Esprit de Corpse – 5.4

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“Two big issues,” I said.

“More than two,” Helen observed.

“Two big ones,” I reaffirmed.  “We need to get out of this with our skin intact, and we need to help the others.  Only reason they haven’t come after us is they probably aren’t sure they can find the others once we’re dead.”

“They could torture us,” Jamie said, under his breath.

“Sure,” I said.  “Yeah, that’s probably in the cards, if they don’t get the results they want by waiting.”

“Great,” Jamie said.

“They’re not going to come after us here,” I said, “If they’re patient enough to let things get this far, they’re patient enough to let us have a bite to eat.  We bide our time, we make them wait, we see if they make a mistake.”

“We’re giving them time to get in position,” Jamie said.

“Sure,” I said.  “That’s fine.”

“Fine?”

I gave him my best winning smile.  “It’s fine.  Really.  They’re not going to close in on the others that fast.  We wait.”

“Alright,” he said.  “I’m going to assume you have a plan.”

“I-”

“-And,” he said, cutting me off, “Don’t correct me.  Let me have this.”

I smiled, shutting my mouth.

We reached the building, and we were mute as we waited in a long line.  We ended up settling in at the corner, where the path to a restroom and a length of counter at one end of the kitchen gave us some more privacy than we might otherwise have, putting us another pace or two from the nearest tables.  I took a seat by the window, so I had a glimpse of the street outside.  Jamie did the same, sitting across from me, while Helen took the aisle seat, next to Jamie.

Jamie and I looked out on the rain-stricken city, and the two of us saw the world in very different ways.  It was handy, when we were on the lookout together.

I liked that, really.  With our group being as diverse as it was, there were people who were more different from certain others.  Gordon and I were one example.  Could we work well together?  Sure.  But even while I’d trust Gordon to hold my still-beating heart in his hand and treat it with the care it deserved, I knew that we were very different in how we saw the world and how we approached a situation.  We were polar opposites in terms of our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

Put Mary and Gordon on the same task, and they matched each other’s stride well.  Gordon and Helen, same thing.

Jamie and I should have been opposites.  We should have run counter to one another.  I was the chaos that stood in contrast to his order, the haste to his slow and steady pace.  He was gentler than I was.  We worked together better than any of the other opposing elements among the Lambs.

That seemed important to me.  As if somehow it would hold things together in a pinch.

The waitress came by, we made our order, and promptly delivered it.

I left Jamie to continue studying the outside, and turned my attention to the interior.

The tea house was a sad little affair.  It was the sort of location where the youth might congregate in better times, boys and girls could meet for first dates, children could gather and cluster into booths, and the elderly might sit for hours at a time, enjoying the good weather if there was any to be had.  A glass display window protected and showed off an assortment of sandwiches and baked goods, and kettles were perpetually boiling behind the counter.

But there were no youths besides us, there were no elderly.  Whitney was a small town with a large town population in it, now, and that population consisted of soldiers and rebels, with a lot of angry people.  The staff of the tea house was having trouble keeping up, and the food behind the display window was dwindling, with new food being placed within on a regular basis, only to be dismantled by the next collection of guests.  It was less of an elegant, artistic construction than a wall being torn down a hair faster than it could be rebuilt.  If the staff worked hard enough, they would manage to keep going until the day was done, then collapse from exhaustion before doing what they could to get ready for the next day.  If they failed, then they would have to deal with wave after wave of disgruntled customers, men with a lot of repressed fear and anger due to the ongoing war.

The constant rain meant mud was constantly being tracked in,  and the floor was only partially swept before something demanded the attention of the staff.  The result was that dirt and debris collected in corners and at the edges of the floor, where the mops and brooms couldn’t quite reach.  The staff wasn’t used to this kind of environment, and it was clearly getting to them.  They were used to a relaxed atmosphere, one where they could chat with their more innocent customers, not a crowd of unsmiling men who gathered at the door, shuffling their feet and murmuring among each other until a table vacated or the line reached the counter.

“Miss,” Helen said.  “Miss?”

Helen succeeded in getting the attention of the waitress.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Helen said.

