Our carriage slowed as it pulled into the makeshift stable. I began to put away the first aid kit and mirror.
Pierre was already hunching forward, his shoulders threatening to graze the roof, his neck more horizontal than vertical. His elbows had no place to go, so his arms dangled between bent knees, hands touching the floor. I was learning to read his body language, and even if common sense hadn’t told me, I’d know he was uncomfortable by the way his ears twitched.
Already in an uncomfortable position, he leaned down even further to peer through the window at our destination.
“Under construction?” he asked. There was a human mouth behind his mask of rabbit flesh, either black by ethnicity or tattooed that way. I hadn’t looked closely enough to say one way or another, but it made his mouth hard to see behind the mask.
“Work in progress, all of it,” Jamie said. His eyes were on the files. He barely seemed to glance over each one before moving on to the next. Occasionally he’d held up one of interest while I swabbed at my nose or ear. Now he was gathering the files together again. “We’ll be a minute before we stop. There’s a garage and stable under construction, but we have to make our way past the piles of material and the work crews to the back.”
“Work in progress. Are we core components in this work?” Pierre asked.
“You are not,” I said. “You’re pieces of a puzzle we’re still putting together. They’ll wonder if you’re core components in the plan, and if that misleads them, then that’s a good thing.”
That got a nod from Samuel. He almost seemed relieved to not be a core component.
“There were other people of general interest in other cell blocks, but they were isolated, one person of interest to each cell block, and it wasn’t worth the trouble or the time to go, especially when we weren’t sure. Block F had three of you. We did our research on you, asked around, and got some particulars before visiting.”
“The only person who would have particulars on me would be the people I was working with,” Samuel said. “Them or my mother.”
“Yep. We had tea with your mother,” I said. “We went over a second time and brought cake, asked a few more questions. After that visit we arranged a grocery delivery service and a house cleaner. At our expense, not hers, don’t worry.”
Samuel seemed more concerned at hearing that, not less.
“Was there a need?” he asked. “Were you so sure you’d bring us onboard?”
“We had no idea,” Jamie said. “But Sylvester had a good gut feeling, and apparently his instinct when we’re starting out and carefully apportioning out every dollar we earn is to spend money on unfamiliar old women. There was a bit of a need. Your… prior employers sent her money, but going out was hard for her, she fell behind on things.”
“You make it sound like me spending money on something like that is a problem. It’s an investment,” I said. “The grocery service and the cleaner were referred by the local church. A small and powerless church, but it has ties to the local community. That tie is important.”
“It’s still coming out of your personal luxury allowance, Sy.”
“Yeah? Coming out of my luxury allowance? When’s the work team coming to help unwedge my boot from your rear end? Huh?”
Jamie gave me a very unimpressed look. He glanced at the pair sitting across from us.
I grinned, to make it clear I was joking. “It made sense, gave me a chance to talk to the minister. We need some ins with the locals more than anything, and this opened the door.”
“I’m not disagreeing,” Jamie said. “But the reality is you’re terrible with money when money is limited. You’re used to having an near-endless supply. This is a good lesson. Weigh the benefits. Yes, you got to talk to the minister and now he likes you, I assume. But we effectively have a steady drain on our finances for the indefinite future. Is that worth it?”
Not that indefinite, I thought. “When it’s a drain we will more than make up for later. “You know I can go and just get a few thousand if we’re short. It’s harder here, but not impossible.”
“I know. But if I’m deducting from your fun money, then maybe, somewhere along the line, you’ll stop, think to yourself that oh, hey, look at that, if I give this random person money and help them out to accomplish some tertiary goal, it’s going to be an inconvenience and risk to us.”
“We’ve stopped,” Samuel pointed out, diplomatically.
“I know we’ve stopped,” I said, sighing. “But we just had an adrenaline-fueled job where we broke out some prisoners and looted heaps of confidential records from a major Crown facility, and apparently when Jamie’s riding the emotional high of a wild success, the first thing he wants to do is ride my ass.”
“Sy, that-” Jamie started. He put a hand to his face, then changed his mind about what he was going to say. “No.”
