Second Exit

by London Lampy

Chapter 10

I put Sampson's suitcase down as we wait for Kremmen, I'm not going to carry it any longer than I have to. We reached Shelly just after lunch, and have been standing on the platform for the last ten minutes waiting for the strange man to join us. The train is still in the station and I watch as it's refilled with water from a large tank beside the track, steam swirling around the engine in huge clouds. My stomach is flipping nervously over Vin's plan, I don't like the idea of walking into Kremmen's trap one bit but I'm trying to act normally. Fortunately Sampson still knows nothing about what's going on and is talking loudly to anyone who will listen about how much better the Twin Island's railway system is than the one on the Northern Continent, something to do with track gauges and engine horse power that I have no idea about or interest in whatsoever. Vin is humouring him while Vio scratches her arms, she's been bitten at least a dozen more times; she couldn't manage to stay awake all night smoking, although according to her she tried, which means that along with being too hot and itchy she's really tired. Vin's got a couple more bites too, I still haven't got any, although Vio did offer to share hers with me.

"Govinder, where the bloody hell is Kremmen? I don't want to stand here all day," Sampson grumbles after another few minutes have passed.

"He should be here soon," Vin replies smoothly. If he's at all nervous he's not showing it.

Eventually I catch sight of Kremmen coming toward us through the steam, his appearance is exactly the same as always, and he gets a few strange looks from the other people on the station.

"So, are you all ready to go?" he says a bit too keenly.

"Yes, we are," Sampson retorts. "I want to get out of this gods awful heat and into the hotel bar, how you people can live here is beyond me."

"Yes, of course," Kremmen nods rapidly. "If you'll forgive me I'd like to make a brief stop on the way to our lodgings, my...ah...brother-in-law lives a short way from here and I have some...items I need to pass onto him," he taps his case to make his point. "It will only take a moment, you might want to come into his house."

"Why the deuce would we want to do that?" Sampson asks, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice, while Vin and Vio exchange brief glances.

"He has...an excellent cellar. Yes, a collection, that is...he's a collector of rare wines, I'm sure he'd be delighted to share a bottle with eminent guests such as yourselves," Kremmen seems more than a little nervous. I suppose that this is his big moment, although I think even I could have made up a better story than that, only an idiot would swallow it.

"A little drinkie?" Sampson's eyes light up. "Well why not? Your brother in law is something of a wine enthusiast eh? Sounds like a splendid chap."

We follow Kremmen out of the station and into the dusty street outside. Shops and cafés line it on either side, but every single one of them is shut, many with blinds or shutters closed over their windows. I see very few people about too, only an old man sitting beside the road in dirty clothes, a bottle clutched in his hand, and three boys kicking a bundle of rags tied together to form a ball up and down in front of a butchers shop, raising a huge cloud of dust with every move they make. "Where is everyone?" I say quietly.

"They rest in the hottest part of the day up here," Vin explains. "In another hour or so this street will look completely different, full of people, and it'll stay like that until late tonight."

"This way," Kremmen gestures to a side street and we follow, making a couple of turns until we're in a residential area.

"Shit!" Vin suddenly exclaims loudly, stopping in his tracks. "I think I've left my paperwork on the train." He takes his bag off his back, squats down, opens it and rummages through it frantically. "Fuck, it's not here," he looks up at Sampson, who tuts, sighs and rolls his eyes.

"Govinder! For the god's sake man, you're the one in charge here. If it was one of them," he gestures to Vio and me. "I'd expect that kind of mistake, can't really trust a woman, or a monkey, to get things right, but I thought better of you."

Fuck this, if Kremmen wants to kidnap him he's welcome. I don't even need to look at Vio to know she's thinking much the same, I can practically feel the anger coming off her.

"I'm going to have to go back, the train should still be there, Shelly is a refuelling stop," he shrugs helplessly.

"But..." Kremmen sounds slightly desperate. "My brother-in-law's house, we're close."

"I won't be long, just wait here," Vin says, and before anyone can stop him he sprints off, turning a corner and disappearing from sight.

