“I will be with you shortly,” Hayle said. “Cecil, if you’d wait a moment?”
“Yes, sir,” was the answer. Cecil, then, was the doctor who had entered the faculty room to deliver the news about the false escapes.
That said, our supervisor shut the door to the faculty room with more firmness than it deserved. Where Claret Hall had been grown, the windows and doors had been put in by ordinary means, and the door chosen for this particular room was big and solid enough that it could have shattered any arm caught in between it and the frame.
It made a good slam. Hayle was not happy with me.
Our group stood out in the hallway, some of us shuffling our feet. The doctor that stood off to one side was looking at us with curiosity, but didn’t venture to say anything.
“That could have gone worse,” I commented.
There was no response.
“Professor Briggs was in an uncharacteristically good mood,” I said.
The awkward silence lingered.
“We’re going to get badges,” I said, because things were reaching the point where annoyance or anger would have been preferable to the non-answers.
I didn’t get annoyance or anger.
“We waste so much damn time on stuff we shouldn’t,” I said. “It was a chance to stop doing that. Step up our game.”
I looked at each of them in turn. Gordon was giving me a level stare, Helen seemed more preoccupied with fixing scuffed nails, and both Jamie and Lillian were avoiding my eyes. Mary looked a little confused.
This was an egg I could crack. Mary was the most obvious go-to, but I felt like going that way would stack the deck against me. The others would see through what I was trying to do, in part because it would be as transparent as all get out, and then they’d side against me. Me and maybe Mary against the four of them.
I’d lose any points I’d won with Mary if I put her in that situation.
“Helen,” I said. “You know the badges make sense. I know that you have to go through a lot of checkpoints to see Professor Ibbot, depending on where he’s working at a given point in time.”
“I do,” she said, looking up from her nails.
“Don’t engage him,” Gordon said.
“I’ll do what I want, thank you very much,” she said. Prim and proper of tone, and fully capable of using that tone as a weapon on its own. She turned her gaze to me. “You forget that in dealing with Professor Ibbot, I have to deal with very capricious personalities. I know what it means to deal with powerful people.”
You mean you have to deal with his personality.
“I didn’t forget,” I said, sullenly. “I was trying to downplay that part of things.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Professor Hayle is more reasonable than most. He can’t blame you too much.”
“Too much,” I said.
“Can I ask?” Mary cut in. “Why is everyone acting like Sy is going to die or something?”
Thank you for forcing some discourse, I thought.
“You can ask, but we’ve got company,” Gordon said, indicating the man that Hayle had called Cecil. “It would be unwise to go into details.”
Damn you for shutting down said discourse.
“Excuse me?” the man asked, archly. Teacher, doctor, gray coat, whatever we called him, he’d grown accustomed to a general degree of respect. Being shut out of a discussion between children was a few rungs below where he was used to being.
“Beg pardon. We’ve been asked to keep silent on certain subjects while we do errands for the faculty, sir,” Gordon said. He feigned a lack of confidence. “If that’s okay?”
“I see,” the man said. He digested that nugget, which wasn’t a hard thing to do. The hierarchy was reinforced. Professors had more say than doctors, who had more say than we did. “That’s alright.”
Gordon gave him a grateful smile.
More how Gordon operated, really. My modus operandi was to put people off balance, see where they were most vulnerable, and push to topple them. Gordon was almost doing the opposite here. Reaffirming the rules and the social order.
“You know,” I told Gordon, “If we-”
“I would strongly urge you to think about what you’re going to say to Professor Hayle, after he comes back out,” Gordon said, cutting me off. “I’m not mad. I’m worried about you. And if you goof this up bad enough we suffer for it, I will be mad.”
Doctor Cecil spoke up, speaking in a slightly patronizing tone, “Whatever you’re doing here, if you’ve got connections to the guys in that room, it’s a gig I’d recommend you hold on to.”
“Exactly,” Gordon said, playing along. “I like this gig, Sy. Don’t lose us this gig.”
“What happens if we lose this gig?” Mary asked.
“That is a very good question,” Gordon said.
“One you’re not going to answer?” Mary asked, glancing at the Doctor, who made a face at the glance’s implication.
