All things had hearts. All things had veins and arteries, tracks and paths which were carved through them as they acted out their role in life. Even a rock had its weakness, a point where a chisel and a strong enough blow could destroy it, as points of stress gave way.
Yeah, there were faint exceptions, but overall, it applied to many things in life.
It was an idea that might have seemed spiritual, but that wasn’t really where my line of thinking was coming from or going. Believing that all things had vulnerabilities was something central in my worldview, but I hesitated to call it faith.
The fact was, Kensford had a heart, and it had its arteries. Unlike Radham, the heart wasn’t the local Academy, but the main street downtown. Remove the Academy from the map, and the city would likely continue to function on a level, until the locals were called home by parents and patrons. Impede the downtown area, and things would quickly die, forced to divert and reroute through the winding streets of quaint little cottage-houses.
Gordon and I made our way downtown, then we began our explorations, taking every wrong turn. We found areas which hadn’t been kept up well, and places which helped keep Kensford alive: the local dump, teeming with lifeforms that would eat and live in the garbage, as well as boneyards, crematoriums, and warehouses. The layout of the city was ingenious, keeping the buildings out of sight, using the rise of hills and the winding streets to hide these places.
We visited two, to no effect, and then made our way to the nearby third, squeezing between two dormitory houses and hopping onto a fence. I walked along the top of the wooden fence, my hands in my pockets, while Gordon hopped up, walked three steps on the fence, then hopped down.
He wasn’t one for style and panache.
The third area, hidden by the positions of the buildings and the little walls that sectioned off parts of Kensford, turned out to be a mass grave.
This was where experiments went when they failed. Humanoid, they were each distorted and misshapen, different features exaggerated or removed. They were piled on top of one another, most but not all naked and bound with straps, keeping arms close to the body and legs together. They had been dusted with some acid or lime or something in that vein, and flesh had melted, but only superficially, leaving the remains mummified. A light snow masked the worst of the scarring, the snow so thin that a feather might have wiped a given forehead or belly clean of it.
I could see the tracks where the wagon had turned up and dumped the latest collection of bodies. I suspected that one of the things I was smelling was that same batch of bodies.
“Want to give them a shot?” Gordon asked, drawing my attention to a group of girls who were sitting on a large box that might have held salt for the street or lime for the bodies. They were just on the cusp of being proper adults, about nineteen, and their feet didn’t reach the ground. Each had a cigarette.
“Let’s,” I said.
The girls made some surreptitious movements as we drew nearer, the rightmost girl taking something from the one in the middle, scooting closer to her friend, then reaching behind her back.
“Weapon?” Gordon asked.
“Drinking,” I said. “Look at their body language.”
“Do we use it?”
“I don’t think we need to,” I said.
“Okay. Do you want point?”
“I’ll back you,” I said, while thinking, I’m more flexible, I can adapt to fill the gaps in your approach better than you can adapt for me.
Besides, I mentally revised, You were entirely right in saying the group was splintering some. You and I aren’t any different. I’m not sure I trust you.
I hated myself for even thinking it, but Gordon had acted differently when around Shipman, and he’d nearly gotten us killed at one point. All of us were going to change to some degree as we entered into the next big segment of our lives, in body, mind, emotions, and how we fit into the group.
Or how we didn’t.
Gordon, for all his talk about helping, was in the most danger of slipping away from the rest of us.
He could talk. I’d adapt.
“Little boy,” the girl to the left said. “You looked a lot older from a distance.”
“Hi,” Gordon said.
“Hi,” the middle girl said, clearly curious about us.
The leftmost girl didn’t seem to register the greetings, and added, “You still have a bit of a baby face, don’t you?”
“And you have a drink hidden behind you,” he observed. His voice was even, calm, and nonthreatening. “I’m old enough to know that you’d get in trouble for that.”
That didn’t seem to go over well. The attitude shifted, mouths in firmer lines, body language adjusting to be more aggressive, sitting up straighter.
Subtlety wasn’t Gordon’s strong point either.
“But,” Gordon said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m looking for information.”
He’d upset them, but he wasn’t balancing it out with any bribe or possible reward. If I was jumping in to make the threats like Gordon had, I would have offered something to gain, to pull them further into my grasp and ensure they would do what I wanted them to do.
“What information?” one of the girls asked.
