Most of the Dispatchers had already scrambled out of the mess hall on Rue de Charlet a full half-hour prior to when the alarms began to sound. Max had heard the com units on their utility belts come alive with static and garbled chatter as the group of orphans neared the front of the line. The sound ripped a hole deep in his chest. Voices were shouting something about an attack on the west wall, and still Quentin had not returned. This was bad. What if the Dispatchers found him on the way? If the attack involved the Outlanders, forget his registration papers. All it would take was for them to see that O-shaped brand on his chest and he was done for.
For several minutes, Max had taken to pacing up and down the line to observe the sea of familiar faces who frequented the mess hall. He noted every discernible detail. Every visible article of clothing, even as they gazed at him with the rudest of expressions like he was some sort of madman. Bernard had placed a hand on his shoulder to console him amid the feelings of panic and terror that consumed. Perhaps Quentin just gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. The Metropoliès was a big place after all, and it was easy to go off track if you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings. Especially on the metro. Yes, that was it. Their young friend would be along soon enough. Nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to the buzzing of the comlinks.
But of course that was thirty minutes ago. Now the klaxons were screaming all throughout the mess hall as the few Dispatchers who remained shoveled a few more bites into their mouths before scurrying off. Trays and silverware crashed haphazardly into the collection bins near the kitchen, splattering food and drink everywhere. Many hadn’t even bothered to clean up their tables. A hurricane of trash littered the tile floors. Scuff marks from their boots formed curved lines that Max liked to imagine were some form of cursive when he stared at it for long enough. It was a nice way of maintaining a sense of order in the madness. After all, he reasoned, if I keep looking down, the path ahead won’t seem as daunting.
And yet the more he looked at those scribbled marks, the more they became waves, and the garbage seemed an ocean of chaos. By the time the klaxons stopped and he tore his eyes away from the mesmerizing scene, he realized the Barreau boys were the only patrons left in the entire mess hall. Even the Dispatchers who normally worked security there had gone.
“All right, that’s it,” Max jumped to his feet. “We’ve got to go find him!”
“Yeah, where do you propose we start?” Lucien smirked. “It’s after curfew, the subways have shut down, and the Metropoliès is probably a traffic jam of people trying to-”
Max grabbed Bernard’s cup of apple juice and splashed him in the face.
“You don’t get to make any more excuses today after all the shit you pulled!” the leader shouted.
“Have you gone mad?!” Lucien yelled, grabbing a handkerchief to wipe his face.
“The last thing Quentin needs is to be stuck out there alone with a bunch of trigger-happy Dispatchers on the loose!”
“And the last thing any of us need is to get involved! He’s an Outlander, Max. The west wall got bombed. Take a wild guess where he is.”
“You son of BITCH!” the elder shouted, shoving trays aside as he lunged across the table at Lucien. Bernard wedged himself between the two boys to pry them apart, but it was no use. Max reached under his arm and grabbed his rival by the jacket all the same. He’d taken a steak knife from one of the other boy’s trays on the way over and held it directly over Lucien’s eye now, a snake ready to strike. Everyone at the table gasped. His heart pulsed and flickered through his head like the failing electricity of the Barreau District, yet deep down, he knew he did not have the guts to do such a thing. Lucien knew it too. And that angered Max even more, the realization that no matter what he did, no matter how hard he wished it, he could never be the one to permanently wipe that self-assured smirk off his rival’s face.
“Max,” Bernard shuddered, “let it go.”
The elder huffed and glanced down at the rest of the boys at the table, their faces awash with shock and fright. Several of them appeared just as angry at Lucien, though he noticed some were glaring in his direction as well. Tomas had also grabbed a steak knife and was prepared to use it if necessary. Dear God, what have I done? He let go of Lucien and backed away, hurling the knife to the floor to add to the ocean of chaos. Tomas kept his eye on Max all the while, even after the elder managed to sit back down.
“Are we all good here?” Bernard asked.
“Yeah, we’re golden,” Lucien grinned. The young African socked him hard across the face. There was an audible crack. Max wasn’t sure if it was his fellow elder’s jaw or the bones in Bernard’s hand; all the same, the boy cradled his fist and bit his lower lip as he sat back down, muttering curses under his breath. Lucien said nothing further. He took up his tray and went to clear it. Silence filled the air, broken only now and again by the crashing of silverware and plates being cleaned by the kitchen staff.
“Now,” Max breathed, “if we are all finished eating-”
“We are now, thanks to you,” Tomas snapped, grabbing up his tray and storming off.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
“It’s a bit late for that,” another boy said. Several others got up to join him.
“Oh come on, guys! Louis, Marcus, really?!”
“Max,” Bernard sighed, shaking his head. “Don’t bother.”
“This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Perhaps it was inevitable after this morning.”
