With the people starting to vomit or rising from their seats to run for the nearest toilet, it was pretty clear that something was wrong. Students were getting distressed, and students were getting scared. The teachers weren’t in great shape either.
Our opposition was smart. Whatever was going on, they were capable of making plans with multiple phases or steps. Knowing we’d already served ourselves, they’d tainted the food, affecting most of the other students and teachers. Probably. It fit with Miss Ribbons’ actions and the general timeline.
Mary. Helen’s friends had called her Mary.
Our seats at the table were arranged with intent. It wasn’t anything we’d blatantly coordinated or organized, but we’d simply accepted it as an approach. At the table furthest from the kitchen, Jamie, Lillian and I sat on the bench with the wall right behind us, Helen and a share of Gordon’s friends on either side. Helen and Gordon themselves were opposite Jamie and I, their backs to the rest of the dining room.
The position meant that Jamie and I could observe the room, and getting to us was rather more difficult. Gordon and Helen could look after themselves, for the most part, if someone happened to approach from behind.
I leaned over to Jamie, and I took advantage of the general noise, bustle, and distraction of the other students to murmur in his ear. “The other students are too smart to reveal themselves in the midst of this. Watch the teachers.”
“Sure,” he said.
I met Gordon and Helen’s eyes. This was an awkward situation, because we couldn’t coordinate by speech without cluing the others in. If we left, we ran the risk of being blindsided. When our enemies were in the shadows and we were in plain sight, the chaos here worked very much against us. While everyone else was distracted or incapacitated, they were free to attack us from any number of angles. If we happened to die, well, even minor food poisoning could kill.
That in itself was dangerous, but I was willing to bet there were more layers to this attack. A specific reason they’d done it this way.
“Helen,” Gordon said. He put a hand on Helen’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Helen shook her head. She was already leaning over slightly, one hand to her collarbone.
She very briefly met my eye.
Good. Play along.
“Do you need help?” Lillian asked.
“Just walk me to our room?” Helen asked. There was a tension in her voice, as if she were suddenly trying very hard not to puke.
“Lillian isn’t that strong,” Gordon said. “I’ll help.”
“Boys aren’t allowed on the girl’s side,” was the protest from Erma the pixie-blonde. She looked visibly green around the gills.
“Special circumstances,” Gordon said.
“You’re really not allowed,” Erma protested, again.
“I really don’t care,” Gordon said, firm.
“We’ll come,” I said.
“Groups of-” Erma started, then bit the sentence short as she fought a wave of nausea.
“Erma,” I said. “Let us be gentlemen, okay? We’re mostly okay, I think. We can walk you to your rooms.”
She didn’t look happy with that idea, but she wasn’t able to talk, either.
Gordon began to stand, helping Helen out of her seat. He offered a hand to Erma.
“The teachers,” Jamie said, alerting us.
My head turned. One of the teachers was standing. He wore slightly old fashioned clothes. His pants clung to his legs, disappearing into boots, while he wore a bright red jacket over a button-up shirt without a tie. He had a strong build, with a prominent barrel chest, and the clothing had a way of making his legs look far too small while his upper body was made to look larger. His hair was the same way, wavy hair across a head that was already very triangular, with a prominent upper brow and pointed chin.
The red jacket was unfortunate, not because it was a sad attempt at acting a member of the upper crust, but because his skin was now very flushed, matching the jacket. He was sweating, in obvious discomfort.
He hadn’t escaped the effects of the poison. The man seated to his right and the headmistress another seat down were both looking about as uncomfortable.
Had they eaten more, being larger in build?
“Everyone!” Red-jacket boomed out the word. He had a faint but real British accent.
The noise level dropped.
“Something in the meal looks as though it might have been undercooked. Head straight to your dorm rooms. If you have to-” he paused. “It is best if you use the wastebins in your room instead of trying to make your way to the toilets. I expect there will be too much demand. You will be looked after, but go now before you feel any worse.”
We’ll be looked after?
Jamie was staring intently, still in his seat. He stirred when I reached across his field of vision for a pitcher of water, only a quarter of the way filled. I emptied the contents into another pitcher, then slid it across the table to Gordon.
“If we can’t get to a wastebin,” I said, “Better the jug than the floor. You hold onto it?”
Gordon took the glass pitcher by the handle, one arm supporting Helen. It wasn’t much, but it served as a weapon.
