“I want us all to be on the same page,” I said. I kept my eyes forward, scanning the surroundings. I had twenty youths ranging from eleven to eighteen years of age, Noreen, Pierre, and Jamie.
It was a good number. The trick with this sort of recruitment was that if I turned someone down, then others would get cold feet. Turning down Noreen would have made others second guess. The same had gone for the larger group of children. It was a strange quirk of psychology, something that didn’t make sense in the long run, but faced with what I’d described as serious danger, with a share of the city actively burning as I’d made my pitch, the idea of being turned down after offering help was an equivalent factor to the danger involved.
Had the poorer children of West Corinth been more zealous or courageous as a whole, and I had been in cities where they might have been, then I could have ended up with an unmanageable number. It would have been all too easy for me to be stuck delegating to Noreen, just to maintain some control, and losing control in the long turn.
Twenty was good. Twenty-five might have been better, but thirty too much.
“While we’re all getting on the same page, let’s start with page one. I’m doing the work here. You’re my eyes and ears. Everything I’m going to do is going to be done for a reason. I arranged the release of this man and one other man from prison, out from under the custody of forty or fifty Crown officers and another hundred or so staff members of the building.”
“He did,” Pierre said, without prompting.
“Each and every one of you has your own reasons for being here tonight,” I said. “Most of you despise the Devil of Corinth, John Colby. Some of you will want to get your hands dirty and take your shot at him. If you’re old enough and if you’re really insistent on it, I won’t say no to giving you that chance. But the bulk of you will go where I say and do what I say. The Devil’s men will pay for what they’ve done to your friends and families.”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around. I looked over the crowd of youths, being sure to look each in the eyes. A part of me was already studying them, trying to see who might be a bad communicator, the ones who might give me bad information. The ones who might break ranks and be creative, and put themselves at risk.
I needed to put on a bit of a show, to convince them of what I was doing. Words weren’t enough.
The simplest things could go a long way. I drew my knife very casually from my belt. While I talked, I let it dance around my fingers and my hand. I knew that most of the youths were fixated on the blade, as if waiting for me to slip up and gash a finger or drop it on my foot.
I looked over the group of youths, and suppressed a smile as I saw Jamie in their ranks. Hidden among the herd. He winked.
“Hand signals,” I said. “I’m going to run you through basics. I’ll give you a chance to ask questions later, and after that, we won’t speak unless it’s necessary. Starting off, most important thing, if you’re relaying someone else’s signal, give me a number. Take the number they gave you and add one. Or just make it one, if you’re passing it on from the original. Understand? First person says ‘danger’. Next says ‘one, danger’. Then ‘two, danger’, and so on. Assuming you all can count to ten?”
There were nods.
“Good,” I said. “Numbers. One, two, three, four, five…”
I used my fingers, indicating each gesture in turn. I stopped the knife act while I did so, to be sure I had their full attention. As I segued into later numbers, I touched my thumb to pinky, then to ring finger, then to middle finger, to index finger, and finally made a fist.
“…six, seven, eight, nine, ten. If people are too far away and you can’t see fingers, then use your hands, like they were clock hands. Someone gestures? Increase the count, copy it, pass it along.”
“Danger,” I said, extending fingers, pointing them together. “There, there, there, be aware, trap.”
There were nods. People didn’t seem enthusiastic. There was uncertainty.
I fiddled with the knife as I thought over the balance I needed to strike. I wanted to have more comprehensive signals, but I could make do without. It was better than overloading them.
“If you want to indicate that something important is happening, or you’re in danger? Hand over your head. Pierre? Look for them, follow it to the source, then relay it back to me at the next opportunity.”
“Not a problem.”
“If you see people? Signal danger, the direction, and the number of people. That gets passed on, I see it, I’ll manage it. Do that, stay out of sight, and if I or Pierre say to do something, do it. That’s your job.”
Jamie subtly signed noise, followed by blind.
“Actually,” I said, “Now that I think about it. One more sign. But it’s not one you need to remember and give to me. It’s one I might give to you.”
I brought a fist by my ear. I ‘exploded’ it open twice, fingers extending so they pointed at my ear.
“Noise. If you see me do that, make noise.”
They looked uncertain.
