“No need for the groceries,” I said, turning away from the door. “We’re going to be a little busy staying safe and free for the next short stretch.”
“Thank you, though, for that information,” Jamie said, in a tone that sounded like it was meant more for me than for Chance, a little reminder of social niceties.
“Where are the papers? The map?”
“Backside of the big picture,” Jamie said. “The papers are on the bookshelf.”
Big picture. It was a pastoral landscape with sheep scattered across it. The thing had required a short ladder to put up on the wall, and without the ladder at hand, I had to stand on my toes to touch the very bottom of the frame, lifting it off its hooks.
“Careful,” Jamie said, as the painting tipped. It was large enough that I couldn’t touch the left and right sides of the frame with my arms spread. I still managed to catch the bottom and one side of the frame and keep it from smashing to pieces on the floor and furniture.
I laid it on the floor, painting down, the blank backside facing the ceiling, then turned toward the bookshelf. It was floor to ceiling, with vertical columns in addition to the horizontal, sectioning it off into cubes with open faces. The wood was dark and altered to be more interesting, lacquered to make the lights and darks stand out even further, with metal bracing around the edges and fixing it to the wall. It wasn’t particularly tall -I could reach the second highest shelf if I stood on my toes- four rows high, six columns.
“Back of the shelves,” Jamie said.
“I remember,” I said. I reached to the back of the shelf and found the notch to hook my finger inside. I pulled the loose panel forward and grabbed the papers behind it before pushing the panel back into place.
“Left side, closer to the bottom is the personal stuff. As you go further right, you’ll find the papers for longer-term goals.”
“I remember, I remember,” I said, absently. I stepped onto one of the shelves to reach the higher, leftmost shelf. “This is where you stashed my notes on the boxes with the stuff.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, very casually. A moment later, he uttered a quick, surprisingly spooked, “Sy! Stop!”
“Unless you changed it and you didn’t tell me, you rigged a trap there.”
Traps here. I remembered now.
“Trap?” Lainie asked, her voice small.
“I remember, Jamie. Wow,” I lied through my teeth, ignoring Lainie’s question. “Cut me some slack. It’s been a few weeks, but I know where stuff is.”
“Uh huh,” he said, apparently not buying any of it.
I climbed up on the next shelf, so I could reach over top of the bookcase, and I found the oil lamp that was set there. I unwound the thread that was attached to the mechanism at the side, then wound it around one of the little nubs that held the metal edging on the border of the bookcase.
“You have traps in this place?” Lainie asked.
“Yes. Don’t touch anything,” I said.
“He’s grumpy when he wakes up,” Jamie said. “Ignore him. And don’t touch anything.”
Now confident that the bookshelf with our notes wouldn’t go up in flames and take half of the apartment with it, I was free to move more panels and collect the papers.
Jamie finished ripping the paper backing off of the picture. He enlisted Chance’s help in moving the canvas over to the dining table. We’d chosen a smaller table, because the large tables had felt so empty after Mrs. Earles’ crowded breakfast tables, and the edges of the picture hung over either side of the table.
In clean, confident lines, the city was sketched out. Roads, buildings, and places of interest, as if from a bird’s eye view. Chance and Lainie, who we hadn’t yet told to leave, drew nearer, looking.
I began sorting through the papers.
“I had those nice and organized,” Jamie said.
“They’re still organized,” I said. I tapped the sheaf of papers to the side of my head, “But they’re organized in a way that falls in line with how my brain works.”
“It’s going to take me forever to get them sorted back in the right way,” he said, exaggerating his tone to match the words. “We’re here.”
He tapped the map, one building marked out with a bolder outline and a symbol scribbled within.
“They came from the direction of the military district,” Chance said.
Jamie tapped the edge of the Marina that bordered the Boatyards.
“Were they together? Spreading out?”
“Don’t know,” Chance said.
“We traveled from, let’s see, here… to here,” I said, identifying the main road we’d taken to go from the Theater district to Marv’s and then to Candida and Drake’s, my finger tracing the line.
“They’ll catch our scent,” Jamie said. “Somewhere near here. From there, they’ll refocus and start to close in on us. How long ago were they seen? Do you know?”
Chance shook his head. “About… ten minutes ago?”
Jamie nodded, but didn’t offer anything to follow that tidbit of information.
“No way of telling just what their approach might look like,” I said. “Might be worth having Chance and Lainie head them off.”
“What?” Chance asked, slightly alarmed. Lainie looked doubly so.
