The train whistle howled, echoing across snowy Kensford, and with it went our escape. We’d made our call, and now we’d live with it. It bothered me, more than I cared to admit. If I was wrong, then we were going to get catastrophically ill, and we could very well die.
We were a squad, here. Each of us had a discrete role. Gordon and Mary were handling the front end of things, leading the group by a margin, scouting, peeking through windows of stores. My role was to watch Jamie. He had his book open in his arms, pen in hand, and was sketching. Every time a bystander, obstacle, or someone’s monstrous pet got in our way, I led him out of the way, while his eyes stayed on the page.
“Lillian,” I said.
“By all accounts, the stitched girl was falling to pieces when Fray got her and left the jail. She wasn’t falling to pieces when she went to go distract you guys.”
“She fixed it, or improved it. How hard is that to do?”
“It’s easier to make one from scratched. In terms of cost, unless there’s a shortage of bodies, most people make a new stitched instead of fixing up an old one, I think.”
I pulled Jamie out of the way of a gaunt stitched that looked like it incorporated some grafted features. Sections of its chest and arms had been stretched over containers of bile yellow liquid, with tubes running out of the containers and into flesh. Poison, probably. It hissed.
Jamie continued drawing, oblivious.
“But how hard is it to do, Lil?” I asked.
“Don’t call me Lil!”
“Answer the question, then, dummy.”
“Butthead. It’s hard.”
“Well, gee, thanks,” I told her. “That clarifies things a bunch.”
“I don’t know what you want or why you’re asking!” she said. “Making a stitched is easy, I’ve made a stitched, last year, for an exam. But if you want to repair it, you have to diagnose and fix whatever’s broken, probably have to replace or undo any damage to major chunks and pieces, rip out the wires and chemical tanks, put in new ones, um-”
“Does that require tools?”
“Obviously,” I said, giving her an eye roll. “Would she need access to a lab to do it? Or could she do it using just the tools she’s packing in her bags? Keep in mind that she’s very good.”
“She’d need a lab,” Lillian said.
“She would. What about maintaining the thing?”
Lillian gave me a so-so gesture.
“Can’t say?” I asked. I pulled Jamie out of the way of a lamp post.
“You can cover your basic hygeine needs with a sponge and a sink, but it’s not fun, it gets old, and it takes time,” Lillian said. “Doing it on a bad week? You’d have to be pretty disciplined or have no other choice to take it in stride and not want to change it.”
“I like that analogy,” Jamie said, eyes still on his sketch.
“Thank you, Jamie,” she said.
“Part two of that same question, then,” I said. “You saw her guy? The head?”
“Yes. From a distance, and I was mostly running, but yes.”
“How doable is that without a proper lab?”
“Not at all,” Lillian said. “I’d be surprised, impressed and scared if she was able to do that while running from us. She only ever stays in one place for a few days, if that long, and she’d need a lot of days to do that stuff.”
“Stolen work?” Jamie said, still sketching. I steered him with my hand on his left elbow.
“It would be reported stolen,” I said. “That, or there’s a missing or dead scholar out there.”
“Which we would have heard about,” Lillian said. “I hope.”
“All signs point to the fact that she has a lab. Probably a nice one, with resources.”
“Oh, goodie,” Lillian said. “Let’s see, there are twenty thousand people enrolled here, some are rooming at Dame Cicely’s itself, but most are in dormitory houses, one to four people to a house, and each house has a small, private lab. So… oh, maybe five thousand places to check.”
“Gold star for being on the ball,” Jamie said. “Nice work, Lillian.”
“Thank you, Jamie,” she said, looking as pleased as I’d seen her. “It’s nice of you to say so.”
I corrected his course when it looked like he might veer out into the street and the path of a horse or carriage.
“You’re doing that on purpose,” I muttered.
“Being nice to Lillian? You should give it a try.”
“Walking into stuff,” I said.
The smile on his face suggested I was on target.
I let go of his elbow. He looked up for the first time, getting his bearings, then resumed sketching.