“Trust me,” I said. “Just remember the hand-motions for numbers, danger, and for getting Pierre’s attention. Stay hidden and pass on signals you see. When in doubt, signal, or keep signaling with your hands.”
I looked over the group again, then indicated a pair.
“You two, I want you up here. On this rooftop. You keep an eye out, and you watch the groups I’m going to position over there and over there.”
I’d picked two who were sticking close enough together to be buddies or siblings. They would feel more secure in each other’s company, which I deemed necessary, given how nervous and uncertain they seemed. It would put them fairly far out of the way.
“There’s a ladder over here,” I said. “Come on.”
It took a frustrating ten minutes to get them settled, to find them a hiding spot where they had a good vantage point to see the area and the nearby balcony and rooftop where their neighbors would be.
The balcony was easier. One individual, older than me.
Once he was masked by the gloom, he was really only visible if someone was looking for him.
In twos and ones, I positioned the children and adolescents. I wasn’t quite done when the first set of hand signals came through. I saw the two-danger-west-one signal, then the three-danger-west-one signal.
I nodded. “I’ll need someone to come with me,” I said.
“I’ll come,” Noreen said.
“No. Stay with the rest. Keep them together, keep them safe. I’ll take… you.”
I indicated Jamie.
He didn’t smile or wink. He even managed to look a little spooked at the prospect of accompanying me. Of all the youths present, I was pretty sure that only Noreen might have seen the ruse. She was sharp, and she was watching the two of us as we walked off.
We were a good distance away before Jamie commented, “You seem to be loving this.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” I said, under my breath, lying.
“It’s the Lamb’s signal network, like we’d do on a job. But instead of quality, you’re aiming for quantity.”
“More familiar ground, that’s all.”
“You’ve got it set up so you have your own lesser Lambs feeding you the information you need, and you get to be in the spotlight all the time. Presumably. I have no idea where you want me in this plan of yours.”
“Sharing the spotlight, of course,” I said, quiet.
I saw the signals appear again. The timing and the direction that they popped up told me things. The man they’d spotted was closer, now. He also seemed dangerous to my lookouts, given how quickly they’d chosen to signal again. Weapon in hand?
“Stay out of sight of the lookouts where you can,” I said. “Take out the ones you can. I’ll rendezvous with you regularly, so we can compare notes and work together on any bigger puzzles.”
Lots of houses with lawns around here, garages, one-horse stables, carriages, and a surprising number of automobiles. I assumed we were close to one of the big manufacturing cities.
It was a city built around the imposing fort that had become the main building of Corinth Crown Academy, a city initially meant to be a vacation destination. The whimsy of the vacation side mingled with the fort element of things, creating a distinct style. Many buildings had a flashy ‘castle’ aesthetic, with crenelations around rooftops and very square or rectangular buildings that favored arches. Other parts of the city were stylish, but the style almost always had something utilitarian to it, if it wasn’t done up in a way that was clearly built to weather bad circumstances.
Only the heavy use of builder’s wood broke up the stony, sturdy look that predominated, with branches winding this way and that up building faces, many of the branches reinforced or shaved back in a way that made them annoyingly difficult to climb.
I saw the third wave of signals, and saw the children in the shadows at the edge of one rooftop, peering past crenelations to watch Jamie and I make our silent approach.
Wait, I signaled to Jamie.
I still held the knife from earlier. I shifted my grip on it as I approached the corner, watching the face at the edge of the rooftop.
I watched as his eyes widened. I heard footsteps.
I gestured. The motion toward my ear, fist exploding into extended fingers, twice.
The man stepped into view, head turning toward the sound, away from me. I noted the gun that he had out. His weapon of choice and his style of dress matched the Devil’s men, shirt-sleeves were rolled up to expose an uneven tan, he wore simple slacks with suspenders and sturdy boots, and had a cap with a brim tucked into the back of his waistband.
I drove the knife into the back of his knee, piercing. The angle I drove it in and the position of the blade meant the sharp edge slid against tendon. Something was severed and snapped.
The man tipped to the ground, screaming a moment later than it felt like he should, given the nature of the injury. I saw him catch himself, hands going to the ground to keep his face from smacking into the road. His screaming continued, taking on a different kind of pitch as one hand went back toward his waist.
I beat him to it, drawing his knife and slashing it toward the reaching hand. He flinched, lost his balance, and collapsed down onto his belly, the scream terminating as his remaining air woofed out of him.
