“Good evening, reverend,” Mary said.
The Shepherd smiled, for perhaps the first time since I’d seen him. It was disconcerting, especially considering our somewhat precarious situation. Smiles meant things, and a rare smile boded ill.
“Come in, please. I’m glad to see you, Mary, you’ve been on my thoughts in recent months. Are these your…?”
“Friends,” she said.
Good, keep it simple.
“And you are?” the man asked, directing his attention to Lacey and Cecil.
“Teachers,” Lacey said, following Mary’s lead.
“I had a great many conversations with your father, Mary, and your education was one of the topics.”
“He didn’t tell me about that.”
“He wouldn’t, I don’t think,” the Shepherd said. “That’s not the image I have of him. You spent quite some time here when you were small.”
“I did, but my memory of then isn’t so good.”
“No? I would have thought otherwise.”
“I… daydreamed, mostly. When I think to back then, I think of the games I played in my head. The church seems smaller than it was.”
“Well, I can’t help but take a small amount of offense at that,” the Shepherd said. “We put some work into expanding it. It was quite a trial, even. The men I answer to tend to think a church in Radham a lost cause.”
I wanted so badly to help her, but I couldn’t.
Jamie must have felt even worse in that regard. Jamie probably knew what the remodel had been, and the actual year and seasons it had taken place.
Mary defaulted to silence. A terrible, awkward, damning silence.
“A small amount of offense,” the Shepherd said, offering her a smile. “You’re not so different from your father. Will you join me for a conversation? With your chaperone and friends, of course? Things are fairly quiet right now, and I’m hoping a few more people arrive or come back inside before I give Mr. Gill the stage to address everyone and quiet their fears.”
“I, um,” Mary said.
I gave her hand a squeeze.
“That could be nice?” she ventured.
The Shepherd smiled. “Come, then. We’ll have some tea and a bite to eat, if your teachers are fine with that?”
“Yes,” Cecil said, a little too quickly. Then, as if to compensate, “that would be fine.”
The Shepherd smiled at that, as if enjoying a private joke. “I’ll show you the way, then. It’s foul out there, in more ways than one, and creature comforts go a long way.”
We were lead down the aisle, through an open set of double doors at one side of the church. To look at it, going by the coat by the door and the sets of shoes, Mauer lived in the building, and this intermediate area between the area that was open to the public and the living area was something of an office.
It was a more private place to meet people, from what I gathered. There was even a door leading from the little office to the outside, so people could come and meet him here directly. I noted the presence of little stones at the base of the door, too small to be the type to hold it open. Not that people tended to leave doors open in rainy Radham.
Not solely a place of business, the space felt a touch too staged to be a proper part of his home, either. A dark red military jacket, trimmed in gold cord, sat behind glass, within a fair sized frame. A smaller frame of the same make held three badges and an emblem from his old military company. They were here for the sake of others, not for Mauer, I suspected. The way the cabinet to Mauer’s left was laid out, he didn’t have a good view of either. We, finding seats in chairs and benches on the far side of his desk, had a clear view of both.
There were other things and keepsakes too, better placed for Mauer to see. Photos of him with family as a child, when he was about our age, black, white, and blurry. A professionally taken, expanded photo of a relative wearing a baseball jersey, mid-pitch. A cross, however, took center stage behind his chair. Worn, beaten and battered, with chips of paint missing, revealing pale, old wood beneath.
It was a stark contrast to this very put-together man with his bronze-red hair so neat, yet I fully, one-hundred percent believed that the cross was his, not the church’s. A family keepsake, perhaps.
He’d just finished filling his kettle with water from a pitcher, and had turned a little heated plate on. Half-turning, he’d caught me looking at the cross.
“I’m guessing you’re not one to attend church,” he said.
“Most don’t, do they?” I asked. “Especially people our age?”
“No. Not in Radham, at least until bad things start happening,” Mauer said. He leaned a little to one side to look through the doors to the church proper, where the crowd was still getting sorted out, gathering in groups and talking in low tones. “As we see tonight.”
To me, it sounded like a tepid way of referring to the escaped experiments, but to a real child of my age, coming from a man of authority, it could be reassuring in a way. Acknowledging and downplaying the problem.
I found myself wondering what process was at work behind his words. Did he tailor them to his audience with intent, thoughts flying to pick the best one for each situation, or did he do it naturally?
