look disarming.

“Not thinking about that right now,” he said.  “Got family to go back to.”

I saw that look again.  He wasn’t staring blindly into empty space anymore, but the darkness was there.

“Fuck family,” I said.  “Look after yourself first.”

“Fuck family?” he asked, bristling.  “You don’t get to tell me that.  I’ve got a sister I care about.”

“With your parents?  Or is she alone?  Because we could look after her too.”

“With my mom and da.  They’re going to be ashamed of me for all this, even if it’sn’t my fault,” he said.  Then he came to, and went on the offensive, “What the fuck are you on my case about?”

“Trying to help,” I said.  “Fuck your mom and da.  You look after you.  Come on.  Put off going home.  Work for me, get some experience, you can leave at any time.  Travel some, spend some time with people your age.  Then when you feel like you can face down your da and your mom like a proper man, you go and you see your sister again.”

“Nah,” he said.  He shook his head like there was something clinging to it that he wanted to get loose.  “Nah, it’s not that simple.”

“It’s not!” I said.  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the crowd.  “How’s about you work for me for today only?  Just until it’s time to sleep?  Twenty crown dollars for a day’s work.  You can use some of that for yourself, some for a present for your sister, and have lots left over.  If you want more, you can stick around, keep working for me.”

He shook his head.

So much was happening, time was tight, and I couldn’t spend too much time on tasks like this…

Lillian would have wanted me to look after others.

I was patient.  I waited, thumbs hooked into my pockets.

“Twenty?”

“Twenty,” I said.  “You just have to put up with me for today.”

“Where’s someone your age come up with that much money?”

I reached into a pocket, and fished out my wallet.  I picked out the money in dollars and half-dollar bills, and showed him.  Then I split the twenty in half and pushed it into his pocket.

“Ten to start.  Ten when you finish for the day.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty in your wallet there.”

I grinned again, content that I’d changed his mind.  “What’s your name?”

“Rudy.”

“I’m Sylvester.  You work until we finish tonight, then give me your answer tomorrow about whether you want to keep working for me, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Say it.  So I know you heard!” I said, raising my voice again.

“I work until tonight.  Tell you tomorrow,” he said.

I indicated Rudy should follow, and started through the crowd again.

He followed.

I searched the crowd.  The shape of things made for a kind of geographic correlation to mental states and approaches.  The people nearer the front of the crowd were a very different type than the people at the back.  Some people banded together in groups, others stood apart, and others moved through the crowd, and all of that said something about psychology.

I moved around the outer fringes.  Among people who were invested enough to be here but disengaged.  They came in a number of varieties.  The witnesses who were here because something was happening, the skeptical, and those who came as part of a group and were seeing their friends go in a very different direction.  There were others.

Among those others was a narrower selection.  Those who’d come looking for an answer.  They remained on the very periphery because they hadn’t found it.  Rudy was one of them.  I walked around the entire left flank of the crowd, the rear side, and almost the entire length of the right side before I saw another.

A girl was fighting with a friend.  Her friend was frustrated with her, pulling at her arm while she was bent over as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.

With the crowd being what it was, Rudy and I were able to draw within arm’s reach of them without them paying any attention to us.

“You’re being so lame.”

“Just leave me alone.  Go!  You want to go so bad, go.”

“I’m trying to be a friend.”

“Just go!  Please!  I’m okay.”

“Look me in the eye.  I want to see you’re okay..”

She looked up and moist but tearless eyes met her friend’s.  They were far from okay.

“You’re sure?” her friend asked.

The reluctant girl gave a one-shoulder shrug that hitched a little, as if she was so tense that there was a kink in the works.  “I’ll manage.”

“Really really sure?”

“Go.  Lust after your boy.  Be happy, be angry.  Do whatever.  I’ll manage.  But I don’t feel like getting lost in a crowd.”

“I’ll find you after, okay?”

“Okay,” the reluctant girl said.  She flashed a smile.

Her friend disappeared into the mob.

I gestured for Rudy to wait, and approached the reluctant girl, positioning myself to get her attention.

Her hands kept rubbing at a runny nose or grabbing at a strand of her long hair, oftentimes two hands at once.  It took her a second to see me, and she flashed a polite smile my way when she did.

“You don’t have to smile for me,” I said, leaning in to speak into her ear and be heard.

She gave me a look, as if she’d misheard or misunderstood me.

I leaned in again.  “It’s not right.  It sucks.”

As I leaned away, both of her hands were already at her hair, pulling one lock into strands as if she was going to braid it, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t devote the attention to the task.  She nodded and sniffed.

I leaned in once more, and as gently as I could, I asked, “Do you need a shoulder to cry on?”

She reacted as if I’d slapped her.

The tears followed soon after.

I didn’t want to offer my arms and spook her, so soon after tearing down the only layer of defense she’d had, even if it had been as fragile as wet paper.  I looked over my shoulder, looking for her friend.  I might have to send Rudy.

Then she lurched forward, one mini-step that crossed half the distance between us, before she bounced away, hesitant.

I put my arms out and wrapped her in a tight hug.

Odd, to offer such a thing.  Odd, for someone to accept the offer.  As the saying went, any port in a storm.

The storm was raging right now.

“S’alright,” I murmured.

Rudy stood off to one side, looking very puzzled.  I gestured for him to wait.  The crowd looked like it was moving, heading in the direction of the Academy’s main buildings.  If something happened, that was fine.  So long as the key elements remained in play.  They could lynch Yates for all I cared.  The Horse would probably avoid such a fate.

The rooftop girls and some delinquent groups would steer the destruction and keep things from getting too out of control, because they were the out-of-control element.

This was fine.

It took a couple of minutes for the girl to stop crying into my shoulder.  She’d noticed the mob leaving.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I said.  “How do you feel?”

“My friend left.”

I nodded.  “Everyone’s preoccupied.  I wouldn’t blame her too much.”

“Except you,” she said.  “Who are you?”

“Sylvester,” I said.  “My buddy here is Ru…dy?”

“Rudy, yeah,” Rudy said.

The big, tough looking guy seemed to put her less at ease rather than more at ease.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.  “I’ll leave you alone.  Thank you for the shoulder.  I’m just going to go back to my dorm room and think.”

“The shoulder was freely offered, no need for thanks,” I told her.  “Listen, I’m walking in the same direction the crowd is.  How’s about I walk with you, and we go find your friend?  We’ll reunite you two, I’ll give her a smack upside the head, and she can give you that shoulder to cry on for a longer-term basis.”

The crying girl gave me a wary look.

“I’ve got a complicated situation going on and I’m not looking to pester girls, and Rudy here is more concerned about his sister than about the ladies, honest.”

“The way you say that makes me sound like I’ve got dishonest intentions about my sister,” Rudy said.

“No idea what you mean,” I told him.

“Who are you?” the girl asked, giving me a more serious look.

“A bystander,” I said.  “I heard you tell your friend you were alright, and it was a really, really bad lie, okay?  I’m good at sussing out truth from lie, and that one was child’s play.  I don’t think you should go back to your dorm room and be not-alright all on your lonesome there.”

She took that in, digested it, and then gave me a small nod.

“I’m Sylvester,” I reminded her.

“Helen,” she said.

“Oh, that’s going to confuse me,” I said.  “I know a Helen.  Do you have any nicknames?”

“Kind of?  Friends at my last school called me Possum.”

Possum?” I asked.

“It’s a long story, and we knew each other from prep.  We were immature kids and there were lots of long stories, and this one stuck.  I know it’s a bad nickname, but it was the first thing that came to mind.”

“See, now I want to get to know you, so I can hear that story,” I said.  “It’s not bad at all as nicknames go.  In my humble opinion, anyone worth knowing would agree on that.”

I could see something faint change in the region of her eyes as I said that.

“You couldn’t get it to catch on with your friends here, huh?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “I didn’t say anything about that, though.”

“You didn’t need to,” I said.

“He’s good at reading people,” Rudy said.

“And the fact of the matter is,” I said, “Teenagers are dumb.  Really really dumb.  I and many scars I have and haven’t had removed can testify on that front.  And some, even some who might well be very good friends, can be really, really dumb and fail to see what a great nickname Possum is.  Right, Rudy?  Back me up here.”

“It’s alright,” Rudy said.

“Thank you.”

“My friend aren’t that good.  They’re sort of…”

“Boy crazy?  Distractable?  Oblivious?”

“Preoccupied, like you said before,” Possum volunteered.  “I think that’s the generous way of saying it.”

“Listen, would your friend-”  I paused pausing to interrupt myself, “One sec, would you walk with me, miss Possum?”

I offered my elbow.  She took my arm, latching on with both arms, much as she’d clung to me to cry on my shoulder.

We walked, with Rudy trailing a step behind.

“If I outright told your friend you needed a proper hug and cry, would she be a friend?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Possum said.  Then, quieter, shy, she added, “But I’d be embarrassed.”

“We’ll see about it either way,” I said.

With her clinging to me, I was able to set the pace, and I set a pace where we were able to catch up to the crowd.  Already, there were a few signs of broken windows on buildings with lettering marking them as being Academy.

Broken windows were fine.

“How do you do that?” Rudy asked.

“Do what?”

“Back when you said ‘you couldn’t get your friends to like the nickname’ or whatever,” Rudy said.

“What about it?”

“You did it with her.  Found her in the crowd, knew exactly what to say.”

“I’m just paying attention,” I said.  “That’s all.”

“You did it with me.  You didn’t offer me a shoulder to cry on.  But what you said, it’s like you read my mind.”

“Nah,” I said.  “The way you hold yourself.  Are your arms or hands up?  Probably guarded.  Hunched over or looking down?  Then there’s the way your expression changes, both the major parts and how they go together, and the small-scale changes.  A twitch here, a movement there, or tension in another place.  It communicates a lot.  Tone, word choice, context, and what your face is doing while you talk, there’s obviously a lot there.”

“I can’t tell if you’re an angel or a devil,” Rudy said.

I smiled.

“You don’t hear much talk like that nowadays,” Possum said.

“I grew up in a town so small we joke the Crown didn’t see us when it took over,” Rudy said.  “Some churching, still.”

“That’s marvelous,” Possum said.  “And so is being able to study all of those things.”

I smiled at her again.

It was a lie, though.  Yes, those things factored in.  Yes, they were something I’d seen in retrospect.  But I really hadn’t had to look that hard.  There had been something dark at play in their eyes.  I imagined Death was there.

There wasn’t much talk of that particular horseman these days either.  Jessie’s influence more than anything.  Or Jamie’s.  One of the books they’d been talking about at some point, though that one had had a different horseman as the focus.

There were more students walking in the opposite direction of us now.

“Greater concentration of students,” I said, indicating.  “Can you hear it?  A shift in the sound of the mob?”

“No,” Rudy said.  Possum shook her head, agreeing with Rudy.

“Look at the way those students are moving.  They keep looking back.  They keep their hands up, but it’s fleeting.  Reach up to tug at the uniform jacket, there.  Hand on head there.  Defensive, but not a steady defense.  They’re not sure what to do with themselves,” I said.

“Why?” Rudy asked.

“Something’s happening.  Thinking about context, that something is probably that the Academy is responding to the riot.”

“You say that, but we’re still walking in that direction,” Rudy said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Is that a problem?”

“Nah,” he said.  “Just making sure.”

Possum clutched my arm tighter.

My suspicions were correct.  The Academy was in play, and much as I’d observed outside of the library, there were more forces present than what Beattle should have been able to provide on its own.  The crowd was maintaining its own momentum.  It shed some of its people, yes, but others were joining in from elsewhere, trickling in from different places in this scattered Academy to vent their frustrations.  Things would change when student and Academy both brought their experiments to the table.

The Academy would have the upper hand then.  I’d need to turn the tables more decisively before then.  I was suspicious the student rebellion wouldn’t be quashed entirely, but we’d lose far too many people this way.

“Come on,” I said.  “We’ll find your friend, and then I’ve got work to do.”

“Work,” Rudy said.

“If you’re not keen on doing something like this in particular, it’s fine,” I told him.  “Take the ten dollars.  Buy your sister something nice, make that what you do tomorrow.”

“Nah,” he said.

“Nah,” I echoed him.

“I’m with you if you need me,” he said.

“Good answer,” I said.

And an answer I’m glad to have, I thought, as I disengaged from Possum and stepped up onto a short wall to get a better vantage point to see over the crowd.

The Academy security forces were in the process of dragging the student council into a carriage, while others held the students back.

“The student council went and got themselves captured,” I said, hopping down from the wall.  “We’ll track ’em back to wherever they’re holding people.  There’s someone else there I want to see to, while I’m at it.  Two people, if I’m lucky.  I went and recruited another person with the same name as an old friend of mine, and I left him behind.  With some luck he’ll be found there.”

“You want to break into a jail?” Rudy asked.

“Is it an actual jail-jail?” I asked.

“I imagine so.  Falls within the outer reaches of the Academy sprawl,” Rudy said.

I puffed out my cheeks for a moment, then nodded.  “I’ll manage.”

I spotted one of the rooftop girls in the crowd and signaled her.

I’d told them to keep an eye out.  They would have already touched base with a lot of the delinquents and questionable sorts the Rank hadn’t messed with.

The ball is rolling.  It’s going to take far, far more than this to stop it, I thought.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“That’s a fine way to treat someone that’s helping you out,” I said.  “Pointing a gun at them.”

“You’re an admitted part of the rebellion, and you’re a big part of why trouble is unfolding here,” the Horse said.

I turned around, facing professor Horse.  I wiped at my lower eyelid, and my finger came away with an unbroken line of blood on it.

“The actual fault lies elsewhere.  Mainly with your professor Y.  Now before emotions take over, I want to point out that you’ve got men bleeding over there, professor Y is preparing to run, and the riot is unfolding behind the scenes.  There are priorities here, and effective management of time is key.”

It wasn’t, but I was certainly hoping to move it along.

Horse glanced back at the injured men, who were being tended to.  He didn’t look very happy as he looked back at me.  The gun didn’t waver either.

“Now, speaking for myself, I’m very, very interested in learning who our captive here was talking to in the greenhouse.  So if you’ll let me go, give me an escort to march me along if it makes you feel more secure, I’ll go do that, you can tend to your people and our captive, and in a matter of minutes, we’ll converge to go together and get professor Y before he can disappear on  us.”

“You’re implying he’s not already gone.”

“He won’t be.  Not until he hears about the bodies.  I’m assuming that when you investigated, you didn’t send anyone to him to keep him in the loop?”

The Horse didn’t answer me, but his expression told me that he hadn’t.

He might have wanted our Professor Y to be a better person, but he wasn’t about to stick his neck out for the man to cut.

“He’s attached to his position.  He’d do an awful lot to get an even firmer grip on it, including removing you.  If he left without a dang good reason, it would run contrary to just about everything I understand about his character.”

“You really have been talking to the man,” the Horse said.

Lying on the ground, I heard a sound from Avis.

I realized that it was her laughing to herself, her voice muffled by the fabric and chain that encircled the lower half of her face, locked at the back of the neck with a simple padlock.

“Seems like she might know more than we do,” I said.  “Which is reason enough to move faster.”

I put a touch of emphasis on those last two words.

The Horse looked at two of his men, and indicated that they should go with me.

“Great,” I said.

“Shackle him,” the Horse said.  “And take his gun.”

I rolled my eyes as one security officer reached for my gun, and used finger and thumb to lift up my shirt to make it more visible.  No use making life harder and risking that they frisk me and find everything else.  The other officer pulled out a pair of cuffs.  They were a modern sort, which was doubly annoying – ‘u’ shaped bands of metal that both fit into bars.  The bar was ratcheted up to my wrist, then the key withdrawn.  Just tight enough that I could feel my pulse throbbing against the bar.

The security officer put the other shackle on his own wrist.

“I’ll find you,” the Horse said.

“Here?  There’s nothing to see here.  Keep eyes on things closer to the heart of the Academy, watch the exits of the offices, keep an eye on the crowds and see if there’s any stirring, anything being passed around,” I said.  “We’ll meet you at the library, and we’ll move on Professor Y together.  With luck, he won’t have any other hirelings, and this is all the bleeding I have to do today.”

Avis twisted around on the ground.  Veins still stood out, and her eyes were bloodshot.  Her expression, intense, one brow arched, was the body language equivalent of screaming, “I know you’re up to something!”

I remained calm, even as she struggled with the stitched who held her.  She was gagged with chain included as part of the gag.  Her hands were bound behind her, and a chain encircled her body, trapping her wings against it.  More binding secured her legs and the feet with talons built into them.

I would have liked to encourage professor Horse to keep Avis under lock and key, but I worried that it would have the opposite effect.

Besides, it didn’t matter too much.  The man was fairly firm in his convictions, and he actually seemed to care about the people who served under him.  The damage done and the deaths seemed to have left their mark on him, because he was distracted.

I wasn’t planning on sticking around, either.

“To the greenhouse, escorts!” I proclaimed.

The two men looked less than impressed.

But the Horse nodded, and I was led off.

Alright then.

This wasn’t a sustainable series of events, really.  Being shackled was bad, because it meant I had little chance of escaping the chain of events that would see me in Academy custody.

I could play along for a while, but I didn’t get the impression that I could change the Horse’s mind on things.

“He really doesn’t like me, huh?” I asked.

“You’re a rebel, he said,” said the soldier I was cuffed to.  The man was young, prematurely balding, and his short hair didn’t help hide it.  He had a nasty talon-wound on his forehead, but it had already had something applied to it – a quick daubing of some styptic.

“I’m just surprised at the depth of the Horse’s dislike, really,” I said.  Testing.

“Professor Horsfall fought them down south,” the officer said.

Not taking up the nickname, but jumping straight to professor Horsfall.  He was respected, then.

I could use that.

“So I gather he manages security and he’s the one the students like and go to, professor Y is part of things because he’s smart and opportunistic with some good manipulation skills, and the fat cat aristocrat has the final say when it comes to the purse strings.  Strength, cunning, and money, in three different corners of the power triangle?”

“Sure,” the guy said.

Laconic, this guy.

His right hand was cuffed to my left, and the soldier walking to my right was free, just keeping a mild eye on me while he walked, glancing around him.

I began playing up my limp, where my leg was already bleeding.

“Makes it hard for me.  See, I became a rebel because every professor I ran into was of Professor Y’s ilk.  I can’t stand the Crown because every person with any power that isn’t Academy is like that aristocrat guy who manages the Academy.  So I’m kind of really floored that I’ve run into someone who seems decent.”

“You talk a lot, huh?” Mr. Laconic asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Mostly when I’m nervous.  Or to think through problems.  Also, talking helps distract from the fact that I’m bleeding in twenty places and it kind of hurts.”

“We all are,” Mr. Laconic said.

“I’m just glad we were able to stop her,” I said.  “I’m not good for much else, but I can deal with that type alright.  I’m assuming Horsfall will be fair to her?”

“Fair as she deserves,” Mr. Laconic said.

“He’ll be fair,” the other officer countered.

I played up my limp more, and eyed a paving stone that lay slightly ajar on the path ahead.  If I kicked it with enough strength mid-stride, I could manage a pretty convincing trip and fall.  I wouldn’t fall all the way, but still, it would be a step.

I’d need another step to complete the maneuver.

“Yeah.  I got the impression he wasn’t the kind to abuse a prisoner,” I said.

Build rapport, reinforce ideas, us versus them, don’t hurt prisoners, we’re on the same page about Horsfall being a good guy.

The officer to my right lit up a cigarette.

Scratch that.  I might not need another step to my plan after all.

“May I?” I asked.

The man gave me a sidelong glance.

Then he tapped out another cigarette, handing it to me, before striking a match and holding a flame to the cigarette.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Goes a ways toward calming my nerves.”

“Yeah,” the man said.

He offered one to his friend.

Take it, I thought.  Take it.  You know you want it.

He reached out, taking the cigarette.  Because one of his hands was occupied with the shackle and my hand, his buddy leaned across me to provide the lit match.

I moved closer to the man I was shackled to to make room, reached across my lower ribs with my free hand, and paused, waiting a moment.

“Steady,” the other officer said, as they tried to coordinate.

In that moment, while their focus was elsewhere, I lifted Mr. Laconic’s gun free of its holster.  I held it by the handle, the chamber against my wrist, the barrel against my lower arm, in as casual a position as I could manage, and readjusted the strap of my bag on my left shoulder

Moving my arm back, I slid the gun between my bag and my back.  The bag was heavy enough and had enough stuff toward the bottom end that the gun was held in place.

Just fine, this.  Had I not had the opportunity afforded by the match, I could have kicked the stone and lifted the gun in the midst of tripping and climbing up the man to find my balance.  It might have required more of a distraction or a redirection of attention to my leg if I wanted to move the gun across me and into a temporary hiding spot.  Maybe to my injured leg.  Maybe I could have bumped into a wound.  Maybe I could have used exhaled smoke to cloud the movement.

Had that not been an opportunity I might have drawn a knife and timed it to knife one of the men as we entered the greenhouse.

But there was little use dwelling on it.  It was done.  I had one of two guns.  My gun had been handed off.

“You don’t suppose the Horse would go easy on me, since I’ve been cooperative, and since he seems like an alright guy?”

“Dunno,” the officer that had provided the cigarettes said.  “Most we’ve had to deal with is students poisoning each other, getting between two guys in a fistfight or two cats in a claw-fight, or having to shoot a project that gets too excited at being outdoors.”

“I hear you,” I said.  But what I took away from it was the distinct impression that these men weren’t experienced.  I’d suspected such from the fact that they hadn’t searched me, but now the sentiment had been reaffirmed.

We walked down the path to the greenhouse.   I saw one of the occupants at the glass, peering through to look at us.  The whites of his eyes were visible as they widened.

Cigarette-man opened the door to the greenhouse, and he led the way inside.

I drew the gun, and I pressed it between the man’s shoulderblades.

“Stop right there,” I said.

He did.

I felt my shackled arm go taut, and glanced back over my shoulder at Mr. Laconic, who was in the process of realizing he’d lost his gun.

“Don’t try anything funny,” I told him.  “I shot her, I can shoot you two.”

“Sure,” he said.

“Cigarette man,” I said.  “Very slowly, with two fingers, pull your gun from the holster.  Toss it into the soil bed over there.”

He did as I asked.

“Now lie down on the floor, right here, arms out to your sides.”

He did.  In the process, he stopped blocking my view of the students of the Greenhouse Gang.

They looked more like Lillian’s crowd.  Some were attractive, but I didn’t get the impression that attractiveness was a priority.  They were tidy looking, in a school where a lot of students weren’t.  No major alterations had been made to their uniforms.   There was a roughly even balance of boys to girls, eight and seven.

“Good morning,” I told them.

“Good morning,” a few of them mumbled, as if I was a homeroom teacher at too-dang-early-o’clock in the morning.  They looked spooked and confused at this scene.

“I’m with Fray.  You might have heard the gunshots a bit ago.  We’ve run into a small snag,” I said.  I turned to Mr. Laconic.  “Lie down on top of him.  This arm behind your back, here.”

“You going to shoot us?” he asked.

“Not if I can help it,” I said.  “But you’ve got one of my wrists.  Let’s see about getting me free.  Lie down.”

Reluctantly, slowly, he lay down on top of the smoking man.  I twisted the arm I was shackled to behind him, so the chain extended up to me and gave me some freedom of movement.

“You,” I spoke to a boy who looked like the leader of this particular group.  He was heavyset to an extent that his cheeks pushed his eyes were slits, with a round face and glasses.  “Would you do me a favor and be an extra set of hands?”

He approached.

“Bag here,” I said, shrugging one shoulder out of the bag.  “Watch for the blades and syringes I have in there, the points and edges shouldn’t be exposed, but let’s not test our luck.  Dig deep for a jar.  Ridged exterior.”

He gave me a long, searching look, his face unreadable, and then did as I asked, lifting up the flap at the top and rummaging inside while the one strap dangled from the crook of my elbow.

He retrieved a jar of fluid.

“Would you grab my cigarette, and these men’s cigarettes?  That stuff might theoretically be flammable, and I’ve got friends who can’t know that I did something stupid and burned myself alive.  That’s good.  Thank you.  And step back, all of you get to the other end of the greenhouse…”

I waited while the crowd of students obliged.

“And throw that at the ground in front of us, hard enough to break it.”

“Oy!” the soldier on the bottom called out.

The boy threw the jar, and it shattered.  Bits of glass might have hit the face of the uniformed men I was shackled to.

This gas had a chemical odor, but it was invisible.  I saw doubt on the expressions of the Greenhouse Gang, before the soldiers began reacting.  They coughed, to start, and then they groaned.  The groaning was soon interrupted by coughing, and then the two things blended together into a unpleasant barking retching noise.

I was resistant to poisons, and even I coughed.  I realized where the groans were coming from as I felt every single one of my exposed wounds draw tight and then burn as if hot pokers were being pressed into them.

I could handle pain, but this was still bad.

Teeth clenched, I sat down hard on the second man, who was squirming.  Tendons and muscles all over my body tensed as I weathered the worst of it.

When the struggles of the two men stopped, I moved a hand, fingers twitching, to my bag, fished in the front pocket, and found my lockpicks.