“It’s alright,” the woman said, offering Helen a tired smile that suggested it wasn’t.

Helen’s demeanor was bright as she talked, pointing at her cake with her spoon.  “I just wanted to say this is really very good.  Would you pass my compliments on to whoever made it?”

The woman seemed to shed five years of age as she relaxed muscles in her face, neck, and shoulders.  I really wondered if she might cry.  She nodded, a little too quickly, and then said, “I will.”

“Thank you!” Helen said, almost sing-song, to the waitresses’ back.

I broke my cookie in half before washing it down with a bit of tea.  “I don’t know how I get the reputation as the most evil member of the bunch.”

“Hm?” Jamie asked.

“Just saying,” I said.

“What Helen said was nice,” Jamie said, jabbing me in the arm with his spoon.

I shook my head, very slowly.  “Nope.”

“Nope?”

“I’m a student of the way humans work, and , and I think what Helen just did was worse than anything I’ve done in the last while.”

Helen hummed happily, rocking left and right a bit as her legs kicked idly under the table.  Jamie gave me a look.

“Could be what they need to keep going,” Jamie murmured.

“But it’s not.  They’re finding their own ways to keep going.  When you lift someone up, you have to let go of them.  They might not have the strength to land on their feet when they get dropped,” I said.  “I don’t think these people have that strength.”

“That’s a very dark view,” Jamie said.

“It would have been better to leave them alone than to remind them of what they don’t have,” I said.

“That’s an even darker view,” Jamie said.  “I don’t want to live in a world where everyone acts that way.”

That stung, more than I cared to admit.  “Not everyone, not always.”

“But sometimes?  Sometimes can’t say something nice and be kind?”

“I don’t see why this is a point of contention,” I said.

“What’s your perfect world, Simon?” Jamie asked, using the fake name he’d stuck me with.  I wondered if he’d chosen it for a reason.  Harkening back to the old days.  “If the big problems were fixed and everything was working the way it should?”

“That has nothing to do with it,” I said.

“But?  What’s your perfect world?”

I sighed.  “A world where everyone is surrounded by people who are striving to be their best, because we only grow as people when we’re around people who are equal to or better than us in intelligence, skill, and industry.  It’s in stupidity and stagnation that we fail as a species.”

“But ethically?  Morally?” he prodded.

“I just gave my answer.  In a perfect world, we’re all different, ethically and morally.  We argue, we challenge each other, and everyone is working to make their ideas better and more… more.”

“A lot of hostility, arguments, competition.”

“Nothing good awaiting us as a species if we lose that,” I said.  I broke off a small bit of my oversized cookie and popped it into my mouth.  I chewed and swallowed.  “Stagnation.”

“I can’t help but notice you haven’t mentioned anything about the positive human relationships,” Jamie said.  “Only the confrontational ones.”

“Humans are a social species.  Push us, pressure us, challenge us, and the weak elements will break apart, the stronger elements will band together,” I said.

“Wallace’s law, applied to a group,” Jamie said.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said.  “I’m not proposing something where we’re all supposed to act like animals, or that we should model ourselves after them.  I’m saying humans are humans, and being human means struggling.  In the course of those struggles, we form the strongest bonds.  Could be us and a life and death struggle with a pair of people who want to stalk and kill us, or two people working in a tea shop in a town that’s gotten embroiled in a civil war.”

“Seems like your worldview is a little bit, uh,” Jamie said, “Conveniently you?”

“Of course it is,” I said.  “I’m eleven.  Ish.”

Jamie rolled his eyes.

“What’s your worldview?” I asked.  “Don’t let my answer bias you.”

“I wouldn’t,” he said, staring out the window.  “But world peace would be nice.”

“World peace would destroy humanity,” I said.  “Do I need to get into how?  Because-”

“You don’t need to get into how,” Jamie said.  “I get it.  I really do.  I agree with you on a lot of things, believe it or not.  That we need the challenge, that we have to surround ourselves with people that as as bright and talented as we are, if not better.  I like the differences in people, ethically or otherwise- I wouldn’t be able to stand you if I didn’t.”

