We entered the Academy. The road divided, with a loop moving around to the emergency entrance for the Hedge, and the main road continuing straight beneath a massive arch. I noted that double guard had been stationed between the emergency entrance and the archway. The men in uniform gave us wary glances, but Hayle, still trailing well behind our group, gave them a wave, and they let us through.
The way in was a gate with heavy doors. They were paneled with wood, but I knew from past experience and observation that the wood covered heavy steel. They were heavy, they were massive, and the idea was that they would stand up to a bomb blast if need be. If things came down to it, the Academy doubled as a fortress.
Pity about the town, but the Academy was built to stand tall through virtually any scenario.
“We didn’t get much of a chance to talk,” I remarked to Mary.
“No,” she agreed. “I don’t think they wanted us to talk.”
“I can see that,” I said. I thought about how Hayle had stressed that I shouldn’t play fast and loose with this particular job. Had he wanted to assert his own degree of control over Mary? How would he have done it?
Well, keeping us separated was a way. I’d promised that she wouldn’t have to be alone, and Hayle had forced me to break that promise, in a minor way. By showing my face I’d done what I could to convince her I was trying, but now it was time to follow through.
“I remember overhearing you talk about how you hadn’t expected to deal with us,” I said. “You thought it would be Dog and Catcher, or one of the other experiments.”
“Yeah. We researched what we could, but things were hard to find. We didn’t want to tip anyone off,” she said. She pulled her hand away from mine and adjusted her sweater, tugging at the side of her skirt, and very pointedly didn’t put her hand in mine again.
My mind raced through three immediate possibilities as to why she’d done that. She craved to belong somewhere; had she imprinted on the Academy, and was she now conscious of the Academy watching her expression and interaction with me? That meant Hayle had won, in a way. She was his as much as she was mine.
Or had I made her uncomfortable, reminding her of the past and her past affiliations? That meant my grip was slipping, but it could be recouped.
Finally, it could be discomfort. Was she adopting a passive role? Subordinate, loyal, following my lead explicitly. If that was the case, then I had to be especially gentle.
“Hm,” I said, calm and quiet, as if I’d been thinking about something else altogether. Then, not betraying my racing thoughts, I asked, “What was the plan to deal with them? Can I ask?”
“We had ideas. Stockpiles of weapons, traps. It’s hard, with the school being what it is, there aren’t many hiding places with that many people running around.”
“But you had things.”
“Mostly on the roof and in certain places in the basement. I had a stock of hair coloring and skunk musk, so I could go from brunette to blonde, throw them off the scent and then disappear into the crowd.”
“That’s a myth,” I pointed out. “The skunk urine. Perpetuated by the Academy. It only makes it easier for Dog to track you. Doesn’t slow him down.”
One hand behind my back, I made a ‘come hither’ gesture.
“Oh,” she said. There was a pause. I noticed Gordon’s approach. Mary noted him coming up to walk on my right before she said, “Is it bad that that really bothers me?”
I smiled, making a sound that was half-exhalation and half-laugh, raising my hand behind my back, a ‘stop’ gesture. “No. That would drive me nuts.”
“Sy more than most,” Gordon said. “It’s one of the three best ways to put him in a foul mood, when a scheme of his doesn’t come together, past, present, or planned.”
“Scheme,” I said. “Using that word makes me think I should grow up to have a fishhook mustache I curl with my fingers.”
“I think that’s accurate,” Gordon said.
If it were Jamie, I would have jabbed him, started a light tussle, but it wasn’t. Gordon would make me look bad, and he would do it without trying.
Mary managed a proper smile for the first time today. “What are the other two ways to get to him?”
Gordon snickered, and there was something in the sound that betrayed his ‘nice boy’ image, hinting at the guy he really was. In a way, it was more honest, showing that side of himself, but it wasn’t gentle or nice.
“You’ll have to give me something to get something,” he said.
“Will I, now?” she asked, easily falling into the stride of the conversation. “I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
One day, not now but soon, I imagined he’d hone that hidden edge to a razor point. Used right, he could draw girls to him, good looks, build, and ‘knight in shining armor’ image to get their initial interest, then hinting at the secret beneath the surface to hook them.
