Three bounty hunters flanked me. All three had crocodile skin, two of them were women, twins, while the third was a man, proportioned like a Bruno. Each member of the trio had long, greasy hair that looked like it hadn’t been cut or washed in the last few years, and each had scant clothing, which was probably a blessing, given how they tended to operate. I was still dripping wet with mud up to my knees, while they had more or less dried off in the walk here.
The older brother who went by Scale. Given the crocodile theme, I might have expected them to have wider mouths, riddled with sharp teeth, but Scale’s mouth was smaller than mine, the lipless top and bottom of his mouth pressing together into a firm, grim line. His hair was tied back into a long ponytail, while the girls simply let their hair drape over their faces, in part. One of them had swords at her side, bent ones meant for hacking at vegetation, while the other had pouches clipped to her belt.
Scale held the chain of my cuffs in one fist, and the rough-scaled hand was large enough to simply encompass the chain, one side of his hand rasping against my left wrist as we walked, the other side scraping against my right wrist. He held me so my arms were stretched out directly behind me and up a bit, my shoulders threatening to get wrenched out of my sockets. My feet barely felt like they touched the ground, which was more illusion than fact, and mud squelched in my shoes with every step.
In this manner, my nose bleeding to the point that droplets formed at my chin and dropped down to stairs, doorstep, and then floor, I was led into the building that served as West Corinth’s Crown Courthouse and police station. Crown officers and service members turned their heads for the trio, but the ones that stared stared because of me. I saw some glances go from my face to the wanted poster on the wall. Jamie’s face was still beside mine, there. Still his artwork. Old Jamie’s artwork.
I struggled a bit, and Scales shook me, hard. I winced at the pain in my shoulders. He grabbed me by the neck, and still holding the chains with the other hand, he hauled me up and draped me across the first available desk. The officer there stared.
“Get your superior,” Scales ordered.
The officer looked down at me, up at Scales, then waved another man down.
“Or, alternatively-” I said.
Scales lifted me up off the desk, then slammed me down into it.
“No shenanigans. My tolerance is zero,” Scales said.
I pursed my lips, and let my head drop, forehead resting against the cooler surface of the desk.
“Bounty?” I heard a new man say.
“You’re Archibald, if I remember right?” Scales asked.
“I prefer Captain Anders. And you are?”
“Scale. My sisters, Magda, Agnes. We’ve already passed on word to higher authorities that we have him. I would like a prison cell. I know you have some in the building.”
“I see. I won’t object. We do have space in a cell. He would share it with two others.”
“No. You’ll shuffle the prisoners around until there’s an empty cell. I’m not taking my hands off him until they have their hands on him. I’ll be in the cell with him until Radham Academy sends its agents here with a box to put the little blighter in.”
“I don’t know where you hail from, Mr. Scale, but in this office, we expect manners.”
I felt and heard the heavy bag hit the same desk I was being held down against.
“That is how the Marais Cavelier say please and thank you,” one of the crocodile women said. “Not a bribe. A donation to your department. As thank you for the space, the time, and the hassle. There is always the hassle, with this one. We spent two days tracking and chasing him before he ran out of steam. I am guaranteeing there will be more of the hassle.”
“Given any other choice, I would say no, because of that same fear. But he’s an enemy of the Crown, and there aren’t any alternatives if you’re looking for a cell to put him in-”
“Myself and him,” Scale said, sharp with the correction. “This is not negotiable.”
“Yourself and him. If you’ll wait here, I’m going to make a phone call, and then I’ll see about those accommodations,” the police captain said.
“Thank you,” Scale said.
I spoke up, “He’s double checking what you said about you having contacted the Academy-”
Scale tightened his grip on my neck, lifted my head, and then slammed it down on the desktop. My head exploded with pain, and I felt a sharp pain at my lips, with a sharper pain at my nose that suggested it might have broken.
He left my face there, pressed against the desk. My gasp of surprise and following utterance of pain felt belated, but it might have been that the impact had distorted my sense of time for a moment.
The sharp exhalation as I made a pained sound sprayed out the blood from a cut lip and an exacerbated nosebleed, painting the desk.
“Do your level best to pretend you’re dead. Don’t move, don’t talk, don’t gesture or look around,” Scale said. “When you irritate me, I will do that again, or something like it, and everything about you irritates me at this point, the sound of your voice included.”