"Damn it all," Sampson bangs the end of his cane on the cobbled street. "I can't trust anyone to get things right, if I was still in the army I'd have him up on charges for this."

While he stands fuming uselessly I look around me. The buildings are all at least three stories high, and all finished in the same yellowy white plaster. Their windows are small and deeply recessed into the walls, most of the ones on the ground floor have bars set into them and they all have slatted wooden shutters, many of which are closed. I can't really tell where one building starts and another ends as they all run into one another. Just like the main street there is no one around, and I'd think that the houses were deserted if it wasn't for the drying clothes that are hung on lines strung between the upper floors. The only living creatures I can see other than us are a pair of skinny dogs who are watching us from a doorway on the other side of the narrow dusty street. One of them stands up and wanders toward us, sniffing the ground nervously as it goes.

"Shoo!" Sampson bangs his cane noisily on the ground again, flapping his hand at the creature who takes off running down the street. "Mangy curs," he mutters, eyeing the second dog that's still in the doorway. "I'm not staying here to get attacked by wild dogs. Kremmen, let's get going to this brother-in-law of yours house, Govinder can catch us up."

Vio, who's been crouched down scratching her ankle suddenly stands up. "But Sir, he doesn't know where we're going," she protests.

"Then he can catch up with us at the hotel," Sampson snaps.

"But..." she looks at him, her pale eyes wide.

"But nothing. I want a drink and we're going, now." He starts to walk, and short of physically restraining him all we can do is follow.

"Kremmen, what's your brother-in-law's address?" Vio asks hurriedly.

"Um...number six on the Street of the Full Moon." The strange man is beginning to sound as worried as I feel.

"Exit, remember that. Do you think you can find Vin?"

"I can try." He said the town wasn't very big, and he can't have got that far yet.

"Bloody hell, he's only gone to the train station," Sampson rolls his eyes again.

"Go now," Vio nods, ignoring him. I hand her Sampson's suitcase and take off, running as fast as I can in the direction Vin went. I get back to the main street and hurry along it, Vin told me that the offices weren't far from the station but he could have gone up any of the small side streets. I'm aware of every moment that passes and I fight to keep the panic down, I find it hard to care too much about what happens to Sampson, but Vio's a different matter, I don't her to get hurt. The street ends in a fork and I look one way then the other trying to decide which one to take. The left fork seems slightly wider and to have more buildings on it that look like they could be offices so I choose it. I don't stop running, there are a few more people around here and I glance at each one of them to see if they are Vin. Some of them are echobacks and if the situation wasn't so serious I'd be interested in looking around, but I simply tear through the street as fast as I can, people jumping out of my way and swearing at me as I go. Up ahead I spot another running figure, and the sight of a head of bright red hair fills me with relief. He's not moving nearly as fast as I am and I catch up with him easily.

"Vin," I shout as I get close. "Wait up!"

He turns and looks at me, his face puzzled. "Stop!" I shout as I come along side him.

"What?" he questions slowing down and eventually stopping running, leaning forward to rest his hands on his thighs and panting.

"Sampson wouldn't wait for you, he's gone off with Kremmen."

"Shit!" he rights himself. "The man is a fuckwit, do you know where they've gone?"

"I know the address."

He looks in the direction he was running in, then back at me, shaking his head. "We're going to have to go after them," he starts jogging again, back the way he came.

"We're not going to the Cartel offices?" I ask as I follow him.

"No time now."

"But...don't we need help?"

"We've got a gun," he pats the bag that's slung across his back. "And the advantage, we know where they're headed, so long as Kremmen was telling the truth, if he wasn't.." He leaves the sentence unfinished. "If we wait for the Cartel we might be too late, hell, we might be too late now, I doubt they'll stay at the address for too long, they'll clear out as soon as they have Sampson if they have any sense."

I don't like this, I don't see how knowing where they are helps and I'd much rather he'd stuck to the original plan, but I have no choice other than to go along with him. I tell him the address Kremmen gave me and we soon arrive back at the place where I left Vio and Sampson.

