“I want the youngest ones out,” Craig said.
There was resistance. Daisy stiffened.
“If I haven’t had you in on previous leadership meetings, I don’t want you in on this one,” Craig said. “Git!”
Daisy rose to her feet. Two more kids joined her in heading for the stairs.
“If there’s any sign of any of you listening in, you bleed,” Craig warned.
An unsteady sort of leadership here. One enforced with knocks on the head and crude threats. But it was necessary. Anything else wouldn’t work on kids like these, who didn’t know other sorts of authority, and the alternative was having no leadership at all.
Thom remained, as did the boy with the locks, who was sitting with Mary, and one other.
“We called them ghosts, at first. We lost two of the youngest ones, one right after the other,” Craig explained. “Sent Bertie home. He’d been here too long, taking too much, not giving. Figured his dad would give him a hard time and he could come back later. But he wasn’t to stay here all the time. He cried, but he went.”
“And he never made it?” Gordon asked.
Craig made a face. Disgusted. “I should’ve had him stay. My gut told me it wasn’t right, sending him back, but I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of the bigger picture, y’know? I thought it was about him and his dad and his dad roughed him up but he’d survive. Weighed his survival against ours and what he was costing us by eating out of our cupboards. Thinking too small, not considering everything else. Stupid!”
“You know deep down inside that there was no predicting something like this. You couldn’t have known.”
“I knew! Not about the ghosts or foxes or Academy. I knew he was little and he hadn’t got that thick skin we all get at some point. He ducked his head and he cried and anyone who looked at him knew he was a victim. Whoever took him knew he was a victim! He was prey to the whole rest of the world and I knew it and I sent him out there alone!”
“Okay,” Gordon said. “Then yeah. It was your fault, at least a little.”
Craig shook his head, but it was in anger at himself.
“You were angry with him,” I said. “You wanted to give him that thicker skin, you knew you couldn’t coddle him.”
“Doesn’t justify it,” Craig said.
“How far to his place? Where does his dad live?”
“Four streets over. Still in the shims.”
“That close?” Gordon asked, surprised. “Five or ten minutes away?”
“You said there was another.”
“There’ve been six I know of,” Craig said. “Two right from under my nose. Bert was the first. We went out looking for him. I expected to find his body. Nothing. But while we were looking, we got a little too far apart from each other. Len was helping out, never one to stay here overnight, had it pretty good, but he’d play cards with us, join in any games, participate if we were pulling something.”
“Sure,” Gordon said.
“Sharp enough a guy. Whisked away, not five seconds after I last saw him. No noise, no scuffle.”
“Len’s mom is torn up about it,” Thom said.
“And you?” Gordon asked Craig.
“Len could look after himself,” Craig said, but his expression betrayed some concern or doubt. Self-blame, but it didn’t cut as deep as Bert did. Craig cleared his throat. “We switched it around, so we didn’t go anywhere except in groups. When they were in the mood to play with cards or dice, I told them to do it from perches. Watch over the streets while they played. Keep an eye out for anything odd.”
“And?” Gordon asked.
“What we saw was people in Academy coats, using Academy carriages. People with gray coats, loading an unconscious kid into the coach. Since we started keeping an eye out, we’ve seen the carriages show up now and again. Usually from a distance. We try, we lay in wait, but they steer clear. Can’t seem to pin them down. But they’re still getting us. That’s when we started to call them ghosts.”
“All boys?” Lillian asked.
“No. Girls too,” Craig said. “Tom and Sam were at one perch. Got caught up in their game, not watching, Tom says. Then hands seize him, they tip him off the edge of the roof. Broken arm, broken leg, wrenched his arm so bad it tore out of the socket. What are you supposed to do, knowing what we know, that it’s Academy people doing this, and Tom is that hurt?”
There was a waver of emotion in Craig’s voice. He was younger than some of the leaders of the mice I’d seen. Experienced, but young. He didn’t have full control over his emotions, he wasn’t detached, and his skin was thinner than he’d like to pretend. When he asked what he was supposed to do, the uncertainty was spilling out. That uncertainty was laced with the raw fear of someone that was responsible for others and failing in their duties.
“What did you end up doing?” I asked. “With Tom?”
“Sent him to the Hedge. His mom says he’s there, he’s in repair. He hasn’t disappeared.”
“I think that was the right thing to do,” Gordon said.
Craig shook his head a little.
“And… I forget the other one’s name? Who was on the roof with him?” I asked.