“Go ahead,” I told Jamie. While he and Lillian circled the table, I emptied another pitcher into the one at the center of the table, holding it in my hands.
Not that it mattered too much. If it came down to me needing a weapon to defend myself, I doubted things could be salvaged.
Still made me feel better.
We headed for the girl’s dormitory with Helen and a few stragglers. I was glad to be shorter than the norm, as I ducked my head down and let the crowd shield me from the eyes of the teachers.
I’d hoped that the act of taking care of Helen would let us break away, but there were too many people vacating the dining room. Even those who were well were being driven out by the aroma of vomit. It was humid in the room with the heat from the kitchen and the sheer number of students, and the humidity helped carry the offensive odor. We couldn’t break away from the crowd, and I wasn’t sure that the dorm room would be much better.
Beside me, an older girl hunched over, making a guttural noise. Everyone near her cleared out of the way.
I took advantage of the gap in the crowd to step closer. I stuck the empty pitcher beneath her mouth, pulling my head back and away so I didn’t have to look as she emptied a portion of her stomach’s contents.
“Thank you,” she said, still bent over, smiling.
She reached to take the pitcher, and I pulled it away from her grasp.
“Reserved for friends,” I said.
She looked a little bewildered and lost.
“And here I thought you were a gentleman,” Erma mumbled.
“I’m a bastard, born and bred,” I said. And there’s no way I’m handing a weapon over to a potential enemy.
With students moving slowly and some pushing or jostling, the way up the stairs looked like more of a jam than any day on King Street. We were probably safe while we were a group, but if the crowd separated us, or if someone tried to slip us the wrong end of a knife while we were in the crush of bodies, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to respond accordingly.
I saw Gordon shooting Jamie a look, and I sensed that he was thinking along the same lines.
We were stuck.
“Where are the showers?” I asked.
“Baths? Where do we wash up?”
“Upstairs one floor,” Gordon said, “Above the dining room.”
He took the question as an instruction, and he and Helen dutifully forged their way into a gap in the crowd. Jamie, Lillian and I hurried to follow, me holding my pitcher off to one side, to avoid the smell.
People were slow, some had stopped on the stairs, sitting or on all fours, and there was a smell that suggested they weren’t all simply throwing up. It was a mess, a disaster, and a stain on Mothmont on many levels.
That part of it all was almost certainly a clue.
There were a lot of details to be picked out of this. Motivation, approach, the nature of the enemy…
I idly moved the pitcher to one side, intending it to be a shield against anyone reaching for me or holding a weapon, but it ended up serving another purpose. The sight of a glass container filled with vomit made two girls shy back. It was an avenue for me to slip upstairs, skipping ahead three steps, ducking past two students, and stepping to safety, free of the sickly herd.
The others followed me as we headed into the girl’s showers. Two showers were already running, and the room was filled with steam. The floor was white tile, the stalls themselves were wood painted with an exceedingly glossy paint. Each stall was recessed, with hooks and benches before the door and the shower beyond.
“They get individual stalls?” Jamie asked. “Why do they get individual stalls?”
“Shh,” Gordon shushed him.
Erma had followed us, and staggered past us to the first available stall, where she promptly decorated the floor with her dinner.
I glanced around, then pointed. While the others led the way, I stepped to nearby stalls and turned on the water. The hiss of water filled the room.
By the time I caught up with the others in the furthest shower back, Helen was standing upright, her expression blank. Gordon stood with a foot resting on one of the little benches at the entry to the stall, while Jamie and Lillian occupied the other short bench.
I stood at the entrance to the stall, where I could peek out and keep an eye on the door. Clouds of steam drifted.
Helen reached past the others for my pitcher, and I let her have it. Without flinching, she emptied some onto her sleeve. She turned on the water, cold more than warm, and stepped under the stream. The water ran over her, soaking her hair and uniform. The makeup around her eyes ran.
I glanced away, my attention on the other stalls. Pacing back a bit, I bent down, peering under stalls. I saw some bare feet and wet socks. It looked like Erma was sitting on the floor of the shower, letting water run over her.
“Were we followed?” Gordon asked, his voice low.
“Don’t know,” Jamie murmured.
“When things get this messy, it gets harder to keep track of things,” I said. “Which might be what they’re counting on.”
“Trying to catch us out?” Gordon asked.
I nodded. “Shaking things up, yeah. What worries me is Mary.”
“I didn’t have any clue,” Helen said.
“It’s okay,” Lillian said, reassuring. “It’s not your fault.”
