The press of bodies, the general shuffling and movement, and the warmth of the summer’s day made for a haze in the air. A fog, if fog smelled like body odor and rain.
But it was easier and more evocative to call it a symptom of the general mood. If one person could be so mad that steam came out of their ears, was a crowd of very upset people capable of producing this kind of atmosphere?
“This is not what I expected,” Gordon remarked.
I nodded in silent agreement.
A woman stopped to take notice of us as we forged our way through a tangle of legs and hips. She was in the company of her husband and her son, who was twice our age.
“What are you doing here?” the woman asked.
“Trying to get a seat with a view,” Gordon said. “Excuse us.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, not letting him by. Her son nudged her, pointing at a gap in the crowd, and she shooed him off. “You’re too little.”
My eyes narrowed, my eyes dancing over her, taking in the simple braid, the worn seams of her clothes, and the particular lines in her face. “And you’re-”
Gordon reflexively tried to clap a hand over my mouth, but with the crowd crushing in on us and our mutual proximity, he ended up smacking me in the lower half of the face with his forearm.
“Mmph,” I said, wincing.
“We’re fine,” Gordon said, smiling. He partially turned my way, muttering, “Sorry.”
“You’re going to get trampled. Emotions are running high today,” the woman told us, her voice stringent.
“Mum,” her son said, impatient.
“One moment,” she said, a little impatiently. She looked at us and gave us her best ‘mother’ voice. “Go home. It’s safer there.”
“But-” Jamie said, and I had to suppress a smile at hearing his tone. The tone and the wide eyed look he gave her through his thick glasses was wounded, concerned, and bewildered. “Ma’am. We’re orphans. We don’t have a home.”
It wasn’t quite how I would have timed or phrased it, but it wasn’t quite an option for me. I felt like if I tried to go the pitiful orphan route, someone like this woman would look me over, see the scruffy hair, see the eyes, the thin mouth, and think, ‘yes, that’s an orphan.’
But Jamie was another thing altogether. His long hair was tied back in a sailor’s ponytail, he wore glasses, and his clothes didn’t quite fit him. He was just a step away from being an ordinary child, so fixable, and the effect came across well. Perfect for when we wanted to put people on the defensive.
I’d worked with him on that one, with Helen’s help.
I did my best not to smile as I watched the woman flounder.
“Mum,” her son said. “We’re going to lose sight of dad if you don’t hurry.”
She seemed caught up in the moment, but with a push one way and a pull the other…
“You shouldn’t be here,” she reminded us, before turning away, joining her son.
I tackled Jamie, throwing my arm around his shoulder.
“Hmm,” Jamie said.
“That was good!” I told him.
“Uh huh,” he said, again. But he smiled.
“In a few years that won’t work anymore.”
“But it worked here, now! Just a second ago,” I said. “That was good!”
“That’s all it takes to make Sy’s day,” Gordon remarked.
When I looked, I saw he was talking to Mary, who was safe between him and Lil. Helen was closer to me and Jamie.
“A good execution of a technique?” Mary asked. “It makes sense to me.”
“No,” Gordon said. “Well, yes, maybe, but no.”
“Mixed messages, there,” I said. I winced as a few members of the crowd backed away, jostling us.
“No,” Gordon seemed to decide. “It’s not about the technique.”
“Oh,” Mary said. She looked puzzled.
“He-” Jamie started to chime in, then stopped short as the crowd moved again, bumping him.
“Let’s move somewhere else,” Gordon said. He looked at the crowd ahead of us. People were shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.
The entire neighborhood turned up.
“Up there,” Helen suggested.
She was pointing at a nearby rooftop, an addition to a nearby building, larger than a shed, not quite large enough to be an adjunct stable. A storehouse?
Either way, it had a gently sloping roof that was low enough we could potentially climb up to it. We had to hop a short fence that surrounded the lawn, possibly to keep bugs away.
“Sy,” Gordon said. He was entwining his fingers together.
I nodded, and picked up my pace.
It wasn’t quite a running start, but I had forward momentum all the same, when he caught my foot in his hands and hauled me up.
I landed on the roof, and immediately dropped to all fours, palms and shoes skidding on the shingles before I found the traction to stop.
