“One thing that strikes me, as we make this rebel faction thing happen,” I said.
“Hm?” Jessie asked.
“It’s really difficult to find people who we want working for us, for something like this, you know? Because you want good, helpful, quality people. But you also don’t want to be too sad when things get hairy and people start dying.”
“Which it will, and they will,” she said.
“Yeah. Shirley is bad enough. I owe her.”
“We owe her,” Jessie said. Then she paused. “I wonder how Mauer does it. Does he have the magic touch, when it comes to finding people who are just assholish enough to not mind if they die?”
“Mauer’s magic touch is in tapping into that subset of the populations that is willing to die for the cause. His willingness to send them to their deaths is their willingness to go down fighting, and so long as that’s true he can keep his conscience clear.”
“Is that really true, though?” Jessie asked. “What about Lugh?”
“Two parts to that. First off, Lugh was largely populated by people who were willing to fight the Crown. Off his conscience.”
Jessie didn’t look like she bought it.
“Second? Fray’s plan. Not his burden to bear. His focus was the guns and managing the primordials, who didn’t hurt anyone except the Crown soldiers. Or something like that.”
“Cognitive dissonance,” she said.
“Yep,” I said. “It’s disturbingly easy to narrow your view, shrug off that responsibility for all the people on the periphery, and let things burn. Dumb people can do it because they don’t think, but smart people? They can be the best at lying to themselves.”
“You’re not speaking from experience at all, I’m sure.”
“Clearly not,” I said.
“And that whole thing about having allies you like who you wouldn’t miss. I’m totally not a part of that?”
“Jessie,” I said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. She wore my jacket, still. “You’re perfect. The best balance of competence and pain-in-the-assness I could hope for.”
She gave me that look where she frowned at me over her glasses. “You do remember that context?”
I gave her my best innocent look.
“‘You also don’t want to be too sad when things get hairy and people start dying,'” she quoted me. “You said that.”
“Did I? My memory is terrible, Jessie,” I said. I gave her shoulders a squeeze. “That scarred and melted brain of mine, you know.”
“Of course. I’m surprised you can even walk straight.”
“I’m going to have to rely on you tonight, what with my terrible brain,” I said. “Lots to do.”
“I’ll do my best,” Jessie said.
“Should be interesting, regardless,” I said. “And there’s our Shirley. Hi Shirley.”
Shirley was approaching from the other end of the street. We walked up to her, and I removed my arm from Jessie’s shoulders.
“Pierre said you needed a coat,” Shirley said. “I felt restless.”
“He didn’t have to do that,” Jessie said.
“Don’t sound so horribly disappointed, now,” I said.
“I don’t sound disappointed.”
“Don’t sound so defensive, now.”
“Sylvester,” Jessie said. “If you’re concerned about your pain-in-the-assness and how okay I’d be with you biting the dust, you really don’t need to worry. Really. You passed the threshold ages ago.”
“Don’t sound so testy, now.”
Jessie sighed. She shucked off my jacket and threw it at my head.
“Your fashion sense has been deplorable, at times, Miss Jessie,” I said. “When you were Jamie, not now, I have to note-”
“I’ll take that roundabout flattery.”
“-But you never were one to be unprepared for the weather.”
“I cannot predict the weather, Sy.”
“But you make well educated guesses. You forgot your jacket on purpose. Or… let’s be generous and say you were on the fence and you erred toward the side that could theoretically lead to you having my jacket to wear.”
“Shirley,” Jessie said, turning her attention away from me.
“No comment?” I asked. “No? We’re letting this slide? Hoping melty-brainy-Sylvester forgets?”
“We’re mobilizing,” Jessie said. “If you’re feeling restless, we can use your help.”
“Great,” Shirley said.
I listened as I pulled on my jacket.
“You’ll need to make some stops. Sy and I were discussing while we warmed up over tea, figuring out the next step. We want to take pre-emptive action. Get ahead of Fray, who is apparently in touch with the Rank.”
