“I’ll check the place,” Gordon said.
“I’ll come with,” Mary said.
It wasn’t a bad idea. There was no guarantee that the assailant had already left.
“Watch that you don’t mess up any evidence,” Jamie said.
“We won’t,” Mary said.
Ah, evidence. I liked where people’s thoughts were going. Mary teaming up with Gordon, Jamie thinking about the next step.
I could have done without Jamie suggesting Gordon or Mary would have messed up, but this was a better course of things.
“Sorry, little guys,” Gordon said, under his breath, to our deceased comrades. “You died for a good cause. Your brothers will avenge you, hopefully.”
“It would be nice,” I said, crouching down to sit on my heels, prodding at one of the dead whelps. It had a large beak and scaled body, it sported a long tail and narrow eyes. The tongue trailed out of its open mouth. I added, “My hopes aren’t high. She’s been one step ahead for a while. I doubt the Whelps are going to catch her off guard.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
I stroked the thing’s side. It was small compared to the others, I gauged it at twenty pounds, give or take, though it was hard to gauge with the sheer damage it had sustained. A runt like me.
I prodded the lolling tongue into its mouth, before closing the beak.
The mouth popped back open, and the tongue unfurled.
I tried. Sorry, runt.
“Don’t get too much blood on your hands,” Jamie reminded me.
“I can give you something to clean your hands,” Lillian said. Then she stopped. “Or I could, but…”
But her bag was the biggest out of all of ours, and the contents were strewn about.
“I think I can find it. Give me a second,” she said.
“Don’t,” I told her. “If they possibly messed with the pills, we can’t rule out that they messed with the stuff they left on the floor.”
“It’s okay,” Helen said, giving Lillian a pat on the shoulder. “He was careful, and he didn’t get any blood on his hands. The scent marker only works if they bleed on you. Poor little fellas.”
“The Whelps know us anyway,” I added. “Maybe not you, so much, and maybe not Mary, but they’re not about to come tearing after me. You, maybe, but-”
“You already said that.”
“Repeating it for emphasis.”
She punched me in the arm, before dropping her arm to one side and looking down at the mess.
“We’re okay,” I said.
“I don’t think we are,” Lillian said, arms folded in a way that was hugging herself as much as it was defiance. “Fray knows where we sleep.”
“We can go somewhere else,” Jamie said.
“If she followed us here-”
“She might follow us elsewhere,” I finished for Lillian. “I know. There’s no place we’re safe, and she has the upper hand.”
“Especially with the pills being an issue,” Gordon said, returning.
“There is that,” I said.
Mary made her way back, standing beside Gordon. Between all of us, we’d formed a loose perimeter around the mess that had been left behind with the demise of the Whelps.
“Perimeter’s clear,” Mary said, a touch late. Filling the silence rather than promptly reporting in. “Nothing and nobody outside that I can tell.”
“Small building, fast check,” Gordon said. “What are we thinking?”
“We’re dealing with a Sylvester that has a lot more general knowledge, less compunctions, and the upper hand,” Jamie said.
“She can’t pee standing up, so that’s a point for me,” I said.
Lillian punched me in the arm again.
“This is serious. Be serious,” she admonished me.
“There was no stamp on the parcel, she would have had to know there would be a parcel arriving by mail with a guard, and she would have had to fabricate any fake pills in advance,” Gordon said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“She would have had to know we were coming, or that someone was coming,” Jamie pointed out.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my tongue as I thought, the armed mail carriage wouldn’t have been the most subtle thing for a paranoid ex-Doctor, and she was expecting someone.
Helen held up the bottle of pills, so they caught the light.
“Sealed,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Gimme?” Jamie asked.
“If it’s poison-” I warned.
“Just gimme,” Jamie said.
Helen unsealed the bottle, removed the glass stopper, then reached in to get a pill. She threw it to me.
I caught it and handed it to Jamie.
He popped it into his mouth. “Tastes exactly the same. Like chalk.”
“All signs point to it being nothing more than head games,” Gordon said.
“Yeah,” I said, for the fourth time.
The silence lingered. Nobody was saying what we were all thinking. We could say all we wanted, but our heads knew different.
Fray was smart, and she was clever, which were two very different things. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility, and when our lives were at stake…
I said it, because nobody else seemed willing to, “We’re not really in a position to take a leap of faith here. Guessing wrong before we leap means a terminal fall.”
Nobody said anything to that. It was sobering.
“Is that it?” Mary asked, indignant. “We pack up, use the badges, and force our way onto the next train ride back?”
“It’s the safest option,” Gordon said. “Lillian, you were briefed on the particulars of the drug, weren’t you?”