“She has a lab, one she could pick up and leave from without a fuss,” I mused aloud. “How many single-occupant dormitory houses?”
“About-” Lillian started.
“One thousand,” Jamie said.
“That sounds right,” Lillian said.
I nodded. A hundred and sixty-five for each of us, if we split it up.
Not doable, but it was something to think about, putting the puzzle together and figuring out how she operated.
“Which raises questions of how she got access. I doubt she enrolled. Smart as she is, she has to risk getting noticed and caught every time she goes to get materials or tools from Dame Cicely’s Academy. The work she’s doing is too good for a fugitive.”
Jamie looked up and over at me, paying attention now.
“I’ve been on the run, and the resource cost in terms of needing to find a place to sleep, watching your back, get food, acquire and spend money, it eats up whole chunks of your day. But here we have someone putting in hours, even days into high quality projects.”
“She’s been taking the Wyvern formula,” Lillian said.
“She has to take the time to make the Wyvern formula, and she needs to take the time to recuperate after taking it. That only furthers my point,” I said, getting more emphatic, more intense.
“What’s your line of thought here?” Jamie asked.
“Only that,” I said, deflating, all the emphasis and intensity flowing away. I was left with a feeling of frustration. “It’s all going a little too seamlessly for her.”
Gordon and Mary had stopped and were waiting for us. Helen, trailing behind, watching our backs, caught up.
“Coat shop,” Gordon said.
“Ooh, pretty coats,” Helen said.
“One of the two I remembered,” Jamie said.
“And,” I said, pointing at the store across the street, “Hat shop!”
The rest of the group gave me funny looks.
“Wait one minute,” I said. I checked for incoming horses and carts and then stopped, patting my pockets.
Gordon was extending the group’s wallet in my direction. I grabbed it, but he didn’t let go.
“If you’re spending the group’s money on a hat…” he warned me, leaving the threat implied.
“No,” I promised.
He let go of the wallet, and I ran across the street.
I stepped into the store.
The older woman at the counter took one look at me and said, “No.”
It was so much like what I’d come to expect from Hayle and the Lambs that it caught me off guard. “No?”
“A little boy like you? You have no business here. You can’t buy what I’m selling, you’re grubby, and even if you have a slip, I’m not entrusting my product to you to take back to whoever sent you.”
“I’d like a hatbox, please,” I said.
“I am not about to-”
“I’ll pay,” I said.
I saw the hesitation.
Money made the world turn. Blood and sweat drove the world’s engines, but money bought blood and sweat.
“Six dollars,” I said. “For an empty hatbox.”
“If you’re up to any mischief with this, hurting my reputation-”
“Not at all, ma’am.”
She made a face, like conceding and doing anything more than sending me out the door was horribly unpleasant and vaguely offensive.
I returned to the others, a nice little hatbox with a ribbon in my hands.
“I’m guessing that only a few of us can come and see what you’re actually trying to pull?” Gordon asked.
I thought of the sour woman in the hat shop, then shook my head. We couldn’t waste time. Better to use force of numbers.
“Follow my lead,” I said. “We use the herd.”
We moved into the coat store as a mob. The people at the counter were two men, possibly related, but not too closely, one with a thick mustache and a vest over his button-up shirt, the other clean-shaven, wearing a suit jacket that was closed up to the collarbone.
The store had a hardwood floor, one that had been grown, from the odd way it interconnected and flowed, with coats and suits on racks and dummies. There were umbrellas and parasols mounted on one wall, and shoes on another. A stitched stood by the dressing room, a coat draped over one arm. A shop for top quality goods.
I approached the counter, hugging the box. The others followed, close behind. I liked that they read my body language, sensing the best way to follow suit, without my having to tell them.
We’d been missing that, lately. Each of us had been a touch preoccupied with ourselves.
“I caught this box as it fell off a carriage,” I said. “I think the driver forgot to put it inside before leaving. We wanted to give it back to the woman.”
