Bitter Pill – 15.15

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Jessie was waiting outside of the hotel.  Students were scattering, leaving the building and walking through the streets.  I walked down the street, holding my cigarette and not really puffing on it.  My thoughts tumbled over one another.

That was fine.  They needed to get themselves ready.  Clothes and personal belongings needed to be gathered.  They would come back with luggage.

She told me, “I sent for some carriages.  We’re going to need to assist, because the Academy is going to have recovered and they’ll react to a mass exodus.”

I nodded.  I leaned against the wall beside Jessie and puffed, still thinking.

She gave me a curious look.  “It didn’t go well?”

I had to think before I answered that question.

“Depends how you look at it.  Am I that easy to read?”

“You’re smoking.”

“That’s not a tell,” I said.

“You don’t usually smoke more than one or two cigarettes a day.”

“I smell?”

“You smell like you had more than one, yeah.”

I wrinkled my nose, then bit my lip.

“If the outcome of the meeting depends on how I look at it, share some perspectives,” Jessie told me.

Some of the students walked out of the hotel.  A group.  There was a bit of excitement in the air.  They were taking a massive leap of faith.  For some of them, it was the first time in their lives that they had really moved beyond their pre-set paths.

“She touched a nerve,” I said.  “One I didn’t realize was there.”

“If this were a ‘there’s good news and bad news’ explanation, that’s the bad news, then.”

“No,” I said.  “Because it isn’t that kind of explanation.  It’s muddled.  Lots of gray area.”

“I see,” she said.

“She wasn’t who I wanted her to be, and I saw that, and a lot of accumulated stresses and disappointments came out,” I said.  I pulled back on the cigarette.  A pair of male students walked past, one gave me a nod, and I gave him a nod in turn.

“You look a little scary, for the record,” Jessie said.

“Noted,” I said.

“What’s the gray area?”

“Being able to see that Fray wasn’t who I wanted her to be meant I got more of a glimpse of her, I think.  I was able to stop myself, but… chose not to.  Because I saw an in.”

“Past the facade?  You once described Fray as a demon wearing an angel’s mask.”

“Did I?”

“To Jamie, once upon a time.”

“Huh.  I like that.  Good for me.”

“I’d point out that you said it once, forgot about it, and then said it again later like it was the first time, and then you did it again but it was the matron and the ogre, but you seem like you’re not in the mood for any playful jabs,” Jessie said.

“Thank you for not pointing it out, then,” I said.  I smiled a little, then I puffed thoughtfully.  What had I been saying?  It was hard to recall particulars when my thoughts were this scattered and the things I was considering were this big.

“You saw an in,” Jessie reminded me.

“Yes,” I said.  “Thank you.  I didn’t penetrate past the angel to the devil inside, though.  I think I glimpsed the human.”

“Something exploitable?”

“We’ll find out in less than forty-five minutes, I think.”

“What an interesting timeframe.”

“The Lambs are coming,” I said.  “In forty-five minutes.”

“Ah,” Jessie said.  She pushed her glasses up her nose.

I nodded.

“That’s bad.”

“I’m not so sure,” I said.  “Gray areas, remember?”

“Of course I remember, Sy,” Jessie said, clearly annoyed.  “Why is this gray?”

“Because I’m suspicious that when the train pulls up and the Lambs get off, Fray is going to be standing there, ready to turn herself in.”

“I see.  This goes back to what you were saying about your valiant fight against the primordial, does it?  It’s really my facade you’re trying to crack.”

“Jessie-”

“Do you expect to find an angel, a demon, or a human when you chip away my mask?  I assume that’s why you’re chipping away at my reason and sens-”

I flicked my fingers, striking the arm of her glasses with a fingernail, interrupting her.  “Chip.”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I did it again.  “Chip.”

“I’m armed, Sylvester.”

“And I’m being honest.  Really.  The Lambs are due.  Sixty-forty odds that Fray will be there.”