My eye moved over to look at the police captain, and the people around the room who were watching.
Scales didn’t seem to care about the stares his violence had earned him. He didn’t slacken his grip at all, either.
Two minutes passed before the captain returned.
“Phone call checks out. Radham Academy confirms they sent a contingent of officers and an experiment at your request. They were happy to get confirmation from me as well, about him being in custody. Assuming it’s him, and not another child mocked up to look like him. The people I talked to on the phone raised the possibility.”
“It’s him,” Scale said, with a tired voice.
“The group they’re sending-” I asked.
Scale lifted my head up.
“-the Lambs?” I asked, in the second I had before he slammed my face into the table. That was my cheekbone more than my nose or mouth. He was good at distributing the damage.
“Don’t answer him,” Scale said.
I sighed, and the exhalation sent a faint spatter of blood across the desk.
A hand swiped at the blood on the table, wiping it away with a damp handkerchief. That same handkerchief moved toward my face.
Scale let go of my neck to seize the woman’s wrist.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Scale asked.
“Stopping the bleeding,” the woman said.
“Let him bleed. Knowing him, he put something in his blood that will influence you or give him an opening.”
“All business, hm?” the captain asked.
“We tracked him for the first month of summer and chased him for the last two days. I was ready to be done with this one within an hour of beginning the chase.”
“I see. Why don’t you come with me, and we’ll see about that cell.”
“Lead the way.”
The moment he hauled me to my feet, I sagged, nearly dislocating my arms.
“Stand properly,” he said. “Or I’m putting a foot up between your legs with enough force you’ll be half a meter off the ground.”
With that threat, I straightened my legs, and walked more normally.
“Thought so,” Scale said.
Down a hallway, up some stairs, and then through a second-floor tunnel that joined the two buildings. I could see the bustling city through windows at eye level. West Corinth. The city formed something of a figure eight around two lakes. It was a city that was hard to fall in love with or find anything to like about.
The local law enforcement was chief among it. My hands had been painfully bound since we’d arrived, making money was proving difficult, and money was perhaps number three on the list of things we most desperately needed.
We moved down stairs and into the adjunct prison. Past two sets of barred doors, then into a corridor with jail cells at either side.
I turned my head, looking over at Agnes, the one with the knives, and then looked down at my shoulder.
I saw a wisp of something there.
“Eyes forward,” Agnes told me.
I turned my gaze forward.
“Out,” the captain said, to the older man in what was to be my cell.
Once the man was out, Scale and I were escorted out. The door slid shut, with Magda and Agnes on the other side.
“Why is he smoking?” Magda asked.
Everyone present turned to look straight at me.
“Fils de pute,” Agnes spat the word.
It wasn’t very much, but the ‘smoke’ rose off of my skin like it might from an extinguished match. Now that it was starting, the reaction crawled along my exposed skin and crept up my chest and down my back, with the gas making its way out from beneath my clothes.
“I was worried that you’d washed it off when you dragged me into the water, before,” I said.
Scale slammed my head into the wall, ear-first. The action made the smoke billow, and as he breathed it in, he coughed violently and intensely. He rose to his feet and backed away a step, still coughing.
“Go!” he ordered.
“What about you?” Agnes asked. “Come.”
“I stay with him.”
“That looks like poisonous fume,” Magda said, in her accent. “Don’t be stupid.”
“We are protected from poison,” Scale said, stubborn. He coughed again.
“We are resistant!” Magda said, punching the bars.
“So is he! And he sits there, grinning like an idiot!” Scale roared.
Was I grinning? I’d been enjoying the show so much.
“If I may-” the captain said. All three wheeled on him. He reached for and drew a gun. “The warrant says dead or alive.”
The grin dropped from my face.
Magda put a hand on the gun, pushing it down. “The law says he’s ours to deal with.”
“Unless he poses a threat.”
“Do you think he is going to stop smoking when he is dead?” Magda asked.
The captain didn’t back down. “Why would you want him alive when the price is the same either way?”
“Because he has a partner, and proof his partner is alive would be worth five times what he is,” Scale said. He turned on me, a slab of muscle and scale, and he grabbed me by the wrist, one arm around his lower face. The captain, Magda and Agnes backed away as I drew closer, still creating a steadily growing cloud of smoke. Magda coughed as she retreated.