“I’m well aware,” Helen said, turning her blank expression on Lillian. Anyone else might have sounded irritated, but Helen didn’t sound anything. “If I had an idea and ignored it, then it would be my fault.”
“I… okay,” Lillian said.
“Who is she?” I asked. “This Mary?”
“Mary Elizabeth Coburn,” Helen said. “Her father isn’t influential. Accountant to the rich and famous. It’s why I didn’t pay particular attention to her.”
“Who is her mother?” Gordon asked.
“I don’t know,” Helen said. “I just looked at the men, because of the prior pattern. Would have asked, but it’s harder to ask about a girl’s mother.”
I nodded. Most mothers were teachers, nurses, or homemakers. Nothing so interesting that we could ask. There were more women attending the Academy, but few from the last generation.
“Worth looking into,” Gordon said. He ran his fingers through his golden hair, which was damp with the light spray that had touched it. “Check the rest of her family, why she might be selected out of all the students here.”
I could sense how stressed the others were. This maneuver had put us all in a reactionary position, and our options were limited until the other shoe dropped. I volunteered some information, hoping to get them focused again. Not necessarily improving morale, but I doubted that was a real issue. We knew this sort of situation well enough. “We know she had a role in this. She might as well have told us to our faces that she was involved, the line about enjoying our meals, the look she gave us. It means something, if she doesn’t care about us coming after her.”
Jamie nodded. “The puppeteer is using these students as murder weapons. As a killer, he has a pattern. Murder-suicides. One after another. The suicides cover up evidence. If Mary keeps to the pattern, she’s either going to come after us-”
“Or she’s going to go home,” Gordon said. He paused. “Oh.”
I followed his thoughts to the same conclusion. “This is the endgame.”
“I’m sorry,” Lillian cut in. “I’m not following.”
“They know we’re onto them,” Gordon said. “Our puppeteer somehow figured out about us. Maybe through a connection to the Academy, maybe by some other means. He got scared, and now he’s wrapping up. Get everyone sick, and in the midst of the chaos he can send his weapons after us, or students are sent home and finish their jobs.”
“Or both,” I said. “If they’re careful about how they come after us, there’s nothing saying they can’t take a run at us and then disappear.”
“That’s possible,” Gordon agreed. “Especially if they know who we are, they might not want to pick a fight.”
I heard a noise and glanced past the entrance to the stall to check the door.
Two more students. One was crying.
I stepped further into the steam and shadow and eyed them until they disappeared into a stall. No sign of hostility.
“Either way,” Gordon was saying, “our puppeteer may be wary enough to take a break for a few years, let interest in things die down, or pack up and head to another campus at another school.”
“Maybe,” I said. “This approach here feels ugly. Making students sick? Vomit and shit everywhere.”
“Hurts Mothmont where it counts, and what hurts Mothmont hurts the Academy,” Gordon said.
“Personal,” Lillian said.
I nodded. “Now you’re getting up to speed.”
She looked annoyed at that phrasing.
“We have a man-” Gordon said.
“-Or woman,” Jamie cut in.
Gordon continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “-Who considers these children to be expendable assets. He alters them somehow, gives them a target, and has them die after the fact, tidying up the evidence. He does this because he hates the school? That’s an awful lot of hate. Do we really think he’s a teacher? That’s a lot of involvement and hours of the day to spend around something you hate that much.”
“Isn’t it possible?” Helen asked.
“No,” Gordon said, frowning a little. “I really don’t think it is. It feels too spiteful, twisting the knife for good measure when he could simply stab.”
“What if this isn’t about the school?” I asked.
“It’s personal, but it’s a grudge against a person.”
“Against the headmistress?” Gordon asked.
I offered a languid shrug. The moisture in the air was starting to collect on my skin and clothes. I wiped my forehead and pushed my hair back and away from my forehead. “Jamie? Any thoughts on the faculty?”
“They were talking as a group before Mr. McCairn did his announcement,” Jamie said. “The headmistress didn’t have a lot to say.”
“Did students serve the teachers food?” I asked.
“Yes, right from the kitchen,” Jamie said. He paused, glancing to the left, “Mary served the three at the end.”
“Making the headmistress look bad by keeping her ineffectual,” I said. “More poison or whatever it was-”
“Emetics,” Lillian said. “Maybe laxative.”
