The light that filtered in from outside the warehouse was only barely enough to let me see the Fishmonger’s movement. A flash of his arm, raised, catching the light, moving-
I moved my head in response, just in time to absorb the worst of the hit.
The Fishmonger’s fingers were strong as he gripped my throat and chin, fingertips digging in.
“Who are you?” he asked. Then he amended his question. “What are you?”
“We’re mercenaries,” I said. “You cornered a bit too much of the local market, threw your weight around, and some of your enemies banded together to pay our price.”
“Bullshit,” the Fishmonger spoke into the darkness. “Business has been good. We’ve been cooperating more than ever before.”
Because of the books?
No, I don’t believe that. You have bodyguards for a reason.
Rather than come up with a clever response, I laughed instead. Better to keep his attention on me and off Gordon. It gave Gordon time to move, took focus away from Lillian.
I got punched for my trouble. I was a little slower to turn my head, but I went with the blow, absorbing it with the movement of my head.
“Would have to be Slim’s son,” he mused aloud.
“The son? He’s not a real crook,” Ratface could be heard to comment.
“If he’s doing this, he’s real enough,” the Fishmonger said. Then he seemed to come to a decision, “Deal with the boy.”
Less cause for laughter, now. The light from outside drew a faint orange line along one man’s head, shoulder, arm and leg as he approached me.
“Jerrod, Tony, get the one by the door. Bring him in. Or better yet, put a knife in him, then bring him in. York, get a damn light from outside. I want to see what the hell we’re doing.”
I was held by the wrists, arms held straight out behind me. I still had the wreckage of the syringes stuck in my shoulder. I considered trying to rub the broken glass and poison against the man who held me, then decided against it. He wore a coat and multiple layers.
“The other one’s gone,” came the report from by the door. I could see the men standing there. York, the one who’d been sent to get the light, stepped through the doorway, momentarily blocking the little light there was.
Jamie’s gone. I could imagine Gordon managing a trick, containing the paralysis or whatever the spines were supposed to do to him to one part of his body. But Jamie?
Someone had moved him.
The Fishmonger was silent.
Back to my situation. I couldn’t rub broken glass against the man who held me. I bent my head down, grabbed one of the only intact syringes in my teeth, and hauled it out. I had to twist myself to my limits to bring it around and stab the man in the side.
“The fuck?” he asked.
“What?” the Fishmonger asked. “We’re in the dark, when you say things like that, without explaining, it’s worrisome.”
“Little fuckspit stung me somehow.”
He didn’t let go to check the source of the injury. Damn shame, but being in the dark like this, with barely anything to go by, it also meant he couldn’t draw the appropriate conclusions.
“Augment?” the Fishmonger asked. “You-”
He wasn’t talking to me. Had to be Lillian.
“-What is he? What are you?”
“He’s poisonous,” Lillian said. “More poisonous with the syringes I jabbed him with.”
The other one was drawing nearer. My view of the doorway was blocked by the body of a large man. He might have been one of the ones with armored skin.
I reached around, twisting, and this time the man who held me fought me, making the act harder.
I managed to get my teeth on the syringe, ripping it out, I raised my face skyward, letting gravity hold the syringe in place as I adjusted my grip on it, and twisted again-
The one who’d approached to finish me off grabbed me by the throat, probably to make sure he had me in position to cut my throat or put a bullet in the side of my head.
I twisted my head up and tilted it, until I could stab at the underside of his wrist with the needle, and wasn’t able to hold on to it as he pulled back and away.
“Damn it!” the man barked. “Stung. What’s this? Syringe?”
I went limp, dropping, head down, weight of my body pulling against the hands that held my wrist.
Let me go, let go. Assume I’m dead, that he got my throat, let me go.
He didn’t let me go.
“Poison, like I said,” Lillian said. “Probably one of the hyperkalemics. The other poisons would be burning in your veins like fire. Since you aren’t screaming, I assume he didn’t stick you with one of those.”
“What the fuck is a hyper…”
“Hyperkalemic. Your cells are becoming porous as we speak. You’ll vent potassium into your bloodstream, and you’ll feel awful, like you’re getting sick. Then you’ll feel your muscles go weak. Your heart’s one of those muscles. It’ll stop, and it’ll stop soon.”
She seemed more coherent, now that she was reciting from a textbook. Clinical.
I didn’t actually depress the syringe, though.
