I balanced on one of the movable walls, which involved me leaning over at a forty-five degree angle. A rope was wound several times around my wrist, extended over to a set of pulleys at the ceiling, then over to a counterweight, which dangled in mid-air.
I used a hook on the end of a rod to align the rope with the wheels of the pulley, checked the coast was clear, and then tossed the rod down to a waiting worker.
“Sylvester,” Jamie called out. He was closer to the front door, a fair distance away.
“If the Lambs aren’t coming right this second, then it can wait. Give me one minute.”
“I’ve been giving you one minute for the past ten minutes.”
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem to give me another,” I said. I unwound the rope from my wrist, turned on the spot, so it was wound around my waist with the end loose and extending out in front of me. It took some doing to maintain my balance throughout, when I was having to stand on a piece of wood only an inch and a half across. I tied the rope-end to the top corner of the movable wall.
“Eleven minutes now,” Jamie said. “I’m only nagging you because the thing I’ve been bugging you about is now two things.”
“Gimme another minute,” I said. Extricating myself took a little bit of work. I had to haul back on the rope to give myself slack and then work my way out of the loop I’d wound around my waist. I held onto the rope for balance, double checked everything was in place, then checked the ground below me was clear.
“Don’t jump,” Jamie said.
I hopped down to the ground. It was a solid twelve foot drop, and I had to roll to absorb the impact.
“One of these days you’re going to mess up,” Jamie said. “You’ll land funny and feel like such a twerp.”
“I’m fine so long as I keep the practice up, which is exactly what I’m doing,” I said. I looked past Jamie to the door. There was a crowd of children. “We have guests.”
“Which is the second thing I was going to tell you,” Jamie said. “The first thing-”
“Hold on. I want to do this while I’m thinking about all of this and how it’s set up. If I stop, I’m going to forget something and it’s going to take forever to get back into it,” I said, looking over the setup.
“If you insist,” Jamie said. It was clear he was close to the limit of his patience.
I got the assistance of the man who I’d tossed the rod to and lifted the movable wall up and out of its track. A wheel at the bottom corner helped us move it until it was flush to the wall. I got the rod, and moved the rope through a hook so it wouldn’t stand out.
I did a circuit around the hall, double checking it all, before stopping at the front door. The hall was laid out so there was more or less a clear path from the front door to the back, with hallways branching off to the left and right. Along the right wall, between the two hallways going off to the kitchen, was the staircase leading up. The main room had several chairs and tables placed along the middle, with pieces of furniture here and there.
The ropes weren’t too visible.
I made my way to the back door in a zig-zagging fashion. Up onto the coffee table, kick the bowl-
The first rope came loose. The counterweight came down, landing just behind me as I hopped up onto the chair. With the descending counterweight, the walls closed like a set of double doors, narrowly missing the furniture we’d placed. The wheels sank into notches in the floor, and a latch connected the doors.
As I made my way to the back door, two more of the moving walls closed behind me in the same manner.
I stopped at the back door, and looked at it, taking it in.
“Good to put them back!” I called out.
The two men who had set up the doors and latches set about undoing the latches and lifting the walls back into place.
“Okay,” Jamie said, “So-”
“Hold on,” I said.
I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing.
As Jamie crossed the room, I also envisioned the Lambs making their approach. I envisioned myself, crossing the room in the same way I just had, a path that saw me darting left and right, so that every piece of furniture served as cover.
Mary was the one to watch out for, here. I gave special consideration to imagining how she’d move, the choices she’d make. If she had a bola, or a throwing knife, she wouldn’t have a clear shot. I’d be too far away for other tricks and toys.
I imagined the doors swinging closed, the counterweights falling from the ceiling and forcing Mary to change course, if she chose the fastest route to me.
I could get out the back door with time to spare. I imagined the same scenario, with Mary a few paces behind me, with Mary further away.
I imagined the scenario with them having help. The likes of an experiment like Gorger or the Hangman, or with Lillian having some trick up her sleeve, like the suit I’d urged her to make.
I envisioned Mary getting a boost that let her fly over the first set of closing doors. I imagined something big and strong tearing its way through the walls in quick succession. All of the scenes played out in quick succession as I plotted the course of events.
The trick arose when Mary got clever. She was fast, she was athletic, and she was determined.