“It sounds like you’re trying to guilt him into attending church more,” Cecil said.
“One of my jobs,” Mauer said, smiling at Cecil. “You’ll have to forgive me.”
Cecil gave him a tight smile in response.
Awkward. Cecil was not the right man for this job. I should have been more specific.
“Mary,” the Shepherd said, taking it in stride, “Your father and I had long debates about your attendance at Mothmont. I don’t see it as confidential, as many of the debates were in public forums, more as friends than as council. When he took up the accounting job for the mayor, he became too busy. I think I asked what became of you, but memory fails me.”
“I did go to Mothmont,” Mary said.
“Yes sir,” she said.
He waved his hand. “Trust me, I’ve heard the word ‘sir’ enough for one lifetime. ‘Father’ works, but I’m not too fond of that either. When you said past-”
“Aren’t titles and symbols important for a reverend?” she asked. “Oh, I’m sorry, Father, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
It was interesting, seeing how Mary’s mind worked when she was put on the spot. This wasn’t her focus or specialty. She wasn’t an actor, and for much of her relatively short existence, she’d been raised to emulate one role, possibly for one audience, her parents.
But Mary wasn’t foolish or stupid. Even the ‘sir’ could have been intentional, turning the discussion back on the Shepherd. Now she was putting the focus back on him.
Not the tactic I would have chosen, but it was a good tactic. Almost attacking him, in a sense, not letting him return a strike.
“The symbols aren’t so important to me, not in that way,” the Shepherd said. He looked very at ease as the kettle started whistling. He poured it into a waiting teapot and deposited some teabags. “I believe in simple and fundamental truths. I’ve seen people in my position try to give counsel to the suffering with fancy words and high concepts, with symbols and rituals. It felt hollow, and I told myself I wouldn’t do that to others.”
“What are you doing, then?” Cecil asked.
Holy hell, Cecil, would you shut up?
It wasn’t the words alone, but the tone that he’d given them. Accusatory.
It was Gordon that sprung to the rescue. “Is it okay if I don’t have tea and treats?”
“Me either?” Lillian asked. A little too fast. Gordon might have prodded or signaled her, if I had to guess.
“Ah,” Cecil said. “Yes, I think it would be.”
Gordon sprung up from his seat, retreating, Lillian following right after.
I saw what he was doing and started to formulate a way to communicate it to Lacey when she spoke. “Charles. You should watch them and make sure they don’t get into trouble.”
I couldn’t see it, which meant the Shepherd couldn’t see it either, but it was very possible that Lacey had given Cecil a wink to drive the point home.
“I think I should. If you’ll excuse me,” Cecil said. “I’m sorry father, but I would love to have tea and a discussion another time.”
“Of course,” the Reverend said. “Three less cups of tea, then?
He brought the teapot over to his desk, then retrieved cups from the cabinet. “People are scared. The rest of you are all right? Don’t feel obligated to stay for Mary’s sake.”
“I’m quite alright,” Helen said. She offered him a winning smile. “Tea would be lovely.”
“You just want the treats that he’s serving with the tea,” I teased her.
Helen’s expression shifted, a touch of momentary outrage, suppressed, consternation, composure.
My statement was partially intended to augment Helen’s mask, and partially in hopes that I could maintain the distraction, draw things out further so that Cecil’s accusatory question could more easily be forgotten.
“Yes,” she admitted. Then, delayed, as if she’d just remembered, “Please.”
All for the benefit of the Reverend.
“Fruit cake?” he asked.
Helen’s smile widened. “Please.”
For a man that professed to have little interest in ritual, the tea was most definitely one. Serving tea to a group all the more so: asking what everyone wanted, portioning out the cake on little saucers with individual forks, and handing them out.
And in all of that, there were no clues as to how he’d grown so good at manipulating the masses.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked, before he’d finished portioning out the cake and gotten settled, ready to focus wholly on the discussion. Taking the initiative, much as Mary had fought to maintain it, just minutes ago.
“I think that depends wholly on the Academy,” the Shepherd said. He turned the fancy little tea spoon from his tea over in his hands. “Four experiments got loose in the span of one day. I have to wonder how it even happened, if some safeguard failed. God willing, we’ll only need to stay safe until they’ve cleaned up their mess.”
Can’t clean up experiments that only escaped in rumor, I thought.
