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Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Boneshaker 52

Page 52

 

  “Maybe,” he conceded. “But from what I’ve seen, you’re a lady who can take care of herself. I wouldn’t worry about it too bad. ”

  “You wouldn’t?” The Spencer beat a patient rhythm against her back.

  “Naw. If he doesn’t want anything from you, like as not, he’ll leave you alone. ”

  And that was the problem, wasn’t it? He might very well want something from her. Heaven only knew what, but if he’d heard she was in town and if he had a reputation to protect, she might have a favorite new enemy. She glowered inside her mask until she passed the next seal and heard the whooshing, gushing, pounding thrust of the bellows driving air down through the tunnels. “I’m taking this off now,” she said.

  “Now that you mention it, I think I’ll do away with my own. ” Briar pried her hat away and popped the mask up off her hair. “Not so fast, honey. ” Lucy parted the sealed flaps at the far end of the corridor and said, “I wouldn’t get too comfortable yet, if I were you. Not if you want to meet the good doctor. ”

  “Ma’am,” Squiddy greeted her with a tip of his helmet. He pulled his own mask off and said, “I hope you’re not talking to me. I think I’m done with the topside for now. It’s harder to breathe every time I poke my head up there. ”

  “No, Squiddy, I’m not talking to you. I’m glad I caught you two, though. I figured you might be headed back about now. If you don’t mind my saying so, Miss Wilkes, you’re looking grim but not grieving. You didn’t find anything, did you?”

  Briar shook her head, then stretched her neck so it could pop. “No, we didn’t. We didn’t look very long, but there wasn’t much to see.

  “Your lips to God’s ears,” she said. “It looks like an explosion out there, and it never does get any prettier, because, really—who would take the time to fix it? We’ve got better things to do down here, and we surely don’t have the filters or the manpower for it. So all that debris, and all those toppled and sunken old buildings, they just sit there and crumble. ”

  “Nothing to be done about it,” Briar said. “But I’m a little surprised to see you out this way. ”

  “My arm’s acting up again. The temporary tubes Huey used to fix it are more temporary than I hoped. I’ve got a sling here for tying it up and holding it. ” It took her a moment of discomfort to bring herself around to saying the rest. “Fact is, I can’t live real well without at least one good arm. And I don’t mean to make you take me out there. I wouldn’t do that, and if you don’t want to go, I’d be the last one alive to insist on it. But since we’d talked this morning, I thought maybe—”

  “Yes, that’s fine. I don’t mind, and now that you’ve all got me so curious about the man, I may as well catch him for myself. ” She punched the interior of her mask to fluff it out again. “If I seem surprised, it’s only that it’s getting dark up there, and I thought everyone tried to stay underground when the sun goes out. ”

  Squiddy answered before Lucy could. He said, “Oh, getting over to King Street is easy as pie from here, and you wouldn’t be heading out into the streets. Lucy, is that a pair of lanterns in your pack?”

  He indicated the lumpy canvas sack she wore slung around her neck and arm.

  “I brought two of them, yes, and extra oil for good measure. ”

  Briar asked, “But aren’t lights a bad idea? We’ll draw rotters, won’t we?”

  Lucy said, “So what if we do? We’ll be out of their reach. And anyway, you don’t want to sneak up on the doctor. Best thing to do is walk up loud and bright, and don’t let him think you’re trying to hide. That’s why I came up after you, hoping to catch you. The shortest, loudest, brightest way to Minnericht’s is another tunnel south from here, and there was no sense in making you backtrack. ”

  Even though Briar was technically willing, her motivation waned. “Isn’t it getting late, though?”

  “Late? No, it only looks late. It’s just the time of year, and the shadow from the walls, and the thickness of the Blight. It makes you feel like the sun never comes up good, so it’s hard to tell when it’s actually going down. ” She shifted her shoulder, and the pack nestled against the curve of her waist. “Listen, honey, if you don’t want to do this, it’s all right. I’ll go back and grab Jeremiah, and he can escort me in the morning. There’s a rush, but not such a rush that I can’t survive another night with a half-working hand. It’ll be fine if you’d rather not expose yourself just yet. ”

  Guilt won out over nervousness, and when Briar considered that perhaps Minnericht could point her toward Zeke, she had no choice but to say, “No, no. We’ll go tonight, right now. Let me just change out these filters. They weren’t quite new, but it didn’t take them long to fill right up out there. ”

  “Oh my, yes. I hope Squids gave you a warning about that. ”

  While she unscrewed the filters and replaced them with clean ones from her satchel, Briar said, “He did indeed. He’s been a most excellent guide, and I’ve appreciated his company. ”

  “I’m sorry we didn’t find anything about your boy,” he said again.

