“Catcher, buddy-” I started.
“Don’t talk,” he said.
I shut my mouth.
As the wind blew through the street, I could smell smoke from distant fires. It wasn’t from the direction of the wall Jamie and I had slipped through. They were burning other parts of the city.
My thoughts flew. In a way, it was a good thing that we were so cornered. It left very few options for me, with only so many people to deal with, only so many permutations as I thought about how this situation might unfold.
Approaches: straight offense, defense, escape, mediate, negotiate, or the gamble, the faith-based approach. Offense and defense were out. I was weak and unarmed. Escape wasn’t an option with Jamie being hobbled, unless I wanted to abandon him and rescue him later… and it was a bit of a dim chance as it stood. Mediation, playing the enemy parties against each other, not wholly out of the question, but Catcher wanted me to shut up. He knew how I approached things, and he’d be wary of it. Negotiation, playing myself against an enemy party, I wasn’t sure if that was any better, and I didn’t have any leverage to apply to achieve the better outcome.
That left taking things on faith. I didn’t have the means to really shake things up and force a metaphorical roll of the dice, in the hopes that they would land in a better configuration than they were in right now.
That left the who? The what? Dog, Catcher, one Bruno on each side, Arachne and Tentacles. Sanguine had been a distance away the last time he’d taken a shot. I knew that. The pair with the enhanced senses knew that.
The cards I had left to play? Jamie. A spare knife, tidbits of knowledge.
“Arachne,” Catcher said, his voice carrying.
As Arachne responded, her voice was hollow and sounded like it had been formed of parts that shared little with human anatomy. “Catcher, dear.”
I might have assigned a note of derision to her tone, but it was hard to assign anything to it. Even the way her mouth moved was more like a ventriloquist’s dummy’s than a human’s. She was a shell of hard ivory ‘skin’ and crimson, hornlike material.
Mentally, I connected a few dots with the thought. The way her arm was curled up, the way she moved, the ‘shell’. She was a spider.
“…I don’t know how to put this, but the stakes for this job are higher for us,” Catcher said. “I would like to pay you to stand down and walk away.”
“No,” Arachne said.
“Why not?” Catcher asked.
Tentacles was the one who answered. His voice was strained in much the same way Jamie’s had been. “Because we were hired, and our employer wants to see this through. If we finish talking here and the quarry gets handed off to you without a fight, we’ll find bullets in our heads not long after that.”
“That too,” Arachne said. Not a woman of many words.
“-And because Arachne has a one-track mind,” Tentacles added.
“We know about Arachne’s mind,” Catcher said. “We’ve crossed paths often enough when hunting the same quarry.”
I glanced back at Tentacles. His tentacles were limp, draped out on the road within ten feet of him. Periodically a tentacle moved or shifted. His human arms were set around his lower ribs, and he hunched over. If it weren’t for the tentacles propping him up, I suspected he might topple over. Even with that, he found the time to dig out a cigarette and light a match to light it, shielding it from the rain with his hand more than he shielded it from the wind.
The Bruno by Catcher’s side was keeping a fair distance from him.
We didn’t injure him. He’s sick. I thought of throwing the scraped off blood and muck at him.
I had a dead or alive order on me. The first priority was to ensure the ‘alive’ part. So long as we were alive, there was room for good things to happen and for things to improve.
No, scratch that. So long as we were alive and still outside of Academy clutches, there was room for better things.
“You’re sick,” I observed out loud, to Tentacles.
“Sylvester,” Catcher said. “Stay quiet and let me talk to them.”
I ignored him. So did Tentacles.
“Part of me is,” Tentacles said. “I’ll deal.”
“Will you, though?” I asked.
“I’m built for worse environments than this,” he said.
“You look like you’re hurting pretty bad,” I observed.
“Arthur molts,” Catcher said. “And he can change bodies. I’ve seen him with a different human exterior. I would guess he hopes to wrap things up, then molt to shed the infected tissue.”
“I feel like the Crown very specifically had ‘hope’ in mind when they designed this thing,” I said. “To be specific, they had the aim of extinguishing hope, unless it was hope they provided, maybe?”
“You blame the Crown for this?” ‘Arthur’ asked me.
“Based on nothing but the shape of the leaves and the way that both sides have been playing this game, yeah,” I said. “But in terms of concrete knowledge, Jamie and I took a knife to a plague victim, to see how it riddled his insides. I have some firm ideas on how to cure it.”
