I watched Jamie watch the fires burn. The spreading patches of red and orange fire consumed buildings here and there across West Corinth. His glasses reflected the flames, hiding his eyes. His expression was unchanging.
Samuel, meanwhile, looked deeply concerned.
Logic told me I should deal with Samuel and smooth things over. It was the ideal move in this scenario.
But I found that it was too often the case. Things came up, there were others to manage. When we were busy with our projects and missions, there was always something else to do.
Talking to Jamie rarely ever came first. When it did, or when we got into a rhythm where we were joking together throughout, we rarely ever discussed the important things.
All too often it felt like those things were put off until they reached a critical mass.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Long day. Going to be a long night.”
“The schedule demanded it,” I said.
“I know. I’m just stating the facts.”
I watched the fire dance on the glass of his lenses.
“I’ve always considered you and the old Jamie to be among the three voices that really act as my conscience,” I told him.
“Lillian’s one of the three?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Jamie pointed. Another fire had grown enough for us to see it from a distance.
“I see it,” I commented, looking.
“Why the mention of conscience, Sy?”
“I feel like you would have said something about this. Like, if I was talking to the you that lives in my head? I feel like he would have spoken up by now. But you’re quiet. It’s throwing me off.”
“We’ve been working on our overarching plan for a while now. Almost six months.”
“I’ve been thinking about the steps we need to take, mentally wrapping my head around it all. This isn’t all that different from what I was mentally preparing myself for. I know why we’re doing it. I’m reasonably confident we have a workable plan in motion. There are unpredictable elements in play, don’t get me wrong, but-”
“Reasonably confident,” I said.
“Reasonably. There’s another part to it too, Sy.”
“Is there? Do tell.”
“You’re a bad influence on me.”
I laughed. Jamie smiled.
He pointed. I nodded. A dot of fire, now spreading. The Rabbit had just wrapped up. That would be the mouse queen’s headquarters.
“He’s fast,” Jamie said.
“That he is.”
“What are you thinking, about the routes fire services will take? You were thinking about Cornish and Lacklady-”
Jamie pointed at an intersection.
“Which would put us between two routes, we would have to listen carefully and move fast, or, if you have a gut feeling-”
“Gut feeling is for main road, closest to us,” I said. “Better lit.”
“Works for me,” Jamie said, smiling. “Now? Wait for services to roll by, deal with them, cut off another group if we can, then rendezvous with Rabbit. We can give him direction, and then we make our counter-play against the Devil.”
“You’re enjoying yourself,” I said, already heading toward the ladder we’d put up beside the building.
“I suppose I am.”
“You like being the watchmaker, keeping everything in time, with a sense of where everything is. I am a bad influence.”
“You think that’s you influencing me? Don’t let your head get too big, there, Sy. Your timing isn’t that good. Neither is your sense of where things are. You fake your way through half of it.”
“Balderdash, crockery, and lies!” I exclaimed. I was first down the ladder.
Jamie made his way down the ladder. He winced and rubbed at one shoulder, rolling it, as he got off. He adopted an insincere tone as he pronounced, “I don’t lie.”
“I know for a fact that you fib about past events because you know I don’t remember them, just to mess with me. I know for a damn fact.”
Jamie did his best to hide the smirk that flashed over his face. I gave him a push, making him lightly bounce off of the wall. He grinned more.
“Maybe,” he said. A blatant and offensive understatement given his expression.
“You butt. We’re supposed to be able to trust each other.”
“I only do it when you’re being annoying or giving me a hard time,” he said.
“That’s all the time!” I exclaimed.
“When you’re especially annoying, then,” he said, smiling wider.
Samuel finished descending the ladder.
“Bring the ladder,” I said.
“It’s not ours,” Samuel said.
“Theft of a shitty ladder is the smallest of two dozen things we’re going to be doing tonight,” I said. I tipped the ladder over and grabbed one end, putting my arm through the slats.
Samuel took up the other end.
People were leaving their houses and moving out into the street to look out over the city, at the plumes of smoke that were rising to the night sky. It was a starless night, and Summer seemed to have touched the sky, tinting it lighter than it might normally be at this time of night.
We got some curious looks as we hurried across the street, around a corner, and toward the main street that cut west-to-east across the lower third of West Corinth.
We reached the road. Here, too, people were gathering. We remained in the shadows as a pair of wagons passed with some Crown officers within. I dropped my end of the ladder, indicated for Samuel to do the same, gestured, and the two of us moved out into the street, leaving Samuel behind.
