“There we go,” Jamie said. “The magic word.”
“How do they do that?” I wondered aloud, a non-sequitur.
“Those kids,” I said, indicating the kids that were half a block away. They had just encountered the Devil’s thugs. The nanny stood between the lead thug and the children. She barely looked any older than the eldest child. Eighteen, perhaps? “Look at them. Yes, they’ve been running around, and they’re a touch disheveled, but they’re so prim and proper, dressed like they’re ready to go out to dinner, with their shirts ironed and everything matching. Do they just have late bedtimes, or is that how they dress for bed?”
“I think you’re putting too much thought into this, Sy.”
“Hair neatly parted for the boys, tidy curls for the girls. The eldest boy is wearing a tie, Jamie. A tie! Our house is on fire. It’s the middle of summer, sweltering, and the city’s going to be even hotter, by the looks of those five other fires we can see out the window. Get on out of bed, sons and daughter, get your shirt on, button it up, put on your tie, we can’t have you looking slovenly. Sit down at the dressers while the nanny does your hair. Don’t mind the smoke or the tongues of flame licking at your feet in the meanwhile.”
“It is a bit strange,” Pierre said.
“I mean, I’d expect this from Helen, but this is a well-to-do family in a not-too-important city. Dear nanny, given the immediate circumstances, perhaps we shouldn’t use the flammable oils to slick down Junior’s hair.”
“Is it really that important?” Jamie asked, in that way he sometimes had, where he sounded very tired of me.
“Because I want to know!”
One of the thugs grabbed the nanny. He jerked her arm, hauling her close, and wrapped his arms around her, holding her back against his front.
“Speaking of, we didn’t really account for the nanny,” Jamie said.
“I accounted for the nanny,” I said.
Jamie gave me a suspicious look, but he didn’t argue the point with me.
“She’ll be upset, slightly traumatized, but she’ll be intact in the end,” I said.
The nanny was talking to the children. Reluctantly, the trio of youths moved closer. There were two boys, aged fourteen and sixteen, by my best guess, and a girl that might have been nine or ten.
The second of the three thugs grabbed the oldest child. The third grabbed the youngest. The middle child, a boy of roughly Ashton’s age, was left alone, but his ties to the others kept him close.
“There you go,” I said, to the gloom, voice quiet. “You’ve got the situation well in hand. They’re listening, and they’re being obedient. The Devil is going to be pleased with you. But you don’t want to fly too high or sink too low in his estimation, or he might pay attention to you. So you’re going to take these captives to him. You’ll do nothing else.”
“They can’t hear you, you know.”
“Shhh,” I told Jamie. My focus was on the body language in play, with particular attention to the degree of confidence displayed. Were these thugs operating as extensions of the Devil of Corinth, or were they being themselves? I had an instinct that they were the former, but I wanted to be ready to act in an instant if they hinted at the latter.
“This seems like as good a time as any to bring up something that’s been niggling at me. We should have a talk at some point, about what you call an acceptable level of trauma and discomfort, and what other people might define as an acceptable level of trauma and discomfort.”
“You’re talking about the nanny?” I asked.
“I’m talking about the nanny, yes. The man is getting more… close with her than he needs to be?”
“I saw that,” I said. There wasn’t anything that I could point to that was especially vulgar, but the man toed the line. There was more physical contact and holding her close than was necessary, and the way he leaned in to speak into her ear, presumably at a lower, more intimate volume?
I could see her body language, now that Jamie had drawn special attention to the situation. The way she turned her face away. It was hard to see in the gloom, even with the help of nearby streetlights, but I saw disgust on her expression.
“Pierre,” I said.
“This is all very interesting, listening to you two,” Pierre commented.
“Go,” I told him, ignoring the commentary. “Show yourself, not too close to here. Distract them and put them on their guard.”
“If you’re sure,” Pierre said. He didn’t quite straighten, but he did stand, and made his way off the side of the roof furthest from the thugs.