By the time I did, Helen had made her way up. Gordon very deliberately looked to one side as her dress brushed his face. She didn’t drop to all fours as I had, but instead found her balance by touching the side of the adjacent building, her feet firmly planted on the sloped roof. She turned around to face the other direction, peppermint green dress flaring around bare legs, her sockless feet in little white shoes finding balance. I knew Helen was in the process of growing her hair longer, but for now it was in tight blonde rolls at the side and back, the rolls absorbing most of the length.
She was still smiling, giving me an amused look with a very intentionally placed gleam in her eyes.
I almost missed deadpan Helen. I understood deadpan Helen.
“Sy,” Gordon said. “Heads up!”
I looked just in time to see Mary fly at me.
I caught the apex of the roof with one hand and Mary’s hand with the other. Her shoes weren’t as good for climbing as mine were, too flat on the bottom, and she skidded.
I watched her adjust her weight, the foot that was set lower on the roof sweeping in a sharp, focused half-circle, scraping the shingles for maximum traction. Not quite enough to stop her downward movement, but it made for less of a violent tug when I had to catch her full weight, my arms stretched in two opposite directions.
“You’re smiling,” she said.
I hauled her up, and she found her way to the peak of the roof, standing across it. We had the best view of the crowd, but she was staring at me, looking puzzled.
“Your…” I said, not finding the words. I made an inarticulate waving gesture toward her legs.
Mary looked down, sticking out one leg. She wore a white blouse and forest green skirt, and she was looking down at her bare calf.
“The way you kept from falling,” Helen clarified. “Kicking out.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Oh,” Mary said. She still looked a little perplexed.
“Sy, Mary,” Gordon said.
I reached out and caught Jamie’s hand. Mary caught his elbow, where he was holding his book with one hand.
“You were taught that?”
“It was one of a few things,” she said. “I’m more of a tomboy than you’d think. I learned a bit on my own.”
“No kidding,” I said. To please the puppeteer? To please us, now? “It’s impressive.”
She looked away as she smiled in response to that.
We caught Lillian, helping her up, and then Gordon hauled himself up on his own.
Six of us on one roof.
“Grimy,” Gordon said. I looked down at my brown-black palms to verify, then to Lillian. Her dress was smudged at the knees, where she hadn’t been quite so graceful as Helen or Mary.
Straddling the roof, I pulled off my raincloak. I laid it across the top of the roof.
At my silent invitation, Mary sat down on one side of it. I plunked myself down beside her, and not because of any scheme or anything. Lillian might have been a girl, but it was my damn cloak.
Lil shot me an offended look, then arranged and sat on her satchel with all the equipment and notes.
Gordon and Helen were standing, toward the side of the building, while Jamie elected to sit on his book, balancing it on the roof’s peak.
Together, finally settled with a view, we were free to look out over the crowd. A small handful of faces looked up at us on our perch, but nobody spoke out. The focus was elsewhere.
Fear, anger, agitation.
“Something’s stirring,” I murmured.
Jamie, watching, nodded.
The church was across the street from us, not one of the largest in existence, but Radham wasn’t an overly pious town. The structure was pale, the shingles were brown, and the stained glass stood out all the more for the drab exterior. A lot of reds in the glass used for the window.
Damage sustained some time ago had led to the patching up of one of the side walls, but the branches had been heavily pruned. Where some buildings let the branches grow out, reaching and growing leaves, the church had cut back everything until the plant growth was almost indistinguishable from mortar.
A cart had stopped by the side door of the church, and much of the crowd had gathered around it. Two men were standing on or by the cart, I saw. They were talking, and a lot of people were listening.
“That’s not the reverend, is it?” Gordon asked.
“No,” Jamie said. He pointed. “Left side. Bill Warner. He owns the production line down by Tenent street. You knew his son at Mothmont, Gordon.”
“To the right, we have Dicky Gill, who really shouldn’t be here,” Jamie observed. “Or at least, not in this capacity.”
“Why?” Mary asked.
“Because he’s in a position of power that the Academy gave him,” Gordon said. “He’s on the shortlist to be the next mayor?”
“Oh boy,” Mary said, finally understanding.
