“Please escort each of the students to different rooms,” I said.
“Not enough rooms,” Jessie said.
“Her,” I pointed to Leah. I then pointed to the students we had doubles for. “Him, him, him…”
“Two more rooms.”
“Him,” I pointed to another student that looked particularly nervous. “And… her.”
My finger directed attention to a young woman who wasn’t in Academy clothes.
“Someone from the lower tier?” Jessie asked.
“No,” I said. I eyed ink stains on her hands, and the freshness of her change of clothes. “That girl is a student.”
I gestured. Otis’ men herded the people we’d pointed out into various rooms. I followed them, and watched through open doors, giving direction on where to put them, making sure they were bound.
Trapping someone in place with physical bonds was an interesting thing, when it came to psychology. It made their world small. Once the escape routes and the connections to allies were taken away and pressure was applied, the sum total of existence became the room they were in. Their experience and ability to plan extended no further than the interaction between captor and captive.
I could see it in Leah’s eyes as she was bound to a chair: the gravity of her situation.
“Sylvester,” she said.
I approached the chair, as Otis’ man stepped away.
“Sylvester,” she said, again. “Jessie. I know this looks bad, but it doesn’t change what you and I talked about. I’m not your enemy or anything. This is a small side project. Money and resources.”
I checked the bonds. The knot at her wrists was laughable. I undid and retied it, careful to leave her circulation intact.
“It’s why I didn’t care that much about the money you were offering. I wasn’t being dishonest. It’s the way things work around here.”
I held out my hand, then took another length of rope. I bound her so her back was flush against the back of the chair. This rope I made tight enough to cut into skin.
“If there’s anything you want to know, I’ll tell you,” she said, insistent. “I’m on your side.”
I put a loop of rope around her neck, and saw how she reacted, stiffening.
I was careful in how I tied it, leaving plenty of room, making the knot overly elaborate.
“Jessie,” she said, turning her attention from me to Jessie, who stood in the doorway.
Jessie was as silent as I was.
Knot done, I grabbed the back of her chair and dragged her toward the wall. She was petite, but the combined weight of her and the heavy wood chair made for a mingling of scrapes and screeches as the chair moved. Wood against wood.
I took a moment, tying a knot into the middle of that same rope, and then, carefully, I tied it to the back of the chair, sure to leave a lot of slack.
The rope around her neck didn’t really connect to anything. Not a noose, not a real binding.
But she didn’t know that. Her head turned this way and that, eyes moving to the far right and left as she tried to see everything that was going on behind her.
“Talk to me!” she said, raising her voice.
Otis’ man had crossed the room to stand at the point furthest from her. I approached him, walking away from Leah.
“You can’t do this!” Leah shouted.
Even to her, I suspected, the words rang false.
I stopped in front of Otis’ man. The guy was thirty or so, and had mottled marks on his cheeks and hands that suggested chemicals. He chewed on his tongue or inner cheek for a few long moments, eyes fixed not on me, but on Leah.
She was still shouting.
“Thank you for bringing her in here,” I told the man.
Even when directly addressed, it took him a moment too long to turn his eyes to me.
“That’ll be all,” I told him.
Nothing passed over his expression. No hints or tells. But I suspected he was unhappy.
He turned and left the room, moving aggressively enough that Jessie had to step back out of the way
Jessie gestured. Warn man.
Late fire emotion, I gestured back. Resentment. He wouldn’t be happy. Worth keeping an eye out for. Alternate eyes.
“Why are you moving your hands like that?” Leah asked. “Hey!”
I stepped out into the hallway. I looked down at the crowd, and assessed the people within. I pointed at someone younger. A narrow-faced boy with a curly mop of hair that was short on the sides. He had grown into his frame, and that frame was such that until he put on some muscle and grew a beard, he would perpetually look the gawky teenager. I beckoned for him to come.
He had to check with his boss, Frederick, before he came. But the fact that he did, and that he looked uncertain, it was a good sign.
“Are you okay with standing guard?” I asked, as he got close enough.
He gave me a fairly noncommittal half-shrug, glancing over his shoulder at his boss. “Sure.”