I watched the scene unfolding. The lead thug was too into this. The more he talked, the more the nanny shrank down into herself. If there was a ladder, a hierarchy of power, then she’d dropped below the oldest boy.
“Shut up, just shut up,” Jamie said, in a low voice, the words a delayed recitation that matched the movements of the boy’s lips. “You leave her alone, you let her go. You want us, you have us, my dad will pay any ransom you ask for, but you let her go.”
“They’re not going to let her go,” I said. I judged the thug’s body language. “Especially now that you asked.”
“Earlier, we talked about conscience,” Jamie said. “Mine is… less comfortable with this. Maybe, in the future, you could, I don’t know, assign more weight to this kind of trauma?”
“More weight?” I asked.
The middle child backed away from the shouting and the threats, only for attention to get turned his way. He was being warned not to move.
He had, I suspected, done the perfect thing for the moment, if inadvertently. He’d drawn attention to himself, and I wanted attention drawn away from the eldest child and the nanny.
“Just… give it consideration. We’re used to variations on this theme. You more so than me. Their conception of ‘the worst day of their lives’ is… this. That has a gravity.”
I looked at the quartet of innocents.
“What she’s facing. Don’t trivialize that. Respect it.”
“Why single out the nanny? The children are being exposed to it too, aren’t they?”
“You’re not wholly wrong, but I was referring-”
He dropped the sentence as something caught the eye of the three thugs. Two of them drew guns, loosening their grips on their captives. One of them fired, and the children and nanny cried out at the volume of the shot and what it represented.
The middle child’s retreat and now Pierre had moved the focus of the thugs two steps away from their hostages. The tension was still there, that dangerous anger that threatened to make them do something I’d regret, but the one was no longer dwelling on the nanny, and the children no longer had weapons pointed at them. The thug’s eyes roved, searching for the rabbit and any potential attackers.
“That works,” Jamie said. “Thank you. For helping the nanny.”
“Does complicate things that they have their guns out,” I observed. “But this is doable.”
They had weapons in hand, while they gave their hostages light pushes with the weaponless hands, herding them like cattle to move them in the general direction of the Devil’s place.
That route would mean they passed right by us. Jamie and I were crouched on a flat rooftop, watching proceedings over a short wall that bounded the edge of the roof, as if the home was a small castle.
As the group approached us, the rabbit emerged from cover, standing so that the corner of the building blocked the group from seeing him. He glanced up at us, his ears twitching.
I pointed, and he ran, passing behind them to duck into a side street. A very liberal interpretation of the direction I’d indicated.
Kind of impudent, now that I’m paying attention. We would have to be careful.
Still, the group was now moving down the street, right beneath us.
I ducked low as I walked along the short wall that bounded the roof, scooping up a coil of rope. The knotting was already in place, with weights at the corners. Not quite a net, not quite a lasso, but somewhere in between. I liked to think of it as a cat’s cradle.
Jamie, right behind me, had the other.
After gesturing to get the timing down pat, I threw it over, the action synchronized with Jamie. The rope attached to the top corner of the cat’s cradle ran through my open hand. As I’d overshot a bit, I gripped the rope at the last moment, so it would land across the gunman’s hand, head, and shoulders.
He was the one who’d picked on the nanny, too. I flicked the rope with a whipping motion that used my entire arm, to help cinch tight the loops that included his arm and neck, then hauled back, hurling my weight back, then turning, using the motion of my body to pull against the rope with both arms and with one shoulder.
Jamie wasn’t going to quite the same effort. He’d hauled back, yes, but his shoulder wasn’t strong, so he simply cinched the loops shut with an upward and backwards motion, then immediately set about tying it to a branch that was worked into the roof-bounding wall.
Once he had tied it down, he worked on my particular set of ropes, attaching it to the roof. I did my best to maintain workable tension while he did his job.
On the ground level, there were confused shouts, demands, and noises from the children.