“You just let that idea slip. The knife. You cut it away,” Arthur said.
“The knife isn’t enough, I don’t think,” I said, bluffing in part. “The Crown made it resistant to fire, I think. It might even be why they’re burning the city now. Because they know the smoke spreads it, or they want to banish the idea in everyone’s head, that if nothing else, it can be burned away. People will evacuate and spread the knowledge that the Academy used fire and the stuff still spread.”
“You’re clinging very hard to that notion that the Crown did this,” Arthur told me.
I’m doing it to curry favor with you. You don’t seem Academy affiliated, and that means there’s resentment and natural suspicion.
“Figuring this thing out. It’s how I approach problems,” I said.
“I’ll remind you two that the wanted posters noted how intelligent these two are,” Catcher said. “Given a chance, Sylvester will talk you into believing you have a grandmother and that she would be very disappointed if you didn’t cater to his every whim. You, Arachne, and Arthur would be better off talking to me and Dog. We can find a middle ground.”
“You’re overselling me a little. I know it’s for effect, Catch, but it’s a little unfair,” I said.
“Gordon told me about Mrs. Earles and the icebox.”
I grinned at the recollection, then as I glanced at Jamie and saw how severe his expression was, the smile dropped off my face. I glanced back at Arachne and Arthur, and regretted the smile.
“Yeah,” Catcher said, seeing my expression go from a ten to a zero in a matter of two distinct seconds. “I’ve heard the stories, Sylvester.”
“I’m noticing that you’ve switched over from ‘Sy’ to ‘Sylvester’,” I commented.
“And I’m aware that you’re working very hard to keep this conversation going, with you as the middleman between my group and Arachne’s,” Catcher said. “Knowing you, that’s not a mistake.”
It isn’t. I’m spinning things out to create elbow room. Room to maneuver, to say the right things.
“I take it you didn’t rescue your pet Ghost?” I asked.
Dog growled. Catcher, however, put a hand out, in front of Dog’s face. Given Dog’s sheer size, it was rather ineffectual, but it did make Dog back down.
“Stop talking,” Catcher said, his gravelly voice firm, “Or I’ll be forced to act, and I think everyone involved would prefer the results of a clean, bloodless negotiation. Our ‘pet ghost’ is fine, she’s just staying somewhere where the infection hasn’t spread.”
I thought about that for roughly one second before turning my back to Catcher and his group. I faced Arthur, Arachne, and the Bruno. I only had one shot. I needed to decide the idea to plant. One that would have more weight because it would be the last thing I said before I got my ass kicked.
Speak to his anxiety.
“I can cure you,” I said, firmly.
It hit me like a slap across the back, throwing me off balance as if I’d been pulled toward Arthur, rather than pushed. Not a tentacle. A movement in the corner of my eye suggested it was Catcher’s bola. The cord encircled me, trapping my arms at my sides.
I saw Mr. Arthur Tentacles tense, his tentacles moving to respond, and I knew that it was a reaction to something else.
I turned, and before I’d even come to fully face him, I spotted him in the corner of my eye, and shifted my weight, practically spinning as I moved off to one side, evading an attack I wasn’t even sure was coming.
But he had the advantage here. He was a fighter in every sense of the word, with reflexes faster than mine, and he wasn’t so impatient that he’d simply lunge at me without seeing how I was going to respond. Instead, he poised, weapon ready but not yet thrust out. I knew that he was making the split second decision of whether to capture me or Jamie.
Take Jamie, I thought.
It was as if he’d heard my thoughts out loud, and as if he was really, deeply irritated with me, because he extended the polearm in my direction rather than Jamie’s. I extended a hand to try and stop it, but he deftly twisted it around so that my hand would glance off the head.
The claw contraption at the end closed around my neck. I was still off balance as he moved the pole, steering me into what felt like an endless series of stumbling footsteps, trying to avoid losing my footing and colliding face first with the road. Given the contraption around my neck, I had to assume that falling would likely break my neck. He was striding back the other direction, hauling me with. Dog moved around, protective, providing assistance.
By the time I had my balance and had regained my sense of the surroundings, Arthur the tentacle man had captured Jamie, and they too had retreated something of a safe distance.
