‘Lost in the Crowd’ — Part 5


It was dark.

His hands were bound behind him with rough ropes.

Troy blinked, but when he opened his eyes again the darkness remained. Whatever he sat on was made of damp wood. Water dripped. Everything smelled musty.

His head ached mightily. Had someone struck him? Yes, when he resisted arrest. They’d rapped him on his dome with a truncheon, a big black one. He remembered it vividly.

So why couldn’t he see a blamed thing? Rusted spikes.

He heard shuffling noises, followed by a rattling sound—keys on a ring. A door unlocked.

A crack of light appeared opposite him. It burst open into a blaze that momentarily blinded him.

“I never was a fan of light deprivation. My colleagues say it is excellent for throwing one’s prisoners off balance, but I find the time needed for blinking and readjusting vision and such a rusted waste.”

The voice was the same one he’d heard earlier outside the bank—Inspector Gaus. He sounded so friendly, as if he were a long-lost relative come calling to collect an inheritance.

Troy blinked away the globs of light. Someone hung a lantern inside the door frame—even though he could clearly see a light hanging in the corridor beyond the two shadows. No lights in this room, then.

He could see he was in a holding cell fitted with only two furnishings—the sodden bench on which he sat and the half-crumpled pail in the corner. So that would be the origin of the smell. The walls, ceiling and floor were all the same dark stone.

Gaus whistled a sprightly tune. “Do you recognize that? Johannes Tybalt’s Fourteenth March. Quite invigorating.” He gestured to his partner. It was the same broad-chested Peace Branch fellow who’d tailed Troy. “Don’t keep the man waiting, Bromley. Help him up.”

Bromley grunted but otherwise made no effort at communication. He jerked Troy roughly to his feet.

“You see, sir, I believe music civilizes the soul—hence the whistling.” Gaus smiled. “Why, if it were not for music, we’d be no better than the brutes of the tropics or the savages of the Golden Desert.”

“I’m certain the Caminante have music,” Troy said. His throat hurt. When had he last ate or drank? It felt like hours.

“Ah, but not like Tybalt’s. It is the quality that makes all the difference. It unburdens the soul.” Gaus nodded, apparently satisified with his thesis. “So, then—before we transfer you to the downtown office, I’ll ask you again. What message did you intercept?”

Troy shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s incorrect. Bromley?”

The punch to Troy’s midsection left him gasping for breath. Bromley flexed a fist in his other hand. Gaus clucked his tongue. “One would think you’d recall the other half dozen punches we’ve applied during your stay.”

“I—recall them well.” Troy grimaced against the pain. He sat up straight, regardless. “You must have the wrong information.”

“I think not, sir. We’ve kept good track of you, Mister Keysor, over these past few days. We know where you’ve been, what you’ve eaten—and with whom you’ve spoken.” Gaus smiled. “Your sister is quite the fetching young lady, I must say. Some denigrate the Tirodani, but I have always admired a woman with red hair.”

Troy bolted to his feet. Bromley moved to strike him, but Gaus grabbed his outstretched hand.

“You leave Jesca out of this,” Troy said. His heart hammered. So help him, he’d break every bone he in the man’s body while he could still move.

“It’s killing me to do so, but my superiors have already made it abundantly clear she’s to be left alone.” Gaus sighed. “She has the sympathetic ear of someone on the council. Ah, well. There’s always you.”

Gaus stood nose to nose with Troy. He stood his ground. Gaus’ breath smelled of mint. “This is your last opportunity, sir. Tell me what information I need and we won’t have to transfer you to headquarters. They’re far less lenient there.”

Troy sneered. “You must have me confused with someone who betrays his confidences, Inspector.”

Gaus said nothing for a moment. Only the drip drip drip of water on rock interrupted the silence. He tilted his head to one side. His eyes were a deep brown and penetrating, as if he could read Troy’s every thought. Troy stood still.