Then a lone gunshot, piercing and very unexpected. The shouts, demands, and noises were muted in the wake of it.
A miscalculation? Had Jamie placed his cradle badly, or failed to haul back enough? Had the third been so quick to pull out his gun, take aim at the children and shoot them?
I couldn’t imagine that.
Against all better judgment, I headed straight to the edge of the roof, looking down and over.
I assessed the situation, then threw myself backward before the second gunshot came.
The shooter was the one I’d caught. His gun-arm was outstretched above his head, caught, and his ability to shoot was limited to firing skyward.
I waited, listening to the third one talking, trying to manage hostages that were no doubt breaking away from the group. Those orders became cusses as the one I’d bound began firing off the rest of the bullets. Then, after a tense pause, he began shouting and cussing.
Frustration. Good enough.
I turned to Jamie and saluted.
“Sy,” he said. “That was a possible course of action.”
“I’ve been wanting to do this since I came up with the idea,” I told him.
That said, I went over the edge of the roof. I grabbed the rope on my way down, my heel finding a foothold in the loose netting. My body weight, while not all that considerable, did tighten the ropes for the person directly below me.
Shifting position, I slid down the steep incline, both hands and one foot grazing the various handholds and footholds, so I could catch myself if I started moving too fast or if I needed to stop.
Jamie’s captive was getting himself loose, I saw. I stopped my downward descent from the roof of the two-story building, catching myself, then leaped, grabbing the ropework that had the one wrist of Jamie’s captive bound. My weight, the movement of the loose net and the man’s position meant that he stumbled, head and one shoulder knocking against the wall.
That would tighten the ropes around his arm. He would be able to get it free in just a moment, but I wasn’t giving him that moment. I half-fell, half-slid down the ropework, the rest of the way down, catching myself just as my foot collided with the hand that was still sticking up and through.
I grabbed hold of the net and swung down and around, bringing my feet into his hollering face. It wasn’t that graceful or neat a hit. I mostly caught his one eye and ear. His hand, I saw, still stuck up, but with fingers pointed in new and interesting directions.
Good enough. I hadn’t knocked him out, but he was reeling and hurting, and he’d dropped his gun.
Letting go of the net so I could fall the six or so feet to the ground, I looked at the third man.
He had a gun, I saw. That was unfortunate. It was aimed at me too, but he was holding off on firing, what with me being so close to his buddy.
Would he get clever? Turn on the hostages? Use them against me?
I was in the midst of preparing the mind-games and lines of dialogue that would put him off balance when I decided on something simpler.
“Rabbit,” I said, clearly and loudly.
I saw a look of alarm and confusion on the man’s face. He turned, a moment too late.
The rabbit appeared out of shadows, moving as fast as a galloping horse, clubbing him across the lower face in passing.
I scooped up the gun from the ground. There wasn’t much need. The three thugs were hurt, hurting worse, and caught.
“I have a name, you know,” the rabbit said.
“Yes. You’re quite right. Spur of the moment thing.”
“I don’t understand why you call me rabbit,” he said.
“You don’t?” I asked. I saw his ears twitch. “Is… is that an extension of the previous thought, a ‘you know my name, so why do you call me that’ thing? Or are you genuinely curious why someone would describe you as rabbit-like?”
“Thank you,” the nanny said. “That was… unexpected.”
She looked utterly bewildered and a little bit in shock. She hugged the two boys close to her with one arm, while holding the hand of the ten year old girl.
Giving a greater weight to trauma. This was very possibly the worst instance of violence they’d ever experienced. The mangled hand, the kick at someone’s face.
Lords, even Pierre was a terrible sight to behold. He was a hack job of academy science, straight out of a nightmare, and he wore it with pride.
And… potentially blissful lack of awareness?
On a level, I knew all that, and it played into my actions, but so often I tended to bludgeon through and demand others keep up with me.