“Wait, wait,” the leftmost girl said. “Who are you, why are you here, and what are you doing?”
She was asking too many questions at once. The alcohol had made the words too loose.
“I’m Gordon, that’s Sylvester. We’re trying to find some people, and we’re trying to find some people.”
She looked momentarily confused.
“Hm,” the middle girl made a curious noise. “I’ll take your bait. Which people?”
“The other sort of people that go to spots like this. Probably not students, either low-level laborers or the family of those laborers. Shady types,” Gordon said.
“And what does a kid like you want with that type of person?” the rightmost girl asked.
“Point us in the right direction if you want to find out,” Gordon said, smiling.
If I had asked, she would have said no.
She smiled back. “I am curious.”
Being attractive, being naturally smart, and naturally fit, Gordon had things easy. He didn’t have to push as hard to achieve the same things. People liked him.
“You might be looking for the Baths?” the middle girl asked. “There are four brothers and a girl, they drive in the wagons with supplies, three times a week. They get up to trouble.”
“How much trouble?” Gordon asked.
The leftmost girl of the group reached back, grabbed a bottle and held it up.
“Drinking, more drinking, the occasional fight, making a lot of noise, which is probably the worst thing they do, having so many students living in Kensford,” the middle girl clarified.
“And they do like the ladies,” the girl to the right said. She took the bottle and tipped back a mouthful.
“There aren’t many young men around,” I observed.
The girl gave me a smile that was somewhere between smug and knowing.
Lucky guys, I supposed.
“Baths. That’s a last name?” Gordon asked. When he got a nod in response, he asked, “Are they serious about their work?”
“Mother Bath and Father Bath don’t mind what they do so long as the kids get the work done. They do, they’re religious about it. A day of work, a few hours a night of play.”
“It’s daytime right now,” Gordon observed. “How long until they’re available?”
The girls murmured among one another for a few seconds, then each one gave different answers.
“That’s too late,” Gordon said. “Who else?”
“Not the Bath family. Anyone else?”
“There are others, independent, people everyone knows to avoid. They’re not the sort of people kids like you should hang around.”
“Why?” I cut in, before Gordon could forge onward.
“They have a bit of a mean streak. Picking on the weak,” the middle girl said. “And you’re weak.”
“Where are they?” Gordon asked.
Again with the direct approach. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could have done, but Gordon almost sounded like an adult as he asked, and he managed the right body language and expression to drive the point home.
“I can’t tell you that, not in good conscience.”
“Where are they?” he asked, again, more serious.
“The woods,” the girl on the left said. The drunkest of the group. Still having trouble holding her tongue.
“Where?” Gordon asked.
“Near-” the girl started to reply. Her friend in the middle clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Near the school,” I guessed. Most obvious possibility.
The looks on their faces told me I was right.
“A little to the west?” I tried. With the school bordered on two sides by thick woodland, there were only two possible directions that weren’t ‘into the woods’. Being right had the ‘wow’ factor, but I figured out the answer either way. Probably.
Again, I was right.
I looked at Gordon. “Let’s go.”
“How did you do that?” the drunk girl asked, behind me.
The second of the girls, the one from the middle, hopped down behind me. I turned just in time to see her grab for my coat. I tried to avoid her hand, and missed.
“You’re not going in the woods,” she said, voice firm.
I was betting she was an older sister.
Gordon started to approach, no doubt to break her hold. For my part, I reached into my coat and withdrew a knife, raising it toward her wrist.
She let go of me as if I were on fire.
“We can handle ourselves,” Gordon said, in the same confident, mild manner of speaking he’d used to talk to them earlier. “If you want to come and make sure we’re safe, feel free, but don’t get in the way.”
We circled around the mass grave, making our way toward the woods at the north end of Kensford, west of the Academy at the northeast corner of the town, and the girls didn’t follow.
When we were out of earshot, I commented, “That was a shame. We could have used them.”
“They would have held us back, or complained. They’re not what we’re looking for.”
“No,” I agreed.
People with a mean streak sounded good.
We’d done this before. Found a group of malcontents, then steered them in a given direction. They worked well as distractions, as sources of information, or sources of tools, an extra set of hands for getting things done.
Gordon was generally good at getting their attention. I was good when it came to the steering.
We hadn’t run into this before.