The gas was a paralytic, with a little bit of added extra to keep it from paralyzing cardiac and respiratory systems, and it had had a small effect on me, making the lockpicking an interesting endeavor.  It didn’t help that the lock was more modern than some I’d fiddled with.

I started to speak, and coughed.

“How was your discussion with Avis?” I asked, when I was done coughing.

“Was fine,” the boy with the glasses said.  “Is she alright?”

“Nope,” I said, internally cursing the fact that my thumb had no strength in it.  “I tried to help her, but things got hairy.  I’m more of a problem solver than a fighter.  We’re accelerating the timetable a hair, here, and I might stumble a few times along the way since I only know part of it, but this is doable.  Are you ready to go?”

“Oh, I’m not going,” Glasses said.  “But I’m willing to help things along if it means less students going from here to Sprung, Wheelock, or Belltower.”

“Perfect,” I said.  I worked my jaw a bit and worked out the oddity in my lip I’d felt as I’d made the ‘r’ sound.

They’re going,” he indicated the rest of the gang.

“Even more perfect,” I said.  I freed my wrist, moved the shackle over to the other paralyzed fellow, and locked it to his wrist.  I stood and stretched, experiencing all sorts of funny things as a result of the mild nerve gas.  My rectum in particular was clenching as if it was trying to communicate in tap-code, and I had some concerns that it would stop dotting and start dashing.

Maybe I’d avoid dosing myself with this particular gas in the future.  I was very careful as I bent over to check the pulses at the throat of each of the men.  Grabbing the one on top, I rolled him off of his friend.

“You’ll be okay,” I said.  I said it to the men, but I addressed it to the Greenhouse Gang.

“Excuse me,” I said.  I put the gun away, and moved out of the area.  I couldn’t tell how far the gas reached, but the other students weren’t coughing.  “We’ll use the other door.”

The group joined me, and we left the greenhouse.

“Goodbye, greenhouse,” one of the boys said.  “I think this might be the last time we see you.  You treated us well.”

“I didn’t think about that,” one of the younger girls said.

“I know the feeling,” I said.  We walked around the greenhouse and headed in the general direction of Beattle’s library and main office.  “Leaving behind that familiar place.  I did it last winter, almost a year ago.”

“Yeah?” the younger girl said.

“But there were bad feelings tied to that place.  It was where I grew up, and I didn’t realize that as familiar as it was, there was an oppressive feeling whenever I was there.  The dark cloud that pressed down from above.  Happy memories, don’t get me wrong.  It was my family, my friends, my best friend, the girls I liked and a lot of good feelings.  But the bad that you don’t even realize was there…”

I drew in a breath.

“…You get away from it all.  You find a new place, and you bring the best of the good people with you, or you find new good people, and you get settled somewhere that’s good, without nearly as much of the bad.”

“Lambsbridge?” a girl asked me.  “The place?  It was the orphanage?”

I turned my head.  “Don’t tell me I’ve met you too.”

She shook her head.  “No sir.”

I’m a sir, I thought.

“My father is a sheriff,” she said.  “He’s a mean son of a gun.  And strict, makes me write home twice a week, or he comes over here and cusses me out at the entrance to the dorm.  I’m a compulsive reader, and I have a good memory, so I saw your wanted posters there when i went to drop off mail, and at my dad’s work when I went home for summer holiday, on the wall with all the rest, an’ I remembered them.  I saw them change it up now and then.  It was interesting to see how some of the descriptions changed as the seasons passed.”

“I’m quite impressed,” I said.  “Top student indeed.”

“Thank you,” she said, with none of the change in expression that I might have expected in response to praise.  She looked sadder if anything.

“Who is he?” the round-faced boy with the glasses asked.

“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said.

“Traitor to the Crown,” she said.  “Which usually means you were once in league with them.”

“More Academy than Crown, but yes.”

“Wanted dead or alive.  Killer, problem solver, devastatingly intelligent.”

I grinned.  “You remembered that?  Dang, I like you.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear, not making eye contact.  The tuck was a nervous thing, I suspected, not a flirty thing.  Or it was both.

“A killer?” the boy who’d lamented the loss of the greenhouse asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Was part of my responsibilities, once.”

I had to duck my head a little and use the cover of a few taller boys in the group to keep from being stared at by a cluster of students.  The peck marks and scratches would be bad, I imagined.

“Blood on your hands,” glasses said.  “Avis was a pacifist.”

I had to resist the urge to snort at that.  This was something that mattered to them.  They didn’t want ugliness and violence.  I wondered what the story was with that proclamation.

Instead, I nodded, and I put a sympathetic expression on my face.  “If we could leave Avis in charge of you and let her manage this, we would.  I’ll make freeing her a problem I solve at a later stage, not to worry.  Because if I can’t, then I’ve got to take over this project for Fray.”

“She isn’t in charge?” glasses asked.

“She wanted to be,” I said.  “But… snags.”

There were doubts.  The group looked anxious.  Enough so that I wondered if they would all be here if I left and came back.

“Part of the reason I’m here is I share common ground with you guys.  I came from a place not so different from here.  I had my own greenhouse.  I had my own Greenhouse Gang.  The most important thing?  More than the mission?  It’s going to be ensuring you all are free.  Nothing tying you down.  No dark cloud bearing down on you, no feeling like your best isn’t a guarantee.”

The people who had doubts still looked like they had doubts, but there was a little bit more light in the eyes of the others.  The sheriff’s daughter was among them.

“Tea, talking, sleeping in, music playing on a machine.  Resources to pursue passion projects.  Associating only with the people you want to associate with.”

“What’s next?” glasses asked.

I have no blinking idea, I thought.

“Where were you at with Avis when you left off?  From what I gathered, she was just rounding you up and making sure you were on board.”

Glasses nodded.  “We know which students we’re talking to and where.  We start the rumor about this being something that was in the works from last year.  We have the credibility.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “Okay.  I’ve checked on the rooftop girls-”

I didn’t miss the faint look of distaste on one or two faces.

“-And you lot.  Next is student council.  They meet in the office?”

“No.  Most of them handle things elsewhere.  Liasion with staff.  Only the president and vice president of the student council really spend time there regularly.  When they meet, they usually do it by the water,” glasses said.  He pointed.

“Ralph was a member of student council, once upon a time,” the sheriff’s daughter said.  “He quit to keep his grades up.”

Ralph the round-faced glasses wearer pushed his glasses up his nose, and folded his arms.  Defensive actions on both fronts.

That’s not why you left, I thought to myself, with a sing-song lilt.

“I want to walk around to the far side of the office,” I said.  “I’m suspicious they’re lying in wait.”

“This way, then,” one of the others said.

We took a right, then a left, and walked down a street.  The students and I watched to our left as we crossed the street.

We could see the library at the south end of the Beattle Academy office, and we could see the Horse’s men gathered on the back stairs.  Something was wrong.

The Horse had told me that the security forces he’d brought to Avis were the extent of Beattle’s resources.

Then why had those numbers tripled, even accounting for the losses to Avis’ talons?  Why were there suddenly sixty or more serious-looking men and women with uniform jackets and frames that looked like they exercised?

I thought of the two men who had died in the library.

Were these the rest of that particular group?

“Be prepared,” I told the Greenhouse Gang.  “We’re starting.”

“We’re starting?”

“They’re trying to stop the flood.  They won’t succeed,” I said.  I reached into a pocket, sorted through my notes, and said, “Oxham and Haigsbow.  Do what you need to do, we all rendezvous there.  Stay discreet in the meantime.  They’re looking for me and they’re looking for students like you, who are working with me.  Soon it won’t be possible to find either.”

The students nodded.

“Stay the course,” I said.  “I’ll make sure the system is rigged for you, not against you.”

The nods were slightly more enthusiastic.

Even among the ones who’d seemed most uncertain and most uneasy about the fact that Avis was out of the picture and that I was a killer.

I broke away from the group.  More free agents, cast out, while I was left to trust that they’d find their way back to me, that there wouldn’t be any disasters.

I found another entrance to the office, and I began navigating it.

There was no easy way to judge where things were, and my memory wasn’t good enough to know off the back of my head.  I would have really liked having Jessie around so she could tell me.  I had to judge by the colors of coats and the styles people wore, all the while looking out for the uniform jackets that suggested Academy security.

It was perhaps a stroke of providence that I stumbled on the little trick to identifying where I needed to be.  There were Academy security officers in the main office, and I steered well clear of them, taking the stairs, ducking into side hallways, even pausing inside an empty office at one point to let them pass.

And as I found the areas where the officers weren’t, I realized that they’d been told to stay away from Professor Y.

Which meant that in the course of avoiding them, veering more toward the places with more black coats, I found him.

I opened his office door and let myself inside.

Professor Y was within, sitting at his desk.  He jumped at my arrival, and looked very concerned as he took another look at me.

He was an old man, his back so stooped that the curve of it could graph to one of Wollstone’s ratios.  His hair was neatly groomed, but the fact remained that the top of his head was level with his shoulderblades.  The lines of his face were deep, his eyes deep set and very blue, his cheekbones rosy, which was really the only part of him that didn’t jive with my mental image of him.

“Who are you?”

I ignored him, rummaging for another gas canister.

“What do you want?” he asked.

I saw his right arm move very slowly.  He was opening a desk drawer.

I hurled the jar at him, and hurled myself forward in that same motion, putting myself against the base of the desk.

I listened, felt, and waited for the man to stop grunting, gagging, and jerking in his chair.

Once I was done, I investigated his desk.

Four letters and one document.  Each one with ‘Professor Horsfall’ on it somewhere.  The ones that were purportedly written by the man had forged signatures on them, clearly copied from the document that the old man had collected.

I checked the old man’s pulse, and found it weak.

I never brought more than one of the same kind of poison when I could help it.  It was easier on my system and tested my tolerances less if I spread stuff out.

Couldn’t remember off the top of my head what this one was.

“I wonder what Fray saw in you,” I said.  “Opportunity?”

Only his eyes moved.  Drool was already leaking out of his mouth.

I had limited time.  Horsfall would soon lose patience and decide they had enough in the way of forces to storm the place without me.

Still, I took the time to pen out a note.

Whatever else he was, whatever I was trying to do, the man seemed decent.  I’d meant what I’d said to his soldiers when I said I wasn’t sure how to handle him.  He was what I wanted to promote in the Academy.

For you, Professor Horsfall.  You may be my opponent in this but you’re not my enemy.  You earned my respect through your common decency and leadership.  I would have killed the man, but I sensed you wouldn’t want me to.

-Sylvester

I placed the note in front of the old man on the desk, so he could read it, and pushed his chair in with him in it.

Then, carefully, I rewrote the first of the notes, but changed names around.  I tore Professor Y’s copy into quarters, and I left it beside my note to Horsfall.

I made my exit, avoiding the uniforms.

I could hear the tramp of boots on floor as the massed uniforms started to make their way to Professor Y.  Other uniforms were gravitating that way too.

I made my way to the bulletin board, trying to stay mostly out of sight, knowing I looked a mess, and I put the first letter up.

Heads turned, looking at me and at the paper.

I touched one arm of the most curious looking of curious onlookers, pointing at the note, and that gave the person permission to take a look-see.  Others gravitated in that direction.

Ready.  Set.  Go.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I approached a group of girls, hands in my pockets.

“No,” the lead girl said, the moment she spotted me.

“You didn’t even hear what I have to say.”

“Cheesy pickup line.  You look like the type to think he can get away with being a little sleazy and think it’s funny.”

“Wow,” I said.  I pressed my hands to my heart.  “Wow.”

I looked over the group of girls.  There were about nine of them, and they moved as a loose crowd, each with a unique style.  I saw a few body modifications here and there, some unconventional hair styles, and very loose interpretations of Beattle’s dress code.  Skirts were hiked or rolled up to show more leg even while they wore jackets and coats that looked like the sort of jackets Mauer’s soldiers would wear in cooler months – oversized and prone to drooping over hands, even when they were rolled up two or three times over.

Makeup was often heavy, often chosen to accent the body mods.  One girl had a lone deer antler at the corner of her scalp, and makeup had been staggered so it seemed to blend into her brown skin.  Another girl with goat eyes lined heavily with eyeliner was staring me down.

The leader wasn’t modded so heavily, but she’d foregone the academy jacket entirely to wear a black sweater with a layered collar beneath a double layer of jacket and military jacket.  I’d thought about clothing as armor as I got ready in the morning, but the fashion choice there was akin to plate mail where it covered her, and there wasn’t much beneath.  Her top three buttons were undone and her skirt was hiked up higher than any of the girls.  Chance more than choice that I couldn’t see anything worth seeing.

But her attitude, I’d seen it on some drunks and some fighters.  She was spoiling.  For a fight, for trouble, for… anything.  She was the queen of her clique here, and the crowd at her sides and back were more armor, on top of the layers she wore.  It let her expose more throat and belly, metaphorically.  Baiting others in even as she looked for a morsel to bite at herself.

“You’re not worth my time,” she said.

“You’re the rooftop girls,” I said.

“And you’re a kid who thinks that because he’s heard the rumors, he just needs to say the word, snap his fingers, and I’m yours?  Go away.”

“Are you sure you want me to go away?” I asked her.  “We had a meeting planned for later.”

She stopped in her tracks.

“You?” she asked.

“I saw your group walking across the campus, I figured out who you were at a glance.  I’m currently waiting for a few people, some things are going on, but I thought I’d say hi.”

She gave me a look, top to bottom.  “Hi.”

No apologies, no excuses.  I could appreciate that.

“I’m quite glad I was able to spot you.  It makes things easier.  Two people just died,” I told her.  “It happened in the library.  They know, they’re after us, and things are moving ahead of schedule, with different times and places.  Which is why you’re dealing with me, specifically.”

“Died?” another girl asked.

“Who are ‘they’?” the lead girl asked.

I waved her off.  “Our mess.  Our problem to clean up.  Two key players got greedy and went rogue.  The problem with doing as much as we’ve been doing long-distance is that it’s hard to assess who we’re dealing with.  But it’s a problem that can be handled.  Which it will be, in a matter of minutes.”

I gave her time to digest that, and looked in the direction of the greenhouse.  Avis was still there.

I turned and looked in the direction of the library.  No Gordon Two and no Horse.

“Minutes?” she asked.

“If you want to watch, you can,” I told her.  “If you wanted to leave and get us started, that’s even better, and would earn you a little drawn medal on this particular assignment.”

“A medal on my homework?” she asked.  “Please don’t treat me like a child.”

And in saying that, you make me think of you as more of a child than if you’d remained silent.

“As you wish,” I said.  “But you should decide now if you’re still in.  Everything is starting into motion now, and it’s up to you if you want to be one of the ones who go or one of the ones who stay behind.”

“Mm,” she made a sound.

The girl with the goat eyes was still staring at me.  The rectangular irises made for an interesting effect.  I quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Sylvester,” she said.

“Hm?” I asked.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve met him,” goat-eyes said, to the lead girl.

“Have you?” I asked.  “My memory isn’t the best.”

“I was one of the people sitting in the background while you were talking with Ronnie?  Before everything turned topsy-turvy?”

I shook my head.  “You have me at a loss.  I can think of ten things off the top of my head that that could apply to.”

“The start of the civil war?”

“Again, that’s like, three major events in my very shoddy recollection.”

“Dame Cicely’s?”

I snapped my fingers, “Got it.  Yes.”

She turned to the lead girl.  “When we first talked about this.  You brought up the rebellion head?  Genevieve?  And then I said I’d met her, and I shared my take?”

The lead girl nodded.

“He was there when it all happened.  He was there before it happened, even.”

“I often am,” I said.  “It’s a quality of mine.”

“And,” she said.  “He was hunting Genevieve.”

“Yep,” I said.

The lead girl gave me a look.  “Now you’re working for her?”

With her,” I said.  “Not under her.  I see it more as a partnership.”

“Really now?  How did that come about?” goat-eyes asked.

“It makes a lot more sense if you think about the two of us being siblings,” I said.  “Even when we were on opposite sides, we got along pretty well.  Then I left the Academy, and here I stand.”

The girls had relaxed considerably in the talk with me, which was interesting.  A clique who were very at home with the idea of imminent change.  They were in, committed to this path that Fray had outlined for them.

“Looks like whatever you anticipated happening is happening,” the lead girl said.

I turned to look.

On the back stairs of the library, a group of men flanked by stitched had emerged.  There were about twenty in all, some with weapons.  I could make out the man in the center of the group – average height, but good looking by most metrics.  His hair was parted to one side and grown long, and he had a rakish mustache.  He wore a lab coat of a very old fashioned style worn by people on the battlefield, old enough that I imagined it had been his father’s style more than his own.

“The Horse,” I said.  “Subtlety really isn’t his strong suit, is it?”

That got a nervous titter of amusement from the rank and file of the rooftop girls.

“Are you staying or are you going?” I asked.

“I’m watching,” the lead girl said.

“And are you staying or are you going?” I asked, again.

She gave me a curious look.  Then she deflated a little.

“No other choice,” she said.  “I’m in.  I’ll do my part when it all starts.”

“Good,” I said.  “If I have to run off and we don’t get a chance to talk after this, go downtown.  Uhhh…”

I fished in a pocket.  I found my notes.

“…Oxham and Haigsbow.  Meet us there when you’ve done what needs to be done and you’re not sure where to go anymore.  Because the dorms aren’t safe anymore, and Beattle is about to have a very interesting day.”

She nodded.

“This should be dramatic, and it’ll help leave people uneasy,” I said.

Leaving the girls with those parting words, I approached Gordon Two and the Horse.

The stitched were in uniform, and were warm enough I could see the heat of their bodies in contrast to the cool air around them.  They and the men who worked with them all wore Academy design and Academy badges.  They were Beattle’s security team.  The people who rounded up escaped experiments and broke up fights between students.

“I saw the bodies,” the Horse told me.

“Gordon,” I said, turning away from the horse professor.  “Do me a favor?  Keep an eye on the Greenhouse.  Let us know if she departs?”

Gordon nodded.

I turned my attention to the Horse.

“A word in private?” I asked him.

“Hm?  What do you need to say to me that you can’t say in front of these men?”

The Horse was proud, arrogant.  Good looking for those who liked men, I supposed.  I could see why Yancy hated him already.

“Because it has to do with certain… indiscretions on the part of one of your-” I cleared my throat.  “Partners.”

“Does it now?” the Horse asked.

I nodded.

He pointed, and put a hand on my shoulder, leading me off to one side and out of earshot.

I was really hoping Avis wouldn’t round the corner and see the gathered soldiers.

“Talk to me,” he said.

“Would it surprise you to know that at the same time that those men were slaughtered in your library,” I said, careful to make it his library, “That a colleague of yours was there?”

“A colleague.  You’ll have to be more specific,” the Horse said.

I smiled, but internally, I was scrambling.  I couldn’t remember Yancy’s real name.

Yorkie?  Did it start with a Y or a Y-sound?  Eustace?  No, it probably started with a Y.

“I don’t want to name names.  Let’s call him… Professor Y,” I said.

“Professor Y,” the Horse said.

“Do me a favor?  Can you move your soldiers out of sight?”

“Paulson!” the Horse called out.  “All of you step inside.  Keep an ear out.”

One of the soldiers nodded.

Good.

“The Academy is closing down,” I said.

“Within a few years,” the Horse said.

“You’d think,” I said.  “But no.  Today.  Functionally, anyhow, if Professor Y would have his way.  But it gets a little more complicated than that.”

“I see,” the man said.  “I can handle complicated.”

“Good.  The professor intends to leak information suggesting Beattle will close before the semester’s end.  The student body locked out of the classrooms, no credits, partial refunds.”

“That would mean a great many angry students,” the Horse said.

“That was the end goal.  There are rebellion forces in the area,” I said.  I cleared my throat.  “Ones that might like to recruit from among such a large body of Academy trained individuals.”

The Horse’s jaw hardened.  “Do you, young man with uncanny knowledge of current events, happen to be one of them?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

He nodded, frowning.

And, a few moments after that, I saw his hand move out of his pocket, thumb hooked into one corner of his pocket.  Nonchalant.  I couldn’t see it or see the bulge, because of the nature of the coat he wore, but I was willing to bet that it was a very easy maneuver to flick his coat aside and reach for a weapon at his hip.

So that was how it was.  Military background, perhaps, and a dislike of the rebels and insurgent groups.

I’d captured the rooftop girls.  Fray had Professor Y and the Greenhouse Gang.  If this went sour, then I’d lose ground, while Avis would be free to continue recruiting, gathering forces.

There was a critical mass at play that, should either of us achieve it, would mean that we could flip the stragglers and the questionable types.  It was a race to that scale and mass.  And if I could remove Avis from play, then I could grow our forces while Fray tried to figure out what was happening.

But doing that required winning over the Horse.

“We thought at first about bringing all three of you on board.  But the… dynamic made it very clear that it wouldn’t work.  That you were too noble for the task,” I said.  “That approach twisted around and bit us.  As it turns out, Professor Y is a greedy and black-hearted man.”

“I believe that of him,” the Horse said.

I nodded.  “He wanted to keep it to just him because it meant more money and more power for him, it meant he could make you the scapegoat of all of this.  And he wanted to keep things small and wholly under his control so he could turn the table on us.  Are you seeing where this is going?”

“Oh, I understand,” the Horse said.  His jaw set once again, but the steel in his gaze wasn’t meant for me.

“He hired someone, a monster who murdered our two men in the library.  Now he’s working with students to turn them against us and against you.  He wants a monopoly on the hearts and minds of the students here, and he’s frankly not capable of achieving either.”

I wanted to see a trace of bitter satisfaction at hearing about the failure of Professor Y.  Except I didn’t, and he wasn’t someone with a good poker face.  That satisfaction wasn’t there.  He hated the man, I was fairly sure, but… no joy at seeing the man fail.

Had I just made the mistake of trying at a clandestine deal with someone that was actually a decent person?  Someone who wanted his enemies to be better people?

“I know you don’t like us or our type,” I said.  “But Professor Y brought a monster among your students.  She’s there now, my agent there is watching out for her.  If we don’t handle this, then there may be more bodies.  Things are underway.  The riots are going to happen, and I think you and I both want this to be as bloodless as possible.”

The Horse stared off in the direction Gordon Two had gone.

“You said the two men in the library were yours?” he asked.

Something in his tone set off bells, tripwires and other trouble in my head.

He knew something.

“I said they were ours,” I said.  “Our mutual problem.  Just as the students are.  Just as the rioting that’s about to start is.”

I was doing my utmost to drag his focus away from that line of thinking, picking apart my wording and being pointed about the nature of those two men.

“Your riot.  To your ends.”

I shook my head.  “We were going to be gentler about it.  We planned for it to unfold some time from now, and we laid the groundwork.  Until things were underway, we wanted to milk the teat.  Collect the stragglers… see those girls over there?”

I indicated the rooftop girls more clearly.

“I see them.  I know the type.  Belligerent.  The ones at the bottom of the rankings.”

“They alter their bodies and distance themselves from authority like you because they want to be as far away from home as possible.  Some go back and they try to make lives for themselves.  Others… we wanted to milk that teat.”

“You’ve said that twice.  That implies things when you’re talking about young ladies like that,” the Horse said, stiff.

I blinked, put the pieces together, then reversed course swiftly.  “Oh, no!  No!  Not at all-”

-unless they were keen and Jessie was okay with it-

“-and never.  Rest assured.  I was building up to a greater metaphor, is all.  We aimed to collect the ones who weren’t going home.  Boy and girl.  Give them a focus and a place.  Apprentice them to back alley doctors who tend to those that can’t afford what the Crown asks, perhaps.  And we would keep our thumb on the pulse for when Beattle closed, and when there was a greater crop of the disaffected, frustrated, and aimless… a profit.”

“Interesting to see how the other side thinks,” the Horse said.

“Well, I’ll give you an insight as to how Professor Y thinks.  He wants to slaughter this cow early rather than milk it.  That’s the metaphor.  Bloody, messy, violent, and amateurish.  He started early, thinking we were too far away and too preoccupied with other things to notice him doing it.”

“He brought a monster into our midst to safeguard himself while he did it?”

“And he started already.  The rumors are out there.  The ball is rolling downhill.  Stop me if you want.  Arrest me, turn me in, take action.  But call the remainder of your security forces.  You’ll need all of them to stop this woman, or this will end badly, understand?”

“That was my security force,” the Horse told me.  “They’re waiting inside the library right now.”

I blinked.

“You have others, don’t you?  Stitched?”

He shook his head.  “Not for combat.”

“Warbeasts?”

“None combat ready.  Priscilla and Scythe, but they’re low with litters.  Spike is out to stud in another city.”

I blinked a few times.

Slight miscalculation.  I’d co-opted the Academy forces and found them wanting.

“My men are good at what they do,” the Horse said.

“I’m not questioning that.  I’m questioning their welfare if we don’t handle this well.  Do you have more?  Anyone watching the bodies?”

“Two men keeping students from wandering in on the scene,” he said.

“Anything else?  Containment specialists who can hold a pointed stick?  Any particularly fit teaching staff?  Secretaries you don’t particularly like?”