“Not because of any secrets,” Gordon said. “I really don’t know what happens.”
“I think you’re being paranoid,” I said. “They’re not going to toss us out.”
“I think,” Gordon said, very carefully, “that out of the two of us, I’m the one who has faint memories of your predecessors.”
Ashton and Evette.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It suggests that you really should stop arguing with me and plan how you’re going to get back on Professor Hayle’s good side.”
“It suggests nothing of the sort!”
“Sy,” Gordon said.
“Gordon,” I said, without missing a beat.
“Remember when I said I wasn’t angry? You’re changing my mind. Please don’t.”
I sighed, crossed the hallway, and leaned against the wall opposite the others. I fished in my pocket for a small folding knife, more for cutting twine and carving sticks than for opening people up. I unfolded it, and tossed it in the air. I caught it by the flat of the blade, between thumb and index finger, made it bounce as I tested the weight, then flipped it over again, catching it by the blade again.
I always focused my thoughts best when I had something to occupy the rest of my attention.
The door opened too quickly after that. Hayle stepped out, then shut the door behind him.
“This way, please,” he said. “Cecil, too, if you could?”
“I can, sir,” Cecil said.
We followed our gray-haired Professor and father figure a little ways down the hallway. Hayle stopped by the window, glancing out at the city beyond.
He let us wallow in the silence. Even I wasn’t reckless enough to break the silence and test him.
“Cecil, I’ve been told you don’t have any pressing obligations?”
“I, uh, do not, no.”
“You’ll be one of two individuals to go with them. Do what they require of you, within reason, facilitate them, and don’t ask too many questions. Do this for us and a recently vacated laboratory in the underground area will be yours, along with some leeway to pursue any personal projects. Some leeway, I hope you understand.”
“I understand I shouldn’t waste academy funds,” Cecil said, “But if something has my fancy and I can justify it, that would be alright?”
“You understand, I think.”
“A friend of mine is more passionate about his project than I am about any of mine. If I brought him in-”
“That would be fine,” Hayle said, curt. “If you don’t mind?”
Cecil raised his hands, “By all means. I’m sorry.”
“Sylvester,” Hayle said, and he said it in a way that made me shrink a little.
“Good response, that,” he said, in a tone that betrayed some anger. “Keep it up. Cecil, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t repeat any of what I’m about to say.”
“I’m already in your debt.”
“Sylvester,” Hayle said, again, driving the point in. “As cunning as you think you are, with carefully laid schemes and nonsense, the rest of us do entertain our own ideas and plans. Me among them.”
I nodded, mute. I’d only seen him like this once or twice.
“I have been anticipating and waiting a rather long time for a situation like this to crop up. One where, whether they like it or not, they depend on my resources.”
The look he gave us made it very clear that we were among those resources.
“I knew, right away, that I would have some leeway, with the ability to call in favors and ask for resources. All the more so if I can resolve this problem.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Imagine my frustration when the situation happens to unfold just as I want it to, and an impertinent little boy steps forward and makes his own bid for favor, asking for resources, because he thought it would be funny.”
“I thought it would be useful,” I said. “We waste so much damn time on stuff we shouldn’t, getting past patrols and bureaucracy, maintaining the ruse. It was a chance to free ourselves to act faster and more efficiently.”
It was the same argument I’d posed to my friends.
Had all gone well, if they’d been more willing to play ball and argue with me, maybe I could have felt more prepared posing the same defense to Professor Hayle.
“Maybe,” he said, and it didn’t sound like a concession or agreement at all. “If that was the case, you could have come to me with it. I would have been able to make it part of a number of concessions I asked for, from our esteemed Professor Briggs. As it stands, I’m not entirely certain he wouldn’t tell me no; that he’s assisting you and that my project should stand on its own merit.”
My heart sank. “Yes sir. What were you going to-”
“Speak less, Sylvester, nod and agree with me more, please. For both of our sakes.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Reverend Mauer is attacking the reputation of the Academy. As much as we’d like to be entirely self sustaining, we depend on Radham at large for certain resources. As much as I hate to admit it, Briggs is very likely correct in suggesting we could solve this with brute force, but it would be messy.”
