The fires we’d started to open the night died down over the ensuing hour, which had an odd effect. I wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the way heat rose or the air currents that the open fires created, but now that the fires were dying, the smoke was worse than it had been all night.
I sat at our roost, a high rooftop overlooking the area, and I watched as men came and went. There were more squads of officers, stitched, doctors and warbeasts now patrolling the area. The smoke was likely a mercy of sorts, because the warbeasts hadn’t managed to scent our trail.
With fire on people’s minds, there were water pumps and hoses being carted around to strategic positions as well.
I’d told Jamie to inform me every time an hour passed, and he’d informed me of the first small movement of the short hand just a minute ago. It hadn’t felt like I’d spent an hour ruminating, but I was willing to take him at his word.
Three and a half hours to sunrise. Already, the coalition of the local underworld and the protectors of the city were taking up different positions. By dawn, it would look like the site was secured by law enforcement. The Devil would be absent or hidden.
It felt like time for the man to make his move. I wanted to have a good idea on what to do to make a countermove.
Jamie spoke up. I couldn’t see him that well in the gloom, but his voice was clear. “I don’t want to interrupt your train of thought, but I’ve been thinking things through, considering all the individual details on people, places, things, that we know about West Corinth and the surrounding cities, and I’ve hit a wall. If you have any starting points for other things to discuss, I’d appreciate it.”
“No train of thought. I’m going in circles.”
“Talk to me about the circles.”
“Points to attack, mainly. Is there an aspect of his character I can utilize? Morality or a lack thereof? Patience or a lack thereof? Can I bait him or use the fact that he’s about to do something against him? Can I change the facts as he sees them and paint a different picture?”
“Is it possible you’re narrowing your focus too much? The Devil is interesting, so you focus on him. All of those things are attacking his being. His identity.”
“Maybe. But I’ve considered other ways. Still focusing on him, but bigger picture, things like hitting him on the reputation front-”
“We tried that.”
“We did. I thought the way we’d done the fires and framed everything would put him at odds with the law. Apparently not.”
Jamie moved closer to me. He sat with his back to the side of the chimney I was peering past as I watched the soldiers. “If it helps, the officers down there are only part of West Corinth’s law enforcement. Dirty cops, I’d say. Or good cops led by a dirty superior.”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t surprised, and I’d considered the possibility as I’d mentally wrestled with the situation.”
“You were saying? Other methods of attack. Reputation.”
“We already hit him on the confidence front. The wagon thing had to smart. Losing the Apostle has to have weakened his grasp on some of the thugs he’s with. If there was another way, just some way to make them hurt, it could turn that crack into a divide. That ties into the respect of his men, and the flip side of that same coin is whether we can weaponize his respect or lack of respect for his men. Taking hostages, or fostering dissent, yes?”
“Yes,” Jamie said.
“Having you listen is helpful. Do chime in if you think of anything. I just said something about making him and his men hurt. Is there a good way to attack? To cost them resources and weaken their ability to hold the city? To hurt the organization? Their families? Can we figure out where he lives, and get both information and burn that down too?”
“Noreen would prefer to attack, I think,” Jamie said.
“I’m not sure there’s a good way to do it. We’d have to get close. I’d send another runaway wagon their way with a proper bomb, but I’m fairly certain it would get gunned down.”
“And that’s where I get stuck in an endless loop. I’ve been thinking about the other gang leaders, those present and those absent.”
“And about the local powers. If we could crack this by getting at the mayor, using the leverage of having helped his family. Or if there are other powers. Media? Workers? The end goal is to keep the Lambs from arriving and getting killed.”
“There’s a possibility that they won’t,” Jamie said.
“That they might fend for themselves? Or even be using a different means of approach?”
Jamie gave me a nod.
“Yeah. But there’s a possibility they will arrive on the train,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Lots of one-word answers from you. Tired?” I asked.
“Tired,” he agreed.
I wasn’t sure what to add to that. Jamie was sleeping twelve or more hours a day, most days. He hadn’t slept that much recently.
“If you want to slog off and go rest, I won’t say no.”
