My finger traced a symbol that had been etched into the woodlike growth at one corner of a building. Two ‘v’ symbols.
Lillian and Mary were looking.
“A death happened here,” Gordon spoke.
I nodded. “Older cut. The weather’s worn away the splinters and hard edges. Not relevant.”
“There are a lot of foxes,” Mary observed.
“Probably Craig’s mice, trying to put the pieces together. Leave a mark wherever the ghosts were seen or suspected to be active, try to trace their paths or find clues,” I said. “Jamie?”
“It’s useful, honestly. I’m drawing up a mental picture.”
“Can you draw up an actual map?” Gordon asked.
“Not while walking. It’s in my head. I’ll remember. I’ll put it down for you guys as soon as I can.”
“Good,” Gordon said.
“If you need a second to stop and try to pull ideas together, let us know,” I said. “I know how your head works. I don’t want you so caught up in drawing that mental map with all its symbols that you can’t stop to look at it and get a sense of what it means.”
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “That makes sense. Whatever you need.”
“Okay,” Jamie said. He offered me a smile.
We were spread out, walking as a pack, some more off to one side than the others. Our core was Lillian and Jamie, however, with both me and Mary close by. Helen was off to one side, swishing her skirt with her hands periodically, walking backward now and again, in her own little world. Gordon was leading the way, looking alert and wary enough that it was liable to tip off anyone who saw, if they were even watching.
I wasn’t so sure they were.
“Ghosts,” Mary commented, in a way that suggested she was thinking aloud.
“Yeah, someone else named our enemies for us, this time around,” I said.
Mary continued, “Ones that will throw one child off a building to claim another. They’re elusive, they show up in a black carriage and never where the mice can approach or deal with them. They disappear, and their victims disappear with them.”
“We’ve been at the Academy for two weeks, waiting for your appointments,” Lillian said. “I haven’t seen any captured children around, have any of you?”
“No,” Jamie said. “In twos and threes, sure. Families? Sure. But nothing like they described.”
“If Jamie says no, that’s pretty definitive,” Gordon said. His voice was low, and he sounded almost distant. Preoccupied. He added only a belated, “Okay.”
“Could be going straight to the dungeons,” I remarked. “Unless, have you been down there, Helen?”
“Yes! My father is doing some projects for the war. I was observing.”
“Can you not call him that?” Lillian asked. “That’s icky.”
“Okay,” Helen said, smiling. “I didn’t see any children. But they’re still renovating, and I didn’t have permission to go to the lower floors.”
“Doing nothing to work against the ‘ghost’ idea,” Mary said. “They’ve up and disappeared.”
I took note of more marks here and there. Symbols on doorframes of homes and small shops – the sort of small, crummy little bakery that subsisted in the shims, and homes that barely qualified as homes. A roof over the head and something on the floor to sleep in. Many, going by the aroma, didn’t have proper washrooms. The people we saw here and there, far too sparse considering the time of day and the area, all dirty. Most didn’t seem to care or give a second thought about the rain.
It was the heat that did it. Putting up a hood was unpleasant, more fabric meant more heat. Raising an umbrella was too much effort.
Better to get soaked, and let the faint breezes be that much more effective.
None of us had raincoats, and only Jamie had an umbrella. Jamie and Lillian had bags, but both were carrying very little – Jamie’s oversized notebook, and Lillian’s bare essentials for care.
My eye fell on Jamie’s book.
“Did you get descriptions? For the women?”
“I did. Three women have been seen, as far as we can tell. Each in good shape, attractive, each wearing makeup.”
“Not always a priority for a doctor or a student,” Gordon said. He was thinking of Shipman, no doubt.
“No,” Jamie said. “Especially for a group that’s been trawling the shims. You’d think makeup would make them stand out more.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Do you have a thought?”
“Not really. Keep going. We can’t stampede all over you. I’ll think on it.”
He smiled, “I’m used to being trampled over. Um. There’s the man, older, usually seen with the carriage, and then the three women. One of the women is a blonde, another is a redhead, the third is from the East.”
“Eastern Crown States or over-the-pond East?” Gordon asked.
“Across the western pond,” Jamie said. “Chinese, Japanese, or something like that.”
“Huh,” Gordon said.
“You don’t see many of those,” I remarked. “They aren’t usually allowed, given we’re at war with them.”