“Mary gave the headmistress more emetics than anyone else,” I amended my statement. “The question is who would have a grudge against-”
I sensed a movement out of the corner of my eye. My head turned, my hand and one finger going up for the benefit of the others.
“To your rooms, now,” a woman’s voice cut in.
I heard footsteps. Both those belonging to the woman and the footsteps of the fleeing girls.
A sharp knock, a few stalls down.
“Out,” was the order.
Doing the rounds, clearing everyone away.
Gordon held up his hand, counting off on his fingers, his voice low. “Who has a grudge against the headmistress? Someone on campus, who can communicate with the students. Who is Mary and why her? Look at who her mother is. What is the mechanism of control? And don’t forget that they’re liable to come for us. Be on guard, and don’t forget they might try to take you out with them.”
“And their families,” Lillian said. “If they get away…”
“We’ll step in if it looks like there’s any danger of that happening,” Jamie assured her.
“We will,” I agreed. “I’d bet money this ploy of theirs has another angle. Watch out for the angle.”
There were nods.
“Out,” the teacher gave the order, several stalls down.
“My friends,” Erma said. “They were in here.”
Selling us out?
No, Erma didn’t know we were trying to avoid the spotlight.
“Do we need to worry about Erma?” Gordon asked.
“I don’t know,” Helen said.
“Not wanting us in the girl’s dorm was suspicious,” Gordon said, his voice a whisper.
I could hear the teacher’s approaching footsteps, hard soles on tile.
“Oh, that?” Lillian asked. “Her room’s a sty. She doesn’t know how to look after herself.”
Our entire group collectively relaxed.
There was a metal-on-metal squeak as another shower was turned off.
I turned to face the woman as she emerged from the steam.
“Boys in the girl’s showers?” she asked, her voice arching, as if she were about to launch into a tirade.
“It’s okay,” Lillian said. “We-”
“Not another word. This is most certainly not ‘okay’!” the woman said, building up steam.
Helen stumbled forward, lightly headbutting the woman in the solar plexus. With wet hands, she clutched the woman by the shirtfront.
“Miss Williams,” Helen mewled the words, “I feel so bad. Please. I-”
Helen paused, apparently holding back her gorge.
Gordon stepped forward, hurrying to offer my pitcher of vomit to the woman. The woman had to fight Helen’s clutches to get to the pitcher and offer it to the girl.
Helen managed to unload a mouthful of vomit and missed the pitcher entirely, dropping it on the floor between the woman’s feet. She coughed, clutching at the woman’s shirt again. “It hurts.”
I jumped in. “We know her, and she had it worse than anyone, and we didn’t know what to do. There were so many people on the stairs we weren’t sure we could get anywhere in time.”
“She had someone else’s mess on her sleeve,” Lillian said. “I thought she could clean off, but I couldn’t support her myself, because Erma was there too, so we came here, and she went into the shower like that.”
“I wanted to get cool,” Helen said. “I feel hot and sweaty and gross and…” her words dissolved into incoherent whines.
“I-” the woman started.
“Please, we don’t want to get in trouble,” Gordon said. “We didn’t know any way to help her.”
“It hurts,” Helen said. “My stomach is cramping.”
“Enough,” the woman said. She managed to extricate herself from Helen. “Enough of that. You need to act like young adults. I understand that this young lady is feeling unwell, but that’s no excuse for the rest of you.”
She glanced over us, and we collectively managed to look miserable and pitiful enough to get to her.
She gave me a curious look. “What happened to you?”
“Scrap, ma’am,” I said.
The woman made a face. “Boys, to your dorms, right now. They’re doing headcounts shortly. I’ll look after Helen here.”
We nodded and hurried to obey.
Once I was at the entrance to the showers, I glanced back. I could make out Helen with her head resting against the woman’s chest, giving me a sidelong glance, a light smile on her face.
I resisted the urge to smile back.
Had things been different, I might have tried to get myself in trouble. As nice as it would have been to see how punishment worked here and if it might be used to keep the bad seeds in line, I didn’t want to add more complications to a bad situation.
I was damp but not wet from the ambient moisture of the shower, and I ventured into a hallway that reeked of sick. The students had been cleared out, but the air would have that bitter taste to it for weeks.
Jamie, Gordon and I all made our way down the hall.
“That was good,” Gordon said. “Being able to talk, touch base.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But we’re on our back foot. We know very little where it counts. They’ve seized the initiative. Until we turn things around, we’re going to be responding, not acting. We don’t have time to waste, if they can just call it quits and go murder mom, dad, and themselves.”
