Lost in the Crowd — Part 4

PART 4

Troy managed to avoid any further encounters with Peace Branch en route to Schultheiss. It was only when he passed through the red brick pillars of the park, the wrought iron gates propped wide open that he shed the shabby coat and ratty hat he’d traded from the groundskeeper at the museum.

Schultheiss was the grandest open air park in the entire Old City. Enclosed within the walls as tall as a man were several dozen acres of paths, groves and rock outcroppings that surrounded a broad field. This patch of green was filled today with tents striped white, purple, black and blue. Smells of roasted meat, fresh fruits, and carved wood mingled under the heat of the mid-day sun. There were so many people here—Troy eased into the crowd gratefully.

He found Jesca where he expected – the floral stand. She held a bouquet of primroses to her chin. Her eyes were closed. Sunlight caught the tendrils of fiery red hair dangling from beneath her hat. She was dressed in a formal suit and skirt of deep green. When she opened her eyes they were the same color.

“Hello, Troy.” She kissed him on the cheek. “It’s good to see you well.”

“My sister, good day to you.” Troy returned the kiss.

“You look tired. Did you have a difficult time making it here?”

Troy smiled. He plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his brow. “Enough to make me feel alive, yes.”

“Good. We wouldn’t want you dead. Come.” Jesca held out her hand. “Let’s walk.”

Troy offered his arm. Together they threaded their way through the crowd.

“How are things at the city telegraphy office?” Troy kept a smile on his face. His heart hammered against his ribs but he didn’t dare betray his nerves.

“I haven’t worked there in quite some time, Troy. I’ve had to find another profession. It was … far too stressful.” She, too, smiled, but Troy could read beyond the expression. After all, he’d been reading her moods since they played behind their father’s barn.

“Where do you work now?”

“Let’s not talk of that.” Jesca’s gaze darted sidelong at the paperboy hawking the day’s issue of the Consolidated Register. “We have more important matters at hand.”

“Of course.”

They came upon a circular bench wrapped around the trunk of an elm. Troy let Jesca sit first, so that she was shaded well—and obscured from most passers-by. He perched himself on the edge so he was partially concealed, yet could see with just a quick twist of the head all that transpired in the market.

“You know I would not have left the office unless the situation had become dire,” Jesca whispered.

“I know it. You’ve always been brave.”

“Especially when it came to leaping off the barn roof with our own set of homemade wings,” Jesca said.

Troy chuckled. “I screamed my head off, and Father came running. The irony is I’m the one who became a pilot.”

“We’ll need that skill soon enough if I can’t get you in to the telegraph office.”

“What do you mean?”

She opened her hand. A brass key sat in her palm. “They made me turn in my key when I resigned, but I made a copy. It pays to have access to a tele-typer at all hours, what with Peace Branch so busy these days.”

“Speaking of—” Troy glanced about the market. No, he could see none of the tell-tale back suits and red ties. That did not mean their spies were not about. “Peace Branch has taken an inordinate interest in me as of late. Much more than I expected. Would you know something about that?”

Jesca nodded. “Troy, when I worked in the telegraphy office, I intercepted every pertinent communiqué I could and passed them along to you.”

“It was brave of you. I made sure Uncle Jonas received them all—discretely, of course.”

“I knew you would.” She patted his hand. “But the last bit I found—there was no way to send it. One of the men from Peace Branch came by the office the day after I took down the information and transmitted it to the proper recipient. He was a terrifying man—eyes of ice, pale as death. He questioned me, politely, but I could tell he knew I was hiding something.”

“Jesca, you should have come to me sooner.”

“There was too much risk. If it wasn’t for my friends in high places, as it were, I’d already be in custody. As it were, this was all I was able to get.”

She passed him a square of paper. Its edges were bent, and it had the appearance of being stuffed in a pocket for far too long. Troy unfolded it until it was a rectangle as long as his hand but as narrow as two fingers side by side. The writing was Jesca’s flowing script.

“Trestleway—is going to invade Perch? Within the week?” Troy could not believe the words even as they left his mouth. “How…how can this be?”

“The telegrams I intercepted within the past few weeks I worked in the office all point to this—troop movements, weapons amassment, funds disbursement. They were all coded between parties.”

“But you deciphered them,” Troy said. He grinned.

“Of course. Apologies, I couldn’t bring you any documents. But the evidence was there. I safeguarded it in the First Consolidated Bank. It’s in a safe deposit box, under our mother’s name. She was kind enough to sign a document that allows us both access.”

“Yes. Yes, I see.” Troy’s palms were sweating. He handed Jesca back the paper. “But … invade Perch? It’s madness.”

“It’s a threat response, Troy. Trestleway Consolidated Locomotive is losing money to aeroplane travel and trade in exotic goods, especially from the routes into the Golden Desert. You have to understand, Consolidated owns the government here.”

“As I’m well aware. We have to get this information to Uncle Jonas.” Troy glanced over his shoulder. He saw no one suspicious—no one overtly so, that is.

“I must stay clear of the bank. You should go, in my place. Contact me as soon as you have the information, and I will get us into the telegraphy office.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s for the best.”

They rose from the benches. Troy led them to a stand serving fish and chips. “I’m famished—didn’t get much in the way of breakfast save for a scone. Would you like something?”

“No, I’ve arranged a meal with my—employer.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. “Watch what you say and where you step.”

Troy smiled. He patted her on the cheek. “I always do.”

*   *   *   *   *

He made it to the bank without spotting a single Peace Branch officer. Troy smirked at the thought of the officers scrambling across the city in a vain attempt to locate him. They really should be embarrassed that a novice at this cloak-and-dagger business could out-maneuver them.

The teller at the safe deposit box window smiled politely as he filled out the forms. He provided his Trestleway-issued travel folios and was whisked to a back room with a marble-lined floor and chairs upholstered in red velvet. The teller left him alone with the contents of the box and pulled a curtain aside the room’s entrance as she left.

Troy unlocked the box. It contained an envelope wrapped tight with string. Its sides bulged with whatever treats Jesca had managed to cram in. Troy slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket.

He returned the key, thanked the teller, and was back out on the street in front of First Consolidated Bank a mere ten minutes after his arrival. From here, he could slip down an alley to avoid the main streets as he headed to the telegraphy office.

Troy had taken no more than ten steps into the shadows of the nearest alley when he heard whistling.

He stopped. The alley smelled of fetid garbage and rancid food, but he paid that no heed as the Peace Branch man walked a measured stride toward him.

“Good day, sir.” The man tipped his hat. He had a high-pitched, pleasant voice. “Sergeant Gaus, sir. I wonder if you’d mind coming with me this afternoon. I have some questions for you.”

“Ah, terribly sorry, but I have an appointment.” Troy backed up—until something hard poked him in the small of the back.

He heard the hammer of a pistol cock. Another Peace Branch man, the burly one from the museum, stood there with a Klaus revolver gripped in one meaty fist.

“Terribly sorry indeed, sir, if I made that seem like a request,” Gaus said. He patted Troy’s pockets. His smile broadened when he discovered the envelope. “And this, I think, will stay with me.”

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