They were, by and large, girls. They were eighteen to nineteen, dressed in winter clothes, they sat around a large bonfire, their backs to a shack that had another fire going in a stove or fireplace within. A group of the girl’s pets were hacking away at trees, gathering more firewood for the bonfire.
At the center of it all was a girl with her hair in disarray, slouching forward on a log, elbows on her knees. Her jacket looked like some kind of new fashion that had yet to take off; it sported a surprising number of black feathers around the collar. She’d had some alterations done to her face and nails, giving one of her her cheekbones and eye sockets a peculiar sort of edge to them, her upper face looking like a stylized skull was trying to push its way out and forward from one corner of her face.
She wasn’t the only one who had gone to an extreme and modified herself, and as a result, there was no particular sign she was special, going by appearance and attitude alone. There was only the fact that, when we arrived, and the girls looked at each other in surprise, they looked to the black feathered woman for a response.
“You usually pick a fight and win,” I murmured. “You want to fight them?”
“I’m not shy to fight a woman. We can do this like we always do. I propose a challenge, or see if they’re betting types. Let them pick the contest, hope they pick fighting, for me, or a gambling game for you to cheat at, beat them, whatever they choose. Use that to get them to listen.”
“No,” I agreed, “Difference is, you’re not going to ‘win’ if you win. Nobody will respect a boy who beats a girl.”
“Hm,” he said. “They might.“
“Nah. Let me lead here?” I asked.
He gestured in my direction.
“Aren’t many kids hereabouts,” the woman with the black feathered coat said. She was faking an Eastern-Crown accent, which I found very interesting. It was all of the crispness of Crown English coupled with too much enunciating. The fakery of it was obvious enough I suspected some of others in this group of hers knew it wasn’t how she really talked.
“We’re not from hereabouts,” I said. “We’re visiting from Radham.”
“All the way from Radham to here?” she asked. “Tots don’t often come to Kensford. Less than ten in the city, I’d wager. Children of shopkeeps or teachers.”
“There are a few more now,” I said. My gaze passed over every person here, trying to piece the puzzle together. Who were these young ladies, and why were they here?
Dark circles under eyes, scars in and on the webbing between fingers, a generally dejected, angry air, with some drastic personal modifications that were guaranteed to run afoul of the school, even without the dress code, and the proximity of this little encampment to the larger school was pretty telling.
The pieces snapped into place.
I had an idea of who they were and how they functioned, now.
But first things first…
“We’re looking for someone,” I said. “She’s a criminal, and the very first thing I have to ask is whether anyone came to you and asked about children.”
“Which children? Having children?” the woman in the black feathered coat asked.
“Looking for us,” I said. It was cutting a little too close to the chase, but I was feeling impatient.
She didn’t respond, and only stared.
I knew this tactic. I’d used this tactic.
Yet she’d played dumb, just a bit, she had baited an answer out of me, and now she was leaving me hanging. That I hadn’t had a better response to each step of her play was grating.
You want to play that game?
“We haven’t been here for long,” I said. I didn’t break eye contact as I talked, staring, “But I do know that Dame Cicely’s has a strict curriculum, with an awful lot of students who are willing to hurt or sabotage others if it means rising to the top. I’m even betting that some of you have done it. Except you failed.”
I saw the reactions, and I marked the faces in question, the black-feathered woman’s in particular. The bullies, the vicious ones who’d hurt others.
“You collectively failed,” I said. “You’re here because you’re not part of the school anymore. You hit your limit, you didn’t get the grades, or you were dropped from the roster. Maybe your parents don’t know. Maybe they’re picking you up soon. You have a limited time, and there aren’t many roads open to you.”
“I do think…” the woman in the black-feathered coat said, drawing out the words, pausing for effect, “…I’m done listening to you. Scurry off, little one. I’m feeling kind today.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” I told her.
“Feeling less kind, now,” she said.
Right. Picking on the weak.
She stood from the log she was using as a bench, dusting snow off her backside. She was fascinating to look at, in terms of the sheer analysis I could do. All the girls and women I’d met had been told how to act and how to dress, how to say things and how to be.
Out of those girls and women, there had been scarce few who had broken from that mold. Of those, there were a number of monsters, and there were a number of people who had been absolutely and totally broken. Slaves, prisoners, and test subjects.