“At which point the Academy can’t keep the situation under wraps,” Gordon said. “What do you think, Sly? Want to slip away, see what you can do while you’re staying out of sight? See if you can turn things around or get the right words to the right ears?”
“If they’re doing headcounts, they’ll wonder where I’m at. Depending on how things go, that wondering might reach our puppeteer.”
“That’s not a no,” Jamie commented.
“He has at least an idea of who we are,” Gordon said. “Having you lurking could scare him.”
“Or she has an idea who we are,” Jamie said. “We could scare her.”
Gordon rolled his eyes.
“I’m just saying. Most teachers are female.”
“I’m only saying this doesn’t feel like a woman’s work,” Gordon said. “Women care about kids on a deeper level.”
I thought of Lacey.
Jamie was shaking his head.
“Nothing,” Jamie said. “If I try to argue, you’ll win. You’ll say something about the poisoner being a woman after all, and you’re faster on the draw than I am, so okay. I forfeit the argument. You’re right.”
Gordon frowned, clearly annoyed.
“Either way, I’m thinking we don’t want to scare him. Or her,” I said, adding that last bit for Jamie’s benefit. I saw a slight smile on Jamie’s face at that, and a slight deepening of Gordon’s frown of annoyance, which was even better. “If we assume our puppeteer is operating under fear right now, tying everything up and attempting to remove us before we can uncover him, or packing up and running, then we don’t want to push him too far.”
“How do we seize the initiative if you’re worried-” Jamie started.
I reached up, shushing him.
We’d approached a corner, and the man in the red jacket was further down the hallway. He wasn’t moving, slumped against the wall.
“You think you need me?” Gordon asked.
As if in response, the man in the red jacket passed gas. It was a long, high pitched sound.
He sighed in audible relief, patted his rear end with his hand, checking, then pulled himself away from the wall.
I took a second to admire the man’s courage before saying, “I don’t think so.”
Gordon nodded, but he didn’t move from the base of the stairwell while Jamie and I headed toward our room.
“Hello, Mr. McCairn,” Jamie greeted the man.
“Jamie. And… I don’t recognize this one.”
“Sylvester,” I said.
“To your rooms, stat. I’m doing a headcount as we speak.”
You’re standing there suffering, or you’re acting, but you’re most definitely not in the midst of doing anything else, I thought.
Still, I obeyed.
I closed the door, then immediately began studying our surroundings. Jamie sat on his bed.
“You were saying?” he asked.
“We head back to our room, and you tell me about the faculty.”
Jamie nodded. “Where do I start?”
“Not a lot to say. She was a teacher for five years before her superior came down with a pregnancy, she took over, and she did a good enough job that she kept the job while moving from place to place. When Mothmont sprung up, they went looking for someone with a squeaky reputation and clean face to watch over it all.”
Squeaky reputation. That didn’t mean it was a clean reputation, but it changed the tone of things. Was it ambition at the heart of it?
I nodded. I searched the room, looking over the desk, opening the drawers.
Nothing of particular interest. Ink bottles, pens, a kit for sewing, in case we needed to mend our uniforms…
I removed the contents of the drawers, setting the items on top of the desk. I considered them.
“McCairn?” I asked Jamie, when I was done considering.
“Ex-military. Does drills with the boys, looks over the boy’s dorm.”
“It’s all an act,” I said.
“Yes. Dressing up, playing up the accent. They picked him because he was local, not because he was upper crust.”
“Do you think he’s a consideration? If he’s picking off the powerful, maybe he doesn’t like being the low man on the totem pole?”
“I’m more likely to think he’s beholden to this place than an outright enemy. Besides, how does he control the children? Who else? Second person at the table, between McCairn and the headmistress. Academy-trained?”
I turned my attention to the chests at the foot of our beds. I opened the lid, and then tested the weight of the lid itself.
Solid wood, three feet by two feet, give or take.
“Not Academy trained, no.”
Returning to the desk, I claimed a pen, then set to unscrewing the hinges from the bottom portion of the chest. “Who is he?”
“Mr. Percy. He teaches the younger years. Fundamentals of Academy science.”
“But he’s not Academy trained?”
“Teaches it from the books.”
I pulled the lid free of the chest itself, hinges dangling. I set it aside. “Help.”
Jamie was on his feet. Not a question as to why. He just obeyed.