"It can't be too far from here," Vin says looking around at the empty street. A door unexpectedly opens in one of the houses and an old woman dressed all in black comes out and shakes a small rug onto the dusty ground. "Excuse me," Vin approaches her, "could you please tell me where the Street of the Full Moon is?". She gives him a hard stare and makes some sort of rapid gesture with one of her hands, then goes back inside her house, slamming the door behind her. "Shit! The bloody people up here..." he swears, sounding a bit like Sampson.

Suddenly a small voice from behind me says, "I'll tell you." I turn round to see a bare footed young girl in a well worn dress looking up at us.

"Go on then," Vin says after a moment's wait.

She doesn't reply, simply holds her left hand out palm up and strokes it several time with the first two fingers of her right hand. Vin puts his hand in his pocket with a sigh, he pulls out a couple of coins and the girls eyes light up. "Do you accept Kipp dollars?" he asks dryly, she nods enthusiastically in reply. Vin drops the coins into her hand which she immediately clenches into a fist as if he's about to snatch them back off her, then she launches into a series of complicated sounding directions. At one point she tells us to go left at her aunt's house, and later we're told to go straight on at the place where the cobbler's donkey died, but when she's done Vin thanks her.

"This way," he says to me pointing up the street, and we set off running again. As we get deeper into the maze of back streets the houses become more and more dilapidated; plasterwork is cracked and missing on many of the dwellings and rubbish lies in heaps in the middle of what are now little more than dark alleyways sandwiched between the buildings.

"I think it's somewhere around here," Vin pants as we stop at sort of crossroads. There are no street signs anywhere to be seen. Vin looks up, muttering a string of swear words in frustration. "Hang on," the muttering stops, "look." High above our heads painted onto the sides of the buildings are faded symbols. Each of the four different ways has a different symbol, up ahead has some kind of bird, the way we've come from has a lit candle. The ways going right and left have moon symbols, the one to the right is a crescent, the one to the left is a full moon.

"This has got to be it," he grins.

"What do we do now?" I ask as we walk down the passageway until we find a heavy door with "six" painted roughly on it.

"We have to find out if they're actually in there."

"We can't knock on the door and ask," I point out.

"No, we can't, but the windows are open on the third floor, look," he points upward. "You can get in there, can't you?"

"Yes...but it's daylight, and what if Kremmen or one of the other kidnappers are in there?" I'm starting to feel that Vin really hasn't thought this through. If he hadn't been so keen to catch all of the would-be abductors we could have easily dealt with Kremmen ourselves and be safely at the Cartel offices by now. Of course Sampson behaving like an idiot didn't help either.

"Take this," Vin passes me the gun from his bag which I stuff into the bag on my back. "If you get into any trouble don't be afraid to use it. Be careful and try not to be seen, I'll keep watch out here. Once you've established what's going on come back out and we'll take it from there."

I remove my boots, not feeling at all happy about any of this. We've seen very few people about but breaking into a house at this time if day is risky, not to mention what I'll find inside.

The plaster is smooth and I struggle to find finger and toe holds apart from the jagged cracks. At one point a chunk of it breaks off under my hand and I almost fall to the ground, only just saving myself at the last minute by grabbing hold of a windowsill and clinging on with my fingertips as the plaster chunk falls to the ground and smashes beside Vin, who looks up at me and makes a shushing gesture at me as if I'd done it on purpose. Eventually I manage to make it to the open window and I pull myself inside, my heart thumping in my ears with the fear of what might be in there. It turns out to be an ordinary unoccupied bedroom and it occurs to me that if Kremmen was lying, or we got the address wrong, there's a fair chance I'm going to give some poor person the fright of their life.

I open the bedroom door very carefully and creep out onto the landing, stopping and standing still to listen. I can just about make out the sound of voices coming from one of the floors below, none of them sounds female, and none of them sounds loud enough to be Sampson.