“You have two to five minutes to live,” she said. “I might be able to save you, depending how much he gave you, and if there’s any light for me to see my bag. Every second counts, obviously.”
“Stay right where you are, you tell me what the cure is, I’ll find it myself,” the Fishmonger said. “Where the hell is York?”
The only sound in response was the noise of the rain pattering down outside.
“York!” the Fishmonger called, voice harsh and loud.
No response came.
Gordon had to be inside the building, to mess with the lights. If he hadn’t circled around to the front, then it had to be Hubris.
I continued to hang, limp. I felt the man’s grip on my wrists tighten.
“Giles!” he barked. “You get me that damn antidote!”
“Both of us,” the other said. “Girl! You’d better give it to us, or your little friend here dies.”
“Someone’s holding me,” Lillian said. Her voice sounded distant, disaffected. As if it wasn’t wholly her speaking. Too calm. “If they let me go, I can try. But if you hurt Simon there, then I won’t help you at all. If you’re feeling the symptoms, then it might be too late already.”
“Fuck, shut up, stop talking, get the antidote!”
“I’m feeling the effects,” the man who held me said, quiet enough that it was probably meant for his fellow poisoning victim.
Except I didn’t depress the syringe, I thought, again.
“Stop panicking,” the Fishmonger said, sounding annoyed more than anything. “Jerrod, Tony, go get some light and find York. Go together.”
They weren’t far from the door, standing by where Jamie had fallen. I saw their outlines as they headed through the doorway, and I saw Hubris fly at one of them, a bounding leap, without a snarl or bark to mark the occasion. Stumbling away, the one Hubris had attacked fell back against something by the door- a crate or something.
“The dog,” the Fishmonger said.
“It’s not really a dog,” Lillian said. “Not really.”
Hey, look at that. She actually managed a convincing-ish lie.
“Call them off!”
“They wouldn’t listen if I did. They almost never listen to me.”
“If you’re their handler-”
“I just keep them functioning. Or I try. You saw how Simon is. Baiting you, getting himself hurt. Well, that was partially my fault.”
I wished she hadn’t mentioned me. I’d made myself big and noticeable, laughing, doing the talking, drawing attention. Now that I was limp and silent, I was hoping they would assume I was dead. If they gave me more than a moment or two of thought…
“Giles,” the man who held me shouted.
“I know! Shut up,” the Fishmonger snarled. “I have her bag.”
“I couldn’t find it in the dark,” Lillian said. “I doubt you could find it in the light. It’s not conveniently labeled ‘antidote’.”
I hadn’t moved a muscle in almost a minute, and still dangled from the man’s grip. He didn’t think to ask before letting me go, dropping me to the floor of the warehouse. His focus was elsewhere. My chin banged the floor and the broken needles in my chest tapped against the floor, making me feel the jabs and the bits of broken glass that had clung to my shirt and jacket.
With barely a sound, I rolled over onto my back, and took a second to pull the bits of syringe out of my shoulder. I collected the needles and broken syringe-ends, holding them between my fingers, the broken glass against the heel of my palm.
That done, I brought my arms over my head, wincing at the pull against the damage in my shoulder, lifted my butt up off the ground, and rolled forward into a crouching position.
I was as blind as any of them, but they were big, I was small, and my footsteps were comparatively quiet in contrast to the big man’s. I closed the distance, and slammed the needles out in his direction, slamming them into his side and his back, before dancing back and away of the retaliatory strike.
“Motherfucking fuck fuck fuck! Little fuckspittle!”
“Stop doing that!” the Fishmonger barked. “Say why you’re swearing, you moron, or it doesn’t help!”
“The one you were punching is gone. He just stuck me with the needles!”
“Serves you right for letting go of him, you fucking dunce.”
“He was dead! Playing dead…”
I loved that they were talking and making noise. It let me locate them.
“If he got you with more than the one needle then you’re definitely dead,” Lillian said. “I’m sorry. You can blame your boss for that. I would have helped if I could.”
“Shut up!” the Fishmonger barked.
I heard a pained noise from Lillian.
I went by limited memory of the battlefield, where the table was, where the crates and shelves were, and I moved between them, heels of my shoes scuffing the floor lightly as I rolled my weight from heel to toe. I didn’t make much noise, and being where I was, zig-zagging through their ranks, the light sounds were excusable.