My heartbeat picked up at the sight of Jamie with a tentacle around his neck, held with his back to the infected experiment’s front. The tentacles were tense, each one holding Jamie secure or at the ready to deal with Catcher or Dog should they attack.
“Not compromise I wanted,” Catcher called out, gruff. Fifty feet of empty road and pouring rain separated us from them.
“I’m sure,” Arthur responded. “The pay for this one is more than double that one’s. You made the wrong choice. Not to mention that this one should know the cure too.”
“I don’t, actually,” Jamie said.
“Well,” Arthur said, he smiled, showing teeth while keeping his dim cigarette in the corner of his mouth. It was an extra-grim look on a face that looked like it had faced down three different versions of Death and lived to tell the tale. “I should be able to manage.”
Arachne spoke, and it wasn’t to Dog, Catcher or me. I caught the thrust of it. “He’s the one who cracked my arm.”
I didn’t catch everything she said after that, but it might have gone along the lines of ‘take his arms, get his legs too. We need him alive, not in one piece.”
Jamie said something in response, which got a response from Arachne.
Catcher tried to move me, dragging me around by my neck, and I stumbled a bit.
“For once in your life, would you cooperate?” he asked.
“You’re dragging me off to the Academy, or, assuming you’ve been clever all this while, you’re dragging me off to Fray, which is almost as bad. I’m over here and Jamie’s over there. What reason do I have to cooperate?” I asked. I tested the bonds around my arms, but the bola had firmly encircled me.
“We’ve got special permission to pass through quarantine,” Catcher said. “I’m immune to most things, so is Dog. So are you. Minimum process time is a week.”
I set my teeth. “That doesn’t solve anything.”
His already coarse voice was even worse with the undertone of annoyance and anger. “I know which of the processing areas have phones. They can call in and verify that the plague shouldn’t infect any of us. We could get out of there before the week is up. Most likely, we won’t, but we’ll get out after a week without symptoms. Do you understand? He’s sick. Arthur is. I would be very surprised if he got through there in a week. It will take time, and it’s very likely Arachne will leave without her partner.”
Dog huffed out a few syllables.
“Her, the Bruno, and their employer. Maybe Arachne’s doctor, if he’s in the city. We can be waiting there for them when they walk out of one of the other processing centers,” Catcher said. “Catch them by surprise.”
“Jamie is sick too,” I said. “Or he was, but he’s sick again, touching and being near that bastard. Your option isn’t good enough.”
“It’s a working plan, Sylvester,” Catcher growled.
“It’s not good enough,” I said. “I will not leave him. How many exit points are there to watch? Can you win? Can you guarantee Jamie’s safety in the meantime? When Sanguine is going to be there, eager to get revenge on the Lambs for the deaths of his fellows?”
“I would comment on how very good you are at making enemies, Sylvester, but you’ve done a good job of demonstrating that over the course of the day.”
“Technically, Jamie was the one who picked and won the fight that made Arachne mad,” I said. “She said something about taking his arms and legs, because they just needed him alive, not intact.”
“Yes. I heard that,” Catcher said. He cast a look across the gap to Jamie and the members of Sanguine’s group. “Jamie said that he became worthless if they damaged the inserts for the Academy technology. Arachne promised to be careful as she cut him.”
I set my jaw.
“Do you want me to pick a fight and try to get Jamie from them, Sylvester? I won’t do that. Arthur is clearly on edge. It wouldn’t take much to make him do something stupid. Arachne… Dog’s more human than she is.”
Dog made a sound at that. Offended.
Catcher ignored his partner. “She’s single-minded in the hunt, and single-minded in keeping what she has. Violent in both courses. There used to be seven Arachnes, now there is only the one. A flawed project series, prone to destroying themselves and whoever they were hunting or guarding in an effort to kill their enemy. If I attack them, Jamie may well get hurt.”
“He’s being hurt right now, damn it!” I said. One of my hands gripped the pole that was attached to my collar. “Every second he spends there, he’s getting exposed!”
“Language,” the Bruno in Catcher’s group said.
“Fuck you!” I said.
“That’s better,” he said.
Catcher reached out and firmly seized the pole, a short distance from where I grabbed it. He exerted downward pressure as he leaned forward, as if to make my knees buckle. I resisted.
Looming over me, eyes staring at me from beneath his wide-brimmed hat, above his high-collared jacket, he asked, “What would you have me do?”