“The student gang.”
“Yes,” Jessie said. “Pierre is already on his way to round up our various agents. But we need some more people. Select ones. So if you could knock on some doors, apologize for bothering people late at night, and ask for some names, offer some work? It’s ten o’clock right now. Given their schedules, I don’t think they’ll be asleep just yet. They shouldn’t be too disgruntled.”
“I suppose?” Shirley asked.
“It helps that it’s a beautiful woman knocking on their door out of the middle of nowhere, asking for their company and, presumably, offering money,” I said.
Jessie pulled a small notebook out of her bag, and raised a foot to pull a pen from her boot. She opened the notebook to write things down. “First stop. Twelve Belvidere road. Ask for Marvin. Short, swarthy, a Bruno without the height. Second stop, not far away. Twenty-nine Belvidere. Ask for Leo. Then we want Stanley. He’s at the blue house on Proctor. For the last person, Rita, walk down toward the beach. Two places to check. Either the broad stairs that lead from the road down to the beach, or further down the beach, by the cliff. She goes out for a walk to smoke at night, after she tends the bar at Fishbone John’s. But leave the group of men behind. She’ll interact better with you if you don’t have an odd collection of people behind you.”
I met Shirley’s eyes. She looked uncertain.
“If you can’t find Marvin, you’ll want to find Don. But Don drinks, so he’s not our first choice. If you can’t find Leo, then we’ll make do with Alfred…”
Jessie murmured to herself as she scribbled down instructions.
“Are they dangerous?” Shirley asked. “Do I need backup?”
“No,” Jessie said. “This lot is harmless. Marvin is loud but soft. Leo and Stan work the general store. You’ve probably seen them. Gut feeling, Sy, how much money are we spending in the immediate future?”
“More than a lot, but not a ton.”
Jessie gave me that look again.
“You wanted a gut feeling! That’s a gut feeling. I don’t think in terms of numbers. I think in sentiment.”
Jessie addressed Shirley, “There’s another reason you don’t want the men with you as you talk to Rita. The men are pretty interchangeable. If we can’t hire them, we have options. But Rita is hard to replace. We’d have to… ugh. I don’t know. Maybe ask for Marlene?”
“You’re naming all of these names and I have no idea what you’re on about at this stage,” I told Jessie. “I get the greater plan, but you’ve lost me.”
“Marlene is Don’s niece. The problem is that she’s younger than she looks. Young is bad. And young is… skewed, on your useful asshole paradigm, Sy.”
“Fair,” I said. “Can’t have particularly young assholes.”
“Watch how you word that,” Jessie said, to me. To Shirley, she said, “Let’s try to get Rita.”
“Which means paying more,” Jessie said. “I’m writing down prices. Seventy five dollars for the men. But one-fifty for Rita, if she doesn’t bite initially.”
“What’s the job?” Shirley asked.
“A lot of waiting, a little bit of looking the other way,” I said. “Then a bit of acting. If they pull off the con, then we’ll double the amount.”
“Okay,” she said. “What if I can’t get the first or the second choice?”
“Three out of four of them are men,” I said. “You and I have talked about salesmanship. This is that. Even if there’s no product.”
“Same techniques,” Shirley said.
“I’m out of practice.”
“You’ve had more than you think,” I said. “You got us our accommodations. You negotiated for those.”
“Yeah,” Shirley said. She didn’t sound certain.
“If you run into problems, it’s fine,” I said. “We’ll adapt, Jessie will come up with other options. Go easy on yourself.”
Jessie pointed. “Take that road. Two streets-”
“I got it,” Shirley said. “I know my way around.”
I saluted her as she walked away.
“Her tone at the end,” Jessie said. “Did I talk down to her too much?”
“Mostly fine,” I said. “Only that bit at the end.”