“The reason I’m making an issue of this is that I now feel like we’re finally free of the distractions of the job, so we can focus again on all of the little details that have been piling up in the meantime.”
“But let’s not bicker in front of the new hires. We’re done, we succeeded, and we’re back. Let’s get them settled.”
“Let’s,” I said, agreeing with a smile. I reached over and opened the door, gesturing for Samuel to step out.
The carriage had parked in the rear yard of the property. Walls surrounding the area protected us from prying eyes that might see and report Pierre, not that there were many. We were situated on the edge of the city.
A prior building had stood here, but the roof had been removed and replaced, with room for a third floor. The sides were also being extended out with four rooms each. Two cranes had been erected to help move material up to the third floor and rooftop, and scaffolding and ladders had been erected so the builders could set the panels in place for the builder’s wood to grow between.
“A lot of watching eyes,” Pierre commented, with a bulging eye on the building crews. “I feel exposed.”
“You’ll feel less exposed when you’re inside,” I said. “Later, we’ll have you running errands for us.”
“Running sounds good,” he said.
The double doors that led onto the brick patio just outside was unlocked, and I pushed them open with a bit of dramatic flourish.
The first floor had high ceilings. The main room was open space, twenty paces across and thirty paces from front to back. The back door was behind us, a recessed fireplace to the right, some scattered armchairs and piled up building material in the middle, and the front door ahead of us. Off to the left, one of the workers was putting a false wall in place over the door that led to the cellar.
“How’s it coming-”
“Nathan,” Jamie murmured, without missing a beat.
“-Nathan?” I finished.
“This is not what I normally do,” the man said. He turned and gave me a look, as if he was angry and I was at fault. “I had to take some of it down, pull it apart, fix it. It would be easier if you did not want things so seamless. It will be convincing to anyone not looking for it, without being perfect.”
“The people that hidden door is meant to fool are very good at seeing seams, and they’ll be looking for it,” I said. “Keep at it.”
He gave me a curt nod in response, paused, then said, “And the walls on wheels?”
“When you can get around to them,” I said. “I’ll put together the rest of that particular setup once you’ve got the walls in place.”
He scowled, looking more frustrated than before. He gave Pierre a wary look before turning his attention back to his work.
“The more I see, the more questions I have,” Samuel said. “I’m afraid to ask.”
“This may become a battleground,” Jamie explained. “Sylvester wants to put things in place so we have options if it does. Unlike our disagreement over spending money on your mother, this is one case where I have no problem just nodding my head and signing off on it, however whimsical he’s being.”
“Whimsical?” I asked. “You have a funny way of pronouncing ‘practical’.”
Jamie rolled his eyes at me.
“A battleground,” Samuel said.
“One where you shouldn’t be at risk, but you’ll have options and protection either way,” I said. “Come on upstairs.”
The stairs led from the central room of the ground floor to the second floor.
Shirley was upstairs. A desk had been placed near the top of the stairs, but hadn’t yet been moved to a room. She was leaning over it, writing something down.
“Sylvester,” she said. She smiled, “Hi Jamie. You brought… friends.”
Her face fell for a moment as Pierre finished climbing the stairs. Eight feet tall, not counting the ears, and the same body weight as a typical man two feet shorter, his face was moderately horrifying to look at, more like a dead rabbit than a live one, and his clothes were disheveled and ill-fitting. Shirley managed to compose herself and put her face back in place a moment later.
“Hello, Shirley,” I said. “Meet Samuel and Pierre.”
She smiled and did a little curtsey. Any unease she’d displayed before was invisible now. Good poker face.
“That’s a new dress,” Jamie observed. “It’s very nice.”
“Thank you, Jamie. It’s nice of you to notice.”
“Did you buy it with your last payment? Because I seem to recall that you were waiting- no, you didn’t buy it with your own funds.”
“Sylvester told me I should go shopping, and gave me some money. Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” Jamie said. He gave me a pointed look. “No you didn’t.”
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Jamie retorted.
“You gave me a look. You’re going to say that’s coming out of my spending money.”
“I handed you money and told you it was your spending money,” Jamie said. “You then took that same money out of your pocket and handed it to Shirley. What money do you think it is, if not your spending money?”