“I thought about it, and I don’t remember seeing anyone fitting that description around Radham,” Jamie said.
“Is it possible they’re not actual Academy personnel, but an experiment?” Mary asked.
“Very,” Gordon said.
“It’s just the impression I get. One man, at arm’s length from the rest, sending his creations out to do the dirty work,” Mary said. “And sometimes men like making pretty women when they’re making their servants.”
“Do they?” Helen asked. “I had no idea.”
“Shush, you” Mary said, but she smiled. Helen smiled back.
“That methodology, you’re thinking about Hayle?” I asked. “How he uses us?”
“I wasn’t, actually,” Mary said.
“It’s a common pattern,” Gordon said. “It’s in keeping with how the Academy works. Leadership figure at the center, operating through several arms, each of those branching out into subordinates and then branching out further to the work and creations those subordinates work with.”
“We can’t rule out the Academies as the source of this problem,” Gordon said. “Much as we might want to.”
Are you saying that because you really believe it, or because of what Craig said, about you being beholden to other interests? I couldn’t help but wonder. Much as Gordon hadn’t done or said anything to suggest he was going to betray us or the Academy and run off to go find Fray, I wasn’t sure I trusted him entirely. More to do with what I didn’t fully grasp about his current psychology than about any actual decisions he was making.
I couldn’t see the moves he was making or thinking about making. I couldn’t anticipate him. That left me feeling very unsteady in the Gordon department. His break with Shipman was perhaps the best move he could’ve made, and went a long way toward restoring my confidence in him.
But even here, with Craig, I couldn’t be sure. Mary’s action, dragging me into the room under the stairs, it had surprised me, but when I looked at it in perspective, it felt natural and flowed with my understanding of her. Some of Gordon’s most mundane, everyday actions or word choices didn’t feel natural or flow with my understanding of him, odd as it was to think about.
“If what we know about the ghosts holds up, they won’t show up where we can get at them and outnumber them,” Gordon said. “We should do what the mice did. Find perches and observe.”
I nodded. “If that doesn’t work, we could lay a trap, or we could try baiting them.”
“Trap in what sense?”
“Literal trap. Deadfall, dig a hole in the ground for the carriage to fall into?”
“That sounds like a pain in the ass,” Gordon said.
“We’ll have Craig’s gang do the heavy lifting,” I said.
He rolled his eyes.
“Do you really think baiting them is a better idea?” I asked. “Against a complete unknown?”
“No,” he said. “No, I suppose not.”
“Groups of three?” I asked. “We know from hearing about what happened to Tom and Sam that they’ll go after pairs.”
He gave me a nod. “Groups of three.”
“You pick first,” I offered.
“Helen,” he said.
I frowned at him.
Assuming each group needs to keep one person who can handle themselves in a fight, that forces my hand.
Had he given me Mary on purpose?
“Nothing,” I said. “Jamie.”
“Mary,” I finally said. I eyed her, but her face didn’t give anything away.
Gordon gave me a curt nod by way of response. He turned and pointed at a nearby rooftop. The four posts at the corner were grown wood, not cut, and the branches reached up. A tattered cloth fluttered there, bound at all four corners. There would be shade, cover from the rain, and a little bit of concealment.
“Okay,” I said. “Jamie, Mary, any preference?”
“There,” Mary said. She pointed at a small church. The window was broken and hadn’t been repaired, suggesting it was abandoned. Stone walls. It would be cooler, better insulated.
“Sounds good,” Gordon said.
Then he was gone.
A little abrupt. Too businesslike.
He was someone I could no longer pin down.
We made our way to the church, noting the markings here and there.
On a door, a circle, with three pairs of the ‘closed eyes’ that marked death. Again, it was old. Simply a sign of life in the shims. More for remembrance than anything else, though there were areas marked with innumerable ‘closed eyes’ that were essentially back alley battlefields. I saw the three crossed lines that formed a six point star, warning of Academy lawmen, and a series of diamonds around a ‘t’ shape, which warned of a monster. An escaped experiment, very likely.
We reached the church and found it empty. Dust was thick in the air, the light catching it, and plant life had grown up through floorboards, climbing up the walls. It was strange to see a church which had Academy materials, but I saw the less-straight, organic patterns, framing some of the windows, reinforcing some of the cracked stone. From older days, before the Crown had started taking issue with the cross. It came down to power, as so many things did.