“Uhh,” Mr. Mustache said, “I don’t know that we could help you with that.”
“The box is from the shop across the street, and the woman there said the woman who bought it definitely came from your shop, and they had a new coat, but she hadn’t worn one coming in. I think the one she bought was a long one?”
“Most of my coats are long,” Mr. Mustache said, sounding vaguely offended.
I nodded, vigorous, agreeing. And she would change things up. After having a short coat, she’d make a subtle change. “She had a stitched with her, and there was a big fellow, but he might have stayed outside?”
“We ask all of the experiments to stay outside. As for your young lady, I… no, I’m afraid that doesn’t ring any bells.”
“High quality work,” Lillian piped up. “The stitched. She’s very thin, very pretty, you wouldn’t even know she was one if you weren’t careful, but you’d know if she talked, probably.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Jamie held up his book. The sketches were strange, very scratchy, somehow not good art, but still a scarily accurate representation of the stitched girl and, I presumed, an accurate representation of the Headsman.
I saw no recognition on either of the men’s faces.
We’re looking for needles in a goddamn haystack, I thought.
“The other woman had a bandaged hand?” I tried.
“Why does it matter that much?” Mr. Mustache asked.
“We were…” I tried to look a little ashamed.
Gordon reached over and took the hatbox. “He wanted reward money. I convinced him it was the right thing to do.”
“Reward money would be nice,” I said, quiet. “It’s a nice looking hat. It probably cost a lot.”
I felt like we’d struck the right chord. The men at the counter had been boys once. Between Gordon and I, we’d struck the right balance, between my innocent greed and Gordon’s genuine desire to do the right thing.
Now, if I was gauging them right, we had them actually wanting us to succeed.
“Today?” Mustacheless asked.
“Yes sir. Within the last hour. Probably the last half-hour, I’d bet,” Gordon said.
That got a shake of the head.
“You’re sure?” Gordon asked.
“I’ve been at the counter for this entire afternoon. I’m sure,” Mustacheless said. Mr. Mustache nodded.
I saw the other Lambs react, shoulders dropping, disappointment clear in their body language. We’d try the other shop, and then we’d be limited in where we could go next, if that didn’t work out.
My instincts, however, told me that the other shop would be a dead end. It was too close to where the others had encountered the Headsman. She would have had to double back, and she would have had to do it while avoiding the others.
It didn’t fit. So many things here didn’t damn well fit.
“Why?” I asked, abrupt. No ‘sir’ or anything of the sort.
“Why?” the man asked.
“Why are you sure?”
“I don’t remember seeing that girl, or anyone resembling her,” Mr. Mustache said.
“But we didn’t describe the girl we’re looking for, with the injured hand.”
“The young women don’t shop alone,” he said. “The ones who do stand out.”
“What if someone came in, and looked like they were part of another group?” Helen asked. “Isn’t that possible?”
“If that’s the case, I don’t know what I could tell you,” Mustacheless said.
Frustrated at every turn.
Change one paradigm, and all the little details that hadn’t added up started to make sense. How did she get the dormitory? How did she acquire the resources to do her work without getting caught? How did she blend so effortlessly into the surroundings?
“She’s new in town,” I said.
He frowned. “You know this how?”
“She’s new in town,” I said, more excited, ignoring him, “Did you see anyone, a new face, dark hair, spending time with someone that you’ve seen around?”
“I see a lot of young ladies, day to day,” he told me. I got the impression that the line of questions was starting to test his patience. This was dissonance at work. He knew that things didn’t add up, and if I only stopped to give him a chance, he could start asking questions I couldn’t answer.
“I’m sure,” I said, not giving him that chance. “But your clientele is exclusive. People who can pay. The stranger showed up, maybe with a borrowed coat, maybe without a coat at all, and the familiar face footed the bill. There might have been an age difference, but they probably looked close. You noticed, because it was different and it was new.”
The look in his eyes wasn’t nothing. In fact, both men seemed to register something.