“Goddamn it, we’ve got to find Quentin!” the elder pounded his fists into the table. A lump had formed in his throat, and much as he screamed, it wouldn’t let go. His heart, too, kept him in a state of never-ending panic. He felt solely responsible for guiding his boys in the proper direction—a road which Lucien seemed adamant on destroying. The prospect of what might happen if the orphanage lost one of their most valuable assets was unthinkable. That boy was their only connection to doing business on the Outlanders’ turf. But of course, Lucien stated he didn’t give a damn about the Outlanders. Now, it seemed they had attacked the west gate. I wonder…
“Hey Lucien,” Max called, taking his own tray to the counter.
“What do you want, rat? I have nothing more to say to you.”
“Oh, I’m the rat now? Seems to me that you’re the one drawing this line. I thought we were in this maze together, but I guess I was wrong.”
“Wrong is a matter of perception.”
“Don’t fucking philosophize this. I realize you’re scared for whatever ridiculous reason, probably because you had to go on that radio show and tell the entire city that Outlanders can be reformed. A position which, now considering the attack on the west gate, will get you lynched. Is it really worth fracturing our group over?”
“No, is it really worth keeping Quentin over? That’s the real question. Besides, only conspiracy theorists take Casanov seriously. The fact we happened to run into one at this shitty dive earlier isn’t so surprising.”
“I’m exactly where I want to be when this war starts, Max. Are you?” The elder threw his tray into the pile with the others and stormed out with his new band of loyal followers, at least three of which he’d won over after having the steak knife pointed in his face. For a moment, Max had to wonder if perhaps the older boy had a point. Mayor La Cour, even with the greatest of intentions, could not help them. They did need more reliable business connections, and they couldn’t save everyone. This job had made that fact painfully clear.
Still, inciting fear was not the path to positive change. And if there was one thing about which Max remained certain, it was that Quentin Vaugrenard was as much a Barreau boy as the rest. He would never willingly betray them. There was no way he had anything to do with the attack on the west wall. But there was no reasoning with Lucien. Not anymore.
“Shit,” Max closed his eyes.
“Hey!” a female voice boomed from the kitchen doorway, startling him. A large, heavyset woman in a hair net and white apron poked her face out to glare at the group of Barreau boys. “We’re closing up now, it’s after curfew. Go home!”
“Thought you were open twenty-four hours,” Bernard pointed out.
“Only for Dispatchers. You guys got badges?” The group let out a collective sigh. “Didn’t think so. Out with you. Now! We got a lot of cleanup to do before the next shift and we need you gone.”
The Barreau boys who remained rose to their feet and carried back their trays, grumbling in protest. Max waited by the doorway to do a head count before escorting them out. It pained him to remember that several of his group had left with Lucien. For better or worse, the lines had been drawn. He wondered what that feisty devil was up to now. Would they be returning home to a wall of tension, or was he intending to move out tonight? Neither scenario seemed fair to either party, and even less so to the boys under their watch. But there was no going back from it. Max could only do what he felt was best for his own flock from here on out.
Drizzling rain and a humid atmosphere greeted them on the streets outside, exhuming deep, earthen scents from the underground. Street lamps flickered now and again up the entire length of the block, though they burned so dim it was barely noticeable. Max and Bernard stayed well ahead of the group to keep a lookout. The shadows were a dangerous place to be past curfew, and given that the west gate was mere blocks from their orphanage, the last thing any of them needed was to encounter Dispatchers who might mistake them for Outlanders. The young elder shuddered at the thought. But even more important than the question of how the Outlanders had managed a successful attack on the wall in the first place, the most pressing matter still remained. Quentin.
“What are we going to do, Bernard? It’s past curfew, I can’t go sneaking around now. God only knows where he is. This is all my fault.”
“You can’t blame yourself for every mishap. Our numbers have grown over the past year. Even with the two of you in charge-”
“The two of us now,” Max corrected him. “Might as well make you official, you’ve been keeping the ranks in line for months and you do as good a job as either of us have. I could use an extra wingman.”
“Still,” the boy sighed, “it’s a lot to keep track of.”
“Well we can’t just abandon people, now can we? That’s Lucien’s thing.”
“Have you considered that perhaps this split is a better idea?”
“I’m not ready to accept that,” Max said. “Though if he ends up doing everything he’s supposed to, I might be swayed. It would certainly take some pressure off our backs. But what about funding? The grants are only for Barreau. I’m not working overtime trading Dispatcher parts to support his petty vendetta if it becomes a permanent arrangement. Not like any of that matters without-”
“Quentin,” Bernard finished, as they rounded the corner into the alley behind the old courthouse. “Sorry for changing the subject. Look, Max…you’ve dealt with quite enough for one day. Why don’t you get Hugo, Marcel, Florian, and the younger ones home? The rest of us can spread out on the surrounding blocks to look for him.”
