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Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Boneshaker 21

Page 21

 

  Zeke guessed, “So they can breathe?”

  “If they wanted to breathe, all they’d have to do is go someplace else. But they don’t. They stay here, and they keep the air pumped down to the sealed blocks, and before long, you’ll be able to pull that mask off. I know these things aren’t none too comfortable, and I’m real sorry. I thought we’d be in a safe zone by now, but that goddamned bitch had to…” He didn’t finish the thought, but he rubbed at his shoulder. The bleeding had stopped and gone tacky as it dried.

  “So you don’t like them, and we can’t trust them?”

  Rudy said, “That’s the long and short of it, yes. It don’t make a lick of sense to me why they just don’t go home to their women and children. I can’t figure out why they’ve stuck around as long as they have. ”

  “Their women and… so it’s all a bunch of men?”

  “Mostly, but I hear they’ve got a boy or two inside now, and maybe a couple of old women who wash clothes and cook. How that happened, I couldn’t tell you—’cause they sure aren’t supposed to be here. There was a law, years ago. It kept them from bringing their families here from China. Those folks breed like rabbits, I swear to God, and they were taking over the west. So the government figured it’d be an easy way to keep them from getting settled. We don’t mind having them here to work, but we don’t want to keep them. ”

  Zeke had some questions about why that might be, but he got the feeling he shouldn’t ask them, so he didn’t. Instead he said, “All right. I guess I understand. But if they left, who’d pump the clean air?”

  “Nobody, I guess,” Rudy was forced to admit. “Or somebody else would. I assume. Minnericht would pay somebody, probably. Hell, I don’t know. ”

  There was that name again. Zeke enjoyed the consonants in it, the way they rattled around on his tongue when he said it. “Minnericht. You never did tell me who that is. ”

  “Later, kid,” Rudy said. “Keep hushed up for now. We’re coming up close to Chinatown, and the men here, they don’t want anything to do with us. And we don’t want anything to do with them. We’re going right around the other side of their furnace room. It’s loud in there, but those sons of bitches have ears like an eagle has eyes. ”

  Zeke strained to hear. He could catch, yes, there in the background—muffled by the earth around them and the streets above them—a huffing, pulling sound that was too large and slow to be breathing. And the chattering he’d heard… as they drew closer, he knew why he couldn’t make it out. It was a language he didn’t understand, and the syllables meant nothing to him.

  “This way. Come on. ”

  The boy kept close to his guide, who seemed at times to be flagging. “Are you all right?” Zeke whispered at him.

  And Rudy said, “My shoulder hurts, that’s all. And my hip hurts too, but there’s not shit to be done about it right now. This way,” he repeated his mantra. “Come on. ”

  “If you’re hurt, can you really take me up to Denny—”

  “I said, come on. ”

  Around the main rooms they sneaked, taking corridors that ran parallel or underneath the rattling factory sounds of the working men. “Not much farther,” Rudy told Zeke. “Once we reach the other side, we’ll be home free. ”

  “To get to the hill?”

  “That’s what I told you, wasn’t it?”

  “Yes sir,” Zeke murmured, though he hadn’t felt from the changing earth that they were headed up at any point—not really. They’d been sliding down, deeper and farther than he’d thought he ought to be traveling. They’d been tracking lower, and along the ocean shore wall instead of deeper into the city’s center.

  But now he felt trapped and he did not know what other course to take, so he would follow, he figured. He’d follow until he felt too threatened to do anything else. That was the whole of his plan.

  Rudy held up a finger to the end of his mask, and held out the hand holding the cane as if he meant for Zeke to freeze and be silent. An urgency in the gesture successfully held the boy in place while he waited to understand what peril waited around the corner.

  When he craned his neck to see, he was downright relieved. A young Chinese man stood hunched over a table that was stacked with lenses, levers, and tubes. His back was to the corridor’s entrance where Zeke and Rudy stood. His face was pointed down, hovering intently over something the two intruders couldn’t see.

  Rudy’s hand made a ferocious thrust that told Zeke to hold his position, and not to leave it upon pain of death. It was amazing, how much he could convey with just a few fingers.

  Zeke watched Rudy reach into his pocket again and pull out the knife that the princess had thrown into his arm. The blade was no longer wet, but under the dried blood it flashed in Rudy’s hand.

  The man at the table was wearing a long leather apron, and his back looked hunched. He wore glasses and was bald as an apple except for that long ponytail. He might be old enough to be someone’s father, somewhere. As Zeke looked the man over, it dawned on him that this man might be uninterested in doing anyone any harm.