“They filled me in before we left. What to expect when you showed symptoms, how to handle it. If we left tonight, assuming a two hour train journey to Radham, one or two brief stops, I don’t think there would be any major symptoms. You’d feel like you had the flu, at worst. I could alleviate symptoms, which would delay the deterioration.”
“Dying,” I said.
“If you want to be blunt about it,” she said. The look in her eyes when she looked at me was steely. Her tone was cold, and she spoke with a kind of authority.
Our lives were in her hands, as they so often were, but right here, right now, with all of us in grave peril, well, this was Lillian’s moment.
She fixed the position of her bags, betraying the nervousness behind the guise. “When you start throwing up, the other parts of you that are breaking down will tear and rip. Your stomach and throat will bleed, your muscles will rip, and you’ll be incapacitated by cramps. The blood that drains into your stomach will make you throw up more. By that point in time, every hour that passes adds a month to the time it would take you to recover. And that’s with Academy help, and it assumes you’re taking the pills again.”
Gordon looked at me. “You ran away once.”
Mary’s ears perked up at that.
“Didn’t leave Radham. Couldn’t. Planned to, but the opportunities never came up.”
“What opportunities would that be?” Gordon asked, a half-smile on his face, “Were you going to get classified as a war machine so they wean you off the leash, and somehow pass yourself off without getting caught by Dog and Catcher?”
Helen tittered, “That’s a funny mental image. Big hulking warbeast, check. Big hulking warbeast, check. Big hulking warbeast, check. Then there’s Sy, standing in the stable, fake horns on his head. Check.”
“Then the actual medication comes in,” I said, “In the form of a three gallon syringe, to be jabbed into my tiny ass.”
There were a few smiles at that, breaking the tension.
“In seriousness, my vampire bat plan was sort of like that,” I said.
The half-smile dropped off Gordon’s face. “What? You’re serious.”
“Sort of,” I said. “I needed a good back-alley doctor to help me figure out the particulars, stuff to watch out for, get the tools, but if I stole the blood of something that was being weaned off and getting the drugs that eased the transition, then gave it to myself?”
“If you gave me a week, I couldn’t list all the reasons that wouldn’t work,” Lillian said.
“But,” I said, “I could get the drugs that way, if there wasn’t any other option, right?”
“You’d kill yourself.”
“But I’d have the drugs,” I said.
Lillian frowned. “Yes.”
“Any war machine that’s getting weaned off the Academy’s leash-drugs isn’t going to put up much of a fight if I happened to slip into its enclosure. Maybe I could have found someone to reverse engineer the drug. Maybe there could be a filter. Centrifuge thing, if the drug is heavy enough?”
“No, Sy,” Lillian said. “I can’t imagine that working.”
“I didn’t know that you did that,” Mary commented, voice soft.
“I’m not proud of it,” I said.
“It’s very you.”
“You got caught, in the end?”
“I let myself get caught,” I said. “Stayed in Radham, reached my limit, and when Dog and Catcher came sniffing around, I didn’t try to fight them. Stayed put as Catcher came into the building, didn’t budge as Catcher came to cuff me.”
“Because,” I said. “I missed the others. Being with them on the Academy’s terms was better than being without, on mine.”
Mary nodded. It was a reply she understood. The others gave me small smiles or nods of understanding – Gordon, Helen, even Lillian.
Jamie was the only one who didn’t. Who knew that I was telling a half truth. Or, more correctly, I was telling half of the truth.
Yes, I had gone back for the others.
But I had also gone back for my appointments. I had allowed the Academy to poison my brain once again, with my body suffering as a side effect, and I’d done it because I’d missed being sharp.
Two appointments in short succession. It had been so difficult I very nearly hadn’t come back from it.
“Sy,” Gordon said. “Vampire bat plan?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Was this one of multiple plans?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Did you have other plans you intended to use then, which might apply today? Ways to prolong the deadline?”
“Yeah,” I said. “One. But it won’t make us any friends.”
“Share?” Mary asked.
“Simple. We take someone else’s.”
“That depends on there being someone from Radham here, using an experiment,” Gordon said. “Whelps don’t count. They’re weaned.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s a long shot. But it’s a long shot in favor of having another shot at her, while she’s playing games with us.”
“I want to win,” Mary said.
“I’m with Mary on this one,” Gordon said. “It’s a stupid trick, faking us out on the pills, but she’s out-predicted us a few too many times, staying ahead of the Lambs, Hangman and Dog and Catcher. I don’t feel safe calling her on what seems to be a shitty bluff. I’m angry, I want to win and rub it in her face.”