Mary was too wary for the hook to set, barb and all, but she was intrigued enough to let walls down. Her shoulders were less tense now.
“You’re the hero of the Lambs. The vanguard,” Mary observed.
“I’m nothing special,” he said, looking beyond me to give her a one-sided smirk that betrayed the lie.
“Sy said you were.”
“Did he? Well, then it must be true,” Gordon said, softening the sarcasm with with a smile. Mary smiled back. “Which direction are we going, again?”
“Bowels, I’d think,” I said, pointing. I turned, starting to walk backward, raising my voice and pointing. “Bowels?”
Hayle, just in earshot, nodded and pointed in the same direction.
We turned left. Claret hall was only a little ways to our right, bordered by other main buildings, the Rows, and various roads.
“Bowels,” Mary said. “Haven’t heard that one.”
“Students call them the dungeons, the tunnels, or the pit. The official name is ‘Labs, comma, recessed’, Gorger’s home.”
“I heard about the dungeons and the tunnels,” Mary said. She paused. “Gorger. We didn’t have a plan for him. What could we even do, except scatter, run, and stick to the public eye?”
“Mm,” I said, noncommittal. “Let your guard down, he hits you like a freight train. Can’t hurt him with anything short of a proper cannon, and I doubt even we could contrive to get him to stand in the way of one for long enough.”
“I’m a little surprised it’s even a consideration,” Mary said. “You’ve clearly thought about it, weighed options, and decided you’d lose?”
“Wrong on four counts,” I said, right off the back of her question.
I saw her pause, raising a hand to count on fingertips, rephrasing her question in her head.
“I haven’t given a lot of thought to that particular problem, so that stuff and everything that follows is off the top of my head. Gorger doesn’t get out much, so he’s one of the ones we see the least of, next to the Hangman.”
“Hangman?” she asked.
I plowed on past the question, “Second, I didn’t weigh options, I turned my thoughts to strategy-”
“Scheming,” Gordon said, sounding bored.
“-the best way of doing things. Thirdly-”
“You have to ignore him when he gets like this,” Gordon commented.
“-I don’t think it’s a loss, thank you very much. I think the cannon would be a failure, but that’s hardly the only way to do it. I’m betting a victory of sorts could be managed.”
“Though he’s harder to ignore than I’d like,” Gordon remarked. “I agree with him there. I think we’d win.”
“That’s only three, and you’ve run out of points to argue,” Mary said. “Did you say four to get me to pay attention?”
“Yeah,” I said. Because you’re insecure and you’re more likely to fixate on a proper number, which can be more easily proven or disproven.
“Ah,” she said. I thought I caught a roll of the eyes as she glanced away, looking over the Academy. The trees grew wild in between buildings, and there were places where the branches meshed with the branches that jutted out of buildings. There were more stitched at this end of the Academy, and more general experiments. It was interesting to look at.
“Pause for emphasis,” Gordon said. Mary snapped her head around to look at him. He was smirking. “Then Sy’s reveal. There was a fourth reason. He never said there wasn’t.”
“You’re ruining it,” I said.
“Only because you’re predictable.”
I mock-gasped. “You take that back, you oaf.”
He didn’t flinch. “Better to be an oaf than to be puny.”
I mock-gasped again, with a little more emphasis.
“Four?” Mary cut in, before we started fighting in earnest.
I shrugged. “You said you. That Gordon, Helen, Jamie, Lillian and I would lose if we were up against Gorger in some confrontation or another. Maybe you’re right. But that’s wrong. You’d have been more accurate if you’d said we. You’re a member of the team.”
Mary turned my way. For someone else, the statement might have fallen flat, phrased as casually and awkwardly as it was, but the inclusiveness mattered to her. I’d touched on a topic at the core of her being.
I had her attention. I suspected that if I grabbed her hand, she wouldn’t pull away.
But suspicion wasn’t good enough. Not when I didn’t know why she’d pulled away in the first place.
I’d phrased it in a matter-of-fact way, leaving it to hang out there and be taken for what it was worth. Now I distracted from it. Better to avoid letting Mary sit with the idea and the statement long enough to doubt it or tear it to pieces.
