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One

She saw him, and she stopped a few feet from the stairs.

Im sorry, he said quickly. I didnt mean to startle you.

The woman in the dull black overcoat didnt blink and didnt move. What do you want?

Hed prepared a speech, but he couldnt remember it. To talk. To you. I want to talk to you.

Briar Wilkes closed her eyes hard. When she opened them again, she asked, Is it about Zeke? Whats he done now?

No, no, its not about him, he insisted. Maam, I was hoping we could talk about your father.

Her shoulders lost their stiff, defensive right angles, and she shook her head. That figures. I swear to God, all the men in my life, they She stopped herself. And then she said, My father was a tyrant, and everyone he loved was afraid of him. Is that what you want to hear?

He held his position while she climbed the eleven crooked stairs that led the way to her home, and to him. When she reached the narrow porch he asked, Is it true?

More true than not.

She stood before him with her fingers wrapped around a ring of keys. The top of her head was level with his chin. Her keys were aimed at his waist, he thought, until he realized he was standing in front of the door. He shuffled out of her way.

How long have you been waiting for me? she asked.

He strongly considered lying, but she pinned him to the wall with her stare. Several hours. I wanted to be here when you got home.

The door clacked, clicked, and scooted inward. I took an extra shift at the works. You couldve come back later.

Please, maam. May I come inside?

She shrugged, but she didnt say no, and she didnt close him out in the cold, so he followed behind her, shutting the door and standing beside it while Briar found a lamp and lit it.

She carried the lamp to the fireplace, where the logs had burned down cold. Beside the mantle there was a poker and a set of bellows, and a flat iron basket with a cache of split logs. She jabbed the poker against the charred lumps and found a few live coals lingering at the bottom.

With gentle encouragement, a handful of kindling, and two more lengths of wood, a slow flame caught and held.

One arm at a time, Briar pried herself out of the overcoat and left it hanging on a peg. Without the coat, her body had a lean look to itas if she worked too long, and ate too little or too poorly. Her gloves and tall brown boots were caked with the filth of the plant, and she was wearing pants like a man. Her long, dark hair was piled up and back, but two shifts of labor had picked it apart and heavy strands had scattered, escaping the combs shed used to hold it all aloft.

She was thirty-five, and she did not look a minute younger.

In front of the growing, glowing fire there was a large and ancient leather chair. Briar dropped herself into it. Tell me, Mr Im sorry. You didnt say your name.

Hale. Hale Quarter. And I must say, its an honor to meet you.

For a moment he thought she was going to laugh, but she didnt.

She reached over to a small table beside the chair and retrieved a pouch. All right, Hale Quarter. Tell me. Why did you wait outside so long in this bitter weather? From within the pouch she picked a small piece of paper and a large pinch of tobacco. She worked the two together until she had a cigarette, and she used the lamps flame to coax the cigarette alight.

Hed gotten this far by telling the truth, so he risked another confession. I came when I knew you wouldnt be home. Someone told me that if I knocked, youd shoot through the peephole.

She nodded, and pressed the back of her head against the leather. Ive heard that story, too. It doesnt keep nearly as many folks away as you might expect.

He couldnt tell if she was serious, or if her response was a denial. Then I thank you double, for not shooting me and for letting me come inside.

Youre welcome.

May I may I take a seat? Would that be all right?

Suit yourself, but you wont be here long, she predicted.

You dont want to talk?

I dont want to talk about Maynard, no. I dont have any answers about anything that happened to him. Nobody does. But you can ask whatever you want. And you can take your leave when I get tired of you, or when you get bored with all the ways I can say I dont knowwhichever comes first.

Encouraged, he reached for a tall-backed wooden chair and dragged it forward, putting his body directly into her line of sight. His notebook folded open to reveal an unlined sheet with a few small words scribbled at the top.

While he was getting situated, she asked him, Why do you want to know about Maynard? Why now? Hes been dead for fifteen years. Nearly sixteen.

Why not now? Hale scanned his previous page of notes, and settled down with his pencil hovering over the next blank section. But to answer you more directly, Im writing a book.

