“But how could you have known?” murmured Prue. Her fingers wormed their way to her knapsack; it still lay slung over her shoulders. She found the clasps mercifully undone.
“Good question,” responded Darla, taking on her life-science-teacher tone. “Very adept. Passing grades, all around. You should know the answer yourself, Prue. Prue of the Council Tree, the Half-Breed Mystic, Wildwood Regina, the Bicycle Maiden. I have tricks. I have informers.” Again, those fingers illustrated the words in little flicks and wiggles. “All over. Even here, in the vulgar Outside.”
Judging from the bedraggled and half-shapen appearance of the Kitsune, Prue guessed that this assassin was well at the end of her rope. She looked as if she’d been driven mad. Prue couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. Her fingers continued their excavation of the knapsack’s innards.
“Now,” said Darla, “we can do this quick and easy or we can drag it out. The old lady, that miserable, magical hag, put up an inconvenient amount of resistance. I would prefer if we didn’t have to play that little scene out.” She turned her head, as if stretching her neck; she appeared to be practicing a few momentary exercises before her deadly work began. But before she managed to do anything further, she let out a shrill, harrowing scream.
Prue had stabbed her in the foot.
They were called stevedores. This is what Unthank had called them when he stepped to the man in the tight-fitting suit and asked him, fairly petulantly, why they’d needed to be brought into things and weren’t they handling this fine by themselves, thanks very much. Elsie had heard him. But regardless of their name and their strange, identical dress and comportment, they were moving slowly toward the group of Unadoptables in a way that could only be described as menacing. The stare-down between Unthank and the man who appeared to be his boss, Mr. Wigman, continued. It looked tense; Mr. Unthank seemed much put out by the stevedores’ presence, as if their being there was somehow undermining his authority. The stevedores, for their part, played up their threatening ferocity by smiling coyly and smacking their lead pipes and ratchets on their palms as they walked. Elsie looked at her sister; Rachel was grimacing.
“What do we do?” hissed Elsie to her sister. There were many moments during this prolonged adventure she’d been having since her parents deposited her at the Unthank Home when she’d wished she’d had Intrepid Tina; this was decidedly one of those times.
“I don’t know,” said Rachel.
The children watched as Roger spoke to Wigman, his voice haughty and impatient. “We don’t need the children, Mr. Wigman. We need that man.”
Wigman, being petitioned from both sides, waved both Unthank and Roger away. “Listen, folks,” he said, addressing the crowd. “It’s starting to rain. It’s getting dark.” Both of these things were true; the light was disappearing to the west, and a chill drizzle was wetting the hair and maroon beanies of everyone present. “Let’s all move this little conference back to the Unthank Home. No one gets hurt, no one has to do any hurting. Agreed?”
The stevedores had stopped their advance, though they continued to flaunt their weaponry in a decidedly threatening fashion. There seemed to be no avenue of escape. The stevedores outnumbered the Unadoptables—Elsie guessed there to be fifty of them. Finally, Carol spoke up from the center of the crowd. “Let’s do as they say, children. No sense in resisting.”
The children of the Unthank Home for Wayward Youth were revolting.
The children, their faces solemnly downcast, nodded consent. The dogs were released to the avenues of the Wastes; the stevedores began corralling the group of Unadoptables toward the drab gray building in the background. They followed the same gravel road as Elsie and Rachel’s parents had driven when they’d first seen the Home. The building, its lights illuminating the windows from within, came closer into view. Faces were at the glass, watching the oncoming procession.
And then the windows began to break.
The contingent stopped sharply; everyone’s heads swiveled in the direction of the breaking glass. Unthank moaned a loud “NO!” as several metal footlockers were vaulted from what would be the second-floor dormitory to land with an explosive crash on the ground below. The sound of a hundred voices joined together in a loud cheer could be heard emanating from now-empty window frames; more footlockers followed, through more windows. Then came a bed frame, lumbered to the wide windows by a pack of children who pitched it, with some difficulty, to the ground below. The mattress had been set on fire. It landed on the ground in an eruption of sparks and broken glass.
The children of the Unthank Home for Wayward Youth were revolting.
The riot spread like a virus to the boys’ dormitory on the third floor; glass showered over the ground below as more objects were thrown through the windows. A crew of boys, their faces wide and smiling, looked out from one of the shattered frames and taunted Unthank and the stevedores with raspberries and shouts of derision.
“Welcome back, Unadoptables!” shouted a girl from the second-floor dorm. Another yelled, “Here’s your welcome home party!”
A window broke; out of it flew a rectangular box that hit the ground with a staticky pop. It was a loudspeaker; it continued to broadcast harsh bursts of static, like a disembodied head still imbued with a few last flickers of life. Then it lapsed into silence.
Unthank had grown ashen pale as he watched the agitation carry over to the tall windows of the machine shop. In a short matter of time, pieces of metal pipe, liberated from their machinery, were being launched through the glass as a wild conglomeration of children, girls and boys, convened in the shop and proceeded to tear it to pieces. The front doors were flung open and Desdemona, followed by Mr. Grimble and Miss Talbot, made her panicked retreat from the rebellion growing within.
“Bradley!” she shouted. “They are destroying it all! This is not how I wanted!” She ran as fast as her dress would allow toward the crowd of stevedores and their group of detained children. She was out of breath by the time she reached Wigman; she steadied herself on his thick arm. Unthank, still deeply traumatized by the scene that was playing out before him, shot her a bewildered glance.
“Bradley?” he asked. “You call him Bradley?”
Desdemona looked away; she pushed herself closer to Wigman, who put his arm around her protectively as he continued to stare, transfixed, at the ongoing commotion.
“Wait a second …,” Joffrey murmured. Puzzle pieces, long separated, began to find their way together in his mind as he stared at Desdemona and Wigman, cradled together. “It was you!” he finally yelled at Desdemona over the crashing of the insurgency. “You were the one who tipped him off! You brought him into this!”
But there was scarcely time for recriminations; orange flames were spitting from the topmost windows of the tall gray building. Through the emptied windowpanes, they could see that the children had built a great bonfire of chairs and tables in the girls’ dorm and had quickly set it alight. By the time the flames began to find their way to the windows, the children of the Unthank Home had streamed from the open front doors and out into the gravel drive. Once collected there, they turned—they were easily a hundred strong—and began running pell-mell toward the Unadoptables and their captors. The flames issuing from the building’s windows provided them an ominous backlight. That, combined with the look of absolute rage on their faces, gave them the likeness of furies released from the depths to wage chaos on the living world.
Darla threw her head back and let out a harrowing scream, a scream that seemed to straddle the gulf between the cry of a woman and the howl of an animal. It reverberated through the trough of garbage and rattled the screens of the discarded computer monitors and television sets. It pierced deep into Prue’s eardrums as she used the creature’s momentary distraction to continue her backward scramble up the pile of junk. She’d barely made it a few feet away when she saw Darla reach down to remove the blade from her foot. She made a pained grimace as she did so, eyeing Prue the whole time.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” the fox-woman said. “That’s only going to make things worse.” She threw the knife aside casually.
Prue risked a quick look over her shoulder; the crest of the hill of trash was maybe thirty feet away. The floodlights from the carnival created a kind of white lining along the top. Curtis couldn’t have gotten far.