“What if it doesn’t stop?” I asked, but what I was really asking was, what if you keep up these rumors? Stir people up into a frenzy?
“Then I suppose Mary will be counting on you to protect her,” the Shepherd said.
I wasn’t left at a loss for words terribly often. The Shepherd had managed it. My mouth sat open.
“I caught a glimpse of you two holding hands, seeing inside the crook of your teacher’s elbow,” the Shepherd said. He finished doling out the saucers of cake, then took a seat, stirring his tea with a small, thin-handled spoon. “You’re asking these questions out of concern for her welfare?”
“I am,” I finally managed. My mind was racing. He’d noticed that detail. What else had he seen?
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sid,” I told him.
“You’re going to grow up to be a good man, Sid. Mary is lucky to have you.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I focused on my tea, instead. The saucer of cake sat in my lap, and I held the teacup with both hands, raising it to my mouth.
He might have taken it for embarrassment, but I was taking the time to think, free of further poking and prodding from our Shepherd.
I wasn’t missing the fact that I was losing in this verbal battle, and I wasn’t positive our man was even playing.
“We got off track earlier,” he said. “What led you to leave Mothmont, Mary?”
“There was an incident. Children got sick, the school was closed. I talked to my parents, and they thought I would be safer elsewhere.”
“With your lovely teacher here. Miss?”
“Lindsey,” Lacey said.
“Are you teaching the students in hopes that they will attend the Academy, then?” the Shepherd asked.
“I- no. They’re free to make that choice, but that’s not our goal. After the incident at Mothmont, we’re even downplaying it, for the parents’ benefit.”
The Shepherd nodded, but he had a concerned look on his face.
“Is that wrong?” Lacey asked.
The Shepherd sipped at his tea, then put his cup down. No response was forthcoming.
He let out a sigh. “When I was small, younger than these children are now, my father was a soldier. He served in the American War. The young men were all told how important the war was. They were given all sorts of reasons. Patriotism, principle, faith. Their value as men was entirely dependent on how willing they were to die for their country. How others valued them, and how they valued themselves.”
“My father was too young to participate, but he remembered what it was like,” Lacey said.
“On one side, men, shooting, dying, panicking. On the other side, rank and file of stitched soldier. Utterly obedient, each capable of getting up after being shot, needing only quick repair work before they were ready to see the field again. Two or three times as strong as any soldier on my father’s side. They had weaknesses, yes, but they had more strengths.”
He seemed to realize who he was talking to, and frowned. “I’m sorry, I had a train of thought, and was musing aloud. Am I scaring the children?”
I shook my head, joining Jamie, Helen, and Mary. Jamie ventured, “It’s interesting.”
“I thought of my father, then myself, and looking at the younger generation, hearing how their education progresses, it got me thinking.”
“I want to hear,” I said, with the blithe eagerness that only a child could get away with.
“Mmm. I’ll leave out details. The Crown won, as they win virtually every war. America lost. I reached the age my father had been when he’d been convinced to go to war, but no reasons were given when they gave me a rifle and jacket. See over there?”
The Shepherd stood. He made his way around the desk, past Mary’s knees and mine, to reach the frame where his jacket was hung.
The moment his back was turned, Mary leaned forward. A deft movement of her hand over his cup of tea, and the powder was deposited from the hollow of her smallest fingernail to the tea. She picked up the spoon and stirred, not letting the spoon touch the edges of the cup and clink, then set it back in place, at the same angle it had been.
Lacey gave Mary a long, hard look. It seemed to take apparent effort to compose herself.
A good thing that the Reverend didn’t turn around. Oblivious, he tapped the glass, “Unlike my father’s, my jacket had a crown on the sleeve. My war was longer and uglier. I hope you understand if I don’t go into the details.”
It was Jamie who spoke up. “Your father’s war was lost with brute strength. The strength of stitched against men. Your war was won with…”
“Abominations,” the Shepherd said. He turned around, making his way back to his seat. “Yes. How exceptionally well put.”
“I read something like it in a book,” Jamie said, hugging his notebook. “I like books.”
The Shepherd smiled. “I do too.”
“Are you afraid of what war these children might see?” Lacey asked.
“No, Mrs. Lindsey. That is not my greatest fear,” the Shepherd said. “A fear, but not the greatest by far.”
