Down through the old hotel next door to the bakery, Zeke followed Rudy and his one dim candle. Once they got to the basement they took another tunnel lined with pipes and brickwork. They were going lower—Zeke could feel the grade declining by feet at a time. The descent seemed to take hours. He finally felt compelled to ask, “I thought we were going up the hill?”
“We’ll get there,” Rudy told him. “It’s like I said, sometimes you’ve got to go down in order to go up.”
“But I thought it was mostly houses where they lived. My mother said it was just a neighborhood, and she told me about some of their neighbors. We keep going underneath all these big places—these hotels and things.”
“That wasn’t a hotel we just went through,” Rudy said. “It was a church.”
“It’s hard to tell from the underside of it,” Zeke complained. “When do we get to take off these masks, anyway? I thought there was supposed to be clean air down here someplace. That’s what my buddy Rector told me.”
Rudy said, “Hush. Did you hear that?”
They stood together, perfectly still, under the street and between a tunnel’s worth of walls that were wet with mold and muck. Above, a skylight of glass tiles allowed enough light to see down into the corridor, and Zeke was astonished to conclude that it must already be morning. These skylights dotted the underground chambers, but between them there were places where the darkness overcame everything, creating nooks where the tunnels were as black as ink. Rudy and Zeke stepped between these patches of darkness as if the shadows made safe places, where no one could see them and nothing could touch them.
Here and there, a drip of water would ping and splash its way to the earth. Up above, there was sometimes a rattle of something moving far away, out of reach. But Zeke heard nothing closer.
“What am I listening for?” he asked.
Rudy’s eyes narrowed behind his visor. “For a second there, I thought someone was following us. We can take our masks off soon. We’re working our way—”
“Along the hill. Yeah. You said.”
“I was going to say,” Rudy growled, “that we’re working our way toward a part of town where there’s a little action. We’ve got to cut through it, and when we do, we’ll hit the sealed quarters. And then you can take off your mask.”
“So people still live there, at the hill?”
“Yes. Sure they do. Yes,” he said again, but his voice died away and he was listening again for something else.
“What’s wrong? Are there rotters?” Zeke asked, and started fumbling for his bag.
Rudy shook his head and said, “I don’t think so. But something’s wrong.”
“Someone’s following us?”
“Hush up,” he said fiercely. “Something’s wrong.”
Zeke saw it first, the deliberate outline that flowed away from the nearest shadowed patch where nothing could see and nothing could touch them. It did not move so much as it formed, from a vague shape approximately his own size into something with edges—something with clothes, and the white-sharp glint of a button catching the light from the next skylight over.
It came into focus from the shoes up; he detected the curve of boots and the crumpled wrinkles of slouched pants and flexed knees straightening as if to stand. The cuffs of a jacket, the seams of a shirt, and finally a profile that was as jarring as it was distinct.
Zeke’s breath caught in his throat, and it was warning enough for Rudy to swivel on his one good heel.
The boy thought it was strange, the way his guide lifted the cane again like it was a weapon; but then he pointed it at the shape against the wall and squeezed some mechanism in its handle. The resulting explosion was every bit as loud, violent, and damaging as any gunshot Zeke had ever heard—which was admittedly not too many.
The shattering clatter of sound and lead rocked the corridor, and the profile ducked away. “Goddammit! Fired too fast!” he swore.
Rudy flipped a lever on his cane with his thumb and pumped it, then aimed again, searching the darkness for the intruder, who had not fallen. Zeke did his best to hide behind the other man as he aimed this way, and that way, and forward, and to each side.
Zeke was breathless and half-deafened by the firearm’s concussion. “I saw it!” he squealed. “It was right there! Was that a rotter?”
“No, and hush your mouth! Rollers don’t—” he was cut off by a whistling clink and the sound of something sharply metal carving a sudden, forceful slot into mushy bricks. Then he saw it, beside Rudy’s head. A smallish blade with a leather-wrapped handle had landed very close—so close that, given a second or two to ooze, Rudy’s ear began to slowly bleed.
“Angeline, that’s you, ain’t it?” he barked. And then he said lower, “And now I see you better, and if you move, I’ll ventilate your insides, I swear to God. Come on out, now. You come out here where I can see you.”
“What kind of fool do you take me for?” The speaker had a strange voice and a strange accent. Zeke couldn’t place either one.
Rudy said, “The kind of fool who’d like to live another hour. And don’t you get all uppity with me, Princess. You shouldn’t have worn your brother’s buttons if you planned to fight in the dark. I can see the light shining on them,” he told her. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the jacket shimmered and dropped to the ground.