I could imagine Mary, graceful Mary, using the staircase at one side of the room. Running up as well as toward me. Getting the height to get over the second and third walls. Getting the vantage point where I didn’t have actual cover, that would let her throw that bola or hurl that drug-loaded dart at my back.
Jamie had reached me. He put his hands around my neck, lightly strangling me.
“Hold on,” I said.
He tightened his grip.
I could see a variety of ways that Mary might make that maneuver.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Fine. That’s all I needed.”
He released me, then guided me by the shoulder, leading me toward the front door.
“Abbot,” I spoke to the builder, as we passed him.
“That’s not my name,” he said.
“Over there. Above the wall-hinge. Put in a hook. Should be about three feet down from the ceiling.”
“Like the ones we used for the ropes. I’ll do the rest later.”
“Uh huh,” he said, giving me a look like I was crazy.
Maybe I was.
“Done?” Jamie asked.
“Sure. Just, you know, trying to arrange things so we have a fighting chance. But that’s not important, no, we’ve gotta do that thing you’re trying to get my attention about.”
Jamie rolled his eyes, dropping his hand from my shoulder.
We approached the group of kids. Some were from Noreen’s group. They had that hardness to them, and I could spot the bulges of weapons and other things. Most of the youths had bags with them.
The moving walls were a bit of a show for them, but it might have been unnecessary. Even in the wake of all that, they were looking around the building, taking it in.
“Hi,” I said. “Sorry about that. Checking on the defenses.”
“This place has defenses?” one of the boys asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Ones that will see use soon. Not that it should impact you lot. Now, uh, again, sorry for the wait. Welcome home.”
The very youngest of the crowd of twenty or so seemed to see something special in that word. The oldest and the better-armed seemed to react as if I’d subtly pushed them away.
They had likely heard promises once upon a time, and those promises had been broken. That was fine. They might not stay, and that was fine too.
But the option would be here. That was what was important. There would be safety and security here, so long as I could help it.
“This is the sitting room. Common area, hangout, should be able to see people coming and going, have tea. Lounge around too much and you might get recruited for chores, because the kitchen and the dining room are at the east wing, just over there. West wing, you’ve got offices. Bathroom for the adults, area for first aid in case any of you hurt yourself, boring stuff.”
I had their attention. That was good.
“Go upstairs. Boys to the left, girls to the right. For those of you who don’t know left from right, blue means boy, pink means girl. Beds and bedrooms are first come first serve.”
There was a momentary pause before the stampede broke out. The youths, who were aged eight to fifteen or so, stampeded up the stairs.
“Second thing,” Jamie said. “Well, it was the first thing, but you addressed the new arrivals first. Shirley is talking to the fourth potential hire. They’re upstairs.”
“Oh,” I said. “Excellent.”
“At least the kids you just sent up there will be a good test for her,” Jamie said.
“I’d guessed that was the first thing. I do actually remember a little,” I said. “We were expecting someone, and I’ve been thinking about how we need to get this nailed down if we can.”
We walked up the stairs.
“We need a lot of staff,” Jamie said. “We’re behind, and I don’t see things pulling together at this rate.”
“Hmm,” I made a sound.
“I know you want to find the person in charge before you recruit the staff to work under her, but… it might be time to clench your teeth and accept that we’ll have to take someone good enough instead of someone truly good.”
“Hmmm,” I made the same sound as before, but with more consternation in it.
“Do you remember that I told you her name?”
“Her profession or general background?”
“My concerns, hopes, any other notes?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Okay,” Jamie said. “Because I didn’t mention any of that.”
I slapped him lightly across the back of the head.
“I deserved that. But you deserve so much worse.”
“I do. What do I need to know about her?”
“She was second-in-command of a detention center for young delinquents?” Jamie suggested. “Deputy warden. Taught the math classes.”
“Really?” I asked, “That’s amazing!”
“She did okay.”
“How did you find her?”
“I asked around. Sent letters around, really. Widened the criteria I was asking for, someone mentioned her in passing, I tracked her down.”
“Now you’ve got my hopes up,” I said.
Jamie raised his hand, fingers crossed, and I matched it.