I gestured again, outlining general instructions that might have raised eyebrows if the loose crowd around us heard. Jamie and I took hold of a stack of empty crates on the far side of the street, set in the space between buildings that didn’t quite qualify as an alley. They were the kind that might have held milk bottles, bread, eggs, or newspapers for the morning deliveries, made up of wood slats as thin as three pieces of paper pressed together. We dragged the stack out into the road, then managed the next.
“Leaving the opposition less room to maneuver?” Jamie asked. He’d seen the gestures, and I was assuming he was asking for Samuel’s benefit.
“Yes. Next part, while you’re busy wrapping your head around it all, is to use the ladder and to secure our escape route.” I drew some lockpicks from my pocket, indicating the door nearest us.
“I don’t know what you have planned with the ladder, so I guess I’m doing the lockpicking, which I assume is exactly what you hoped for. Selfish cad, taking all the fun parts.”
“Cad!” he retorted.
I threw the lockpicks so they hit the wall next to his head. He was too slow to catch them before they fell.
“I bet you can’t say three nice things about me, instead of calling me names, you egg.”
“Egg? What the hell kind of an insult is ‘egg’?”
“I’ll explain egg if you win the bet,” I said. I had no idea what kind of insult egg was, having just made it up on the spot, but I figured I could improvise.
Speaking of- I gauged the situation, then decided the ladder route would be dangerous, even if we executed it right. I put down my end of the ladder, and moved to the rear end. I took off my belt, then loosely attached the bottom rung of the ladder to a stout branch that grew into the doorframe.
“I’m confused,” Samuel said, watching me work. “I’m confused on a lot of levels.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just stand back.”
“You dress well,” Jamie said, offhandedly. “Credit where credit’s due, you have an eye for clothing, whether you’re pretending to be a slum kid or dressing up for a date with Lillian.”
“Why thank you!” I said, mocking surprise.
“Don’t pretend like you forgot the bet in the last ten seconds. Or I won’t play along.”
“Fine. Take the fun out of everything.”
“Your hair is unsalvageable though,” Jamie added. “And you’re still shorter than most our age. And you have a way of being scruffy, even if you can pull it off.”
“I didn’t ask for qualifiers to go with the compliments, sir. Or for backhanded compliments to go with the legitimate compliments. Try that again and you lose the bet.”
“Can’t have that, can we?” he asked. “Door’s open, by the way. How about… you make life exciting. Even the boring parts.”
“Do I? I’m trying to imagine how I’d make taking a bath exciting, and I’m failing.”
“Sy, that-” Jamie started. He brought his hand to his face.
“Wait, was that innuendo? Did I do it again? How would that be innuendo? What’s so special about bathing? What am I missing out on?”
“I meant how you make the parts we share fun. Even the accounting part, unfortunately, and doing chores. Unfortunately.”
“That’s qualifiers, those are qualifiers. You can’t even do it!”
“Can too. Does it count if I say that your charming innocence in many matters is nice and oftentimes refreshing?”
“That’s a downright insult, you egg.”
“It says a lot about you that you think that,” Jamie said.
“Innocence goes hand in hand with ignorance there. And I’m not ignorant.”
“Okay, hold on, no arguments. I’ll try another.”
“You don’t smell too bad?” he asked, grinning. As I opened my mouth to protest, he grinned. “I’m joking!”
“You’d better be joking. And you lose the bet. I warned you.”
“Fine. You wouldn’t have had time to explain anyway. I hear the bells.”
He had good ears. I had to stop and listen before I heard them. Hooves, and warning bells to let people know to clear the road and get out of the way of those hooves.
I motioned for the two of them to stand back.
If this worked, it was going to be glorious.
“Oh, I see what you’re up to,” Jamie said. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
“No trust. No trust at all. See what it leads to when you-”
“Don’t miss the wagon!” Jamie warned.
I brought the ladder forward, swinging it out of the alley. The wagon veered around the crates, which weren’t solid enough to do any harm, though a collision risked wood flying at the wagon driver. Moving around the stacks of crates meant moving closer to me. I timed the swing to put the end of the ladder into the wheel spokes.
As the turning spokes brought the thicker portions of the ladder into the underside of the wagon, they were blocked, then broken by momentum. The ladder shattered, secured at the belt at one end, pushed against the corner of the building by the wagon. Rungs joined the broken spokes, flying into the air and whizzing past me in a spray of wood and splinters.