Together, we moved the chest to the base of the door. The entire thing must have weighed six or so stone. A piece of furniture unto itself.
I upended the chest, so the side was facing up, and then dragged the lid over. I climbed up onto the chest so my eyes were level with the top of the door, and the two of us managed to raise the chest’s lid up to the same level, resting the end of the lid near where my toes were.
“Get the chair?” I asked. “And a book or something.”
He did. Standing on the chair, he had a little less height than I did, but he was able to help me, lifting the lid higher. When it got too high for Jamie to really help, he used the book for extra leverage, while I used my other hand to steady it.
In the process, we managed to get the entire thing up so it rested on the top of the doorframe, flush against the wall.
With one hand up to keep it from falling down on top of us, I took the book from Jamie and adjusted the bend of the hinge, until it bent at a right angle.
I opened the door a crack, peered through to make sure the hallway was empty, then gave the hinge a solid whack with the book.
The hinge punched into the wall.
Tentatively, I let go.
“You have the oddest sense for decorations,” Jamie said.
“I left the screws on the corner of the bed.”
“Ah, sure.” Jamie went to fetch the screws.
“If he’s had access to the books, he could know something. Percy.”
“He could,” Jamie agreed. “But if he was this good, why wouldn’t he be employed by the Academy already? He’d rather be headmaster? It’s weak.”
I nodded. Taking the first screw from Jamie, I used the pen to set it in place, just enough to be firmly in the wood, still sticking out.
“Strangest sense for decoration,” Jamie observed.
“Shut up, and give me a screw,” I said.
It took only a minute to get the screws into place. Set randomly, as my reach allowed.
“Sewing kit?” Jamie asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “And while I work with that, unlace your shoes.”
“You’re aware this is going to make a racket when it comes down?” Jamie asked.
“I’m aware,” I said. “But Gordon was right. It makes sense for me to be out and about… except I don’t like leaving you defenseless.”
“I’m better in a brawl than you are.”
I frowned. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s depressing, because you still suck at it,” I said. “My worry is that they won’t give you a chance to scrap with them. If the situation calls for it, this will at least give them pause.”
I put the first pin’s point against the wood, then pressed the cover of the book against it until it stuck out. I started with the second pin.
“Yeah,” he said. He handed them to me.
“Lie down, get a wink or two,” I said. “I’ll wait around until they’re done the headcount, then I’ll disappear. You leave me a signal if it’s unsafe for me to return?”
No plan went a hundred percent smoothly.
Sitting in the dark of the room, I could feel the lingering headache from my appointment. The lights were off, the building was almost silent, but for the sounds of people continuing to be ill. There was nothing to distract me from my own pain.
The shoelaces hung limp in my hand. With my own shoelaces attached, they strung up to the board I’d fixed above the wall. It bristled with collected screws, needles, broken pen tips, and a few choice pieces of glass.
The limited length of the shoelaces had meant I’d had to sit on the corner of Jamie’s bed or the chair, and even though sitting on the bed meant getting periodically kicked as Jamie tossed and turned under his covers, it was far more comfortable than the hard wooden chair.
I didn’t mind the company, even if the company was asleep.
My trap here wouldn’t kill, but killing wasn’t the aim.
Couldn’t interrogate the dead.
Every few minutes, I’d hear someone being sick or crying out, the rustle of running footsteps, or smell rank aromas from nearby rooms.
The trick was to connect the sounds. I drew a mental picture, tying it all together, sequences of events.
It was when I heard a murmured conversation and the rustle of footsteps without any sound of distress to precede it that I tensed.
Moving the shoelaces to one hand, I slid back reaching as far as I could, and put my fingers over Jamie’s mouth.
He was awake in an instant. I felt his hot breath between my fingers.
Floorboards creaked. The doorknob rattled.
The light from the corridor outside was blinding as the door yawned open.
“Hey,” Ed said. I could only barely make out his smile. “You’re up.”
My eyes widened.
Three people. Ed and his buds. Boys who hadn’t sat at the table with me, Gordon, and the rest of us.
They’d collected their food around the same time Gordon had, as part of Gordon’s pack, even if they weren’t feeling too kindly toward my orphan brother.
I considered all the options, then sighed.
“Ed,” I said, “You don’t know the sort of mess you’re getting yourself stuck into.”
He approached me, and I felt a kind of resignation as I let the shoelace slip from my slack fingers.
“Sy,” Jamie said.