“That must have been a fascinating conversation.  If I hadn’t seen you walk off with Fray, I might have thought you were losing your mind again.”

“Maybe I did, just a bit.  But I’m pretty sure on this one,” I said.  I reached into a pocket, and I withdrew a piece of paper.  I handed it over.  “Warren Howell arrived with the last train-”

“-Twelve minutes ago.”

“Twelve minutes ago.  Fray will be talking to him.  He’ll cover us from the Lambs and he’ll cooperate, as will the rest of the people he brings for help.  That paper has the addresses of our first contacts.  Fray was kind enough to supply the next part of her plan.  We’ll be able to room and board our army while we get the next pieces of our plan underway.”

“I’m usually content to let you do your thing, and I keep up, but I’m going to need more information on this one.”

“The dark cloud that’s hanging over all of this and making it look a lot grayer is that our standing plan may not work.  Fray thinks others have tried, or others have done similar things.  She knew and she didn’t try.  The Crown is a sore loser, Jessie.  She believes that if we move forward and spread the word, the Crown will sooner erase the Crown States from the map than allow the mask to be pulled off.”

Jessie nodded, taking that in.

Even irritated, with me flicking at her face, she was calm and sure.  It was a panacea of sorts.  It made the sentiments Fray had stirred easier to handle.

I continued, “In my ire, I convinced her that if she doesn’t turn herself in and show that she really does take this that seriously, I might move ahead with the plan regardless.  That I’m a sore loser too.”

“How much of that was truth?”

I smiled.

She reached out and flicked my nose.

“That’s annoying,” I commented.

“Oh, is it now?”

“You’re terribly immature,” I told her.

“I am.  And I’m curious, too.  This fear that you think will put her on the train platform, was it the glimmer of human you saw in her?”

“Sixty percent chance she stands on that platform, mind you,” I said.  “Completely made up number, but it’s approximately where my feelings are on it.  And only to a degree.  Both the devil in Fray and the angel are practical monsters.  If she extends the same arithmetic to  the hunting of us, practically speaking…

“Practically speaking, it’s not out of the question that she ends up on that platform.”

“But that’s only a small part of that.  If it was that alone, it would account for perhaps five percent of the chance.  It was two things that stood out to me in particular,” I said.  “Two things that make me see Fray in a different light than I did before today.  The first, really, is when and how the crack appeared in her shell.  It was when I got angry.  When I accused her, arbitrarily, she started listening to me.  I accused her again, still angry, of being responsible, and she got angry.  I made unreasonable demands, and she bargained.”

“The crack in the facade.”

I finished my cigarette, mashed it against the wall, joining other dark spots from other days and nights Jessie and I had both stood here outside our hotel, plotting what came next.

“She actually felt guilty,” I said.

“Despite no direct involvement?”

“Indirect involvement.  She took Wyvern, which was tested on me and others like me.  She ran from us very effectively for a very long few months before she let us catch her.  She probably had moles, and she didn’t give any tells, but she didn’t actually ask any questions or raise eyebrows about to my repeated references to Lacey, and I’m wondering if she would have if there was nothing going on there.”

“Indirect involvement, then.  Maybe.  Your interpretation of Lacey was very different from Jamie’s.”

I nodded.

“Guilty,” Jessie ruminated on the word.

“A bit of fear, a bit of genuine guilt, as I let my facade down and pulled a bit of hers down in the process, some practicality, and, maybe a bit of it had to do with her being spooked.”

“Spooked?  This is different from her being scared?”

“Flustered.  Put on her heels.  In all of that, my ranting and railing against her, I went with my instincts.  In the midst of it all, I asked her to make a sacrifice for once.  I think it hit home.  Prey instinct, gut feeling, and a bit of the raw on my side to break past the civil veneer.  We should run after these students.  Talk while we walk.”

I put my hand on Jessie’s shoulder, bringing her with.  She had to bend down to grab our bags, which meant my hand slipped away.