“You’re such a damn liar, Sy,” Jamie said. “You’re stumped. You need me.”
“If you want to nap now, then, refresh your brain, that’d be okay too. I’ll wake you if there’s something important.”
“Naps don’t count. I have to sleep long enough to dream, I think. At least, that’s what I’ve noticed.”
I drummed my fingers on my knee.
“Speaking of. What you said reminded me of something I read in relation to vat-grown humanoids and intelligence,” Jamie said. “Structuring, prioritization…”
“Yeah. I’m thinking about it. Give me a second.”
While Jamie thought, I craned my head around, looking at the sheer number on the ground.
“My predecessor wrote that Helen mentioned the vat-baby intelligence guidelines to you, which might have even been the foundation of that whole list of approaches you just came up with. You did something similar with the first hand signs. Helen told you about the stuff I ended up reading, and there is a whole category you’re missing. You’re focusing on what drives him, right?”
“Sure. Identity, psychology, the things that attach him to others, or others to him…”
“But at his core, whether he’s Colby or the Devil, he’s still a living thing. He’s driven by other needs. Basic ones.”
“I did actually think about that. Food, water, air, sleep… we can’t starve them out or dehydrate them. Smoking them out is possible, but I’m not sure about the method of deployment. Too reckless, too hard to contain to the right area, all with no guarantee it’ll work. That leaves his drugs. If he’s an addict, he’ll have his supply handled.”
“Hm,” Jamie made a noise. Then he nodded. “Alright. Will keep thinking.”
I leaned back. I was holding out hope that they would make a mistake, that they would send some key people out, and we could target those people. That wasn’t happening.
Basic needs. Drugs, sleep, food, water. There were others. Bathroom needs.
They had to go somewhere to use the bathroom. Was there a way to figure out where they’d go? Hot night like tonight, they’d be drinking to stay hydrated, which…
…went back to basic needs.
I thought for a moment.
“We have an option,” I said. “You’re going to help me nitpick it. But we’re doing it while on the move. The faster we can set this in motion, the more effective it’s going to be.”
“Got it,” Jamie said. He twisted in a bit of a funny way to avoid using his bad shoulder to get to his feet.
“Where did we leave Noreen again?”
“Just across the street. You’re more spry than I am. You want to go while I get down to the ground?”
“Alright. First stop is the Witch, and I have a feeling she’ll want to come along.”
Noreen bristled. She wasn’t exactly angry or impatient. Those weren’t words that applied to her psychology. But there was… danger. I felt like I might get shot or stabbed if I got in her way or slowed her down, now that we were so close to what she wanted so badly.
Close enough to see them, even. The Witch’s labs were situated in a factory, and all of the lights were on inside. Working all through the night.
I gestured to Jamie. Gun. Noreen.
“Noreen,” Jamie said.
“We’ll need your gun.”
“No,” she said.
It caught me off guard. She’d been strangely accepting of Jamie on a base level so far. She’d listened to him in a way she only seemed to listen to Maurice. Maybe even more.
“Do you want to march in there alone and open fire?” I asked. “Because you could have done that a long time ago, and you didn’t need our help to do it. But we’re working on something, and I can’t have you jeopardize that.”
“You promised me her head, and you’ll deliver it.”
“Yes,” I said. “After. But for now she’s useful to us.”
“She dies. She doesn’t get a chance to prove herself useful, or to postpone her death. You promised.”
“I never promised when.”
She turned on me. One hand went for the gun I’d given her. Jamie caught her wrist.
“Let go of me,” she said.
I saw her react to something I couldn’t see. Jamie let go of her wrist, and she raised her hands, holding them out to the sides, where we could both see.
“Betrayal?” she asked.
“No,” Jamie said. He divested her of the gun and used the back of his hand to pat her down, before taking a knife off of her. “But I know this is the only way you’ll listen.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Noreen,” I said.
She made a sound of dismissal.
“I imagine the Witch won’t recognize you on sight?”
“Answer him,” Jamie said.
“No. She probably doesn’t remember me.”
“Which makes it worse,” I said.
I saw a slight gesture from Jamie. Warning me off that course.