  But it did not dawn on him in time to say anything. He’d later wonder: Even if he’d thought to call out… would he have done so?

  But he didn’t think.

  Rudy slipped up behind the smaller man, seized him, and wiped the sharp edge of the blade across his throat as Rudy’s good arm covered the other man’s mouth. The Chinese man struggled, but the assault had been swift.

  In their fight, they swirled and pirouetted like two men waltzing. Zeke was astonished by how much blood there was. It looked like gallons, gushing in a crimson cascade from a cut that ran from earlobe to earlobe. As the men swayed and spun, they flung it in a fountain’s spray and doused the lenses, levers, and tubes.

  Zeke slumped down the wall, his back braced against the door frame and his hands over his own mouth to keep it quiet. When he pressed there, he remembered the bruising punch of Rudy’s elbow and a fragile patch on his gums began to bleed again.

  He thought for a moment that he could taste the copper-orange pouring of blood that stained the man’s leather apron and the floor, leaving smeared and smudged footprints from board to board, but then remembered that it was only his own pain, in his own mouth.

  Knowing this did not change his macabre impression, and it made him feel no less like throwing up.

  But he was wearing a mask, and to take it off would mean certain choking death. So he swallowed the impulse, and the bile, and suppressed the need to eject some terrible taint from his body.

  And then, as the corpse fell limp in Rudy’s grasp, and Rudy kicked it underneath the table where the Chinaman had so recently worked, Zeke noticed that he had worn no mask.

  “He…” Zeke gagged on his own fluids.

  “Don’t get all soft on me now, boy. He would’ve handed us over as fast as he would’ve said, ‘Hello. ’ Get yourself together. We’ve got to get out of here before anyone notices what we’ve done. ”

  “He…” The boy tried again. “Wasn’t… didn’t have… isn’t wearing…”

  “A mask?” Rudy caught on. “No, he wasn’t. And we’ll pull ours off soon enough. But not yet. We might get chased topside before our trip is over. ” As he dashed a lurching escape down the next door over, he whispered, “It’s better to have them and not need them, then need them and not have them. ”

  “Right,” Zeke said, and he said it again in order to have something in his mouth other than vomit. “Right. I’m… I’m following you. ”

  Rudy said, “Attaboy. Now stick close. ”

  Eleven

  At the bottom of the stairs Briar stumbled into a mostly empty room with a floor that was sinking below its original foundation. It sagged and dipped, a foot or more at the room’s center and a few inches along its edges. Down there, coal was stashed in big mining carts that had been wheeled directly to their location through a tunnel cut into th
e brick.

  The tunnel was surprisingly well lit, and since no other logical direction presented itself, Briar pushed past the carts with their black-dusted cargo.

  There were no tracks in the tunnel, but the floor had been packed hard and paved with stones in places, so the carts could be rolled—possibly with the aid of machinery, or so Briar inferred from the scattered chains and cranks that were anchored in the walls and floors.

  From beam to beam, long segments of knotted rope were strung up high, and, from the rope, glass lanterns hung in steel cages.

  As if it were a trail of bread crumbs, Briar followed the rope as fast as she could push herself. She still held Maynard’s rifle out and ready to be lifted or fired, but it mostly swung underneath her arm as she ran. She saw no other people coming or going, and if the Chinamen were following her, they were doing so quietly. Nothing like the rumbling rush of feet echoed behind her, and nothing like voices, coughs, or laughter chimed out from her destination.

  Perhaps fifty yards down the line, under the row of whichever businesses occupied the block, the tunnel split into four directions, each one covered by the same long leather or rubber-treated flaps that had curtained the hallway outside the bellows room.

  She pushed the flaps aside a tiny crack, just enough to peer past them.

  Two directions were lit; two were dark. One of the bright corridors resonated with an argument. The other was quiet. She hastily took the quieter lit passage and hoped for the best. But in another twenty feet, the passage dead-ended against an iron gate that could’ve held back a herd of elephants.

  The gate stuck up out of the ground where its pilings had been buried somewhere far below, and deeply, for more than mere appearance. It leaned out at a determined angle, intended to repel some astonishing force with the pointed tips of its topmost pikes. On the other side of the leaning gate Briar saw a tight wooden wall wrapped with barbed wire. The timbers looked as if they’d once been on the ground, functioning as railroad ties, but there was a horizontal latch where an immense wooden arm could be levered up and out—and as Briar looked more closely, she could see cracks where a door was cut, or pressed, or jammed into place.