“It’s a very short list,” Jamie said. “A list many people want to find themselves on. An academy town of the Crown States of America.”
“Short road to power, if he’s willing to walk it,” I remarked. “Why is he here, and not walking that road?”
“Same general feeling as Walter’s dad?” Gordon asked. “It’s not true power, it’s just being stuck in the middle while the Academy runs things.”
“No?” Gordon asked.
“Power is a lot more tantalizing when it’s almost in reach than when you have it hand,” I said. “For him, it’s almost in reach. What’s going on that’s making this more appealing than that?”
“You have to ask?” Gordon asked.
He gave me an odd look.
“Look. This crowd. I know you can tell just how upset they are.”
“Uh huh,” I said, resisting an ‘of course’.
“That simmering rage? It’s his, or close to. This many people, restless, and he owns them. He and Warner, anyway, maybe Reverend Mauer too.”
Our collected eyes moved over the crowd. People talking in heated tones, the forceful gestures, the restlessness. Expressions tight, with lines of anger across foreheads and between eyebrows, grooves deep around the mouth, suggesting disgust, and eyes too wide open, revealing too much white. Fear.
Perhaps something more than fear, too. A wilder sort of feeling. Something ready to cut loose and act on things long suppressed.
“They only need direction,” I said.
“You’re saying you don’t see the appeal in that?” Gordon asked. “For a guy who’s never had power, to now have the ability to direct this?”
“I see the appeal, I guess,” I said. “I prefer to interact with people, not crowds.”
“It’s a big crowd, and it wouldn’t take much to turn this state of things into a riot,” Gordon commented.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” Mary said, “Did it?”
“No,” I agreed. “There was work going into this. There’s a reason people gathered here at the first sign of trouble.”
The church door opened. Conversations stopped. People paid attention.
He wasn’t what I was expecting.
A part of me was expecting Hayle, someone aged, stately, perhaps a bit grim, dressed in black, with the priest’s collar.
Reverend Mauer was young, or he’d been worked on by the Academy at some point. His hair was vibrant, a bronze that verged on a surprising red where the sun peered through clouds to touch it, and his skin was smooth and unlined.
When he walked, it was a touch off balance, back bent to one side, almost a limp. He did wear black shirt and slacks, one arm bare , and he wore a chaplain’s collar, not the tab at the shirt, but a proper band of white that encircled his neck. To go with the limping gait and odd balance was a heavy sleeve that covered one arm, extending past the fingers.
The uncharitable part of me wanted to call him a chicken, or a cock. The shock of red at the top, sharp chin and a roman nose, the long, thin neck, the youth, and the way he walked.
But the more charitable part of me saw that he was quiet, very at ease with how he slowly took in the crowd with his eyes. When he moved for a purpose other than walking, his actions seemed fluid, relaxed.
His very state of being seemed to pass to them. The fires that had been stirring when the crowd was left on its own seemed to flicker and fade.
We’d pegged him for the provocateur of the situation with Walter and Whiskers. Looking at him, going by gut feeling, I suspected he was far from being a stupid man.
“I suddenly feel like we should have gotten closer,” Gordon remarked.
“For what?” Jamie asked.
“To be able to act.”
“There’s no way to act with this many people around,” Mary said.
“You’re saying that? After your scene in the Mothmont cafeteria?” I asked.
“I’m… saying there’s no way to do it without advance preparation.”
“Point,” I said. Then, after a second’s pause, I couldn’t hold back. “Ugh. Talk, Mauer. I want to hear what you have to say.”
“So do they,” Lillian said.
The crowd was paying close attention.
Mauer climbed up onto the side of the wagon, standing on the short ledge beneath the door. It put him a few feet above the crowd, sticking up by the waist.
Without a word, he gestured at Gill. Our Academy backed politician.
I only partially managed to hold back a groan.
“Everyone!” Gill called out, climbing up to stand beside the Reverend Mauer, proving to be a bit shorter and somewhat plumper than the reverend. Still, good projection skills. “You’ve heard the rumors, and I have to thank you for passing the word on to others so they know what’s going on and can make sure they’re safe. For those who haven’t heard, yes, there is a creature loose from the Academy. It is dangerous to you all, but you can minimize the danger by staying in groups.”