We reached the upstairs, which was in the midst of total and utter chaos. Shirley and an older, short-haired woman in a very staid gray dress stood to one side as the children ran this way and that. In the midst of that chaos, Jamie ducked away, keeping his head turned away from the guest.
“Sylvester!” one of the youths asked. He was fourteen, and came with a girl that was his age in tow, holding her wrists. “What if we want to share a room?”
He had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise an approaching smaller child was making. The child, a boy, was crying, and crying in a way that screamed ‘I want attention!’
Before the fourteen year old could make the case for the co-ed room, the child began mewling out sobbing monosyllabic sounds that only barely formed a sentence. “The-huh-old-her-kids-they-th-they-took-my-ruh-hoom! You-you-said-fir-first-come-first-serrrrrve!”
Now that he wasn’t having to form words, he was free to descend into a wail.
The woman gave me a curious look.
Wondering why they’re asking me, and the authority I have.
Not perfect. But I’d tied my own hands. Might as well let her know I was the authority here.
“Don’t talk to me,” I addressed both the child and the boy-girl pair, then indicated the woman. “Talk to her.”
She looked surprised at that.
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
“I’m not saying you’re hired,” I told her. “But I want to see how you handle this. Test run.”
“Ma’am,” the fourteen year old said. “Darleen and I have been together from the beginning. We stay together. There’s no other way about it.”
“I-” she started.
“Sylvester!” a teenage girl cut in, approaching from the girl’s hallway. “All the girls are taking individual rooms, and some were saying they weren’t going to have roommates, and-”
I flourished with my hands, stepped back, and extended my arms and hands, as if to present the woman.
She saw how the eight year old and the fourteen year old were addressing the woman, and she cottoned on. She immediately turned to the woman, her voice overlapping with the two voices of the boys.
“That will be quite enough of that!” the woman spoke, with enough authority that several heads in the hallways turned and the din died down considerably. There were still sounds of squabbling in some other rooms.
She had a good presence. Not Mauer-level, but for all her graying hair and the ankle-length dress with the high collar, she gave the me impression of someone who should normally have a rod in hand, ready to deliver very liberal canings to buttocks and knuckles.
With all of that latent menace, she didn’t address any of the group. She turned her focus toward me.
“Throwing me to the wolves without explanation or courtesy?” she asked me.
I started to speak, but she talked over me. “Or, is it that you’re a wolf yourself?”
She moved with care, slowly, so as not to startle, and touched my shirt, beneath my armpit. it only had buttons down to the collarbone, and hung loose. I wore a coverall with the upper portion down and tied around my waist. The holes in the knees and my bare feet meant I wasn’t baking in the summer heat, even if I was sweaty.
When I didn’t move or protest, she tugged the shirt up and away from my waist.
Amid the sleeves I’d folded around my waist, I’d stowed a knife, gun, and three grenades. It was the grenades that seemed to give her pause.
“I’m a mouse, not a wolf,” I said, meeting her eyes.
“I know the slang,” she said.
Where most of the people this far away from Radham don’t know it, or use different terms and signs. It was a point in her favor.
“I’m concerned this isn’t adding up,” she said. “I was clearly misled about this job, and I’m not happy with that.”
Shirley jumped in. “Sylvester is… he’s been in and out of orphanages all of his life. As troubled youth go, he’s a unique case. I did not know he would be so heavily armed, but-”
“It’s okay, Shirley,” I said.
Shirley sagged in obvious relief, that she didn’t have to come up with a way to salvage this situation.
“This… project,” I said. “I’m managing it. But I won’t be managing it forever. We need someone to keep things running smoothly, keep the house standing. Keep the children from killing each other.”
“Orphans running an orphanage?” the woman asked, imperious.
“Supplying the funds and organizing it at the outset. Not running it,” I said. “That would be up to you, with a few ground rules in place. You can’t force anyone to stay, and if there are beds, you can’t turn anyone away. There would be rules for privacy, but-”
“If I was put in charge, there would have to be curfew,” the woman said. “I would want to know where the children were at all times. I would require them to stay. That would be if I somehow overcame my reservations about what seems to be a very shady, concerning picture that is being painted before me.”
She’s conservative, I thought. Dangerously so.