“Go home. Either they’ll be there or they’ll be there soon. They’ll have our scent and they’ll trace our path to your place. You can tell them some basics. That we’ve been by a few times, limited working relationship. Don’t volunteer anything, but don’t give them a reason to feel like they need to squeeze you for information either. Maybe don’t mention these papers,” I said. “That’ll cause more trouble than good.”
“What are the papers?” Chance asked.
“Resources,” I said. “Dastardly plans. Knowing the details would only hurt us and hurt you. Now go.”
They looked to Jamie for confirmation.
“Why are you looking at him?” I asked.
“Dog and Catcher will be the ones who caught the scent, and they should be front and center. They’re nicer than you’d think, so don’t be too intimidated,” Jamie said. “Get ahead of this, make sure Drake and Candida don’t dig themselves into a bad situation out of loyalty. If you run, they’ll still track you down, but it’ll turn out worse.”
“Fuck,” Chance said, with a great deal of emphasis.
I jumped in, “If you have any latent frustration over how we ruined your lives or anything, then you might want to vent about it to their faces. It’ll make them sympathetic to you.”
“Won’t it hurt you?” Chance asked.
I shook my head. “If it really is Dog and Catcher, then they’ll get it. They know us.”
“Is that really a recommendation in their favor?” Lainie asked.
“She’s got some wit!” I cheered.
“It’s a recommendation in their favor in this case,” Jamie said, gently. “And you really should go.”
“Come on,” Chance said.
The two of them left, shutting the front door after them.
“I hope we can come back here,” Jamie said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Jamie eyed the papers I held. “What are you thinking? Gauntlet?”
“Yeah. But can’t just run it standard, you know? We don’t know if they’re friend or foe.”
Jamie nodded, hands planted on the edge of the frame, looking down at the map. I checked some more papers and laid them down face-down, blocking off areas of the map until our neighborhood was isolated.
“Not much room to run around,” I remarked. “That’s another complication.”
“Can we get over one bridge?” Jamie asked. He adjusted the papers, exposing a neighboring district closer to the city center, then adjusted again, each time revealing a different territory.
“Probably,” I said. I thought for a second. “Yeah.”
“Good. Best options would be under the cliffs, north end of the Boatyards, big, long buildings, lots of room to work with, industrial, with chemicals, stitched, machinery…”
I nodded. “Or?”
Jamie adjusted the papers again. “Toward the city center. Lots of people, houses look the same. Dog’s nose isn’t easy to fool, but more people might buy us time? A second or two when it counts.”
“More likely that that kind of layout forces them to move as a group. If they’re operating as part of a team with the aim of hunting us down, then they’ll be restricted to moving as fast as their slowest member, up until they think they have us, and then they’ll sic Dog on us. No pointing to an easy landmark and agreeing on a rendezvous.”
Jamie nodded. “I’m trying to think back to all of our most annoying chases. We’ve been on the ‘chaser’ side of things often enough.”
“Yeah,” I said. “City center, then. Given the climate… yeah. More openings.”
“Okay. What do we need?”
I began turning over the papers I’d put down. “The box of grenades I liberated.”
“That’s under the house.”
“Right, and then there’s the stinkbombs I was experimenting with…”
Jamie winced at the memory. “I meant in terms of the map. City is meant to make invasions hard. Countless areas that a point can be held or an entire area blocked off with minimal effort. We can use that. It’s a question of how.”
“Grenades,” I said. “Stinkbombs. And now that I’m thinking about it… where’s the police office?”
Jamie tapped the map.
“The cranky asshole with the dogs?”
I drew out a route on the map.
“Okay,” Jamie said.
“You’ll have to remind me.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“And- hm. Do you have a big piece of paper?”
“I have lots of different pieces of paper.”
“Okay,” I said. “I hope you won’t have to use that… but grab it anyway. Let’s get ready.”
“Shoes for running?” Jamie asked.
“Yep,” I said.
I looked around the apartment. Jamie’s and mine. The first place that had ever really been my own.
“We should take precautions,” Jamie said. He settled one hand on my shoulder, which was more physical contact than he typically went with.
“Don’t wanna,” I said.
“If they find out what we’re up to, they might not send the Lambs after us. They’ll send executioners down from the Capitol.”
My eyes went to the right side of the bookshelf.
“Smoke?” I suggested. “It would lower visibility. If they decided to fumble through and rummage as is…”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “I mixed some up two weeks ago, should still work. It’s in the chest.”
I hope this place is still here when we get back.