He’d avoided forming a rapport earlier. Was that the trick? She had a set idea of who and what I was, and she had an idea of who she was, and if I tried to connect, she would dismiss it as an impossible bridge to cross and then reject me.
“If she doesn’t remember you, that’s fine. All three of us are going to go in there. You’ll do nothing unless I ask you a question or signal that you should speak. After that, you’ll get what you want. Got it?”
She gave me a tight nod.
I let Jamie handle her while I approached the door.
No guards. No watching eyes, either.
I leaned close and pressed my ear against the door, listening to the murmur of conversation within. I kept my ear where it was as I knocked, firmly and loudly.
I could hear the conversation inside stop.
A woman’s voice.
I drew my gun, and I pointed it against the door.
The door swung inward, and I put the gun against the stomach of the Witch, who had opened it.
“Careless,” I said. I reached up with my other hand, grabbed her by the shirt, and hauled her out of the factory. Inside, some people were running for other exits. Others stood by, helpless.
Lots of what looked to be young Academy students or people of that general group, maybe dropouts. A distinct shortage of hired guns. Had the Devil taken hers, or was that simply not her usual mindset?
“A word,” I said.
“I’m listening,” she said. She glanced over at Noreen. Jamie was standing so that the Witch couldn’t quite see him.
“I like that you’re always very reasonable. I do have to wonder why you’re so busy at… two in the morning?”
“Two thirty,” Jamie said.
I looked inside. I could see vats and distillery tanks everywhere. There was a main water line with cranks and wheels to control the flow to each individual vat.
“Last minute work,” the Witch said.
“You’re reacting to the fires and other problems. Planning something,” I said.
The Witch was silent.
“You’re leaving,” I concluded.
“You burned most of the other groups’ headquarters. When Colby realizes mine is still intact, he’ll either blame me, he’ll seize my headquarters, or both. I’m getting as much stock as I can, and then I’m going. You won’t have to worry about me getting in your way or posing a threat to children.”
“In West Corinth,” Noreen said.
“What?” the Witch asked.
“If we let you leave, the children here will be safe, but the children in the city you end up in won’t be.”
“I’m willing to make any promises I need to if it means not getting shot. I’ll promise to leave children alone.”
“You’re lying,” Noreen said. “You’ll say anything if it means not getting shot. You look civilized on the surface, but beneath, you’re just a rat.”
The Witch managed to keep her expression placid. Most of her focus was on the gun.
“Was that why the Devil didn’t take issue with you capitulating to me at the meeting?” I asked. “He knew you were lying through your teeth?”
“No,” the Witch said.
I could see the dishonesty in her answer.
Noreen had hit the mark.
“I made you a promise,” I told the Witch. “That if you got the money together as compensation for victims, I would spare you. That promise holds, but, because you were very clearly planning to run before I came calling-”
I saw the shift in her eyebrows, the movement of her eyes, and the thinning of her lips as she pressed them together. I was dead on.
“-I’m going to ask for further compensation now. What you’ve got in there is worth money. I’m taking some. I’m taking a lot. With that, you and I can consider the scales balanced. The old deal will stand.”
“I don’t see how I’m in a position to refuse,” she said.
I saw Noreen’s shift in stance. Jamie then did something to get her to sit still and relax. But the movement, confrontational, was a response to the Witch’s statement. The woman was playing nice, but behind the surface, she was trying to work out a way out of her current predicament. She had no intention of cooperating, given the choice.
“Inside,” I told her.
I had her lead the way. I kept her between myself and the bulk of her employees as we moved into the factory room.
Wagons were set up inside, some already loaded up with liquid, others waiting, empty. A dozen students still remained, standing here and there, in their lab coats, both official Academy coats and cruder ones. None were older than twenty-five.
All around them, the distillery tanks were large, crude, and tall, each one filled to the brim with a different color of liquid. Flames beneath some had them bubbling. In others, mechanisms stirred the liquid. The entire place smelled like Wyvern felt. Acrid, noxious, harsh, and unforgiving. It tainted the air, and, as I touched the nearest surface, I could feel the residual moisture and the oily residue. Tanks took up half of the available floor space. Pipes running here and there took up nearly all of the walls and ceiling.