“Sam. She was next oldest, compared to me. Tom didn’t even see them leave the building. Whoever attacked him, they and Sam just…”
Craig spread his hands.
“Gone. A ghost,” Gordon said.
“It was a lot easier when she was around,” Craig said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I think I remember her. Scowler, wasn’t she?”
“Face like a dog with its muzzle smashed in,” Craig said. He glanced at Lillian, “Don’t give me that look.”
“I wasn’t- okay, I was, but you can’t say that about a girl.”
“She said worse about herself. She knew where her strengths were, and none of the whole sitting proper, doing up her hair nice, wearing powder on her face and being sweet stuff was part of it.”
Lillian shifted uncomfortably. Her hands had been folded in her lap, and she, very casually, shifted her posture, so they were gripping the bench on either side of her legs, instead.
“Feel like I have to ask, so I don’t step on toes,” Gordon said. “You want help with this one?”
“I don’t think I have any other choice,” Craig said.
Gordon nodded. He glanced at me, and I nodded confirmation.
“Do you have descriptions?” Jamie asked.
“Tom does, but he’s at the Hedge. Daisy was one of the ones who kept a lookout. She’s seen ’em from a distance. You could ask her.”
Jamie nodded, rising from his seat, bringing notebook and pen with as he headed downstairs.
Gordon heaved out a sigh. I didn’t miss the fact that one hand was clenched in a weird way. Another attack, so soon?
Still, he spoke in a very careful, level voice. “I know you know something about what we do. That we do work for the Academy. I know you know well enough not to ask. Because we’re not telling you particulars.”
Craig nodded, jaw set in a firm line.
This had been a point of contention in the past. The not-telling part. In a world where the stars had aligned differently, the pair could have been the best of friends. In this world, the secrecy had been a wedge.
“Knowing what I know about the Academy, I’ve got to say this, and I know the response you’re going to give, but I’ve got to say it. I don’t know that there’s any guarantee the Academy did it.”
Craig’s posture shifted, forward-leaning, aggressive, “Academy-controlled town in wartime, Gordon? Academy coats? Academy transportation?”
“It’s likely,” Gordon said, “But it’s not a guarantee.”
“Sure, Gordon,” Craig said, in the most disagreeable way possible, without quite being sarcastic. His hands clenched the fabric of his shorts at his knees. “Decide what you want. You have to do what you have to do. But if anyone gets snatched up while you’re wasting time trying to prove the people you work for didn’t do it, you know I’m going to hold it against you, yeah? If they’re dead or disappeared? That’ll be on you.”
“I know,” Gordon said. He suddenly looked very tired.
“What do you need?”
“Clothes,” I said. “Clean-ish. We’re wearing orphanage clothes. We need orphan clothes, instead. So we don’t stand out if we happen to be looking around.”
“We don’t have many girl clothes,” Craig said. “Room under the stairs was where Sam changed when she came over. Might have something. Come on down, I’ll get some of my stuff so you can wear it. Might smell a bit.”
“We’ll live,” Gordon said.
Jamie was in the kitchen with Daisy, grilling her while he sketched. She wasn’t making him pay for the information, which was a little out of sync with the lessons I’d taught her. I’d used her on a previous job, way back in the day, because she’d been small enough to go unnoticed. She’d proven good at listening to the drone of gossip here and there, picking out the important details from the noise, and I’d had her hone those talents. Whatever she wound up doing, and the shims weren’t a part of Radham that brimmed with opportunity, knowing what was going on and what information other people might be willing to pay for was a skill she could carry with her.
I’d worked with others that weren’t here now. I’d worked with Thom, but not in a specific capacity.
“Under the stairs?” Lillian clarified. The area in question was adjacent to the kitchen.
“Yeah. That’s the girl’s room,” Craig said, waving his hand to indicate the general direction.
I glanced over, and noted that the ‘girl’s room’ wasn’t a room so much as a closet, and that might have been generous. A pole had been nailed into the doorway to the space, and a curtain hung from it. Lillian and Helen entered, while Mary joined me in watching Jamie’s sketching.
He was doing it in very loose, broad sketches. General shape. Man in a lab coat, drawn in about five loose sweeps of the pen, basic geometric shapes. When Daisy said the man had been taller and narrower, the hair different, sweeping back, Jamie started anew, elsewhere on the page. Once that was set, he moved on to details.
He still wasn’t an artist, but there was a process at work. One that relied on his ability to recreate that which he’d done before, making steady adjustments.