“Perfect,” I said. I stepped closer, and murmured, “Stand by the door. Make sure she stays put. Whatever you do, don’t speak a word to her. Don’t approach her. If something comes up… can you whistle?”
“Whistle. Loud. That’s if she gets particularly fussy, or if someone that isn’t me or Jessie here wants into the room. Don’t wait, don’t discuss if they refuse your initial refusal, just whistle.”
He nodded again.
He shook his head, very quickly. His eyes and eyebrows were such that he looked perpetually afraid or concerned, and they were very large. That deceptive nervousness translated to his movements.
“Good,” I said. I studied him. “You’re with Frederick?”
He nodded again, with emphasis.
“I’ll talk to Frederick if he takes issue with you doing this. I’ll pay you and him, if necessary.”
“I don’t think he’ll take issue,” the awkward fellow said.
Don’t tell people they don’t have to give you money.
“It’s a question of respect,” I said. I indicated Frederick, sun-worn as he stood in the gloom. “He won’t miss you?”
The fellow shook his head.
“What do you do for him?”
“Uh, stuff. Carry packages and things. Stand watch. Sometimes he has me burn people.”
I glanced at Jessie. I knew that behind my back, Leah was listening to this dialogue.
“Dead people or live people?” I asked.
“Live people,” the awkward fellow said. “I can cut ’em too, but I prefer burning. Mr. Rees picked me out of the group, about a year ago, handed me a hot poker and told me to get creative. Now he says I got talent for it. I’m sure, if you wanted, I could do it with these captives here. He wouldn’t complain if I got the practice.”
Jessie glanced in Leah’s direction. She’d likely reacted to that.
“For now, I want her intact,” I said.
The fellow nodded.
“In the meanwhile, watch her, and think about what you might do if I gave you the chance to practice,” I instructed.
“I will,” he said, with grave seriousness, looking down at me with eyes that looked like they were meant only meant for getting and giving sympathy.
Leah stared at me, the whites of her eyes visible, as I closed the door firmly behind me.
“He’ll be okay?” Jessie asked.
“That kid?” I asked, glossing over the fact that the ‘kid’ was older than I was. “Not a problem.”
We checked on each of the others, making sure the bonds were tight, the accommodations secure, the guards competent.
I shut the last of the doors behind me. When we were done, Jessie and I walked into the middle of the hallway.
One of our prisoners was screaming nonstop. Not for any reason. Only that he was a wimp.
“We need to know when Fray shows up,” I said, quiet, to Jessie.
“If Fray knows them, how they do business. Get a read on how willing they’d be to cooperate, and if they could bluff Fray.”
Jessie considered that for a moment. “I’d rather not try.”
“I know. But we do what we need to do in order to make this happen. How good are you on their business as usual?”
“Watched these guys from a nearby rooftop with some binoculars in hand for a few hours. I’m good,” she said.
“Good. I go clockwise, you go counterclockwise? We’ll each visit each of them. Make Leah one of the last ones we check on. I want her to stew.”
“I was going to say that your response back there was particularly…”
“Over the top?”
“…Motivated. You paid particular attention to Leah there. I’m trying to figure it out.”
“We’re interrogating,” I said. “Putting on pressure is key. I know Leah better, I had a better sense of how to put on pressure.”
“I have a gut feeling there’s more to it than that,” Jessie said.
I reached out, and tapped the bit of her glasses between the two lenses, so they slid further down her nose. She swatted at my hand and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
“Let me know when you figure it out,” I said.
“I’m halfway convinced I just did,” she said.
I leaned forward, so my face was close to hers, stopping short of our noses touching, only to turn my face at the last second, so I could speak in her ear. “Do tell.”
Any of the girls I’d interacted with to date might have reacted. I could picture Mary matching aggression with aggression, forward lean with forward lean, forcing a game of chicken. Lillian would have backed off, likely blushed. Shirley would have redirected, deflected, or otherwise shied off. Lacey would have been traumatized, though I hesitated to call Lacey a girl. Helen would have eaten me alive.
Jessie, though, didn’t flinch at all.