Light flared through the room, shadows flying forward, then reversing direction to head back. One of the men who’d gone outside had retrieved a light, and was returning inside, victorious, light held high. I was among the now-visible details of the room.
All eyes present moved to me, with the exception of the eyes belonging to the poor soul on the table. Me, with two thugs behind me, two thugs between me and the shelves to my right, table with patient to my left, and Fishmonger, thug, and Lillian in front of me.
A gunshot sounded from among the shelves at the back of the warehouse. The eyes that had looked my way looked between the source of the sound and the destination – a hole in the wall just beside the lantern-holding man’s head.
Gordon’s aim was better on the second shot. The man fell, and the lantern crashed to the floor.
It wasn’t like the dime-store novels. The container didn’t shatter and it didn’t ignite into a nice distracting fire.
I moved, dashing between the table and the Fishmonger to get to Lillian’s bag.
“Mutt!” I hollered. “Get rid of the lantern!”
I seized Lillian’s bag, and I grabbed the tools that Lillian had laid out, the same ones that I’d been handing to her.
In the same moment I turned around and made a beeline straight for the man who held Lillian, Hubris snatched up the lantern, carrying it away. The light slid away from the room, plunging things into darkness in a second’s time.
I went low. My elbow struck out, once, twice-
Point of reference enough to get a sense of what and where I was elbowing. He twisted, trying to put Lillian between us, but I was already reaching around the far side of his leg, scalpel in hand. I pulled the blade against the back of his leg.
Too shallow a cut. It didn’t stop him from driving his knee into my already bruised ribs. Already crouching, I tumbled the short distance to the ground.
I rolled forward, going for the ankle this time. I couldn’t remember what he’d been wearing on his feet. Boots? Would the scalpel go through?
No. Last minute change of plans.
I stabbed for his groin instead.
He kicked out, and managed to get me in the hip, right where it joined my bent leg. I was thrown onto my side, my attack never connecting.
He was strong.
This wasn’t working. The leg he’d kicked was slow to move as I asked it to move. His hand grabbed me while I was still trying to get myself moving again.
I could have stabbed him, but I didn’t. He was on guard against that. Instead, I reached out. My hand touched Lillian. I pressed the scalpel and scissors in my fist flat against her stomach. She took them with her free hand.
For the second time, I was thrown hard against the table. I heard a gun cock from his direction.
This time, recovering fast was essential. The others were still closing the distance, fumbling around in the dark.
No decorum, no strategy. I stumbled, nearly losing my footing as my leg lagged a fraction and my sense of balance went wonky, then I drew close. I still had a sharp instrument. Lillian had one too.
I closed the distance, and after feeling out to get a sense of where the man was, a touch of palm to his ribs, I stabbed in a fury, as many times as I could in short succession, going for a quantity of blows over carefully placed ones, trying to find a space between scales. I succeeded on the fourth strike, but in the doing, my makeshift weapon plunged too deep into his side, and my hand slid right off the blood-slick handle. I could only assume he was trying to deal with Lillian, wrestling her to keep her from stabbing him, while she was trying to ruin his aim. He bodily picked her up and shoved her at me.
We collected ourselves. A gunshot ripped out, the muzzle flash briefly illuminating the scene as the man who’d had Lillian I hoped it was a miss, but there was no telling, and Lillian had the sense to stay quiet, whatever it was.
Gordon’s returning shot wasn’t a miss. The muzzle flash gave away the shooter’s location, and Gordon had used it. I wondered if the armored scales would protect against a gunshot.
Lillian and I disappeared into the shelves and stacks, me holding her hand, leading the way as best as I was able.
It was the same principle I’d espoused earlier. People had needs. Take away something they needed, and their behavior could be controlled. The light was gone. Safety in question. Two men worried they might be dying, and one was so convinced of it that he was imagining symptoms where they didn’t exist.
The Lambs were safe, now. Or as safe as we could get. Jamie had been dragged away by Gordon or Hubris, Hubris was outside the building, ready to go after anyone that ran, and Gordon was somewhere among the shelves and stacks of crates that filled half the warehouse, lurking and waiting for an opportunity.
Glass clinked. A flame flared. Another lantern lit.
Lillian and I were at the far right of the rows of stacks and shelves. To our left, Gordon fired, aiming at the source of the flame. One shot, then another, then another. I heard swearing from the thug with the lantern, the Fishmonger shouted, and the Fishmonger’s people took cover. Gordon wasn’t successful in getting rid of the light source.