“Some of the men from the stable double as handlers when a student project gets ornery.”

“Get them.  Get nets, because this is a monster that flies.”

“Just how dangerous is this creature?” he asked, as he started walking toward the library and his waiting men.

That is a very good question.

Avis exited the Greenhouse alone.  She held herself differently now than she had.  She was calmer, a little more confident, and a little less worn around the edges.

She’d been Academy once.  Intelligent conversation, tea, and time with students had to be a balm for the soul.  She was a head and shoulders, and an obscure draping of a black cloak covering the form below.  All of my senses that I’d trained to keep an eye out for patterns that went with a concealed weapon were twitching instinctively at the sight of bulges here and there beneath her cloak.

She headed straight for what Gordon Two had suggested might be her next meeting place.  Students gathered sometimes at the bend near the river, and the student council office wasn’t far away.

I would have liked to go ahead and beat her to the punch, then see her expression when they weren’t waiting there for her, but removing her from the picture now was too important.

“Wings don’t leave much room for other things,” the Horse commented.

The Horse, Gordon Two and I were gathered indoors, looking through a window at Avis.  The rooftop girls were nearby.  I’d told them to watch and wait at a nearby vantage point where they wouldn’t look too unnatural.

We’d rounded out our numbers, at my urging.

Fifteen soldiers, twenty stitched, some noncombat but capable of obeying orders.  Two men with nets and ropes who were used to dealing with unruly warbeasts.  One student project.

Five soldiers and ten stitched walked in a group down the left side of the path, toward Avis.  They left the way clear for her, and even through the window I could hear them talking and laughing.

I wondered how genuine they sounded.

“Overwhelming force, huh?” Gordon Two asked.  “Hitting her before she knows what’s happened?”

“This is going to end one of three ways,” I said.  “The best case scenario is that it’s over in an instant.  Everyone does what they’re supposed to, and they break her wings and legs in the initial hit.”

The group of soldiers and stitched were twenty paces from Avis.

If they tipped her off…

“What are the other two ways?” Gordon Two asked.

“She could fly away.  Then everything unfolds with the leak, Beattle falling to pieces, bloody riots, and she’s there behind the scenes, working against us.”

The Horse nodded.

“And the third result is that she wins.”

“Wins?” Gordon Two asked.

“She fought the Duke of Francis face to face,” I said.

I saw Gordon Two’s eyes widen.

“She didn’t win, but she fought him.  She did pretty well too, and that counts for a lot.”

“We were within five paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble!?”

You’re within two paces of someone crazy enough to fight a noble and win, I thought.

Instead, I just said, “Yeah.”

My biggest hope here was that she wasn’t expecting trouble.  There were no warning signs.  Her thoughts would be on what came later.  The plan coming to fruition.  She had little reason to watch her back.

So as the soldiers drew within ten paces, and then five, I was chewing the side of my tongue, hoping that she wouldn’t.  The buildings on this part of the street connected above the street forming an archway or tunnel that foot traffic had to pass beneath.  It was the place where the soldiers would pass by Avis.

I heard the shout as the order was given.  The group that was now walking just to her left turned at a right angle to simultaneously face her.

In that same instant, she turned, backing away a few steps, her wings spreading wide, cloak cast behind her where it had encircled her before.  In the doing, she loosed her friends.

Her wings had been folded around her body, a perpetual self-hug.  Rigging and exoskeleton framework supported her body while staying light enough to allow her to fly.  And, it seemed, in addition to all of that, she’d had birds with her.  Perched on her wings.  perched on the exoskeleton.  Perched on her arms and settled on her clothing.

They had been bred to attack.

Lords-suckling mother-cunting birds! I thought, as I ran past Gordon Two and out the door.

She heard or saw me as I left the building and ventured out onto the street.

She turned to face me, and I could see the telltale signs of drugs at work.  Veins and coloration, the nature of her eyes, and the way she held herself as she breathed.

The drug was only just kicking in.  She hadn’t taken it overtly, which meant it was an implant she could activate with a muscle, or something contained within a tooth.  Nothing acted quite that fast, which meant she’d likely taken it when she saw the Academy security approaching.

“You,” she said.

I drew my gun.  I didn’t fire it as I pointed it at her.  Good thing, too, because she was quick, ducking low to the ground, wings flapping to cast her forward at an angle her legs weren’t suggesting.

I adjusted, aimed, and loosed a shot I knew would miss.

Men were leaving the building behind her.  One had a net.

With her back to me, I couldn’t see what she was doing.  I was only aware that one of the two men dropped to the ground as if he’d been shot.  He collapsed on top of the net he held.

She leaped, beating her wings twice while in midair to increase the distance at which she moved.  She kicked the second man in the face with a bare foot, and she managed to slash his face open as she did it.

No doubt anticipating that I might fire again, she performed an acrobatic maneuver in the air.  A flap of wings, a kick and a twist, to change direction while still airborne, hurling herself down and toward the ground, where she could land in a crouch.

I’d expected something like it, but I’d expected her to go the other way, where she had more room to move.

It only took a small adjustment.  I shifted my aim and I pulled the trigger.

It hit wing, which wasn’t hard to do given the sheer span of her wings, and it produced little more than a mist of blood and a puff of feathers in response.

The remainder of the men exited the building, collapsing in on her from every direction.

“Stitched only!” I shouted.  “Humans stay back!”

It didn’t look like they were listening, until the Horse called out from behind me.

“Obey the boy!”

But Avis heard me too.  She shrugged out of the cloak, and she got to work.  She hurled herself forward, caught one truncheon-wielding fist in her talon, and stepped on the same stitched’s shoulder.  A flap of her wings, just barely high enough to be out of reach of a swatting club, and she was able to move forward without kicking off or really using her legs.  It caught the man in front of her off guard, and she slashed his throat with a talon.

Every swing of a truncheon in her direction was a miss.  Considering that her wings together might’ve spanned a modest barn door, that said a lot.  She moved as if the stitched and humans around her were underwater and she wasn’t.  Twitchy, fast, with minimal resistance from the environment around her.

High kicks, strong considering how slender she was, wings tucked in close, then a swift unfurling of the wings and a flap to reposition herself, so she was never surrounded.

I saw the man I’d told to wait on the rooftop creeping forward, as she engaged in a fighting retreat, retreating directly toward him.  Slowly, quietly, he unfurled the net, readying it to throw.

And, in the moment I was recognizing that, I saw her pause in the midst of reorienting herself.  Wings around her, spinning in place, one leg in the air and the other down, as she prepared to bolt for it and find a vantage point from which she might take flight, her eye lingered a little too long on me.  I looked from the man on the rooftop to her.

And she looked from me to the man on the rooftop, twisting around to see him behind her.

I saw the muscles in her shoulder and neck convulse.

A dark mark appeared on the chest of the man on the rooftop.  A wound.

The birds, done with their initial prey, extended their attention to the rest of us.  Pecking, tiny talons scratching at eyes and hands.

Stitched and man alike flailed ineffectually at the birds, and Avis turned to run.  She’d fought her way clear of the tunnel and the soldiers that had surrounded her, and she was very probably faster than any of us.

I drew a deep breath, and I aimed my gun while a small black bird dug into the back of my hand with talons, doing its level best to get a grip on the tendons that extended to my fingers.

I aimed while a bird pulled at my lower eyelid with a beak as sharp as any knife.

I put pain out of mind and out of body, so it wouldn’t affect my shot, aimed, and fired, emptying my gun.

Somewhere in the midst of the shooting, she jabbed the point of her left wing far to her right, bent forward, and fell face-down onto the road.

I holstered my gun, and I strode toward Avis.

Drawing my knife, I grabbed the first bird, ignored the pain as it gnashed and clawed at my hand, and I cut its head off.

I killed a second, and then the remainder flew off.

They were trained to fly back to Avis, and they did.

She struggled to crawl forward, bit by bit, while birds settled on her back, head, and shoulders.

Then, hearing my footsteps, she struggled to turn herself over with the wings obstructing her movements.

I leaped forward to stand on her back, stepped on two birds I could reach without losing my footing, and waited.

“You’re an omen of bad things, Sylvester,” Avis said.

“Are you reading the entrails of birds for these omens and portents?” I asked.

“You could have talked to us,” she said.  “Genie would have been delighted.”

“We’ll talk later,” I said.  “Not to worry.  I don’t intend to leave you with the Academy or the Crown.  Not long-term.”

“She described you as having your own special rules.  Lines you wouldn’t cross and don’t allow crossing in others.  You had Percy killed for harming children.”

“Not quite me, but close enough, sure.”

“We didn’t cross those lines.  We’re working against the same forces you are.”

“Wrong line of argument, Avis,” I said.  “It’s because your plans are so in line with what I want to do that I’m here.”

She was silent at that.  I knew she was thinking it through, figuring me out.

I’d been on that side of things.  On the back foot, against an enemy who had been anticipating me far longer than I had been anticipating them.

A bird nipped a coin-sized chunk out of my leg.  I kicked at it, then aimed and fired at it, reducing it to a mess on the road.  Avis jumped visibly.

“I’m just better equipped to see this particular plan through to the end.”

“You think so?” she asked.  Then she spat, and then she coughed violently.

“Which reminds me,” I said.

I pulled off my jacket, wrung it up into a thick rope, and tied it around her lower face.  She hadn’t been able to aim at me with her face aimed at the ground, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility for later.

“Not taking any chances,” I said.

She only glared at me out of the corner of her eye.

The Horse caught up, having checked on his security people, and he brought a few men with him.  Together, they worked to hold down a veiny Avis with a bullet in one thigh.  They secured a chain in place where I had the jacket, and moved on to other measures I didn’t particularly care about at this stage.  I was free to step off of her and away, and to walk away.

“I’m thankful for your help,” the Horse said.  “But where do you think you’re going?”

I heard the gun cock.

Yes.  There was definitely good cause for why Fray hadn’t worked with this sop.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“You’re asking for a lot, and you’re giving me very little,” the man said.  “You’re taking my Academy from me.”

“There’s room to negotiate,” Avis said.  “In another place, at another time.  Not here.  Not in neutral ground.  Keep in mind, if anyone overheard you talking like that, it would leave you less room to negotiate, not more.”

“You’ve delayed me three times, now.  I’ve played along, I’ve helped keep the pot stirred, I’ve lined up the targets for you to shoot down, but I’m running out of patience.  Don’t think I don’t see the direction the winds are blowing, I know what it means that you’re here and things are happening.”

“We never doubted your political sense, Albert.”

“You want my cooperation?  You have it.  But I won’t be delayed, not when I know that you’re in the final stages, and you won’t necessarily have a place for me when all is said and done.  If I wait too long to make sure I get what I need, you’ll move forward and I’ll be left in the lurch with nothing and no leverage to negotiate with.”

“Fine.  Shall we move to your office?”

“My office is the last place this conversation should be had.  My quarters aside, it’s the one room in this academy where I should feel like I have a modicum of privacy, so it stands to reason I have none at all.  We’ll talk in generalities.”

“Or we won’t talk at all?” Avis asked.  There was a pause, a non-verbal response.  She responded with a quiet, “Very well.  What do you want?”

Gordon Two shifted position, slowly moving into a sitting position with his back to the bookshelf that separated us from Avis and her conversation partner.  He stared into space like someone who was only beginning to comprehend the great mysteries of the universe: awed, horrified, and confused.

“I want to run my Academy, but I won’t have that, will I?”

“Generalities,” Avis gently reminded him.

“I want money enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life.”

“We’re not equipped to supply that, especially not up front, and I doubt you’d take a promised future amount any more than you’d accept delaying this conversation.”

“Quite right.”

The man I’d thrown a knife at gurgled a death rattle, gases and fluids warring for a place in his throat.  It seemed to scare the living daylights out of Gordon the Second.

“I assume you’ll keep asking for the moon, knowing we can’t or won’t deliver.”

“Mmm,” he said.

Avis lowered her voice, and I had to strain my ears and tilt my brain toward the task of hearing her.  “I’ll tell you what we can deliver.   We’ll move forward with this, you already have some idea of what’s at play, and we’ll cut some individuals out.  We know that the stables are… crowded.   As the flood occurs, the horse and the pig will be caught out in the cold.”

“The horse and the pig?  Oh.  Oh, that does tickle my shriveled black heart,” the man said, without speaking any quieter than he had been.  He sounded louder, if anything.

“We agreed to pay you a sum that we haven’t and won’t pay them, and we’ll pay you the remainder before anything else happens.  It will see you through the next year or two, we hope.  Enough time to get back on your feet and find another stable elsewhere.  You know my credentials, professor.”

“I do.”

“I’ve seen people rise and fall, represented in pins on a map as well as the addresses and titles on pieces of mail.  The number of birds that fly to and from them.  While the earthy beasts figure out what’s happening and turn their attention toward finding shelter and surviving the cold winter, you’ll be secure enough to focus on getting ahead.”

“The only reason I’m talking to you is that I know I won’t be getting ahead, dear.  I won’t get another, ah, stable.  Don’t lie to me and pretend I will.  The stable was built on floodlands.  It flooded.  I’ll be a stablehand elsewhere, not an owner.”

“Somewhere starting with an S, or a W.”

“Thereabouts.”

“Look at me, professor,” she said, lowering her voice even further, to the point that her voice distorted.  I leaned closer to the corner to hear better.  She went on, “Imagine that I’m a vulture that flies in circles over the dead and dying.  Those two places are among them.  A morbidly ill beast and another stable of creatures built on floodlands, respectively.”

“You have me so very excited for these prospects, my dear,” the older man said, lacing his words with sarcasm and even more venom.

“We will be in your neighborhood in the future, professor.  And in a way that isn’t traceable, a way that isn’t easy to connect to you, we will see that you have a stable of your own to run again.  If it is S, that ill beast, then you shall keep it, and we shall nourish it, because it suits your ends, and it suits ours.”

“A small war to bring some life to a warbeast with no purpose?”

“Something of the sort.  If you find yourself placed at W, then perhaps we’ll see if we can’t make it a repeat of what you’ll see happen here.  Acknowledging that two points make a line, and that line points at you, we’ll furnish you with a more comprehensive exit strategy.”

“No generalities,” the old man said.

“Money enough to make you comfortable for the rest of your life, professor.  At that point we’ll be prepared to provide it up front.”

“If that comes to pass.  But tempting me with imagined gnashing of teeth on the part of my enemies isn’t changing matters now, is it?  You’re still telling me to have faith that you’ll deliver on your promises.”

“Then I’ll give you something concrete.  You know what I’m asking.  We’ll both set this in motion, and in the earliest stages, you’ll be free to steer it or reverse course.  Your ability to do that is why we’re talking to you.  We need you to let this unfold.  Take the first step, ignore the first mutterings.  And you’ll have the horse kicking at your door, clearly upset about this.”

“A nice thought, but hardly enough to make me feel secure about this.”

“I’m not done, professor.  You’ll take the second step.  People will inquire, trying to find the validity of the rumor.  They’ll find it started at the horse’s stall.  He’ll be at your door again, angry.  He’ll wheel, he’ll deal, but it will be Sisyphean at that stage.  And all you’ll have to do to break him is wait until he’s on the brink of saving himself, the stone nearly hauled to the top of the mountain, and you give it one small push, to send it and him down with it.”

The old man chuckled.

Gordon Two was shaking his head.  I placed my hand on his shoulder, and he startled, as if he’d forgotten I was there.

“I think we might have a deal,” the old man said.  “If I get to see the horse’s back broken and the pig…”

“Crushed in the stampede, I assure you.”

“And all it takes is that I have to hasten a flooding that will inevitably happen?  Yes.  Worth it to see that happen, if nothing else.”

“You’ll watch it happen as you help us, I assure you, and we will follow through.  Even if the damage can’t wholly be stopped at that point, you’ll be placed to rake over some messes and allow certain others.  We want you to feel motivated to do that.”

“We have a deal.”

“Allow me to talk to some others.  We can ensure the horse is blamed for the break in the floodgates, so to speak.  I’ll send someone to you, and you’ll know it’s time.  In the meantime, get your house in order.  Not too orderly, but know that people will be looking at you.”

“Of course.  I’m an old hand at this.”

“It’s why we’re talking to you, professor.”

“How do I reach out, if I need to talk to you?”

“You can use the messenger we send you.  I’ll be checking in myself, to fine tune things as they play out.  If not me, then my employer will.  You know her.”

“I do.”

“Then until our next conversation about stables, floods, and drowned horses, professor.”

“Until our next conversation, my dear.”

I tensed, readying for Avis to come in our direction and find the bodies.  I held my gun and my knife ready.

She wasn’t pumped full of combat drugs, and the modifications to her body that let her fly also made her frail.  I’d have the opportunity afforded by surprise.

If I could do it without giving her a chance to scream, then I could make it look as though they’d died in a mutual struggle.  I could remove Avis from the picture, cause a stir, and use the paranoia of  the Academy, Academy staff, and Fray to eke out an advantage.

No, there were a lot of ways this could be done to my advantage.

I met Gordon the First’s eyes.

But the footsteps moved in other directions.

The tension slipped away.  I stood, and then I stretched.

I stuck the toe of my boot into the side of the body beside me.

“Come on, Gordon Two,” I said.  “We have a lot to do.”

He looked up at me as if I was speaking in tongues.

“The stable is about to flood,” I told him.  “I want a good vantage point when it does.”

“It’s not a stable,” he said.  “It’s the Academy.  What they said before they started talking about stables, the Academy is closing.  They didn’t even talk about the students.  That bit at the very beginning.  We’re a resource to them.”

“You predicted it would.”

“But they’re hurrying it along!” Gordon Two hissed at me.  “Do you know what that does to me?  To my friends?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I said.

“If it was a slow death, then they’d cut us in stages.  Maybe I’d get dropped, I’d be able to go to Sprung, but I’d have a chance.  If they cut us all at once?  That’s a few thousand students who’re looking for a place elsewhere.”

“Oh, I know,” I said.  “And I know who and I know why.”

He looked at the body.  “I helped you-!”

“Shhh!” the voice on the other side of the library shushed him.

“This day started so ordinary, and now I actually helped someone die, and I’m about to lose everything.”

“Gordon Two-”

“That’s not my name.”

“You were training to become an Academy doctor.  You likely had dreams of becoming a black coat, working with a noble, or-”

He was shaking his head.

“Running an Academy?  Did you have some creation you were eager to put out there?”

He continued shaking his head.

“Make mom proud?” I tried.

He shook his head.

“I give up,” I said.

“I just… wanted to work in a hospital.  Academy hospital, actual hospital.  I gave up on the other things a long time ago.  White coat.  Maybe grey.  Surgeries, clinics.  Cute nurses.  Maybe there would be one cute nurse I could date and eventually marry.”

He looked up at me like a small child who’d seen his favorite toy break.

“Oh man,” I said.

“If I got lucky, she could be a redhead,” he said.  “I had a chance.  Now I don’t.”

“You have a chance,” I said.  “Far slimmer chance, but still a chance.  However, it depends on you not getting caught here with two dead bodies.”

He lowered his eyes to the body.

“Yeah?” I prompted him.

“I really killed someone.”

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself,” I said.  “I’m actually sort of really proud I delivered both killing blows there.  Don’t take that from me.”

Again, that look, as if I was speaking in tongues.

I changed tacks.  “This can be salvaged, in a way.  But you need to keep moving.  You need to follow my lead.  Because what that woman said was right.  If this gets underway, there won’t be any stopping it.  But we can steer it.  Understand?  We need to move, Second Gordon.  Think about your mom.”

He turned his eyes back to the body.

I reached down, grabbed his arm, and tugged.

Reluctantly, he rose to his feet in response to the tugging.

Once I had him standing, I was sure to keep him moving.  I didn’t bother with the gun, and I didn’t really have to.  He seemed to have forgotten that I’d led him at gunpoint until now, and the sight of those men dying seemed to have left an indelible impression in him.

“You would have seen patients die at some point,” I said.

We navigated the library, walking until we reached a railing that overlooked the floor below.  The open space between us and the people below was bridged with a clear membrane.  There was a little bit of dust on the membrane, and the faint lines of blue veins webbing it, but it made for a remarkably clear picture of what was going on below, while absorbing a remarkable amount of the chatter and noise.  There were tables, groups gathered, and students drinking tea while sitting in chairs with books.  The levels above us were separated by more membranes, making for increasingly blurry views of each floor above.

It was, as scenes went, actually a lot nicer than nearly everything I’d seen at Radham.  The only part of Radham that had struck me as being as cozy and nice as this was the girl’s dormitory.  Most of my time in there had been with Lillian and sometimes Mary in nightgowns, Lillian and I or the three of us just sleeping together in Lillian’s bed.

That wasn’t the fairest of comparisons.

I spotted Avis at one of the doors.  She attracted a few sidelong glances as she walked past students, but nobody stopped her or commented.

“Stairs?” I asked.

Gordon Two pointed.

I walked briskly, bringing him with, hoping to catch up to Avis.

“Did you ever spend time here?”

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Tea, books?”

“Getting caught up on homework with my friends.  We’d nudge each other when a good looking girl walked in.”

“I don’t understand that mentality, but alright.  I know it all seems hopeless, but it’s not.  There will be days and moments like that again.  If you focus.  You wanted to be a doctor?  Today’s when you reach that crisis point when you have a dying person on your table, and you need to show that you have what it takes.  It’s just coming a little earlier.  Got it?”

“I had a dying person in front of me because I helped kill him.”

“Put that out of mind.  We’re talking hypotheticals.”

We passed other students, the counter where tea was being made and served, exchanged for money, and we exited into the chill outdoors.

No longer the warm interior, but amid the barnacles clinging to the rock.  Cold, damp, and briny.

“We just left those bodies there,” he said.

“Yep.”

“Someone’s going to find them.”

“Absolutely.  Can’t be avoided.  Unless you have really deep pockets or something, stow a body inside.  I’m not strong enough to drag a body that big, and there aren’t exactly any good hiding places there.  I think the conversation happened there because it isn’t a part of the library that gets used much, so it might be a little while.”

“It’s really sinking in,” he said.  “They’ll find the bodies, and then… things will happen, and the school will close.”

“Those two things aren’t linked.”

“But it’ll change things, won’t it?” he asked.

“Change happens.  This way,” I told Gordon Two, leading him off to one side.

“I thought we were following her?”

“We are,” I said.  “But she’s going between those buildings.  Not many others are.  If we follow, then there’s no place to go.  If she looks back over her shoulder, and she will, she’ll see us.  This is a case where we have to think a few steps ahead.”

We took another route, one that gave us glimpses of Avis as she walked with purpose, deeper into Beattle’s scattered topography.

There was a path with garden to either side, winding between buildings.  The building it led to was all glass and wood, surrounded by an expanse of grass and only a few low bushes.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Greenhouse.  There are a few, but that’s the Greenhouse.”

“And she arranged to meet someone there, clearly,” I said.  “The horse?  The pig?”

“The horse is pretty obviously Professor Horsfall.  I think the pig has to be Sir Mondy.”

“Sir?”

“Aristocrat.  He has a stake in the Academy.  Professor Horsfall was a wartime doctor.  Made warbeasts, earned an appointment, and he got stuck here.  Professor Horsfall, Sir Mondy and Professor Yates are the three people who manage Beattle.  Yates must have been the man who was talking to the woman you’re after?”

“Good.  This is useful,” I said.

“But Professor Horsfall and Sir Mondy wouldn’t be here.  Sir Mondy lives in the city.  North end.  He comes down twice a week, but otherwise doesn’t do much except lay down the law.  All the professors and instructors hate him.  Horsfall… would look out of place here.  He’s proud.”

“Who would look less out of place here?”

“I don’t know.  Some instructors.  But most times, it’s where one student group meets.”

“A student group.  Who?”

“Most just call them the Greenhouse Gang.”

“How imaginative.”

“They’re not really a gang.  They’re mostly top students who work together to stay top students.  Some are attractive or popular, so they bring other attractive and popular students in.  Very exclusive.  It’s the warmest place where there’s any privacy in the winter, and so long as they’re there and watching each other’s backs, it’s hard to mess with them.”

“If I asked you about the Rank, would that mean anything to you?”

“You mean junior’s gang?” he asked.  “Because they’re not like the Greenhouse Gang.  They’re actually a gang.  Sort of dangerous.”

“They’re a three out of ten on the danger scale,” I said.  “Barely worth rating.”

“What?  Junior’s group?”

“Yeah.  Nevermind.  Stay with me here.  Where is the horse’s stable?”

“The horse’s- Horsfall?”

He wasn’t very mentally adroit, as in shock as he was.  I couldn’t ask him to make those mental leaps of logic.

“Yeah.  Him.  I’ve got him figured out as a horse in my head thanks to that analogy.  It’s going to take a bit to break.  Where is professor Horsfall?”

“Back the direction we came from.”

I surveyed the scene.

Had the two men been Academy?  Cynthia’s?  Where would the old headmaster go from here?  How would they react to the bodies?  How would Avis react?

“Simon?” Gordon Two asked.

“One moment,” I said.

