Jamie had made his way down from the roof. Deeming the coast clear, he approached, stopped, and took in the scene. He joined me in working to drag the bodies so all three were placed near one another.
“I should have known,” he said. “In your twisted mess of a mind, when you propose the safe plan and the dangerous plan as a backup, and the dangerous plan could be seen as more amusing or fun from any angle, you’re really plotting to go ahead with the dangerous plan.”
“Oh, you’re talking about me going down the ropes.”
“Yes. What else would I be talking about?”
“I completely forgot about the rope thing,” I said. I gave the soldier a pat down as we propped him up next to the other two. I found some bullets and placed them in the revolver.
“Glad to know the risk was worth it, then,” Jamie said, with a trace of sarcasm.
“Colby knows about the Lambs. They’re due on a train that’s coming tomorrow. He’s already sent people to the train station.”
Jamie blinked. I saw the concern on his face as he processed the idea.
“When do the trains arrive?” I asked.
“Up to fifteen minutes late or fifteen minutes early, but… discounting the six-thirty train-”
“Too early,” I said.
That got me a nod of confirmation. “Eight, eleven-thirty, then in the afternoon, two, five, eight-thirty, eleven. The last train is sometimes late, depending on whether the green train gets priority, I’m not sure what the system is. That’s for passenger trains. Again, fifteen minutes deviation either way.”
“Every two hours starting at seven. More reliable than the passenger trains. Five minutes deviation? Seven, nine, eleven, one, three, five, seven, nine, green train at eleven, then one o’clock in the morning…”
“And so on.”
“And so on. You think they’d take a commercial train? The trains pass through. Most don’t even stop.”
“We’ve jumped off of enough trains. I’m just… I’m trying to anticipate the moves the Lambs are making, the moves the Devil is making, and what our best play is. I would have gotten your attention and immediately headed off, but I needed to think, and we need to wait for the rabbit.”
“Yes. He went for a walk. Didn’t like the murder-interrogation angle.”
Jamie gestured. Bad. The second word he used was the one for behind, but he moved straight into the gesture for time. Past.
I raised an eyebrow.
Later. He gestured.
He didn’t want Pierre to hear us talking about him. Fair.
“It’s, what, eleven o’clock at night now?” I asked.
“Close to,” Jamie said.
“And you said I don’t have good timing,” I said. “That was an off the cuff, educated guess, young sir.”
“I’m shocked that you even remember that part of our conversation earlier, yet you can’t keep simple names straight.”
“I remember what’s important,” I said. “And if you doubt me, then it’s important I correct that. We have to be able to trust one another.”
“Very important,” Jamie said, deadpan. “But we’re getting distracted. Yes. It is eleven o’clock. Go on.”
I shot him a look. “What are you talking about?”
He gave me a look.
“Just kidding, kidding,” I said. “Eleven o’clock. First possible train the Lambs are on would be arriving at eight.”
“That gives us a time window to work with. It gives him a time window too. One where he has the initiative.”
“If anything, we could wait, bide our time, and see if Colby’s men get tired or restless.”
“Let’s assume he’s not stupid,” Jamie said.
“He found out about the Lambs and he has the sense to target them. I’m not assuming he’s stupid,” I said.
“He might not let his men get tired like that. He’ll have reinforcements. He’ll swap out the people who’re camped out there, keep the numbers fresh. He might even anticipate that we’re going to make a move on the train station. You called him a logistician. Don’t forget who your enemy is.”
“I don’t forget about my enemies,” I said. “Or my allies.”
Jamie raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
I spoke, “Since his source on the Lambs was the local police, he might know the actual time they’re arriving. Which leaves us in the lurch and gives him the ability to make a move and relocate the bulk of his forces at the critical time.”
“You didn’t mention that part. About him talking to the local police.”
“No, yeah,” I said. “That came up.”
“Okay,” Jamie said. “That paints a picture of the man as someone who is deep-set into the local infrastructure.”