“I’ll mull it over,” she said. She smiled a little. “Let you stew.”
“That just isn’t right,” I said. “Psychological torture, that.”
“Mm hmm,” she said. She glanced back in the direction of the lab. “Don’t forget our lieutenants.”
As I turned to look, Jessie ducked away, heading for the first room.
I approached the room, where everyone was waiting.
“That’ll be all. I borrowed a few people to guard the rooms, I’ll need a few hands to manage this crowd, too, but I don’t expect any problems,” I said. “Pierre will deliver your money within the hour. Pierre?”
“Can do,” the rabbit-headed man said.
“Good. Questions? Concerns?”
“Not sure what exactly you’re wanting with all this,” Frederick said. “A lab? Decoys?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “You’ll see soon enough. And if you give me patience, I’ll pay you back with interest by showing you results. Wait, see, and it should be spectacular.”
“I’m starting to see how you do things,” Frederick said. There was a note of derision in there. A bit of accusation.
“Uh huh,” I said, not showing that I’d recognized it. “If you hadn’t dawdled earlier while moving to where we told you to go, you could have seen what the others did.”
“Your girl’s timing was wrong.”
“My girl‘s timing is never wrong,” I said. “If it was, she or I would have died a dozen times over in the last year alone.”
Frederick was challenging me. He wore an expression like he couldn’t quite believe me.
He still felt threatened by me, yet not threatened enough to be cowed.
“If you don’t want the money I’m offering, Frederick, then say so. If you don’t think I can do the job, then say so. If pride, greed, envy or fear happen to rule you, then say so.”
“Envy?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
How very generous of him to tell me what his issue was. He didn’t respect me.
“Decide if you want to see what happens next unfold from within my organization or from the outside. If you’re envious, then-”
“That was a question I asked, not a statement,” he said. “I think you’re a little full of yourself, here.”
I nodded. “I am. More than a little. But it’s deserved, I think.”
I gave Frederick my best ‘dead eyes’ look.
“Frederick,” Shirley chimed in.
I immediately made a negation gesture, hand moving side to side.
“No, no,” Frederick said. He smiled. “I want to hear what she has to say, that you don’t want us to hear.”
She reacted to the sheer number of eyes on her, shifting her weight. Then I saw her using one of the little tricks I’d taught her, in how to use her eyes. One of the first tricks, too, in how she positioned her body.
She met my eyes, and I gave her a fractional nod.
“I’ve been with him for seven months now,” she said. “In that span of time, he’s had Crown, Academy, Rebellion, and criminal organizations come for his head, some of those very motivated, and often two or three of those groups at the same time. He has literally had his heart ripped out of his chest, yet he’s still here. He’s better off than he was, and he’ll be better off in another seven months.”
“A week,” I said, interrupting her. “Maybe half that. Maybe tonight, though I doubt it. But before the week is over, my side will be ten times as strong as it is.”
I saw Frederick, Archie, Otis, and Clay glance at each other.
“Between all of us, counting the people we left behind… we add up to what, sixty people?” Frederick asked.
I wished I had Jessie to give an exact number. “Something in that neighborhood.”
“And in a matter of a week, you’ll have six hundred?” He asked. Again, that hint of derision.
“As a low estimate,” I said.
Shirley jumped in again, “If he says he’ll accomplish something, I believe him. It’s why I threw my lot in with his. I think it’s why some of the others here got on board. They don’t have the same experience I do, but I think they sense it.”
Clay couldn’t sense the dick in his pants, probably. Otis probably hadn’t wrapped his head around the idea of a group six hundred strong in decades. Even in a crowd, I got the impression his focus was narrow, on allies and enemies, and getting the things he wanted.
Archie got it, I was pretty sure. I couldn’t read him so easily, though.
“What happens when you fail?” Frederick asked.
Not if, but when.
“If you want a win-win, you’re not going to get it here. If I win and you’re on my side, you win too. Strength, reputation, money, leverage, and the ability to effect change. If I lose, you’re no worse off than you were. All you’ll have lost is a week’s time, and you’ll have a story to tell others over drinks, about the kid who thought he could raise an army. If I fail.”