The bodies would be found.  People would inform those at the top.  The old headmaster, Yates or Yancy or whatever his name was, he would put two and two together, most likely, and he would strive to inform Avis.  She was recognizable enough that he could put someone on the task, or have trusted lieutenants ask questions.  Professor Horse would be clueless, more focused on the crime, while Professor Yancy navigated the greater picture.

If we went to Professor Horse, then everything else could unfold while my back was turned and my attention elsewhere.  The bodies could be found, Yancy alerted, and Avis clued in that something else was afoot.

If we stayed, then we lost ground.  I could maybe steer people away from Avis.  She could leave, and then what?  Where did she go?

Fray and Avis were already touching base with the Rank, with the headmaster, and now with the Greenhouse Gang.

I ventured, “The Greenhouse Gang.  The Rank.  What other student groups are there?”

“What?”

“Distinct student groups.  Who else?  Gangs, clubs?  Even individual, notable students who have followings.”

“The student council.  They’re mostly other top students, but don’t mesh much with the Greenhouse Gang.”

“Good.  Who else?”

“Um.”

“Athletics?”

He snorted.

“Girls?” I prompted.

“Some girl’s groups.  Um.  One, I don’t know their name, but they spend time on the roof of the dorm when it’s warmer.  I don’t know how to put it nicely.”

“They know they’re going to fail out.  So they enjoy their last moments of freedom.”

“That’s exactly how I would have wanted to put it nicely, yeah.”  He sounded surprised.

I’d seen the type at Dame Cicely’s.

“And there are the girls who aren’t failing out, who stick together because they’re girls, I guess?  But not super keen girls like you have in the Greenhouse or student council.”

“I’m getting the picture.”

I was starting to see the pieces on the board, the key locations.

“They’re going to leak the news about the school getting closed down,” I said.  “The student body will react just like you did, except their friends are going to be close by.  The riot is controlled, because these cliques and gangs already know.  They’ve been braced for it, and they’ve been told their options.  The smart ones might have opportunities elsewhere-”

“Doubt it,” Gordon Two said, sounding miserable.  “Being the top of Beattle isn’t much better than being in the bottom two rungs at a decent school.”

“Some are here because of circumstance,” I said.

“Oh, everyone is, if you ask everyone,” Gordon Two said.  “And prisoners in jail will all tell you they’re innocent.”

“Fair point,” I said.  “So even the top students don’t have much in the way of options.  They can give up on this and go home… or they can rebel.”

“Rebel?”

“As in join the rebellion.”

Gordon Two’s eyes widened.

“Would you?” I asked him.  “Ditch the uniform?  Disappoint mom?”

A frown creased his features.

I put my hand on his arm, steering him.  I turned him so he could see the nearest attractive girl.

“If she went?  What if everyone from student council and Greenhouse Gang to the Rank and the girls on the rooftop was leaving?  They say something like they know people who know people.  You’ll get money, you’ll get lodging.  You just… grab your stuff and go.  And there are none of the Academy rules.  No restrictions.  You can room with girls.  You can be angry, drink, and tell the world to fuck off.”

“Except it’s all manipulation,” he said.

“Well, you know that.  Pretend you didn’t.  Pretend that your alternative would be to stay.  To do nothing except accept that you’d failed.  You would have to tell your mom that you did so badly, collectively, that the school was shut down.  Would you go?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But I don’t think I would.”

“No,” I said.  “But some would.  Enough would.”

“Yeah.  Probably.  That’s what’s happening?”

“That’s how I think it plays out.  And a crop of students get work tutoring the civilians who’ve received these mass-produced books with Academy knowledge, or they produce weapons, or they act as guerilla agents.  There’s a lot that could be done with all of this.  And it draws attention.  It takes a bite out of the Academy and it’s hard for the Academy to bite back.”

Gordon Two nodded.

“We’ll get you your cute nurse,” I said.  “We’ll get you your redhead, even.  It probably won’t be exactly as you imagined it, but we’ll see what we can do.  For that, I need your help.  Because I can’t cover enough bases on my lonesome, and my other allies are watching other people and getting stuff done elsewhere.”

“What do you need?” Gordon Two asked.

“You’re going to take a message to Professor Horse,” I said.  “Tell him that you’re a messenger, but… his fellow professor was going to betray Beattle Academy, and we were going to work with him to do it.”

“Us?  We us?  You and me?”

“Me more than you.  You’re just a messenger.”

Gordon Two frowned.

“Okay?  Are you with me so far?  Because we’re just getting started.  Professor Yancy-”

“Yates?”

Whoever.  He hired someone to fuck with us.  A bird lady.  He killed two of ours in the library, and Yatesy plans to pin it on the Horse.  So we’re extending the offer to the Horse now.”

Gordon Two nodded.

“Repeat it back to me.”

He did.

“Bring him to the library.  Show him the bodies.  People may have found the bodies already.  If so, you should tell them you’re a concerned student.  Once he realizes the gravity of the situation, bring him to me here.  I might be there at the library, depending on what happens out here and where Avis goes.  I might be gone.  If so, wait a little while.  I won’t be more than ten minutes.”

Gordon the Second nodded again.

“Repeat it back to me, with the last bit included.”

He did.

“Go,” I told him.

He made it two steps before he stopped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Who were those two men?”

“Wrinkles,” I said.  Two of quite a number that could get in the way of this unfolding the way I hope it will.  Like Fray, or the fact that the Horse wasn’t Fray’s first pick for conspirator for a reason, the student groups, the informants, and the other top-quality agents who were no doubt waiting in the wings, watching proceedings.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The two men I was following were good.  I followed them as they followed Avis, and that gave me ample opportunity to study the pair.

Their choice of clothing and hairstyle were accurate enough to fool me.  If they hadn’t been actively following Avis, then I wouldn’t have given them a second look.  Overalls tucked into wading boots and a sweater for one.  Vest, shirt, and slacks for the other.  Their hair was messy, only nominally combed back or parted, and their hands.  Oh, thing of beauty, they had the calluses of hard manual labor.

Their guns, I noted, were well hidden.  I actually had to look to find them, I watched how fabric moved and judged where the weight was, and then deduced the rest.

There were other hints I was able to catch, as they alternated, one walking briskly to pass the other and get closer to Avis, while the other fell behind, staring in a store window or taking a slightly different path.  I could draw pretty darn close to them while they kept a careful eye on their partner and on the more distant Avis.  They had shaved at just about the same time, and it hadn’t been that long ago.  They had eaten the same food from the same place, and they had done so recently enough that I could smell it as I drew within a few feet of them.

They had received the call to turn up here very recently.  That pointed to two possibilities.

The first possibility was they had received word that Fray was on the train, and their hope was to do what we were doing and intercept the plan rather than intercept her, exactly.  News of Fray being due to arrive could have fit into the timeframe here.  She would’ve had to be sighted while she boarded in the middle of the night, this morning, the message delivered before the sun had risen this morning.  The timing, the distribution of the key elements, and the objective would suggest Cynthia more than anyone else.

Expert elements like this pair would have been assigned to another task in this area if they were here now, which raised questions about what they were doing, what Cynthia would have been doing.  It hinted that the task and subject they’d been assigned to were lower priority than Fray and Fray’s actions, and-

I stopped myself there.

The second was that they had been tipped off.  It would have had to occur within the last four or five hours.  The Academy moved slower, with instructions passing up the chain of command and key assets, which would mean they got the info four or five hours ago.  Cynthia would move faster and more aggressively.

More lines of thinking spiraled out from that.  Cynthia was naturally more combative and aggressive, which would likely mean that she would move forces in, which meant implications and consequences and possible war or civil war, which raised questions about Fray’s response and the tools she had at her disposal, and how she had accounted for this possibility in general.

Then there was a simpler, more chilling question of who or what had tipped them off.  Only a few likely possibilities stood out, and those proposed answers didn’t lead to many more questions, so it was an easy set of permutations to wrap my head around.  Four or five hours ago, I had been stewing over the fact that I was setting so many stray individuals free into the world, not knowing exactly what their courses would be.

At that time, I had just made my move against the Rank, my lieutenants helping.

Odds were good that we had been seen or infiltrated.

The bystanders around us were taking on a particular style, now.  They were younger, or they weren’t laborers.  People who worked with animals, carriage drivers, students in uniform and students out of uniform.

Beattle Academy didn’t convey the sense of an institution.  It clung to the city as a man might cling to a crumbling cliffside.  In many places, the buildings weren’t identifiable as Academy buildings right off.  It took a glance through windows or a glimpse of a plaque or lettering on the front face of the building, or attention to the students coming and going.

There was a ‘heart’ to Beattle, a core of the city center where nearly every building was Academy.  As one got further away from the heart, the hold on the city slipped, and the Academy dormitories, classrooms, stables and labs were more spaced apart, interrupted by businesses restaurants and apartments.

My tracking of the trio was interrupted as a student very deliberately bumped into me.

“Watch where you’re going, grub,” he said.

“Will do,” I said, walking past him.

His hand fell on my shoulder.  “Are you being flippant with me?”

I watched as Avis and the two men walked away.  The man at the very tail end turned to glance in the direction of the commotion, and I turned my back to him, stepping to one side so that the people in the crowd would block his view of me.

I knew what the three of them looked like.  That counted for something.

I met the eyes of a boy two years my senior, a solid six inches taller than me.  His hair was black, the part set too far to one side, making his hair look more like an elaborate comb-over.  An unfortunate look for an eighteen or nineteen year old.

“You’re not a student,” he said.

“Do you know that for certain?” I asked.

His hand gripped me by the collar, bunching it up around my neck.  I was forced to stand on my toe-tips to keep my shirt from being untucked and my sweater from rising up enough to reveal the weapons at my belt.

Four other students lingered nearby, all boys.  The five made a crowd, it looked like.

I momentarily debated the wisdom of simply slicing his wrist open and then using the confusion to disappear into the crowd.

Probably not worth it.

“What are you doing around here?” he asked.

“Honestly?” I asked.  “I’m here about a girl.”

Perhaps the wrong thing to say.  He hadn’t liked me on principle before.  I didn’t read like a student, and I hadn’t been trying to.  Going by his reaction, he probably hadn’t had much luck with girls in recent memory, and the idea of a non-student getting the girls when he wasn’t?  Ooh man.

I could see the venom and the calculation in his eyes.

“Even here the girls don’t have standards that low,” he said.  Contempt dripped off his tongue as he looked me up and down.

To his credit, I was a bit nettled at that.  I knew he would’ve said something like it no matter how I looked, but I was nettled.  I’d put effort into preparing for the day.  Girls liked me.  Mostly after they got to know me, but still.

Even Jamie had liked me, and he was a boy.

And if this rat-bastard was saying something bad about Lillian, Mary, and Jessie’s standards, well, I couldn’t brook that.

I glanced in the direction of Avis and the pair.

“Whoever she is, she can wait,” the student said.

“Perhaps,” I said.  “Can you tell me why she’s waiting?  I might have to explain later.”

“I think you should apologize for bumping into me and being insolent,” the student said.  “As a starter.”

I nodded.  “Or you’ll beat my face in.”

“I didn’t say it,” he told me.  He gripped my collar tighter.  “You did.”

“Here, in the street, where we have an audience to watch you do it?  Or somewhere out of the way?”

“Here’s fine,” he said.

Dang.  Really?

Here, with an audience?

“Your teachers won’t care, huh?” I asked.

“Not here,” he said.  He drew back his fist to hit me.

My jacket draped over my arm, my hand holding the gun, I jabbed the gun into his gut.

With that in mind, I was entirely surprised when he socked me across the face.  There were cheers and hoots from the crowd around us, and people began rearranging themselves to get a better vantage point.  Even the ones who hurried away looked like they were doing so reluctantly.  They had classes to get to.

I pressed the gun harder into his gut.  I saw him glance down.

“Eyes forward,” I murmured, as I cocked the gun.  I wasn’t sure if the student’s friends would hear, but I really needed to get things moving along.

They didn’t seem to hear, but a slight widening of my aggressor’s eyes suggested he had.

“You got your first lick in.  What’s say you let go of me, and you and me make this a fair fight?” I asked, glaring at him.

My cheekbone smarted.

He let go of me.

“Been in a fight before?” I asked.

“A few,” he said.

“Among students?” I asked.  I paced a little.

“Mostly.”

He was wary now.  He’d heard and felt the gun.

“I grew up on the streets.  With some mean bastards, too.  People who would shank someone or shoot them dead and then leave them bleeding on the street, slip away before authorities could step in, you know?”

“Sure,” he said.

“And even if we didn’t go that far, a lot of us were nasty and crazy enough to find the person who crossed ’em, track them to where they lived, and get ’em there.  They were the ones who taught me what I know.  You get me?”

His friends sniggered.

“Assuming you’re telling the truth, sure,” he said.

“I’m going to give you a handicap,” I said.  I put the arm with the jacket behind it behind my back, gun and hand covered by fabric.  “One hand behind my back.  I’m going to kick your ass until you cry uncle.  Which I’m betting is going to be embarrassingly soon.”

I could see him realizing what was up, measuring this situation he had instigated.

I’d prophesied a future and the gun made it so.

Unless he threw me another curveball.

“You wouldn’t be Thom, would you?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.  “Simon.”

“You look like some of my cousins from New Amsterdam.  George, Thom, Westie?”

His tone had shifted.  He was begging for me to get it.  To let him go out with a semblance of pride.

“I know Westie,” I said.  “I guess you’d be my second cousin once removed or something like that?”

He rubbed his hand through his hair.  His head and hand moved like he was a stitched with a kink in the joints, too stiff, jerky.  Nervousness shining through.  “Shit, man.”

There was even a hint of a tremor in his voice, though I wasn’t sure others could hear it.

“I’m family and you hit me?”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m not the type to narc on you to our relatives, but wow.”

“I’m sorry,” he repeated himself.  “I’ll leave you be.”

“No,” I said.  “No, you’re coming with me, because I’ve got a date with a girl, and you’re going to explain this bruise on my face to her.  I’m not going to have you ruining my chances.  And then we can let bygones be bygones.  Alright?”

People were peeling away now.  The show had ended.

“I’ve got a class to get to,” he said.

I shook my head, and I brought my gun and jacket forward again.  I refolded the jacket with care, keeping the gun hidden.    “You can do this.  And then we’re even.  It’ll take five minutes.”

“Five minutes?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Shit,” he said.  He made a face that was particularly pained.  More like a guy doing something at gunpoint than a guy having to be late for class, odd as it was.

I jerked my head in the direction that Avis had gone.

His friends were jeering, nagging him, telling him how mad his teacher would be.

“Fuck it,” he said, and then he broke away from his friends.

The jeering got worse.

“You can tell them I held a gun on you later,” I said, as we walked away.

He nodded, face tight.

“We’re going to take longer than five minutes, though,” I told him.

He stopped in his tracks.  I caught him, one hand at his back, giving him a push to keep him going.

“What kind of guy your age carries a gun?” he asked.

“My age?” I asked, pointedly.

“I dunno,” he said.  “Sorry.”

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

“I think… going by my luck today, if I guess, I’m going to be wrong.  Maybe you’re actually older than me.  Are you twenty?”

“Seriously.  How old do you think I am?” I asked.

“Fourteen?” he asked.

I suppressed my urge to shoot him.

“I’m looking for two men,” I said.  “And a girl, I was sort of telling the truth about that.  So we’re going to go looking.  And if we find them, then all is good.  And if we don’t, I’m going to be annoyed with you, because you’re the reason I wasn’t able to keep my eye on them.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” he said.

“That’s fine,” I said.  “Just do what I tell you to do.  Okay?  Now, you need a name.”

“I have a name.”

“I’m going to call you Gordon the Second.”

Gordon, walking off to the side, gave me a nasty look.  I suppressed the urge to return the favor.

“That’s not my name.  Why am I ‘the second’?  What happened to the first?”

“Died,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, in a way that sounded like he was in the process of having his life flash before his eyes.

“It was… a loss,” I said.  “His dog died too.”

“Oh.  I don’t have a dog.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

He didn’t have a response for that, but Gordon the Second didn’t look like he agreed with me about how unfortunate his dogless life was.  Not that I’d always wanted a dog, really, but I had to admit that Hubris had turned me around some.

The fact that Hubris had been completely self sufficient had been a factor.  The fact that he’d nourished a part of Gordon that needed nourishing, supporting my friend and brother like he had… that was the real thing that had opened my eyes to why dogs were a thing.

But I couldn’t conscience owning an animal that was liable to outlive me, so that was that.

“What’s this building?” I asked.

The building was one of the bigger buildings in the area, and had a placard with only a symbol above the door.  It was the place that Avis had been heading directly toward.

“Academy office,” Gordon the Second said.

“Count me far from surprised,” I said.  “We’re going inside.  Act like you know where we’re going, second Gordon.”

Every time I said or thought the name, Gordon the first looked doubly irritated.

“What about the girl?”

“We’re trying to find her.  Keep up, second Gordon,” I told him.  “And keep talking to me.  Tell me about your family.”

“I don’t want to tell you about my family.”

“You already told me some things.  Westie and you called me Tim or something-”

“I didn’t call you Tim.”

“You called me something.  Keep talking, man, come on.  If you’re going to do one tenth as well as the original Gordon did, you need to be able to look natural while you’re nervous.”

“I know I was an asshole, but please, can we-”

“No, no, no,” I said.  “We’re getting close to people.  Make up a story about your mom and my mom.  Change the names if you have to, but talk, come on.”

“I don’t… well, I know when they were little, my mom climbed up a tree, one taller than most houses.  And she kept going higher, until she was perched on small branches.  And then she fell, clean straight to the lawn below.  Faceplant.”

“And she got up and laughed like everything was fine?  Because kids are resilient?”

“No.  She had to go to the local Academy because she was really messed up,” Gordon Two said.  “And while she was there, my Auntie Nono-”

“You have an Auntie Nono?  That sounds like some bad guy from one of the books this kid I know reads.”

“She got the nickname when we were little and it stuck,” Gordon Two said.

“That’s beautiful.  I want her to be my mom.”

“Okay,” he said.  He seemed taken aback.  “While my mom was gone, Auntie Nono assumed she was dead, didn’t shed a tear, just went into mom’s room and began taking her stuff.  Fair game, you know?”

Perfect,” I said.  “I really am my mother’s child.”

“My mom came away from the experience with a love for the Academy doctors who saved her.  She studied, but… it’s hard.  She says it was harder for a girl, back then.  But I think it’s just hard.  And maybe it helps her to have that excuse.”

I glanced over the people in the Beattle Academy office.  I didn’t see any of the people we were looking for.

“Now her son is a proud student,” I said.

“At Beattle,” Gordon Two said.

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

“It’s pretty bad.  I’ve been here for four years.  I avoid getting cut but last two years I haven’t advanced either.  Now budgets are getting slashed, and everyone’s nervous.  We’re thinking they’re going to cut more of the student body.  If they do, that means I’m out.”

“There will always be a place to go,” I said.  “It’s in their interests to ensure there’s always a place.”

“It means moving.  Disappointing my family more.  If I go to Belltower or Sprung then it’s going to be even more vicious, even more competition.”

“Not out of the question,” I said.  “But they like what that vicious mentality breeds.  And now and again, someone rises up out of the desperate clawing mass bloody and dangerous and primed with the right sort of instincts, and the Academy can tell themselves that it works.  And so schools will keep closing and others will open and cities rise and fall around them, and it all keeps the farce going.”

“A farce,” Gordon Two said.  “That seems about right.  Even this, with you.  Acting like we’re getting along.”

I saw one of the men I’d been tracking walking down the hall, perpendicular to me.  His hair was combed and slicked, no longer a natural sort of messy, and he wore a white coat.

He’d transformed.

“You’re doing a marvelous job,” I said.  “And I just found one of the men I’m looking for, so I think I’m in very good shape.”

I felt a little bit of trepidation.  I had a sense of what the next steps had to be, but if these guys were this skilled at disguise then they could be dangerous in other ways.  They might have added capabilities.

“I can go, then?”

I chuckled.  “No, no.  Stick with me.  Tell me what happened to Auntie Nono.”

“She got married and had a child six months later,” Gordon Two said.  “You wouldn’t really shoot me here, would you?  Not in the middle of an Academy building.”

“Shhh,” I said.  “We’re keeping conversation nice, light and easy.  Understand?  Also, look at my right hand.”

He turned to look.  I adjusted my sweater, revealing the knife handle.

I kept my voice light and quiet, smiling throughout as I talked, “If you panic or try to signal that group of students we’re about to walk by, I’ll slip this into your vitals.  Silent.  By the time they realize what happened, I’ll have slipped away.  By the time they alert an authority, I’ll be outside.  Then I’ll be gone, and you might live, or you might forever end your mother’s dreams of adding one more good doctor to the world.”

We walked by the group of girls without incident.  Three of them had eyes for Gordon Two, giving him appraising looks, but one of them turned her attention to me, instead.  It started as a glance because of the bruise on my face, I suspected, but her eye traveled as her mind clearly wandered into the territory of wondering what my story was.

I winked, confident, and I got a surprised smile.

Low standards my ass.

“And you think I deserve that?” he asked, once we were clear, “Because I gave you a hard time?”

“I think you deserve to have a bad day more than an awful lot of others, and you had the courtesy to let me know, when I needed camouflage.”

“Camouflage.  This is for real, then.  The gun, the… camouflage.  What would you have done if you didn’t find me?”

“What the guy I’m tracking did, maybe.  Stole a uniform.  Or something.  A distraction.  I’ve got a bag full of stuff here.  We’re about to walk through a group of people.  Auntie Nono got married, huh?”

“She did.  Young, to a decorated soldier a lot older than her.  But he was upright enough to marry her when the baby was on the way.  Then they moved across the pond.  They moved so often we couldn’t keep their address straight, and then they moved to the edge of the green stripe.  That’s what they called the front line in Africa.”

I could read his tone.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I never knew her.  Barely knew my cousins.  They won the war, but the tools they used were ugly, and somehow my aunt, living in a residential area far from the actual front line of battle, she died.”

I had a sense of what Gordon the Second was doing.  Trying to humanize himself.  But I didn’t really care.

“I’ve seen some of the messes left behind,” I said.  “I’ve seen the red plague up close.  Tore it out of someone, even.  I’ve seen primordials.  I’ve seen a man with the voice of an angel turn into a monster.  And I’ve seen child and noble alike die.”

“I don’t think I believe you,” Gordon Two said, his voice soft.  “And I’m surprised at myself, because I let myself believe a lot of what you’ve said.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That was a bad idea.  Tell me, the layout here is weird.  What’s this part of the building?”

“We’re adjunct to the library.  I think this area opens up into a part of the library that’s for the really expensive books.  Nothing restricted or Academy related, or it would be under guard, kept in classrooms and such, but… actual books.  The stairs cut past that area and go down to the ground floor.  Conversation and eating and drinking are allowed there, but as you go up to higher tiers of the library, the rules about being quiet are even harsher.”

“Thank you, Second Gordon.  But we’re not on the ground floor.  So if we go beyond the expensive books are, then we’d be…”  I trailed off.

“Second floor means conversations are fine, but laughing or raising your voice would get you frowned at or make people ask you to leave.”

“Got it,” I said.  “Let’s let ourselves into the library.”

I earned a few second glances, again, because of the mark on my face, but also because of the standards of my outfit, the fact that my hair was no doubt going to every effort to make itself a mess, and the odd pairing of me with a boy two years older than me.

He’d said I looked fourteen to him.  At my worst, I looked fifteen, and I was legitimately a year older, after accounting for my stunted growth.  Maybe two years, even.

He’d earned points in my book for volunteering the information and cooperating as much as he had, but he’d indirectly insulted Lillian, Mary, and Jessie, and he had insulted me.

So, all considered, I didn’t mind that I was about to make his bad day worse, and likely ensure he was going to be even later for class, if he attended at all.

The bookshelves in this part of the library smelled like leather and had gold lettering, the shelves very nice.  We found our way into the more usual books, with a great deal of boring nonfiction works that Jessie would have been distracted by, and, with me guiding us to move more slowly, we got close enough to see the first of the two men.

Triangulating where the guy was, listening for the sounds of conversation, I could gauge the location of Avis.  She was talking to someone in one corner of the library.  In anything but a library, I doubted he would have been able to make any of it out.

“Gordon Two,” I said.

“That’s not my name,” he said.

“I know.  But consider it a kindness that I’m not using your real name.  Because it means I’m willing to forget you exist when all of this is done.”

He nodded.  “This is serious, isn’t it?”

“If I said the fate of the Crown Empire hinges on this, would you believe me?” I asked, my voice low.

He shook his head.

“Yeah,” I whispered.  “Well, it’s still pretty serious.  So listen carefully.  I want you to walk up to that man in the white lab coat, and I want you to punch him as hard as you can in the stomach.  Solar plexus.  And then I want you to keep punching him.”

“You’re insane.”

I whispered “I’m not wholly sane, no, but I’m dead serious.  Because the alternative to you doing what I say is that I knife you right here and right now, and then I knife him, or you could run over there and warn him, and then I have to open fire, and you can be sure I’m going to aim one of the bullets at you.  And it’ll be messy and others will die in the noise and the chaos.”