“Directions to the starting point? I’m bad at figuring out how much others know or remember.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Shirley is cool. She’ll get it.”
We walked, me with my hands in my jacket pockets, so they could warm up. Giving away my jacket had left me a bit chilly. It might not have been a problem, but getting cold while dealing with the stray, then warming up with my hands wrapped around a cup of tea while Jessie and I plotted, and then cooling off again, it had thrown my body off. I was slower to adapt to the cold after the temperature zig-zag.
My breath fogged in the night air.
The other Lambs were keeping us company. Situated here and there, they sat in pairs or trios, perched in places where they could watch over the area. Evette was conspicuously absent.
She was likely plotting for what we had going on tonight.
“How long do we have?” I asked.
“Before Pierre rounds up the hires.”
“Not long. The first groups are going to be meeting at the rendezvous point within a minute of us getting there.”
“Let’s slow down a tich, then. I want to arrive as they do.”
Jessie nodded, adjusting her speed.
“The ravage hit New Amsterdam,” Jessie said.
“There were murmurings about it around the market this morning. It’s the latest in a string. The entire city is on lockdown, the bridges are blocked, and walls are being erected to keep it contained. Ones much like the ones they had in Tynewear.”
“Because those worked so well.”
“They, at least, don’t have the issue of a master Lambsbridge tearing his way through the city as he runs from bounty hunters.”
“I like how you exclude yourself from that reporting,” I said.
Jessie smiled. “Hard to blame the dead and gone. The onus is on you, sir.”
“Credit’s mine too, then.”
“The worst of the plague hit in Gomorrah, Sy.”
“Hm?” I asked. I raised an eyebrow. “Really? How coincidental.”
“Theoretically speaking,” Jessie said. “What if that coincidence was on Mauer’s shoulders?”
“If he knows about the plague?” I asked.
“He picks a fight. He breaks even at best. But in the wake of those battles he fights?”
“Plague. Taking a bite out of the Crown’s territory each time. Cities they can’t run anymore, or parts of cities. Long-term reminders that the Crown can’t fix everything. Can’t win every fight. There’s a stubborn plague that refuses to go down.”
“Uncharitable to Mauer. Even or especially in light of our discussion a bit ago,” Jessie said.
“You were thinking about this while we were talking about that, weren’t you?”
“I was mulling it over,” she said. “There have been other cases that followed Mauer’s appearances or the appearances of his lieutenants. He’s been raising hell and striking at key locations, then disappearing. I’m good at wrapping my head around timing, Sy. I’m concerned that it’s too hot on his heels. Consider the major players, the people who might be responsible for the ravage.”
“Assuming it isn’t Mauer, who was just discussed?” I asked.
“Assuming. Suspect number one. The Crown.”
“Unlikely. Unless there’s something we’re missing. The bites out of their own territory. To make Mauer look bad? Awfully big losses for ambiguous gain, in a fight they’re almost certain to win. We can dismiss that one and… I’m seeing why you brought this up like you did.”
“It more or less leaves Fray and Cynthia. One of whom we’re hoping to deal with in the immediate future.”
“Or Mauer,” I said.
“Or Mauer. But we’re putting that aside for the moment. Someone might be deliberately spreading this plague, choosing sites of the rebellion. That someone is keeping a close eye on Mauer and sowing seeds in his wake.”
“And he’s working with Fray. In some capacity.”
“Something to talk to her about, then. But let’s not discount another option. Another major player in this game.”
“The Lambs?” Jessie asked. “Us?”
“No,” I said. I smiled.
“I’ve become immune to your dramatic flair, Sy,” Jessie said. “I’ve been overexposed, like you with your poisons and all the natural antidotes they put in you to keep the Wyvern from killing you. Cut right to it.”
“Perhaps the biggest, meanest player in this game.”
Jessie, appearing very unimpressed, made a gesture for me to speed it along.