But if Jamie was willing to keep up and put ‘conscience’ at third or fourth place in our list of priorities for the sake of tonight’s plan, then I could bump it up when it didn’t cost me anything except maybe a bit of time.
“I’m sorry if I scared you four,” I said. I might have even meant what I was saying.
The nanny nodded. “Who are you?”
“Criminals,” I said. “Scoundrels, bastards, fugitives. I’m Sylvester, and this is Pierre.”
She nodded, but she didn’t look happy or secure.
The leader of the trio of thugs pulled at the ropework that had caught his wrist. I pointed the gun at him, and he went still.
“We were after them,” I said. Truth. “Had the ropes ready, but they took a different route. They grabbed you, which complicated things. Made this more of a rescue than a…”
I trailed off, looking for the words.
“Interception?” Pierre offered.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. I used the gun to give him a bit of a salute.
“What’s going on? The fire at the house, thugs in the street, now this?”
There was a faint note of hysteria to her voice.
“Did those men say who they were working for?”
“The Devil?” the eldest spoke up. He sounded bewildered at the idea.
“The Devil,” I said. The magic word. Jamie had used lipreading to confirm that the thugs had used it while talking to and threatening the Mayor’s nanny and children. “Also known as Mr. Colby.”
“They said that too,” the boy said.
I know, I thought. “He’s a very bad man who wanted to burn the city and rule over the ashes. He targeted the Academy, the police chief’s house, the mayor’s house, various gang headquarters, I think. I don’t know who you are, but-”
“We’re-” the elder boy said. The nanny put a hand over his mouth.
I quirked an eyebrow. “Doesn’t matter. But you were probably on his list. People he wanted to hurt. We took it on ourselves to ignite the stockpile of fuel and incendiaries he was going to use to burn more of the city. That stockpile happened to be located in his headquarters, which is a very tidy sort of quid pro quo, and now we’re going after his lieutenants.”
“I’m no lieutenant!” the lead thug protested. I pointed the gun at him, and he shrank down as he faced the darkness of its barrel.
“I don’t understand,” the elder boy said, speaking around the hand that now loosely covered his mouth.
He wasn’t processing. I could see it. Shock, alarm.
I was seeing that what Jamie said was true. Violence was like breathing to me. I still wasn’t any good in a fight, but I could handle ambush and assassination. I’d seen wounds of a horrific sort that these people probably couldn’t dream up with some colored pencils, a gun to their head, and a sudden fit of inspiration.
He was just a bit older than me, and he’d lived such a sheltered life. How long had it been since he’d last seen blood?
Disconcerting to think about, now that Jamie had set my mind on that particular track.
“A war,” I said, very simply. “A small one, over the city’s underworld. You got caught in the middle.”
That was something they could understand.
“I didn’t know we had an underworld,” the nanny said.
“Everywhere has an underworld,” I said. I looked around. “Whoever you are, I don’t have any use for you. You should go wherever you were going. Don’t waste any time, avoid the main road and the crowds. Avoid men like them if you can help it.”
“Will you come with us?”
“No,” I said. “We’ve got things to do. I’m sorry.”
The nanny shook her head. She didn’t quite seem ready to break away and leave.
“Pierre, would you kindly collect the other guns?” I asked.
“Can do,” the rabbit said.
I waited while he attended to the task. He came back, guns in hand, pointing them at our captive lieutenants. All three were matching revolvers, which was convenient. I took one and moved bullets between guns.
“Here,” I said. I approached the nanny. She shied back a bit as I started toward her. Then she did it again as I lifted the gun, even though I’d reversed it so I held the barrel. I reached for her hand and pressed the handle into it. “Finger off the trigger unless you’re planning to shoot. Just in case you run into more trouble.”
“I don’t think I could,” she told me.
“If it’s for them, not just for you?” I asked. “You might want to.”
She stared down at the gun, then looked at the girl, her youngest charge. I saw a small nod on the nanny’s part, intended more for herself than for me.
“Be safe,” I said.
That was the send-off. She found the courage to hurry on.