“He’s going to shout or kick up a fuss after I hit him,” Gordon Two said.

“No,” I said.  “And if he does, I won’t hold it against you.  So it might even be in your best interests to hurt him enough to get a noise out of him, you know?  But don’t you make a peep, if you can help it.”

“No,” Gordon Two said.  “No, I don’t know, not at all.”

“Go on,” I said.  “I’m missing out on one really critical conversation while this is going on.”

I moved the gun.

He shook his head, but he turned, walking toward the spy in the white coat.

So very obvious.

Leaning over, I looked at Gordon the First.  “Doesn’t measure up to the original.”

“I don’t understand how your head works, Sy,” Gordon said.  “But if you’re trying to get a rise out of me, it’s working, and that says bad, bad things about how your brain is put together.”

I smiled.

Second Gordon looked as confrontational as hell as he stalked toward the man in the white coat.  I ducked out of sight as his attention drew the man’s attention.

The scuffle was so quiet as to be almost inaudible.  I could hear Avis and her conversation partner more than I could hear the struggle.  I doubted any proper punches were even landing.

Eyes closed, I put my hand against a bookshelf.  I felt for the vibrations of footsteps as much as I listened for them.

With one spy no doubt watching his partner, who listened to Avis, he was no doubt watching the scene unfold with Gordon Two.

His partner had it handled, but the job wasn’t getting done in the meantime.

It was obvious for a distraction, so he wasn’t acting on it.  He waited, observed…

Then he moved.  I felt the dull sensation of boots on floorboards, on the other side of the wood-backed bookshelf.

I moved around a bookshelf so that if he checked his rear, which he would, he wouldn’t see me.

One grunt, then a gasp.

Then another set of footsteps, moving away from me.

Moving back around and then tracing the path to follow the man through the maze, my own footsteps were light and silent.  My strides were long, my feet fell in places where the feet of the heavy bookshelves already pressed floorboards down, so they wouldn’t creak.

His partner was pinning Gordon Two down, and he himself was focused on the flanks, the rear no doubt just checked and confirmed clear.  He wore a black coat.

I moved right up behind him before he realized I was there.  My knife cut across his hamstrings, and then I reversed the knife and plunged it into his chest as he toppled.

The spy in the white coat watched his partner -the fellow he’d shaved and eaten with that morning- drop dead, while I threw my body between the man and the ground, to keep his impact with the ground from being too heavy.  It slowed me down, tangled me up, perhaps a bit more than I’d anticipated.

He moved to rise, while Gordon Two was lying with his back on the ground, staring up and back at me in what would have looked like an upside-down murder scene.

I let the body fall the rest of the way to the ground, and he and I started toward each other, each breaking free of our respective opponents.

Me against a grown man that had at least some inkling of how to fight.

Ambush, surprise attacks, attacking inconvenienced enemies, I could do that.  But my talents in fighting were limited to avoiding the fights where I wasn’t at an overwhelming advantage and capitalizing on the ones where I was.

My opponent stopped short as Gordon Two grabbed at his leg, hugging it.  He turned, looking down and over, and as I moved, realized his mistake.

I threw my knife at the man while he wasn’t able to freely move around.  It sank into his chest, placed well enough that I could see the defeat in the man’s eyes.

“Uuuuuughuuuh,” he groaned, an inarticulate, long, loud cry that seemed to be his dying rebellion, striving to draw attention to me or warn our mutual prey.

If that was what it was, then he was good.

If it wasn’t, then that was allowed, because dying had to suck.

Elsewhere in the library, well hidden by the rows and columns and corridors of bookshelves, a woman shushed the man who’d groaned so loudly.

I waited, listening and watching, my hand on a bookshelf so I might feel some residual footsteps, and nothing came of it.

I crossed to where the man in the white coat had been standing.  I wished I’d been able to interrogate him, but I couldn’t imagine a scenario where he would have cooperated.

Matter of fact was, I was surprised that Gordon Two had acted to help like he had.  Until I heard what Avis was saying and realized he’d heard a part of the same conversation.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Do you know what I miss about our place in Tynewear?” I asked.

“Do tell,” Jessie said, from the other room, through the door.  “Also, let me know when I can come in.”

“You can come in any time,” I said.  Then, as I heard her hand rattle the doorknob, I said, “But I’m naked, so be warned.”

She left the washroom door alone.

“Why do you want in?” I asked.

“I want a towel for my hair.  Can you pass one through the door?”

“Hands are gucky,” I said, as I slicked my hair back.  “So no.  Give me a second…”

I carefully picked at the towel, wrapped it around my lower body, and, not wanting to get it all gross, I pressed my hips against the cabinet below the sink to pin it in place.

“There.  Come in.  I’m covered.”

She let herself into the washroom, averting her eyes as she headed straight for the cabinet with the towels.

“What was the thing you missed about Tynewear?”

“Which?  What?  Oh.  Showers.  East coast, edge of the world-”

“You’re really sticking with that, aren’t you?” she asked, as she used the towel to squeeze water out of her hair.  She was already dressed,

“So close to the heart of the Crown Empire, and what do you know?  No showers.”

“They have some in public places, like pools and athletics clubs.”

“Point stands.  No appreciation for the shower.  Only baths.  And baths are miserable when you’ve got stuff to do.  Great if you want to stop, but terrible if you’ve a five minute window before a day full of spying, kidnapping, murder, arson-”

“Theft.  Don’t forget the rampant theft.”

“And theft?  With plans to set up a rebel enclave?  Either way.  Five minute baths are a tragedy.”

“Coming from someone who has experienced tragedy, that seems very grave.”

“It is!  Terribly grave,” I said.  I fixed my hair as best as I could, but it was already rebelling against the oil-wax blend I had used to try to pin it down.  “Especially when we have to cut corners, no tea with breakfast, no time to toast or cook anything, just grabbing some fruit and whatever as we rush out the door, going hungry all morning…”

“Sylvester,” Jessie said, in a very pointed way.

“Jessie,” I said, mimicking her tone.

“Are you hinting that you would like me to prepare breakfast while you get ready?”

“However did you get that impression?  No, no.  Just because I let you have the bath first, with hotter water, and-”

“I’ll see about your breakfast, Sy,” she said, with a sigh.  “It’s not going to be fancy, we don’t have that long.”

“I’ll take that as my hint to hurry things along.”

She hung up the damp hair-towel, grabbed a brush, and left the washroom.

I leaned in close to the mirror to check my face for any proper sign of facial hair, was disappointed, and ducked into the other room to start getting ready.

Mary was waiting for me.  Silent, she oversaw my selection of the tools and weapons as I laid them out on my bed.  Ashton sat at the window, and didn’t look up as I touched it, gauging the temperature outside.

I dressed with more warmth than was necessary.  The pants meant more for winter than for fall.  I wore a shirt under a heavier sweater.  I couldn’t remember where it came from, but it was soft and close-knit enough to be worn on its own.  Something I’d looted way back in Tynewear?  Maybe Jessie had bought it during one of our supply runs, and it had found its way into my luggage.

I grabbed a jacket but didn’t wear it.  I collected everything I’d laid out on the bed, everything with its place.  My gun disappeared into the inside pocket of the jacket, which I folded in such a way that the gun wouldn’t fall out.  Other things were put in pockets, belt, and hidden pockets based on priority and need.  I grabbed a bag and stowed the things I wouldn’t need for sure, but which would be useful to have.  These too were put away based on a kind of instinct more than proper organization.  Lockpicks in a front pocket of the bag, while a smoke canister and ammunition went into the bottom of the bag, sure to be buried by other things.

“Is this how you operate, Mary?” I asked.  “Is it a factor in how you’re put together?  When you’re really nervous about the day, you focus a little bit on grooming?  Armor yourself in fashion, arm yourself with the necessary tools, and find your center?”

“I was only nervous in the very beginning,” she said.  “Back when I didn’t know the Lambs.  Then again, when Percy came up, and when the Lambs split.”

“The very beginning.  That’s when you settled on your particular style.  Before then, we mostly saw you wearing the Mothmont uniform.”

“I started wearing lace and soft fabric, to hide the steel,” she said, smiling.  She touched my chest, over the heart.  “What’s your soft armor hiding?”

I could smell toast.  My head turned.

“Good luck with the mission,” she said.  “I look forward to hearing the results, all the way back at Radham Academy.”

I smiled, hiked the bag up over one shoulder, gathered the jacket under one arm, and joined Jessie in the kitchen, heels of my boots knocking the wood floor with each step.

“Thank you,” I told her.

“You’re welcome,” she said.  “It’s self-preservation, too.  You get cranky when you’re tired and hungry, and I’m putting up with you for a good portion of the day.”

“Did you eat?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I’m taking some of this.  Toast, with liver spread.  Cheese.  Fruit.”

I made a face.

“Eat some fruit,” she said.

Reluctantly, I took the fruit, popping it into my mouth.

“I skipped the tea,” she said.  “We can’t drink it while we walk.”

“We could with a Dewar flask.”

“We had a Dewar flask.  We’ve had several.  You keep turning them into bombs.  Mostly poison gas bombs.”

“Do I?”

“And the glass jars with wire fasteners, and the milk bottles, which get costly, because they forced us to renew subscriptions if they couldn’t collect the used bottles-”

Behind Jessie, Helen creeped up and stole a piece of toast.  Except it was a phantom piece.  Jessie, none the wiser, picked up the real version of that same piece of toast.  Jessie bit into the toast with emphatic, not-entirely-serious anger.

“Yes,” I said.  “Take out your aggression on the toast, not on me.  Gnash it.  Gnash it good.”

Helen’s eyes crinkled with humor as she devoured her own piece.

Swallowing, Jessie stabbed the remaining bit of toast in my direction.  “It wouldn’t be so bad if you handled it, but you leave that to me, because you don’t-”

She paused.

I waited, watching, as she remained where she was, toast held in the air.  She stared at me, a faint frown crossing her features.  If it was twelve percent of a proper frown, then it creeped up a percentage point, second by second, over a good five seconds.

“Jessie?”  I asked.

“Shh,” she told me.

I frowned, glanced at Helen, who shrugged, and I eased my concerns by eating my liver toast and cheese.

“We should go,” Jessie said.  “We might have to make a detour.”

I grunted assent through a mouthful of toast, made sure I had my stuff, and hooked the strap of Jessie’s bag with my foot, lifting it up to a level where she could grab it without having to bend over.

We vacated the apartment, and I paused before locking the door, making eye contact with Helen.

“Watch the apartment,” I told her.  I got a nod, closed the door, and locked it.

When I turned around, the look of general concern on Jessie’s face had jumped a few dozen percentage points.

“Helen,” I told her, doing my best to manage the handfuls of food without getting my fingers too sticky.

“Okay,” she said.

“Where are we detouring?” I asked, as we walked down the stairs to the street.

It was dim outside, the first rays of dawn only just reaching out.  People were awake and busy, because it was seven in the morning, but the colder season was creeping in, stealing away daylight and making its approach clearly felt in the early morning.  In a few weeks, water would start freezing and the air would be dry.  For now, however, the salty air that blew in from over the ocean and into the city was cold and damp, the light faltering.

“If nothing changes in the next few minutes, we might want to head to the-”

In the distance, a train whistle screamed.

“-train station,” Jessie finished.  “Nevermind.”

“You’re aware the trains are almost never on time?” I asked.

“I’m aware there’s a deviation.  Plus eleven minutes or minus seven, at the limit, for Laureas.  When things are at that limit, about half the time, I can go down to the train station and ask.”

“You seriously ask?” I asked.

“I do,” she said.  “And most of the time, something noteworthy happened.  Enough for people at the station to talk about it with each other.  Fray just arrived with her group, and she’s a tich late.”

“I’m just imagining how you go about that.  You just walk up to the ticket booth, say ‘hello Sammy, how’s work this morning?  Oh, that’s good to hear.  Why is the train late?'”

“I’m a little more adroit than that, Sy.”

“How does one adroitly manage the topic of a late train, as someone regular who isn’t a passenger?”

“You’re dwelling on the wrong part of this.  Fray has arrived.  That she arrived late might be important.”

“Maybe you think it’s adroit, but they talk among themselves about the odd girl who gets uppity about the train being late, even though she has absolutely no stake in it.”

Sy.”

Jessie.  How can I trust an ally if she’s doing things behind the scenes that might hint at grave weaknesses or infirmity?  This could be the fulcrum point by which our partnership regains balance or careens into disaster.”

“There are a lot of locals who visit the station now and again purely out of a fondness for trains.”

“Really now?”

“Really.  Can we please refocus?”

“Little kids, I imagine.  And old men.  But seventeen year old girls?”

Jessie sighed.

“Do you like trains?  Do you pay particular attention to trains here for purely selfish, hobby-esque reasons?”

“If I say yes, you’re going to clap your hands with glee, then file that away as one of the memories you actually hold onto, so you can use it against me.  If I say no, you’re going to stubbornly stay on this like a terrier on a mousehole.”

“So… that’s a yes?” I asked.

“I don’t dislike trains.  They make a good reference point for the flow of the city, when I’m measuring it all.  When people come, when they go, the time it takes them to get from A to B, with the station itself oftentimes being one or the other-”

“You like trains!  That’s so adorable!”

“You’re making more of this than there is.”

“Okay,” I said.  I took a deep breath, and exhaled, settling myself down.  “Fair.”

Act reasonable, let the subject drop.  If there was anything to share, she would venture it, because she did want to share more of herself with me.

“Some of my fonder memories are of the Lambs together, on the train.  It’s so often a nice intermission, in the grand play of life.  The pause before things start, the pause after they conclude, where we were together, me and you or us and the Lambs as a group.  We can talk, but we’re still moving toward something.  Everything else was prone to being interrupted, be it time at the Orphanage, let alone the actual missions.”

I nodded, trying and failing to suppress the grin that crept over my face.

“I’ve given you a fully loaded weapon to use against me, haven’t I?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said.  “Not at all.”

“That would be far more convincing if you didn’t look like the cat with the canary.”

“I don’t want to discourage you from sharing parts of yourself,” I said.  “It’s all good.  I won’t use it against you.”

“I don’t believe you.  You’ll forget you promised not to use it against me, and I’ll remember I didn’t believe you, and I’ll soothe my frustrations by telling myself I was right, when the time comes.  But can we please just focus?  Or can you do what you did back in New Amsterdam, lose your mind and let one of the ghosts take over?  Because that might be preferable.”

“Irreversible, quite possibly.”

“But preferable all the same,” she said, smiling.

“Ha ha.  Alright.  Focusing.”

“How is your lipreading?”

“I’ve been focusing on it.  We’ve known we’d probably be needing it.  I should manage pretty well.  We’ll see how it goes.”

“Let me know if you’re not picking up everything.  I’ll translate.”

“Will do,” I said.

Jessie pointed.  We changed course.

We were mostly silent as we finished eating and wiping our hands clean, making our way to where we needed to be.

One building had stairs that ran up the outside to a porch that overhung the lawn.  We borrowed use of the stairs, climbing up halfway, but without standing on the porch itself.

Jessie reached into her bag and I reached into mine, and we both pulled out binoculars.

It took about twenty seconds to find Fray.  I spotted her first.

She had toned down the lipstick and wore a hat that folded up on the one side, but she hadn’t jumped to wear any particular disguise beyond that.  The stitched girl was with her, wearing a jacket that was lighter than the morning chill called for.  The stitched girl’s boy was nowhere to be seen.  Fray’s Bruno, the headsman, Warren.

Avis, too, was with her.  Avis… didn’t look good.  I’d braced Junior to expect Avis to look haunted, but the woman appeared hollowed out.  More experiment than experimenter, gaunt, not quite able to look like a member of the crowd, even with the concealing cloak she wore.  Not that the cloak helped, draping down to cover everything from the shoulders down, but it was a sight better than openly wearing the wings that she likely never removed, now.

Still, she and Fray talked.

I turned some things around in my head, adjusted, changed focus, and let some walls down.

I imagined the voices, pulled out the stops as I focused on the act of lipreading, and put it all to work.

“…long do you need me to stay?” Avis asked.

“Not long at all.  Once we know we’re clear, I’ll signal you or openly ask you to see to other business.”

“I don’t like leaving you,” Avis said.

A vehicle momentarily blocked our view of the conversation.  My mind, primed to fill in the blanks, immediately jumped in five different directions, as to where the conversation might go, and how Fray might respond.

The horse and carriage passed, and I took a moment to get a grasp of what was being said.

Fray: “…the reason I keep you around is for the company.”

“…company to keep,” Avis said.  I missed the first word.  I could have asked Jessie about it, but I wanted to test myself, force my brain to adapt where I hadn’t been able to push it to on my own.

Fray reached out to touch Avis’ arm, which was covered by the long black cloak.  “Who else can I have good, long conversations with?”

Avis smiled.

Then the pair of them were out of sight, blocked from our line of sight by an intervening building.

We picked ourselves up, bags in one hand, binoculars in the other, and hurried to the next vantage point.

“Warren is probably coming on another train.  Too conspicuous.  Might show up with a group of Brunos he can blend in with,” I said.

“That’s quite a thing to imagine,” Jessie said.

“Indeed!  I bet you would-”

“Don’t even say it, Sy.  We only just finished the conversation where you said you wouldn’t give me a hard time.”

“About trains,” I said.  “Other things are fair game.  Why?  What did you think I was going to say?”

“I don’t even know.  But it was going to involve trains.  And I guess men, or some association between hobbies and work.  What were you going to say?”

“A bunch of hulking men, crammed together in a train car-”

“Oh, ew,” she said.

“Talking about muscles, oiling their bodies like the gladiators of old, to show-”

Stop.  Mercy.  I cry mercy.”

I stopped.

“I much prefer the image of many large, musclebound men sitting in seats too small for them, dressed to the nines and waiting for the tea cart, acting like gentlemen.”

“I see, I see,” I said.

“Because it’s amusing and funny, not because of anything your perverse mind can piece together.”

“Understood,” I said.  “So that’s where your mind goes.  I’m learning so much about you, today.”

“Whatever else you’re thinking or about to say, keep it to yourself,” she said.

There was a fence bounding a yard at the corner of one street.

“Are we clear to peek at them?”

“Assuming they’re walking at the same pace they were?  Yes.”

I gestured.  “Up?”

“Catch,” she said.  “Also, tree.”

She threw the binoculars into the air, put her hands together just in time for me to step into them, and helped boost me up.  I skipped up to the top of the fence and perched there, glancing up momentarily before reaching out to catch Jessie’s binoculars.

My view was blocked by a tree.  I raised the binoculars and peered through the branches.

We were on track.  Fray was on course to rendezvous with Junior and the other members of the Rank.

I watched their mouths, but could only see Fray, and for only part of the statement.

“…our room.  Then we’ll need you to swing by – -tul.  You know – – – to cover.  I trust you to handle it -ven your past experience.”

Avis said something a branch didn’t want me to catch.

Something-tul?

Beattle?

I hopped down before Fray and Avis could advance far enough along the street that they would see me.  We were keeping ahead of them and off to the side, and there weren’t a lot of positions where we could keep sight of their faces and also stay out of sight.  Avis should have good eyes, if she stuck with the ‘bird’ theme.

“I didn’t think you’d be able to see, what with the tree,” Jessie said.

“Wasn’t too bad.  I think Avis is visiting the local Academy.  Fray and Avis talked before about Avis leaving Fray and going off somewhere, right?”

Jessie nodded.

“That means you and I might be breaking apart, one watching Fray, the other watching Avis.  What they’re talking about right now, it looks like something they couldn’t handle during the train ride, so it’s at least somewhat sensitive.”

“Stands to reason.”

“Also, thank you.  That thing with the boost, and throwing the binoculars, and me catching them?  Thank you.  I didn’t tax your shoulder?”

Jessie shook her head.  “It’s been a bit better.  But maybe we shouldn’t do that again today?”

I nodded.

“I’m glad it tickled your fancy,” she said.

The next vantage point for us to reach was a little ways away, but it was the second-to-last.

“You’re in a good mood,” Jessie observed.

“The boost thing was a boost.”

“Beyond that.”

“Getting a good few hours of sleep was a lift, moodwise,” I said.

“Sitting on cold stairs.”

“Even so,” I said.  “I’m excited.  Fray.  Something great in the works.  Good company.”

“Including ghosts,” Jessie said.

“Them too,” I said.  “I’m less certain about the elements we have in play.  We can’t control their every move, not yet.”

“Yet?”

“Maybe one day.  But free will and sheer variance in people means there are a hundred of little things that could go wrong.  Things I used to exploit.”

We settled into our hiding spot, leaning against a wall rather than crouching, keeping an eye out for Fray.

“It’s good to be wary, Sy.”

“Maybe.”

Fray appeared, continuing her steady walk.  She had company.

A boy, roughly of an age to match Ashton, Abby and the twins’ apparent ages.

I focused on the lipreading, raising the binoculars to my eyes.

The boy was shaking his head.  He said, “No.”

“Strange creatures?  Or rumors of strange creatures?  Experiments without owners?”

“No.”

“Nobody moved into the area?  New faces?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Altercations?  Problems?”

“Last night.  There were gunshots.  A lot of people walking around.”

“Where?”

A shrug, a response I didn’t see.  A negative response.  Unsure.

“Could it have come from that area down there?”

She gestured in the general direction of the Rank’s lab.

“Guess so.”

“Interesting.  The people walking around, none were Academy?”

“No.  Locals, looked like.”

I glanced at Jessie, and we exchanged a series of gestures.

I left Jessie behind, hurrying onward.

The boy had been paying attention.  He’d likely been contacted in advance, paid, to keep an eye out.

The simplest answer was that the same person that had picked up shipments or delivered Fray’s messages had also set that up, at her request.

I ducked through the streets, zig-zagging this way and that.  I couldn’t remember the exact location, but it was an oddly positioned building, where the streets formed a very long and narrow ‘x’ rather than a perfectly square one, and the streets were wide, which meant I had to find the wide street-

I found the wide street.

And then find the intersection with another wide-but-not-as-wide street.  I found that, and spotted familiar territory.

I approached from the side, and knocked on a window.

A worker opened the window.

“Bring Junior,” I said.

My heart pounded.  Fray wasn’t that far away.  She might even pick up the pace if she sensed that there was something afoot.

Junior appeared at the window.

“I thought you weren’t going to show up this morning,” he said.

“She knows something happened last night.  Keep it simple.  Some of the locals found out you were dealing out of here, because of the comings and goings at night, and they came asking for money.  You fired the shotgun a few times, and they decided to come back another time.  Tell the others.  If they can look upset about it, that’s great.”

“Understood.  What-”

“Do it now, Jun,” I said.  “There’s not a lot of time for this last minute alteration to the script.”

I ended the conversation by pushing the window closed.

I approached the corner of the street I needed to cross, and I saw Fray making her way to the building.

I took a longer, more circuitous route.  It unfortunately meant that I would miss the opening of the dialogue between Fray and Junior.

And then some, it seemed.  I’d hoped for a passing wagon to provide some cover as I crossed the street, but there wasn’t much traffic at this hour.

Five minutes passed.  I didn’t hear any commotion, but neither Fray nor Junior were really positioned to cause any.

Finally, a carriage passed.  I used it as cover to cross the street while staying more or less out of Avis’ field of view.

I made my way to the last vantage point.  It was an apartment building across the street, low to the ground.  Jessie was already there.

“Please tell me it’s going well,” I said.

Jessie was peering out the window with binoculars.  “Well enough.  Fray hasn’t given any signs.  She’s interested in the enterprise.  Or she’s pretending to be.”

I was eager to settle in and see for myself.  It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Jessie, but I trusted my own reads of people in particular.

“This is Leah,” Junior introduced Rita.

“Nice to meet you,” Rita said.

“Remind me, what do you do here?” Genevieve asked Rita.

“Leah is-” Junior started.

“I want to hear from her,” Genevieve interrupted.

I lowered my head, banging my forehead with the heel of my palm.

“Watch,” Jessie urged.

I looked up, focusing on the scene.

“…refine what we have, ideawise,” Rita said.  “New drugs.  Twists on existing ones.”

“Excellent,” Fray said.  “I hope we have a chance to discuss that at some point.  Drugs, and especially combat drugs, are something I’m hoping to make use of at a later date.”

“I’ve heard good things about your qualifications,” Rita said.  “If you could share any insights on what I’ve been mulling over, that would be fantastic, but right this second, it looks like vat three is-”

Then she turned away, hurrying to a counter.

“The heat is too high,” Fray casually observed.

“I know!” Rita said, looking over her shoulder.  “The knob gets wonky, so it’s a bit touchy where I have to eyeball it first thing in the morning, before figuring out what it’s actually set to.”

I watched the interactions continue, holding my breath, studying what I could make out of Avis and Fray’s expressions.

It was a solid minute later when I let myself breathe again.  There were no signs that Fray was suspicious.

“Yeah,” Jessie replied to the exhalation.  “I know.”

“Where did you find her?”

“Rita?  Luck that I ran into her in the first place.  Observation, that I saw something of merit in her when I ran into her.  There’s a reason I wanted to pay double what we paid for the others to get her.”