It is dangerous to you all. Emphasis on ‘is’, to strike any doubt from their minds.
Any public speaker worth his salt could have reworded that or even changed the emphasis to soften the blow to the Academy. He’d done it intentionally.
“Bad politician,” I murmured. “Bad!”
Jamie was nodding. Mary leaned forward, arms around her knees, paying rapt attention.
“What is it!?” someone called out.
Yes, I thought. What is it?
“Sources with the Academy have told me it’s a project meant to advance research in the five senses,” Gill said. “That it’s not meant to be dangerous, but we should take care all the same.”
My eyes narrowed. I was aware of the murmurs and conversation.
“We heard people had died!” another voice.
“Yes. Nine individuals have been gravely hurt in and around the Academy, but so far, the damage-” Gill paused as Mauer reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, then finished his statement, “-is contained to the institution. They’re putting all resources forward, to stop…”
He halted toward the end there, then let the sentence die unfinished. Mauer was using his grip on the man’s shoulder to let him know that he wanted to speak.
“It’s not true, I’m afraid,” Mauer said. His voice carried, but it wasn’t loud like Gill’s was. Strong contrast. He paused, another contrast to Gill’s attempt to drop as much information as he could in a short span of time.
Were the contrasts intentional? How much were they collaborating? Was even this interruption of Gill’s reassurance calculated?
“I just received word that two individuals in the upper west part of Radham were attacked. They were school-age. One of them is gravely injured, to the point that he may be crippled for life.”
His expression changed, and his face was very expressive, in a way that might have rivaled Helen’s own control of how she presented herself. The weariness in his eyes suggested he was much older than he looked. He looked down, taking a second to purse his lips, as if trying to get them working right.
“The other child is dead,” he stated, overly stiff, having waited just long enough to let people think he might have completed his last statement.
Now, again, the crowd stirred, pain, fear, anger, redoubled for the peace that Mauer had just given and taken away.
“Please!” Mauer called out. His words were nearly drowned out by the noise of the crowd. “Please!”
Gordon shifted, crouching, and spoke to us, “He can definitely speak louder than that.”
He’s in full control of this crowd. He’s stoking the fires and bottling up the heat. Things are going to explode, and they’re going to explode damn soon.
“Who is this guy?” I asked, a little awed and impressed. “Is he an experiment?”
“Pretty sure he isn’t,” Jamie said. “I overheard about his history. He was a soldier in the wars down south.”
“The limp?” I asked.
“Not a limp. He’s off balance. They gave him a new arm, after he lost his. It’s not very functional, and it’s not very pretty,” Jamie said.
“A regular, oversized arm. Nothing fancy. It seems to cause him constant pain. He refused offers of further work and replacement. Went straight to seminary.”
Reverend Mauer’s shouting was picking up in volume. He was getting attention.
“Please!” Mauer said, more forcefully, almost a little angry. Another act. “This is not about the monster, and it is not about the Academy or the mistakes they made!”
“He’s doing that on purpose,” Mary said.
I’m not the only one who thinks so.
“Yeah,” Helen said, one of the few things she’d said since we’d climbed up onto the roof. The smile was gone from her face. She was deadpan again.
“They don’t see it?” Mary asked.
“Emotions are clouding their eyes and ears,” Gordon said, simply.
“This is about the children! Please! A moment of silence and a prayer!”
In the palm of his hand, I thought.
I could see everything that was about to unfold.
Stoke the fires, contain, store the heat. Stoke the fires, contain, store the heat.
Let it all build up.
Right now, he was containing.
“Their names are Martin and Oscar Meadows,” he said, and he barely had to raise his voice to be heard, now that the crowd had been silenced. “Let us give them a moment and a prayer.”
Nobody with a heart, no matter how angry they were, could dare to speak up in the midst of such a meaningful silence.
“Is he going to start a riot? Directed at the Academy?” Lillian asked, whispering. We were far enough we wouldn’t be overheard. With the nearest members of the crowd a good thirty feet away, aiming to be closer, to see as well as hear, the shuffling of feet and the periodic coughs were enough to mask the whispering.
“Maybe,” Gordon whispered.
“No,” I whispered, without missing a beat. “No. Why the hell would he do that?”