“Your shoes are digging into my shoulders,” Jamie complained.
“You knew what you were getting into,” I said.
“Being on the bottom?” Jamie asked.
“Yes,” I said. I managed to get the thread where I needed it, wound loosely around a branch. I was very ginger as I let go of it. “Why do I feel like what you just said was a line or a joke?”
“You really need to read more books, Sy. Get some experience.”
“I’m as experienced as anyone,” I said. I climbed down off Jamie’s shoulders and picked up the backpack I’d placed at the base of the wall.
“Is that so?” Jamie asked. “Huh. I could make comments about that.”
“Do you know how many people never leave their damn towns? People twice or three times my age who’ve never seen beyond their own neighborhood?”
“Oh, that kind of experience.”
“Worldly experience,” I said. I reached overhead and tapped the chain of glasses that were dangling from the end of the thread. Not bottles or vials, but actual dining-room-table glasses, with contents layered in the bottom. I’d heated them over the stove, placed the contents within, then stacked them inside one another so they formed a column. As they had cooled, they had contracted. Joined together just enough to hold, but a good jarring would spill the contents. A matching set hung on the other side of the road, the thread stretching between them.
“I have no idea if this is going to work,” I said.
“With how much your shoes just chewed into my shoulders, it had better work,” Jamie complained. “That’s step four done. They should be right on our heels. Next is the bridge.”
I nodded. The bridge.
We headed toward the city center, moving in the direction of the bridge.
My suspicions were correct. The closer we got to the city center, the greater the agitation. People were uneasy, they wanted answers, and with no clear route to authority, they’d turned their attention to the hapless guards at the perimeter.
The city center went from being lower-middle class to upper class as one moved from the southwest to the northeast, peaking at the periphery of the theater district. The people on our side of the bridge were poorer and more quietly accepting of their lot in life, which was better than a lot of other cities’ poor got. On the other side of the bridge, the people were more apt to complain, and so often it had to do with petty, stupid nonsense, like where carriages were parked and horses kept.
The crowd was solely on one side of the bridge, our side empty. The guards there had formed a kind of wall, and were trying to address the crowd. It was more anxious than angry, parents with children and lone individuals standing in a half-circle around the guards, practically wringing their hands as they asked for and demanded information that the guards weren’t equipped to provide.
Jamie and I got as close to the bridge as we could without drawing the attention of the guards. Their eyes were focused the other way.
We made our way onto the bridge, which consisted of two sets of stairs and a bridging path just wide enough for two adults or three children to walk shoulder to shoulder.
Jamie and I were just at that point where we straddled the middle line between adult and child. We made our way up to the top of the staircase and sat, our backs to the guards and the crowd.
Beside me, Jamie let out a long, slow breath.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Four out of four? Three out of four?”
“We won’t know how step one went until we go back home. We can’t do that until Dog and Catcher give us the all-clear,” Jamie said.
“Okay, then… out of three. Two out of three? One out of three?”
“Two out of three,” Jamie said.
“Middle ground,” I said. I pulled off my backpack, reaching inside, and handed over three of the grenades I’d liberated from the military district. “Playing it safe, Jamie?”
“Does this look like we’re playing it safe?” he asked, wry. His eyes went out in the direction of the Boatyards. “I’m going to be bothered if this isn’t three out of three, given how many hours and weeks and months we spent taking precautions and getting the materials, making the traps…”
“But you’re pessimistic,” I said.
“Anything better feels too good to be true,” Jamie said.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” I said. “This may be our only glimpse of the group. I’m in a good mood. I’m guessing three out of three.”
“After this is… dogs? Then bakery? Then…”
“Then we cross our fingers,” I said. “If it goes much further than that, I’m not sure what we can do, except use the grenades and hope.”
“They’re Dog and Catcher, after all,” Jamie commiserated.
In the distance, there was a crack, like a gun going off. From our vantage point, we could just barely see the initial cloud extending skywards.
“One,” I said. The stinkbomb glasses with blinding powder had worked. Simple work, but we didn’t know who was in Dog and Catcher’s company, and putting pepper in their eyes, sulphur in their noses, and the sharp explosion in their ears would slow them down.
“Counting,” Jamie said, under his breath. Behind us, some of the soldiers were approaching, having walked up their set of stairs to the flatter part of the bridge.
“What was that?” one of the soldiers asked. He was younger than twenty, hair hidden by hat. He’d done a poor job of shaving this morning, in terms of the bumps on his skin and the patches of hair his razor had missed.