“You… you were doing something else, but you came to talk,” I said, to Mr. Mustache. “Because you knew her, and she introduced you to her new friend.”
“Tutor,” Mr. Mustache said, absently. His expression clarified into a curious stare. “You sound like you know an awful lot more than someone who caught a box off the top of a carriage.”
“Yes,” I said. “Tell us, what’s her name, and where can we find her?”
“We’re trying to find and stop a very bad person,” Gordon said. “The young lady you know, she could be in grave danger. A hostage, to an enemy of the Crown.”
“I…” Mustacheless said, and it was like his brain had momentarily broken, caught in a loop that left the sound drawling out of his mouth.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Mustache said, in what approximated a diplomatic tone, “I should contact the authorities? It seems like the safest way forward.”
“No time,” I said.
“I’d rather be sure,” he said.
“No time,” I said, again, feeling frustrated. A step closer, and now we were hitting a wall?”
“Bennoit, perhaps you could run next door to use their phone? We-”
Exaperated, I gave the signal, the ‘go ahead’ to the others.
Let them have at it.
Helen and Mary were quickest, and best situated to get closer.
As the two girls rounded the corner, Mr. Mustache reached under the desk, and produced a short blade.
Mary slapped it aside with her hand, but rather than shred her flesh, produced a metal-on-metal sound. The blade moved over the counter, she slapped it down, hard, so it struck the wooden countertop, and sent it flying to the ground. She touched a blade to Mr. Mustache’s stomach.
The man’s partner, Benoit, froze, as he saw the blade draw close to Mr. Mustache. Helen drew close, ordered, “Kneel,” and he did, with only a moment’s pause. She stepped behind him and wrapped her fingers around his neck.
Gordon rounded the counter as well, to draw closer to them. I checked on Lillian, and found that she was at the door, locking it. Jamie watched the window, hugging his book.
I dug in my pockets and found the badge that Briggs had given me. I slapped it down on the counter.
“We act in service to the Crown. You haven’t heard of us, but-”
“The Radham children.”
I blinked a few times.
“There are stories,” he said. “Ones that made the rounds anew when the post office was attacked.”
Our reputation is preceding us. Not a great thing for a secret project.
“Then you have some idea of how we operate?”
“Some idea. It’s not supposed to be public knowledge.”
“No. You can give us what we want, stay quiet about everything that happened here, and the Crown may choose to reward you. Or you can stay silent, and face the repercussions.”
“If we could contact the authorities-”
He shook his head. “If you’re dangerous enough to threaten us, I couldn’t send you after a proper young lady, knowing you might do the same to her. A gentleman-”
“A gentleman without the ‘man’ part,” Mary murmured, moving the knife to lower regions, “Is only gentle.”
“This young lady would go right for the most sensitive part of you,” Gordon said. “This is where she and I differ. She’s merciless. She goes right for the jugular. She’s a killer. Me? I’m very good when it comes to breaking people. I’ve learned from some of the worst of Radham. People who learned to fight the way people who have nothing to lose fight. I’ve learned from people who live every day knowing that Dog and Catcher or another monster could come after them because they do shady things, things that involve hurting other people, sometimes for hours out of every day.”
He picked up the little blade.
“I won’t mince words. That’s his style, not mine,” he said, indicating me, twirling the blade in his hands. “I know how to torture people. I don’t want to, none of us do, but if you’re going to be so stupid as to get in our way when we’re trying to save a young woman’s life, well, the pieces will fall where they may.”
“Reassess those priorities,” I said. “My friends there, they might seem a little scary. But this is a scary meant for someone who threatens a well-to-do citizen of the Crown, and very possibly threatens Kensford as a whole. The whole reason we’re doing this, right now, is because you’re twisting everything out of shape, taking the path of most resistance. The moment you give way, relax, tell us what you’re supposed to tell us, then everything goes back to the way it’s supposed to be. We work against enemies of the Crown, you go back to doing business, the young lady ends up safe, and you can feel like you did something right.”