I could have given them a scenario where their time and effort would have been worth it even if I failed, but that would have spelled out a scenario where they would go for the safe bet, and help me fail.
I continued, “I think you need to decide, Frederick. Right now. Are you staying, or are you going?”
He considered the question for a few long moments.
Leave, I thought. It would make things so much easier. It would give me room to prove to the others that there were benefits to staying in and costs to going out.
“We’ll give this a shot, then,” he said. “I’ll look forward to having a story to tell until proven otherwise.”
“I’ll look forward to proving you wrong, then,” I said. “I have things to do. I’ll be in touch, so keep an ear out. Pierre will be knocking on your door.”
The assembled leaders departed, leaving only the people necessary to manage the crowd that we’d corralled in the lab. They sat on the floor as a cluster. They outnumbered the men that guarded them two to one, but many were hurt, they were unarmed, and the men had weapons.
“All of you, too, need to decide,” I addressed the assembled workers. “Figure out if you’re in or if you’re out. The Rank are done. If you’re a problem, you’ll be escorted out. You’ll be kept out of the way long enough that other things can get done. If you’re cooperative, then it’s back to business as usual, but with better incentives.”
That got attention.
“I suspect a part of you knew this work wouldn’t be available forever. When we showed up, you probably knew that time had come. My offer to you in the here and now is to offer the same work to anyone who wants it, with better pay. Think about it quietly. I’ll see where you stand after I’m done talking to your prior employees.”
I could see the gears turning in their heads. The thought process.
Confinement changed how one thought. It made things a dialogue between captor and captive.
But they’d lived a life of confinement. Doing work they had to in order to make ends meet. They didn’t have freedom in the conventional sense.
They had the freedom to turn down my offer, to be sure. They could get away from the scariness of work that saw doors kicked in and guns fired, should they so choose. But they faced an equal, less poignant sort of scary, in having to find employment and get food.
I was offering the easier path.
I’d committed to collecting six hundred or more people under our banner. This would be a dozen, perhaps.
I turned my attention to the group of lookalikes.
“You’re raising an army?” Rita asked. Our Leah lookalike. She was smoking up a storm, going by the accretion of cigarette butts on the table next to her.
“Not an army, exactly,” I said. I fished in a pocket for a bill, and extended it toward her. She read my mind, and provided one of her cigarettes. I added, “Taking steps toward… recruitment of a sort.”
“Vague,” she said, lighting my cigarette.
“Yes. And thank you. I hope you don’t mind sticking around just a bit longer?”
“I’m not going to see any bloodshed, am I?” she asked.
“Hopefully not. Probably nothing more than you see while tending the bar.”
“Alright. But if I run out of cigarettes, I’m going to go home,” she said.
“Mm,” I said. I looked at the others. Versions of other students. “You all good?”
I got answers ranging from the affirmative to the noncommittal. Good enough. I gave Shirley some direction about hiring someone to fix the mess the shotgun had made and fix the front door, then made my way out of the lab and down the hallway, taking my time, puffing at the cigarette while I started thinking about the interrogation.
The appearance of Jessie standing just inside the doorway, waiting, caught me off guard.
“You’re awful,” I told her. “Running off and leaving me to deal with all of that.”
“I handle the timing, organization, records, and accounting. You handle the people.”
“I handle a heck of a lot more than that and you know it,” I said. I reached out and flicked her glasses, so they slid down her nose.
“Stop that,” she said.
She flicked the cigarette free of my mouth.
“That, miss, was a token of goodwill from our Leah-replacement.”
“I know. I remembered the name. I pay some attention.”
“Are they good?”
“I think so. Not too bothered by current events. That young asshole we were thinking about recruiting if Rita didn’t work would’ve been freaked, probably.”
“Probably,” Jessie said, ignoring my choice of words. “I’ve already interrogated one. You’re behind.”
She shook her head. “Go in without me coloring your views any. We’ll talk after.”
“Speaking of… what’s that thing you were going to say before, that you held off on?”
“You wanted to mull over it. Something about me and Leah.”