“Don’t know,” I said. I pointed at the hint of the cloud over the more distant rooftops. “Something exploded.”
“You need to leave,” the soldier said, sounding like he’d run out of patience long before our conversation had started. “Get out of here, you two.”
Young and trying to play the authoritarian.
“But there was an explosion,” I said. “I don’t want to go over there!”
“It was nothing of consequence,” the soldier said. This is a quarantine area. You need to stay ten feet away from the bridge. Look. The crowd is following the rule.”
“You don’t know it’s nothing of consequence!” I said, pitching my voice higher. I could play the younger role, but I didn’t want to always play the child. I played the adolescent I was, instead, turning more insistent and stubborn instead of plaintive. “We’ll be good, sir! I don’t know about my friend, but I’ll feel a lot safer being around people with guns, at least for a little while. Five minutes, ten, you won’t hear a peep from us.”
He grabbed me by the shoulder.
More aggressive and noncompliant than I’d anticipated.
Was adolescent Sylvester that hard of a sell? Was the ‘child’ the only act I could reliably fall back on?
Or did he just dislike me based on some factor I didn’t know about?
Two, Jamie signaled.
“Did you hear something?” I asked him, even as I was being manhandled.
“No,” he said. “It’s been quiet.”
His gesture was time.
They’d taken too long to get from where the stinkbombs were to us.
“Of course it’s been quiet,” the soldier said. “Nothing happened.”
Something happened. We set up the wire trap and the water trap, then we went back a ways to set up the stinkbomb and blinding powder. Doubling back through the wire and water traps makes our scent trail stronger.
Jamie counted on his fingers in the gesture code, touching thumb to fingertip.
He was at three when there was another gun-like crack. The explosion at the water trap was far closer than the stink bomb had been.
Jamie rose from his seat. We backed up, until our backs were against the front of the soldier who’d been telling me off. He still gripped my shoulder.
“Three out of three,” I murmured.
“What?” the soldier barked the question.
Jamie, meanwhile, just shook his head a little, giving me a sidelong glance.
I wanted to dance on the spot and cheer, but I couldn’t.
They emerged from a street further down the way. Dog and Catcher, yes, and their retinue.
A woman, blonde, with augmented hands, wearing a coat that was very long and heavy. With her hands being what they were, she struggled to keep one hand over her nose and mouth. She was completely soaked on one side, and wet on the other.
I could see a Bruno, with tattoos down his arms and a large arbalest slung over his shoulder. The mixture of blinding powder and water had formed a thin paste that covered him. He coughed, and he looked like he’d regretted wearing lighter clothing in this cold weather, now that he was wet.
If there were others, they were lagging behind.
Catcher spotted us and pointed his namesake mancatcher in our general direction.
Long time no see, I thought. I backed into the soldier, making him stumble, in the guise of wanting to put distance between myself and these strangers. Jamie backed into me, which simultaneously made it hard for the soldier to shove me forward and away and it put my body between the man and Jamie.
Jamie still held the grenades.
Sorry we’re being pains in the asses, I thought.
Catcher, Dog following behind him, approached the bridge, slowing down as he did. His head moved, searching the area, looking for the next trap.
“You-” Catcher started, saying the word in his characteristic voice.
Jamie released the grenades letting them fall down the end of the bridge closest to Catcher. Catcher shut up as he saw.
“Weapon!” I hollered out the word.
Jamie and I threw ourselves back and away. The grenades detonated at the edge of the bridge, obliterating it.
The entire structure swayed and wobbled, and our end creaked violently as it dipped dangerously toward the rushing water beneath us.
The soldier who had been giving me a hard time gave me a hand as we struggled to climb what was now an incline, hurrying to safer ground.
Jamie was slowest, the last to leave the bridge. He released the last grenade, letting it roll down the decline to the broken portion. It exploded as we reached the top of the stairs, and the damage left the middle section nigh-unusable. To get to it, our pursuers would have to leap from the broken stairs to the section that now sat in the water. The impact might well shatter the wood and break that part of the bridge.
Meanwhile, Jamie and I evacuated to the far side of the bridge, entering the next quarantine zone.
“Weapon!” I continued to cry. “Take cover!”
The crowd broke. People fled the scene, and the soldiers remained focused on Dog and Catcher, too busy to really rein us in.
“Baker’s?” I asked.
“No,” Jamie said. “Doghouse. If it looks like they’re still pursuing, which-”
Mounting Dog, Catcher held onto his partner with one hand, holding his mancatcher in the other. The pair of them bounded over the span of river. I could feel the thud and hear the crunch as they landed.