I felt a welling disappointment. The same experiences that had left her with a keen eye for hidden weapons and the skills needed to keep people in line left her wary of… how to put it? Of situations slipping from her control. She’d no doubt seen how it could happen early in her career and it had left a mark on her.
But that tight-fisted control represented too much about what I wanted to fight against, in the bigger picture.
I formulated the words in my head, but they lay flat on my tongue, ready to be spoken. I could see the woman’s posture, the way she was critically assessing the building, and I knew, with near certainty, that she was going to tell people about us, in an effort to instill some order on this disorder.
Would I have to kill her? I didn’t want to kill someone I respected.
But, facing the reality that I might have to, I began laying the groundwork.
“Shirley,” I said.
“Yes, sir?” she asked.
I might have winced at the word ‘sir’, but I could see what she was doing, and anything that would put the matron off balance and create an opening was just fine, even if it heightened her suspicion and pushed her away.
“Would you prepare us some tea?”
“Yes,” she said.
There was a pause as Shirley disappeared downstairs.
The matron turned to the children. The sniveling eight year old was first. “In a moment, we’ll talk to those boys, alright? If you were told the bed was yours if you were there first, then that’s a rule and it should be followed.”
The boy rubbed at his nose and nodded.
The boy-girl couple were next. “Are you siblings?”
“Then I don’t see how it’s appropriate.”
“It’s the way we’ve always done things! If she doesn’t sleep beside me, she-”
He stopped, realizing there was more of an audience. The girl might have squeezed his hand.
“-has nightmares,” he said, which wasn’t the original thing he’d been planning to say.
“I notice that you’re doing all of the talking,” the matron said. “I’d like to hear from her. He called you Darleen?”
“Darleen,” the girl said, nodding.
“That’s short for what?”
“Geraldine,” the girl said.
“Then I’m going to call you Geraldine. I don’t like short form names. Geraldine, I want you to look me in the eye.”
“Tell me, do you want to stay with him, or do you want to stay with the girls?”
Geraldine opened her mouth, glancing at her friend.
“Look at me,” the matron said. “Not at him. I don’t want the answer he wants you to give me. I want the answer from you.”
“I… wouldn’t mind staying with the girls. It’s been a while since I had… nightmares.”
Her voice dropped two notches as she said that last word.
“Good. Then that’s resolved. As for you,” the matron said to the girl who’d snitched about the others hogging rooms, “I’ll find you after I’ve resolved the bullying.”
The snitch nodded.
The matron took the eight year old’s hand and led him in the direction of the boy’s rooms. No questions about whether she should or if she had our permission to depart the conversation. Just a very matter-of-fact assumption that she should have to handle this.
I followed her. Jamie trailed behind.
“I’m afraid I don’t recall your name,” I said.
“Beverly Fuller,” the matron said, while Jamie, in the background, mouthed the name. She added, “Mrs. Fuller, mind you. I am happily married.”
“You might have noticed there are few children for how much space there is,” I commented.
“There are more coming,” I said. “I’m about to volunteer some details about what the objective is, and I’m admittedly putting my trust in your hands-”
To an extent, I thought. Because I’m boned anyway if you decide to talk, and killing you is on the table.
“-and I’m assuming you have some fondness for children and said fondness fosters some sympathy.”
“Oh?” she asked, arch.
“Children are being collected, Mrs. Fuller. They’re being handed over to the Academy. They are being experimented on and disposed of. On the black market, children are being sold, again, for the purposes of experimentation. I’ve seen some of the monsters that were produced from that experimentation. I count one of those monsters as a close friend and mortal enemy at the same time. I am one of the experiments.”
She didn’t turn her head, but she looked at me from the corner of her eye.
I didn’t add anything more. I let the silence hang, letting her make the next move when it came to the conversation, while plotting the responses I would need to crack that conservative, stern facade.
“At the facilities I’ve worked in, I saw many children go to the Academy,” Beverly said.
“And?” I asked. “Were you complicit? Did it bother you?”
“I wasn’t directly complicit, but I saw what my superior did and the people she talked to, and I wondered,” she said, her eyes forward, neck straight, chin set, posture perfect. “I thought about how a dozen a year might go to the Academy, but I’ve never met anyone who claimed what you claim, to have been one of them.”
“They went in, and they never went out,” I said.
“Effectively,” she said.