“You’re going to need to elaborate on that last point,” Jessie said.

“Of course,” I said.  I took my bag from Jessie.  I glanced back at the hotel.

“If you wait and try to make me impatient, it won’t work,” Jessie said.  “I’ll remember, and you’ll forget, and you’ll be more annoyed and inconvenienced in the end than I am.”

“You’re my foil,” I said.  “It’s why we get along so well.”

“Of course,” she said.  “Is this a new realization?  Stemming from the fact that Fray turned out not to be who you thought she was?”

“No,” I said.  “Hardly.  I’ve known you and Jamie were natural fits for me for a long while.  Fray was… something else.  When I called on her to make the sacrifice for once, she was flustered.  I was musing on it while I walked back here, and I’m left thinking, you know, the Crown, awfully sore losers.  Destroy a continent to hide the fact they actually lost once.”

“You’re going to need to elaborate on that, too.”

“So needy!” I waved my hands at Jessie, as if shooing a pesky fly or an annoying small child.  She pulled my hands down.

“I’m a sore loser.  How sore a loser remains to be seen, of course.  It depends on Fray, on you, on my mental health, and a few other factors.”

“A lot of that going around.”

“Oh, but see, it goes further.  Mary, oh our Mary was holding a grudge.  Lillian too.  Didn’t take too kindly to my betrayal.  There were heavy feelings there.  Not happy about the gunshot to the knee, or the way the breakup went.”

“I’m not sure I’d call that being a sore loser.  Especially in Mary’s case.”

I shooed Jessie again.

“You get very immature when your emotional defenses are down,” she remarked.

I fought with her for a moment, as I continued shooing her, while she pulled and swatted my hands down.

I was feeling better than I had.

“Cynthia.  I don’t think I need to say more.”

“I’m seeing where you’re going with this.”

“Mauer?  What do you think, Jessie?”

“He wears an agony-inducing symbol of his grudge against the Academy.  I think he qualifies in your pattern.”

“So… We all put our chips in, paid the price of admission.  And I’m left wondering about Fray.”

“She lost her career.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She has a restricted schedule.  Not as restricted as mine, damn her, but she has a limited timeframe to work with.  And I have to wonder, where’s the grudge?  Why doesn’t she care that we just spoiled Beattle for her, when this is supposed to be all she has?  Why is she such a cool customer when she’s working with limited time and we just cost her cumulative weeks or months of work that she’s been doing in the background?  And no, I don’t think it’s Wyvern.  I think it’s that she doesn’t have stakes in this.  Not here, not this particular job or what follows, or maybe not even what in comes before.  I called her on it, asked her about the sacrifices and in that moment… ”

I didn’t need to finish.  I’d already spelled it out.  Jessie had all of the pieces.

“She’s playing another game.”

“I think so,” I said.

“Fifty fifty chance she ends up on that train platform, totally made up number, tilting slightly one way for reasons you’ve already elaborated on.  Fear, maybe guilt, the fact that the Crown States might hinge on it, depending on how sore of a loser you are.”

I nodded.

“But the real reason it would go one way or the other…” Jessie mused, as we walked.  “Is the scheme she’s working on in the background.  Does it need her?”

My step bounced a little with excitement.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see if she turns up there.”

I threw one arm around Jessie’s shoulders, making her stumble a bit.  I hugged her with that arm.  “We’re on the same page, there.”

The assembled gang leaders joined Jessie and I in watching the students moving out of the dorms.  There were Academy uniforms nearby, but a scattered few, mostly interested in trying to figure out what was happening and where the students were going.  They had sent for help, and help would arrive.

They mustered their forces, and we mustered ours.

“You really kicked up a fuss, huh kid?” Frederick asked.

“You’re still doing that condescension thing,” I pointed out.  “I think the rest of us moved on past that a long time ago.  It only makes you look bad.”

“I look fine,” Frederick said.