“Well, then, our time together is at an end. Bromley, get him to the ‘wagon out back. I’ll join you once the paperwork is settled.”

Bromley grabbed Troy by an arm and tugged him toward the door.

“Mister Keysor?”

Troy turned back. “Yes?”

“I’m terribly sorry you’ll not survive to the see the next dawn.” Gaus smiled.

*          *          *

Troy’s suspicions as to the time of day were confirmed as soon as Bromley thrust open the door to outside. It was pitch black, save for the moonlight overhead. A motor-wagon, all spindly wheels and black running boards, sat waiting. The flash steam engine chugged and hissed softly.

“Sit.” Bromley shoved Troy into the passenger side. The first word Troy heard him spoke was flat and emotionless.

Bromley said behind the driver’s levers. They trundled down the alley and out onto a street—Straight Street. They were in the tenements—Troy could tell by the disrepair of the buildings on either side. He glanced behind them. So, this Peace Branch office was disguised. It had no exterior markings to distinguish it from the run-down brick structures on either side.

Bromley drove them in silence. Troy’s heart pounded. He fidgeted with his ropes, but to no avail. Up ahead, a pair of diprotodon lugged a heavy, two-wheeled cart their way in the opposite lane. The gates to the Old City were in sight. Once through them, Troy knew he’d be trapped within the walls—and a short-lived guest of Peace Branch headquarters.

He knew only one course of action. He sat still as a stone until the motor-wagon’s front wheels were even with the diprotodons. One of the animals bellowed.

Bromley’s eyes flicked left.

Troy planted his right foot against the seat and rammed his left shoulder into Bromley’s arm.

Bromley grunted in surprise. He also maintained a good grip on the motor-wagon’s steering lever—and thus turned sidelong into the diprotodon’s legs.

The beast reared up. The cart straps snapped. Wood splintered and noise buffeted Troy. Bromley tumbled from the motor-wagon. The diprotodon swiped at him with a paw, knocking him cold.

“You fools! You’ll cost me my load!” The cart driver hung onto the reins.

Troy sprinted from the bedlam. His hands were still tied, but it mattered not. He had to get as far away as possible.

He dashed down an alley, turned down another, and burst out onto a street. He glanced about. Henrickson Boulevard, perhaps? A motor-wagon drove his way.

“Sir! Pardon, sir!” Troy staggered in front of the vehicle. He held his arms as nonchalantly as he could behind his back.

The driver stared at him. “Could I help you?”

“Yes, actually.” Troy caught sight of the exposed steam engine block. He rubbed his rope bindings against the metal.  “Hold her steady.”

“I’m sorry, what?” The driver tipped back his goggles.

The ropes snapped. Troy rubbed his wrists. He hopped into the passenger seat. “I’m in need of a ride to the aerodrome.”

“Well, that’s hardly my direction—”

Troy emptied his pocket of coin. It was enough to pay the rent on his apartment for two months.

The driver’s eyes widened. He swiped the coin and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “Aerodrome should have a lovely view of the stars tonight, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, quite.” Troy exhaled.

*          *          *

Troy could hear bells clanging in the distance by the time they arrived. He thanked the driver profusely. “Please do me one more favor—send word to Jesca Keysor, care of Lock’s Book, that I’ve gone north to visit Uncle.”

The driver nodded. “For all that coin, I’d sing it to her.”

Steam hissed as he drove away.

Thankfully there was no one standing guard at the aerodrome gates—far too late in the evening. Troy scaled the fence. His aeroplane sat waiting in the second hangar. It took only a few minutes to get her water tank filled. The condenser looked good—not in need of replacement. Fuel was full. He’d only been off on a flight last weekend.

Troy found paper and a pencil on the maintenance desk. He didn’t have his code book, but he remembered it well enough to record a brief message for his uncle.

As his biplane bounced down the runway, he caught sight of lights moving swiftly down Straight Street toward the aerodrome. He’d have plenty of time to disappear into the night sky.

Next stop, Perch.

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