We’d stopped outside of the room the eight year old had led us to. Beverly stood in the doorway, stared down some of the boys who were sitting on the bed, and without a word, she pointed to them, then indicated out.
They obeyed, collecting their things on the way out. The woman gave the eight year old a push on the shoulder.
So very easily handled.
“Did it bother you?” I asked her. I already knew the answer, in part, because she had volunteered the information she had. She wouldn’t if it hadn’t stuck in her mind to some degree.
“Should it?” she asked.
Ah, but the question was a wall. A defense, thrown up to protect herself.
“Speaking as one of the very few children I know who went in and came back out,” I said, “I’ve known an awful lot of death over the past seven years or so. I’ve experienced an awful lot of pain. On the flip side of that coin, I have inflicted more pain than you could wrap your head around, and I’ve killed an awful lot of people.”
I watched her carefully as she took that in. She’d seen the weapons.
“I will expire before I’m twenty-five. Very possibly before I’m twenty, because of what they did to me. I’m sterile, because of what they did to me. I will never have children, experience a family, or hold a job. I’m not saying this because I want pity. But it’s my reality. And I’m not alone in it.”
She declined to give me a response.
“I’m leaving before long. I will be in touch, as much as I’m able, knowing they’ll try to intercept my letters. I’ll support this institution and provide information and the funds. I might never have children, but I intend to leave my marks on the world. Among those marks will be this one. I will find the children the Academy is looking to collect and I will send them here. With some extra measures I put in place and, hopefully, some help from others, this will be a sanctuary. But it’s a sanctuary where the people here have to be free to come and go.”
Still no response.
“Some of my fellow experiments are going to come looking for me. They will come through here. You don’t have to keep secrets. You might even want to talk or cooperate with them. They won’t hurt anyone here. It’ll take a short time to wrap up everything in West Corinth, and when I’m done with that, I’ll leave, like I said. It is my hope that you will remain and maintain the peace and security of this place.”
“Gritting your teeth, Sy?” Jamie asked, from the background.
The matron turned to look.
“Revealing yourself, Jamie?” I asked, annoyed.
“I know you,” he said. “I know you’re not wholly sold. I was going to make a suggestion.”
“An acquaintance?” Beverly asked.
“Jamie is a friend,” I said. “My closest friend, really. Now the second child you’ll have met, who came back from the Academy. What’s the suggestion?”
“I know you want to pick someone who is somehow everything you want this institution to embody, and I know you’re not wholly sold with Mrs. Fuller. You want someone who can be almost a mother, nurturing and supportive. Not just a disciplinarian.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“There was another candidate. Number three. Hogarth? The one who acted as tutor to the aristocratic youths? She was warm. If Mrs. Fuller was willing, we could bring Ms. Hogarth on, and have a joint leadership. It would also help with getting more staff on board, while we’re so tight on time.”
I nodded at that, thinking about it. I glanced up at Mrs. Fuller.
“If I met the woman and found her acceptable, it’s not out of the question,” the matron said. In saying it, she was effectively saying she’d accepted what I’d said. She recognized the value in the mission. I no longer suspected she would let people know what we were doing here.
I felt a profound relief at that.
“It’s something of a relief to know I wouldn’t have to be the one to wipe snotty noses and tuck the little ones in.”
I grinned at that.
“Shirley will have the tea ready,” Jamie said. “Would you like to come downstairs before more children come running to us with problems?”
I looked at the children, and I saw that many were hanging back. Beverly Fuller cut an imposing, intimidating figure. I imagined that with time, they would feel free to come to her with problems, and she would be quick to dismiss anyone who did so frivolously.
As we made our way down the stairs, however, I saw Pierre and Samuel standing at the door.
I glanced at Jamie, gesturing.
“It looks like we may not be able to join you for tea, but I’m sure Shirley can cover things until we return,” Jamie said.
Mrs. Fuller nodded, very stiffly.
She wasn’t quite broken into our way of doing things, but I could almost see how she would get there.
This would be fine.
We walked right past Samuel and Pierre, and the two turned around to fall in stride to either side of Jamie and me.
“Messages delivered,” Pierre said. He reached past me to hand a note to Jamie. “Couldn’t reach Fourth, and the youths at Wollstone Rock gave a very firm no.”