Then there were maybe one or two sexual inverts, but this woman didn’t strike me as one.
She’d been torn down, and she’d built herself back up, and it was a ramshackle, unwieldy sort of build, as her accent suggested. She walked with less grace than many men I knew.
She drew nearer. I didn’t move.
She reached for me, and Gordon moved to intercept, grabbing her wrist.
Looking at her palm, I saw something move. Pink, tiny, and round, they looked like pimples, but they throbbed, skin stretching tighter as they moved.
I hurried in stepping to one side, while Gordon held her wrist to keep her hand from following me.
A pale mist spurted out to form a two-foot round cloud in front of her hand. My head was well out of the way
She tore her wrist free of Gordon’s grip.
“Something about you two seems wrong,” she said. “The way you talk, the way you move…”
That goes both ways, I thought.
“We’re talking about you, not us,” I told her, “You’re out of options, all of you. You’re having a last hurrah before your families come to collect you or outright disown you. You had one chance to make something of yourself that wasn’t being a teacher or a housewife, and you failed.”
“I’m still in a position to hurt you,” she threatened.
“I’m in a position to stop you,” Gordon said, behind her.
She stepped back to keep us all in view, while also making sure that we were between her and the others. Gordon and I didn’t flinch.
Sore spot. She wore the wound like a badge, and she was no doubt used to hurting anyone who prodded it. Angry, spiteful, lashing out. She wore it all right out in the open.
And, I imagined, the others flocked to her because they identified so heavily with it.
This wasn’t a group like Reverend Mauer had been trying to make, something that might have endured and carried on forever. This was a group that would self destruct any day now.
It was beautiful in its bitterness.
“I’m going to keep this simple, and I’m going to keep it short,” Gordon said. “We’re here because we want to offer you an opportunity. You have very few opportunities.”
“Opportunities,” she said, sounding less than enthused.
Gordon shrugged. “You became Academy students because it’s the fastest, easiest way to rise up in society and get out from under thumbs. Now I’m going to offer you another way that’s fast and easy. Money.”
“How much?” she asked, without wasting a heartbeat’s time.
I jumped in, wasting no time either, wording things so I had a half-second to think. There were eight people in her little group. “Enough that, if you split it three ways, three people could buy houses in a decent enough town. Split it more ways, it still buys some time to figure out a way forward.”
“Money makes the world go around,” Gordon said. “And at the end of the day, even the Academy needs money and resources to keep going.”
The woman frowned, looking at each of us. “And how are you going to get us that much money?”
“We’re looking for a person,” I said. “And it’s tricky, because it’s a girl with a pet monster, and I do know there are a lot of girls with pet monsters around. Her pet was a disembodied head, but we’re not sure what it is now, and she could have changed her appearance.”
“Does she have a bounty on her head?” she asked.
“Not officially, but she’s committed major offenses against the Crown in two of the Crown States. That puts a certain price on her head. You get her, dead or alive, and then you point out the rule, deliver the body, and you’re made.”
“Where do you come in?” she asked. “Two little boys in the wrong place, doing and knowing things you shouldn’t.”
“We’re your salvation,” I said. “We don’t need or want the money. We want her caught, or we want her dead. That’s all.”
“You’re going to say yes,” Gordon said. “Do you want to keep pretending you won’t, or can we use this time to talk details, with Sylvester and me -I’m Gordon, by the by- telling you what little we know about her?”
“You think I’m going to say yes, because I don’t have anything better to do? Maybe we’re done with people telling us how we should live our lives.”
“Maybe,” Gordon said. “And maybe this is the last real choice. Your last chance, ever, to choose the course of your own life.”
She ruminated for a long moment.
“Ronnie,” one of the other girls said. “Please.”
Ronnie, the woman with the black feathered coat, bowed her head a little.
“You’re angry,” I said, my voice soft. “Angry at the world. This girl we’re after, she’s a good target for that anger.”
Was there really as much choice as we’d implied?
“How many people do you think you could round up?” Gordon asked.
“Twelve at least,” she said, raising her head. “Twenty at most.”
Twenty is a good number.
“Okay. Here’s what you need to know,” Gordon said. “She’s not a student, and she probably doesn’t have student identification. She has or had black hair, favors ruby red lipstick, was in the company of a young stitched woman and a head…”
The others were waiting as Gordon and I met at the house. I tried to gauge how the others were doing, if they were closer or further apart than they’d been before Gordon had grouped them up.