“Organizational funds,” I said. “Because Shirley is the face of our organization. The person who isn’t wanted, who can show her face in the city without possibly raising hell? The person who can interact with anyone who stops by the house? She needs to look good.”
“Another ‘incremental advantage’, Sylvester?”
“I’m crossing my fingers it’s going to dawn on you that you can’t spend large or even medium sums of money to accumulate those small advantages. Maybe you’ll learn to spend small amounts on small advantages.”
“Keep crossing those fingers, then,” I said. “Because I’m forgetful, an especially when it comes to this stuff, I’m not about to learn my lesson.”
He opened his mouth, finger raised, as if he was going to retort, then slumped a little, defeated. I grinned.
“I have some change,” Shirley said. “I didn’t spend it all. I got a pretty good deal. I could take the dress back?”
“No,” Jamie and I told her, simultaneously.
“Alright,” she said. Her hands smoothed down the fabric of her dress. “Alright. Then, speaking of people stopping by the house, the first of the potential hires have turned up. She’s looking at the rooms in the red wing.”
I glanced down the hallway. The building effectively broke down into the central building, the blue wing, and the red wing. Down the hallway were a series of doors. The exterior wall at the end of the hallway was thin, the window looking out onto nothing but wooden panels and boards. When the builders were closer to being done, they would tear open the end of the hallway, opening the way to the extension, and then connect it to the hallway.
The archway of the hallway to the right had a line of red surrounding it, as thick as a wide painter’s brush was wide. The other hallway had a matching line of blue around it. There were plans to extend the color just a little bit further, to differentiate the two areas.
“She’s early,” Jamie commented.
“She is. Very eager.”
“First impression?” Jamie asked.
“She’s lovely. Nice. I worry she’s too nice.”
I frowned a little. “When you say that, I wonder.”
Shirley looked offended. “I’m not too nice! I can stand up for myself! Some.”
“You’re getting better,” I said. “And given time and more lessons with me, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But I’m worried about this woman who is apparently soft enough to give you doubts.”
“We’ll talk to her,” Jamie said.
I nodded. “Samuel, Pierre. For now, get yourselves settled. This central area is where staff will live, for the time being. Three rooms on that side, three on this side. You’re on this side.”
I crossed over to the doorways nearest the stairs, then opened two. The rooms were large, with beds, desks, bookshelves, standing closets, and space for more furniture if it was wanted. Supplies ranging from paper and pens to candles and decks of cards and small bottles of alcohol were laid out on top of the desks. In addition to the sheets on the crisply made beds were folded sheets, blankets, and towels.
“I know it’s a bit much like your cells were,” I said. “And being cooped up is the last thing you want when you’re free, but if you’d stay in your rooms for the time being?”
“Like my cell?” Pierre asked. “This is swank compared to my cell. I’m okay with this. Just give me room to stretch my legs later, and I’ll be the most loyal person you’ve got.”
“Noted,” I said. “Listen, I know those ears are probably pretty good. You may feel compelled to listen in, or even to leave your door ajar.”
“And I shouldn’t?” Pierre asked. “I’m well versed in paying attention to only what I’m ordered to.”
“No,” I said. “No, that’s the opposite of what I want you to do. Feel free to listen in. Pick up what you can. I know me and Jamie go at it like an old married couple sometimes, maybe you have doubts, and you guys may have more as things get underway and there are a lot of question marks in the air. Figure things out when and where you can. When we have work for you, we’ll spell it out, and the less spelling out you need when that happens, the happier we’ll all be.”
“Listen in. Eavesdrop,” Pierre said.
“Yes,” I said. “Unless we’re making it abjectly difficult for you to eavesdrop, in which case don’t.”
“Uh huh,” he replied. He bobbed his monstrous head in something of a nod. “That’s vague.”
“You’ll figure it out,” I said. I moved closer to their rooms. Pierre turned to go into his room. Samuel was slower. I had to put a hand on his arm to steer him in the right direction. He looked back, at Jamie and Shirley. At Shirley.