“We’re here,” I said. “We should let the others catch up and get the debrief.”
Mary leaned over to peer down.
‘Here’ happened to be a hole in the ground. It was a nice hole in the ground, with a roof over it and a short wall to keep the rain out. Lights punctuated a spiral stairway. An easy-to-miss plaque on a nearby wall indicated to those who were looking that this was the entrance to the Bowels.
Still, there were very few people who had cause to enter the Bowels without already knowing where and what it was. Guests didn’t tend to, unless they were from Academies other than Radham’s, and even regular students didn’t have much cause to go beneath.
Some students passed us, giving us weird looks, looking like they might say something, before they spotted Hayle following up the rear.
They hurried on, disappearing down the stairs, each with a hand on the rails. The descent was a nervous one, with stairs taken quickly, heads down and eyes fixed on points further down the stairs.
Lillian was holding the strap of her satchel with both hands. “About once every two weeks, they have to lock a whole section down. Something’s escaped, something went missing, a container broke, a chain broke. Send Gorger in, then seal it off. Drop stone blocks that whole teams of stitched have to winch back up, maybe flood the section, maybe ignite the air, and give it some time to be sure.”
“Whatever it is,” Hayle said, “If it’s here in the recessed labs, it’s likely better to be safe than sorry.”
“Whatever Dog, Catcher, Gorger and all the rest are hunting, it came from the Bowels, didn’t it?” Gordon asked.
“It did,” Hayle said. “The students that carried out the release are still down there.”
“Makes sense,” Lillian said, in a small voice. “I don’t think even the students that work down there like being down there.”
It gets even better. With Gorger out and about, they don’t have anyone to clean up. If something happens, and they don’t flood or burn the section, they’ll just wait it out. Leave the section blocked off until everything inside has starved to death. Including us.
“You don’t have to come,” I told Lillian, knowing full well she did.
She smiled, a light of hope in her eyes as she looked to Hayle for confirmation.
“I would insist that she accompany you,” Hayle said, shattering that hope.
Lillian’s face fell.
Hayle started down the stairs, and we followed. Hard shoes on stone stairs made for a bit of clatter, and the sounds echoed off the walls.
“I assumed you’d ask about the job if you had questions,” Hayle said. “Are you wanting to go in blind, or did you want details?”
“Details now are good,” Gordon said. “Please. Sir.”
The sir sounded like an afterthought. Was Gordon a little irritated that Hayle had pushed about Lillian coming?
Gordon was being protective? Cute.
Then again, I had no place to comment. I was very aware of everything Mary was doing.
“The project is a living weapon, C-tier. It’s vat grown, cartilaginous, with a simple construction. Redundant, durable organs, a thick exterior of placoid scales, and a brain diffused across its body mass.”
C-tier. Larger than a man, smaller than a coach car.
“Placoid… it’s covered in teeth?” Lillian asked.
“In a fashion.”
“What’s the angle?” Gordon asked.
“Sensory organs. Our creature is covered in fine, flexible ‘hairs’, with fine sawtooth construction. It can sense and process changes in air current, temperature, lighting, and vibrations in the atmosphere. It remains hyper-aware of its surroundings, and this is, we think, why it has proven so hard to track down and catch.”
“Smart?” I asked.
“Fast?” Helen asked. “Dangerous?”
“Less than you might think. It moves deliberately. It identifies lone prey and smashes itself against that prey. The hairs cut on contact, and the experiment uses its own mass to pulverize. It smears itself against destroyed prey to coat itself in blood and absorbs the nutrients through the gaps in the scaling.”
“That sounds really inefficient,” Lillian said.
Hayle smiled at her, pleased at how well his student was doing, but his words weren’t smiling words, “Unfortunately so.”
“Unfortunately?” Helen cut in. She was doing that walk again, hands behind her back, almost playful, thunking her shoes against the stairs with each step. It was annoying, possibly trying to provoke a reaction, but our collective attention was elsewhere.
“If it is that inefficient, then it has to do it more often,” Lillian said.