I nodded. The others were nodding as well.
“I told you just this afternoon that I wanted you to impress, no shenanigans, no jokes or off the wall behavior. As it stands, your saving grace would be to see this through, executing it perfectly enough to impress me, impress Head Professor Briggs, and even impress Professors Sexton, Reid, and Fletcher, who were quick to make jokes at my expense, as soon as you left the room.”
“Executed perfectly,” I said.
“Perfectly,” Hayle said, in a deliberate way that suggested he thought that a careful enough pronunciation could get it through my skull. “I know what you’re capable of. Impress me.”
“I will,” I said.
“You asked for an adult, Cecil is one.”
“Of two, sir?” I asked.
“Of two. When I was put on point and forced to think of students who I could trust to look after you all, those I knew, who had no other obligations…”
“Lacey,” I almost groaned the word.
“Lacey, yes. She won’t be happy, but I believe she will make herself available for the evening.”
“Cecil,” Hayle said. “Miss Lacey will catch up with you shortly. I told you to do what these boys and girls said, within reason. I hope you can rely on Lacey to define what is actually reasonable, should you find yourself wondering.”
“I see. I can’t help but feel as if I’m missing something.”
“That feeling will get a great deal more pointed before you’re done with this task. Ignore it, push it to the back of your mind, and focus on the much-coveted lab you’ll have all to yourself when all of this is over.”
“You’re going to the church?” Hayle asked.
I glanced at the others, then nodded.
“Lacey will catch up with you in my coach. Do not try to evade her or make it hard for her to find you.”
“Noted,” Gordon said, putting a hand on my shoulder.
Apparently I had suffered enough in Hayle’s sights. Gordon was backing me up, even if it was only a little.
“Watch him,” Hayle said.
“We will,” Gordon replied.
The latent anger and frustration was clear in Hayle’s body language as he headed back to the faculty room.
When the door shut behind him, not quite as loud as it had been earlier, we remained silent for several long moments.
“Don’t worry,” Doctor Cecil said, very gently. “I’m not nearly as scary as Professor Hayle, there. I don’t know if it helps to win you over, but I plan to be far kinder to the common people when I become a professor.”
“I think that makes you one of our new favorites,” Gordon said, and the condescending lie was so transparent I was certain Cecil would see through it.
But Cecil only wallowed in his self indulgence, smiling, and placed a hand on Gordon’s head, then mine, leading us on our way.
The rain and moisture that the summer heat had held off was returning now that it was cooler, Radham paying us back in spades for the warmth we’d enjoyed earlier in the day.
The sunset was in full sway, and the light filtered through clouds in veins of purple and red. The clouds themselves were thick enough to be almost black. On the ground, lamps were bright, but the dull yellow glow was meager compared to the puddles and the moisture running down the branches and wood on walls, where the light from above was reflected, bringing the surfaces to life.
The black coach rolled up. Two stitched guards were perched on top, both clad in heavy raincoats. The only openings in their coats were the slots that had been left for their milky white eyes, and even those slots were protected from rain by cap-like brims in the raincoat hoods.
The rain was warm, but the stitched were warmer. Horse and man alike were virtually steaming, the moisture rising off their heads, shoulders and backs in clouds.
The coach door opened, and an umbrella unfurled. In the midst of stark blacks and reds, Lacey’s red hair caught light and looked absolutely brilliant. Well matched to our Cecil’s neat black hair, which was cut a little too close to the head at the backs and sides, a little too coy in how the parted hair curled at the brow.
There were jokes about whether a Professor was left mentally off-kilter by the lengthy and torturous process of getting licensed as such, or whether only the mentally cracked were inclined to pursue that path. Well, being a teacher or a doctor was a step down that road. Cecil being a little eccentric was entirely to be expected.
And Lacey, who I’d left on bad terms, was staring at us, lips pressed together in something approximating irritation. She looked very human and very grounded, standing out in her white coat.
She reached into one pocket, and withdrew a small envelope.
I reached out to take it, but Gordon beat me to the punch, giving me a look.
Our temporary badge.
“Lose the coat,” I told Lacey.
Lacey didn’t immediately obey.