“Goodbye rabbit,” the young girl said. “Thank you! Goodbye mister, thank you too!”
“My name is Pierre!” Pierre pronounced, indignant.
“You’re dead,” the lead thug said. His hand was still outstretched above his head, with more rope around his neck. The second thug was similarly trapped, but only around the one hand. Broken fingers and a tight weave of rope made extricating himself something of a task. The third was ass-down on the road.
“You sound pretty sure of that,” I said.
“I know my boss,” he said. He twisted up his face, spitting.
“And I know me,” I said. “I know I’ve faced down nobles. I’ve faced down more monsters than you’ve kissed girls. A lot more, judging by that mug of yours.”
I couldn’t resist throwing the insult in there.
Still, it only got me a snort in response. “He’s a different sort of monster. He’s a clever one. This? This nonsense with the fires? People running around? No law? It’s his element.”
I tilted my head a little.
If anything, I might have said it was my element.
“The Devil gave out orders. He instructed you to find children. Kick down doors, hunt them, bring them to him intact?”
“The intact was implied. He tells you to bring him something, you don’t damage the goods. He gets to do the damage.”
I sighed a little. “That’s fine. What other orders did he give?”
I could see the man’s eyes move, a glance at his buddy on the ground.
Without looking, I pointed the revolver at the one on the ground. He made a yelping sound, in his haste to exclaim in surprise and say something in the same breath.
I pulled the trigger, wincing at the force of the gunshot.
“I don’t know if I have the nerve for this part of things,” Pierre said, his voice breaking through the sound of ringing in my ears. “So much of it is fun, the fire, the running around, rescuing pretty nannies and dandy little boys. But I’m not one for killing.”
“Want to go for a walk, then? See that nobody’s heading in the direction of the gunshots and shouting?”
“I can do that,” he said.
His hand reached down, took mine, and he pressed his gun into it. I now had two, to aim at the remaining thugs. Their expressions were caught between glares and something more aghast.
“If I don’t get the answers from one of you two, then I’ll find another merry little band of piss-spittles and quiz them. I know that you’re supposed to say that the Devil scares you more than I do, but let’s cut straight to the chase. I pose the more immediate threat. What’s his move?”
“Going to the Academy,” the lead thug said.
“Interesting,” I said. “Why?”
“He doesn’t say why,” the man said. “You don’t predict him. You don’t ask! He can kill you if you ask!”
Getting too upset, too irate. His eyes kept moving left and right.
“Which Academy?” I asked.
“What?” he asked.
“Which Academy is he going to?”
There was a telling pause. Mentally fact-checking? I looked at the other thug, the one that wasn’t talking, and there was a flash of fear on his expression, then the look in my direction, to confirm.
I pointed the gun at the lead thug, and I pulled the trigger again. He didn’t even fall, what with the ropes still having something of a hold on his throat. He dangled, the strength gone from his knees.
“Okay!” I said, injecting cheer into my tone. “Your friend is a terrible liar. I get the feeling you are too.”
That fear had crystallized now. The thug had been a fairly decent liar, and I would have sussed it out quickly enough, but his buddy’s reaction had been the dead giveaway. Now I was hoping his buddy continued to be as forthcoming with details and information.
“Well, it’s not the Academy. Want to hazard an answer?”
“I-” the man said. His mouth opened, then closed, a fish out of water.
“If you take too long I’ll think you’re making up an answer.”
“The train station.”
That one caught me off guard.
“Doesn’t strike me as the type to run,” I said.
“He’s not. He’s laying a trap.”
“And it’s not a trap for me,” I said.
“We left the meeting, talked to some people, made sure we were ready for a war. Part of that, we went by the police station. Rang the special bell, talked to the chief.”
I set my jaw.
“You’ve got friends or something? People coming in on the train sometime tomorrow? You even asked about them, when you were being arrested? He- it’s what he does. You cross him, he destroys you and everything you love.”