“Frederick gets all of the girls,” Clay said.

I gave the man a curious look.

I wasn’t sure he ‘got it’.  But Clay didn’t seem to get much of anything.

“Key thing is to get the kids back to the hotel,” I said.  “We blitz the uniforms.  They don’t have guns, only clubs.  Which of you have guns?”

Archie raised his hand.

Right.

“I have the shotgun we got from the punk kid at the lab,” Otis said, showing me.

“Take the ammo out,” I told him.  “I don’t want you shooting my kids.”

The middle aged, grizzled gang member stared me down.

Finally, he relented.  He tossed the thing at me, and reached out in the direction of one of his many subordinates.  They passed him a stick.

“I’d rather have a weapon I can use over one I can’t.”

“Good enough,” I said.

I indicated the places to occupy and lay in wait, with Jessie consulting.

Students began to drift away, my de-facto lieutenants lurking here and there.

Jessie and I moved through the area, checking on students here and there.  The ones who looked like they might be having second thoughts, the ones who were having trouble.  Here and there, we paired up students, told older ones who looked responsible to look after younger ones.  Most were over fifteen, but a few weren’t.  The younger ones would bear looking after.

“I feel like we might lose some.  Ones who want to follow, but who get caught up in things.  It’s an awful thought.  Like, if I’d been stopped and dragged back to the Academy just when I’d committed to leaving?”

“I know what you mean,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I spotted Rudy and flagged him down.

“We’ve blocked off the streets you said.  If they come after us in carriages and wagons, it’ll slow them down.  There were a few gates and bridges, like the big one over Spider street.  We blocked those off.”

“Good,” I said.  “Where’s Possum?”

“With the Strays.  I don’t think they’re coming with, are they?”

I shook my head.  “Only a few.  Is Possum going to stay with them?”

“Nah.  She’s with us.  She wants to be a part of this.” Rudy said.  He was a bruiser of a fella, but there was meaningful concern on his face.  “She’s going to hate leaving them.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Was just thinking about something along those lines.  Maybe if you pull her away?  Ask her to help you hunt down any students who might otherwise get left behind?  Pull up the rear, and be mindful, because the gangsters and the uniforms might start scrapping soon.”

He nodded.

“Good man,” I said, as he hurried off to find Possum.

I took it all in.

We were mobilizing, getting ready to leave.  I’d planned to take a boat, but Fray’s evacuation plan was the train.

There was a fuzzy area, however, between now and then.

“How long until the Lambs arrive?”

“Thirty minutes.  It’s going to take us ten to get to the train station.”

“We have to do this fast, then,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “But our people are capable.  Most of these uniforms are security officers for the Academies, doing night patrols and breaking up a few scuffles a month.  I don’t think they want to cause a stir.”

“But there are some, like those ones over there, who have more experience.  Sharper, more up to date uniforms, even though they don’t wear the uniforms that often.  I think they wear something fancier.”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “Like the ones who were hunting Avis.”

“How long until our guest shows?”

“No idea how fast he moves, but going by my measure of the walk from here to the train station taking ten minutes… he should have turned up three minutes ago.”

I frowned.

“We can run,” Jessie suggested.  “Do more here, then run there.”

“We can.  I don’t want to.  Running attracts attention.”

She nodded.

“And you’re slow,” I added.

She punched my arm.

We continued encouraging and helping students for another few minutes, before Jessie touched my arm.

Warren, and Warren had help.  I was disappointed that Dog and Catcher weren’t among the help.

It felt like Warren had grown.  He was a proper Bruno, but he was an exemplar among them.  A living statue, carved rather than grown, but he had been grown.  The muscle was real, standing out against the fabric of his clothes, with grooves running deep between the individual muscles.  He didn’t wear a jacket.  I suspected his body was such an efficient engine that he didn’t truly need one.

Fray did good work, really.