“I only saw him from far away,” Daisy said. “That’s more or less it? My head plays tricks on me. I imagine him as more devilish than I know he was.”
“Memory is a funny thing like that,” Jamie said. “Tell me about the woman?”
“Women,” Daisy said.
“Women,” Jamie said.
I would have thought that women would get the attention of the other boys in the house, but they were clustered in the kitchen, talking nonchalantly. It made me think that something was up. I watched them, trying to figure out what they were doing, until Gordon interrupted, hucking balled-up clothes at me. I took the first, heaviest ball right in the stomach, then caught the rest out of the air.
I took a step to the right, so some of the boys in the kitchen blocked Mary’s view of me, unclipped my suspenders, and switched shorts in roughly two seconds flat. I pulled off my shirt, stepping back into view.
“I like how you stepped out of view of me, but you didn’t for Daisy,” Mary observed. “I see how things are.”
“Do you?” I asked, smiling.
“What I see,” Gordon commented, “Is the skinniest little bastard. Half of the people in this house don’t even eat regularly, and they’ve got more meat on their bones than you do, Sly.”
I offered him an obscene gesture, pulling on the dark gray sleeveless shirt. In a proper outfit, it would have been an undershirt at best. For the here and now, it worked for casual wear in the poorer end of town. Shorts, shirt, no shoes.
“Jamie,” Gordon said. But he threw -not tossed but threw– the clothes at me instead. I caught them, took them over to Jamie, and draped them over his back, as he hunched over his book.
“I’ll change when the girls are through,” Jamie said.
“Shy?” Craig asked, tone just a little mean and mocking.
“Yeah,” Jamie said, softly. “Shy.”
Gordon might’ve said or done something, because Craig replied, “Fair.”
Helen and Lillian emerged. Both were wearing bag dresses. Bottom of the barrel clothing, perhaps in even a literal sense. When parents were counting every bit of money that came their way, some used the bags that oats or crops came in to put clothes together. Some of the farmers had caught on, and had taken to printing the dresses in simple patterns.
Helen was, I suspected, going to stand out no matter what she did. She wore a slightly washed-out dress in a purple floral pattern, and was licking her hands and fingers, running them through her hair. Lillian’s dress was much the same, but checked in white and green, and considerably more washed out, and she wore her socks to the knee, while Helen’s feet were bare in her shoes.
“I’ll be right back,” Mary said.
“My bag?” Lillian was asking.
“Leave it,” Gordon said.
“But if I need the stuff-”
“A full bag is the sort of thing that people are going to want to take. Leave it. Take only the essentials,” Gordon instructed.
The boys in the kitchen were acting different again. It dawned on me why. They were very casually leaning over, looking- I crossed the room, moving to their side, and saw that the curtain, due to the poorly-positioned and bent nails at one end of the rod, didn’t cover the entire gap.
I saw Mary in profile, undressing, felt a shock that was the opposite of unpleasant, momentarily paralyzing me. A knife’s blade dangling at her bare shoulder glinted, breaking the spell.
I felt annoyance and anger at the boys. Very casually, I crossed the room, leaned by the doorframe, and pulled the curtain shut.
Lillian was arguing about the bag with Gordon, and Helen was draped over the clothes that I’d draped over Jamie’s back, chin on his shoulders, watching him draw.
Sure that nobody would see and that heads wouldn’t roll, I met the eyes of the glaring boys and glared back, drawing my finger across my throat.
They found other places to be, scattering, some moving back upstairs.
“Thanks for closing the curtain,” Mary murmured, through the curtain, her mouth not far from my ear.
“You could’ve moved, or done it yourself.”
“Thanks anyway,” she said. I could hear rustling. “You looked. I saw.”
“Uh huh. Sorry.”
“Boys will be curious,” she said, voice light and casual. “It’s nice to know I’m worth being curious about.”
“Ha ha,” I said. “I was curious about the knives, that’s all. You hide them so well.”
“That’s all? Good. Then come in, help me.”
“Uh,” I said. My brain missed a stair, thudding heavily at the next one down.
“Uh,” she said, echoing me, mocking.
“Helen and Lillian usually help you with that,” I said. “If you need help at all.”
She poked her head out to my right, holding the curtain tight, looked around the room. “Helen and Lillian are busy.”
Her hand gripped my collar. She hauled me into the little space, then hauled me a half-foot to one side, so my back was to the gap in the curtain. “There.”