“I agree,” Jamie said. He pushed his oversized glasses up his nose. “But we do this safely. If we have to catch a train tonight to get back in time, then we have until tonight. That’s only a few more hours. We need to find leads on Fray, figure out if there’s a way to get a legitimate source for pills, and watch our backs at the same time.”
“Easy peasy,” I said.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “But I’d like to give this a shot, at least.”
United in crisis.
We were on more solid footing than we had been.
It made me wonder. If the positions were reversed, me in Fray’s shoes and vice-versa, would I have been able to get a good reading on my adversary? Would I know that the Lambs were fractured and falling apart? That attacking them directly would rally them, while running away for the Nth time threatened to break them?
Fray was an invisible woman. I knew her only by the maneuvers she’d made against us, the cities she chose to flee to, and the way she fled.
Jamie stepped forward. He traced his finger along the edge of the bloody handprint on the wall.
Gordon commented, “She wants us to come after her. This is a trap.”
“So is going home,” I said. “We leave, she probably won’t extend another invitation to us again. Makes me think…”
I trailed off, uncomfortable.
“Think what?” Gordon asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Incomplete thought. I’ll speak up the moment it’s put together in my head.”
“Going by handprint and footprint, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that would fit the size of this guy,” Jamie said.
Jamie nodded. He pointed at the marks on the floor. Not at blood. The attackers weren’t so messy. But at scuff marks, dust, and spots where dust was mottled. “Man. He had a lot of snow on him. Kicked up, and he’d been standing in the snow. It fell off in clumps, hit the floor, dappled the texture of the dust there. Our assailant. The head, now with a body.”
The finger moved to the floor to one side. “Hard to see now, because Mary walked on it, but I remember it as it was. Young woman. Lightweight. Tall, slender, not heavily dressed. Odd gait. Limp.”
“The stitched woman,” Lillian said.
“No Fray?” Gordon asked.
Jamie shook his head.
She sent her underlings on a mission, but what had she been doing in the meantime?
Why was she staying with us?
“It’s a starting point,” Gordon said. “Now, I’ve really got to visit the little boy’s room. Then we really should get going. We’re working with a clock.”
I liked the looks on people’s faces as they transitioned from being children to being Lambs in their element. Being more anxious, or less. Expressions changing, minds switching gears.
Jamie elbowed me. Then he pointed at the door.
We excused ourselves and stepped outside. My eyes roved over the storybook town, looking to see if I could spy Fray spying on us.
“When you came back, you didn’t do it purely because of us,” Jamie murmured.
I bumped his arm with my shoulder. “It’s weird when you do that. Pick up a thread of conversation that we dropped a while back.”
“Sure,” he said. “You’re dodging the question.”
“Statement, not a question, Mr. Perfect Memory.”
“Implied question, Mr. Tiny Ass.”
I stabbed a finger toward his face. “Careful.”
“You’re still dodging.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “That wasn’t the only reason.”
“You’ve hinted at it before. Do I have to say it, or will you admit it?”
I shrugged, “Same thing.”
“You came back because you wanted to be a Lamb, not a real boy.”
I nodded, not looking at him, but at all of the smoke pouring up from the chimneys of the oddly similar little buildings.
“What if Fray is the same?” Jamie asked.
“She wants to be a Lamb?”
“She wants the excitement. She wants to have a brain that works differently than most, and she wants to test it. She’s been running for so long, she’s getting bored.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t buy it.”
“Serial killers do it. They develop a pattern, based on who they are and how they function. They test the limits, they get away with it, but as humans, we all have a drive to be appreciated and recognized. We need stimulus. I doubt Fray is going to sit down and read a book any more than you are. She’s looking to us to satisfy a desire.”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I respect that you’ve put a lot of thought into it, but…”
“No. It’s too convenient. Her, suddenly developing a weakness, right here, when we need her to? The thing with the pills, to throw us off balance?”
“You think it’s a trap.”
“I’d rather go up against her assuming that she didn’t have any weaknesses at all,” I said. “I feel like anything else would be a mistake.”
Jamie nodded. The snow continued to fall around us. I heard Gordon coming down the stairs.
“Are you saying that,” Jamie said, with a careful sort of deliberation, “because you think Fray is that good? Or are you saying it because you want to think she’s that good.”
“You think I need that stimulus you were just talking about?” I asked.
I bumped his arm with my shoulder. He returned the favor, hard enough that I lost my footing, going wide off the stairs leading up to the front door and putting my foot into a bush.
I was only just managing to pull my foot free, cursing Jamie, when the others emerged.
All of the Lambs together and ready.
A secondary source of pills disarmed Fray’s ruse. It was something of a priority. We moved as a group, now, holding something of a formation. Jamie’s eyes scanned the crowd, Mary had one flank, Gordon had another, and Helen had the front of the group.