I slashed my knife against the back of his other knee, paused, to see what he’d do next, and on seeing him try to use his arms to prop himself up, kicked his elbow hard. I’d hoped it would fold the wrong way, and it didn’t, but it did seem to hurt him an awful lot.
One good cut at the elbow and another at the wrist of his other arm effectively incapacitated him.
He alternately screamed and whimpered as I searched him. I found a wallet and emptied it, took a set of keys, and then stepped back.
“Not going to finish him?” Jamie asked, from the shadows.
“The lookouts need to know I’m for real. If the enemy wants to help him, they’ll have to devote hands and time to the job. It’ll slow them down, and it’ll demoralize,” I said.
“It’ll demoralize your lookouts, watching and listening to a man die,” Jamie said.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “They’ll do what they’re supposed to. They’re part of a system now.”
“They might be willing to betray me, but they won’t be willing to betray everyone else they’re working with. Most won’t be, anyway. This isn’t going to collapse unless one of the lookouts gets spotted and gets hurt as a consequence,” I said.
“What’s the end goal?”
“For now? Dealing with the patrols and reinforcements.”
“Morale plays a part in a siege, Sy. This isn’t what I was talking about, with the maid. But it’s a thing.”
“You saw it, when we were talking to Noreen. I think it was the same when we talked to the other children. There’s a general awareness that there’s danger in this city. Anywhere you go, really. That people prey on other people. There’s no hope, not really. They might be more unhappy in the short term, but in the long term… they’ll think back to tonight, and maybe there’ll be hope.”
Jamie moved closer, to look down at the man, who was trying his best to drag himself away with one intact elbow, a gashed one, and two injured knees.
“Dark sort of hope, Sy,” Jamie murmured.
“I don’t know what other kind to offer,” I said.
“Don’t forget that they’re people,” he said.
“The children. Every last one of them is complicated. You can be good at dealing with base human behaviors, pushing people one way to get the reaction you want, pulling another way to set them up to fail or, more rarely, to succeed. But there’s more going on. There are longer-reaching consequences.”
I nodded, watching the man struggle.
He would bleed out. It would take a while.
“Are you talking about someone particular?” I asked.
“Topic for another night,” Jamie said. “We shouldn’t dawdle.”
We hurried back on our way to Noreen and the remaining lookouts. I made a point of waiting until I was near them before I cleaned off my knife and sheathed it.
Jamie had already made himself scarce again.
“It’s going to be a long night,” I addressed the larger group. I indicated a building with the general proportions of a barn. “Three people in there. Two on one end, one on the other. Can relay signals across the building. Let’s find our way in.”
One hour in. Four bodies, two maimed. The second one I’d maimed had gone quiet, while the first was still making noise on occasion.
I was using a stone to straighten one of the knives I’d claimed when I saw the signals fly up.
Hands in the air. Special attention needed.
Another set of signals followed. Danger, three men. Three groups away.
Three men who were doing something I needed to be aware of. I knew where the groups were stationed, and there were only two points that could be where the trouble was originating.
I looked at Pierre, who immediately headed off in the direction in question. I followed, at a considerably slower pace.
My arms hurt. I’d gouged the webbing between finger and thumb with the guard of my knife during one of my stabbing sprees. One of the men had accidentally hit me across the face as he’d tumbled to the ground, tipping more onto me than away from me. Still, the damage and fatigue were negligible.
I saw Jamie, and gestured, directing him in one direction, while I moved in another, so we were each moving toward different sites.
My heart nearly jerked its way free of my chest as I ran into Pierre.
Rather than speak, he copied the gestures. Danger, two. His hand dropped, as if he was indicating a certain height.
I nodded. Children.
I picked up the pace, Pierre following and watching my flanks.
I was just in time to see two thugs pushing a small wagon, each holding one of the arms as they pushed it like an oversized wheelbarrow. They moved it against a shed, and one of them held the wagon steady while the other climbed up onto it, which would allow him to get onto the shed, which would then serve as a stepping stone to get onto the low roof.
I kept to the grass as I approached, moving quick and low to the ground.
“Get the little fuckers!” the one on the ground said. “Devil’s gonna be happy we finally found some.”
