Archerd’s inspection of the towers continued a moment before he realized Inspector Hew had slowed and was staring at the same towers with a look of watchful concern. “Inspector? What is it?”
“They’re unmanned. There should always be at least one lookout up there. Something’s not right.”
“And the streets …”
The streets in the immediate area around the police headquarters were empty, but a block away in every direction were a few people, all just standing and watching. A black premonition danced in Archerd’s mind.
“I see them. We have to get down there.”
“Let me see your communicator for a moment.”
Hew stopped and handed the device over, and Archerd fiddled with the exterior switches, finally turning the volume knob all the way up. Voices suddenly burst out of the device, low but still audible.
“—away from that thing if you know what’s good for you!”
“Okay, it’s okay, I’m away—”
A sound like a pistol crack came through over the device.
“Anyone else gets near that thing, same thing happens to you. We know all about what you Dolesham traitors have done with your communicators.”
Archerd cursed; it was one thing to know your work had prompted a response like this, but quite another to hear and see the direct results.
“Communicators? What are y—”
Pilch and his men didn’t know he’d kept his communicator technology to himself, he realized. They’d know of its existence from the same reports of the conference that had drawn the Conclave agents to the train the last year, but they believed it was in use by the police of the town, so naturally they’d try to neutralize them.
“I said, everyone keep QUIET! You think I’m not serious? You—”
Another pistol shot rang out.
“They’re trying to take him down. They don’t … this can’t—” Hew’s voice was drowned out by a crash of thunder that shook the ground. They were two short blocks from the police headquarters, close enough to see ground-level windows shattering along with several on the upper floors of the building. They broke into a run.
The scene was chaos. The police headquarters had been built more solidly than the school and appeared sound; certainly it hadn’t collapsed, not so far at least. But the interior was a mass of fire, smoke, dust and debris. Alarms pierced the air from the upper floor, where people were visible in the windows, gasping for breath as smoke rose and poured from open windows.
Down the wide street a brigade of firemen were racing up toward the building, riding a long carriage dominated by a massive water tank and pulled by a team of 3 horses riding abreast. The small but growing crowd moved aside hurriedly to let them through, and they wasted no time pulling long ladders from the back and dragging out hoses, men already manning the hand-pumps.
Before the pumps had even been primed, ladders were set up and men were swarming upward and others setting up below to rescue those trapped above.
Hew seemed to shocked to speak, and Archerd could hardly make his mouth move himself. One thought and one thought only circulated in his brain; my fault. He had no idea how many officers and employees of the headquarters had just been caught in that explosion, but every one of them was on his conscience. So many injured, maybe dead, and still at least one more explosive unaccounted for.
His fault. One more. With a sudden sick twisting of his stomach, he knew where it must be headed.
“Inspector — the last bomb — my home, my family — no time for explanations!”
He wasn’t even sure if Hew had heard him, but he wasted no time finding out. He was off at a dead run, hurtling up the street toward home.
When he arrived far too many minutes later, he hurried up the stone steps to the door. It was closed, but unlocked. The instant the handle turned under his hand, alarms equal to those at the station assaulted his mind. He didn’t know whether anyone was home; he hadn’t noticed them on his way, but there was at least the possibility they’d left. The bells of the police station were easily heard even this far away, which surely would’ve attracted their attention.
Entering the house, he didn’t call out. Near the entrance was a little used door down to the cellar, only used for the storage of wines and spirits. That door was never left open, for it was terribly drafty, but it stood open now. The chill down Archerd’s neck had nothing to do with the draft.
He paused for only a moment, and then moved; he closed the front door, quietly, and then ascended the stairs as quickly and quietly as he could to the upper level.
He knew his parents kept an old pistol up in their chambers, but instead he crossed the landing to a prominent tapestry hung on the wall. To either side were mounted two stout staves, decorative in their own right, being topped at each end with heavy, ornate iron caps. He grabbed one, feeling the weight and balance in his hands, and so armed headed downstairs again.
He stopped at the door to the cellar and listened; his breath caught. He heard a distinct rustling and clanking sound, and the clanking was distinctly not the glass of bottles, but of metal.