“Alright!” the Fishmonger called out. “If you’re mercenaries, then I’m paying. Whatever they offered you, I’ll pay half again as much. You name and kill the ones who hired you, and give me any of those antidotes for my people, assuming you even poisoned them at all.”
“I’m poisoned,” the one who’d held me said. His earlier commentary on the subject meant he had to double down, reaffirm.
None of the Lambs replied. There wasn’t a sound.
Lillian and I moved, and I was careful to set my feet down where the feet of the shelving units and the crates already depressed the floorboards. Lillian followed my gestures as I indicated the spots to place each foot, but her footsteps were heavier than mine. I’d have to let her know that at a later point in time.
I was giddy with relief that we’d all managed to slip away. We had them in the palm of our hand, now, without the parity of them having the same. The trick was to figure out how to leverage that.
My leg hurt where I’d been kicked in the hip, and my side throbbed with every heartbeat. I was mostly operating with just the one eye, the other one had to have a cut on the eyelid, if the eyeball itself wasn’t damaged.
But I wasn’t important, here.
I stopped, partially to let my leg rest. Lillian was the other reason.
In the dim, I could barely see her. What I could see was that she had a look in her eye.
I recognized the look. I’d seen it in Jamie, once. I’d seen it in Gordon, though he’d tried to hide it.
The old days. When we’d been more child than Lamb. After the worst individual close calls. I could remember those moments, and for Gordon, Jamie and I, they had been intimate brushes with Death. I’d had one with Sub Rosa, different from my first in how easy it had been to surrender to the idea of it.
Lillian’s brush hadn’t been with Death. She wasn’t a true Lamb in that way. It wasn’t a reality for her in that way.
I wasn’t sure what to call it, there wasn’t a good word for it. She had confronted the dark side of academy science when she’d stared down that parasite. In the aftermath of it, she’d been like a different Lillian.
She’d been harrowed, if I had to give a name to the process. It was a good word, it was close to the word hollow, and it made me think of a person’s very being getting raked over.
Was the old Lillian still there, past it all?
You. Okay. Question. I gestured.
She took her time before giving me a nod. From what I could see of the look in her eye, I wasn’t sure I believed her.
I reached out and up with my free hand, putting a hand on one side of her face. She flinched slightly at the touch, her hand momentarily clenching my other hand, as if I’d been very cold or had given her a static shock. Then she relaxed, her eyes closing.
We stayed like that for a good ten seconds, my hand on her face. She was as absorbed by the touch as some other people might be by a good hug in different circumstances.
She was someone who liked being teased, but what she really craved, deep down, was someone to cling to. Every night that she slept in my bed, she held herself tight against me, clutching me as if she’d fall into a chasm if she didn’t. Aside from lengthy sessions of kissing, that was all it ever was, to the point that I suspected she needed it more than I did. Someone to be close.
This wasn’t that, but it was contact and it helped center her and nourish her, as surely as a sandwich did a hungry man, or light to a blind man.
I heard footsteps and tracked their direction. My hand dropped off of her face, and her eyes opened.
I pointed in the direction of the man, and she gave me a nod.
A little less harrowed than she had been. The Fishmonger’s people had ignited more lanterns, and the place was brighter, Lillian’s features less cast in shadow, the tracks from earlier tears now visible.
I could remember that heady feeling from earlier. The look she gave me.
A dangerous game, that.
I was a terrible truth-teller. I always got things wrong, in timing, in hurting others.
Being anything remotely heroic would be worse.
No, the best way to go about this would be to play to my strengths, be a bastard.
I took the scalpel from her, then gestured in the direction opposite the man. Go.
She hesitated just long enough that I wondered if she’d balk. Then she went.
I climbed into a space at the lowest shelf of a set, between two crates. I pulled off my coat within the narrow confines, and put it between me and the pathway between shelves I’d just vacated. I took a second to arrange it.
The man or men I’d heard would be rounding the corner by now. It was one or two. Doable. It was very possible they’d see a glimmer of Lillian as she got away or found a hiding space.
I crouched there, poised, the hood of the coat over most of my face, my one good eye peering past, the angle sufficient to see shadows and movement of light and dark, but not necessarily the details of any people that approached. The back of the coat covered my shoulders, front, and knees.