“Ma’am?” a student asked.
“Cooperate with them,” the Witch said.
“What’s going on?” the student asked.
“Quiet,” I said. “After I shoot her, I remove all of the witnesses. I’m a pretty good shot, so you really don’t want that.”
They were obedient, if nothing else. There were no further complaints or comments as I led the woman up the stairs that led to the catwalk, which ran between the various vats and tanks.
“Tell me about the drugs.”
“It’s not all drugs. Some of it is manufactured chemical that I ship out to other groups and Academies, cheap.”
“Tell me what you’ve got, then. Because what you do have, you’ve got an awful lot of.”
“That red fluid is still being strained. You can’t see it, but there’s a strainer in the middle. The-”
“Tell me what they do.”
“The fluid is herbicide. Made for a specific purpose. The Ravage. But it’s too strong.”
“Ravage. The red plague?”
“Next? That liquid that looks like urine?”
“It’s a drug. As a medicine, it helps prevent injury. Fortifies the constitution, can cut bouts of illness short, if the illness is prolonged because the body is too weak. Taken in large quantities, it fuels a sense of well being. A rush, but not of the same kind you normally think of with drugs. It refreshes, makes you content in a very subtle way, like you just woke up from a good night’s sleep and had a grand meal. I know the higher class will have some as a nightcap, to finish off the day well. Those in poverty like it because it gives them what they don’t have.”
Not too useful.
“The next? Brown liquid.”
“Does little on its own. Dehydrated, it’s used in pills to help limit the effects to the renal system.”
“And? Keep going. You should get the point by now. The more information you provide, the better your chances.”
“The violet fluid, it’s colored on purpose. Commissioned work. A cheap alternative to Academy treatment, for people looking to reverse the chemical sterilization.”
I glanced at the violet fluid. It looked more like thick paint than a drug.
“Who commissioned it?” I asked.
“A fugitive, Genevieve Fray,” the woman answered.
“Oh, I know Fray,” I said. I looked at the liquid again. There had to be a hundred gallons in there. “How much have you sent her?”
“One smaller sample, and then two brews, like you see there.”
Two hundred gallons already in Fray’s hands.
Creating a demand, then providing the fix that the Academy was slow or reluctant to provide. I looked away.
“Next?” I asked.
“Tell me more about it.”
“For high blood pressure, or for prepping patients to receive a massive chemical load. It’s… simultaneously very simple and very hard to explain. It breaks down blood cells. Turns patients orange, leaves them exhausted. A full three-quarters of the drug is minimizing damage to organs and brain.”
I nodded. The liquid had a strong rose tint to it.
“And the last?”
“For warbeasts and vat creations. It’s used to bind to calcium and promote bone growth or some armor plating development.”
“How very mild,” I said. “Thank you, for your answers.”
“Take what you need,” she said. “I’ll help you in any other ways you require.”
I nodded. “Then tell me about the children.”
I glanced back in the direction of Jamie and Noreen. Both were staying at the door, Jamie on the outside, Noreen just inside, watching.
“The boys and girls you took and experimented on.”
“I understand you care deeply about children,” she said. “I did it more when I was just getting started. While their parents were getting pay for subjecting themselves to medication, they would remain behind in the hospitales. Sometimes the parents didn’t come back. I offered food, shelter, clothing, in exchange for letting the children do what their parents had done. I was careful with the projects I picked, not always successful, but I tried. As I got my footing, I pared it off. It became a once-a-year thing.”
I listened, watching her. She’d turned to face me, and she clasped her hands together, moving them up and down as she spoke. So earnest.
“Since moving on from those days, I’ve given a share of my earnings over to the care of the little ones, and have sponsored one to go to an Academy and get his start. I regret what I did, and I know I can’t make up for it, but I’m trying.”
I studied her, watching, then closed my eyes.
After so many hours of dealing with Jamie and Noreen, it was so reassuring to be able to approach a situation and simply read someone else through and through.
I opened my eyes. “You’re lying through your lords-fucked teeth.”
I saw the momentary alarm on her face.