“To hurt Radham Academy.”
“What good comes of that? They shut the doors and the gates and wait out the chaos,” I whispered.
“Then why? What? He has some goal,” Gordon said.
The silence lingered as I watched, looking over the crowd to the red haired man who was standing on the side of one coach. He was examining the crowd, but he hadn’t noticed us.
“Look at him,” I said. “We can’t even touch him right now. He’s surrounded by this many supporters, and even if he wasn’t, if we could get to him somehow, we’d only stimulate the crowd, like an electric shock to a latent stitched. Wake them up, drive them to action.”
“Making him a martyr,” Mary whispered.
“He has full and complete control. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows how dangerous it is to stand against the Academy. He knows they’re going to pay attention to him, and he can only hold his position by maintaining a very delicate sort of balance. Starting a riot gives up that control,” I whispered.
Reverend Mauer was peering through the crowd, finding people who weren’t at ease. A man who was more agitated than some, shifting weight from one foot to another, was met with a look of deep sadness from Mauer.
The agitation quieted.
“Are you sure this guy’s human?” I whispered.
“After his botched arm graft and new skin, I don’t think he’s willing to let anyone touch him,” Jamie said.
“You’ve paid a lot of attention to this guy,” Gordon remarked.
“He’s a popular topic for gossip,” Jamie whispered. “The Academies don’t have the best working relationship with the churches. A lot of people wondered what sort of man would turn up to man a station in an Academy town, of all places.”
“I guess we know, now,” Gordon remarked.
The silence was lingering to the point that it was almost painful. More than a minute, easily.
Who are you, Reverend Mauer? I wondered. Are you drawing this out for your own pleasure? To test how firm your grip on these people is in practice? Are you focused on the same taste of power that stole Gill away from the Academy, or are you laboring under a goal?
People with their heads and eyes down were perhaps unaware, but the crowd began to shift, a little restless, as if their bodies were voicing the questions their mouths didn’t dare to.
“Now,” Reverend Mauer said, as if gently rousing everyone present from a dream. “I know you’re upset. It is hard not to be, given the lives that have been lost, and your fear for yourselves, your neighbors, and your loved ones.”
He had everyone’s ear, and mine was no exception. I was hanging on every word, picking apart how he was playing with emotions, saying one thing while gently stoking the fires, validating fear and outrage.
“Aimless anger won’t help anyone, and would be an affront to those we’ve already lost. Nothing would be sadder than if we went out looking for answers or justice, only to sully the memories of Martin and Oscar, or worse, to join those killed by the escaped creature, because you were acting with emotion, not caution.”
Mary was giving me a sidelong glance.
I was right.
What we don’t know is what your next move is.
“The Academy, from what we’ve been told, is deploying more creatures, weapons of war and armed men, with the intent of finding and stopping the escaped creature. Dog and Catcher are the least of the assets being brought to bear.”
“Academy didn’t tell you that,” Gordon murmured.
“Hard for them to turn around and say they didn’t, that they wanted to keep people in the dark,” I commented. Gordon nodded in agreement.
There isn’t a single person here that likes that. Phrased so well, too.
He went on. “I don’t like this, but at the present time, the only thing we can do is stay safe. Stay with family and friends, give each other comfort. If you still find yourself lacking, you’ll find Dicky, Bill, and myself here in the church, with several others, ready to offer prayer and counsel, should you need it. If you have any news, please, come to us.”
“Soldiers,” Mary said.
I nodded slowly.
How many people are going to turn up at that church, talking about banding together and doing something, as if it were their idea and not Mauer’s?
“A prayer!” Mauer declared, spreading his arms slightly.
“Let’s go,” I said, climbing over the roof, intent on sliding down the far side, away from Mauer. I peered over to make sure the landing would be clear. “The Academy is going to want to be on top of this. It’s a bigger problem than Whiskers.”
“Bigger?” Lillian asked.
“He’s putting himself opposite the Academy, gathering soldiers, he’s telling people about the secret projects, if only in broad strokes, and he’s making himself effectively untouchable,” I said. “This is going to concern the Academy more than any murderous experiment, believe me. We need advice on how to move forward, and we might need help.”