I kicked him lightly in the shin under the table.  He kicked me, harder.  I pinned his foot down with mine, and he relented rather than fighting to get it free, content with a one-for-one.

He spoke, adding, “But if it came down to it, I’d rather have peace than war.  Both would do us a lot of harm, but I’d rather the sleepy, apathetic sort of ruin to the violent sort.  Especially if it means we can be gentle and kind and not worry about the damage you somehow do by acting nice.”

I sighed.

“I know,” Jamie said.  “We’re different people like that.”

“You’re a boring person.  The most boring.”

He stuck his tongue out at me.

“Stick out your tongue all you want, you’re still boring.”

He ignored me,  turning to Helen.  “What about you, Helen?  Worldview?”

“I was hoping that being nice would get me another bit of dessert,” she said, looking in the general direction of the wait-staff.

“If you timed it differently, you might have,” I said.  “But there isn’t much behind the display.  Stuff is in the oven.  They’re short, so it’s hard to justify.  By the time the stuff comes out of the oven, they’ll be too busy, the comment will be mostly forgotten.”

“Dang it,” Helen said.

“Have to say, that’s not a worldview,” Jamie muttered.

“It is so,” Helen said, sounding offended.  “Ethics, morals?  Everyone acts in certain ways because it gets us things.  Some things are more basic than others.  People want to eat, they want shelter, they want to be around other people…”

Jamie and I nodded.  Helen was the most alien of us, and it was interesting to hear where she came from.

“We act a certain way because it gets us those things.  If we can’t act nice then nobody wants to give us those basics, like food.”

“You keep coming back to that,” Jamie murmured.  “Food.”

Jamie and Helen were at odds, in a way, now that I thought about it.

“We build up this image and it’s all based around getting what we want.  Everyone does it, they play along, and in a roundabout, complicated way, selfishness breeds connectedness,” she said.

I nodded.  Jamie leaned over.  “And your perfect world?”

“Mmm,” Helen smiled.  “Perfect is complicated.  Hard to explain.”

“Give it a shot,” I prodded her.

“It’s… beautiful is the best word to describe it,” she said.

Jamie and I nodded.

“Everything that isn’t necessary to getting what we want is gone,” she said, eyes closing, as if she was vividly imagining.  “There’s an abundance of it all, thanks to science.  Food is everywhere and it overflows and there’s nothing to worry about because we have and we want and we take.  We’re, and by we I mean people, we’re everywhere and we spill over into one another and we’re all knit together, physically and mentally.  It’s an exquisite landscape of things that don’t ever run out to see and touches and tastes and smells and mating and eating and mindless fighting and eating-mating and fighting-eating and fighting-”

“Okay,” I said, interrupting.  I paused, then when I couldn’t think of what to say. “Okay.”

Helen reached down to her plate, used a fingertip to wipe up a bit of frosting, and popped it into her mouth, sucking it off.

“Okay,” I said, still at a bit of a loss for words.

“That’s a mental image that’s going to be with me forever,” Jamie said, dropping his head down until his face was in his hands.

“I don’t see where ethics come into that world,” I said, more to see Jamie’s reaction than out of curiosity.

“No,” Jamie said.  “Don’t-”

“The closer you get to perfection, the further you get from ethics,” Helen said, as if it was common sense.

“Can we drop this?” Jamie asked.

“Sounds like something Ibott would say,” I commented.

“Um,” Jamie cut in, before Helen could answer, putting a hand over her mouth.  “Can we drop the topic?  Please?  I’m sorry I brought it up.  Let’s talk about the threats on our lives?  The others?”

I nodded.  “We can do that.  Mustn’t break our Jamie, right Hel?”

She nodded, and Jamie dropped his hand.  Helen smiled, leaned over, and gave Jamie a kiss on the cheek.  Jamie didn’t react, except to glare at me, as if I was somehow to blame.

“Alright,” I said, leaning back.  “Changing the subject for Jamie’s sake.”

“Won’t help.  I can’t forget it, as long as I live.”

With emphasis on the I, not live, the thought struck me.

Damn it, was my next thought.  Now I’m in a bad mood.