The fire services wagon, loaded to bear with water and the machinery to pump it, was rather heavy. It made horrific noises as the wheel-less back corner dragged against the road, the broken axle clattering in its now-damaged housing.
I turned around, collecting my belt with a quick motion, and followed Jamie and Samuel through the door. I closed it just before the first lanterns and lights were pointed down the alley and street we’d occupied, illuminating the dark shop we’d just broken into. I gently locked the door, then joined Jamie and Samuel in making our way through the store.
“How did you know it would be empty?” Samuel asked.
“The owners are standing out front,” I said.
“How did you know they were the owners?”
“Because they were out front?” I asked. “Fire means loss. It’s nature taking away what you have. If you saw someone get hit between the legs, you’d involuntarily react, and maybe even adopt a posture to protect what you’ve got between your legs. Same idea with fires. You know?”
Samuel was quiet. I was concerned at that silence. It was a withdrawal, a removal from the situation. Looking across the house and out the windows at the street, I could see the people, in clusters and groups.
Families and belonging. I had to remind myself that even if Jamie and I were entirely in our environment in the midst of this, Samuel wasn’t.
“This way,” Jamie said. He led us into a portion of the store that was more of a living space where the store owners lived than a workplace. There was a door out the back. I grabbed a butter tin from the dining table as we passed through and made our way back out onto the street.
There were three departments that would be responding to the fires. Chances were good that the Academies had something as well, though it wouldn’t be the kind of setup that would deploy or work quickly.
Other neighborhoods were covered. The wagon I’d just hobbled was the one that would be heading toward the Devil’s headquarters. The area around that headquarters was largely his, occupied by his people. It was close to Corinth Crown Academy, and if the Academy didn’t have the resources to stop the fire, it would at least rally together to stall it.
And if that failed, then the fort burning wasn’t the worst thing in the world. One less Academy. The Devil of Corinth would lose access to resources he would otherwise be leaning on.
Which would shortcut the entire process of what we were trying to accomplish here. Perhaps too much.
“Detour,” I told Jamie.
“Detour,” I said, pointing.
“Timing is too important. If we’re late-”
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “Trust me on this.”
We took another route. Down one street, then another.
I had a general sense of things, we’d done our loops around the city to get a feel for how it was, giving Jamie a chance to memorize particulars and traffic flow. My memory was just good enough to leave me ninety-percent sure we were on the right street.
I saw Samuel slow, head turning.
“Here?” I asked.
“What?” he asked me.
“She’s here?” I asked again. I looked at Jamie, “It’s where his mom is?”
“Yes,” Samuel said, answering the question.
His mother was staying with someone, at our insistence. The Devil knew that Samuel was with us, and in the absence of better targets, he might have gone after her, in an effort to hurt us. With that in mind, we’d left her with a neutral third party who could look after her.
It had cost money, but it was money Jamie had been willing to sign off on.
“Go,” I told Samuel.
He gave me a funny look.
“Look after her tonight. We don’t need you. You have an idea of what’s going on, the moves that are being made, but you’re getting freaked out. You’re ebbing.”
“Ebbing?” Jamie asked. “Are you forgetting Crown English, Sylvester? You’re making up more words. And insults.”
“Ebbing is a word, you dunce. Are you forgetting?”
“It’s not a word to describe people.”
“Ahem,” Samuel cut in. We both looked at him.
“Timing, you said it was important.”
“Sure,” I said. “Well, less important now. I have ideas. But we still need to manage the fires and meet Rab- Pierre…”
I saw Jamie open his mouth, and jumped in. “And be in place against the Devil.”
He closed his mouth.
“I remembered,” I said. “So ha.”
“Then I’m going to go,” Samuel said. He was so eager he looked like he was just going to bolt for the door, hide from us and go to his mother, who he was worried about. Not so different from the families, the fires, and wanting to stay near their homes out of a general insecurity. “And you should do that.”
“Thank you,” Jamie said, giving me a pointed look, “For that reminder that we’re on a timeline.”
“You were the one that started the bickering,” I pointed out.
“Thank you, Sylvester. For the detour,” Samuel said, cutting in again before we could get started.
I nodded, mute. Jamie grabbed my arm and tugged me, and we went our separate ways.
We were half a block away when Jamie spoke up.
“You said you wanted him with us,” Jamie said.
“To build up his confidence in our approach. We weren’t. He got the idea. If he’s going to follow that idea to its destination, then he needs to do it himself. Anything more tonight might have pushed him away.”
“You said, earlier, that you worried if we didn’t bring him with, he might not come back.”