Once-white sheets stained with leaked, fatty tissues and bodily fluids were laid out on pews, of varying ages. The bodies they covered were emaciated, mummified by the changes in temperature and the elements that had made their way in through broken windows and cracked walls. In lieu of burial, people had been laid to rest here for the scavengers to gnaw on and the weeds and moss to embrace.
Jamie changed course slightly to fix a cloth, gently lifting up a skeletal head to tuck the corner of the sheet beneath, so it was covered.
“They weren’t buried?” Mary asked.
“This is easier,” I said. “People do what’s easiest, as a rule.”
“I think it’s more about wanting to put the dead to rest where graverobbers won’t find them and haul them off for a few coins,” Jamie said, briefly laying a hand to rest on the sheet.
“Or both,” I said.
“Or both,” he echoed me.
He wiped his hands on his shorts as he rejoined us.
We ascended stone stairs up to the second floor, and I took a little bit more care with the footing, before deciding the floor was secure. The floorboards were loose, broad, thick planks with old fashioned square nails at the ends, but the wood was sturdy. I perched in one window at the north face, my back to the frame, feet on the windowsill, so I had a view of both the interior and the world outside.
Mary took her time setting up a tripline at the top of the stairs. Once she was done, she sat in much the same position I was, at another window at the west face of the church. We had a view of each other, but she was so far away I’d have to raise my voice to talk to her.
I wondered if that was residual awkwardness from her talk. It said a lot that the moment she’d sat down, she had a knife out, turning it over and around in her hands, periodically tossing it into the air and catching it by the handle.
Jamie stood by my window, backpack off and dropping to the floor beside me.
“See them?” he asked.
Under the distant rooftop, Gordon’s group was already waiting and watching.
“Will the pen scratchings bother you?” Jamie asked.
“Nah,” I said. My eyes roved over the street. There was a group of stitched standing in an alley by a building. I wondered if they were expired or waiting for nighttime. On a hot day like today, the usual faint burned-hair, rotting-flesh smell of a stitched could become a pungent burned-hair, rotting-flesh smell, instead. It was humid enough that the air carried smells far better than it usually might.
I could remember how Mary smelled, in close proximity to me. Memory and sense of smell weren’t my strongest traits, yet it stuck with me.
A bit of a tangent of a thought, that.
Jamie settled down beneath me, his head resting against the windowsill, back to the wall. He had his book out, and was scratching away, drawing a map.
Something big lurked in darker corners between a wall and a building. A bear without fur, a reptile without scale, it was hard to tell from a distance. I watched it until it moved out into the street. I saw locals look at it without reacting with alarm, and took it to be a long-time resident of the shims.
“Are you and Mary okay?” Jamie asked, voice soft.
“Because the way you’re sitting and not talking, it makes me think you’re not quite okay,” Jamie said.
“We’ll adjust. I’m not worried,” I said. “She might want some time to think on her own. You know as well as anyone how hard it can be to think straight when you’re surrounded by the rest of the Lambs.”
“Uh huh,” he said. His pen scratched away.
“That wasn’t a convincing uh huh, Jamie.”
“That wasn’t a convincing statement, Sy,” he retorted, not looking up from the page.
I frowned down at the top of his head, but his nose was in his book, and he couldn’t see.
“Mary!” I called out, making Jamie jump, “Hey!”
She turned her head slowly, reluctantly, and gave me an annoyed look.
“We’re okay, right?”
She switched her knife to her other hand.
“Uh,” Jamie said.
She threw it. I didn’t flinch as it sank into the wood about a foot above my head.
“I don’t know what that means!”
“We’re fine, Sy!” she said, in a tone that suggested the opposite. “Now shush!”
Silence reigned, but for Jamie’s pen scratches and the periodic noise from outside.
I reached up and tried to pull the knife from the windowframe. When I couldn’t, Jamie sighed, exasperated, and rose from his seat to reach over and haul it free.
“It was the angle,” I said, “That’s why I couldn’t get it.”
“It was. And if I pulled too hard, I’d fall, and-”
“You’d never do something that nice for others without an ulterior motive,” Jamie said.
I stuck my tongue out at him. He did the same to me, before half-sitting, half-collapsing to the floor at the base of the window.
“You weren’t supposed to mention it, I think,” Jamie mused. “That there was anything with you and Mary.”