“Good find.  I want to keep her, however this turns out.”

“Might take some doing,” Jessie said.

Junior was taking the lead, handling ninety-five percent of the chat with Fray.  He was clever, and Fray… if she had any proper weaknesses at all, she enjoyed engaging with clever.  So long as they could keep talking, things were good.

If Fray started talking to Rita about the particulars of some combat drug regimen or another, then it would all fall apart, but at this stage, I trusted Junior or Rita to handle things.

Avis was visibly getting restless, moving about the lab, which made me restless.  But then Fray turned her head, and gave the signal.

“She’s going to see to some other things,” Fray explained to Junior.

“If you need anything in particular, I’m sure some people here would be happy to get a break from the usual lab work,” Junior said.

“I appreciate the offer, but this is hardly a relief from lab work.  Boring things,” Fray said.  “An awful lot of negotiation and communication with different people.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Junior said, smiling.

I watched Avis as she left the building, looked around, and then headed off, walking briskly.

I began to get my things together, watching her as she walked down the street.

“Heading toward the Academy,” I observed.  I pulled my bag over one shoulder.  “I guess I am too.  Don’t fall asleep here.”

“I don’t think I could sleep if I tried.  My nerves are shot,” Jessie said.

“Everything’s in motion,” I said.  I watched as Avis disappeared down one street.

I watched as two bystanders suddenly ended their conversation, exchanged a glance, and then turned to follow her.  They weren’t so hot on her heels that it looked like they were going to rob her.

No, that kind of distance was good for a game of chase.  Of tailing a target, with one in the lead and the other trailing behind.  They would change it up, so no one was visible and obvious for too long of a time.

Practiced tailing of a target.

“Everything, and everyone,” I amended my statement.  “Those two weren’t members of any of the gangs we collected, or any of the gangs we ignored?”

“No,” Jessie said.

“Bounty hunters?  Who are very intent on…” I trailed off, letting the sentence die.  I couldn’t find my way to an answer.

No, they were doing much the same thing we were.

Tracking Fray’s people.  Seeing what they did.

“A major player.  Cynthia’s people, or Academy,” I said.

This made matters harder.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

This was proving to be a long night.  The last time I’d asked about the time, it had been six straight hours of talking, negotiating, planning, and instruction.  We had started at ten twenty or so, and now it was closer to dawn than it was to dusk.

There was something reassuring about being the figure in the shadows, the member of a band or pair of assassins and investigators who fit together like clockwork.  That reassurance had been turned on its head now that we were crossing the threshold.

We were no longer the unpredictable figures that were shaking the box of spiders, but now another few of the people who were making a box, choosing and gathering the spiders, and hoping that the journey that followed wouldn’t see things shaking too much.

The underlings we had recruited, a set of lieutenants who each led their own band of thugs and questionable sorts, were now gone.  They went to their homes, went about their business, they talked among themselves, and each operated with their individual motivations.  The workers from this particular lab and the people we had had as guards were all going home, with instructions to turn up at the usual time for work tomorrow.

Junior and the girl I’d picked out who had been wearing clothes similar to the laborers were now giving instructions to the stragglers about how to shut down the lab for the night.  What needed to go where, what needed to be brought down to a simmer rather than shut off entirely, and what needed to be stored with any measure of care.

Junior was tall, his black hair parted, wearing an off-white lab coat and apron.  Posie wore overalls, a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a puffy hat with a brim that looked more like an overstuffed seat cushion than a proper hat, but at least served to let her keep her copious amounts of hair under it.

With the exception of Junior’s would-be replacement, who I had sent home, the impostors were watching and listening.  Rita or Marvin would periodically ask about the names of things.  It was a bit concerning that Marvin sometimes had to ask twice.

But even that task was wrapping up.  The lanterns went out at various workstations and counters.  Windows were shut and locked.

“…This counter is packing.  I put the numbskulls on it,” Junior explained to the impostors.  “Can’t screw it up, really, and this is the stage where most would try to steal product.  I prefer stupid people in that position over the smart ones who don’t get caught.  After everyone leaves, I check the quantities.

He rolled a jack so it slid into the pallet, then turned the wheel until it was lifted up.  He pointed at the jack.

“Scale built into it.  Pallets are three point six stone, these crates are six point four.  Got crates specifically made to be that weight.  Nice and tidy ten stone.  Mental calculation on quantity of product, ninety-ninety of happy-go-lucky, we’re looking for one seventy eight and a half stone… and we’re within the allowable margins.  Lid goes on…”

The girl, Posie, lifted the lid into place, then picked up a hammer in one hand and a fistful of nails in the other.  She hammered the nails in with a set motion.  A tap to set the nail in, then a swing to drive it home in one blow.

“Sealed.  Already labeled.  Ready to go out,” Junior said.

“Big crates,” Rita observed.  The crates were tall enough that she could only barely look over top of the one that sat on a pallet.  “A lot of…”

“Merchandise,” Junior said.  “That’s the language I prefer.  You can talk about merchandise in public without people raising eyebrows.”

He glanced at me, checking that I was watching.

I was watching.

“She’ll show up around the start of the workday tomorrow,” Junior said.  “So remember this.  Each of you at a different station, follow the process.”

“What was this station, again?” Marvin asked.

“Packing,” Junior said, patient.  He shot another glance my way.

Did Junior want my approval?  Or was he such a practiced sycophant that he was capable of suggesting that sentiment while he plotted to undermine me?

He was a salesman with a good mind for numbers and organization.  He wasn’t just perfectly suited for this particular enterprise, but he was a gem among coals in general.  Fray had found him, somehow, in this edge-of-the-world town.  She had identified that glimmer of well-above-average intelligence, and she had plotted to use him.

Co-opting him was a part of my plan to steal the reins from Fray and steer her greater ploy in another direction.  I didn’t know what it was for sure, but I had ideas.

“Marvin,” I said, cutting into the conversation.  “What is it that you do?”

“Do?  Nothing,” Marvin said.  He was shorter than average for a guy, but broad across the shoulders, laden with artificial muscles.  He had a beard and mustache, brown skin, and heavy eyebrows.

“You’ve done something.  A good body of work like that costs money,” I said, gesturing in the direction of his upper body.  “I’m trying to figure you out as a person.”

“I used to handle records in government.  Taxes, census,” he said.

Half of the little group expressed some measure of surprise.  I only nodded, taking that in.

“You’re a person of the written word and number?” I asked.

“Uh huh.  Lost my position four or so years ago when the new mayor was elected.  His son got the job.  They reached out a little while back because they needed help.  I was happier to see them sink.”

“Why the muscles?” Posie asked.  “Change of career?”

“My girl likes this body type,” Marvin said.  “If we break up, I’ll go back to the way I was, but things aren’t going that way, so I’m stuck this way, I think.”

Rita snorted.  Posie smiled.

I walked over to a counter, picked up a pad of paper and pen, and walked over to the group.  I handed it over to Junior.

“Write it down,” I said, as soon as the chatter over Marvin’s girlfriend had died down.  I looked at Marvin.  “You’ll remember better that way?”

Marvin seemed taken aback.  Then he seemed to gather his bearings, realized why I’d asked, and conceded the point.  He nodded.

“Great,” I said.

It took some time for Junior to figure out how to structure it.  But the guy was a student.

Not the best student.  Jessie had said that Leah beat Junior in the rankings.  Which was odd, when I compared my assessment of their natural abilities.

He wrote the essentials down.  Marvin watched over his shoulder, nodding as he went.

Rita had run out of cigarettes half an hour ago.  But she’d stayed.  She was interested.  The others looked slightly more restless.

When Junior had finished, handing the pad over to Marvin, I decided to wrap things up.  “Let’s finish here.  Go home.  Get a few hours of sleep, wash, eat.  We’ll knock and round you up in a little while.  Then payment, more payment if we succeed.”

There was palpable relief at the suggestion, from everyone but Junior.

It took a minute for the impostors to gather their coats and depart.

That made for a few more elements of a greater plan that I couldn’t wholly control or conspire with.  These ones were easier to deal with.  The ones I wanted to work with most seemed more excited and invested.  Marvin and Rita.

The place was nearly empty, now.  Junior, Posie and I were the only ones in the lab itself.  The students and guards were in the lab, and Jessie was… somewhere else in the building.  Possibly with a prisoner.

“So,” Junior said.  He leaned against a counter.  “That was impressive.”

Posie nodded.

“Which part?” I asked.

“Good question.  The bit toward the end.  Marvin being a man of text.  You had an inkling before you asked, didn’t you?”

“People learn in different ways.  The tactile, the auditory, the visual.  And in different scopes, too.  The master and the jack.”

“Master and Jack?” Junior asked.

“The man who does one thing and strives toward perfection with it, and the person who can do a dozen related things and translate knowledge from one to another.  There are other bases to cover, other elements of learning and individual kinds of intelligence and whatever else, but- yeah.”

“I see,” Junior said.

“I’m not sure I see,” Posie said.

“You’re a chemist,” I said, “Yes?”

“I was, when I was a student,” she said.

“You’re a master, by my best judgment,” I said.  “You do chemistry.  You’re a tactile person.  You work hands on.  You like to get your hands dirty.  You keep the machines running.  You learn by doing, by feeling how stuff works and applying yourself to the task, improving by the practice.  In audition and in the visual, your eyes glaze over.  You loved the work, you hated the classes, you hated the reading and the writing, and unfortunately, even Beattle doesn’t offer a curriculum that’s lab work only.”

“That about sums it up,” she said.

“And you settled here.  Foreman for a lab.  And settling is the key word that you wrestle with.  Your brain tells you that you’re selling yourself short, that you should be somewhere with a higher station, your heart might even echo your brain.  But your gut?  You know deep down that this is the sort of niche you were meant to fill.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“I get the feeling that if I cut you loose, send you to go rest, eat and groom like I did with the others, you’ll come back.  Because this lab and places like it are something like home to you.”

She glanced at Junior, then at the door.

She wrestled with that for a lot longer than I’d anticipated she would.  The silence stretched on.

“No?” I finally asked.

“If I say yes, and then come back…”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” I said.

“It means you were right about everything you just said,” she said.

But as she said it, she turned to go.

I didn’t stop her.

She would be back.

She grabbed a jacket from the peg by the door, a bag from the floor off to one side, and then closed the door behind her, looking as if a burden weighed on her.

“I consider myself a people person,” Junior said.  “I’m good at figuring them out.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Others have said you had talents in that area.  I believe them.”

“I’ve known her for nearly a year, and I didn’t guess one tenth what you just did.”

“I read people, Junior.  It’s part of what I do.  A matter of survival.”

He didn’t reply to that, but he seemed to take it in and give it some consideration.

I then said, “With that in mind, I’m asking: do I need to worry about you?”

“I’ve agreed to play along.”

“Oh, I know,” I said.  “But do I need to worry about you?”

“Well,” Junior said.  He paused very deliberately.  “The way I see it, I have three options.”

“You have far more than three options,” I said.  I held up a finger.  “Be careful.  I know the little tricks.”

“I’m simplifying.  Look, I can stop this particular enterprise, but then what?  Go back to Beattle?  I couldn’t deal with you when I had a shotgun in my hands and you wanted to keep me alive.  There’s no number of locks I could put on my dorm room door that would keep me safe.”

“That’s a fair assessment,” I said.  “Yes.  You could give up just about everything.  But you’re a clever guy.  You could start fresh and manage.”

“Would be a miserable few years,” he said.  “No.  I’ve been building something, and that something is…”

He spread his hands.

I let him flounder, searching for an ending to the statement.

“…In a period of transition,” he decided.

“I do like that,” I said.  “But keep in mind, because of what you’ve built, given the location, timing, and the resources tied into it, two people have set their sights on it, with intention of making that something into something bigger.”

“Which leaves me two options.  You or my patron.”

“You have ill-will toward me, and only goodwill for her, though.”

“But I fear you,” he said.  He chuckled.  “That counts for something.”

Yeah, I thought.  My gut feeling was right.  He was of a type that could be disarming, play nice with just about anyone, and be convincing in the process.

It was in his interests to convince me that he’d side with me over Fray.  Anything he said had to be taken with a grain of salt.

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed so he could hear it.

His expression shifted, a half-dozen tiny signs that suggested concern, a break in the easy confidence on his part, a confidence that he so easily handed over to others.

“I’ll ask you again.  Do I need to worry about you?”

“You keep asking that.”

“Because you’re not answering honestly, R.J.,” I said.  “You’re ducking around something big.”

The ease and humor in his expression faltered.

“You’re a smart guy.  But you made a cardinal mistake.  You use your own product,” I said.

I saw the realization on his face.

Educated guess.

“If it was a stimulant, like some of the study drugs out there, then I’d expect your ups to be different.  Either more up because you used recently.  Or the ceiling would be lower, because tolerances have changed, even for the natural ups.  Not a study drug to change brain structure either.  Not in any way I’ve seen.  But something.  Likely something tying to your history with the Academy.”

Tying to your low rankings in the class listing, despite you being smart enough to do better.

“Like half of the students at Beattle, I came from somewhere better,” he said.  “I came from Gallia Crown Academy.  Competition was tighter, to put it lightly.”

To put it lightly.  Like so much of New Amsterdam, the city’s universities, Gallia included, would be the top one percent.  To be at the top of the classes there meant having to be the top ten percent of the top one percent.

“I took a gamble,” he said.  “I lost.”

“What kind of gamble?”

He gave me a one-shoulder shrug.  “Changed my pattern.  The underlying structure that makes me who I am, that tells my cells how to grow, what to do.  Another student told me they’d tweaked it so they didn’t need to sleep.  They weren’t that convincing, but I felt trapped.  I wanted to believe it, so I convinced myself.”

“You let them stick you with a needle, fundamentally changed your sleeping pattern, and it all fell apart.”

“We managed to do enough damage that any fixes do more damage.  There’s no point to wrestling with the problem, because I might fix one thing and break another, and then have to adjust to the new reality.  Better to dwell on dealing with it than to risk seeing more of the foundation crumble.”

“How do things stand now?”  I asked.  I was concerned it would interfere with him, me, and Fray tomorrow.

“I lose focus, go off rails, see things, and when it gets to be too bad, I dose myself to knock myself out.  Six days of being awake, with functioning steadily dropping nearly as much as it would for anyone, then two days of drugged unconsciousness, one day of the hangover from hell.”

“You space out those doses as much as you can so you don’t build up too much tolerance.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Exactly that.  If I have to turn to something stronger, which I will someday, then it’ll come at a cost.”

“How long ago did you sleep?”

“Three days ago.  I’d say… I’m about as badly off as anyone who’d skipped one night of sleep.  Not that I have any chance of nodding off.”

“But in focus, judgment, you still suffer.”

He gave me a nod.  “It’s been this way for two years now.  Handling this?  I can do.  Being a student?”

“Not much room for three day spans of unconsciousness.  Do the others know?”

“Only Leon.”

“He didn’t betray this particular detail, even under duress,” I said.  “Which… neatly answers why I had my doubts about him and decided on using the impostor instead.”

“He should have betrayed me.  We’re not that close,” Junior said.

“Either way, it’s starting to make sense.  Why Fray picked you out in particular.”

The boy quirked an eyebrow.

“She has an in with various Academies, I’d guess.  People who can keep an eye out for special cases.  She collects the wounded and promises fixes.  Has she promised you one?”

Junior shook his head.

“She will.  Tomorrow… later today, now that I think about it, she’ll talk to you.  She’ll tell you that she knows the right people, that she was almost a professor in a respected institution once.  The only reason she wasn’t was that the position came with ties to local politics and more strenuous selection, and because she modified her own brain and it backfired.”

Junior raised his chin a fraction, taking that in.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’ll be something like that.  And it sounds awfully good.  She understands.  She has the resources, and she has the willingness to help, which was the main thing you lacked.  If you work with her, then your dreams will come true.  You’ll be able to do this, but on a far greater scale.  She’ll promise to fix your brain.  And all of this?  It’s true.  Completely honest.  Her background, the parallels to your own experience, the promise to fix your brain.”

I watched his expression change as I painted the picture.

“You’ll be able to go back to the Academy and finish without your sleepless brain dragging you down, but as part of the deal, you’ll be a double agent.  Which suits you just fine.  You’re here, doing this.  You obviously don’t have an issue with doing shady work in the background.”

“But there’s a catch?” he asked.

“Hard to say,” I told him.  “But she made the same offer to me.  She made the offer to my friends.  We didn’t accept.”

“Why?”

“Because the circumstances weren’t right.  Other things were in play.  Some offers sound too good to be true.  Even so, if her timing had been better, we might have talked ourselves into it.”

I chose the same phrasing that Junior had given me as he’d described his self-modification.

“The thing to pay attention to,” I said, “Is the people she brings with her.  The headsman, the massive fellow that follows her, does he say more than five words at a time, if he speaks at all?  Is the stitched she keeps in her company free or happy?  Does the woman with bird wings still look haunted?”

“She doesn’t fix the problems.”

“She likely will, after she does what needs to be done.  But there will always be more to be done, R.J.”

“Jun, please,” Junior said, pronouncing it like ‘joon’.  “Or Junior.”

“As you wish,” I said.  “Point being, she’ll follow through.  She’ll be genuine on a level, and her brilliant mind will likely be interested in following through in terms of sheer problem solving.  Yet if you look at the people that have been with her the longest, who have been waiting for her to set aside the time to fix them?  They’re still waiting.  If you think for a moment, and rationalize that someone who collects the wounded as soldiers might find herself without an army if she’s too quick to mend…”

“I see what you mean,” he said.

I wasn’t being wholly genuine, but I needed to plant that seed of doubt.  I was using the trick that I’d accused Junior of using earlier.  To reduce an argument down to a narrow list of choices, and then answer those choices.

Is it A or B?  Ignore the whole rest of the alphabet while you consider your answer.

The reality was, Fray’s collection of wounded that she kept close were the deeply wounded.  The ones who would wrestle with the damage they had sustained and likely never find their way back to ‘normal’, even with the brilliant mind of a professor turned to the task.

Normal was overrated anyway.

The funny thing was, I doubted Junior had what it took to make his way into her inner circle, but for completely different reasons.

He was likely fixable.

“I’ve dealt with your like, Jun,” I said.  “I am your like.  It’s why she was willing and able to make the offer to me in the first place.  I won’t promise you the whole world and make you wait years for the delivery.  I can promise you that my world, which I’m inviting you into, is a world that would be a good fit for your strengths, and very accommodating of your weaknesses.”

I had broken through the veneer of easy congeniality.  He’d chuckled and joked about how fearing me was better, but now…

I had him.

The way he looked at me, he knew I had him.

“Go home,” I said.  “We’ll find you in a few hours, when we’re ready to get started.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He looked a little dazed.  The highs and lows.  The momentary hope, the crash of reality, followed by my offer of my reality.

So many things were out of my hands.  Arrows I’d loosed and trusted to fly straight.  Boomerangs I’d thrown and trusted to return.  But I couldn’t read all of the prevailing winds.

There was more to do.  Then nap, grooming and more.

I walked around the lab, checked on the prisoners and guards, and spent five minutes standing watch over Leon while his guard stepped out to use the loo.

It was only in the later stage of the exploration that I found Jessie.  She was sitting at the top of a flight of stairs, in the shadows, leaning against the wall.  Fast asleep.

She stirred at my appearance, hand reaching for a weapon.  Her eyes snapped open.

“Shh,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

She smiled a little.  Then, nearly as fast as she’d snapped awake, she slipped back under.

“We’re as set as we’ll ever be,” I murmured.  I walked past her up the stairs, checked around, and found a throw-blanket.  I checked it for bugs and grossness, deemed it good enough, and brought it over to Jessie.

The sleep she’d settled into was different than the one she had been in just a bit earlier.  Utterly defenseless, this.  Dead to the world, she barely stirred as I wrapped the blanket around her.  I crouched in front of her, and I lifted the glasses off her face.

Drawing a clean handkerchief from my pocket, I cleaned the glasses of smudges, wrapped the clean ‘kerchief around them, then found her bag, and slid both glasses and kerchief into a protected pocket.

I was moving her braid so it wouldn’t tug if her head moved the wrong way when I sensed movement behind me.

Shirley.

“You’re back,” I said.

She glanced at Jessie.

“Too deep asleep now,” I said.  “Nothing short of a stab wound would wake her.  Not to worry.”

“I found the carpenter.  He’ll be here within the hour.  Disgruntled at the late night call, but the money helps.”

I nodded.

“You’re not going to braid her hair into the banister, are you?”

“No,” I said.  “I’d never do something like that.”

“You do a lot of things like that,” Shirley said, teasing lightly.

My expression and tone were dead serious as I said, “Not while she’s asleep.  I made Jamie and Jessie a promise long ago.  That they would be safe while they were asleep.  I wouldn’t betray that.”

“She’s sleeping a lot,” Shirley observed.

“Twelve to fourteen hours a day.  Sometimes sixteen.  When we’re done this job, it’ll be sixteen, to catch up,” I said.  “She’s making do with less around jobs like this, so she can help me more.  But she needs the memory consolidation she gets from sleep.  She needs more than that.”

“I’m sorry,” Shirley said.

“We’ll make do,” I said.  “We lean on each other’s strengths, accommodate each other’s weaknesses.  For Jessie, that means letting her sleep for right now.”

“I talked to Pierre.  He checked, the train is on time, and we have four hours,” Shirley said.

“Plus half an hour for quarantine procedure, half an hour for travel from the junction to here.  Five hours until Fray arrives,” I said.

Shirley nodded.

Five hours for the winds to change.

“Would it be too much imposition if I asked you to watch over things, keep in touch with Pierre?  Keep an eye out for emergencies?  For four or so hours?”

“I can.  Can I ask why?”

I found a seat next to Jessie, and then moved the blanket, pulling it so it also draped over my back and shoulders.

“I see,” she said.  She smiled.  “I’ll scream if anything comes up.”

“Perfect.”

Shirley wasted no time in making her way back downstairs, giving us our space.

Still, I was nervous.  One of the guards was a question mark, Fray was a question mark.  Things could happen.

I did something I’d done thousands of times before, and I used Wyvern to adjust how my brain worked.  As I’d done hundreds of times, I adjusted how it worked in respect to sleep.  I used poisons and drugs to do something in that same realm that Junior had tampered with and suffered so much for.  As I drifted off, I calibrated myself so my sleep would be a shallow one.  The slightest thing would wake me up.

I settled in, my feet on the step below me, arms folded against my knees, head resting against my arms, blanket over top of it to keep some of the ambient light away.

Jessie moved her head, resting it against my shoulder.

Being half-asleep meant being woken up once every few minutes by creaks and noises from outside, but that was fine.  Because being fully asleep was a me thing, while drifting in and out of this shallow sleep meant being beside my friend and ally.  It was reassuring, the constant forgetting and remembering that she was here, that she had my back and I had hers.

I wouldn’t admit it out loud, but I felt insecure.

All of these pawns were in play and few were wholly in my control.  I was playing a game I was less familiar with while a master sat on the other side of the board.  My only advantage was that Fray didn’t know she was playing against me yet.  I would give up that advantage soon, and I had to hope that we came out ahead in that particular transaction.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Please escort each of the students to different rooms,” I said.

“Not enough rooms,” Jessie said.

“Her,” I pointed to Leah.  I then pointed to the students we had doubles for.  “Him, him, him…”

“Two more rooms.”

“Him,” I pointed to another student that looked particularly nervous.  “And… her.”

My finger directed attention to a young woman who wasn’t in Academy clothes.

“Someone from the lower tier?” Jessie asked.

“No,” I said.  I eyed ink stains on her hands, and the freshness of her change of clothes.  “That girl is a student.”

I gestured.  Otis’ men herded the people we’d pointed out into various rooms.  I followed them, and watched through open doors, giving direction on where to put them, making sure they were bound.

Trapping someone in place with physical bonds was an interesting thing, when it came to psychology.  It made their world small.  Once the escape routes and the connections to allies were taken away and pressure was applied, the sum total of existence became the room they were in.  Their experience and ability to plan extended no further than the interaction between captor and captive.

I could see it in Leah’s eyes as she was bound to a chair: the gravity of her situation.

“Sylvester,” she said.

I approached the chair, as Otis’ man stepped away.

“Sylvester,” she said, again.  “Jessie.  I know this looks bad, but it doesn’t change what you and I talked about.  I’m not your enemy or anything.  This is a small side project.  Money and resources.”

I checked the bonds.  The knot at her wrists was laughable.  I undid and retied it, careful to leave her circulation intact.

“It’s why I didn’t care that much about the money you were offering.  I wasn’t being dishonest.  It’s the way things work around here.”

I held out my hand, then took another length of rope.  I bound her so her back was flush against the back of the chair.  This rope I made tight enough to cut into skin.

“If there’s anything you want to know, I’ll tell you,” she said, insistent.  “I’m on your side.”

I put a loop of rope around her neck, and saw how she reacted, stiffening.

I was careful in how I tied it, leaving plenty of room, making the knot overly elaborate.

“Jessie,” she said, turning her attention from me to Jessie, who stood in the doorway.