Scale undid my cuffs, then hauled me up, off my feet. With my feet dangling, he cuffed me to the bracing bar at the top of the cell, near the ceiling. I had no footholds, and the cuffs bit into my wrist. My other arm dangled, but there wasn’t much for it to do except grab the same horizontal length of painted iron I was cuffed to, so I wouldn’t have my circulation cut off by the cuff.
“It doesn’t feel like enough,” he said, using his arm to shield his face from the smoke. He coughed more, a rough sound.
“It’s more than enough!” I said. I winced as he moved to hit me, but he instead turned to the door, gesturing.
The captain unlocked the door to let Scale out. It was getting to the point where it was hard to see in or around the cell. General objects could be seen in rough outline, but fine details were lost. I could only imagine what I looked like.
“Hold his legs,” Agnes said, drawing her blade.
Magda drew in a breath, then plunged into the smoke. I tried to keep my legs free, but she manhandled them into place, one arm at my waist, one hand at my feet.
Agnes reached through the bars, twisting her face away from the smoke, felt for my knees, and put the blade so it lay against the soft back of both of them.
In an expert motion, she swept the length of the blade across. I screamed, loud and raw, as blood poured out of my pants legs, spattering onto the cell floor. She coughed more.
“Stay put,” Scale said. “Don’t bleed to death now.”
I continued to scream as they retreated from my cell.
“Hey!” one of my many neighbors called out. “Let us out! You can’t do this to us!”
“Hassle, you said?” the captain asked.
Within moments, other cells were being opened, the prisoners led out. Agnes, Magda and Scale helped.
The gas continued to spill out around me as they slammed the barred door, then brought down the metal shutter. I could only assume there was a quarantine seal at the far end.
Only when the seal was shut did I stop screaming.
I hadn’t been searched at any point, but even if I had, the key I found in my right pocket wouldn’t have been discovered. Magda had placed it as she had grabbed my legs. I reached up and undid my cuffs, then dropped down to the ground.
Their acting had been top-notch.
It was freeing, to be surrounded by the ‘gas’. It wasn’t anything toxic, simply something visible with a tint of yellow to the color. I’d drenched myself prior to getting hauled into the building, and the smoke had started to appear as I’d dried out. But as harmless as it was, at the coughing from the hired bounty hunters, the captain would imagine the slightest of tickles in his throat to be something dangerous or noxious. Imagination would carry him the rest of the way.
Nobody really wanted to test the gas.
Obscured by the cloud of smoke, I undid my pants, dropped them to my ankles, and pulled away the bags of blood there. I squeezed out the remainder into the toilet, folded them up, and placed them inside my waistband. Then I got on my hands and knees and began fumbling around near the base of the bars.
Now, effectively blind, I needed to find-
Yes. There. Magda had managed to drop off one of the pouches that had been clipped to her belt, using the distraction of the prisoners were being evacuated. Or maybe she’d done it around the time she’d seized my legs.
I opened it, getting my lockpicks, a knife, and a small notebook. That accounted for about half a pound out of the four and a half pounds of matter inside.
The remainder was a carefully wrapped brick of powder.
This, too, I emptied into the cell’s toilet.
It was the same powder I’d liberally applied all over myself. Only the quantity was about fifty times greater. It would react with the water, and then it would produce visible vapor as it evaporated.
Given that it was summer, and the cells were already sweltering, it wouldnt’ take long.
More surface area would help. I used the bag that had held the powder, and dipped it into the toilet, picking up a portion, pouring it back in, then repeating the process to mix. Then I used the bag like a bucket, to slop more of the stuff out into the hallway, nearby cells, onto the walls-
The surroundings became utterly opaque.
Then I found and sat down on the corner of the bed and waited.
“This is the best mission yet,” Evette said, audible but not visible.
“I thought this would be more your style,” I said, leaning back so my aching head was resting against the wall.
That part hadn’t been a ruse. He’d really wanted to sell it. Damn, my face hurt.
I opened my eyes as the shutter clattered, rising. I heard the key turn in the lock.
I heard the clink-clink-clink as something metal tapped the bars.
“Here,” I said.