“Noreen!” I called out.
In my peripheral vision, Jamie let Noreen go. She crossed the room at a brisk, surprisingly quick walking pace, and took the stairs two at a time.
Noreen was entirely blank to my ability to read her as she reached the end of the wooden catwalk.
“May I suggest, Noreen, that the Witch here be given a bath?”
That only got a nod. No clever remark, no smile, no frown.
The Witch twisted around to run. She stopped as I jabbed the gun into her side, hard enough that she nearly tipped into the rose-colored blood thinner.
“You said you’d spare me,” the Witch said.
I seized her wrist, and moved around her, so she was between me and Noreen. “I said the scales were balanced between you and I. Not that you’d live for sure.”
“You little bastard,” the Witch said.
Is that the first time you’ve shown your real face to me? The Witch, rotten down to your core, stained through and through.
“To give you the quick rundown, Noreen… Calcium formula. Fertility medicine. Blood thinner. Kidney medicine, kind of. A constitution-building drug. Herbicide.”
My hand still on the Witch’s wrist, I felt the fractional movement of her hand and wrist as I mentioned the herbicide. I felt her pulse, after I’d finished listing it. Not during, but at the end. As if she hadn’t even thought I’d bring up the herbicide.
“She didn’t like it too much when I suggested a bath in the herbicide,” I said.
“I know,” Noreen said.
“No!” the Witch cried out. Deciding that the risk of being shot was worse, twisted, shoving at me.
Except I was already ready, gun pointed down. I controlled my fall, making sure to land on the catwalk, adjusted my aim, and pulled the trigger, demolishing her right calf. I’d been aiming for her knee, but all the same. She fell, and made some efforts to crawl toward the violet fluid. Noreen grabbed her, and I provided some assistance. We half-pushed, half rolled the struggling woman into the herbicide that was still being strained.
The fluid was thick, but not one that made humans particularly buoyant, by the looks of it. The Witch struggled within it in a way that suggested it took more work than normal swimming did. With one bullet in her leg, she fought to try and stay up enough to take in some air and make her way across to the far side of the tank, where she might be able to climb out. On her first surfacing, half of her hair was gone and her fingernail-beds were empty and raw, bleeding. On the second, as she turned her head to try and see where we were, I could see the damage to her eyes. There were blisters on the surface of the orb, and some blisters forming on her skin.
A harsh chemical, that.
“You can stay,” I told Noreen. “We’re done for now. I’ll be reaching out to the children of this city at a later point, if all goes well, so we may cross paths again.”
“I’ll be glad if we don’t,” she said. She walked around the rim of the vat, and stepped on the hands that were grasping the edge, as the Witch tried to haul herself out.
Realizing her struggle was futile, blind, and being consumed by her own work, the Witch swam back from Noreen, trying to make her way to another edge. Noreen walked around to intercept.
I glanced back at Jamie, then looked around the room to see those who’d stayed rather than run away.
“All the rest of you! If you don’t want to meet the same fate, run! Get out of here!” I called out.
The Witch’s underlings ran.
The factory was left empty, but it seemed noisier in the absence of the people. Fluid churned through tubes, machinery clunked onward, and the Witch continued to struggle.
With the underlings gone, Jamie walked in. He looked at the situation.
“Which one?” he asked.
I indicated the pink fluid.
“We’ll load it up, then,” Jamie said. “There are wagons around the side of the building.”
“Good,” I said.
“There are no guarantees this will work,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
The witch tried again to climb over the side. Noreen pushed her back in.
“You’ll regret it if you make this too quick,” I told Noreen. “Draw it out. Give her a chance to breathe. She’ll suffer more in the long run. Hell, you can let her out of the water. She looks pretty done.”
“I don’t care about that,” Noreen said. “I wanted her to die in a bad way. Drawing it out doesn’t matter.”
I was about to say something to clarify just how little sense that made, when Jamie jumped in with, “Let it go, Sy. Time’s important now, right? And we shouldn’t rule out that one of the fleeing Witch-apprentices isn’t going to go and tell tales of what happened to their boss. Trouble could be incoming.”