Jessie was as silent as I was.

Knot done, I grabbed the back of her chair and dragged her toward the wall.  She was petite, but the combined weight of her and the heavy wood chair made for a mingling of scrapes and screeches as the chair moved.  Wood against wood.

I took a moment, tying a knot into the middle of that same rope, and then, carefully, I tied it to the back of the chair, sure to leave a lot of slack.

The rope around her neck didn’t really connect to anything.  Not a noose, not a real binding.

But she didn’t know that.  Her head turned this way and that, eyes moving to the far right and left as she tried to see everything that was going on behind her.

Talk to me!” she said, raising her voice.

Otis’ man had crossed the room to stand at the point furthest from her.  I approached him, walking away from Leah.

“You can’t do this!” Leah shouted.

Even to her, I suspected, the words rang false.

I stopped in front of Otis’ man.  The guy was thirty or so, and had mottled marks on his cheeks and hands that suggested chemicals.  He chewed on his tongue or inner cheek for a few long moments, eyes fixed not on me, but on Leah.

She was still shouting.

“Thank you for bringing her in here,” I told the man.

Even when directly addressed, it took him a moment too long to turn his eyes to me.

“That’ll be all,” I told him.

Nothing passed over his expression.  No hints or tells.  But I suspected he was unhappy.

He turned and left the room, moving aggressively enough that Jessie had to step back out of the way

Jessie gestured.  Warn man.

Late fire emotion, I gestured back.  Resentment.  He wouldn’t be happy.  Worth keeping an eye out for.  Alternate eyes.

Jessie nodded.

“Why are you moving your hands like that?” Leah asked.  “Hey!”

I stepped out into the hallway.  I looked down at the crowd, and assessed the people within.  I pointed at someone younger.  A narrow-faced boy with a curly mop of hair that was short on the sides.  He had grown into his frame, and that frame was such that until he put on some muscle and grew a beard, he would perpetually look the gawky teenager.  I beckoned for him to come.

He had to check with his boss, Frederick, before he came.  But the fact that he did, and that he looked uncertain, it was a good sign.

“Are you okay with standing guard?” I asked, as he got close enough.

He gave me a fairly noncommittal half-shrug, glancing over his shoulder at his boss.  “Sure.”

“Perfect,” I said.  I stepped closer, and murmured, “Stand by the door.  Make sure she stays put.  Whatever you do, don’t speak a word to her.  Don’t approach her.  If something comes up… can you whistle?”

He nodded.

“Whistle.  Loud.  That’s if she gets particularly fussy, or if someone that isn’t me or Jessie here wants into the room.  Don’t wait, don’t discuss if they refuse your initial refusal, just whistle.”

He nodded again.

“Any questions?”

He shook his head, very quickly.  His eyes and eyebrows were such that he looked perpetually afraid or concerned, and they were very large.  That deceptive nervousness translated to his movements.

“Good,” I said.  I studied him.  “You’re with Frederick?”

He nodded again, with emphasis.

“I’ll talk to Frederick if he takes issue with you doing this.  I’ll pay you and him, if necessary.”

“I don’t think he’ll take issue,” the awkward fellow said.

Don’t tell people they don’t have to give you money.

“It’s a question of respect,” I said.  I indicated Frederick, sun-worn as he stood in the gloom.  “He won’t miss you?”

The fellow shook his head.

“What do you do for him?”

“Uh, stuff.  Carry packages and things.  Stand watch.  Sometimes he has me burn people.”

I glanced at Jessie.  I knew that behind my back, Leah was listening to this dialogue.

“Dead people or live people?” I asked.

“Live people,” the awkward fellow said.  “I can cut ’em too, but I prefer burning.  Mr. Rees picked me out of the group, about a year ago, handed me a hot poker and told me to get creative.  Now he says I got talent for it.  I’m sure, if you wanted, I could do it with these captives here.  He wouldn’t complain if I got the practice.”

Jessie glanced in Leah’s direction.  She’d likely reacted to that.

“For now, I want her intact,” I said.

The fellow nodded.

“In the meanwhile, watch her, and think about what you might do if I gave you the chance to practice,” I instructed.

“I will,” he said, with grave seriousness, looking down at me with eyes that looked like they were meant only meant for getting and giving sympathy.

Leah stared at me, the whites of her eyes visible, as I closed the door firmly behind me.

“He’ll be okay?” Jessie asked.

“That kid?” I asked, glossing over the fact that the ‘kid’ was older than I was.  “Not a problem.”

We checked on each of the others, making sure the bonds were tight, the accommodations secure, the guards competent.

I shut the last of the doors behind me.  When we were done, Jessie and I walked into the middle of the hallway.

One of our prisoners was screaming nonstop.  Not for any reason.  Only that he was a wimp.

“We need to know when Fray shows up,” I said, quiet, to Jessie.

Jessie nodded.

“If Fray knows them, how they do business.  Get a read on how willing they’d be to cooperate, and if they could bluff Fray.”

Jessie considered that for a moment.  “I’d rather not try.”

“I know.  But we do what we need to do in order to make this happen.  How good are you on their business as usual?”

“Watched these guys from a nearby rooftop with some binoculars in hand for a few hours.  I’m good,” she said.

“Good.  I go clockwise, you go counterclockwise?  We’ll each visit each of them.  Make Leah one of the last ones we check on.  I want her to stew.”

“I was going to say that your response back there was particularly…”

“Over the top?”

“…Motivated.  You paid particular attention to Leah there.  I’m trying to figure it out.”

“We’re interrogating,” I said.  “Putting on pressure is key.  I know Leah better, I had a better sense of how to put on pressure.”

“I have a gut feeling there’s more to it than that,” Jessie said.

I reached out, and tapped the bit of her glasses between the two lenses, so they slid further down her nose.  She swatted at my hand and pushed her glasses back up her nose.

“Let me know when you figure it out,” I said.

“I’m halfway convinced I just did,” she said.

I leaned forward, so my face was close to hers, stopping short of our noses touching, only to turn my face at the last second, so I could speak in her ear. “Do tell.”

Any of the girls I’d interacted with to date might have reacted.  I could picture Mary matching aggression with aggression, forward lean with forward lean, forcing a game of chicken.  Lillian would have backed off, likely blushed.  Shirley would have redirected, deflected, or otherwise shied off.  Lacey would have been traumatized, though I hesitated to call Lacey a girl.  Helen would have eaten me alive.

Jessie, though, didn’t flinch at all.

“I’ll mull it over,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Let you stew.”

“That just isn’t right,” I said.  “Psychological torture, that.”

“Mm hmm,” she said.  She glanced back in the direction of the lab.  “Don’t forget our lieutenants.”

As I turned to look, Jessie ducked away, heading for the first room.

I sighed.

I approached the room, where everyone was waiting.

“That’ll be all.  I borrowed a few people to guard the rooms, I’ll need a few hands to manage this crowd, too, but I don’t expect any problems,” I said.  “Pierre will deliver your money within the hour.  Pierre?”

“Can do,” the rabbit-headed man said.

“Good.  Questions?  Concerns?”

“Not sure what exactly you’re wanting with all this,” Frederick said. “A lab?  Decoys?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “You’ll see soon enough.  And if you give me patience, I’ll pay you back with interest by showing you results.  Wait, see, and it should be spectacular.”

“I’m starting to see how you do things,” Frederick said.  There was a note of derision in there.  A bit of accusation.

“Uh huh,” I said, not showing that I’d recognized it.  “If you hadn’t dawdled earlier while moving to where we told you to go, you could have seen what the others did.”

“Your girl’s timing was wrong.”

“My girl‘s timing is never wrong,” I said.  “If it was, she or I would have died a dozen times over in the last year alone.”

Frederick was challenging me.  He wore an expression like he couldn’t quite believe me.

He still felt threatened by me, yet not threatened enough to be cowed.

“If you don’t want the money I’m offering, Frederick, then say so.  If you don’t think I can do the job, then say so.  If pride, greed, envy or fear happen to rule you, then say so.”

“Envy?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.

How very generous of him to tell me what his issue was.  He didn’t respect me.

“Decide if you want to see what happens next unfold from within my organization or from the outside.  If you’re envious, then-”

“That was a question I asked, not a statement,” he said.  “I think you’re a little full of yourself, here.”

I nodded.  “I am.  More than a little.  But it’s deserved, I think.”

I gave Frederick my best ‘dead eyes’ look.

“Frederick,” Shirley chimed in.

I immediately made a negation gesture, hand moving side to side.

“No, no,” Frederick said.  He smiled.  “I want to hear what she has to say, that you don’t want us to hear.”

She reacted to the sheer number of eyes on her, shifting her weight.  Then I saw her using one of the little tricks I’d taught her, in how to use her eyes.  One of the first tricks, too, in how she positioned her body.

She met my eyes, and I gave her a fractional nod.

“I’ve been with him for seven months now,” she said.  “In that span of time, he’s had Crown, Academy, Rebellion, and criminal organizations come for his head, some of those very motivated, and often two or three of those groups at the same time.  He has literally had his heart ripped out of his chest, yet he’s still here.  He’s better off than he was, and he’ll be better off in another seven months.”

“A week,” I said, interrupting her.  “Maybe half that.  Maybe tonight, though I doubt it.  But before the week is over, my side will be ten times as strong as it is.”

I saw Frederick, Archie, Otis, and Clay glance at each other.

“Between all of us, counting the people we left behind… we add up to what, sixty people?”  Frederick asked.

I wished I had Jessie to give an exact number.  “Something in that neighborhood.”

“And in a matter of a week, you’ll have six hundred?”  He asked.  Again, that hint of derision.

“As a low estimate,” I said.

Shirley jumped in again, “If he says he’ll accomplish something, I believe him.  It’s why I threw my lot in with his.  I think it’s why some of the others here got on board.  They don’t have the same experience I do, but I think they sense it.”

Clay couldn’t sense the dick in his pants, probably.  Otis probably hadn’t wrapped his head around the idea of a group six hundred strong in decades.  Even in a crowd, I got the impression his focus was narrow, on allies and enemies, and getting the things he wanted.

Archie got it, I was pretty sure.  I couldn’t read him so easily, though.

“What happens when you fail?” Frederick asked.

Not if, but when.

“If you want a win-win, you’re not going to get it here.  If I win and you’re on my side, you win too.  Strength, reputation, money, leverage, and the ability to effect change.  If I lose, you’re no worse off than you were.  All you’ll have lost is a week’s time, and you’ll have a story to tell others over drinks, about the kid who thought he could raise an army.  If I fail.”

I could have given them a scenario where their time and effort would have been worth it even if I failed, but that would have spelled out a scenario where they would go for the safe bet, and help me fail.

I continued, “I think you need to decide, Frederick.  Right now.  Are you staying, or are you going?”

He considered the question for a few long moments.

Leave, I thought.  It would make things so much easier.  It would give me room to prove to the others that there were benefits to staying in and costs to going out.

“We’ll give this a shot, then,” he said.  “I’ll look forward to having a story to tell until proven otherwise.”

“I’ll look forward to proving you wrong, then,” I said.  “I have things to do.  I’ll be in touch, so keep an ear out.  Pierre will be knocking on your door.”

The assembled leaders departed, leaving only the people necessary to manage the crowd that we’d corralled in the lab.  They sat on the floor as a cluster.  They outnumbered the men that guarded them two to one, but many were hurt, they were unarmed, and the men had weapons.

“All of you, too, need to decide,” I addressed the assembled workers.  “Figure out if you’re in or if you’re out.  The Rank are done.  If you’re a problem, you’ll be escorted out.  You’ll be kept out of the way long enough that other things can get done.  If you’re cooperative, then it’s back to business as usual, but with better incentives.”

That got attention.

“I suspect a part of you knew this work wouldn’t be available forever.  When we showed up, you probably knew that time had come.  My offer to you in the here and now is to offer the same work to anyone who wants it, with better pay.  Think about it quietly.  I’ll see where you stand after I’m done talking to your prior employees.”

I could see the gears turning in their heads.  The thought process.

Confinement changed how one thought.  It made things a dialogue between captor and captive.

But they’d lived a life of confinement.  Doing work they had to in order to make ends meet.  They didn’t have freedom in the conventional sense.

They had the freedom to turn down my offer, to be sure.  They could get away from the scariness of work that saw doors kicked in and guns fired, should they so choose.  But they faced an equal, less poignant sort of scary, in having to find employment and get food.

I was offering the easier path.

I’d committed to collecting six hundred or more people under our banner.  This would be a dozen, perhaps.

I turned my attention to the group of lookalikes.

“You’re raising an army?” Rita asked.  Our Leah lookalike.  She was smoking up a storm, going by the accretion of cigarette butts on the table next to her.

“Not an army, exactly,” I said.  I fished in a pocket for a bill, and extended it toward her.  She read my mind, and provided one of her cigarettes.  I added, “Taking steps toward… recruitment of a sort.”

“Vague,” she said, lighting my cigarette.

“Yes.  And thank you.  I hope you don’t mind sticking around just a bit longer?”

“I’m not going to see any bloodshed, am I?” she asked.

“Hopefully not.  Probably nothing more than you see while tending the bar.”

“Alright.  But if I run out of cigarettes, I’m going to go home,” she said.

“Mm,” I said.  I looked at the others.  Versions of other students.  “You all good?”

I got answers ranging from the affirmative to the noncommittal.  Good enough.  I gave Shirley some direction about hiring someone to fix the mess the shotgun had made and fix the front door, then made my way out of the lab and down the hallway, taking my time, puffing at the cigarette while I started thinking about the interrogation.

The appearance of Jessie standing just inside the doorway, waiting, caught me off guard.

“You’re awful,” I told her.  “Running off and leaving me to deal with all of that.”

“I handle the timing, organization, records, and accounting.  You handle the people.

“I handle a heck of a lot more than that and you know it,” I said.  I reached out and flicked her glasses, so they slid down her nose.

“Stop that,” she said.

She flicked the cigarette free of my mouth.

“That, miss, was a token of goodwill from our Leah-replacement.”

“Rita.”

“I know.  I remembered the name.  I pay some attention.”

“Are they good?”

“I think so.  Not too bothered by current events.  That young asshole we were thinking about recruiting if Rita didn’t work would’ve been freaked, probably.”

“Probably,” Jessie said, ignoring my choice of words.  “I’ve already interrogated one.  You’re behind.”

“Thoughts?  Input?”

She shook her head.  “Go in without me coloring your views any.  We’ll talk after.”

“Speaking of… what’s that thing you were going to say before, that you held off on?”

“Oh.  That.”

“You wanted to mull over it.  Something about me and Leah.”

“Mulling,” she said.  “Continue to stew.  Interrogate.  I’ll catch you before you move on to your next customer.”

I reached up to flick her glasses again.  She caught my hand and then slapped me lightly across the side of the head, before ducking back, closing the door behind her.

I headed straight for the screamer.  The kid had been screeching like he’d been set on fire for a while, but he’d gone silent.  I anticipated a bit of blood, but if there was any, it wasn’t visible.  The guard we’d posted had had the sense to deliver the hurt where it wouldn’t be visible.

He was tall, red haired, and wore a lab coat.  His hands were bound together, behind his back, and then had been lifted up to the point that his shoulders jutted forward.  The rope extended from wrist, over a beam, and down to wrist again.

I indicated that the guard should leave the room.  I closed the door behind him.

Then I looked at the young man who stood before me, his arms held out behind him.

I untied the rope that bound him.

Small things would go a long way, in this captor-captive relationship.  I would try at being nice first, and then if it didn’t work, I would move on to the next captive, and try a harder approach.  I could riddle out how they thought and how they operated, and find the best approach to make them crack.

“Leader of the Rank,” I greeted him.

“What?  No.  We don’t have a leadership structure,” he said.  “We’re not even a proper gang.  We bake, we ship, we take in some side cash.”

“My colleague has deduced that you’re among the key individuals.  It’s why we went to the trouble of finding a body double,” I told him.  “Not being the leader isn’t a mark in your favor… what’s your name?”

“Leon.”

Red-haired Leon.  Right, then.

“Not a mark in your favor, Leon.  See, if you were leader, if you knew things about the imminent meeting with Genevieve Fray…”

I paused, letting that name hang, and I watched his expression shift in the gloom.  The light from the window cast on one side of his face.  In the dark, the little details were missing, but the contrast of brighter light and deeper shadow had little middle ground, making the shift of muscle and the movement of the hollow of his thin cheeks very pointed.

His head dropped a little.  I could hear him say, “I knew that was a mistake.”

“So you do know something after all.  Was the mistake working with Fray?” I asked.

“Yes.  Too much.  Too big.  She ordered drugs from us.  Mass quantities.”

“Which drugs?”

“Stimulants.  But-”

“Hold on.  When?”

“Over a year ago.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Go on.”

“The drugs were cheap, easy, but the quantity, it meant good money.  But Jun, he got suspicious.”

“Jun?”

“Junior, the… he’s the closest thing we have to a leader.  If we’re a business, then he’s the person who manages the sales and distribution.  If we’re a gang, well, he decides who’s in and who’s out.”

“Alright.  He got suspicious.”

“He said there wasn’t any urgency.  Started after we had to delay one shipment.  She didn’t care.  Paid us the same amount she had when we’d been on time.”

“And this has been going on for a while.  Regular payments?”

He looked uneasy, slumped on the floor.  For the moment, he seemed very preoccupied with rubbing at his wrists.

“You know I’m going to find out in talking to the others, right?”

Leon sighed.  “What happens to me?”

“It really depends on the quality of your answers, Leon.”

He nodded.  “Junior thought, thinks, she intended to bankroll us.  Get us set up.  And she did.”

“But?”

“But I don’t know.  She’s coming.  Everyone here, we know who she is.  What she is.  She’s been a part of the groups fighting the Crown for the last three years.  She works with a lot of people.  She- she apparently wants to work with us.  We’re not even that good at what we do, you know?”

“I know,” I said.  The Rank didn’t actually place among the winners of Beattle’s academy rankings.  They placed well enough to avoid being cut, but none of them were exceptional.

“And now you’re showing a lot of interest in her,” Leon said.  “Which suggests we brought this on ourselves, dealing with her.”

“If it wasn’t her, it would have been Mauer,” I said.  “And he wouldn’t have dealt with you, exactly, but the end result would have been the same.”

“End result?” Leon asked.  He still hadn’t picked himself up off the floor.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him.

I walked around the room, thinking.

He was a very mild personality.  Not too dangerous.

Either Fray would make her move, or Mauer would.  The forms those moves would take would be the same, but this town would be used.  Its occupants would be used.

“She asked you questions,” I said.  “She was curious about the city, about details, I’m sure.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Mmm,” I said.  “Like you said, you’re not the leader.  So maybe you weren’t privy.  Which doesn’t help you.  But I’ll catch you up.  Fray operates in a certain way.  She likes to do things that are big, understand?  Start wars, start and spread plagues, create primordials…”

In the dark, I could see his eyes widen some at that last word.

“…And she’s not magical.  She gets her information from places.  She’s wanted and recognizable.  She needs accommodations ready, especially as she brings more people with her.  And if she doesn’t want to stay in one place for too long, then she needs to have people handle the preparations or initial phases.  In the best case scenario, that preparation is done unwittingly.”

I saw his expression change.  His head turned, not looking at me, but…

The wall.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably Junior or Leah.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he said.

“You didn’t have to.  Don’t worry, you haven’t betrayed your friend.  He’s been gone a lot, has he?  Handling business elsewhere?  Somewhere nearby?  Further away?”

I watched his reaction as I asked each question.

“The Academy,” I said.

That got the faintest of reactions.  Turned out the guy who started screaming the moment he was assaulted, kidnapped, and tied up in a dark room had obvious tells.

“How long until she turns up?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” he said.  “First thing.”

“Really now,” I said.  “Tell me, has she met any of you?”

“You’re thinking about the doubles,” he said, resigned.

“And I’m thinking of how cooperative each of you are,” I told him.  “If it comes down to questions, I’d rather have someone who can answer questions and sell Fray on this.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“That’s fine,” I said.  “I’ll move on.  Sounds as if Junior is the one to talk to.  Now, are you going to cooperate and let me tie you up, or should I use my knife and be done with you altogether?”

“Oh lords.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I waited patiently as he picked himself up off the ground, and positioned his hands where I could tie them.

I let myself out of the room.  Jessie was waiting.

“Junior is the one to talk to, apparently,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

“She comes tomorrow,” I observed.  I looked at the building.  “That’s a tight timeline.  A lot to handle.”

“But it’s doable,” Jessie said.

“And her big play involves the Academy.”

“We already had our suspicions about what that play would look like,” Jessie reminded me.  “This more or less confirms them.”

“Leon in there won’t be useful for us, standing across from Fray.  Leah is-”

“Dangerous,” Jessie finished for me.

“Dangerous,” I agreed.  I reached up to smudge Jessie’s glasses, and she swatted at my hand.

Leah shouted something unpleasant from within the room we’d turned into a cell.

The guard of Frederick’s that I’d stationed in there didn’t whistle.  Nothing important.

“Mulled,” Jessie said.

“Hm?”

“About the thought I couldn’t complete.  About your response to Leah.”

“Sure.”

“You’re very readable, Sy.  When you feel insecure, you push the boundaries.  Even with allies.  Especially with allies.  You mess up their glasses, for example.”

I made a noise, more to suggest than I’d heard than to negate or agree.

“Feeling insecure, Sy?”

“With you or with this situation?”

“Either or.”

“Fray is a tricky enemy.  And this won’t be easy.”

“We can back down.  Skip town, choose a different path.”

I shook my head.  We needed people.

We were sitting on a monumental secret.  But to utilize it, we needed a voice, and six hundred were far louder than two.  Six thousand were better than six hundred.

But to get those six hundred or six thousand, gambles had to be made.  Risks had to be taken.

Something big.

As I’d told Leon, Fray laid groundwork and put out feelers.  She likely had a hundred groups like this little drug laboratory at the edge of the world.  When certain stars aligned and she saw opportunity, then she leveraged them.  They gave her the in.  Groups like this let her get set up and act quickly, much as the student she was tutoring had given her access to the lab with chemicals and water supply access that would let her taint the town and surrounding region.  Dame Cicely’s.

Fray operated by performing the big actions, then leveraging the fallout.

We’d gotten out ahead of her, predicting the sort of place she would see as vulnerable and ready to be leveraged.  Now we were undermining her groundwork.

“Jessie,” I said.  “I can continue the interrogations.  I’ll talk to Jun, there.”

“You want me to coach ’em?”

“Please,” I said.  “Focus on Leah and Leon’s replacements.  If Junior decides to play ball, then that’ll make them sound a hell of a lot more like the people Fray’s been negotiating with all this time.”

Fray would turn up and go on with business as usual.

She would, through the replacements we were setting up or a lack of awareness that we were in play, set up her ‘something big’.

And we were damn well going to steal it.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Bitter Pill – 15.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“One thing that strikes me, as we make this rebel faction thing happen,” I said.

“Hm?” Jessie asked.

“It’s really difficult to find people who we want working for us, for something like this, you know?  Because you want good, helpful, quality people.  But you also don’t want to be too sad when things get hairy and people start dying.”

“Which it will, and they will,” she said.

“Yeah.  Shirley is bad enough.  I owe her.”

We owe her,” Jessie said.  Then she paused.  “I wonder how Mauer does it.  Does he have the magic touch, when it comes to finding people who are just assholish enough to not mind if they die?”

“Mauer’s magic touch is in tapping into that subset of the populations that is willing to die for the cause.  His willingness to send them to their deaths is their willingness to go down fighting, and so long as that’s true he can keep his conscience clear.”

“Is that really true, though?” Jessie asked.  “What about Lugh?”

“Two parts to that.  First off, Lugh was largely populated by people who were willing to fight the Crown.  Off his conscience.”

Jessie didn’t look like she bought it.

“Second?  Fray’s plan.  Not his burden to bear.  His focus was the guns and managing the primordials, who didn’t hurt anyone except the Crown soldiers.  Or something like that.”

“Cognitive dissonance,” she said.

“Yep,” I said.  “It’s disturbingly easy to narrow your view, shrug off that responsibility for all the people on the periphery, and let things burn.  Dumb people can do it because they don’t think, but smart people?  They can be the best at lying to themselves.”

“You’re not speaking from experience at all, I’m sure.”

“Clearly not,” I said.

“And that whole thing about having allies you like who you wouldn’t miss.  I’m totally not a part of that?”

“Jessie,” I said, throwing an arm around her shoulders.  She wore my jacket, still.  “You’re perfect.  The best balance of competence and pain-in-the-assness I could hope for.”

She gave me that look where she frowned at me over her glasses.  “You do remember that context?”

I gave her my best innocent look.

“‘You also don’t want to be too sad when things get hairy and people start dying,'” she quoted me.  “You said that.”

“Did I?  My memory is terrible, Jessie,” I said.  I gave her shoulders a squeeze.  “That scarred and melted brain of mine, you know.”

“Of course.  I’m surprised you can even walk straight.”

“I’m going to have to rely on you tonight, what with my terrible brain,” I said.  “Lots to do.”