No answer was immediately forthcoming.
A gentleman, I thought.
This was the obstacle that was in our way?
Gordon started toward Mr. Mustache. Mustacheless opened his mouth, “Lady Claire.”
Gordon turned around. He put the weapon on the counter.
“Lady Claire. She stays at the Academy. She has special accommodations, her family is related to the headmaster. Her father and uncles are military, working heavily alongside the Academies. She… she was so despondent, she was going to fail out, she couldn’t meet the requirements to keep her seat. When the tutor appeared just yesterday, a pretty young someone from the country, Lady Claire looked so relieved. She couldn’t stop babbling.”
“Thank you,” Gordon said. “She lives at Dame Cicely’s Academy?”
The man nodded, looking fairly well crushed. “The tutor, she’s really a threat to the girl?”
“Yes,” I said, suspecting I was lying. “She’s killed.”
I looked at Jamie, who was making notes, all the information that the two men from the coat store had shared.
“If you talk, telling more tales about the Radham Children, you can expect another visit from us,” Mary said.
The man paused, the nodded.
Mary backed away, knife held up. She collected the blade from the counter, then tossed it into the corner by the door, still backing up as she joined us. Helen was far more casual, letting go and practically skipping to us.
We left, moving unanimously toward the Academy. We put a fair bit of distance between ourselves and the store, disappearing amid the crowd, before we broke the silence.
“You weren’t really going to torture them, were you?” Lillian asked.
“No,” Gordon said.
I wasn’t sure if he was lying.
“Because that’s not right,” Lillian said.
“I know,” Gordon said. “But the stakes are high, and time might be short. If we can’t get her before we’re forced to go back to Radham, or if she slips away, then we might not get another chance to stop whatever it is she has planned.”
I spoke up, “She made a point of telling me about weapons buried beneath the small towns. She’s been visiting small towns. She might have collected something,” I said. “Or she’s set things to go off, experiments get loose… turns the academy’s weapons against itself. It would fit her style.”
“Put a drop of alcohol on a scorpion’s back, and it stings itself to death,” Mary said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“When your enemy is so geared toward violence, it doesn’t take much to make them destroy themselves,” she explained.
“Given how you all are acting,” Lillian said, “You’re hungry for this catch, and it scares me a little. That line about the scorpion could apply to you all too.”
“Us all,” I said. “Not you all. You’re one of us. If something happens to the Lambs, you’re included in it.”
“The Radham Children,” Jamie mused.
“That’s a problem too,” Gordon said. “Didn’t expect that.”
“The scene with Mauer, the scholars who saw us dealing with Sub Rosa, someone talked. Rumors got out,” Jamie said. “Hayle talked to me about this, before. He and Briggs have a plan. In case we stop being so secret.”
“Really?” Mary asked. “Is it a good plan?”
“It’s a Briggs plan,” I said. “Let’s focus on the here and now. Genevieve Fray has a patron. She’s lied or conned her way to getting pay, lab space, resources, protection and company, and the patron might not know. She’s keeping the company of someone she can use as a hostage.”
“It was a good catch, Sy,” Gordon said.
I nodded. I just wished I’d connected to it earlier.
Dame Cicely’s was a nice building, pale, and the branches that grew out of it were more discrete. The windows were ornate, not made of branches but thick wrought iron molded to look like wood, glass stretched between. A sprawling garden near the front had young women walking through it, talking in groups, with their monsters in their company, walking a few paces behind. I was a little surprised that the gardens were so popular, when they were covered in snow, but I supposed it spoke to the need to get away. Much like the delinquents with their campfire off to the side of the woods.
Jamie put out a hand, stopping Gordon. With Gordon, the rest of us stopped in our tracks.
Three female figures, entering a side door.
“You sure?” Gordon asked.
“We have the drop on her, this time around,” I said. I looked at each of the others. I could see the hunger and the raw, unique sorts of danger that each posed, with Lillian as the exception. “We do this right, and we do it as a group. It may be our last chance to get her.”