I heard the footsteps, I heard the creak as the man walked on parts of the floor that weren’t weighed down by heavy objects.
He slowed as he got closer to me.
I’d been spotted.
A glance over my shoulder confirmed I had an escape route.
I waited, let him get closer.
A hand grabbed for my neck, aiming to pull me backward and down to the ground. but the coat was misleading. Fingertips grazed the front of my throat. I pushed forward, one hand grabbing the coat and pulling it away. I saw a gun and swiped the coat down, stepping on it, limiting the gun’s movements. My other hand went out and forward, scalpel swiping across his throat, before dropping down to help hold down his gun.
He struggled to pull back and away, with one hand trapped. Blood flowed out. By the time he pulled free, abandoning his gun beneath the coat, it was too late.
Shouts, running footsteps.
I climbed back through the other side of the shelves, taking my escape route, then climbed.
The lower shelves were mostly crates. Other things were on higher shelves. Lighter things, easier to lift up and down.
It was on the upper shelves that I found a box of tools. The shelves swayed with my weight, giving me away and forcing my hand, and I summarily pushed the tools out and over, letting them fall atop the people who had rushed to my victim’s side.
They swore, gunshots fired, largely blind, and I made a haphazard climb down, freefalling more than I actually climbed.
Heading over in Gordon’s direction, to the back left corner of the warehouse, I found myself moving through more open area, visible from the front door of the warehouse, from the table with the patient, and from scattered thugs, including the Fishmonger, the scaled one I’d stabbed and one of the ones I’d ‘poisoned’. The light didn’t reach far enough to reveal me.
The eel-black one, the other scaled one and the spiny one would be among the ones in the stacks of crates and the rows of shelves.
A cat and mouse game, baiting, trapping, it was doable.
But Gordon hadn’t been shooting. The last batch of shots had been inaccurate.
I had a bad feeling. A game of cat and mouse here, with me hobbled, and Gordon not in fighting shape…
We’d done well enough to force them to spread out to find us, to divert resources, and leave their boss less guarded, in a dark warehouse.
I took my bundle of raincoat and carefully unfurled it, taking the gun.
I found and aimed at the Fishmonger, the gun pointed at the lower half of his body.
Squeeze, don’t pull.
Especially don’t pull here, knowing that the shot might go higher, into his center mass.
The bullet caught him in his thigh. He fell backward, screaming bloody murder, and I dropped to my belly, as best as I was able.
With both of his booted feet pointed in my general direction, me lying on the ground, there was an awful lot of leg between the barrel of the gun and anything too vital. I fired again, twice in quick succession.
By the time I’d climbed to my feet, they’d found me. They came out of shelves and stacks, approached with lanterns in hand and guns raised.
“Antidotes if you want them, your boss is down, and we can provide the counsel to know how to maintain those alterations of yours,” I said.
This didn’t feel good. Not certain. I wasn’t sure how they’d act, and I hated forcing situations where that was the case.
“Your choice,” I said, “Whether you want to get him help or not.”
They continued to approach. I made eye contact with one of the ones I’d poisoned.
Damn. I raised my gun, and five or so guns pointed at me in turn.
He pressed the barrel of the gun against my forehead.
“No,” He said.
“You don’t want to get him help? That’s fine by me.”
“No, we’re not dealing with you.”
My heart sank.
Then I watched as the upper half of his face exploded into blood and skull fragments, a bullet shearing him practically from upper temple to upper temple.
His body dropped to the floor. Half of the thugs turned, aiming at their new target.
“He was as good as dead anyway, as far as I figure it,” Gordon said, limping out of the shelves, pale, face damp with sweat, two handguns pointed at the group of thugs.
Lillian did much the same, appearing from the shelves, a rifle in hand.
They outnumbered us, but we had them mostly surrounded, Lillian behind them, Gordon to the right of them, and me in front.
It was a standoff.
“It’s not worth it,” Gordon said. “You’re going to give us some information, answer some questions, you’ll give us the Fishmonger, and you can carry on doing what you do. We’ll disappear in a day or two, after picking off a few of your enemies.”
“This is about the damn books, isn’t it?” the eel-black man asked. He relented, his gun pointing skyward. Gordon eased up in turn.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. He looked like death, like he’d been the one to get beaten, stabbed, scratched and beaten some more. “Yeah, in a roundabout way, this is about the books.”