“No argument here,” I said. “Damn it! I shouldn’t have spoken up about the Lambs, back at the station. I was just so eager to know if the Lambs were en route, so I could adjust my plans, that I let it slip. Shortsighted. Damn it!”
“Nothing we can do about it now.”
I finished searching the second man. I came up with a pack of cigarettes, and pocketed it.
“You’re smoking, now?” Jamie asked.
“Maybe. What if I am?” I asked, defensive.
“You’re not,” he said. “I can see through your acts and fibs. What are you thinking?”
“That I want to make a play, but we need soldiers and we need information. We should talk to the mouse king and the mouse queen as the first step in that.”
“Maurice and Noreen.”
“You sure do remember your allies and enemies, Sylvester.”
“They’re neither. They’re… factors.”
“Things to be considered. Neither good nor bad. Like the weather. Like this lazy city. Like the fire. Two stubborn teenagers who are just clever enough and just capable enough to get in my way, but not clever enough to listen to me. This Noreen, she reminds me of Rick.”
“Oh good. You should get along with her then.”
“Want to listen in?” I asked. “Maybe you can get a better sense of her than I can. Queer as that sounds.”
“You’re good at reading people you know. I’m good at reading people in general. But she… turns things upside down. Maybe you can get a clearer impression than I can?”
“I’m not against it.”
I nodded. I looked around for the rabbit, then brought my hand to my mouth, whistling.
The rabbit stepped out of shadows, half a block away. I used my arm to indicate a direction, and started walking. He moved in parallel, rather than toward us.
We were a full two streets over before he reunited with us. He made no mention of his departure from the interrogation. I could respect that. He had his limit, he knew where it was drawn, and he made no excuses for it.
I opened my mouth to say something, then stopped and turned to Jamie. “Is there room in the budget for paying this guy more?”
“This guy? You mean Pierre?”
“Thank you for getting my name right,” Pierre commented. “I’ve been called a rabbit too many times tonight.”
“We have no budget. We have very little money to spare at the current time, Sy. Again, if you want more, you have to earn more. It’s that simple.”
“I just want to make sure we keep him around. I like him,” I said. I looked up at Pierre, “I respect his work.”
“I would not turn down more pay than what we initially discussed,” Pierre said, very diplomatically.
“We’ll see,” Jamie said.
The streets weren’t all lit. Perhaps one in three streets had streetlamps, artificial and flickering. One in three used to have streetlamps, but the fires and a possible pull on resources elsewhere had left them without power. They sometimes flickered to life for just a moment before dying, suggesting there was a connection somewhere along the line. The last third were dark.
“Fires seem more or less at the stage we thought they’d be,” Jamie said, craning his head. “I was worried about a bit of wind or something blowing them into residential areas, but we seem pretty secure.”
“Good,” I said. “You said the winds shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I said the odds were in our favor. Reading and memorizing fifteen years of the farmer’s almanac does not guarantee my predictions.”
“Did this time.”
“I don’t understand you two at all,” Pierre said. “Predicting the weather? Thinking like you’re doing? Knowing which places to burn when people won’t be there?”
“But it makes you feel powerful, doesn’t it?” I asked. “It’s like knowing the right piece to remove from a machine to make it collapse into its constituent pieces. Except I’m the one telling you which piece it is.”
“Uhh,” Pierre said. “I suppose? Except I was setting fires. Not removing pieces.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Pay me, keep me out of any trouble, let me stay free and let me run, and we’ll get along famously,” Pierre said. He raised a hand to his ears, stroking them so they pointed directly behind him.
“Fair deal,” I said. “Can you be intimidating?”
Oh, the mouse king and queen were mad.
Jamie and I had plotted out the likely spot for the mouse king and queen to regroup. The ‘yard’ was a place that the local youth fought over. It was a king of the hill scenario, a dominance game where the gang of youths who had the most power would hold the yard, get first say in who got to hang there and use it. Younger academy students from Corinth Crown, students from Bergewall, and the local indigent youth formed the six primary factions. It was six and not three because the individual groups broke down into indistinct lesser factions. The visiting children from the hospitales formed a final faction, allying with different groups that curried favor, with the poorer factions being the most common ally of choice.