“I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Father.”
The Shepherd was settling into his chair, mouth opening to respond, when I saw the reaction. A momentary hesitation, while his eyes rested on his cup.
“Yes,” he said, finding his stride again. “It seems I have. I’m sorry. My thoughts are elsewhere. I think we may have to cut this short, it’s about time Mr. Gill and I address the room.”
“It’s okay,” Mary said.
“I’m sorry to dwell on your education, Mary. I spend time worrying about the next generation, and after interacting with your father as much as I did, you’re one of the faces that spring to mind.”
“Thank you very much for the cake, Father,” Helen said.
“You’re very welcome,” he said. “You children are welcome any time, to talk about anything. There may even be cake waiting for you when you do.”
“Thank you!” Helen said, smiling.
“Provided you have permission from your teacher or parents to partake,” he said.
Helen’s face fell a little.
“I appreciate you humoring me, I hope I didn’t bore,” he said. We shook our heads. “If anyone asks, I’ll be out in a minute, no less.”
“Father,” I said, right away.
“You said that your fear wasn’t so much that we’d fight in a war worse than the one you fought in, but you didn’t say what your fear really was.”
“It’s complex and silly,” he said. “It wouldn’t make much sense, trust me. Taken the wrong way, it might even offend.”
“Please?” I asked.
“Please?” Jamie asked, chiming in.
The Shepherd looked surprisingly weary, looking at us, collecting the first of the dishes we’d left behind. He seemed to weigh his options a little.
“Please,” Mary said. “We’re not as dull as you might think.”
He startled a little at that, then gave her an appraising look.
“My greatest concern, Mary Coburn,” he said, “is that there won’t be an opportunity for you to fight at all.”
Leaving us with that terminal dose of irony, he turned away, collecting the dishes.
From the time he’d returned to his chair to the time he saw us out the door of his homey little office, he hadn’t touched his tea.
Glancing over my shoulder, I could see through the open door as he quickly stacked saucers and gathered the scattered cups we’d left behind. All went to the counter by his little heating plate and kettle, likely to be washed at a later time.
I saw him carry one cup to the same counter, clearly heavier than the others. He unlatched his window, removed something from the top of the window, opened the window and tossed out the contents.
“Lacey,” I said.
She gave me an annoyed look. “Don’t call me like a dog.”
“Find Cecil,” I said. “Gordon or Lillian would work too. Whatever they’ve been up to, we should get caught up.”
“Say please?” she asked.
“Time is really of the essence,” I said. That was apparently enough to send her on her way. To her back, I added, “Fetch.”
She stopped in her tracks, apparently decided it wasn’t worth it, and headed off again.
“You’re a jerk,” Jamie commented.
“He knew,” I said. “The Shepherd. Something tipped him off.”
“I did it right,” Mary said, under her breath.
“Apparently not,” I said. “Plus side is, I think he blames Lacey. He seemed eager to invite us back, but not so much for our teacher.”
Mary looked annoyed, apparently not even hearing what I was saying. “The tea shouldn’t have even been swirling by the time he returned to it. The powder didn’t change the color, I even moved the spoon back.”
“No,” Jamie said.
“No?” Mary asked.
“No. It wasn’t the same when you put it back,” Jamie said. “I’m thinking back, and the spoon was upside down. It was rightside up when you put it back.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Mary said. “How would you even tell until you took the spoon out?”
“They were nice spoons, maybe with marks on the underside of the handles,” I said. “Something you said at the beginning tipped him off. I think he took it to mean she’d been brainwashed or the Academy had its hooks in her. He took a sudden interest in your welfare. While getting into a protective mindset, he got into a defensive one too. Got a bit more cautious. Prey instinct, maybe. Probably not, but maybe.”
“Sensing something wrong from clues he didn’t even consciously take in,” Helen said.
I nodded. “If I had to guess, he’s been especially wary ever since the war ended. He had coins or something stacked in a certain order above every door or window he doesn’t tend to leave open. Stones left at the base of the door, so he knows if it’s been opened. Everything in a place, to the point where he knows if anything’s been tampered with.”
“Why?” Mary asked.
“Because he’s paranoid, and rightly so,” I said.
“The war he fought in had parasites,” Jamie said. “The worst ones paralyzed a man, left him screaming so the Crown soldiers could collect them and turn them into stitched. Or just left them to scream themselves raw and die from exposure. I can’t blame him for being careful with his tea.”