“Right,” I said. I wasn’t so worried about the Witch’s underlings telling on us. The only people who really mattered were occupying the train station.
We got a wagon and opened the doors to move it into the building. The Witch was equipped with a means of moving large volumes of fluid. The actual act of moving the fluid from the vat to the wagon was slow and painstaking.
Before we were done, Noreen left.
“Still don’t get her,” I said, watching as the fluid poured into the wagon-tank.
“Prey instinct,” Jamie said. “But very little else, and very focused on a single thing at once, not on the greater environment. She’s good at reading individual cues. We could use someone like her.”
“Please, no,” I said. “I don’t have the tolerance.”
“I have tolerance to you,” Jamie said.
I rolled my eyes.
“She’s very structured. Very easy to understand,” Jamie said. “Once you grasp that there’s no nuance. No compromise. Like she said, the color drained out of her world. It’s black and white. This or nothing. Once you grasp that, it’s not so bad.”
“The problem with people like that is that they don’t grow. They don’t change,” I said. “I couldn’t stay long-term with someone if I didn’t think they were capable of changing.”
“Capable of changing, Sy, or capable of being changed by you?” Jamie asked.
I gave him a look. “That sounded almost accusatory.”
“Not at all, Sy. Not at all. I wouldn’t change you for the world.”
That said, he slammed down the lever, shutting off the dwindling flow from the larger tank.
We hopped onto the wagon, and we got it moving. The sheer weight of the liquid made the initial movement slower and more unsteady.
“The water feed for the northwestern end of Elmer’s block is at 4th and Wrought,” Jamie remarked.
Counting the time we’d lost, we were running out of room to work. Four hours until the trains started arriving, give or take? Two and a half hours until dawn, when moving around would be that much more conspicuous?
The smoke in the city stung my eyes as we rode to our destination.
Four hours. We would contaminate the water supply. Four hours, on a hot night, they would drink to stay hydrated. They would wash their faces. Then, with luck, they would feel the impact. That would, I was hoping, be a crack in their setup that Jamie and I could exploit.
There were ways this might fail to work. If the dilution made the effect too weak, if they didn’t drink enough, if the drug took too long to take hold…
We moved around a figure that was standing in the middle of the road.
I turned my head, glancing back, curious.
“Devil’s made his move,” I said.
Jamie turned to look. The man we’d moved around had been keeping his head down, slouched over. Now his head was raised. He was running. Everything about his expression and the way he moved said intensity.
The fact that he was running faster than a human should run, and only falling slightly behind as he trailed roughly ten meters behind us? That not only said intensity, but it spoke to combat drugs. The kind that enhanced performance by letting a man push past usual limits and destroy his body in the course of that pushing.
The Devil had drugged people and sent them after us. Or planted them. Or something. But he’d made his move. Were they the failures? Perhaps the apostle’s men, no longer with a man to follow.
I turned, aiming my gun.
“No,” Jamie said.
No. He was right. Noise would draw attention. I held back.
We rounded a corner, and it wasn’t a fast process. We were burdened by a large, heavy tank, and the two stitched horses who were pulling us forward were only barely managing.
It bought the running man an opportunity to catch up. He threw himself at the wheel, and limbs or head got caught up in it. For a moment, I wondered if we faced karmic justice. If our wagon would go the same way the wagon we’d destroyed with the ladder had gone.
But it was sturdy work, meant to carry heavy loads. The man was left behind, crumpled in an unceremonious heap.
And, as we rounded the corner, we saw three more.
“They watched us leave,” I said, as it dawned on me. “They planted someone, they saw us, and they put these guys in place for when we came back. We need to take the long way around.”
“The long way around is a long, long way around, Sy. The city is built around two lakes. We’d lose an hour, maybe two.”
An hour. Maybe two. Then we’d have two or three hours to let the drug get to them, for them to drink, for the drug to take effect. And we’d have to hope it was severe enough to give us the upper hand over the Devil.
If it was me and me alone at stake, I might have accepted the risks and tried for it to beat an adversary of this particular sort. But it wasn’t. It was the Lambs.
“Forward then,” I said, between grit teeth.