Approaches: offense, defense, escape, mediate, negotiate, or the faith-based tactic where I try to mix things up in hopes they look better when they’ve been sorted out again.
I thought about what I knew about Arachne and the tentacled man.
“Let me help Jamie,” I said. “He’s never done you wrong.”
“He hasn’t done us much right either,” Catcher said. “That’s not the same boy I spent years talking to and eating with. Not the boy Gordon told me about.”
“No,” I said. “You’re right. But when it looked like I was going to be all alone, he came with me. He saved me. He has the mem- the memoirs of the Jamie we knew. Not the memories, but the… records. Everything that Jamie wanted to pass on.”
“And how do you think you’re going to help him?” Catcher asked.
I moved my hand up the rod until I found the mechanism for detaching the claw head. I saw Catcher stiffen.
“Don’t stop me from pressing this button, and don’t try as hard as you could to keep me from running,” I said. “If Arachne works the way I expect, if she’s that competitive and driven, then she’ll chase. You’ll chase. There’s a window of opportunity. One where you could stop Arachne, if you’re confident, or go after Jamie, with only Tentacles and maybe the turncoat Bruno to deal with.”
“Tentacles and the Bruno,” Catcher said. Taking note of my names for the people. He looked at Dog, then at his Bruno companion. “You’re asking me to give up the bird in the hand for a shot at two in the bush.”
“Yes. I’m asking you to preserve Jamie’s memories. I’m asking you to not make me face being alone. I’m telling you you should deal with Arachne, because there’s a very good chance she’ll use that one track mind and come after me, come after you, only she’ll have sniper support. I’m asking you to do this because you have pride as a bounty hunter. You know you can get me again, you can get me again before she gets me, because she isn’t a bounty hunter in the same way you are.”
“You weren’t lying about the little bastard making you believe you have a disappointed grandmother,” Catcher’s Bruno commented. He was the one with the flame canister, I noted, and skin that looked like it had been charred over a fire.
Dog garbled some words, speaking in a mangled voice with an even more mangled mouth.
“I agree with both of you,” Catcher said. He reasserted his grip on the weapon. “No, Sylvester. I gave you leeway earlier. I regret doing that now.”
I froze, my thoughts going to the sequence of events that would follow me using the mechanism to detach the collar from the pole. I would have to run about fifteen feet to the nearest alleyway.
“If you’re thinking about using that mechanism to free yourself, don’t,” Catcher said. “I’ve shown the Lambs how the Mancatcher was put together. On the off chance this Jamie remembered how, I changed the mechanism around. Fiddling with that thing will insert a needle into your neck. Tranquilizers may not have the same effect on you, but they won’t make your day any better, either.”
I let my hands drop away from the mechanism.
“The best thing to do, from my perspective, is to let them retreat to the processing center. If there’s treatment to be given, Jamie will get priority. He’s a valuable asset to the Academy. We’ll head them off as they leave.”
“Arachne!” Catcher called out.
The other group turned their attention to ours.
“You treat that boy right!” he shouted.
The spider-doll woman’s mouth moved. I didn’t catch the one-syllable response over the patter of the rain.
“How many times have we crossed paths now!?” Catcher bellowed the words. It was a scary sort of shouting, given the quality of his voice, and people were peering at us through the windows.
I craned my head around, and I could make out the brothel. There were lights on within, and I could see figures in the window, looking on. Top floor. That would be Marv.
“If you hurt that boy before getting him to where he belongs, then the next time we catch a whiff that you’re in the same city as us, I’m going to hunt down the doctor that maintains you and I’m going to take him to pieces!”
There was only silence in response. Not an apparent word or movement from Arachne.
“Think that’s going to work?” I asked, under my breath.
“No idea,” Catcher admitted. “I don’t know how that head of hers works. Could be modified human, sectioned off human brain, like a stitched, for communication, or grown from scratch, like your Helen. I’m not even sure if she can comprehend self preservation on that abstract a level. Or at all.”
I continued to stew in dark emotion. I didn’t like the distance that was between Jamie and I. I didn’t like his outcome being so ambiguous, me so helpless to change it.
Dog, beside me, gave me a sidelong glance. I suspected he could sense my emotions, and how very on edge I was. Small grace I didn’t have any explosives left, or I might have used one to try and deal with Dog and Catcher, and buy myself a window to act. Chances were good I would have risked my own hide in the explosion. Chances were equally good that I wouldn’t have cared about the risk.