“Post office, three buildings down this street,” Jamie said.
“What’s the approach?” Gordon asked.
“We can do it quick, we can do it pretty, and we can do it careful,” I said. “Pick two.”
“I’d prefer-” Gordon started.
“That was a rhetorical question,” I cut him off.
“You’re a jackass.”
“We do it quick, we do it careful. We don’t want to waste time, and we’re going to watch our backs every step of the way. We’re not making friends today. We’ve already scattered a handful of delinquents around the town, and the only pretty way to get the pills we need is to go home. I don’t think any of us want to go home, do we?”
There were a few grumbles and murmurs of agreement.
“I want to go home,” Lillian said.
“Too bad,” I said, before her mouth was closed. “Helen takes point on this one. She’s pretty enough to make up for what we’re lacking.”
“Oh yay!” Helen said. “And thank you!”
“Mary, get the back door. Gordon, cover any bystanders, watch the front door. Jamie, I think there was a window.”
“Watch for bystanders. Keep an eye on the crowd. Fray is going to want to watch what our next moves are, so soon after the little stunt she pulled.”
“And me?” Lillian asked.
“If we need your help, something’s gone horribly wrong,” I said.
I saw movement in one of the alleyways. Whelps. Three. All larger than the runt I’d said hi to.
They were, as a weapon, a singular entity. They weren’t joined by the brain or anything like that, but they were cloned, making them functionally identical, differing only in minor ways as their environment and exposure to food allowed. One whelp alone could divide into two. Left alone, they would stalk their prey from a distance, eat things that didn’t smell of human, including foodstuffs recently handled by humans, multiply, and then when they had built up sufficient numbers, they would attack en masse. Those beaks would cut into flesh and flense it from bone. Ten whelps could devour a man in less than a minute.
They had her scent, our delinquents had the exits covered. By all rights, our quarry should have been cornered and under pressure. I fully expected her to take down the delinquents with her…
“Oh guys,” I said, interrupting my own train of thought.
“What?” Jamie asked.
“Headsman? For the head, now with body.”
“Ehhh,” Gordon said.
“Ehhhh,” he said, again.
“You lack taste,” I told him.
I picked up my own train of thought before it ran away from me. Fray most definitely had the tools to take down any of the delinquents we’d put in her way. My only hope was that there would be enough of a mess or commotion to clue us in to what she was doing.
Many of those delinquents had pets and creations of their own, after all. It wasn’t likely to be tidy when she disposed of them.
We approached the post office.
“Mail would have come in with the train,” Jamie observed. “Not all of it would have been picked up. I can’t think of a better, faster way to check what we need to check.”
“Will you give me a boost, Mary?” Helen asked.
“In a few seconds, silly,” Helen said. “Inside.“
“Um,” Mary said.
“Play along,” I encouraged her.
Gordon was taking long strides forward to beat us to the door. Ever the gentleman, he held it for the ladies as they stepped inside first.
The building was empty. Fortuitous.
“Ah, hello again,” the postman said. “Little lady.”
“Hello!” Helen greeted him. She gestured at Mary, who connected the dots just in time for Helen. She offered two hands, fingers interlaced. Helen stepped up onto the hands, then onto the counter of the post office.
“Excuse me!” the postman said, looking alarmed.
Helen simply strode forward, hooked an arm around his neck, swinging around behind him, and wrapped her legs around his arms, pinning them to his sides.
He struggled, and he was a big fellow, almost capable of freeing himself, but her grip on his neck tightened. He backed up, slamming her against the wall and shelf behind them, but she simply redoubled her attack.
Mary and I both hopped over the counter, Mary’s skirt swishing around stockinged legs. Gordon was locking the door, pulling down the blind above the glass pane, while Jamie stood by the window, peering out. Mary went to the back door, locking it, while I started looking.
Behind the desk was a grid of mail slots, with mail stacked within each square subsection. Mary joined me in rifling through the mail.
“Here,” Mary said, holding up an envelope.
“Yeah,” I said. Three envelopes addressed to one person, each sent from ‘Radham Academy’. I continued looking.
Helen looked through the packages under the desk. Her search was shorter than ours. Lillian was only just reaching the postman, checking he was only passed out and not actually dead.
We weren’t complete monsters.
“No packages from Radham,” Helen said, standing straight.
“Another two envelopes here,” I said, holding them up. Helen snatched them, freeing my hand for more looking.
“One more,” Mary said. “And…”
I saw her move over to look at more slots.
“I already checked that column of slots,” I said.
“Then I’m done.”