“Nature. Mother Nature being tricky with us. I mean, let’s be honest, she has reason enough. What if… what if Mauer is spreading it… but he’s doing it unwittingly?”
“Infected but not showing symptoms?”
“Or something he’s bringing along with is infected with the stuff. Supplies, animals, papers…”
“If it isn’t nature playing a nasty trick on us and planting that particular sleeper agent, then someone did it to Mauer. Or someone’s planting the seeds. And Fray is a likely suspect. It’ll be interesting to talk to her.”
“Assuming we get the chance,” Jessie said.
“We will,” I said, firmly.
It wasn’t a long walk from where we were to the rendezvous point.
Pierre, as was so often the case, was already there. The oversized head that looked like a rabbit mid-hanging had a cigarette set inside the mouth as he sat on a set of stairs.
“Any difficulties?” I asked.
“Bennie was drunk,” he said. He gave us a one-shouldered shrug. “I couldn’t say if he’s going to show. They liked the sound of the money, but they didn’t look very mobile.”
“Thought so,” Jessie said. “That’s fine.”
At the other end of the street, a group was just arriving.
“Perfect timing,” I said to them, a backhanded compliment for Jessie. I extended a hand. “Frederick.”
Frederick was a big fellow. Time in the sun had served to burn his skin brown and turned blond hair near-white. The whites of his eyes seemed very bright in the gloom. The men with him all wore clothes fit for workers. Round necked, long-sleeved shirts and canvas pants, or coveralls. Half of them didn’t wear jackets, despite the chill.
Half of them carried sticks of wood with bent nails in them. A third of the group of ten men and one woman had tattoos.
Frederick switched his stick to one hand so he could shake my hand. The shake was cursory enough that it was clear he was only being polite.
“This is pretty last minute now,” he asked.
“Something came up.”
“I like to know about things in advance,” the man said.
“I know,” I said. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“I’m still not sure I’m on board with this,” he said.
He waggled his stick in the general direction of Jessie and I.
“You being in charge,” Frederick said. “Yeah.”
“Give us time,” I said. “We’re paying you to give us time, and to show up on nights like tonight.”
“Yeah,” he said. He still didn’t sound impressed.
“Soon,” I said. “Tonight is a first step. It won’t necessarily make sense right away, but when you look back at the conclusion, I think you’ll be impressed.”
“That’s a problem,” Frederick said. “I’m not the sort of man that looks back.”
He was being difficult. I wasn’t sure what it was. My small stature? That he needed to be the biggest, meanest dog in front of his men?
There were others arriving, now.
“Otis,” I said. “Archie. Clay.”
I greeted each of the group leaders in turn. Otis was older than the rest, at about forty. Archie was pale with long black hair and a heavy coat. Clay looked more like Frederick, minus the tan, his hair messy enough it looked like he had been sleeping twenty minutes ago.
Each of the others had brought their own groups. Otis had eight. Archie had three. Clay had four, all of whom looked related to him.
“Sylvester,” Otis said. He sounded very tired. “And Frederick. Hullo there Frederick.”
“Fuck yourself, Otis,” Frederick said.
“Oh,” Otis said. He spoke very slowly, drawing things out. “Oh ho. Foul mouth Frederick. I’d think you saved the dirty talk for when you fuck your big sister.”
There was a rumble of amusement from Otis’ group, and from just about every group that wasn’t Frederick’s.
Jessie and I had identified and recruited the various people in charge and the in-charge-ish types from here and there in Laureas, with a mind toward collecting the various thugs and troublemakers that didn’t flock to any particular banners. The city that wasn’t all that big, people knew each other. It was inevitable there’d be some history.
“Big talk, Otis, when I’m armed and you’re empty handed,” Frederick said.
Otis spread his hands, as if he was about to surrender, concede, or shrug with arms wide. Then he stepped forward, swaggering a bit as he did it.
“If you swing that weapon at him,” I said, quiet. “He wins, because I have to remove you from the group. You don’t get paid, he does.”