Impossible to corral, hard to pin down, and as hard to herd as an equivalent number of cats. Each group numbered four or five at most, so it wasn’t even worth the trouble to track them down. Not while they were all scattered.
Noreen’s group, separate from all of the others, was larger, but didn’t really make tries for the yard, to the best of my knowledge. With their house having burned, fear of further attacks on the immediate horizon, and an awful lot of questions, they had headed for the yard, the best-known meeting ground. The space was set up so any number of sports could be played there, and there were two clubhouses that sufficed as temporary shelters in the here and now.
I was highly suspicious that they’d had some hopes of recruiting other children who headed here in a time of crisis, as a natural meeting point. Maybe they’d even hoped to form a greater faction.
But I was one step ahead. As we’d spread word, we’d directed the local youth well clear of the mouse queen and the yard.
You’re too dangerous, I thought, as I stared down Noreen. The rabbit stood behind me, an eerie figure for the gathered children of Noreen’s camp, who were already feeling uncertain about how things stood.
“You started this,” she said.
“The Devil started it.”
“And burned down his own buildings?” Maurice asked.
“That was me,” I said, lying. “He had the incendiaries stockpiled. I just… prematurely set them off.”
“Did you now?” Maurice had a dark look in his eyes, but it didn’t translate to his voice. He sounded remarkably calm and detached. Then again, by my best estimation, he was detached. What he was doing here was a dalliance, a lark. There might have been real emotional ties to Noreen on some level, but he was in a position where he could always walk away, go back to the Academy, and do his thing there.
“That man was there when the fire started at our place,” Noreen said.
I felt a chill at the accusation, but I didn’t let it show in my expression.
I couldn’t read her, still. I could, I was realizing, read the people around her. The glances between them, looking for confirmation, the tells that pointed to surprise, the uncertainty… so long as she was this deeply tied into her people, who were on the edge of their seats, waiting for her next order, they were extensions of her.
“He absolutely was not,” I said. “He was with me all night. Well, more or less. He kept an eye out for trouble, tracking the movements of the Devil’s people. He wasn’t anywhere near here.”
I just had to hope that Pierre didn’t have any tells that she could read. If she even thought along those lines.
“You said you’d upset things. You said nothing about that affecting us,” Noreen said.
Her people were well trained. At the sharper tone, not quite angry, because she didn’t seem to have emotions like that, they were shifting position, getting ready to act.
Noreen was the big mystery. The person I couldn’t fathom and who I couldn’t seem to budge. I was tense, on the edge of my seat, waiting to see how this conversation unfolded, the doors it might open and the doors it might close.
“That’s not on me,” I said. “You slipped up somewhere along the line. Tipped him off.”
“Nothing tipped him off,” she said.
The stonewall again. Speaking with absolute, unassailable certainty.
“If anything,” Maurice commented, “You finding us earlier today might have been the problem. It remains suspicious, whatever your history is, and it’s coincidental that they supposedly found us on the same day you did.”
“I’ve been on the run for half a year. I was hunting people on the run before I had a wrinkle on my ballsack. They didn’t track me. Frankly, we could argue this back and forth all night and get nowhere.”
“No we couldn’t,” she contradicted me.
“No?” I asked. Every time she threw one of those stonewall responses at me, I felt my teeth grinding against one another. I kept a casual expression on my face all the same.
“Because I don’t need to be convinced. I know what I believe, and I believe that you’re a problem,” Noreen said. “I’ll deal with you, and remove the problem.”
She gestured. That same airy wave. Among the ten or so present, knives, lengths of chain, and small bats appeared. There was one gun in the mix, too.