I turned my focus to the other group. They were very still. Why?
Why were we still here?
“You seem to have made up your minds,” I said, to Catcher. I didn’t disguise my bitterness. “Why haven’t we walked away? Let them have Jamie?”
“Because I don’t like to turn my back to someone I don’t trust, and I don’t trust her,” Catcher said.
Dog mumbled something.
“He says there’s a dominance game, too,” Catcher said. “Not backing down, not being the first to look away.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “But she’s a spider. Isn’t she?”
“A spider. Hmmm. Not entirely wrong,” Catcher said.
“Spiders don’t play dominance games. They lay out webs.”
“Not all spiders do,” Catcher said.
“Okay, point taken. But they lay in wait. Some pounce.”
“Not sure I get your meaning.”
I looked across the gap to Jamie. Then I gestured in plain sight. Blood. Question.
He stirred, as if from a daze, as if he hadn’t really been with us.
Me, back, was his response. Danger.
Jamie had still been tracking Sanguine’s possible radius of movement. He was saying Sanguine had moved to a point behind Jamie.
My eyes moved to the tallest building behind my friend.
“It’s Sanguine,” I said, under my breath.
“I saw the gestures,” Catcher growled.
I tried not to move my lips too much, even though it would have taken some miracle for him to lipread me through the rain. “He has a bead on us. Like they said. The moment it looks like this discussion is going to end and Arachne doesn’t have both Jamie and me in hand, he’s going to put a bullet through heads.”
Catcher tensed at that. His gloves squeaked against the pole of the mancatcher.
“The Bruno over there has the big gun. Can it put holes in Dog?”
“It could,” Catcher said.
“And you, Dog, and your Bruno are all short to medium range combatants, if that flame contraption is anything like what I’ve seen elsewhere. They’ve got the range advantage on us and a choice hostage,” I said.
Dog made a noise, a low, long, steady sound, the sound of a broken, dilapidated motor trying to purr, or a very large canine trying to growl with something stuck in its throat.
“You’ve lost, Catcher,” I said. “I may have lost too, because of it.”
Jamie seemed so very far away. I was aware of the red flowers everywhere. That Tentacles was infected, too, and that the knife would have to be taken to Jamie shortly.
I was so angry about all of it.
I closed my eyes. I focused on my mental images of the Lambs. I put Gordon in my position. I watched how things played out.
I put Mary through the paces.
I thought about Evette, in my shoes.
When I opened my eyes, I was glaring. I didn’t look away from Arthur, Arachne, Jamie, or the Bruno goon as I gestured. Danger. Walk. Time.
Jamie started to gesture, but Arthur grabbed his wrist, stopping him. Another possible point of infection. Jamie used his other hand to make the gesture, before Arthur grabbed that wrist too.
“In ten seconds, you’re going to release me, Catcher. Make it look like I freed myself. He’s going to choose me as a target. That gives you three time to find cover. If he doesn’t have me as a target, he’ll shoot you.”
Catcher turned his head to look at Dog.
In that instant, Jamie’s hand, wrist gripped by Tentacles, moved.
A flicker, not even a full gesture.
Because he wasn’t sure, or because he didn’t want to risk that Catcher would see and realize that Jamie had been lying?
I counted off the remainder of the ten seconds in my head. Four. Three. Two. One.
I reached for the mechanism that would send tranquilizer into my neck. In that instant, Catcher released the head from the pole. Grabbing the mechanism, holding it in one hand, I bolted.
The danger-walk-time gesture. Earlier, Jamie had counted off the steps, based on distance, that the bullet would have to travel. Sanguine would see the direction I chose to move, lead, and fire. One step. One moment of movement, then a lurching stop, feet skidding on a puddle.
There was a bullet, but it wasn’t Sanguine’s. The Bruno raised his gun and fired, and the shot was a miss. I found traction underfoot and ran for the alley. Belated, Dog and Catcher started after me.
I would duck between buildings, turn a hard right, and head to the brothel. There were allies there.
Arachne, much as predicted, gave chase. Not straight for me, but into the alley.
And, slow because he was hurt and his hostage was hurt, Tentacles began lurching away, dragging Jamie with him. In the opposite direction of the brothel. Taking my friend away. The Bruno with the gun remained with them, guarding Tentacles and their captured quarry.
For the time being, there was nothing I could do about it.