“We were talking about it while we waited for you. We’re going undercover, in a sense,” Gordon explained. “The people we’re dealing with are very upset with the Academy. Wearing a coat would be counterproductive.”
“Very well,” Lacey said. She handed her umbrella to a stitched, who held the umbrella in place while she doffed her white lab coat and placed it inside the coach. “Anything else?”
“The less attention we attract, the better,” Gordon continued to explain. “The Reverend is gathering soldiers. He put out an offer in a very subtle way, telling people that if they were angry, they could come to him. Then, in a very coincidental bit of timing, he spread the word that three more experiments had escaped.”
“Only one of which was true,” Lacey said.
“Yes,” Jamie said. “Large and visible enough to get attention, and give life to the fears that people have about the other two.”
“We need to get close,” I said. “He’s gathering people around him, ready for the war that Briggs was prepared to give him. If we confronted him, we’d be up against everything he had arrayed and positioned against us. If we go with the flow, and successfully join the influx of people that are heading his way…”
“A brilliant little idea,” Cecil informed me, in a tone so patronizing it made my teeth hurt. “But, again, you refuse to admit the very real fact that you’re children. Hardly a good choice for an army.”
“And you’re adults,” I said, not for the first time. “We’re going to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll adapt.”
“It seems convoluted. What if this attractive young lady and I were to go alone?”
I think you’d cock it up, I thought. I tried to figure out a way to phrase it nicely.
“I think you’d cock it up,” I told him, when I couldn’t.
His mouth dropped open. I saw a flicker of genuine anger in his expression.
“Sir,” Gordon cut in, giving me a dark look. “Professor Hayle told you to do as we asked?”
Cecil shut his mouth. He took a second before admitting, “Yes.”
“Please do this, sir. Hayle asked for it for a reason.”
Cecil composed himself. He looked very unhappy compared to where he’d been at the moment of Lacey’s arrival. His words were painfully stiff as he asked, “Is there anything else you’d like me to do?”
It was Helen who jumped to the rescue. “Would you please escort Miss Lacey? I think Gordon needs to give Sylvester a talking to, and he can’t do it while you’re here.”
As unhappy as Lacey had seemed, her expression grew darker at that request.
Doctor Cecil, for his part, beamed. He offered Lacey his arm.
While he wasn’t looking, Helen, followed soon after by Lillian, Jamie, Mary, Gordon, and myself, in roughly that order, clasped her hands together in a pleading gesture.
Lacey took up Cecil’s arm. Together, they walked about ten paces ahead of us. We started after them, maintaining the distance.
Well done, Helen, I thought.
“You think we’ll have the means to get in?” Gordon asked me.
“I think so. Whatever Cecil thinks… I suspect the Reverend is trying to win over the community.” I gestured at Cecil and Lacey. “Man, woman…”
“And child,” Mary finished. I flashed her a smile, grateful for the line.
“Recruiting children is reprehensible on its own. Recruiting a family? Or recruiting a family man? A caretaker with his kids in tow?” I asked.
“I believe it,” Jamie said. “There’s still a chance we won’t get in.”
“We’ll get in,” I said.
“If he’s plotting something specific, and children don’t fit into the plan?” Jamie asked.
“I just got things arranged so we don’t have to get stalled and stonewalled by random Academy bureaucracy and security,” I said. “Don’t tell me I’ve got to push every last thing past you guys and your twenty questions. You trust me, or you’re supposed to.”
“Trusted. Past tense,” Gordon said. “Forgive us if we’re just a little bit cautious, after you made an enemy of Hayle.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “What was the question, again?”
“What if he’s got something in mind?” Jamie asked. “Something we can’t finagle our way into?”
“We’ll deal. We can’t anticipate all that. Let’s assume this will work. We each know what we do and how we operate. Any questions? Coordination? Ideas? Or do you want to wing it?”
Our boots splashed more violently through a deceptive puddle, which filled a dip in the road. I felt water find its way to the bottom of my rain boot.
“I know how I work,” Mary said. “You said we can’t kill the Shepherd. Can I do something else?”
“What?” I asked. “Wait a second, repeat.”
“Can I do something else?”
“The Shepherd?” Mary asked.