“Those weren’t the worst ones,” Helen murmured. “I’ve seen some of the ones people don’t talk about without clearance.”
“Lovely,” I said. “But we’re getting off topic. Our concern is the Shepherd.”
“He didn’t have much to say about what he had planned,” Jamie said.
“No,” I said. “But we did get a good chance to study him as a person, and we have a sense about his motivations now. That bit at the end.”
“Assuming you think he’s genuine,” Mary said.
“I do,” I said. I thought for a second. “Are we sure this guy isn’t an experiment?”
“Why?” Jamie asked.
“Because, ugh. He’s better at manipulating groups than any of us. I’d say I’m better at him at one-on-one stuff, but he did throw me off with that one line.”
“That was funny,” Jamie said. I elbowed him.
“He’s sharp, too,” I said.
“When Ibott gives me lessons,” Helen said, “He sometimes warns me not to underestimate people. Humans did some amazing things over the years. Geniuses pop up now and again, people with exceptional natural ability, or those with talent.”
“He’s just an incredible person?” Mary asked. “One in a million?”
“I respect him,” I said. “I’m a little spooked at the idea of what he might do if we let him keep this up.”
“You respect him, but you want to stop him?” Mary asked.
“I respected you,” I said. “I still do, all the more.”
That cut that argument short. It seemed to stun her a little, put her on her heels.
I was learning little tidbits about Mary, and one was that she didn’t like to fail. This was where we differed. She valued the execution, while I liked getting a reaction out of people, even if it was in an indirect way, through some lesson I’d given Jamie. When her execution wasn’t enough, she got cranky. Same as I did, when I failed to budge people. Rick being first and foremost among them.
“You did good,” I told her, taking her hand. “Problem is, he did better. We underestimated him. I thought he set things up so that the people around him were all perfectly arranged, a chess board with every piece trapped. But he does it with his environment too.”
Lacey was coming back with Cecil and Lillian.
“What do we do?” Mary asked.
The others reached us. Gordon was absent.
“What did I miss?” Cecil asked.
I ignored him. I asked Lillian, “Where’s Gordon?”
“On the roof. He said to wave, and he’d make an entrance.”
I took a look around. The building was only two stories high, but it had been expanded, like the Shepherd had said.
On the roof, yet able to see us if we waved?
My eye fell on one of the stained glass windows.
Good old Gordon. He’d remembered what I’d said.
Taking the chess board and making an opponent’s move for him.
“Did he take anything?” I asked. “Ask for supplies?”
“Soap and a scalpel,” Lillian said.
I had no idea what Gordon was doing with soap and a scalpel, but I was so excited at the prospect of finding out that I could barely sit still. I grinned.
“Let’s let Gordon enjoy the spotlight,” I said. “This plays well into what I was thinking.”
“And what were you thinking?” Jamie asked.
“Right now? Lacey, get close to the altar. Everyone else? Spread out. The Reverend is going to want to assert control, keep everything in position. But as Mary demonstrated, he’s not so good if he’s kept on the defensive. Spread the word that there are riots happening elsewhere.”
“I can do that,” Cecil said.
“No,” I said. “You have the most important job.”
“Run to the nearest telephone, as fast as you can,” I told him. “Get word to the Academy. Tell them there’s a riot happening here.”
“This is not the clean and tidy Hayle wanted,” Jamie reminded me.
“It will be,” I said. “Trust me.”
“Gordon didn’t trust you,” Jamie said.
“I think he and I are on the same page here,” I said.
Everyone moved to their assigned spots. Locations and positions.
Reverend Mauer had set up his own board. Now we were setting up ours.
I gave Cecil a few minutes, watched each of the others.
The Shepherd and Gill were talking, and Gill made his way to the stage.
I saw the Shepherd looking over the crowd. He saw me.
I gave him a wave.
Two seconds passed. I supposed Gordon needed a running start.
He came crashing through the stained glass window behind the altar, head over heels, clearing a good distance. The landing was violent, clipping the edge of the stage.
The marks on his arms and body, scalpel-carved, looked like the gouges of claws. He was covered in a mucus-like slime. Soap.
Lacey was the one at his side. She helped him sit up.
He found his breath.
“The things are attacking!” he screamed.