I decide to check out the rest of the rooms on this floor before I go any further. A second door opposite me is open a crack so I push it and step inside the room. I'm expecting it to be empty, and I only just stop myself from making a noise when I see two figures sitting on the floor propped up against an iron framed bed. It's unmistakably Vio and Sampson, their faces are covered with black cotton hoods but it's clearly them. They're slumped against one another, Sampson's masked head resting on Vio's shoulder, which under any other circumstances would be funny, but right now simply looks gruesome. Their legs are stretched out in front of them and are tightly bound from thigh to ankle, and their hands are out of sight behind them, tied as well I assume.

Feeling both sick and scared I walk the few steps over to the bed and carefully lift the hood off Vio's head. Underneath it a strip of cloth has been tied around her mouth to gag her, her eyes are shut and he face is even paler than usual. I put two fingers to her neck to feel for a pulse and am filled with relief when I find one. I leave Sampson as he is, guessing that if Vio is alive then he is too, and instead of checking on him I pull her gag down and try to wake her up. I shake her shoulder gently, whispering her name, but I get no response. I try again, this time pinching her ear lobe the way I was taught to, and I risk saying her name a little louder. Still nothing happens, I'm trying to decide if slapping her cheek would make too much noise when I hear a sound behind me.

"What the hell..." a voice says and I turn to see Kremmen standing in the doorway, except he doesn't look like the Kremmen I met back in Kipp any more. His suit has gone, having been replaced by something that looks a bit like a khaki coloured soldiers uniform, but that's the least of the changes. He's no longer wearing the dark glasses or the leather gloves, and he's washed the make up off and removed the moustache; now I can finally see what he's been hiding. His natural skin colour is a light golden brown, and his eyes are pure gold with black slit pupils, he's an echoback, just like me. Before I can recover from the shock of this he opens his mouth.

"Barney, Ev," he shouts, his voice sounding alarmed. "HELP!"

At first I'm too shocked to move, then I remember what Vin told me to do and I try to take the bag off my back to get the gun out, but I'm not fast enough. Another person runs into the room, this one is an echoback as well. His hair is worn in a long braid in what I've come to think of as the traditional way, and he's dressed in a similar style to Kremmen, who he pushes out of the way while brandishing a rifle at me.

"Hands...air...still," he grunts, and I'm not stupid enough to do anything other than obey him, letting my bag fall to the floor with a thump. The newcomer peers at me, narrowing his eyes. He has a nasty scar that runs from the bridge of his nose, under one eye and almost to his ear and it crinkles as he bares his teeth at me, all the while making a growling sound in the back of his throat. I notice that his finger is resting on the trigger of his gun and he looks like he'd pull it in a heartbeat. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a third person appear behind the two of them but I dare not move to look in case the one with the gun thinks I'm about to attack him and decides to stop me with a bullet.

"What's going on?" a deep voice asks.

"Barney, we've got a problem," I hear Kremmen say. "He was with the Twin Island humans, he must have climbed in here to look for the others."

"Ev," the deep voice says, "calm down." He receives a grunt in reply, but I notice that the one with the gun moves his finger off the trigger.

"Is that right, you've come in here to try to rescue your colleges?" the deep voice asks.

As I'm out of immediate danger of being shot I look up, to my surprise Barney is human. He's a tall, powerfully built man barrel chested man with a thick, bushy reddish brown beard and matching long hair that's tied back into a braid in the echoback style. His skin is tanned to a deep brown and he's dressed in soldiers gear like the other two. He looks to be around forty but the beard makes it hard to tell.

"Yes," I reply shakily.

"And you're from the Twin Islands too?"

"Yes."

He stares at me for what feels like an eternity. "What's your name son?" he eventually asks.

"Exit."

His eyes widen and he gives a small shake of his head as if in disbelief. He steps in front of Kremmen and pushes Ev's rifle down so it's no longer pointed at me, then puts his hand into a leather pouch at his waist, pulling out what looks like a short, pale stick along with something much smaller that has a piece of brightly coloured feather at the end.

"I'm very sorry about this," he says, fitting the feather thing into the stick which I can now see is hollow. "I truly am." He lifts the stick to his mouth and blows down it, the feather thing flies out of the end and hits me in the arm with a sharp sting. I look at it sticking out of my arm and I realise it's actually some kind of dart, and that's the last thought I have before everything turns to black.

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