Another book? she said, and it sounded sharp and fast.

Not a sensational piece, he was careful to clarify. I want to write a proper biography of Maynard Wilkes, because I believe hes been done a great disservice. Dont you agree?

No, I dont agree. He got exactly what he should have expected. He spent thirty years working hard, for nothing, and he was treated disgracefully by the city he served. She fiddled with the half-smoked wand of tobacco. He allowed it. And I hated him for it.

But your father believed in the law.

She almost snapped at him. So does every criminal.

Hale perked. Then you do think he was a criminal?

One more hard draw on the cigarette came and went, and then she said, Dont twist my words. But youre right. He believed in the law. There were times I wasnt sure he believed in anything else, but yes. He believed in that.

Spits and sparks from the fireplace filled the short silence that fell between them. Finally, Hale said, Im trying to get it right, maam. Thats all. I think there was more to it than a jailbreak

Why? she interrupted. Why do you think he did it? Which theory do you want to write your book about, Mr. Quarter?

He hesitated, because he didnt know what to think, not yet. He gambled on the theory that he hoped Briar would find least offensive. I think he was doing what he thought was right. But I really want to know what you think. Maynard raised you alone, didnt he? You mustve known him better than anyone.

Her face stayed a little too carefully blank. Youd be surprised. We werent that close.

But your mother died

When I was born, thats right. He was the only parent I ever had, and he wasnt much of one. He didnt know what to do with a daughter any more than I know what to do with a map of Spain.

Hale sensed a brick wall, so he backed up and tried another way around, and into her good graces. His eyes scanned the smallish room with its solid and unadorned furniture, and its clean but battered floors. He noted the corridor that led to the back side of the house. And from his seat, he could see that all four doors at the end of it were closed.

You grew up here, didnt you? In this house? he pretended to guess.

She didnt soften. Everybody knows that.

They brought him back here, though. One of the boys from the prison break, and his brotherthey brought him here and tried to save him. A doctor was sent for, but

Briar retrieved the dangled thread of conversation and pulled it. But hed inhaled too much of the Blight. He was dead before the doctor ever got the message, and I swearshe flicked a fingertips worth of ash into the fireits just as well. Can you imagine what wouldve happened to him, if hed lived? Tried for treason, or gross insubordination at least. Jailed, at the minimum. Shot, at the worst. My father and I had our disagreements, but I wouldnt have wished that upon him. Its just as well, she said again, and she stared into the fire.

Hale spent a few seconds trying to assemble a response. At last he said, Did you get to see him, before he died? I know you were one of the last to leave Seattleand I know you came here. Did you see him, one last time?

I saw him. She nodded. He was lying alone in that back room, on his bed, under a sheet that was soaked with the vomit that finally choked him to death. The doctor wasnt here, and as far as I know, he never did come. I dont know if you could even find one, in those days, in the middle of the evacuation.

So, he was alone? Dead, in this house?

He was alone, she confirmed. The front door was broken, but closed. Someone had left him on the bed, laid out with respect, I do remember that. Someone had covered him with a sheet, and left his rifle on the bed beside him with his badge. But he was dead, and he stayed dead. The Blight didnt start him walking again, so thank God for small things, I suppose.

Hale jotted it all down, mumbling encouraging sounds as his pencil skipped across the paper. Do you think the prisoners did that?

You do, she said. It wasnt quite an accusation.

I suspect as much, he replied, but he was giddily certain of it. The prison-boys brother had told him theyd left Maynards place clean, and they didnt take a thing. Hed said theyd laid him out on the bed, his face covered up. These were details that no one else had ever mentioned, not in all the speculation or investigation into the Great Blight Jailbreak. And there had been plenty of it over the years. And then he tried to prompt her.

I dragged him out back and buried him under the tree, beside his old dog. A couple days later, two city officers came out and dug him back up again.

To make sure?

She grunted. To make sure he hadnt skipped town and gone back east; to make sure the Blight hadnt started him moving again; to make sure Id put him where I said I did. Take your pick.