“And,” I checked the last two boxes, flipping through envelopes. “So am I. That makes four people who are in Kensford, with ties to Radham. Anyone want to take bets on them having something?”
“No,” Gordon said. “Don’t want to take that bet. But it’s a chance.”
Jamie held out his hand as we rounded the corner. We handed over the envelopes.
Gordon opened the door, and we let ourselves out.
I saw Jamie’s slight frown as he watched over the crowd. He hadn’t seen anything yet, or he would have spoken up.
Fray was watching. Now she knew we weren’t running. Not yet, anyway.
“No,” the man at the door said.
“Because we were told there was a brilliant researcher from Radham here,” Helen said, practically effervescent in attitude. “We were so hoping to see his work.”
“That would not be me,” the man said.
“Would you know who it was? We’re so short on time!”
“It’s not me, I don’t know who it would be, and you’re annoying,” he said.
The door slammed.
Helen turned around very slowly, almost dazed.
I gave her a very careful pat on the shoulder, from maximum arm’s length. “You’re not annoying, Helen.”
She made a small, noncommittal sound.
“That’s three down. One to go,” Gordon said. “If this falls through, we need a new idea, or we need to plan to catch the next train out of here.”
Mary spat by the side of the road. I was pretty sure I saw a bystander further down the street look horrified at the action.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Jamie,” Gordon said. “Which way to the next place?”
Jamie had his back to us. His attention was to the far side of the street.
“Jamie,” Gordon said. “Which way?”
“Shh,” I said, raising a hand.
There was a long pause. Jamie didn’t move.
I felt a pang of worry.
“Jamie,” I said, my voice soft. “What are you seeing?”
“She’s changed clothes three times,” he said. “The hair changed once. The face stays the same.”
“Fray?” Mary asked.
He shook his head.
“The stitched,” I guessed.
He nodded, pointing a finger. “She disappeared a second ago, heading east. I was trying to see her through the crowd. Blue dress, black jacket and shaw-“
I was already moving. Mary was a step behind me, and Gordon a step behind her.
We ran, and I didn’t slow a fraction as I hurled myself at the thicker part of the crowd. I turned my body sideways, I ducked low, I pushed.
She had a headstart, but she was lame.
I was spry, and I was small.
The chaos of the crowd was my medium.
Gordon and Mary were just behind me. Gordon was bigger but stronger. Mary was between us, but she had a natural grace.
I pulled ahead of the two, all the same. A part of me wondered if I wanted it more, and pushed myself harder because of it.
Considering how badly Mary wanted it, that said a lot.
“Sy!” Gordon called out. “Don’t get too far ahead! We watch each other’s backs!”
I didn’t have the breath to spare to respond.
This might be our one chance, ever.
I saw the crowd, I watched their movements, faced the choice of an alleyway or main street.
A curious, confused glance from a bystander suggested that something in the alleyway had caught his attention.
I took the cue.
I thought of the whelps and how they had died.
I knew I could be running headlong into a trap.
But I also knew, much in the same way I knew Jamie had been wrong about Fray’s motivations, that it wasn’t something Fray seemed inclined to do.
She’d challenged us, baited us. Simply ambushing me in an alley with the Headsman was… it was too crude.
“Sy!” Gordon called out.
He was just at the mouth of the alley. I faced a fork in the path.
I listened, and I heard only Gordon’s pounding footsteps on snow-slick cobblestone.
Snow. I looked at the ground.
There were a number of tracks in the snow, but one set was messier than others.
I wasn’t sure, so I pointed, told Gordon to go right. I went down the left path.
Down the next branch of the alley, toward rushing water.
My footsteps slowed. I stopped, panting.
The area was the sort of place that would be a garden in the spring. There were stone boxes where plants would sprout, and a railing that looked down over a brook, bordered on both sides by stone walls. A small, quaint stone bridge was a short distance to our left.
The stitched was there. Steam rose off her, and she was huffing for breath too. Not that she would get tired in the same way.
Planned. To get this far ahead, she would have had to run the second Jamie saw her.
She’d been told to show her face.
By Fray, who was leaning over the railing, arms folded.
She turned her head to look at me, then spoke to the stitched. “Wendy?”
“Yes, ma’am?” Wendy replied.
“Go meet Warren. Take the other path. Make noise, the others should hear you. Warren will protect you if they catch up to you two. I don’t expect a problem.”
“Yes ma’am,” Wendy said, nodding. She drew in a deep breath, then sprinted off.
Ms. Fray looked at me, and it was a calculating look. She was analyzing me as I connected the dots.
She turned her back to me, and she beckoned.
“I’m glad it’s you,” she told me. “Come talk, Sylvester.”