“Mulling,” she said. “Continue to stew. Interrogate. I’ll catch you before you move on to your next customer.”
I reached up to flick her glasses again. She caught my hand and then slapped me lightly across the side of the head, before ducking back, closing the door behind her.
I headed straight for the screamer. The kid had been screeching like he’d been set on fire for a while, but he’d gone silent. I anticipated a bit of blood, but if there was any, it wasn’t visible. The guard we’d posted had had the sense to deliver the hurt where it wouldn’t be visible.
He was tall, red haired, and wore a lab coat. His hands were bound together, behind his back, and then had been lifted up to the point that his shoulders jutted forward. The rope extended from wrist, over a beam, and down to wrist again.
I indicated that the guard should leave the room. I closed the door behind him.
Then I looked at the young man who stood before me, his arms held out behind him.
I untied the rope that bound him.
Small things would go a long way, in this captor-captive relationship. I would try at being nice first, and then if it didn’t work, I would move on to the next captive, and try a harder approach. I could riddle out how they thought and how they operated, and find the best approach to make them crack.
“Leader of the Rank,” I greeted him.
“What? No. We don’t have a leadership structure,” he said. “We’re not even a proper gang. We bake, we ship, we take in some side cash.”
“My colleague has deduced that you’re among the key individuals. It’s why we went to the trouble of finding a body double,” I told him. “Not being the leader isn’t a mark in your favor… what’s your name?”
Red-haired Leon. Right, then.
“Not a mark in your favor, Leon. See, if you were leader, if you knew things about the imminent meeting with Genevieve Fray…”
I paused, letting that name hang, and I watched his expression shift in the gloom. The light from the window cast on one side of his face. In the dark, the little details were missing, but the contrast of brighter light and deeper shadow had little middle ground, making the shift of muscle and the movement of the hollow of his thin cheeks very pointed.
His head dropped a little. I could hear him say, “I knew that was a mistake.”
“So you do know something after all. Was the mistake working with Fray?” I asked.
“Yes. Too much. Too big. She ordered drugs from us. Mass quantities.”
“Hold on. When?”
“Over a year ago.”
“Okay,” I said. “Go on.”
“The drugs were cheap, easy, but the quantity, it meant good money. But Jun, he got suspicious.”
“Junior, the… he’s the closest thing we have to a leader. If we’re a business, then he’s the person who manages the sales and distribution. If we’re a gang, well, he decides who’s in and who’s out.”
“Alright. He got suspicious.”
“He said there wasn’t any urgency. Started after we had to delay one shipment. She didn’t care. Paid us the same amount she had when we’d been on time.”
“And this has been going on for a while. Regular payments?”
He looked uneasy, slumped on the floor. For the moment, he seemed very preoccupied with rubbing at his wrists.
“You know I’m going to find out in talking to the others, right?”
Leon sighed. “What happens to me?”
“It really depends on the quality of your answers, Leon.”
He nodded. “Junior thought, thinks, she intended to bankroll us. Get us set up. And she did.”
“But I don’t know. She’s coming. Everyone here, we know who she is. What she is. She’s been a part of the groups fighting the Crown for the last three years. She works with a lot of people. She- she apparently wants to work with us. We’re not even that good at what we do, you know?”
“I know,” I said. The Rank didn’t actually place among the winners of Beattle’s academy rankings. They placed well enough to avoid being cut, but none of them were exceptional.
“And now you’re showing a lot of interest in her,” Leon said. “Which suggests we brought this on ourselves, dealing with her.”
“If it wasn’t her, it would have been Mauer,” I said. “And he wouldn’t have dealt with you, exactly, but the end result would have been the same.”
“End result?” Leon asked. He still hadn’t picked himself up off the floor.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him.
I walked around the room, thinking.
He was a very mild personality. Not too dangerous.
Either Fray would make her move, or Mauer would. The forms those moves would take would be the same, but this town would be used. Its occupants would be used.