She was in her underclothes, a camisole and knickers. She’d removed the ribbon from her hair, and it hung loose around her shoulders. The space was small enough I didn’t know where to look.
She turned her back to me, hands over her nearly-bare shoulders. “Here. Hold it.”
She held out wire. There were twists of metal at the ends. I took the wire from her, which was hard, given how fine it was.
“Up,” she said, holding the dress up in front of her. “Down a little.”
I adjusted as she required. It was a necklace, of sorts, the pendant a throwing knife, pointing straight down toward her belly button.
“Can you connect the wires without moving it up or down?” she asked.
“You’re better than Helen, and she’s done this a dozen times,” Mary said.
I was silent, watching as she pulled out more. There were ribbons and wires, straps and belts. I realized the band of her knickers was solid, more a belt than anything. I held her dress against her body as she judged the best possible length for the wires that connected to the belt.
“If it had been just Helen in here, I don’t think you would’ve looked,” Mary said. “You have that mortal fear of her.”
“Healthy fear,” I said.
“He finally talks!” she said. Mary sounded merry. She was damn well enjoying herself, putting me in this situation.
“And if it was just Lillian, you would’ve teased her. Said something or done something, to get a rise out of her. Then you would’ve protected her, holding the curtain closed like you did for me.”
“She’s fun to tease.”
“She likes being teased,” Mary said. She turned around, stepping closer, “Look over my shoulder. I want the ribbon to run along the same line the collar does.”
I did. She had the ribbon held out, and I saw what she meant. A series of blades hung between her shoulderblades. I adjusted the slack. She held out another pair of ribbons, to draw out an ‘x’, pinning the blades in place.
“Lil likes being teased?”
“And you tease her,” Mary said. Her breath was hot against my shoulder. “But me? You don’t dread me. You don’t tease me.”
“You fall somewhere in the middle?” I said, making it a question.
She made a sound I couldn’t figure out. Something of a ‘phooey’ and a raspberry mixed together. She turned her back, picking through the knives and ribbons.
“If I had to put it into words, I respect you,” I said. “There isn’t another one of the Lambs I’d rather avoid going up against, one-on-one.”
She was silent. Then she slipped a ribbon through the armhole of the camisole, holding it diagonally against her back. She paused, and I took her signal to mean I should reach out and hold it in place. She turned her head, and I saw that she was smiling, eyes downcast.
She worked on tying the ribbon, then did another diagonally, the other way, with my help. She set the knives in place, then looped threads around the blades to keep them at the right angle.
Not a single sheath. Only blades, twenty-two by my count, close to skin.
She bent down, moving easily despite the close proximity to razor edges, skin brushing against the blades. She picked up one of Sam’s dresses. A washed out red, and pulled it on. I helped tug it into place, so the cheap fabric wouldn’t drag against any knifepoints. Without being asked, I did up the buttons at the back. Mary took the time to do up her hair in a loose, wild ponytail, wavy brown hair lasso’ed with a strip of lace torn from a dress that was already going to rags.
“Did it bother you? The knives, the blades against skin? Back when you started, I mean. Was it something you had to get used to?” I asked. Mostly to fill the quiet.
“I always liked it,” Mary said.
She had a knife in her hand, and she hadn’t had one a second ago. She reached out, and I didn’t flinch, as she ran it down the inside of my right arm.
“Sy,” she said, voice very quiet, eyes on the blade, as she moved it ever slower.
“What’s going on with Gordon?”
“Don’t know if it’s my place to say.”
She adjusted the position of the knife, pricked me, made me jump.
When I met her eyes, they were very close. Her face was an inch from mine. She was taller than me. Her breath touched the bridge of my nose and eyelashes. She was angry, annoyed.
“He’s going to pieces,” she said, without a trace of that anger in her voice.
“Yeah,” I said.
“How long?” she asked.
“It can vary. He might get lucky, they might figure something out-”
“Weeks? Months? Years?” She moved the knife away. She raised it to the ponytail at the back, working with two ‘s’ shaped bits of wire.
“Not years,” I said.
She nodded, lowering her hands, the knife left where she’d placed it, hidden in her ribbon-tamed mane of hair.
“If you’re looking for the courage to say something to him,” I said. “Or if you’re wondering what kind of window of opportunity you have, I can’t say for sure, but sooner is better.”
She put her hands on my shoulders, pushing me away. The space was confined enough that my head hit one of the stairs that slashed up through one upper corner of the little box of a room. “What?”
“If you want to say you like him.”