Soldiers shouted, and one of them shot.
A bullet wouldn’t stop Catcher. It definitely wouldn’t stop Dog.
This was fine.
The lesser, Academy-worked dogs were already barking when we reached the fence. Customized to be more beautiful dogs, or so it was said, they were really hideous things with warped features, a severe underbite, and muscle to spare. The owner kept six of the mutts in his yard, much to the annoyance of his neighbors. The things barked at every passerby.
Jamie glanced around, then drew his knife. It was a style very similar to what Mary carried, but we didn’t have the Academy to supply the things. Still running, he threw the knives. Once, twice, three times-
I winced at each throw. There were some things that money couldn’t easily buy and a quick hand couldn’t easily steal.
Jamie hit the mark twice out of four throws, which was a damn sight better than I would’ve managed. The knives hit the outstretched ropes that kept the dogs restrained.
We ran like we had fire spewing out of our asses. We were halfway down the street when the dogs made their way out of the fenced in yard. They barked, milling for a moment, while people backed clear away.
When Dog and Catcher came barreling toward us, the dogs decided on their target.
This was using our enemy’s weaknesses against them. Catcher and Dog loved dogs, but it was a one-sided affection. Dogs did not love them.
Dog, massive as a carriage, all machine and muscle, stumbled in his efforts to avoid trampling the two ugly spawn of bitches we’d loosed. Catcher nearly lost his seat. The dogs seized advantage of the opportunity to bite, to look for purchase.
My inspiration, Jamie’s attention to details and eye for opportunity. We’d spent months making little preparations to cover our retreat, if we needed to run.
The trouble was that nothing short of an army would really sway this pair from their duties.
“Baker?” I muttered.
“Baker,” Jamie agreed.
The commotion had drawn attention. The baker’s was relatively empty of the rather large number of customers that had gathered there, no doubt to stock up for the newly set quarantine. All of them now stood outside, watching the half-mechanical warbeast and its rider strive to untangle themselves from two tenacious hounds
“Those sandwiches,” I said, pointing past the glass to the food that had been laid out for display. “The ones with the shredded meat. All of them.”
“What’s going on out there?” the baker asked.
“I want to buy sandwiches,” I said.
“Hm?” he asked.
“Can I see the sandwiches?” I asked, getting annoyed, I tapped hard on the glass.
He frowned, but he took the plate out from behind the glass and put it on the counter, where it loomed at my eye level.
I drew out my wallet and slapped down money. “Is this enough?”
“Yes, it’s more than-”
“Then some beverages,” I said, pointing at the chilled bottles in ice behind his back.
He gave me a suspicious look, then got some bottles. I took three, handing them over to Jamie.
There were bystanders who were now finding this transaction just as interesting as Dog and Catcher were, outside.
I tried to judge how close they were by how scared the crowd was.
The baker finished putting the sandwiches into a bag. I took it.
“May we use the back door?” Jamie asked. I glanced at the money.
“What’s going on?” the Baker asked.
“We’ll take that as a yes,” I said.
We ducked through the back door, into a back street.
We had supplies, now, we had drinks, and Dog and Catcher were entangled.
Now… fingers crossed.
If they’re going to catch up with us, then they’re going to catch up-
Dog landed in front of us, massive enough to plant claws on the sidewalks on either sides of the narrow back street. His chest heaved, air steaming around his nostrils.
Catcher was right behind us.
“I don’t suppose this is a friendly visit?” I asked.
Dog huffed out garbage words I couldn’t understand.
“No,” Catcher translated. He sounded angry.
“Okay,” I said. “We had a suspicion it wasn’t.”
“Really,” Catcher said.
“If we were sure it wasn’t, those traps would have hurt, instead of just annoying,” I said.
“I see,” Catcher said. “We were contracted to take you in, Sylvester.”
“By the Academy?” Jamie asked.
Catcher nodded once.
“Okay,” I said. “You can do that. But since we took all of this trouble to separate you from your group, and since we happened to pick up lunch…”
I held up the bag.
“Want to catch up, first?” I asked him.
Catcher’s eyes slid over to meet Dog’s.
“I don’t trust you,” he told me.
“It’s fresh. Didn’t even have a chance to poison it,” I said, still smiling.
“The poison wouldn’t affect me much more than it affects you,” he said. “Alright, I need to dry off. But you’re going to be good, hear?”
“Good as gold,” I said.
“Good as gold,” Jamie echoed me, weakly.