The lack of proportion between his head and the rest of him was odd to see.  His hair was slicked back, and he had muttonchops.  The color of his eyes was particularly intense as he stared me down.  I probably weighed as much as one of his legs did.

Just his approach and arrival seemed to bother the uniforms.  They talked among themselves.

Warren’s help included various other experiments and ex-soldiers.  Mauer’s discards possibly, and back-alley doctors.  There was a trend to the clothes they wore, with jackets in a military cut that rarely touched on the colors of the Crown or the Crown’s favored style.  Blue and silver rather than gold and red, or black and silver.  It wasn’t an absolute trend, but I had the sentiment that this group of people had spent enough time among one another to start becoming a group.

I had questions and I was curious, but I didn’t want to pry.

“No Wendy?” I asked.

Warren shook his head.

“You’re cooperating?” I asked him.

He didn’t nod or shake his head.  I watched him work one fist, as if rolling the knuckles, testing the joints and the strength of his hand.

Finally, he nodded.

“I need someone that’s willing to help me handle an errand.  Any eager beavers, looking to stretch their legs or limbs after a long train ride?”

The group of doctors and experiments and grizzled normals exchanged looks.

It seemed they deferred to Warren, here.

A leader that wouldn’t talk.

“Warren, then?”

Again, that long pause, and then the reluctant nod.

“Great.”

Jessie and I led him around the back of one building.

“Just around the corner,” I said.  “Group of men.  You’re going after the leader.  Tall, blond hair.  He’ll have a weapon, but no gun.  We need to catch him off guard, grab him.  We’ll want him for information.”

Warren gave me a dispassionate look.

“We’re working on a schedule.  If you waste time, then Fray suffers and we suffer, and Avis suffers.  Students might even get hurt.  Let’s just… accept you’re doing this under protest and move on.  Fray asked you to because she thinks it matters.”

Warren frowned, then turned away.  He flexed his fists again.

“Capture, don’t kill or harm,” I said.

He sighed without looking at me.

Then he charged.  One hand gripped the corner of the building to help him swing in, as he ran from the back of one building, around the corner, and into the alley.

I heard the shouts of surprise and alarm.  I heard the swears, the grunts.

Jessie and I moved in sync, without even needing to signal one another.  We knew the moment.

Warren stood in the midst of Frederick’s group.  One hand held Frederick’s weapon arm.  The other gripped Frederick by the face, fingers wrapped around Frederick’s head as someone of a normal scale might hold a cricket ball.

“I want to see his face,” I said.

The hand moved from Frederick’s face to his neck.  He was already beet red, which stood out marvelously with his blond hair.

“Ah, false positive,” I said, with a bit of levity.  “I thought you were the informant who tipped off the Academy about us.  But I don’t see it in your eyes.”

“You knew darn well that I wasn’t,” Frederick said.

“I’m really glad I told him not to kill.  Dust yourself off.  If you’re still in, then get ready, plan goes forward as intended shortly.  Just one quick thing to take care of first.”

“Otis?” Frederick asked.

I smiled.  “Afraid not.”

Their rivalry wouldn’t die here.  Otis wasn’t the snitch.  He’d been at this for too long.

“Archie?” Jessie asked, quietly.

I gestured for Warren.

He looked even more disgruntled than before.

“Need to find the informant before any fighting starts, or important people get offed, and the other side gets too much information,” I explained to Warren.

“Next alley,” Jessie said.

“This time… just level them.  There are less of them this time,” I said.  “No students, if any students happen to be with them, but there shouldn’t be any.”

He wasted no time.  Frustration might have been an element.  He swung around into the alley, and from the sound of it, he picked something up and threw it.  I heard the sound of a bone breaking.

We rounded the corner, me slightly in the lead this time.

Clay’s men lay on the ground, broken.

“You were too eager to go run our errand, earlier,” I said.  “The one I ended up sending Otis on.  It would have been a prime opportunity to pass information to the Academy.  What I don’t get is how someone as thick as you are managed this.  Are you that good an actor?”