“Even more often if it’s shy and bolts the moment someone comes to investigate the noise and screaming,” Gordon said.
“Seven have died this morning,” Hayle said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about an eighth or a ninth when I return to my office. Six died on the Academy grounds, one died on the top of the outside wall.”
“Leading to concerns that it might have slipped through the net,” Gordon said.
“And the decision to bring more eyes in,” Hayle said. “Which leads us here. Our culprits included one of the students on this project. He had a note with the time for release. We have the other students on the project, but we don’t believe they were involved. They’re available for you to talk to, of course.”
We’d stepped away from the staircase. The hallways were brightly lit, which didn’t quite fit the ‘dungeon’ theme, but every wall was thicker than my arms were long, cut from slabs of stone, and the doors were heavy and reinforced.
I eyed the ceiling, looking at the notches, furrows, and larger pieces of stone that were held up by relatively small clasps and braces of metal. I wasn’t the only one looking.
“Remember. The students are your focus here,” Hayle said. “You’re not equipped to deal with the escaped experiment. It instinctively slips away from anything and anyone that approaches, favoring darker, quieter areas, unless that thing or someone is both small and alone, in which case it feeds. There is no ‘fight’ to be had, here. Focus on the students. Motivations, ulterior motives, accomplices.”
“Yes sir,” Gordon said, nodding. I joined in, despite wanting to add something along the lines of ‘I think he wants us to focus on the students’.
Had to be good.
We were quite a ways down the length of a hallway. A quartet of students saw Hayle and picked up their pace a little.
If a black-coat Professor was in the Bowels and walking fast, it was probably a good idea to pick up one’s pace and get out. Just in case.
Hayle stopped abruptly by a door. He plucked a file from a slot that was built into the door’s exterior, and handed it to Jamie, who opened it and started reading.
“You’ll find him in here. Walter Gund. Better than average student, his father is a politician in Wiltwyck, but he’s lost any and all favor he once enjoyed. Anything is permissible, so long as you don’t maim or kill the boy.”
We exchanged glances between us, then shook our collective heads.
“You know where to find me. Be good,” Hayle reminded us. Me, for that last part. He handed Gordon a key.
He left as quickly as he’d arrived. Leaving us to our own devices.
We watched as he made his retreat, his footsteps echoing down the hall. Just when we were clear, a group of students emerged from another room, opening the door and closing it behind them, looking stunned to see us gathered outside another office, then went on their way without kicking up a fuss.
Once they’d left, we were clear.
“Should one of us take point?” Gordon asked. “Or we take turns?”
“Kind of boring to be standing out in the hallway doing nothing,” Jamie said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Yes. That.”
“All of us take point?”
“All at once,” I said. “Introduce him to the Lambs. And Lillian.”
Lillian gave me an annoyed look. Better than the waves of sheer terror that had been radiating off her a moment ago.
Mary wasn’t much better, but she had a better poker face. Almost flawless, as faces went.
“Don’t worry, honey. It’s not so bad down here,” Helen said.
“It’s pretty bad,” Mary said. “Any place where you casually mention setting the air on fire as a just-in-case measure is pretty bad.”
“Thank you,” Lillian said. “You put it in words better than I could have.”
Mary smiled at her.
“I grew up here,” Helen said. She was smiling, looking excited. “I wasn’t born here, I was harmless when they made me. But Doctor Ibott spent a lot of time observing and working down here, and he wanted me at arm’s reach. I think you can even find toys I hid from Ibott here and there.”
Mary maintained a very neutral expression at Helen’s casual mention that she’d grown up among the ‘if it escapes, drown and burn everything’ projects. I could have probably cracked her composure by mentioning what young Helen had deemed a ‘toy’, but stayed quiet.
“I’ll be happier when we’re gone,” Lillian said. “No offense.”
Mary nodded in solidarity.
“No offense taken,” Helen said.
Mary and Lillian were friends. For all my efforts, I hadn’t been able to see Mary as often as the girl who actually lived on Academy grounds.
It annoyed me.
“All at once, then,” Gordon said. “Approach?”
“He’s a good student,” Jamie said. “Citations for smoking in the dorm room-”
Jamie stopped as I reached out and tore the bottom of one page.