“And you were mocking Gordon for being a doof,” she said.
It was my turn to ask, “What?”
“I know you like him. He’s handsome, he’s fantastic, you go together like peas in a pod.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” she said. “I’m saying that at this particular moment in time, Sy? You’re a bigger doof than Gordon.”
“That is a baldfaced lie. I’m never a bigger doof than Gordon.”
“What do you think this was, here, Sy?” she said. “Seriously. I’m trying to figure out what’s going through your head.”
My voice was soft. I had a hard time meeting her eyes. I swallowed hard. “I think it was you inviting me in, lowering your defenses, and being beautiful and girly in a way that was very ‘Mary’. It’s- I don’t want to be weird, but every time I see a pretty girl, or have a nice moment with a girl, I’ll compare it to this. And a lot of the time, I’ll be comparing those things to this and they’ll be worse off for it.”
She started to speak, then stopped. She frowned at me.
“There’s a lot to be said for you being you, and getting to see a side of you nobody else has. Mary’s pretty neat, you know,” I said.
She sighed. “See? That wasn’t a doof answer. I was prepared to yell at you, and now I’m not sure what to say.”
“Well, you can start by not saying doof anymore. It’s annoying. You doof.”
She poked me.
“You didn’t answer the question,” she said.
She pricked me again, just the tip of a knife, making me jump and bang my head on the stair a second time.
“Ow,” I said. “Someone’s going to hear that and wonder.”
“Answer the question. Why did I bring you in here?” she grilled me, still holding the knife.
“Because you think you like me,” I said.
She moved the knife to my throat, threatening. “I like you, Sy.”
Only Mary would say as much with a knife to someone’s throat.
“You do. Some. And,” I said, “When we’re in danger, Gordon’s the one you turn to. Gordon’s the one you ask about, the one you leap to the defense of. He’s your first pick when we’re pairing off. He’s the one you show interest in. When Shipman was there, you stepped into the background more. When she left the picture, earlier today, well, you started wanting to show off to boys. Even if it meant giving some strange boys a thrill by allowing them a peek, knowing you probably wouldn’t see them again. Letting Sy in as you’re getting dressed, telling yourself you have confidence and that you’re pretty, which you are. I don’t think you’re aware, but Gordon’s more important to you than I am.”
“No,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, intense, then again, less intense, “Yes.”
She shifted her grip on the knife, frowning. I saw her move a little in frustration, not sure where to go or what to do. I thought she’d storm out.
Instead, she held the knife to my throat again. “This is supposed to be one of those times where you lie. You bend the rules and you play unfair and you keep your stupid mouth shut, and you and I fumble our way along and there’s more like more of this and it’s good.”
“If I could’ve, I would,” I told her. “Really.”
“You should’ve,” she said.
“But we don’t have the luxury of time. The Lambs won’t be around forever, and within a couple of years, maybe a couple of months, or weeks, or days, or hours, there’ll be one less Lamb. Then one less, then one less,” I said. I paused. I didn’t like saying the words. “Like I said… the sooner the better.”
Her expression shifted. Just a bit. A little bit of fragility.
I wondered, for a moment, if the expiry dates had ever really sunk home for her.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
Her head bowed, her forehead coming to rest against mine.
“Sorry,” I whispered, gain. I reached out to rub her upper arms, felt knives under fabric, and shifted to her shoulders instead.
She nodded, the movement of her head making mine move in turn.
She stayed like that for several more seconds, then straightened, stepping away, head turning as she rubbed at the corner of one eye. I watched as her expression changed. Neutral, safe. A poker face as good as any I’d seen on her.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said.
“You’re excused,” I said, smiling a bit.
“We need to catch these ‘ghosts’,” she said. “Because I damn well want to stab something right now.”
Then she swept the curtain aside and stepped out into the kitchen.
There was jeering. I heard the ‘thock’ of a knife striking a surface, and most of the jeering stopped.
I drew in a deep breath, then stepped out of the little room.
More jeering. I didn’t have a knife to fling at them.
Jamie approached, bundle of clothes in his arms. He paused to lean close as he reached me, to say, “You’re blushing.”
“Am not,” I said.
He stepped inside. I held the curtain closed as I had with Mary.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re not. I wanted to get a dig in.”
“Too frigging bad,” I told him.
“You okay?” he asked.
I cocked my head to one side. I mulled over the question for a bit.
“Not sure,” I said.
“We’ll distract you with a good mystery,’ Jamie said. “How’s that? Foxhunt.”