He finished chasing her words with his pencil and raised his eyes. What you just said, about the Blight. Did they know, so soon, about what it could do?

They knew. They figured it out real quick. Not all the Blight-dead started moving, but the ones who did climbed up and went prowling pretty fast, within a few days. But mostly, people wanted to make sure Maynard hadnt gotten away with anything. And when they were satisfied that he was out of their reach, they dumped him back here. They didnt even bury him again. They just left him out there by the tree. I had to put him in the ground twice.

Hales pencil and his chin hung over the paper. Im sorry, did you saydo you mean ?

Dont look so shocked. She shifted in the chair and the leather tugged squeakily at her skin. At least they didnt fill in the hole, the first time. The second time was a lot faster. Let me ask you a question, Mr. Quarter.

Hale, please.

Hale, as you like. Tell me, how old were you when the Blight came calling?

His pencil was shuddering, so he placed it flat against the notebook and answered her. I was almost six.

Thats about what I figured. So you were a little thing, then. You dont even remember it, do youwhat it was like before the wall?

He turned his head back and forth; no, he didnt. Not really. But I remember the wall, when it first went up. I remember watching it rise, foot by foot, around the contaminated blocks. All two hundred feet of it, all the way around the evacuated neighborhoods.

I remember it, too. I watched it from here. You could see it from that back window, by the kitchen. She waved her hand toward the stove, and a small rectangular portal behind it. All day and all night for seven months, two weeks, and three days they worked to build that wall.

Thats very precise. Do you always keep count of such things?

No, she said. But its easy to remember. They finished construction on the day my son was born. I used to wonder if he didnt miss it, all the noise from the workers. It was all he ever heard, while I was carrying himthe swinging of the hammers, the pounding of the masons chisels. As soon as the poor child arrived, the world fell silent.

Something occurred to her, and she sat up straight. The chair hissed.

She glanced at the door. Speaking of the boy, its getting late. Wheres he gotten off to, I wonder? Hes usually home by now. She corrected herself. Hes often home by now, and its damnably cold out there.

Hale settled against the stiff wood back of his borrowed seat. Its a shame he never got to meet his grandfather. Im sure Maynard wouldve been proud.

Briar leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. She put her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes. I dont know, she said. She straightened herself and wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. She peeled off her gloves and dropped them onto the squat, round table between the chair and the fireplace.

You dont know? But there arent any other grandchildren, are there? He had no other children, did he?

Not as far as I know, but I guess theres no telling. She leaned forward and began to unlace her boots. I hope youll excuse me, she said. Ive been wearing these since six oclock this morning.

No, no, dont mind me, he said, and kept his eyes on the fire. Im sorry. I know Im intruding.

You are intruding, but I let you in, so the fault is mine. One boot came free of her foot with a sucking pop. She went to work on the other one. And I dont know if Maynard wouldve cared much for Zeke, or vice versa. Theyre not the same kind.

Is Zeke Hale was tiptoeing toward dangerous ground, and he knew it, but he couldnt stop himself. Too much like his father, perhaps?

Briar didnt flinch, or frown. Again she kept that poker-flat stare firmly in place as she removed the other boot and set it down beside the first one. Its possible. Blood may tell, but hes still just a boy. Theres time yet for him to sort himself out. But as for you, Mr. Hale, Im afraid Im going to have to see you on your way. Its getting late, and dawn comes before long.

Hale sighed and nodded. Hed pushed too hard, and too far. He shouldve stayed on topic, on the dead fathernot the dead husband.

Im sorry, he told her as he rose and stuffed his notebook under his arm. He replaced his hat, pulled his coat tightly across his chest, and said, And I thank you for your time. I appreciate everything youve told me, and if my book is ever published, Ill make note of your help.

Sure, she said.

She closed Hale out, and into the night. He braced himself to face the windy winter evening, tugging his scarf tighter around his neck and adjusting his wool gloves.


Acknowledgments | Boneshaker | c



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