My hand still on his arm, I wiggled my index and middle fingers against his arm in a set pattern. If I’d been holding my hand against a hard surface, it would have made for a short drumming sound. As is, it got his attention better than a squeeze or another touch might have. He looked down at me.
I shook my head slowly as I led him to his room.
He looked almost mournful as he walked into the room. I shut the door behind him, leaving it ajar.
She was, I supposed, the first woman he’d seen since he’d gone to jail, and she was a nice looking woman. A little slice of hell, perhaps, to be reminded that she was off limits.
“She’s taking a while to look at the rooms,” I observed.
“I told her I would take a moment to finish writing things down from our initial meeting,” Shirley said. She picked up papers from the desk and handed them to Jamie.
“She found something to do?” Jamie asked.
“I suppose she did,” Shirley said.
“Did you tell her anything about us?” I asked.
Shirley shook her head. “I wasn’t sure what to say.”
“Perfect. Do you want to make yourself scarce, Jamie? I doubt a random woman like this is going to recognize you by your wanted poster. Wouldn’t be a problem if we’d come upstairs and saw her, but since there’s an opportunity to keep you out of sight…”
“Not a problem,” Jamie said. “Better safe than sorry.”
He walked up the stairs.
“Call her,” I told Shirley.
And with that said, I took hold of Shirley’s hand, turned my back to her, and placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Cordelia!” Shirley called out.
Our prospective hire didn’t take long to appear. She was blonde, nicely made up, with a blouse that had a frill on the front, an ankle length dress, and boots with heels. She beamed as she saw Shirley.
Rosy cheeked and warm, to look at her.
“Sorry, sorry! I was distracted,” Cordelia said. “And hello!”
She extended a hand for me to shake, smiling. I didn’t take it. Instead, I stared her down, my facial expression something close to what I wore when I was about to kill or hurt someone and I wanted them to know it. Cold, with as little humanity as I could manage.
Cordelia momentarily broke eye contact, faced with that.
“Cordelia, this is Sylvester. Sylvester, Cordelia.”
“Moving in, are we?” Cordelia asked, attempting to form a connection.
“I already moved in,” I said. “I was one of the first here.”
“Were you? I haven’t looked at the boy’s wing,” Cordelia said. “I looked through the girl’s rooms, very nice and tidy, and I peeked through the window and past the gaps in the planks to see the men at work. They’re putting a good sized bathroom at the end of the hall. Some other rooms, too, I think?”
“One for the boys, and one for the girls,” Shirley said. She’d realized what I wanted to do and she wasn’t outing me.
I did like that Shirley was a fast learner.
“Luxury,” Cordelia said. She flashed a smile, as if trying to exude enough positivity to overwhelm me and put a smile on my face.
“Bathroom shared with twenty other people, and some of them are, what, five? Six years old?” I asked. “Yeah. Wonderful.”
Cordelia rallied, “It looks like a very extensive bathroom. There were several toilets, stalls, more than one shower-”
“What did you do?” I asked her, interrupting.
“Do? I was a teacher, before I was-”
“No,” I said, firmly. “Your last job. You looked after children, right?”
“Yes. Three years of teaching, three years of tutoring and looking after a dormitory at an all-girl’s Academy.”
“You were very specific about the dormitory. Where did you teach?” I asked.
She laughed a little, defensive, caught off guard. “Are you giving me my interview, here?”
Shirley reached over to the desk with the papers and picked it up. It was covered in tidy handwriting, each section with underlined headings. Her finger traced down to the ’employment’ part. “Three years of teaching. You didn’t say where, Cordelia.”
“I started at a school in Yearnsby, Lord Matthews.”
“And then?” I asked.
“Then Rookhill. Then Croftway Institute.”
“Fancy names,” Shirley said.
“They are,” Cordelia said, beaming.
“Was that it?” I asked.
“Was what it?”
“The extent of your teaching. You’re being evasive. Your hands are picking at the bottom of your blouse.”
Her hands moved away from the frilly part of her blouse.
“I worked at five schools in total,” she said.
“Over three years,” I pointed out. “That’s more than bad luck. That’s something going on behind the scenes. You have a vice. Drink? Chemicals? I know there’s a chemical problem around here. Drugs. Custom drugs.”