The young elder sighed in defeat. “That’s if he’s even in this district, and you know it’s not a good idea with Dispatchers patrolling the streets. We are not splitting up. Let’s just get home and deal with it in the morning.”
Max felt hopeless as he strode ahead of the group through the thickening rain, haunted by memories of his earlier interactions with Quentin. Having arrived back at the orphanage to find the boy shaking against the window with his face bloodied and broken was more than enough to stir the elder’s rage. Of course there was still the question of what Edmond had been searching for in the first place. Why had they not taken the boy into custody? He wondered, too, about the validity of Severo’s accusation that morning, or if File 3601 even existed. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think.
Blue flashes in the distance tore him from his thoughts as the group crossed Rue La Monte and made their way through a fence in the next alley out onto Rue d’Auseil. A sudden clap of thunder cracked the sky, followed by a torrential downpour. Max felt his heart begin to pound and stopped in his tracks. More flashes came from off in the distance, somewhat closer, though he couldn’t be sure at first if it was lightning or phase unit fire. Then the unmistakable sound of a deep viol cut through the humid air. A soothing melody at first, then powerful, full of emotion, with all the absolute melancholy of unrequited love before descending into shrieking loss, and the erratic feeling of walking on a fraying tightrope whilst the bow bounced haphazardly off the strings. Lightning.
The elder’s eyes went wide, and he immediately gave a hand signal for the boys to hurry across the street into the next alleyway. Several in the group almost tripped over a fallen fire escape that blocked most of the path. Bernard hobbled along behind them after catching the ankle of his trousers on a jagged edge of metal, doing his best to help the smaller boys over the debris. Still, the entrancing music of the viol played on, though didn’t seem able to encapsulate the alleyway. Max waited in the shadows at the far end for the rest of his group to catch up. Strangely enough, the rain seemed to have died down throughout the alley, though it continued to fall in buckets back on Rue d’Auseil.
“Max, what the hell was that?” Bernard huffed.
“Just a creepy old man playing a viol,” the elder replied, peering around the corner to survey the Barreau block. Occasional phase pulses continued to illuminate the night sky in distant alleyways, though the flashes seemed to be dying down. The air was growing evermore humid, giving way to thick fog in the streets. Max hoped they wouldn’t have any problems sneaking back to the orphanage. Dispatchers could be quite stealthy in the dark. Then again, so were the Outlanders. A shudder went down his spine at the thought of running into Igor. Stay focused.
“That was not just a man,” Bernard insisted.
“Rue d’Auseil is a complicated street full of memories after dark. Never go there alone.”
“Keep your bloody voice down! What is it this time?”
“Max…it’s a body.”
“Huh?” The elder glanced down to his right, where the pale corpse of a young boy in tattered clothes lay in a mangled heap. “Fuck!” he shrieked, backing away against the brick wall, not expecting to lean into a hole. He nearly lost his footing until Bernard reached out to steady him.
“This wall was not crumbling before,” Max panted. “That fire escape wasn’t blocking the path, either. Something happened here.”
“You recognize the boy?”
“No. Wait. That’s Ephram!”
“I remember him from the first floor this morning at the villa,” Max nodded. “But he’s been stabbed.”
“Clean through, too,” Bernard pointed out, carefully turning the body. “Some kind of sword.”
“Who the bloody hell in Cavarice carries a sword?”
“Not the Dispatchers.”
“Right. Everyone stay sharp!” Max called out in a hushed voice. His heartbeat quickened as he motioned for the group to back against the wall. Something else was lurking out there in the fog-drenched shadows beyond. He could feel it in every fiber of his being, though he heard no footsteps and the flashes of phase unit fire had ceased. He kept a lookout through the haze in case the streetlamps began to flicker. Nothing. Then he remembered they were carrying no weapons. “Shit,” the elder sighed. “Anybody got so much as a knife on them?”
“Got better than that,” the ten year-old Florian grinned, tossing a phase unit over to him.
“Where the hell were you hiding this?!” Max exclaimed.
“Kept falling down my arm, so I put it ‘round my thigh. Ain’t no Dispatchers touch me there.”
“I just hope you didn’t piss on it,” Max smirked.
“Tomas has done plenty of dirty things with it though on the lower settings,” the boy giggled. Bernard elbowed him in the ribs. “Ow!”
“Enough! You boys are sick,” the newest elder rolled his eyes.
“Well it’s not like there are many girls around. Except Louis, he likes it up the-”
“What did I tell you!” Bernard hissed.
“Kids these days,” Max shook his head and strapped on the phase unit, powering up the familiar blue pulse. The emitter sparked several times before burning a steady bolt in his palm. Satisfied that it worked, he dialed it back down to zero to avoid being noticed by any Dispatchers who might still be on patrol near the Barreau block. “Everyone stay close.”