Clay coughed blood.

“Come on now,” I told him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.  His teeth were stained red.  He looked up at Warren.

“If it wasn’t for just how dumb you are, and the fact that you and your buddies here are all brothers, or look like brothers, I would have immediately pegged you, based on how new you are to the city.  Some background, but only inasmuch as it can be faked.”

“Please,” he said.

“I’m going to kill all three of you shortly, whatever happens,” I told him.  “So… it’s really just a question of sating my curiosity.”

“Don’t,” he said, his eyes widening.  “Please.  Not like this, not now.”

“Not now?”

“They give us a drug.  Alderbenzarine.”

“Memory drug,” Jessie said.

“They give it to old people.  Kick in the ass, gets you going, and helps with memory retention.  But it makes you foggy, less good judgement.  I take a lot.  Helps to be dumb, people say things around dumb folks.  Then I go to my bosses, I go off the drug, and tell them particulars.”

“You found us awfully quick.”

“We’re so close to New Amsterdam and Lincolnshire and other places.  They tap cities like this for people if they need bodies for a gang or somethin’.  We hang here, keep a thumb on the pulse, wait to get recruited, and report in.”

“Just have to put on a show, be dumb, be available, and you draw your wage, huh?”

“It’s a good wage, but,” he said, and he paused to close his eyes, wincing at the pain he was already feeling from being soundly smashed.  “There are risks.  I don’t want to die while I’m dumb.  Please.”

His still-conscious brother nodded.

I stared down at him, aware of the gun at my side.

“Some students who heard your speech will decide not to follow along,” Jessie said.  “He can’t share that much more than them.”

“Fair bit more,” I said.  “But point taken.  What if I take your tongue and your hands, Clay?”

He nodded eagerly.  He tried to make a pleading gesture, but one of his wrists was already fairly messed up.  “Please.”

I drew my knife.

“Warren, you want to go back to your buddies?  Tell them they’re hitting the group by the blue-painted wagon with the horses.  Wait one minute, then attack.  From there, you can go…”

I fished a piece of paper from my pocket.

“…here.  Avis will be brought to you.”

He took the paper, then stomped off.

I knelt before a broken Clay, knife in hand.

“I know what it is to not want to go out with your brain in the wrong place,” I said.

He nodded.  Then he stuck out his tongue and his hands – one bent at an odd angle, and he screwed his eyes shut.

We could hear the far off train whistle as we approached our hiding place.

“Enter the Lambs,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  My eyes scanned the platform.

“Do you want to see them?  I’m sure we could contrive a way.  A brief visit, an exchange of words.”

I shook my head.

“It might not even be all of them.”

“I can’t imagine Lillian or Mary not coming,” I said.  “Helen wouldn’t miss this unless she had another job.”

“So we just let them come?  Get a glimpse, see what happens with Fray, and then leave?  Just like that?”

“Each parting gets harder,” I said.  “If I have to deal with that, I want it to be worth it.  I’d just be talking to them to talk to them.  If you wanted to do different, I think they’d let you go.  You could tell them things, get them up to date.”

Jessie looked down at the train station from over the top of the wall.  Jessie’s camaraderie with the station employees had earned us access to a prime vantage point, the wall that framed the ticket booth.

Again, the train hooted.  Far closer this time.  She shook her head.

“No?” I asked.

“Nothing new to share.  I guess we’re on the same page.  I feel like if I shared anything, it would be negative.  The positives aren’t things we want them to know right off the bat.”

I nodded.

Jessie looked at the crowds of people on the train station.

She walked up the slight slope to the actual platform.  She was utterly still as people milled this way and that, making room for the people who would depart and eagerly forming lines and queues with their luggage next to them, ready to board.

Fray stood alone in the middle of the two groups, stiff necked, hands clasped in front of her.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” I asked, under my breath.

The train hooted one more time, and the tracks rattled as it pulled into the station.

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