I hated her. She was, in so many ways, a reflection of what I found difficult about Jamie, when I found Jamie difficult. Inflexible, immovable, obstructive, and incomprehensible. Funny, that I loved Jamie like a brother, but hated her, and I could draw parallels.
“That won’t bring them much emotional satisfaction,” I said. “I don’t get a feeling you get much emotional satisfaction from anything that isn’t cigarettes, candy, or Maurice. It doesn’t solve anything. I die violently, you work out some aggression in the short term, but the situation is still what it is, you still have questions, and you have no power to answer them. You live in fear for the next while, while the Devil rages.”
“Some of us have lived in fear every day of our lives,” Noreen said.
I saw one or two nods in the group of hardened youth.
“I’m offering you a life without fear. It starts with removing the Devil from the picture. It means food, shelter, and power.”
“With you at the top?” Maurice asked.
“I’m leaving, so no,” I said. “Within the next few days. Some friends are coming into town tomorrow. I’ll be gone a day or two after. When I leave, and I’m making this pledge to you, things will be stable. The fighting will be done with. Nobody will prey on children in West Corinth, and there will be sanctuary here. Should that situation change, I’ll appear, or I’ll send agents.”
“Fanciful,” Maurice said, sounding far from impressed.
I did my own airy gesture, indicating the man who stood behind my right shoulder.
“Oh?” Pierre asked, with a note of surprise. Every eye present focused on him, with the exception of mine. He was the kind that drew attention from the smallest of actions. “I didn’t know I was speaking at this meeting.”
“Can you vouch?” I asked.
“Ah. I suppose I can vouch. I’ve worked for a lot of people, and you seem cleverer than the rest of them put together.”
I gestured for him to continue.
“You set big plans in motion, and they seem to work. I believe you when you say all of this.”
“Thank you,” I said. I focused my attention on Noreen.
“What do you want?” she asked me, and it wasn’t an offer of help nor was it anything close to being conciliatory. It was a challenge. She was ready to fight me on this.
“Right now? I’m saying you can come with me, and I have little expectation any of you will listen, but I’m making the offer, and I want you to remember the offer very clearly. Because this matters. I’m going to go find other children, and I’m going to organize them to take down the Devil. Someone I know you have a grudge against. I’m betting every one of you has been hurt by him in some form. Now I’m going to go and I’m going to do more than use his own incendiaries to burn down his headquarters.”
I’d found the hook and I’d set it. Noreen and Maurice had told me about the children the Devil had killed, the children he had taken, and the children he had drugged. The odds were good that every one of their elite soldiers here had seen the fallout and the casualties of the man’s actions.
Now, by her inaction, by making her people stay, she had to remove those hooks. She was telling them not to take action. To stop me from working against the Devil would mean tearing those hooks out in a violent way, to be working against everything they felt they should be doing.
The hooks had a barb.
“Either you come with, in which case I can hurt him more, or you hold back, and you know that your cowardice at this critical time insults the memory of all the people you’ve known, befriended, and loved, who John Colby and the other local powers have hurt,” I said. In which case I can loosen your hold on your members and poach them later.
“I’m trying to understand your approach,” Maurice said.
“I’m trying to stop John Colby, help the children of this town in a way you haven’t been able to, and change things for the better, putting a new infrastructure in place for before I leave,” I said.
“You’re treating Noreen and I as the enemy.”
He was astute.
I’m treating you as enemy because you are the enemy, in a way. You’re not people I can work with, and you’re not people who’re helping all of the children who need helping. You’ve set yourselves up as a local institution and you’ve left no room for a stronger organization of mice to grow.
You’re too damaged and too compromised, respectively, to be what the mice of West Corinth need.
I gave some time, appearing to weigh his words, then shook my head. “I don’t think you’re the enemy. But I don’t think you’re what the local mice need.”
“Mice. That word again,” he said.