“Two of them.  They clearly operate as a unit.  One to flush us out, another to keep us moving.  I’m betting the one in the kitchen left and circled around so she could track us.  It’s a very Dog-and-Catcher vibe.”

“Hard to do in the rain,” Jamie said.  “She was sniffing.  The rain would make tracking us by smell harder.”

“But not impossible, depending,” I said.  “I’m going to assume it at least means she can’t track our trail all the way back to the others, because they wouldn’t be leaving us alive if she could.”

“Makes sense,” Jamie said.

“We’re not well equipped to fight, and I don’t like the knives the man had,” I said.  “If we get in a bad situation, we run, we try to bait them into a situation where we can turn the tables, or we run.”

“You said that twice,” Helen pointed out.

“I meant it twice.  Very important,” I said.  “If they know who we are, they know who Helen is.  The woman didn’t have a gun, and the man seems to prefer knives.  That suggests they prefer close quarters.”

“They had a very feral vibe,” Jamie said.  “He had a heavy forehead, brutish, she had the mouth, the sniffing, and the hair…”

“Yes.  Good, I like that line of thinking,” I said.

“If I can get my hands on one of them, I can probably win,” Helen said.  “I’d prefer no knives, because some people are double-jointed, but I can probably win.”

“Then we have a strategy,” I said.  “We’re going to leave, and we cut through the spaces between buildings.  I’ve done it a bit, I know the best shortcuts, we break away from them, bait them in, trap them if we can, sic Helen on them.”

“Woof,” Helen said.

“Trouble is if they move as a pair, or one comes to relieve the other.  You’ll have to work fast, Hel.”

She pouted a little.

“We need to find a means of communicating with the others.  Objects can hold trace smells, allowing the sniffing woman to find us.  That means our best bet is to use people.”

“People?” Helen asked.

“Messengers.  Ones that won’t have to go to them, specifically, and who can’t be effective witnesses.”

“That’s vague,” Jamie said.

“That’s my job.  But I need elbow room to do it.  That means putting a bit of space between us and them before I act.”

“Which is also good for our lifespans,” Jamie murmured.

I nodded.  “As for you, Jamie…”

“What can I do?”

“Information.  Anything you can figure out.  If we’re going to actively turn this around, instead of just dodging them, then we need to figure them out.  We should figure out the people with the scars and boils on their bodies, and we need to know who Cynthia is.  You’re our best bet at figuring this out, connecting the dots.”

Jamie leaned forward, arms folded on the table, and scooted his chair up.  “On that subject, you’ve reminded me, I think they’ve got a trump card.”

“In what sense?”

“My focus up until now has been on the strategy, the war overall, troops, who they’re sending, and where.  Ames was a good source of information, but they started giving different people different details,” Jamie said.  “Trying to catch us out by narrowing down the field.  I caught on to it when details didn’t add up.  They’re not scared enough, Sy.  Westmore is a half day away, fully occupied by the Academy, and the people in charge here aren’t spooked about it.  If you want to count stuff we should figure out and figure out soon, I’d put that on the list.”

“Is it possible the scarred people are the trump card?”

“Don’t know,” Jamie said.  “It didn’t look like it mattered, with Mary and Gordon placing the bugs, we were going to resolve the situation before anything happened.  Now that we’re in a tighter spot…”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked out the window.

“Are we going, then?” Helen asked, weirdly insistent.

“It doesn’t look like they’re showing up.  I was hoping they’d turn up and try to pressure us, force a move.  Yeah, we’re going.”

“What would the plan be, if it came to that?” Jamie asked.

“Helen asks the waitress for help, we appeal to genuine human nature, duck out through the back,” I said.  “With this many people in here, we could lose them, because they can’t track us effectively with this crowd.  Buy ourselves a small head start.  If we could find the other one while we did it and keep an eye on them, we could see how they communicated.  Their dynamic, and so on.”

Jamie nodded.

Helen was already standing, and she reached for my plate, stacking it with hers and Jamie’s before gathering the silverware.  She gathered the teacups as well.

While Jamie got his backpack and slung it over one shoulder, she took the plates to the counter, placing them in the bucket that was over the sink.  She seemed too enthusiastic, bouncing in place, which was cause for me to watch her, even as Jamie and I headed for the door.