“That’s… still possible. But if he stayed with us, he would have left.”
“Does that ‘thank you’ he just gave you mean anything?” Jamie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“He’s sort of a piece in the plan. If we start losing those pieces now, that’s going to slow us down, and we’re already a step behind.”
“We’re okay,” I said. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. “And do you remember-”
Jamie made a noise.
“-what we discussed about the water station?”
“I remember,” Jamie said. “I also remember that we were concerned it would be occupied.”
“I think we’re okay,” I said. “Getting the feeling that they aren’t going to be around there.”
“Can I ask about the butter dish?” Jamie asked.
I looked at the dish with the lid that I was clasping in one hand.
“You’re so queer,” he said.
“Did you ever notice that whenever we’re doing something adrenaline-pounding, you get remarkably abusive toward me?”
“No,” he said.
“No?” I asked. “You forgot? All of the other times, the heaps of comments and put-downs, the little jokes at my expense, the height jokes? I saw the pattern and you forgot.”
“I didn’t forget anything. There’s no pattern. Take my word for it.”
He was keeping his gaze too straight ahead, his posture too rigid. Lying through his teeth.
I waited, letting that sit. Jamie did mess with me, but he always course corrected if he wasn’t sure I understood he was messing with me.
Unless it was the innuendo thing. He always left me to wonder on those things.
Jamie broke the silence. “Every time I made those comments, you were smiling. We were joking. I don’t want you twisting it around in your head in a bad way.”
“So you admit it. You get on my case whenever you’re having fun. There’s probably a pathology behind that.”
“It’s okay. We all have our quirks.”
“You more than most, Sy,” Jamie said.
“Hey! Hey! You’re doing it. That thing I was just talking about.”
“And this is the station. Empty. Your gut was right. Again.”
“You’re changing the subject,” I said. I looked around, then checked the door. Finding it locked, I searched my pockets for my picks. I ended up doing a pat-down of my front pockets, back pockets, shirt pocket-
Jamie handed over the picks. “Your gut is remarkable. Does that count for one of the three compliments?”
“That game ended a while ago, and you’re still changing the subject,” I said. I started working on the door.
“They could transplant that gut of yours to someone else, see if they can get the gut feelings.”
“Lil said there was a link between the stomach and the mind, but I don’t think it goes that far, Mr. Changing-the-subject.”
“That’s the fourth time you’ve brought her up tonight,” Jamie remarked.
“Yes. Feeling lonely, Sy?”
“Never completely lonely, not with you around,” I said, as I worked the lock. “You’re my best friend, and I don’t know if I can even articulate what it means that I can say that, when-”
I stopped, not sure how to articulate it. When I feel like I’m betraying the old Jamie by saying so.
“I get it, Sy.”
“But I miss her. I miss that she was good and she made me feel like a force for good just because I was supporting her or because I was close to her. I miss how sweet she could be, when it was just me and her. That she clutched me so tight, all the time, whenever she could. I miss Helen chewing on me or licking me or trying to manipulate me for my desserts.”
I opened the lock. Jamie went straight to the network of metal pipes and intestine-like lengths of flesh that were at one end of the closet-shaped space. Here and there were large wheels fixed to the pipes, set beneath pressure gauges. The room was unlit and hard to see in the gloom. He glanced over his shoulder to show that he was still listening, moving through the dark room as if it were lit.
“I miss Mary and the way she and I could work together like she was amazing at what she did and she made me amazing by proxy, and how, when she really wanted to win at something really trivial, she would hold back and wrinkle up her nose unconsciously. I… I don’t miss Ashton, but I wake up some days and I wonder how he’s doing and what he’s becoming, and it eats at me that I’m not there for that when I really want to be. I remember sleeping on the floor of the lab of Ashton the first, and it was a really early, really important memory for me, and I feel like I should be paying Ashton the second back for that, for some reason?”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said.
He started to turn a wheel. I put the butter dish down and helped him, adding my strength to his. I knew his shoulder bothered him ever since I’d done the surgery on him. Exertion made it worse.
I continued, “I miss Evette, and she doesn’t exist outside of my own head, you know? I miss that she doesn’t exist and I know if she existed I wouldn’t, but I feel like she should be around. I miss those moments, once or twice a year, when Ms. Earles would be sweet to me and act like a mother might, rubbing my hair, or giving me a treat, or even giving me a hug. I can count those hugs on one hand, but I remember them clearly, and I don’t remember much.”