It was dark, but not so dark that I didn’t see the small smile on her face.
“Well played,” Gordon murmured. Mary’s smile grew wider
“The Shepherd and the Lambs,” Jamie remarked. “I like it. We know the name of our enemy, now.”
Mary looked entirely too pleased with herself, working it in as casually as she had.
I couldn’t even bring myself to dislike it, because it was Mary.
“To answer your question,” Gordon said. “My gut feeling is that slowing the man down could do us a world of good.”
“He’s planned his moves out in advance,” I said. “Timing things, the note that Wally had, giving him a specific time to release his experiment. The spread of the story about the three escaped experiments was timed to coincide with the actual release of the one. Yeah.”
“Slowing down,” Lillian murmured. She moved her bag around in front of her, and rummaged inside. “Um, side effects, ratios, um, um, um…”
“Diarrhea?” I asked.
“I don’t have anything fast.”
“Impaired judgment? Nothing so obvious he’d immediately think he’d been poisoned, but something to make him more likely to make mistakes?”
“No side effects like that. Headache?”
Mary extended a hand. Lillian passed over a short glass vial with something inside. A powder.
“For a man his size, I’d guess a teaspoon,” Lillian said. “Or you could ask Cecil or Lacey, they’ll know the ratio off the top of their head. If you give me a second, I have a measure.”
“It’s fine,” Mary said.
“If it’s just a teaspoon, I can eyeball it, nine out of ten times,” Mary said, holding up her hand so one finger was extended. She tapped her long fingernail with the little vial.
Cut to a very specific length.
“What happens the other time?” Jamie asked, quiet.
“I’ll err on the side of giving too little,” Mary said, with confidence.
“Good,” Gordon said. “Sy? What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking… our Shepherd is playing a game of chess. We’re late to the game. Every piece of his is well positioned. All so he’s untouchable. We’d be a lot better off if they hadn’t waited before asking us to jump in.”
“Can’t cry over spilled milk,” Gordon said.
“No. That’s true. But haven’t you ever been sitting at a chess board, thinking to yourself just how nice it would be if you could just take his turn for him? Make the worst possible play, then watch them scramble to try to recover?”
“No,” Gordon said. “Never crossed my mind. I have wanted to swat you across the head when I realize you’ve cheated.”
“You have an idea, Sylvester?” Jamie asked, before Gordon and I could get in an argument.
“I do. I just need to figure out an angle.”
“Start figuring,” Jamie said. “Because we’re here.”
The church was busy, brighter than any building in Radham, short of the Academy. Even at the darker periphery, where bright lights didn’t quite reach far enough past the windows and through the rain, there were lanterns and glowing cigarette ends.
We approached, picking up the pace to draw closer to our guardians.
“I’m your…?” Lacey asked.
“Older sister,” I said.
The look she gave me told me my attempt to curry favor hadn’t quite worked. She saw right through me.
“And I’m?” Cecil asked.
“Teacher. Not an Academy teacher, but a regular one. Parents left us in your care. If Lacey doesn’t want to be an older sister, she can be a colleague.”
“I see,” Cecil said. “I can play along.”
I dearly hope so, I thought, turning my mind toward options to speak up or cut him off. Kicking him in the back of the knee would have to do in a pinch, if he was a particularly bad actor.
As it turned out, it wasn’t so necessary.
The door was open, and people were waiting as we approached. Being with Cecil and Lacey made the entrance painless. Nobody spoke up or stood in our way, as we joined a crowd that was now gathered within the building.
Where fear had ruled, earlier in the day, there was anger now. Restlessness. Too many people wanting to do something, yet finding themselves unable.
The Shepherd had been at work, tending to his flock.
The Shepherd was right there, ready to greet all newcomers.
“Welcome,” he said, and his smile was warm. He extended his good hand to us, his other arm limp at his side. “And I see I recognize one of you. Mary Cobourn? It’s been a few years.”
A plan never survives contact with the enemy.
I didn’t see a break in her facade, and her smile was natural, but safe behind Lacey and Cecil, her hand found mine, clutching it with a tightness that suggested alarm.
Our little clone didn’t remember this part of Mary’s history.
Which threw a fair sized wrench into our machinations.