“Um. Lost my place. Let’s see… Almost got kicked out, but the Academy dropped the issue. Being out and about with friends, drinking, in town for girls… no issue. He’s only twenty-two, and he’s on a project like this. That suggests something.”
I rolled up the paper. I knew the answer, but didn’t give it.
Gordon looked at me, he was thinking the same thing.
I just prayed Lillian didn’t jump in with the answer.
“Daddy helped him out,” Mary said.
“Exactly,” Gordon said. He flashed a smile.
Mary smiled back.
I chimed in, “He’s led a sheltered life. Let’s make it clear just how unsheltered his existence is now. Helen? You lead. Gordon, talk, I’ll signal you when I want a turn. Jamie? Jump in, facts from the folder.”
“And me?” Mary asked.
“He has a powerful dad. Are you telling me you didn’t pick anything up at Mothmont, when it comes to parental expectations and the wrath of Dad? Hit him where it hurts.”
She nodded slowly.
“Ready?” Gordon asked.
Not hearing a ‘no’, he unlocked and opened the door.
The metal hinges of the heavy door creaked painfully as the door swung open.
Our man wore a handlebar mustache, and he was big, ginger-haired and broad shouldered, with no sign of a gut, despite his large arms. He’d been stripped of his coat, and now sat at the corner of the cot, one of only four pieces of furniture in the room – cot, toilet, table, and chair.
No books, nothing to do with himself.
Walter stood as he saw us. I saw bewilderment, consternation.
Where the Bad Seeds had known who we were right away, this young man didn’t, I was certain. He saw a group of children, Helen smiling, Gordon glaring, Jamie and Mary with blank expressions. He looked to me, the smallest, as if I was somehow less threatening, and I gave him the coldest look I could manage.
Our group slowed, Gordon pausing to shut the door and lock it. Helen maintained course. She headed straight for him.
“Uh,” he said. “I think-”
Helen, smiling sweetly, grabbed him by the balls.
He staggered, but the movement didn’t break her grip. He swung, and she bent low, taking advantage of his height. She passed between his legs, almost swinging, pulling his dangling bits backward toward his asshole, and led him to bend far enough forward that he fell onto his hands and one knee.
“If you fight her, she’ll do permanent damage,” Gordon said. “Ease up, Helen? I think he’s willing to cooperate.”
She eased up, but she didn’t let go.
He heaved for breath.
“What are we calling this thing, anyway?” Gordon asked.
“Whiskers,” I said, a moment before Helen called out, “Fluffy!”
Jamie’s, “Twitches,” was so far behind it was closer to a fourth place finish than a third.
Mary glanced at me, confused.
“Bit of a competition,” I whispered. “I tend to win these.”
“Ah,” she whispered back.
“Let’s talk,” Gordon spoke to our hostage. “Motives. Start.”
“Your dad knows,” Mary said. “We’ve talked to him. We explained. He’s done with you.”
Hm. Right for the jugular. It fit the Mary I knew, but I had to give her a lesson in this. To properly break a person, one had to start at the outside edges, and work inward. Once you hit them with the worst possible scenario, there was little place left to go from there.
Still, it was interesting to get to know Mary on this level.
“No,” Walter said. “I don’t believe that.”
“You’re the eldest son,” Jamie said. “But when people die like people have been dying, and one’s son is responsible, sometimes a man has to face the fact that he’s raised a failure.”
“You’re crawling on the ground with your balls in a little girl’s hands,” Gordon said. “What do you think you are? The next Jacob Black?”
I watched the man’s face change. I puzzled over it. The confusion. The reaction.
I raised my hand, and saw Gordon’s head turn incrementally.
He passed the baton to me, in a manner of speaking.
“We know your dad is involved,” I said. “We sent someone after him, and we have him in custody. He’s throwing you out with the anchor, Walter. Talking is the only way to stay afloat.”
I saw his eyes widen.
“Start fast,” Gordon said.
His reaction had told me that something didn’t add up, and it was related to something we’d said already.
His dad was involved, a powerful politician, in another prominent city, no less.
Which raised ever so many questions.