“Whatever exactly happened, it was between you two, maybe.”
“But you asked,” I said.
“And a gentleman never tells,” Jamie said.
“And there’s nothing to tell.”
Jamie looked up, face turned up so he looked at me upside-down. He raised an eyebrow, then relaxed it.
“And besides, who would ever call me a gentleman?” I asked.
I watched a few carriages move through the shims. They didn’t look like an Academy make, and there was nothing particularly special about them to draw my attention.
That would be suspicious unto itself, if we didn’t have the details we did.
A light flashed in my eye.
I looked and saw Mary, angling a blade to reflect light at my eye.
That would get annoying fast.
Before I could do anything, she raised the blade to her lips, shushing me, and then pointed with her free hand.
There was a rat, crawling across the rooftop. Unlike the usual rat, it was green. Fur tufted out and back, winding around the tail. Flowers and weeds were growing out of it, all apparently alive.
A perfect camouflage.
By the angle of Jamie’s head, he was already watching it as it found a hole in the floor and squeezed its way through, a small puff of plant matter flying out as it made its way free.
When I looked back at Mary, she was smiling. She shifted position, looking outside once more, expression still soft.
She looked lonely, I thought. That was a thing.
But I was pretty sure we were okay.
“It’s nice, stepping away from the city sometimes,” Jamie said.
“We’re in the city.”
“No, from the city-city. The machinery and meat of it.”
“I don’t know what this is, if not the meat.”
“The bones, the framework, the husk?” Jamie suggested. “The dead leaves, fallen from a living tree?”
“Dark way of looking at it,” I said.
“Do you think so?” Jamie asked. “I don’t.”
“I think you’re weird,” I said.
“And you’re not?”
“You’re being all poetic and garbage.”
“Talking about this place and making it out into something it isn’t.”
He leaned his head back, so it rested against the edge of my thigh and the windowsill. “I spend so much time in the past. Wallowing in memory.”
“I like to think about the future. Extrapolate. Figure out where we’re going. And the shims feel like a place we’re going.”
“That rat. A project long forgotten. How long before the world’s riddled with things like that? The wars are done, maybe we’re here, maybe we’re not, maybe not in the same way, and all over, there are experiments that have become matter of fact, their creators long forgotten.”
“Huh,” I said. “Are we among those experiments?”
He made a sound. A one-note huff of a suppressed laugh.
“Probably not, huh?” I asked.
I thought of Mary, and of Gordon, and of Mary and Gordon. I wasn’t really plotting what I was saying, but the words came out anyway, thoughts spilling out as words, more aimless than my usual. “Problem with looking too much at the future, is you can get caught up in enjoying or anticipating what’s down the road. Sometimes you have to live in the now, bring that future to pass.”
I wondered if Mary would. If she’d reach out to Gordon in time.
“That’s very, very good advice,” Jamie said. He seemed to take a while to digest it, then said, “I’d ask you if that’s what you talked to Mary about, but I think it should stay between you two.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Several minutes passed. I watched another carriage carefully. Black, this time, but not an Academy carriage. It could be mistaken for one, if I wasn’t being generous to Craig’s group, but was it really the ghost carriage?
“Sy,” Mary called out.
Was she thinking the same thing?
“Gordon’s trying to get our attention.”
Mary was on the roof, arms extended above her head. She was distant, but she apparently noticed when I turned my head to face her. She extended an arm out toward the east. Gordon did the same.
I looked, searching, and in roughly twenty seconds, I saw the real ghost carriage come down the path. An Academy vehicle, washed free of dust by the rain, with nothing to suggest it was in any state of disrepair, a matching set of horses, covered by drapes to protect them from rain. Stitched.
“There we are,” I observed.
Jamie stood to go look. He handed me his book, where he’d scratched out a map. He touched that map with one finger, moving it as the carriage traveled.
“I thought we’d have to spend a while waiting,” I said. “Maybe hunt a grass-rat for food? What the hell are they doing?”
“Don’t know,” Jamie said.
The carriage slowed, then stopped.
Two women got out, wearing labcoats with hoods. One had long, very straight hair, the Easterner, the other had red hair, curvier than the first. They started walking, a very leisurely, sure pace. Moving as if they knew where they were going.
The carriage resumed motion, turning at the next corner.
“The carriage always picks them up,” Jamie said. “Right?”
“Right,” I said.