Her expression shifted as I said the words. Offended, but whatever it was that she was into, the hold on her was strong enough that even the mention of recreational drugs made her eyes sparkle for an instant.
She managed to sound offended and proper as she asked, “Who are you to pry, hm? Some might call that rude.”
I dearly wanted to tell her I was the person in charge, but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “I’m one of what will be forty or more people that live here. I’ve spent my life in orphanages, and on the streets. I’ve been hurt, I’ve hurt people, and I’ve seen things so horrible you wouldn’t imagine. Some of the other children will be the same. This isn’t some prissy-pants girl’s school, and it’s not a nice school. It’s an orphanage. And you’re going to have to match wits with youths that have nothing to lose. You’ll lose that battle of wits and wills, and you’ll crumble. You don’t belong here.”
“Well, we can agree to disagree on that,” she said, firm and confident. “I’m glad you’re not the one making the decision.”
“He might not be,” Shirley said, “But I saw your eyes light up when he mentioned drugs. I’ve known women who had the same look.”
“You’re accusing me, without any proof?” Cordelia asked. The indignance became borderline outrage. “I haven’t even had my interview.”
“I don’t need proof, and there’s no need to move on to an interview,” Shirley said. “All I need to do is say no. No. If you’ll go downstairs and to the back door, I think the carriage driver is still there. He can take you back to the city, wherever you need to go.”
Cordelia puffed up, mouth slightly agape, as if she were about to put up a fight. Then she sensed that she was lost. She remained puffed up as she descended the stairs, artificially tall and proud.
There was a pause as we heard her cross the room. She said something I couldn’t quite hear to one of the workers on her way to the back door.
“That was unkind, Sy,” Jamie said, from the top of the stairs. “Were you putting on a show for our new hires? I’m betting you knew she was a bad fit by the time she’d said five words.”
“Not quite that fast,” I said. “I felt she was wrong, but I thought maybe if she stood up to me in the right way or showed more steel, she could work. If she was sober, she could’ve worked out.”
The doors beside me opened. Samuel stood in the doorway. Pierre sat on one corner of his bed – he’d extended one overlong leg to open the door with his toes. Now he hunched over, elbows on his knees, looking comically oversized for the surroundings.
“The next person should arrive in half an hour,” Shirley said. “Will it be the same routine?”
I shook my head. “Too time consuming. There are things to do. Before we pulled today’s job, our hires made a call to Radham. With luck, the Lambs are coming. With bad luck, they’ll hold them back, send someone else, and Jamie and I have to finagle some sort of countermeasure for the someone elses. We have the skeleton of something here. We need bodies. I want something operational before the Lambs arrive. At a minimum, based on where the Lambs were last seen, that’s going to be two days.”
“You like setting difficult time limits for yourself,” Jamie observed.
“If we waited any longer to pull the prison job, we ran the risk that the Lambs’ search would be deemed a failure and they would be pulled back.”
“Like when we were chasing Fray,” Jamie said.
“Exactly like when we were chasing Fray. We spent too long tracking her down, always one step behind, and they threatened to pull us back to the Academy. Same idea here. This is the timeframe that makes sense. Two days before there’s trouble. Today, I’ll recruit. Tonight-”
I glanced at Pierre and Samuel.
“-Tonight, we work. I’m done bitching about money, and, frankly, I don’t want anyone getting in the way when the Lambs turn up. I want to figure out who the major players are, locally, and get them under our thumb.”
“What?” Pierre asked, as if he couldn’t have heard right. Samuel simply looked deeply, deeply concerned.
At least Shirley and Jamie seemed to be on the same page as me, or at least willing to roll with it.
Well, almost on the same page. Jamie said, “You know it’s not going to be easy, even if we do that. They’ll have help, especially with the city being Academy supported.”
“But you get what I’m going for?”
“I get what you’re going for. The Lambs turn up, and half the city folds in on them, with traps and problems at every other turn. I know how it is, Sy.”
“There’s something deeply cathartic about being on the other side of that particular paradigm,” I said, smiling at the thought.