“Damn,” I said.
“It’s good enough,” Jamie said. He drew a paper out of his pocket, found a pencil, and scratched out a few options. “Same thing, but these groups. When you talk to them, say the same things, but let them know about the other groups that accepted.”
“Can do,” Pierre said.
Getting the pieces in place. Not just movable walls, but the people too.
“Samuel,” I said, taking my turn. “Go inside. Introduce yourself. You can let the older woman know that you’re the person who is going to be directing the children her way. Have some tea. Take it easy. Until further notice, you don’t need to worry about anything. Except, wait, yeah, make sure the cranes are in the right positions, and make sure the carts are parked at the back like I’d wanted.”
Getting everything positioned just right.
If a Lamb didn’t curse my name before all of this was over, then I’d be gravely disappointed.
It had been twelve or so hours now since the train station had been blown up. Jamie had already worked out the train schedules. He’d figured the routes the Lambs would need to take, and the distance from the nearest city to here.
The sun was hot and the city still smelled like smoke. Even the cast of it, all pale stone, seemed to have been tinted darker by the conflict two nights ago.
Now the sun was setting. Jamie and I sat at our perch, me with my binoculars, Jamie slumbering while he sat precariously in the windowsill, across from me.
The bulk of the work was done, the pieces in place, everyone had their script, so to speak, and the snares and tricks were all arranged.
Looking at Jamie, I thought about how he represented peace. That, from the moment he’d wrapped his arms around me and let me know that he was there, that he’d left and he was supporting me, I’d felt relief and calm, with the idea that things would be okay.
Happiness had come and went. There had been good moments. But the dominant feeling had been one of security. I’d felt okay for the first time in a long time, and that overrode even the lingering unease that came with my betraying the Lambs.
But now, sitting and watching the sunset, knowing that there was a very dangerous and desperate man looking to hurt me, and the Lambs were coming to hunt me, I felt happy. I was catching myself smiling at nothing in particular. I wanted tomorrow to have come yesterday.
I raised the binoculars to my eyes, watching as another train of wagons and cars came in through one end of the city.
I looked over at Jamie. I wanted to shake him awake and ask him what time it was. If it was time. If this was the moment I should really truly be watching.
One of the carriages stopped at the very outside border of West Corinth. I raised the binoculars to my eyes again.
There. A group of youths was departing the carriage. Stopping at the outskirts, so they could slip surreptitiously into the city.
Duncan was the first to exit the carriage. He went to the back to lift some cages to the ground. He fiddled with them, releasing the occupants. Canines of a sort.
Ashton was second to depart.
I didn’t recognize the third boy, but his features were strange and he moved stiffly, and he was big for his apparent age.
I didn’t recognize the first girl to step out of the train car either. She wore heavy clothing for the summer heat, with sleeves over her hands and a hood over her head.
“Jamie,” I said, realizing belatedly that Jamie would want to see, before the group disappeared. When Jamie didn’t rouse, I kicked his shin.
“Wuh?” he asked.
I undid the bolt that connected the two pieces of the binoculars together, and handed him one half. He didn’t need to ask where to look – he’d been the one to work out the most likely path of approach, and I’d agreed it made sense, based on the Lambs’ psychology.
I looked through the binocular-turned spyglass. I frowned as I laid eyes on the second girl of the group. Dark haired, her features funny.
“They’re messing with us, Sy. It’s a decoy, a trick,” Jamie said.
I looked over at him, then at the specter that had appeared beside him. She leaned forward, her hands on the windowsill. Evette’s features and clothes now mirrored that of the girl down there, as if to round out my thoughts.
“They don’t talk,” Jamie said. “That’s the key thing. They’re very similar in the way they move. They’re mock-ups, but they aren’t very good at acting.”
“And the timing is wrong,” Evette agreed with Jamie. “I’d take far longer to grow.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with the two of them.
I felt such profound disappointment I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“It’s bait,” Jamie said, quiet. “They’re messing with you.”
“It’s working,” I admitted.
“The real Lambs are out there already,” he said. “Watching, looking to see how we might react.”
I turned my focus to the other wagons, to the surrounding area, looking.
“We should go,” Jamie said. He reached out. “Keep tabs on things.”
“But where are the real Lambs?” I asked.