“You’re pretending he’ll be any shape to accept pay,” Frederick said. It was expressed to me, but the words were meant for Otis’ ears.
“If you want to duke it out, I’m going to have to insist you do it elsewhere. For now, I’m starting the brief.”
“The what?” Clay asked.
Clay jumping into the discussion like he did was perfect. Clay was as dumb as two stones rubbed together. He had no idea what he was stepping into.
“The brief, Clay,” I said. “The plan.”
“Then why not call it that?” he asked. He chuckled, and his brothers and cousins took his cue, following suit.
Yeah. Not exactly the cream of the crop, any of them.
Only Archie. He’d been one of the people at the tower when Jessie and I had returned. We’d sent him out to his group to tell them to lay low. Then we’d discussed, set a plan, and decided to act.
Archie was the type to sit back, watch everything carefully, and then make a smart move. He’d done it before, here and there.
For a guy as smart as he was to be this small a player in this small a place, it meant there had to be something wrong with him. It bothered me that it hadn’t turned up just yet.
“Here’s the brief,” I said. “I’ll be sure to keep it simple. The Rank have a headquarters around the corner. Tonight is two things. We round them up, and we make a show of force. Show them we mean business. I want them scared, and that means more than using just sheer numbers to spook them. It means that from the start to the end, they’re running with their tails between their legs.”
This was a language that even Clay could understand.
“We do this with positioning,” I said. “Jessie?”
“Clay and Archie attack the north and south ends of the building. Otis’ group will be with Sylvester and I. Frederick circles around to the back. Timing is key. Frederick? After the briefing ends, you walk down Londown and turn on Prior. Circle back toward the building. Walk, don’t run.”
“I don’t get it,” Frederick said. “Why does that matter?”
“Timing,” Jessie said.
I added, “Mood and effect. It’s the difference between you being a bunch of dangerous looking men and you being the stuff of their nightmares.”
“I don’t get it,” Frederick said.
There were more mumbles and grumbles here and there.
“It’ll all make sense in the end,” I said. “For now, listen to Jessie.”
“They’re a group of students. Delinquent teenagers with Academy uniforms. Some of the drugs you’ve heard about are their work. Mostly, though, they fly under the radar, ship stuff out of town. Now and then, they stir up a little bit of trouble. Most of you are aware of them but pay them little mind.”
A few isolated nods here and there.
I jumped in, “They’re working doubletime right now. The last two drug shipments they promised someone in Trimountaine went missing. That was us. They’re feeling the squeeze, they don’t have the muscle to guard what they’re supposed to put together and deliver, and if the next shipment doesn’t arrive, then the person who paid in advance is going to show up. Unhappy.”
Clay and his clan looked a little glassy-eyed at the explanation, but the rest seemed to grasp this reality.
“They’re burning the midnight oil right now. But they’re also expecting, according to Pierre, to have some outside help. Another Academy type is visiting. We don’t know when, but that’s who we’re really after. We’re going to ruin their night. We’re going to do it without doing any more property damage than kicking in the front door. No broken windows, no looting, no kicking up a fuss. We want them to cooperate.”
I looked over the group.
“Go where Jessie says. No killing. No property damage. Don’t let them slip away,” I said. “Then you get paid.”
Keeping the message simple.
“Frederick,” Jessie said. “Walk down Londown, turn right onto Prior, then turn right again, head toward the building with the lights on. Start now.”
Frederick paused, glancing at me.
I really hoped Otis wouldn’t say something and start trouble again. Frederick would take the bait and we would be stalled.
“This had better be good,” Frederick said.
He turned to leave.
“Come,” I said. “Pierre? Keep an eye out for anyone who slips the noose and runs?”
“Can do,” the rabbit said.
I led the way, Jessie following. The three remaining contingents of thugs and hooligans trailed behind us.
We stopped as we saw the building. It sat on a corner, and the interior lights burned bright. A plume of smoke rose from the chimney.