“Here,” I said, again. “Nobody else around except for Evette. We’re clear.”
The gas had only barely dissipated in the last while. In relative sensory deprivation, I couldn’t guess at how long it had been. The figure that appeared was only a rough silhouette with a distorted head and face.
“Evette?” Jamie asked, voice muffled by his gas mask.
“Why the mask?” I asked.
“Because they weren’t moving fast enough. I went with plan B-4.”
“Plan B-4?” I asked, completely in the dark.
“We discussed it. Moving them along faster by adding some nitriles to the mix? Not a lot, but enough to motivate.”
“Ah,” I said. “I don’t remember that part of the planning in the slightest.”
“It was nine days ago. You were busy sweet-talking Agnes in the breaks between the chemist and I discussing the contingency plan, so it’s very possible you weren’t even listening.”
“First of all,” I said, “I was probably listening, I’m a professional, damn it. Nine days is plenty to forget something non-critical.”
“Yes, Sy,” I heard. He was fiddling with keys.
“Second of all, sweet-talking? No. Come on. She just reminded me a teeny tiny bit of Mary, and that was fun.”
“Yes, Sy,” I heard. Automatic, rote, routine, as if he was barely listening, which wasn’t likely, or he was trying to nettle me by not giving me proper feedback.
The cell door unlocked. Jamie hauled it open, and I joined him, reaching out, finding his shoulder, and setting my hand on it.
He slapped something against my chest.
“Wear it. For my peace of mind.”
Gas mask. I sighed and pulled the thing on. It obscured my vision a little, and constrained my breathing more than the gas had been.
Jamie led the way.
“I’ll take you to block F first,” he said. “Then go to records.”
“Got it,” I said, taking a moment to figure out how to pitch my voice to be heard past the mask, “That was… the bloated man, the runner, and the businessman?”
“I don’t know whether to be happy you actually remembered that much, or deeply disappointed you don’t remember their names.”
“Cut me some slack,” I said.
We reached the end of the hallway, walked a short distance, and opened the way to a stairwell. Past my particular hallway, the smoke wasn’t nearly as bad, but it did fill most of the building, and had been just noxious enough to force an evacuation. They would be mustering forces and resources by now. There was even a solid chance that people with gas masks were already moving through other areas of the building.
“We going to be able to get everyone through?” I asked. “There were some question marks surrounding that, I think?”
“We should,” Jamie said.
“Good. Because it would suck to put weeks of work into this job and then have the bloated man be too fat to actually leave the building.”
“Samuel, Sy. His name is Samuel. He loves his mother, and he’s not getting out for a very long time.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know that bit.”
As we reached the top of the stairs, Jamie rapped on a metal door. “This is block F. The people you want to talk to will be at the third cell to your left, fifth cell to your left, and seventh cell to your right.”
“I’ll leave the door open, just in case. Want the cell keys?”
“Sure,” I said.
“And two gas masks,” he said. He handed them to me. “Though it won’t make a big difference, and it should have all dispersed by now. Might make them feel better, though?”
“Good enough,” I said. I hated my own gas mask.
“I’ll be back as fast as I can,” Jamie said, hauling the door open with a loud mechanical sound.
I could hear the shouting and hollering before I’d even entered the hallway. People were bellowing, complaining, and throwing things. The smoke was thick enough that they might have been able to see me if they’d actively been looking for me, but they weren’t. Eye irritation from the gas might have played a role. I wasn’t sure what the additives Jamie had put in actually did.
As the door banged closed behind me, I pulled off my gas mask.
What was it? Three-left, five-left, then seven-right?
At the third cell, I stopped, positioning myself in front of the bars.
I spoke in a calm, normal voice, to distinguish myself from the cacophony around me.
The man who practically threw himself at the bars wasn’t Samuel. Skinny guy.
“What do you want with Sammy?”
“I want to talk to him,” I said, calm.
Something seemed to have gotten through, because someone standing behind me called out. “Hey! Who’s there!? Hey! Shut up, all’ve y’all! There’s someone out there!”
The noise abated somewhat.
“I’m here,” I heard Samuel say. Soft-spoken. He sounded almost mournful.
“Do you want out?” I asked.
“Who doesn’t?” he replied.
“You have a long sentence waiting. Your mom isn’t well enough to visit, and she’s old, if I remember right.”