“Shut it,” Ed said. “Stay put, don’t make a fuss. Our business is with Sy.”
“Right,” Jamie said. “Yeah.”
“What’s Gordon going to think?” I asked. But it wasn’t really an ask. More a statement, to Jamie.
“Gordon’s got his head up his ass,” Ed said. “Now keep your voice down. Don’t bother calling for help. We’ve got someone keeping McCairn busy upstairs.”
I bet, I thought.
He grabbed me, and he hauled me up. I didn’t try putting up a fight. It would have been useless, and I hoped they’d get sloppy and give me a chance to surprise them.
With his buddies, he marched me forward, glancing this way, then that, before forcing me over toward the stairs.
We were half a flight down before I heard Jamie’s running footsteps above, going up to talk to Gordon.
I hoped to hell they’d be able to find me in time.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” I said.
“I know well enough. You’re an ass, Sylvester, and you made enemies. Now it’s catching up with you.”
I decided to keep my mouth shut.
The descent continued until we reached the first floor, then continued down another flight.
Once we were at the bottom, I could feel the heat in the air. The area was barely lit, the lighting buzzing audibly, flickering now and again, threatening to plunge us into darkness.
The boys opened a door.
There were no lightbulbs, but a very large furnace blazed, casting irregular orange flames throughout the room, while leaving much of the rest in darkness.
“Mary,” I guessed.
“Got it in one,” she said, from the gloom.
I nodded slowly. “You’ve been paying a lot of attention to me.”
“I’ve been paying enough,” she said.
She leaned forward. The light from the fire flickered over her face.
“What’d you tell them?” I asked. I jerked my head to one side.
“The truth. That you insulted me. A bigger boy beating you up, you can use that. Get pity from girls, from my friends. But if a girl beat you up? You’d never live it down.”
“The truth, huh?” I asked.
“Do you disagree with my version of events?”
I sighed. “No, I suppose not.”
Not if it meant that she’d clean up Ed and his cronies while dealing with me.
“Because I really wondered if you were that type of person. If you were that much of a scoundrel.”
I shrugged. “I’m not denying that I’m a scoundrel. I do have to wonder what you are.”
“That, Sylvester, would be telling,” Mary said.
“Are you going to start fighting yet?” Ed asked. “The little ass gets a whupping from me, and goes straight back to cozying up to your friends, disrespecting them, disrespecting you. I want to hear a proper apology from his lips.”
“I’m not really the apology type,” I said.
“That!” Ed said, “Right there. I want you to make it so I never have to hear him say anything like that ever again.”
“Not until you’re gone,” Mary said.
“Huh? I want to see.”
“A girl has her modesty,” Mary said.
“That’s bull,” Ed said. “We went out after curfew and brought him here.”
“I’ll make you a bet,” Mary said. “If he turns up at school tomorrow, I’ll give you my company for an entire day. We can go out on the town over the weekend.”
“She’s leaving school tomorrow,” I said.
“The trouble with being a little grease-stain, Sylvester, is that your words lose their power. Anything you say comes out sounding like a lie.”
“You really have been paying attention,” I said.
“One day for each of us,” Ed said.
“One day for each of you, or he’s so embarrassed he never turns up again,” Mary said, her voice soft. “Win-win.”
“Sure,” Ed said.
“Do me a favor, though?”
“His friends are probably hunting for him. There’s a stash of cards and dirty books in the kitchen, behind the shelves by the stove. Duck over there, hang out for a while before going back to your room.”
“For real?” Ed asked.
“For real. I’ve seen the cook boys goggling over it.”
I hung my head.
Ed’s group wasted no time. I could hear the door shut behind me.
“You’re good,” I said.
I heard a click.
I recognized it as the sound of a gun lever.
“You’re very good,” I said, raising my arms.
“I saw your showing against Ed. There’s no way you’re that bad in a scrap. It’s a show.”
“It really isn’t,” I said.
“I’m going to assume you’re lying and stay comfortably at a safe distance,” she said. “You’re going to tell me about your friends. Share what you know. In exchange, I’ll be merciful.”
“I’ll shoot you properly, once in the head, once in the chest. Then I haul you over and push you into the furnace before taking my leave.”
“The alternative being?”
“I take your legs out from under you, then hold you up to slow cook you while you’re alive.”
My eyes were adjusting to the gloom. I could see the look in her eyes.
She totally would.
I exhaled slowly. “Okay.”