“Clay,” Jessie said. “See that big round window?”
“Count to forty, then walk toward it. Block anyone from getting out that window or any of the windows to either side of it.”
“Count,” she said.
I wondered if he could. Oh well. We would manage. If this executed well, then all the better. If not, it let us weed out people we couldn’t use.
“Archie? Go around the side of the building. The gate barring access from the alley is unlocked. Go there. Grab anyone who tries to go out the window, keep them put.”
“Now,” Jessie said.
“Don’t have to be a bitch with the orders. Could at least be nice about it,” Otis said.
Jessie gave me a glance.
Something you didn’t have to deal with as a guy? Being commanding as a guy is fine. As a girl, well… rubs some people the wrong way.
Otis would learn to deal or he would have to go.
For now, I picked up the slack, gesturing at the front door.
“If it isn’t unlocked,” Jessie said, “Then kick it down.”
Otis moved ahead of us, going for the door.
“They have guns?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “But they didn’t seem the type to be good with guns. Element of surprise matters.”
“You can go in first,” he said.
“So long as you’re following,” I said.
He seized the handle, waggling it.
The middle aged man with a jowly face leaned back, then kicked the door exactly the way it should be kicked in, right next to the handle. The goal was to hit the door closest to the weakest part of both door and frame. The point where the latch met the frame would be that.
Wood splintered around the handle. He kicked again, then backed out of our way as Jessie and I approached.
We passed through the door.
Forty or so people were inside. Students composed only a small portion of it, at a glance. The rest looked like poorer folks who were earning a wage, stirring vats and burning materials in a stove to keep stuff boiling.
I looked over the students, and I spotted Leah.
I saw another student get his bearings. Slow to react and process. This might have been his introduction to violence. He lunged for a long table.
“Lights,” Jessie said, gesturing.
I shifted direction. I headed off to the right, Jessie to the left.
I slammed my hand down on the switch on the wall, so close to the front door, that controlled the lighting. Conveniently placed to allow the last person to leave to shut everything off.
Conveniently placed to allow the first invader in to do the same.
The voltaic lights went dark, plunging the place into relative darkness. Some chemistry equipment, fires, lanterns and such burned here and there, but it wasn’t much.
In the final moment we could see the scene, the lad was picking up a shotgun, and Otis was shouting, “Gun!”
The lad clearly wasn’t familiar with the weapon, or he would have already fired it.
It wasn’t pitch black in the lab, but in the sudden switch from light to darkness, it might as well have been.
I could navigate that darkness by intuition. The afterimage of where the people were stuck in my mind’s eye. The psychology of fear and panic told me the most logical positions for where they would be.
I ran into a young man, felt his reaction as he bumped into me, caught him, and shoved him hard in the direction of a table. Tools clattered and crashed to the ground.
I swiftly changed direction, ducking low as the shotgun fired in the direction of the sound.
The flash of the gun firing gave me a glimpse of the scene.
There was a similar noise from Jessie’s direction. The shotgun fired again. Another flash of light, a glimpse of the scene.
I could see some of the people clustered in the middle of the room. I could tell the direction they were facing. One set of eyes on me, two on Jessie. As the scene faded, I was left with the afterimage. I could hear the murmurs, the shouts, and the general chaos of all of this.
For Jessie, this scene was one she had mapped out in her head. Where things were. Only the people were a mystery to her. Her sense of space and timing were immaculate. She knew exactly where she was as she navigated the darkness.
The inverse for me. The people made sense. The terrain was something I had to feel for.
The people made sense, and that trio worried me.
I ran a few steps, hip bumping against a table-
And slid beneath another table. I rose to my feet, stumbled, and caught the back of the shirt of one member of the trio.
They’d decided to go after Jessie.
In any other circumstance, I would have let them, and let them learn their lesson. But this was a case of four against one, and I wasn’t sure Jessie would anticipate them correctly.