“I’ll do my best,” Jessie said.

“Should be interesting, regardless,” I said.  “And there’s our Shirley.  Hi Shirley.”

Shirley was approaching from the other end of the street.  We walked up to her, and I removed my arm from Jessie’s shoulders.

“Pierre said you needed a coat,” Shirley said.  “I felt restless.”

“He didn’t have to do that,” Jessie said.

“Don’t sound so horribly disappointed, now,” I said.

“I don’t sound disappointed.”

“Don’t sound so defensive, now.”

“Sylvester,” Jessie said.  “If you’re concerned about your pain-in-the-assness and how okay I’d be with you biting the dust, you really don’t need to worry.  Really.  You passed the threshold ages ago.”

“Don’t sound so testy, now.”

Jessie sighed.  She shucked off my jacket and threw it at my head.

“Your fashion sense has been deplorable, at times, Miss Jessie,” I said.  “When you were Jamie, not now, I have to note-”

“I’ll take that roundabout flattery.”

“-But you never were one to be unprepared for the weather.”

“I cannot predict the weather, Sy.”

“But you make well educated guesses.  You forgot your jacket on purpose.  Or… let’s be generous and say you were on the fence and you erred toward the side that could theoretically lead to you having my jacket to wear.”

“Shirley,” Jessie said, turning her attention away from me.

“No comment?” I asked.  “No?  We’re letting this slide?  Hoping melty-brainy-Sylvester forgets?”

“We’re mobilizing,” Jessie said.  “If you’re feeling restless, we can use your help.”

“Great,” Shirley said.

I listened as I pulled on my jacket.

“You’ll need to make some stops.  Sy and I were discussing while we warmed up over tea, figuring out the next step.  We want to take pre-emptive action.  Get ahead of Fray, who is apparently in touch with the Rank.”

“The student gang.”

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “Pierre is already on his way to round up our various agents.  But we need some more people.  Select ones.  So if you could knock on some doors, apologize for bothering people late at night, and ask for some names, offer some work?  It’s ten o’clock right now.  Given their schedules, I don’t think they’ll be asleep just yet.  They shouldn’t be too disgruntled.”

“I suppose?” Shirley asked.

“It helps that it’s a beautiful woman knocking on their door out of the middle of nowhere, asking for their company and, presumably, offering money,” I said.

Jessie pulled a small notebook out of her bag, and raised a foot to pull a pen from her boot.  She opened the notebook to write things down.  “First stop.  Twelve Belvidere road.  Ask for Marvin.  Short, swarthy, a Bruno without the height.  Second stop, not far away.  Twenty-nine Belvidere.  Ask for Leo.  Then we want Stanley.  He’s at the blue house on Proctor.  For the last person, Rita, walk down toward the beach.  Two places to check.  Either the broad stairs that lead from the road down to the beach, or further down the beach, by the cliff.  She goes out for a walk to smoke at night, after she tends the bar at Fishbone John’s.  But leave the group of men behind.  She’ll interact better with you if you don’t have an odd collection of people behind you.”

I met Shirley’s eyes.  She looked uncertain.

“If you can’t find Marvin, you’ll want to find Don.  But Don drinks, so he’s not our first choice.  If you can’t find Leo, then we’ll make do with Alfred…”

Jessie murmured to herself as she scribbled down instructions.

“Are they dangerous?” Shirley asked.  “Do I need backup?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “This lot is harmless.  Marvin is loud but soft.  Leo and Stan work the general store.  You’ve probably seen them.  Gut feeling, Sy, how much money are we spending in the immediate future?”

“More than a lot, but not a ton.”

Jessie gave me that look again.

“You wanted a gut feeling!  That’s a gut feeling.  I don’t think in terms of numbers.  I think in sentiment.”

Jessie addressed Shirley, “There’s another reason you don’t want the men with you as you talk to Rita.  The men are pretty interchangeable.  If we can’t hire them, we have options.  But Rita is hard to replace.  We’d have to… ugh.  I don’t know.  Maybe ask for Marlene?”

“You’re naming all of these names and I have no idea what you’re on about at this stage,” I told Jessie.  “I get the greater plan, but you’ve lost me.”

“Marlene is Don’s niece.  The problem is that she’s younger than she looks.  Young is bad.  And young is… skewed, on your useful asshole paradigm, Sy.”

“Fair,” I said.  “Can’t have particularly young assholes.”

“Watch how you word that,” Jessie said, to me.  To Shirley, she said, “Let’s try to get Rita.”

“Which means paying more,” Jessie said.  “I’m writing down prices.  Seventy five dollars for the men.  But one-fifty for Rita, if she doesn’t bite initially.”

“What’s the job?” Shirley asked.

“A lot of waiting, a little bit of looking the other way,” I said.  “Then a bit of acting.  If they pull off the con, then we’ll double the amount.”

“Okay,” she said.  “What if I can’t get the first or the second choice?”

“Three out of four of them are men,” I said.  “You and I have talked about salesmanship.  This is that.  Even if there’s no product.”

“Same techniques,” Shirley said.

“Exactly.”

“I’m out of practice.”

“You’ve had more than you think,” I said.  “You got us our accommodations.  You negotiated for those.”

“Yeah,” Shirley said.  She didn’t sound certain.

“If you run into problems, it’s fine,” I said.  “We’ll adapt, Jessie will come up with other options.  Go easy on yourself.”

Shirley nodded.

Jessie pointed.  “Take that road.  Two streets-”

“I got it,” Shirley said.  “I know my way around.”

I saluted her as she walked away.

“Her tone at the end,” Jessie said.  “Did I talk down to her too much?”

“Mostly fine,” I said.  “Only that bit at the end.”

“Directions to the starting point?  I’m bad at figuring out how much others know or remember.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Shirley is cool.  She’ll get it.”

We walked, me with my hands in my jacket pockets, so they could warm up.  Giving away my jacket had left me a bit chilly.  It might not have been a problem, but getting cold while dealing with the stray, then warming up with my hands wrapped around a cup of tea while Jessie and I plotted, and then cooling off again, it had thrown my body off.  I was slower to adapt to the cold after the temperature zig-zag.

My breath fogged in the night air.

The other Lambs were keeping us company.  Situated here and there, they sat in pairs or trios, perched in places where they could watch over the area.  Evette was conspicuously absent.

She was likely plotting for what we had going on tonight.

“How long do we have?” I asked.

“Before?”

“Before Pierre rounds up the hires.”

“Not long.  The first groups are going to be meeting at the rendezvous point within a minute of us getting there.”

“Let’s slow down a tich, then.  I want to arrive as they do.”

Jessie nodded, adjusting her speed.

“The ravage hit New Amsterdam,” Jessie said.

“Really?”

“There were murmurings about it around the market this morning.  It’s the latest in a string.  The entire city is on lockdown, the bridges are blocked, and walls are being erected to keep it contained.  Ones much like the ones they had in Tynewear.”

“Because those worked so well.”

“They, at least, don’t have the issue of a master Lambsbridge tearing his way through the city as he runs from bounty hunters.”

“I like how you exclude yourself from that reporting,” I said.

Jessie smiled.  “Hard to blame the dead and gone.  The onus is on you, sir.”

“Credit’s mine too, then.”

“The worst of the plague hit in Gomorrah, Sy.”

“Hm?” I asked.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Really?  How coincidental.”

“Theoretically speaking,” Jessie said.  “What if that coincidence was on Mauer’s shoulders?”

“If he knows about the plague?” I asked.

“He picks a fight.  He breaks even at best.  But in the wake of those battles he fights?”

“Plague.  Taking a bite out of the Crown’s territory each time.  Cities they can’t run anymore, or parts of cities.  Long-term reminders that the Crown can’t fix everything.  Can’t win every fight.  There’s a stubborn plague that refuses to go down.”

“Uncharitable to Mauer.  Even or especially in light of our discussion a bit ago,” Jessie said.

“You were thinking about this while we were talking about that, weren’t you?”

“I was mulling it over,” she said.  “There have been other cases that followed Mauer’s appearances or the appearances of his lieutenants.  He’s been raising hell and striking at key locations, then disappearing.  I’m good at wrapping my head around timing, Sy.  I’m concerned that it’s too hot on his heels.  Consider the major players, the people who might be responsible for the ravage.”

“Assuming it isn’t Mauer, who was just discussed?” I asked.

“Assuming.  Suspect number one.  The Crown.”

“Unlikely.  Unless there’s something we’re missing.  The bites out of their own territory.  To make Mauer look bad?  Awfully big losses for ambiguous gain, in a fight they’re almost certain to win.  We can dismiss that one and… I’m seeing why you brought this up like you did.”

“It more or less leaves Fray and Cynthia.  One of whom we’re hoping to deal with in the immediate future.”

“Or Mauer,” I said.

“Or Mauer.  But we’re putting that aside for the moment.  Someone might be deliberately spreading this plague, choosing sites of the rebellion.  That someone is keeping a close eye on Mauer and sowing seeds in his wake.”

“And he’s working with Fray.  In some capacity.”

Jessie nodded.

“Something to talk to her about, then.  But let’s not discount another option.  Another major player in this game.”

“The Lambs?” Jessie asked.  “Us?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled.

“I’ve become immune to your dramatic flair, Sy,” Jessie said.  “I’ve been overexposed, like you with your poisons and all the natural antidotes they put in you to keep the Wyvern from killing you.  Cut right to it.”

“Perhaps the biggest, meanest player in this game.”

Jessie, appearing very unimpressed, made a gesture for me to speed it along.

“Nature.  Mother Nature being tricky with us.  I mean, let’s be honest, she has reason enough.  What if… what if Mauer is spreading it… but he’s doing it unwittingly?”

“Infected but not showing symptoms?”

“Or something he’s bringing along with is infected with the stuff.  Supplies, animals, papers…”

Jessie nodded.

“If it isn’t nature playing a nasty trick on us and planting that particular sleeper agent, then someone did it to Mauer.  Or someone’s planting the seeds.  And Fray is a likely suspect.  It’ll be interesting to talk to her.”

“Assuming we get the chance,” Jessie said.

“We will,” I said, firmly.

It wasn’t a long walk from where we were to the rendezvous point.

Pierre, as was so often the case, was already there.  The oversized head that looked like a rabbit mid-hanging had a cigarette set inside the mouth as he sat on a set of stairs.

“Any difficulties?” I asked.

“Bennie was drunk,” he said.  He gave us a one-shouldered shrug.  “I couldn’t say if he’s going to show.  They liked the sound of the money, but they didn’t look very mobile.”

“Thought so,” Jessie said.  “That’s fine.”

At the other end of the street, a group was just arriving.

“Perfect timing,” I said to them, a backhanded compliment for Jessie.  I extended a hand.  “Frederick.”

Frederick was a big fellow.  Time in the sun had served to burn his skin brown and turned blond hair near-white.  The whites of his eyes seemed very bright in the gloom.  The men with him all wore clothes fit for workers.  Round necked, long-sleeved shirts and canvas pants, or coveralls.  Half of them didn’t wear jackets, despite the chill.

Half of them carried sticks of wood with bent nails in them.  A third of the group of ten men and one woman had tattoos.

Frederick switched his stick to one hand so he could shake my hand.  The shake was cursory enough that it was clear he was only being polite.

“This is pretty last minute now,” he asked.

“Something came up.”

“I like to know about things in advance,” the man said.

“I know,” I said.  “I’ll make it up to you.”

“I’m still not sure I’m on board with this,” he said.

“This.”

He waggled his stick in the general direction of Jessie and I.

“Us?”

“You being in charge,” Frederick said.  “Yeah.”

“Give us time,” I said.  “We’re paying you to give us time, and to show up on nights like tonight.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He still didn’t sound impressed.

“Soon,” I said.  “Tonight is a first step.  It won’t necessarily make sense right away, but when you look back at the conclusion, I think you’ll be impressed.”

“That’s a problem,” Frederick said.  “I’m not the sort of man that looks back.”

He was being difficult.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  My small stature?  That he needed to be the biggest, meanest dog in front of his men?

There were others arriving, now.

“Otis,” I said.  “Archie.  Clay.”

I greeted each of the group leaders in turn.  Otis was older than the rest, at about forty.  Archie was pale with long black hair and a heavy coat.  Clay looked more like Frederick, minus the tan, his hair messy enough it looked like he had been sleeping twenty minutes ago.

Each of the others had brought their own groups.  Otis had eight.  Archie had three.  Clay had four, all of whom looked related to him.

“Sylvester,” Otis said.  He sounded very tired.  “And Frederick.  Hullo there Frederick.”

“Fuck yourself, Otis,” Frederick said.

“Oh,” Otis said.  He spoke very slowly, drawing things out.  “Oh ho.  Foul mouth Frederick.  I’d think you saved the dirty talk for when you fuck your big sister.”

There was a rumble of amusement from Otis’ group, and from just about every group that wasn’t Frederick’s.

Jessie and I had identified and recruited the various people in charge and the in-charge-ish types from here and there in Laureas, with a mind toward collecting the various thugs and troublemakers that didn’t flock to any particular banners.  The city that wasn’t all that big, people knew each other.  It was inevitable there’d be some history.

“Big talk, Otis, when I’m armed and you’re empty handed,” Frederick said.

Otis spread his hands, as if he was about to surrender, concede, or shrug with arms wide.  Then he stepped forward, swaggering a bit as he did it.

Challenging Frederick.

“If you swing that weapon at him,” I said, quiet.  “He wins, because I have to remove you from the group.  You don’t get paid, he does.”

“You’re pretending he’ll be any shape to accept pay,” Frederick said.  It was expressed to me, but the words were meant for Otis’ ears.

“If you want to duke it out, I’m going to have to insist you do it elsewhere.  For now, I’m starting the brief.”

“The what?” Clay asked.

Clay jumping into the discussion like he did was perfect.  Clay was as dumb as two stones rubbed together.  He had no idea what he was stepping into.

“The brief, Clay,” I said.  “The plan.”

“Then why not call it that?” he asked.  He chuckled, and his brothers and cousins took his cue, following suit.

Yeah.  Not exactly the cream of the crop, any of them.

Only Archie.  He’d been one of the people at the tower when Jessie and I had returned.  We’d sent him out to his group to tell them to lay low.  Then we’d discussed, set a plan, and decided to act.

Archie was the type to sit back, watch everything carefully, and then make a smart move.  He’d done it before, here and there.

For a guy as smart as he was to be this small a player in this small a place, it meant there had to be something wrong with him.  It bothered me that it hadn’t turned up just yet.

“Here’s the brief,” I said.  “I’ll be sure to keep it simple.  The Rank have a headquarters around the corner.  Tonight is two things.  We round them up, and we make a show of force.  Show them we mean business.  I want them scared, and that means more than using just sheer numbers to spook them.  It means that from the start to the end, they’re running with their tails between their legs.”

This was a language that even Clay could understand.

“We do this with positioning,” I said.  “Jessie?”

“Clay and Archie attack the north and south ends of the building.  Otis’ group will be with Sylvester and I.  Frederick circles around to the back.  Timing is key.  Frederick?  After the briefing ends, you walk down Londown and turn on Prior.  Circle back toward the building.  Walk, don’t run.”

“I don’t get it,” Frederick said.  “Why does that matter?”

“Timing,” Jessie said.

I added, “Mood and effect.  It’s the difference between you being a bunch of dangerous looking men and you being the stuff of their nightmares.”

“I don’t get it,” Frederick said.

There were more mumbles and grumbles here and there.

“It’ll all make sense in the end,” I said.  “For now, listen to Jessie.”

“They’re a group of students.  Delinquent teenagers with Academy uniforms.  Some of the drugs you’ve heard about are their work.  Mostly, though, they fly under the radar, ship stuff out of town.  Now and then, they stir up a little bit of trouble.  Most of you are aware of them but pay them little mind.”

A few isolated nods here and there.

I jumped in, “They’re working doubletime right now.  The last two drug shipments they promised someone in Trimountaine went missing.  That was us.  They’re feeling the squeeze, they don’t have the muscle to guard what they’re supposed to put together and deliver, and if the next shipment doesn’t arrive, then the person who paid in advance is going to show up.  Unhappy.”

Clay and his clan looked a little glassy-eyed at the explanation, but the rest seemed to grasp this reality.

“They’re burning the midnight oil right now.  But they’re also expecting, according to Pierre, to have some outside help.  Another Academy type is visiting.  We don’t know when, but that’s who we’re really after.  We’re going to ruin their night.  We’re going to do it without doing any more property damage than kicking in the front door.  No broken windows, no looting, no kicking up a fuss.  We want them to cooperate.”

I looked over the group.

“Go where Jessie says.  No killing.  No property damage.  Don’t let them slip away,” I said.  “Then you get paid.”

Keeping the message simple.

“Frederick,” Jessie said.  “Walk down Londown, turn right onto Prior, then turn right again, head toward the building with the lights on.  Start now.”

Frederick paused, glancing at me.

Rebellious.  Testing.

I really hoped Otis wouldn’t say something and start trouble again.  Frederick would take the bait and we would be stalled.

“This had better be good,” Frederick said.

He turned to leave.

“Come,” I said.  “Pierre?  Keep an eye out for anyone who slips the noose and runs?”

“Can do,” the rabbit said.

I led the way, Jessie following.  The three remaining contingents of thugs and hooligans trailed behind us.

We stopped as we saw the building.  It sat on a corner, and the interior lights burned bright.  A plume of smoke rose from the chimney.

“Clay,” Jessie said.  “See that big round window?”

“Yeah.”

“Count to forty, then walk toward it.  Block anyone from getting out that window or any of the windows to either side of it.”

“Forty?”

Count,” she said.

I wondered if he could.  Oh well.  We would manage.  If this executed well, then all the better.  If not, it let us weed out people we couldn’t use.

“Archie?  Go around the side of the building.  The gate barring access from the alley is unlocked.  Go there.  Grab anyone who tries to go out the window, keep them put.”

“Now?”

Now,” Jessie said.

“Don’t have to be a bitch with the orders.  Could at least be nice about it,” Otis said.

Jessie gave me a glance.

Something you didn’t have to deal with as a guy?  Being commanding as a guy is fine.  As a girl, well… rubs some people the wrong way.

Otis would learn to deal or he would have to go.

For now, I picked up the slack, gesturing at the front door.

“If it isn’t unlocked,” Jessie said, “Then kick it down.”

Otis moved ahead of us, going for the door.

“They have guns?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said.  “But they didn’t seem the type to be good with guns.  Element of surprise matters.”

“You can go in first,” he said.

“So long as you’re following,” I said.

He seized the handle, waggling it.

Locked.

The middle aged man with a jowly face leaned back, then kicked the door exactly the way it should be kicked in, right next to the handle.  The goal was to hit the door closest to the weakest part of both door and frame.  The point where the latch met the frame would be that.

Wood splintered around the handle.  He kicked again, then backed out of our way as Jessie and I approached.

We passed through the door.

Forty or so people were inside.  Students composed only a small portion of it, at a glance.  The rest looked like poorer folks who were earning a wage, stirring vats and burning materials in a stove to keep stuff boiling.

I looked over the students, and I spotted Leah.

I saw another student get his bearings.  Slow to react and process.  This might have been his introduction to violence.  He lunged for a long table.

“Lights,” Jessie said, gesturing.

I shifted direction.  I headed off to the right, Jessie to the left.

I slammed my hand down on the switch on the wall, so close to the front door, that controlled the lighting.  Conveniently placed to allow the last person to leave to shut everything off.

Conveniently placed to allow the first invader in to do the same.

The voltaic lights went dark, plunging the place into relative darkness.  Some chemistry equipment, fires, lanterns and such burned here and there, but it wasn’t much.

In the final moment we could see the scene, the lad was picking up a shotgun, and Otis was shouting, “Gun!”

The lad clearly wasn’t familiar with the weapon, or he would have already fired it.

It wasn’t pitch black in the lab, but in the sudden switch from light to darkness, it might as well have been.

I could navigate that darkness by intuition.  The afterimage of where the people were stuck in my mind’s eye.  The psychology of fear and panic told me the most logical positions for where they would be.

I ran into a young man, felt his reaction as he bumped into me, caught him, and shoved him hard in the direction of a table.  Tools clattered and crashed to the ground.

I swiftly changed direction, ducking low as the shotgun fired in the direction of the sound.

The flash of the gun firing gave me a glimpse of the scene.

There was a similar noise from Jessie’s direction.  The shotgun fired again.  Another flash of light, a glimpse of the scene.

I could see some of the people clustered in the middle of the room.  I could tell the direction they were facing.  One set of eyes on me, two on Jessie.  As the scene faded, I was left with the afterimage.  I could hear the murmurs, the shouts, and the general chaos of all of this.

For Jessie, this scene was one she had mapped out in her head.  Where things were.  Only the people were a mystery to her.  Her sense of space and timing were immaculate.  She knew exactly where she was as she navigated the darkness.

The inverse for me.  The people made sense.  The terrain was something I had to feel for.

The people made sense, and that trio worried me.

I ran a few steps, hip bumping against a table-

And slid beneath another table.  I rose to my feet, stumbled, and caught the back of the shirt of one member of the trio.

They’d decided to go after Jessie.

In any other circumstance, I would have let them, and let them learn their lesson.  But this was a case of four against one, and I wasn’t sure Jessie would anticipate them correctly.

As the man twisted, his shirt pulling in my hands, I had a sense of how he was positioned.  I brought one leg up, and stomped down on his knee, then pushed him to one side in a way that would put more weight on that knee.

He toppled.

Stepping forward, my forehead bumped into the collarbone of another person.  My hands clutched at their shoulders, and I hauled them down.  A moment later, I launched myself up, skull striking the point of their chin.

I pushed them into the third person.

Someone threw the switch.  The lights flickered as they struggled to come on.

Jessie had dispatched the one with the shotgun.  I caught another person off guard, taking out their knee again.  Their head clipped a table as I tipped them to the ground.

Otis’ people were only just entering.  They were treated to a sight of the people fleeing to the windows.  The ones trying to exit into the alley were being dragged through the window, which terrified the rest.  The ones who were trying to escape the windows into the street were running into Clay’s people.

Probably the best way to go, but given circumstance… given the fact that it was a drop of several feet, that they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves in the moments following, and that Clay looked like a mean, unhinged sort?  They elected to head for the back door.

I saw Leah among that group.  I beckoned for Otis to follow.  I walked, rather than run.  I took my time, weaving through the maze of tables and appliances.  It let Otis catch up, and it let Leah think she was getting away.

As I exited the building, I saw that Frederick wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Leah and the other twelve or so people that were actively fleeing had a clear path down the street.

Better to trust Pierre than to run.

He could follow them, see where they gathered, and we would do this again.  Hit them at home, at an unexpected moment, with overwhelming force.

I just hated that it meant casting Frederick aside, punishing him, and losing the extra time.

No.  There.

Frederick emerged from the place I was assuming he was supposed to have departed a minute ago, his men jogging as they left the alley.

If Leah had had more sense of the fight, of the battlefield, and what she was getting into, then she could have bolted.  She could have kept the same course, getting past Frederick’s group before they could cut her off.

But she panicked.  She and the others balked.  They turned to run away from the men with nail-studded sticks, and they saw me, with Otis following a bit behind.

I kept advancing, walking.

Leah and many of the others changed direction for the second time in a matter of seconds, retreating reluctantly and uncertainly toward Frederick’s group.  The threat of them largely forgotten.

I moved at a diagonal, and she moved in kind.

It was clear that she was retreating from me.

I could see Frederick eyeing me.  Trying to figure out how that worked.  He wanted to wrap his head around what had just happened in that building that might have her so spooked of me.

Part of that was the clear realization that I was at the heart of this.  The pre-established relationship.

The glimpse of me, just before all hell had broken loose and everything had gone dark.

“Let’s have another conversation, Leah,” I said.

She nodded.

“Bring her,” I said.

Frederick obeyed.

Good.

We returned to the lab, and the various hired hands corralled the laborers and various students that had found shelter beneath tables or tried to exit the windows.

Jessie was absent.  I waited patiently as people were organized.  The group was made to kneel on the floor.

The lab smelled like chemicals, of gas flames and wood stoves.  It made me think of home.

“Impeccable,” I greeted Jessie, as she came in the front door for the second time.

She gave me a little curtsy.

Shirley was right behind her.  Shirley had our people.

I was mindful of the theatrics as I brought the four nervous people Shirley had recruited into the lab.

Each one was positioned so they stood at a specific point, facing a specific individual.

A stocky, muscular adolescent boy, swarthy, opposite someone who wasn’t so muscular, but was much the same general shape and complexion.

A tall young man with black hair slicked back and parted, opposite a near-mirror in a lab coat.

A red-haired boy with freckles, nearly a match for his friend in height, also wearing a lab coat.  The noses were different, as were the ears, but that mattered little.

Leah stood opposite the girl.  I forgot the name, but it started with an R.

Both of matching height.  Both with blonde hair.

“Chief members of the Rank?” I asked.  “Meet your replacements.  If I’m not positive you’re going to cooperate with Jessie and me on everything that follows, you’re going to disappear, and these are the people who will step into your shoes.”

And keep Fray none the wiser.

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