“I think… you found Noreen and you two work well together, in a way. And that’s fine. But you’re getting older. Maybe you started off thinking it was a fling, and you would break it off as you got further into your studies at the Academy. But it stopped being a fling. You’re a pair, now. For better or worse. And as that pairing formed… you’ve been pulling away.”
“You don’t know us,” he said.
The sharpness of his response suggested I’d hit fairly close to home.
“Your focus isn’t on them. It won’t be. Mine is.“
“And you’re better? A more positive force?” he asked, incredulous. His voice raised, “You started a war!”
It was surprising, to hear the laid back young Academy student raise his voice.
“What did you expect?” I asked, fierce. “You know as well as I do that people have been preying on the people in this city. Some of you are the prey! You’ve done nothing. Some warnings here and there, some counsel, but things are what they are and they haven’t changed for a long, long time. Yes, I started a war, or I didn’t stop the Devil from starting it, but there’s a cancer here and I’m doing the cutting necessary to get it out. It might hurt now, but it’s going to feel worlds better when we’re done.”
Take the bait. Take the bait. Take the bait.
“Sometimes,” Maurice said, his voice low, “You cut away the cancer and the patient dies.”
He took the bait!
“Come now, Maurice,” I said, my voice matching his, just as low and ominous. I spread my hands a little. “You complimented me on the quality of my stitching, didn’t you? Take my word for it. I’m good at the cutting part.”
He narrowed his eyes.
I backed away a step, arms still spread. “I’ve made the offer.”
I took another step back.
The hooks were set. How much pull did they have, now?
Another step back.
“I’ll come,” Noreen said. “If you’ll give me the Witch’s head before the night is over.”
Maurice gave her a faintly surprised look.
I don’t want you, I thought. I want your underlings, who follow orders so very nicely. I had no plans of going after the Witch in the immediate future, so that’s a pretty inconvenient proviso.
“Fine,” I said.
“I said I,” she said, “Because this isn’t a group anymore. No home to go back to. After tonight, I’m done.”
“I have no problem with that,” I said.
“Where are you going?” Maurice asked her, sounding vaguely lost.
“You said you had space for me,” she said.
“That was a lark,” he said. “Said in the heat of a very warm moment.”
“I’m holding you to it,” she said, lifting a knife to point at him. Deathly serious.
He huffed out a laugh. “I’m not coming. I have things to look after, and my absence would be missed. And it seems I have to make room in my apartment for Noreen, on penalty of death.”
The pair is broken? Or are they stronger than that?
I was jealous that they had each other. The rabbit stood to my right, the specter of Lillian to my left.
Lillian was in danger. Lillian was coming soon. The thoughts conflicted, fear and eagerness mingling.
The Lambs were coming. The Lambs were at risk. I had no idea what form that risk took.
One by one, the soldiers stood. They looked angry, confused, but I’d given them a clear target. Even if they didn’t wholly trust me, thanks to Noreen’s infectious and eerily accurate paranoia, the Devil was a clearer, more readily apparent enemy.
We left, putting the yard behind us. The place was the site of a perpetual game of king of the hill. Now, with the rest of the night looming before us, I was facing another game of king of the hill. The play for the train station. The devil with the benefit of having made the first move, a damn good play, and having the other major factions at least partially on his side against the upstart newcomer who had insulted and demanded blood money of them. That was what I was up against. I’d chosen the fight, but I didn’t like the battlefield or the nature of this particular contest. The Devil would be too entrenched, too enduring.
Me with only pawns on my side, really. We would have more pawns within the hour, at least. Noreen was a known face, and having her with me would at least help me recruit the bulk of the more capable children. I was hoping the benefits in that outweighed the drawbacks of, well, Noreen. My core forces currently consisted of Noreen, six mice and Pierre. I couldn’t be sure how many more I would recruit.
Which wasn’t to discount the ace up my sleeve, who was staying out of sight so he might seem dead to the rest of the world while he remained very much alive in reality. Jamie stuck to the shadows as Lambs quickly learned to do, not even aware that Lillian and Gordon kept him company.