“You remember right,” he said. “You’re breaking me out? This gas is about me?”
“In small part,” I said. “You caught our eye.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Sammy isn’t going anywhere just yet,” Skinny cut in, with a nasty tone to his voice. “Sammy has other obligations.”
“That so, Sammy? Should I just move on to the next person on my list?” I asked.
“I just keep getting in deeper,” Samuel said, mournful. “I’m not a killer.”
“The murder rap says different,” I said.
“I bought memorabilia, it was restricted material, I was supposed to spend a year in. But I couldn’t hack it. They offered protection.”
“And we’re still offering protection,” Skinny cut in. He turned to me, “You let him out, you gotta let me out. And I can give you two more names.”
“I see,” I said, more or less ignoring Skinny. “I know the general story, Samuel. You got out, you still had a debt to pay. They put you to work smuggling. You got caught for that, you got taken in, and found yourself on the wrong end of a guy with a shiv. You walked away alive, he didn’t. He had friends, and you need more protection, which means more debts to pay out when you get out of here, if they don’t decide to ease the tax burden and either hang you or sell you to the Academy as a guinea pig.”
“Seems about right.”
“They won’t be hanging him,” Skinny said. “We’ve got lawyers, and our lawyers have his back.”
He sounded so excited, as if he thought he was getting out.
“Sammy,” I said. “I want that brain of yours that spent eight years smuggling things past the Academy. Tell me, do you want out?”
“I get the feeling I’d be trading one master for another,” he said.
“You would,” I said.
“Getting in deeper.”
“‘Ey!” Skinny said.
“Probably,” I said. “But you could see your mother and make sure she’s looked after.”
“We’ve already pledged to make sure she’s alright!” Skinny said. “So fuck you!”
He was on edge, now. I suspected he could sense the direction this was going.
“You have two options, Samuel,” I said. “Either you can trust me and my ability to let you simply walk out of here, or you can trust him, and his promises. Maybe I’m biased, but they sound pretty hollow to me.”
“Fuck you, you little faggo!” Skinny screeched. His hand flew out past the bars, toward my face. I stepped back out of the way, avoiding the shiv he held.
“If you want out, knock out Skinny here, Samuel. It’s the last time I’ll ask you to do violence, I promise,” I said.
Skinny pulled back, wheeling around, pointing the shiv at Samuel, his back to the bars.
I stepped in close and drew my own knife, sliding it into one kidney, my other hand reaching through for his shirt and grabbing it to keep him in place as I stabbed the next.
Paralyzed by pain, he fell to the floor of his cell.
“Nevermind that,” I said. “Needed to distract him. I’ll never ask you to do violence, Samuel. I’ll never put you out in the field. I need advice on some points, for some jobs. I’ll compensate you fairly. We’ll get your mom set up.”
There was no sound or movement within the cell.
But then the shadow appeared. Six feet tall and wide enough his hips could scrape against both sides of an open door as he passed through, his facial features and everything else sagged on him, as if, on top of all of his weight, gravity weighed twice as heavily on him. It pulled his brow down at the outer edges, in a permanent frown or sympathetic look.
“Let me out,” he said, quiet. The nearby cells had fallen silent, listening in.
As I put the key in the lock and hauled the door open, there was an uproar from others nearby, who realized what was going on. Threats, promises, boasting, and self-aggrandizement filled the cell block.
Samuel seemed to shrink into himself in the face of the criticism that wasn’t even aimed directly at him. Most of it, anyway. I handed him one of the gas masks.
I’d released prisoners before, as a distraction. Here, however, it would be too problematic. I was trying to build something. We had to be selective.
Two cells down. Was that left or right?
“The runner,” I said.
“I suppose that means me,” I heard. “Yes.”
“I’m fast. It’s what I’m about.”
“Lookout and scout for hire, if I remember right?”
“And someone thought I was too expensive and got bitter, turned me in. Yes. What do I need to say to get you to let me out of here? I agree. I accept the deal, whatever the terms.”
“Are you alone in your cell?” I asked. I couldn’t quite tell with the smoke, and it looked like there were two people in there.
I put my key to the lock and hauled the door open.