“If it dropped them off, it’s moving, it’s going to meet up with them again. Whatever they’re doing, they don’t expect to take long.”
I looked over at Gordon. I pointed an arm straight out in his direction, then raised my arms above my head, an ‘x’ shape.
His group. Aggression. In the simplest terms possible, for our crude language system, he was going after the people.
His right arm went up, confirmation.
I left one arm above my head, then dropped it, letting it swing pendulum style.
My group. Ground, moving.
He raised his arm again, confirming.
We had our tasks.
Mary had joined Jamie and I.
I’d hoped to have her in Gordon’s group, to give her opportunity. Gordon had been oblivious. I was very aware of her, and thoughts of her as she’d been in that room danced through my head, making even the fact that she was standing near me that much more interesting and exciting.
“We’re after the coach, he’s after the two on foot,” I said. “We need to stay together.”
“I’m going to slow you guys down,” Jamie said.
“Well, you’re not staying behind,” I told him. “Not with that story Craig told about that one kid disappearing when they were searching for the first one.”
“Len,” Jamie supplied. “Bert.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Get your book,” Mary said. “Sy, help me.”
I frowned, “With?”
She stomped on the floor. A floorboard rattled.
By the time Jamie had his book in his backpack, which wasn’t long at all, Mary and I had torn up a lone floorboard. It stretched twelve or so feet, and was less than a foot thick. We slid it out the window, to the nearest building. Mary tested it, wobbling it.
Jamie looked a little wary at that.
“I’ll hold it,” Mary said. “Sy, you go.”
I stepped up to the windowsill.
“I’ll take the bag,” I said, reaching for Jamie’s book. “I weigh less, and I trust my balance more.”
He handed me the bag, but his expression was clouded with doubt. “Why do it like this?”
“If we go down, on foot and try to navigate around buildings, we’ll lose too much time,” Mary said.
Her reasoning continued as I ran down the length of the plank. I hooked the bag over a chimney and held the other end firm.
I could only barely hear what Mary was saying to Jamie. “-follow Sy and-”
He moved at a crouch, more a shuffle than a run, but it wasn’t as slow as I’d anticipated. Mary was as fast as I was.
As a pair, while Jamie held onto us to keep us from sliding down the shallow slope of the roof, we hauled the plank up, propping it up to the next building. We had to place it at an incline, leading up to a higher vantage point. One slip, we’d fall, bounce off the roof, and hit the road.
We flipped it dry side up before I went. I went up first, bare feet on wood, quick, and grabbed the edge of the roof. I hauled myself over the lip. Flat-topped roof.
I looked and noted the location of the carriage. Another look marked the location of the two women. Gordon, Lillian, and Helen were traveling over rooftops, too.
There were benefits to the dense urban geography and the narrow roads of the shims.
I gave Jamie a hand as he followed. The two of us reached down, each devoting one hand to holding the plank steady while the other hand reached for her hands. We clasped her fingers and lifted her up.
From then on, it was smoother sailing. Buildings with grown exteriors, branches extending out, some hewn short, others left like leafless trees. Handholds. We tracked the cart.
There was a trick at work here. An experiment, something less natural. Academy work.
We hadn’t done anything at this point that Craig’s mice couldn’t do.
Yet we made our way along rooftops, taking shortcuts, tracking the carriage. We kept the location of the women in mind, noting their presence every time intervening buildings blocked our view, giving Gordon’s group direction to point the way to the women when we could.
The carriage, apparently no longer intent on a rendezvous with the women, pulled away.
“Checkpoint,” Jamie huffed.
“That way would be one of the checkpoints. Search and investigation by Academy tools, armed guards.”
“They’re going back empty handed?” I asked.
“Must be,” Jamie said. “The carriage only stopped once.”
“Two carriages?” Mary asked.
I frowned. I didn’t see a second.
Gordon had stopped, he was signaling.
I turned and looked, tracking the last known location of the women.
One woman. The Eastern one. Between the time they’d stepped behind an obstacle and now, one of the two had become a ghost.
Mary was drawing a weapon.
I drew the blade she’d thrown at me.
Gordon’s group seemed to get the message. Gordon hopped down from the rooftop, out of view, Helen and Lillian following, in that order.
The problem with hunting predators, was that the tables could so easily turn.
We moved, running along wet, loose shingles, weapons in hand.