Helen and Lillian seemed fine. Jamie and Mary far less so.
“Where do we stand?” Gordon asked.
“We talked to the faculty,” Lillian said. “There have been thefts of supplies. She set up a lab, and she might be reluctant to abandon it.”
“She’s set up others,” I said. “She abandoned those.”
“I recognized the equipment,” Helen said. “Vat grown life, big and equipment necessary for working with microscopic life.”
“Together?” Gordon asked.
“I don’t know,” Helen said.
Helen shook her head.
“We looked through the crowds,” Jamie said. “If she’s hiding in plain sight, she might be hiding among larger numbers. If I can get a good look at her, I’ll be able to identify her.”
“This many pretty girls around,” Mary said, “Someone’s doing back-street work, touching up and prettifying. That same someone might have changed Ms. Fray’s face or hair for her. We asked around, I think we might keep it up.”
They didn’t stay together.
“You need to stay together as a pair,” Gordon said, voicing my thoughts aloud.
“We did, some,” Jamie said. “We stayed close enough we could see each other, at least.”
“And if she comes after you in the crowd?” Gordon asked.
“That might not be how she operates,” I said.
“But it could be,” Gordon said.
I nodded in agreement.
“And you?” Mary asked. “What did you manage?”
“We’ve got eighteen people on the ground,” I said. “Malcontents and criminals. We’re going to put word out with a few others. Local thugs. Every town has it’s common elements, and one of those elements is that there are people who aren’t happy, looking for an easy fix. They’re covering the common exits from the city and making sure Fray can’t run, if she’s still here.”
“I know Gordon likes to do things the direct way,” Jamie said, “But you, Sy? What’s the plot in your head right now?”
“Plotting? I’m offended!”
Jamie didn’t even blink.
I sighed. “The people we’re sending after Fray, they’re floundering, drowning, struggling to make it in life. I’m interested to see how she interacts with them. It’s very possible she might recruit them.”
“Which is good, somehow?” Mary guessed.
I nodded. “Insert a weak link that we can then sever at the right time. And those women are weak links.”
“Dangerous game,” Gordon said. I detected a note of disapproval in his voice.
“It’s one I’m confident playing,” I said. “At the very least, they’ll keep her on her back foot, make her deal with the people who are asking questions and cutting off her retreat.”
There were a few nods.
“We eat, hit the washrooms, change clothes if we need to, then move out again,” Gordon said. He looked at Jamie and Mary. “Same teams, please.”
Jamie and Mary nodded.
As we headed for the front door of the house, I inserted myself between Jamie and Mary. Two of my favorite people, for very different reasons. My oldest friend and my newest.
How to tie them closer together?
“You’re both methodical,” I said. “What you do, you do perfectly, whether it’s sticking a knife in between someone’s ribs or remembering the exact text of a book you read a year ago. Think about what puts the two of you on the same page. Use that.”
“We’re both fond of you,” Jamie said.
“Well, that’s a cop out answer,” I said. “We’re all fond of each other, aren’t we?”
Mary smiled at that. The inclusion. Even now, three quarters of a year after joining us, she needed the reminder that she was a dyed in the wool Lamb.
“We’re okay,” Jamie said. “We were figuring it out.”
“I know,” I said. “I only…”
I trailed off.
Gordon had opened the door.
He stepped back out of the way.
Our belongings were in ruins. The luggage destroyed, the contents torn up and strewn around. Entire sections of the little dormitory house had been torn up and ripped out, including the kitchen sink, by the looks of it.
But, worst of all, was the blood. At least three whelps had been torn to pieces and the contents had been used to paint the hallway.
The bloody handprint on the wall was at least two feet across.
A message was written on the wall in blood.
I have your real pills.
All things have hearts. Even the Lambs.
“Oh gosh darn it!” Helen said. She reached into a coat pocket and pulled out the bottle. “Is there any way to tell?”
“Taste?” Jamie suggested.
“Taste it, then,” Gordon said. “But there’s no guarantees. We can’t afford to think we’re safe and be wrong. She’s here, she’s challenging us…”
“And if she knows we’re staying here, then she’s been watching our every move from the beginning,” I said.