I watched as what had appeared to be two people turned out to be one augmented person. Arms and legs had been extended and modified, so that he walked on tiptoes. His feet were as long as my forearm, the heel and ankle were where my elbow would’ve been in that same analogy. Lanky didn’t even begin to describe it.
His face was what threw me, though. Not a mask, but surgically altered. He’d given himself the head of a rabbit, complete with floppy ears. The hair was a touch sparse, though. It wasn’t like a drawing of a talking animal in a children’s book, though. The appearance of an overgrown, balding rabbit head with bulging, weeping, bloodshot eyes and open mouth failing make vaguely human expressions was disconcerting, to say the least.
Jamie had only given me two gas masks, when we were hoping for three recruits. Rabbit here couldn’t wear one, so he would have to suffer.
“I like you already,” I said. I turned around, looking. “One more. Seven… right side, if I remember right.”
In the time that it took me to walk past the sixth cells and make my way to the seventh, they’d managed to count. I heard a, “Wait, we’re seven! And we’re on the right! Hi! Hi kid!”
“Hi,” I said.
“I’m Anthony, and I know mechanics, handyman stuff, I can drive cars-”
“Wife beater!” someone else shouted.
“Fuck off!” Anthony shouted.
“The businessman,” I said. “I’m looking for him.”
“That’s me,” I heard. The businessman approached the bars. He put a hand on Anthony’s shoulders and Anthony reluctantly backed off, giving him space. The businessman was Japanese, his hair a mess. “Hello, Sylvester.”
“No, but I’ve heard of you. You know who I worked for before.”
“The Spears,” I said. “Cynthia.”
“I assume you’re looking for someone to help with accounting?” he asked.
Something about his tone and attitude…
“Could be,” I said. More cautious than before.
“It’s a little more complicated than me abandoning former ties like Sammy there is doing,” he said. “There are concessions to be made, negotiation-”
“No,” I said, cutting him off. “Thanks for letting me know.”
With that said, I turned my back on him.
“Hey!” he said, to my back, “I’m open to talks!”
I ignored his ever-more-plaintive cries as I left him behind.
All of my individual instincts were telling me he was a bad choice. Good on paper, reading about and researching his exploits, but not someone I wanted.
Two recruits was good enough for now. A bit piecemeal, but we would manage.
We made our way to the end of the hallway, and I shut and locked the door.
“Shutter,” I said. “Reach up.”
The Rabbit didn’t even need to exert effort to reach up and grab the shutter that I would have had to climb the door to get ahold of. It was practically at eye level for him.
“What next?” Samuel asked.
“We wait,” I said. “And I tell you this. I don’t have many rules. Most are the ones you’d expect, given what we’ll end up doing. Treat me and mine with respect. That goes double for my devastatingly attractive secretary.”
“Secretary?” Rabbit asked.
“But listen, because this is serious. The boy you’re about to see? If you so much as give a hint as to his existence, I will have to kill you. He is a ghost, and he will remain a ghost until I say otherwise. This is the big rule.”
I saw Rabbit’s head move up and down in a nod. Samuel was still and silent.
He didn’t like the threats of violence. That was fair. So long as the message sunk in.
Jamie appeared out of the fog. He was doing well, shifting his weight to minimize the noise of his footsteps. He so reminded me of the old Jamie, given his posture, holding a foot-thick ream of folders and papers to his chest.
“Got it?” I asked.
“Transfer papers, prisoner files, and open cases. We should be able to get a good lay of the land, here and in other cities and prisons. We’ll be able to handpick who and what we want, instead of going by what the papers say.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“Nice to meet you two,” Jamie said. “The accountant didn’t work out?”
“No,” I said, simply.
“Okay. This way. To the basement.”
“Basement?” Rabbit asked.
“We had people dig a hole in,” I said. “From a nearby cellar. They only breached the floor today, and most of the mist is coming from there. It would take a miracle for them to find the hole without the gas. With it? Like I said, we’re just walking right out. Maybe a bit of crawling.”
“Ah,” Rabbit said. “I’m claustrophobic.”
“And they’ve got the place surrounded, with warbeasts and everything under the sun ready to move at a moment’s notice. If you want to go overground, feel free,” I said.
I saw his ear and one eye twitch as he contemplated the options. Stay? Make a run for it? Get buried alive?
“You don’t want to go overground,” I said. “Come on. This way. Endure.”