As the man twisted, his shirt pulling in my hands, I had a sense of how he was positioned. I brought one leg up, and stomped down on his knee, then pushed him to one side in a way that would put more weight on that knee.
Stepping forward, my forehead bumped into the collarbone of another person. My hands clutched at their shoulders, and I hauled them down. A moment later, I launched myself up, skull striking the point of their chin.
I pushed them into the third person.
Someone threw the switch. The lights flickered as they struggled to come on.
Jessie had dispatched the one with the shotgun. I caught another person off guard, taking out their knee again. Their head clipped a table as I tipped them to the ground.
Otis’ people were only just entering. They were treated to a sight of the people fleeing to the windows. The ones trying to exit into the alley were being dragged through the window, which terrified the rest. The ones who were trying to escape the windows into the street were running into Clay’s people.
Probably the best way to go, but given circumstance… given the fact that it was a drop of several feet, that they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves in the moments following, and that Clay looked like a mean, unhinged sort? They elected to head for the back door.
I saw Leah among that group. I beckoned for Otis to follow. I walked, rather than run. I took my time, weaving through the maze of tables and appliances. It let Otis catch up, and it let Leah think she was getting away.
As I exited the building, I saw that Frederick wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
Leah and the other twelve or so people that were actively fleeing had a clear path down the street.
Better to trust Pierre than to run.
He could follow them, see where they gathered, and we would do this again. Hit them at home, at an unexpected moment, with overwhelming force.
I just hated that it meant casting Frederick aside, punishing him, and losing the extra time.
Frederick emerged from the place I was assuming he was supposed to have departed a minute ago, his men jogging as they left the alley.
If Leah had had more sense of the fight, of the battlefield, and what she was getting into, then she could have bolted. She could have kept the same course, getting past Frederick’s group before they could cut her off.
But she panicked. She and the others balked. They turned to run away from the men with nail-studded sticks, and they saw me, with Otis following a bit behind.
I kept advancing, walking.
Leah and many of the others changed direction for the second time in a matter of seconds, retreating reluctantly and uncertainly toward Frederick’s group. The threat of them largely forgotten.
I moved at a diagonal, and she moved in kind.
It was clear that she was retreating from me.
I could see Frederick eyeing me. Trying to figure out how that worked. He wanted to wrap his head around what had just happened in that building that might have her so spooked of me.
Part of that was the clear realization that I was at the heart of this. The pre-established relationship.
The glimpse of me, just before all hell had broken loose and everything had gone dark.
“Let’s have another conversation, Leah,” I said.
“Bring her,” I said.
We returned to the lab, and the various hired hands corralled the laborers and various students that had found shelter beneath tables or tried to exit the windows.
Jessie was absent. I waited patiently as people were organized. The group was made to kneel on the floor.
The lab smelled like chemicals, of gas flames and wood stoves. It made me think of home.
“Impeccable,” I greeted Jessie, as she came in the front door for the second time.
She gave me a little curtsy.
Shirley was right behind her. Shirley had our people.
I was mindful of the theatrics as I brought the four nervous people Shirley had recruited into the lab.
Each one was positioned so they stood at a specific point, facing a specific individual.
A stocky, muscular adolescent boy, swarthy, opposite someone who wasn’t so muscular, but was much the same general shape and complexion.
A tall young man with black hair slicked back and parted, opposite a near-mirror in a lab coat.
A red-haired boy with freckles, nearly a match for his friend in height, also wearing a lab coat. The noses were different, as were the ears, but that mattered little.
Leah stood opposite the girl. I forgot the name, but it started with an R.
Both of matching height. Both with blonde hair.
“Chief members of the Rank?” I asked. “Meet your replacements. If I’m not positive you’re going to cooperate with Jessie and me on everything that follows, you’re going to disappear, and these are the people who will step into your shoes.”
And keep Fray none the wiser.