He was leaning forward, resting one foot on one of the arms of the wagon that would be strapped to the horse’s side. His focus was on what was happening above.
It would be so handy if the girls I’d situated on the roof were looking over and I could signal them. Jamie’s idea for the timed distractions had been invaluable, turning heads and drawing attention at just the right times, allowing me to dart across a street I’d normally be spotted on, or giving me the freedom to strike.
I looked for Pierre and didn’t see him. He’d studiously avoided the places where the killing was happening.
As it was, I had to do this myself.
The one that was climbing onto the shed was trying to manage the climb while holding a pitchfork. I had only a few moments. After that, I faced the chance that he would simply get onto the roof and take the girls hostage.
I approached the man at the lower part of the wagon without making a sound. Hamstringing would do.
At just the last second, I saw the bulge at the side of his overalls. Gun, a concealed one.
I grabbed his arm with one hand, and sliced through his armpit with the knife as he wheeled to face me. As he turned, he took his weight off of the arm of the wagon. His buddy, still trying to make the climb onto the shed’s roof from the end of the wagon, was dropped to the ground, pitchfork coming down on top of him. Unfortunately, it didn’t come down pointy end first.
The one I’d sliced tried and failed to reach for the gun at his side, but his arm was injured. He looked for a moment like he would go for the awkward fumble using the wrong hand, but caught me off guard when he instead decided to throw a punch, smacking me right in the mouth.
This was bad. Any confrontation I couldn’t resolve in the opening move was a lost fight, as far as I was concerned.
I staggered back a fair distance, one hand going to my mouth. The one who’d punched me drew a blade from a sheath he’d attached to his overalls, between the shoulderblades. A machete.
While he drew the machete, I drew my gun. I aimed and fired it, putting a bullet through one corner of his eye socket and into his skull cavity. I winced at the noise of it.
Pitchfork scrambled to his feet, but with the wagon to one side of him, the shed to the other, he didn’t have much of anywhere to go. I fired once, putting a bullet through his gut, then, on judging his reaction, put another one through his gut for good measure.
Round bullets, low velocity gun. The shot would make a ruin of his midsection. He would die, and it wouldn’t be fast.
“You’re safe now,” I spoke, loud enough that the girls on the roof could hear.
The man I’d shot groaned.
The girls were fourteen or so. It hadn’t been long ago that Lillian had resembled them. The Lillian of almost two years ago had worn a similar expression. Haunted and tear streaked.
Her specter appeared next to me. I could smell her. I could feel her warmth and that tightness in my chest I felt when she clung to me in that way she did.
I’d mentally classified the two fourteen year old girls as being grittier than they were, being older than they’d seemed to be. They were trying to put on a brave face, but I could see the tracks of tears from when they’d believed the man with the pitchfork was going to get them, and I could see the lingering fear.
I looked at Lillian, and I saw her plea.
I put another bullet in the man who’d been climbing onto the shed, turning the slow death into a fast one. I heard a yelp from the roof.
I put the gun away and looked up.
“I made noise,” one of the girls on the roof said. “They heard.”
“It’s fine. You signaled, right? For help?”
“Then you did everything perfect,” I lied. “Noise can’t be avoided, sometimes. You’re okay? Unhurt?”
“Okay,” I said. “Just stay hidden for now. No need to worry about signals. The sound of the gunshots might bring more attention, so keep your heads down for now.”
It would hurt, not having the girls as part of the network, but they were in a bad state, and it would only be downhill from here.
I saw one nod. A moment later, they retreated.
I approached the bodies, already looking to see what I could take off of them, when I sensed someone approach. I turned, gun in hand.
I lowered the gun.
He shot a glance up toward the roof. He’d been close enough to maybe see or hear the tail end of that interaction. That, or he’d drawn conclusions from the scene.
“Don’t say anything,” I said.
“Won’t,” he said, quiet. “Your ‘system’ has its kinks, but it’s working so far. There’s something to be said for that.”
He moved closer, and looked down at the guy who’d punched me. “Lieutenant.”
“Is he? Bastard had a gun and a machete.”
“He also hit you, looks like,” Jamie said. He reached out to touch my face, and I pulled away, annoyed.
“Does it look bad?” I asked.
“Not too bad. You’ll be bruised in the morning unless we get you some medicine. I think there are some syringes in the luggage back at the orphanage. Will work, unless we wait too long.”