“She asked you questions,” I said. “She was curious about the city, about details, I’m sure.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mmm,” I said. “Like you said, you’re not the leader. So maybe you weren’t privy. Which doesn’t help you. But I’ll catch you up. Fray operates in a certain way. She likes to do things that are big, understand? Start wars, start and spread plagues, create primordials…”
In the dark, I could see his eyes widen some at that last word.
“…And she’s not magical. She gets her information from places. She’s wanted and recognizable. She needs accommodations ready, especially as she brings more people with her. And if she doesn’t want to stay in one place for too long, then she needs to have people handle the preparations or initial phases. In the best case scenario, that preparation is done unwittingly.”
I saw his expression change. His head turned, not looking at me, but…
“Yeah,” I said. “Probably Junior or Leah.”
“I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“You didn’t have to. Don’t worry, you haven’t betrayed your friend. He’s been gone a lot, has he? Handling business elsewhere? Somewhere nearby? Further away?”
I watched his reaction as I asked each question.
“The Academy,” I said.
That got the faintest of reactions. Turned out the guy who started screaming the moment he was assaulted, kidnapped, and tied up in a dark room had obvious tells.
“How long until she turns up?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “First thing.”
“Really now,” I said. “Tell me, has she met any of you?”
“You’re thinking about the doubles,” he said, resigned.
“And I’m thinking of how cooperative each of you are,” I told him. “If it comes down to questions, I’d rather have someone who can answer questions and sell Fray on this.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll move on. Sounds as if Junior is the one to talk to. Now, are you going to cooperate and let me tie you up, or should I use my knife and be done with you altogether?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I waited patiently as he picked himself up off the ground, and positioned his hands where I could tie them.
I let myself out of the room. Jessie was waiting.
“Junior is the one to talk to, apparently,” I said.
“She comes tomorrow,” I observed. I looked at the building. “That’s a tight timeline. A lot to handle.”
“But it’s doable,” Jessie said.
“And her big play involves the Academy.”
“We already had our suspicions about what that play would look like,” Jessie reminded me. “This more or less confirms them.”
“Leon in there won’t be useful for us, standing across from Fray. Leah is-”
“Dangerous,” Jessie finished for me.
“Dangerous,” I agreed. I reached up to smudge Jessie’s glasses, and she swatted at my hand.
Leah shouted something unpleasant from within the room we’d turned into a cell.
The guard of Frederick’s that I’d stationed in there didn’t whistle. Nothing important.
“Mulled,” Jessie said.
“About the thought I couldn’t complete. About your response to Leah.”
“You’re very readable, Sy. When you feel insecure, you push the boundaries. Even with allies. Especially with allies. You mess up their glasses, for example.”
I made a noise, more to suggest than I’d heard than to negate or agree.
“Feeling insecure, Sy?”
“With you or with this situation?”
“Fray is a tricky enemy. And this won’t be easy.”
“We can back down. Skip town, choose a different path.”
I shook my head. We needed people.
We were sitting on a monumental secret. But to utilize it, we needed a voice, and six hundred were far louder than two. Six thousand were better than six hundred.
But to get those six hundred or six thousand, gambles had to be made. Risks had to be taken.
As I’d told Leon, Fray laid groundwork and put out feelers. She likely had a hundred groups like this little drug laboratory at the edge of the world. When certain stars aligned and she saw opportunity, then she leveraged them. They gave her the in. Groups like this let her get set up and act quickly, much as the student she was tutoring had given her access to the lab with chemicals and water supply access that would let her taint the town and surrounding region. Dame Cicely’s.
Fray operated by performing the big actions, then leveraging the fallout.
We’d gotten out ahead of her, predicting the sort of place she would see as vulnerable and ready to be leveraged. Now we were undermining her groundwork.
“Jessie,” I said. “I can continue the interrogations. I’ll talk to Jun, there.”
“You want me to coach ’em?”
“Please,” I said. “Focus on Leah and Leon’s replacements. If Junior decides to play ball, then that’ll make them sound a hell of a lot more like the people Fray’s been negotiating with all this time.”
Fray would turn up and go on with business as usual.
She would, through the replacements we were setting up or a lack of awareness that we were in play, set up her ‘something big’.
And we were damn well going to steal it.