As the wheel finished turning, Jamie and I strained to fix it into position. I blinked in the midst of the straining, and my eyes were wet.
“Didn’t mean to open that floodgate,” he added, as we shut off the water supply to… going by the label I could barely make out in the gloom, water supply number main two.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I just wanted to distract you from what we were talking about before. I did it in a stupid way.”
I cursed under my breath. “What were we talking about before?”
“Ha,” Jamie said. but it was humorless, without the mischief. Just letting me know he’d gotten one over on me.
“Mark my words,” I said. “That small victory doesn’t mean anything.”
“Honestly, I feel like a heel, knowing it hit you where it hurt.”
“Good,” I said. “But I am clever, which is a fact that you neglected to mention when you were listing off the compliments. I think about things!”
I scooped up the butter dish. I threw away the top and I liberally applied the butter to the wheel.
“That you do,” Jamie remarked.
“Mark my words-” I started.
“You already said that.”
“Mark them!” I exclaimed, a third time, for emphasis. “I will be the man on top, in the end.”
“I swear you’re doing that on purpose at this point,” Jamie said.
We gathered ourselves together, and quickly left the building. I closed the door, put a pick into the lock, wedged it as much as I could, then stood back, my foot in the air, knee against my chest. I kicked the end of the pick, snapping it off in the lock. We maintained a fairly leisurely pace as we made our way away from the scene of the crime.
The Devil’s headquarters had to burn. We knew he stockpiled drugs, and he maintained paperwork and papers. We knew that, after meetings, he tended to loop around to stop at points where his lieutenants worked, to make the most of his time and ensure they were on the same page as him, updated on the key points of the meeting. After meeting us he would want his soldiers in line, warned about possible attacks, and ready.
Mr. Colby was a logistician. He moved things from A to B. The Devil was a monster, and he removed any obstacle that kept his better, kinder half from moving things from A to B. But the Devil didn’t strike me as a warlord. Nothing we’d been able to turn up suggested he had any experience in outright war.
With that in mind, Jamie gauged the time Colby would take to get from the meeting back home. We’d tracked him following one meeting to verify and adjust our estimates.
His people might well be able to save some of the stock, but they wouldn’t save all of it, and our hope was that they wouldn’t know what to prioritize, and Colby would be absent and unavailable to give that direction. The buildings nearest the headquarters were warehouses and apartments, nineteen twentieths of which were reserved for Colby’s wider enterprise. The fire would spread to them. Shutting off the water to the line that the fire service needed would help ensure that.
Our destination was a restaurant, not that far from the fire or Corinth Crown Academy. It was a big place, sprawling, occupying three floors, with extended patios and balconies. As we’d guessed, it was heavily populated with people who’d wanted a vantage point to see the flame.
We’d chosen a point that wasn’t such a vantage point, where the overhanging balcony and the surrounding railings and decoration provided some cover.
The Rabbit wasn’t there.
Jamie and I walked over to the railing, me putting my elbows and forearms across it and placing my chin on the back of my hands. I watched the orange glow of the fire.
“I miss them too,” Jamie said. “Not in the same way, I don’t think. I don’t think I loved them, exactly, but they were a big piece of me. I get this frustrated feeling at this feeling I have, like I have a hole that won’t close or heal.”
“Loss,” I said.
“Yeah. But you’re good enough company,” he said.
“Aw shucks. You’re not so bad yourself. Even if you’re dishonest.”
“You’re a bad influence on me,” he said.
A motion behind us made us turn.
The Rabbit. Pierre. I kept almost forgetting his name. I forced myself to commit to it, because I knew I’d forget if I gave myself the chance.
“All went well?” I asked.
“A little bit more dramatic than my usual fare,” Pierre said. The light of the fire tinted his bloodshot, watery rabbit eyes. “I think I like starting fires. There’s something about it.”
“We all need our hobbies,” I said. “You were late though. I didn’t expect that. Any trouble?”
“I was on time,” Pierre said. “You were late. I knew what our next phase was, so I did a circuit, ran around, checked on the places I knew we’d be checking on. You were right. They were there.”
“Of course I was right,” I said.
“He means me,” Jamie said, quiet. I shrugged.
“They were where you said they’d be. The Mayor, his family, the Devil’s men.”
I noted the distinction. Not the mayor and his family. It was the mayor, faint pause, then his family.
“Perfect,” I said. “Said family includes the young’uns?”
“Said family includes the young’uns,” the eight foot tall rabbit with the burning eyes told me.