I saw her lean forward, talking to the server at the ovens.  The woman smiled, grabbed a cookie, and put it into a bag, before handing it to Helen.

She’d waited until the ovens were done before asking if we were going.

I looked at Jamie and rolled my eyes.  We’d slowed as we approached the cluster of men at the door.  Most had rifles, some had Exorcists, many had pistols as secondary weapons, or belts with canisters dangling from them.  Countermeasures against stitched and other experiments, I imagined.

I would have liked to grab the canisters, in hopes of getting something incendiary or something that might irritate the sniffing woman’s nose, but I wasn’t sure what the labels were supposed to mean, and I wasn’t sure how to unhook them.  Uncertainty was the spice of life, so to say, but people didn’t tend to use phrasings like that when referring to that which prolonged life expectancy.

Helen caught up at a skip and a run, throwing her arms out to catch us around the shoulders.  I was smaller, and I took the brunt of it.

My eye fell on one man in front of me.  Boots were common, but boots with a sidearm clipped to the one side-

I let myself fall onto my hands and knees, driving one shoulder into the man’s calf.

“Sorry!” I said.  “Sorry, sorry, sorry!”

I gave him my best ‘scared to death’ look, as he winced, backing away.  I clambered to my feet, accepting Helen’s assistance.

As we exited the tea shop, I raised my umbrella.

There was a figure on the roof of a tool shop, hood up, face barely visible.  By his frame, he was the man with the scarf.  I pretended I didn’t see him and gestured to the others, indicating a hard right turn.

Make it as hard for them to follow as we can.

I walked between Helen and Jamie, my eyes peeled.  When I was sure we weren’t being observed, I pulled the pistol from under my shirt and handed it to Jamie, slipping it into a large raincoat pocket.  He didn’t react, but he had to have felt the weight.

Better that he had a weapon than me, if it came down to it.  It wasn’t that I was a bad shot, but my tendency to overthink and self-sabotage in the process carried over to guns too.  I could hit eleven out of twelve bottles from the big tree behind the Orphanage, using one of Gordon’s practice guns, but Jamie had a better record than I did when it came to actually shooting anyone.  Reaction times could be better, but there were worse things.

Helen had a slim chance if it came down to a hand to hand fight.  Jamie could use a gun.

It meant I didn’t have to worry so much about them.

“One on the right is pursuing,” Jamie said.

“Noted,” I responded.  “How far away is she?”

“He,” Jamie said.  “The man from the upper floor in the banquet hall?”

He.

“There was one on the roof, opposite the front door of the tea house,” I said.  “Male.  We’re up against three.”

“Unless someone felt like spending some time on the roof,” Helen said, brightly.

“She brings up a good point.  It seems obvious,” Jamie said.  “Was he deliberately showing himself?”

Was he?

I frowned.  It could have been part of their plan.  Hang out in a spot where he wouldn’t be seen unless we were actively looking for people in unusual places.  If we changed course…

Damn it.  I’d expected two.  But they were herding us.  Closing the net.

“We can’t let them herd us,” I murmured.  “If we react to them, then we’re tipping them off.”

“If we don’t react to them, then we’re playing into their hands,” Jamie said.

“Yeah, well, they’re probably specialists when it comes to this,” I said.  “We need to change things up, adapt our plan.”

“How?” Jamie asked.

That’s a good question.

Give ourselves a headstart, pass a message to the others without getting caught, escape, reunite with the others.  In an ideal world, we’d be able to gather information on this new enemy, and still put Mary and Gordon’s plan into action.  Shipman’s weapon.  Disable Whitney and whatever trump card they had.

I felt Jamie’s hand on my arm tighten.  I wasn’t as fast to see what he saw, but it was a question of my being an inch or two shorter than him.

A man on the far side of the street, approaching.