“We might. We’re playing the long game here.”
“Other group said they’re fine,” he said.
“We’re cutting down their numbers, but this won’t decide anything,” Jamie said. “We have to make a move on the train station sooner or later.”
“I sent Pierre out to take a look,” I said. I finished searching the bodies, pocketing another gun, and then straightened. I fixed my clothing a bit, and gingerly touched my lip. “They’re agitated. They might have heard some of the screams, and they’ll definitely have heard the gunshots just now. People they were expecting to come relieve them haven’t. So they’re doing tentative patrols around the train station. I told Pierre to look at houses near the train station that had a vantage point to see anyone coming and going, and he thinks there were some suspicious people.”
“A direct approach doesn’t work. The people on either side of the street who are watching from nearby buildings come out and fold in behind us. Targeting the people in the buildings gets messy-”
“-because while we handle that discreet job, patrols move to the train station, or to the same building you’re trying to clear.”
I nodded. “And they get reinforcements, fresh eyes, information, and reassurance.”
“Can’t have that.”
I shook my head. “No siree. Which means we wait it out. Apply the pressure until something breaks.”
“Or the Devil makes his move.”
“He will,” I said. “Unless he’s a completely separate entity from Mr. Colby, then he’s got some logistician in him.”
“He’ll know those people he’s moving from here to there aren’t getting to their destination.”
“Exactly,” I said.
Pierre stepped out of the shadows, shaking his head. Quietly, he said, “You’re a strange pair.”
I diplomatically chose not to say the obvious to the rabbit-headed man with the bulging eyes.
“Something going on?” I asked him.
“What you were talking about. The Devil is making his move. The lookouts were trying to signal, but the group closest to him didn’t want to stick their heads up. The chain of communication was broken.”
“He’s here?” I asked.
“He’s here,” Pierre said. “The signals. they came in so fast and with so many different numbers I couldn’t keep track.”
“A lot of people?” Jamie asked.
“A lot of people,” Pierre said. “Nine or ten, from the furthest group away. Then a number I can’t remember, but more than five, and then seven, then ten, then-”
“An army,” I said.
“Too many to be the Devil alone,” Jamie said.
“The Apostle. They’ve figured out we’re here, probably figured it a little while ago, if they’ve brokered this deal to join forces,” I said. I leaned against the wall, thinking. “Forces fanned out, then?”
“Which group didn’t report in?” Jamie asked.
“Third group out.”
“And the Devil was near there?”
“Something like that, from what I could get from them,” Pierre said.
Jamie nodded, processing that.
“They know what we want and they’re hellbent on keeping it from us. They’re going to get to the train station,” I said. “If they don’t find us on the way, they’ll reinforce the group that’s already there.”
“Most likely,” Jamie said. “Unless you’ve got a weapon of war.”
I shook my head.
“The strategy could still hold,” Jamie said. “Siege them.”
“You default to being too cautious,” I said, still thinking. I had a good mental picture of where the groups were, now. It was a vague picture, but I’d quickly picked up my own system. When I saw that ‘three’ pop up to suggest the message had come from three groups away, I had an almost instinctive sense of where the people in question were.
Now I was doing that with the Devil, and I was having to admit to myself that it wasn’t worth the risk to keep the system in place. Not during this stage of things.
“Remind me to give you that raise.”
“And, without putting yourself in danger, do your best to get to the children. Communicate to them. No more signals. Just hide.”
“I can do that.”
Somewhere, a third of the way across the country, the Lambs had already boarded a train, and were on their way here. They were discussing Jamie and I, formulating a strategy, talking about the situation in West Corinth and what they might expect. I imagined some nostalgia, some heightened emotion.
I thought about that heightened emotion getting cut short in a few instants of violence, the Lambs outnumbered and cornered from the get-go.
“Sylvester,” Jamie said, cutting in.
I raised my eyes from the point in the ground I’d been staring at. I looked up at Pierre.
“Thank you, Pierre. That’ll be all for right now.” I said, gesturing much as I’d seen Noreen do. He ran to see to his task.
The gesture reminded me… “Noreen’s close?”
“Close enough,” Jamie said. “Why?”
“We’re going to have to get creative,” I said. “And I got the impression she wanted to get her hands dirty at some point tonight.”