He chewed his lip in indecision, mind whirling. Every instinct screamed at him to rush down and confront whoever it was — Pilch, almost certainly — but the cellar wasn’t large; he’d have no room to use the staff.
No, he corrected himself mentally. Just not the traditional way. He felt his way down the first few steps, as the stairway was pitch black, and looked back up. Some light came in from above, but not enough to get in his way. A landing further down where the stairs turned at a right angle obscured whatever light Pilch was working with. As quietly as possible, he wedged the staff between a corner of the stairs and the wall. Anyone rushing up without knowledge of the staff’s location would at best be delayed, or perhaps even trip in the dark.
He crept down toward the landing; the faintest of glows was becoming visible as he descended. Edging around the corner, he surveyed the scene.
The cellar was maybe 6 meters by 6, brick walls packed with racks and racks of wine and casks of spirits set on the stone floor, many covered with thick layers of gray dust. There was a pervasive odor of dust and dampness to the place, stale mustiness. There was one occupant.
The man was small, slender, but moved with a certain slightly awkwardness that suggested age. He was working in the light of a single candle, so it was hard to be sure, but Archerd was certain this must be the … gentleman … that Lukey had described. He was crouched down in the middle of the cellar floor, making fine adjustments to a roughly circular apparatus a bit more than roughly a quarter-meter square in diameter. A small bowl or dome of metal lay on the floor next to him; as best Archerd could see in the limited lighting, it did look like a match for the fragments he’d inspected the night before.
The small man grunted in satisfaction and Archerd’s breath caught as he looked in his direction; he simply picked up the metal dome and turned his attention to very carefully replacing it.
Archerd knew the time was now. He stepped quietly but swiftly down the stairs between them and bowled Pilch over. The air filled with his startled cry of surprised anger; the candle dropped to the floor and sputtered, but kept burning feebly.
Archerd’s speed had knocked Pilch deeper into the cellar, and he reacted with speed that belied his age. The metal cover was still in his hands. He launched himself at Archerd with shocking ferocity before Archerd had finished picking himself up from his own charge. The cover slammed into the side of his face with a solid thud that set his head to spinning, and then Pilch was past him and running for the stairs.
Shaking his head to clear it, he was turning to follow when he heard a shout, a clatter and a series of thumping impacts that ended with one very final snap.
Grabbing the candle, he went forward to meet what he knew he’d see. Pilch had indeed tripped over the staff and fallen backwards down the stairs, breaking his neck on the way down. Archerd stared at the body dully. He didn’t look sick, or twisted, or evil, or monstrous. In that moment he looked scared more than anything. Archerd checked the man’s coat and saw the now-familiar Conclave insignia pin.
Filch was the third Conclave agent he’d run afoul of now, and the third who’d died as a result. Archerd hadn’t killed the first two; a … friend had had to shoulder that burden. He shied away from that thought. I’m in the club now, he thought instead, then turned back to the cellar.
The explosive device lay uncovered on the stone, the metal enclosure laying a short distance away, bearing a small smear of Archerd’s own blood. He hadn’t even noticed he was bleeding.
Bringing the candle in closer to the device, his breath caught in his throat. It was a marvel of machinery, clockwork components softly ticking away as he watched. It was even more complex than he’d suspected. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. Reaching into a pocket, he retrieved his communicator.
Clicking the transmit button, he said, “Inspector Hew?”
For several moments, nothing. He was about to repeat himself when finally he heard, “Archerd? This is a bad time, there are wounded to attend—”
“I found Pilch.”
“He was in my cellar. He’s dead now, fell down the stairs trying to get away from me. I’m here with the last bomb now.”
“I … see. Is it …?”
“Yes. I am going to have to try to disable it, and … I’m terrified to try and move it, so I will have to do it here. There is some sort of clockwork mechanism inside which I believe controls the timing of the detonation.”
“I’ll get someone out there to assist in any way they can as soon as I can. Archerd, outstanding work.”
“Thank you, Inspector. I … had better get to work on this.”
“Understood. I’ll speak with you soon.”
“I hope so.” He clicked off and returned the communicator to his pocket.