He held his head at a strange angle, like his neck was broken, and a earlobes on already large ear dangled, a weight pinned to the bottom.  He had unkempt black hair, an unkempt beard, and strangely spaced out features on his face, as if someone had grabbed the back of his head and pulled, everything back out of the way, eyes to either side, mouth down, nose flattened and broadened.  He wore a soldier’s uniform, and he was weighed down with canisters.  A length of chain was wound his right wrist and hand, and something that looked like a lantern dangled from the end of that chain, nearly touching the ground by his right foot, with spikes radiating from it.

Plumes of something were puffing out from the end, as it swung in time with each step of his left foot.

My arm at my side, I reached over, tapping the gun in Jamie’s pocket.

The three of us walked, eyes forward, pretending not to have noticed.

As carts and carriages passed up and down the street, a group of people blocked our view of the man for a few long seconds.

When they moved out of the way, he was gone.  I felt Jamie’s grip tighten, but he wasn’t indicating anything in particular.

Just worry.

Helen reached for her bag and broke the cookie in half.  She broke one half into two quarters, and held them out for Jamie and I.

Jamie took his bit of cookie, letting go of my arm.

I saw the man walking in the midst of a group of woodcutters, his hair and beard almost camouflaged among theirs, only his features standing out, and only barely then.  Helen pushed the cookie at my mouth.  I opened up and accepted it.  The damn cookie was good, but I’d have to talk to her about things, after.

“Good cookie,” Helen said, as the man came to be about five paces away.  Four.  Three.  “I really like-”

She didn’t stop talking so much as segue.  Switching modes, fast enough it caught me off guard, let alone our assailant.  She ducked low, lunging at the man in the same instant he shoved the two men in front of him out of the way.  He had the smoking lantern thing in one hand, clutched with spikes radiating out between fingertips, and was already swinging for Helen’s face- except she wasn’t there anymore.

Jamie didn’t miss a beat.  He fired.

It was loud.  People screamed, and they scattered.  The lumberjacks around us backed away, ducking.

They realized we knew.  They communicate without words, just as well as we do.

Helen grabbed his arm, keeping it back and out of the way as he dropped to one knee.  Jamie fired again, placing each shot into the center of the man’s body mass, carefully enough to avoid hitting Helen and I.

Jamie was slow, he lagged behind the rest of the world as he processed and studied everything.  But with forewarning- well, he was keeping up.

A canister hanging off the man’s body took a bullet from Jamie’s gun and went spinning off.  Thick black-grey smoke expanded out in the middle of the street.

I turned my attention to the others.  Figuring out where the knife man and the one on the rooftop might have gone.  I spotted the knife man with the scarf, approaching at a run.

“Go,” I said.  “Nearest alley, go, go!”

Achieved what we needed to achieve, I thought.  Slowing them down, passing on word to the others.  When they heard that children had been involved in a gunfight, they’d know something was wrong.

It wasn’t elegant, but it was us.

Damn all the other parts of the plan.  It was worth nothing at all if the Lambs didn’t make it out okay.

The moment that thought was through my head, something struck me in the side, with surprising force.  It felt big, like I’d been kicked by an oversized horse.  My hand slipped from Jamie’s arm, and I felt Helen grab me, failing to stop me from falling belly first to the street.

“Sy!” Jamie called out.  “No, no!”

The two of them grabbed me, trying to help me stand.  I didn’t grasp why it was so hard, until I felt the pain in my side.  A burning point of light, deep inside, a small pain.

Helen made a noise, and shoved Jamie to the ground before ducking low.  Something struck the wall with a surprising crack.

I stared at the smoke in the middle of the street, at the pouring rain that had to have obscured the view.  So far away I hadn’t even heard the shot.

The man on the roof.  He shot me.

“Sy,” Jamie said.

Ow.  Oh man, it was really starting to hurt.

I found my feet with their help, I stumbled, and nearly fell again.  The two of them had me, almost dragging me.

Two of our slowest runners, and me with a bullet in my midsection.  The knife wielder was close.  We had the alley, and we hopefully had cover.

But we were surrounded, with one of them missing, no doubt waiting in the wings.  They had no reason not to call the local soldiers in and draw the net closed.

“If you don’t move faster, gunshot or no, I’m never speaking to you again,” Jamie said.

I couldn’t have Jamie refusing to speak to me.

No way, no how.

I did my best.

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