  “But that’s not your fault, and it was worth trying, wasn’t it? And now I’ve got no more leads to follow except this Minnericht. ” She popped the cap back over the filter, and it snapped into place. “Lucy, do you need any help carrying your supplies?”

  “No, dear, I don’t. Ask again in an hour, and see if you don’t get a different answer, though. ” She was visibly relieved to be heading out, and Briar didn’t wonder why. It must have been a hideously vulnerable feeling to be so crippled in such a dangerous place.

  Squiddy said, “If you two ladies are all set up, I suppose I’ll be on my way. There’s a game running next door to the west-wall furnace room, and some of those Chinamen bring gold every once in a while. I may not win any, but I sure do want to set eyes on it,” he beamed.

  “Well then, you get a move on, and head back to the Vaults. We’ll head out for the doctor’s place, and if all goes without any trouble, we’ll be back by bedtime,” Lucy vowed.

  Squiddy retreated back down the way Lucy had come, disappearing between the brown sealing flaps and darting back to the Vaults. Together, the women listened to the fading slap of his footsteps on the tunnel walkway.

  Twenty-one

  As soon as Squiddy was gone, Lucy turned to Briar and said, “Are you ready? ”

  “I’m ready,” she promised. “Lead the way. ”

  In front of her, Lucy was battling her arm to make her mask stay in place. Briar offered, “Can I help you with that?”

  “Maybe that’d be a good idea. ”

  Briar adjusted the other woman’s mask until it settled firmly and buckled behind her ears. She noticed that Lucy had traded the one-hour model she’d sported before for a more substantial mask. “It’s not sticking in your hair or anything, is it?”

  “No, baby, it’s fine. And thank you. ” She put on a brave smile, straightened her back, and said, “Now it’s time to head up, and out. I might need you to open a door or two, and the path is wide enough that we can walk side by side most of the way, so it would be best if you could stay close to me. ”

  “How far are we walking here?”

  “Not more than a mile, I shouldn’t think—but it’s hard to say when we’ll be climbing stairs and hunkering down hallways. It feels twice as long, I swear. ”

  And Lucy wasn’t joking. She couldn’t hold a lantern with any steadiness, either, so Briar kept one lit and held up close for the both of them to see. Down a warren of tunnels, seals, and flaps, they came to a place with a crooked stairway and a sealed door. Briar unlatched the thing and climbed up with the light, and she kept an eye on Lucy behind her. The arm’s integrity was failing, and it was becoming more useless by the moment.

  Finally, at Lucy’s request, Briar secured the arm as firmly as it could be caught. From that point on she walked in front when the going was tight. In this way, th
ey hopscotched farther and farther south, until they’d come so close to the wall that its shape covered the sky when they emerged onto a new building’s rooftop.

  “What was this place?” Briar asked. It didn’t look like the other rooftop vistas she’d seen so far; the floor was covered with plywood patches and the deeply rooted bases of metal poles. Overhead, a system of trapezes suspended walkways that moved at the pull of a handle.

  “This place? Oh, I don’t know. I think it was a hotel, once upon a time. Now it’s… well, it’s almost like a train station. I don’t mean that there are any trains, because obviously there aren’t, but—”

  “But it’s a junction,” Briar surmised.

  She stood back from a nailed-down piece of wood sheeting as big as a wagon and held her lantern aloft so she could better read the message written across it in red paint. It was a list of instructions and pointing arrows, almost like a stationary compass.

  “See?” Lucy said, pointing down at it. “We want to go to King Street. That arrow there next to it, that tells you which walkway you need to pull. ”

  “There, to the right?”

  “Uh-huh. Beside it, see? There’s a lever. Give it a good hard tug. ”

  Briar pulled down hard on a lever that once was a broom handle; it had a green-painted end that matched the arrow pointing to it, which she thought was a nice touch. Somewhere up above, the clanging slide of a slipping chain was accompanied by the brittle protests of rusted metal. A sharp-edged shadow darted overhead and swayed, then settled, and lowered, and behind the shadow came a wood platform coated in pitch.

  “It’s not too sticky,” Lucy said before Briar had a chance to ask.