“Son of a bitch!” Rudy shrieked and swayed with his cane. He grabbed Zeke and yanked him backward, into the next black patch where no downward dripping sunlight drizzled.
They hunkered there together and listened for footsteps or motion, but heard nothing until the other unseen speaker said, “Where are you taking that boy, Rudy? What are you going to do with him?”
Zeke thought she sounded as if she were hoarse, or as if her throat had been somehow wounded. Her voice was gummy and harsh, like her tonsils were coated in tar.
“That’s no concern of yours, Princess,” he said.
Zeke tried not to ask, but he couldn’t stop himself from wondering aloud, “Princess?”
“Boy?” said the woman. “Boy, if you’ve got a lick of sense you’ll let that old deserter be. He’ll take you no place good and no place safe.”
“He’s taking me home!” Zeke insisted to the dark.
“He’s taking you to your death, or worse. He’s taking you to his boss, hoping to trade you for favors. And unless you live down under the old train station that never was, then you’re not going home no time soon, no how.”
“Angeline, you say another word and I’m going to shoot!” Rudy declared.
“Do it,” she dared. “We both know that old stick won’t hold more than two rounds at once. So take another shot. I’ve got blades enough to turn you into a colander, but I won’t need that many to slow you down permanent.”
“I’m talking to a princess?” Zeke asked again.
Rudy cuffed him across the mouth with something firm and bony wrapped in fabric—Zeke figured it was an elbow, but he couldn’t see and he had to assume. His mouth began to seep blood between his teeth. He clutched his face and mumbled every bad word he knew.
“Walk away, Angeline. This ain’t no concern of yours.”
“I know where you’re going, and that boy doesn’t. That makes it my concern. You sell your own soul if that’s what you’ve got in mind, but you don’t drag nobody else down with you. I won’t have it. I especially won’t have you leading that boy down into no-man’s-land.”
“That boy?” Zeke said through his fingers. “I’ve got a name, lady.”
“I know. It’s Ezekiel Blue, though your momma calls you Wilkes. I heard you telling him, up on the roof.”
Rudy all but shouted, “I’m looking out for him!”
“You’re taking him to—”
“I’m taking him someplace safe! I’m just doing what he asked!”
Another knife hissed through the darkness, from shadow to shadow, and it landed close enough to Rudy that he yelped. Zeke didn’t hear it connect with the wall behind them. A second knife followed close behind, but it smashed against the bricks. Before a third could join it, Rudy fired, but aimed up instead of out by accident or surprise.
The nearest support beam splintered, crumbled, and fell… and the earth and brick wall came tumbling down behind it.
The cave-in spread for yards in each direction, but Rudy was already on his feet and using his cane to drag himself forward. Zeke clung to the man’s coat and followed blindly toward the next light up ahead—the next patch where the lavender glass let the sky glow underground.
They scrambled and scuttled forward, and the ceiling sank behind them, putting half an acre of dirt and stone between them and the woman who’d hollered from inside the darkness as black as a grave.
“But we just came this way!” Zeke protested as Rudy hauled him onward.
“Well, now we can’t go the other way, so we’ll backtrack and drop back down. It’s fine. Just come on.”
“Who was that?” he asked breathlessly. “Was she really a princess?” Then, with a note of honest confusion he augmented the question. “Was she really a ‘she’? She sounded like a man. Kind of.”
“She’s old,” Rudy told him, slowing his pace as he checked over his shoulder and saw only the blockage behind them. “She’s old as the hills, mean as a badger, and ugly as homemade sin.”
He paused beneath the next patch of purple sky and examined himself, and it was then that Zeke saw all the blood. “Did she get you?” he asked. It was a stupid question and he knew it.
“Yes, she got me.”
“Where’s the knife?” Zeke wanted to know. He stared at the gruesome slit cut into the shoulder of Rudy’s coat.
“I pulled it out, back there.” He reached into his pocket and removed the weapon. It was sharp, and flush with gore. “No sense in throwing it away. I figure if she tosses it at me, and I catch it, it’s mine to keep.”
Zeke agreed. “Sure. Are you all right? And where are we going now?”
“I’ll live. We’re taking that tunnel over there.” Rudy pointed. “We came out that one, on our way. The princess has screwed up our course, but we’ll do all right going this way. I just wanted to avoid the Chinamen if I could help it, that’s all.”
The boy had so many questions, he couldn’t decide which one to queue up first. He started with his original one, “Who was that lady? Was she really a princess?”
Rudy grudgingly answered, “She’s no lady; she’s a woman. And I guess she’s a princess, if you think the natives have any claim to royalty.”
“She’s an Indian princess?”
“She’s an Indian princess same as I’m a well-respected, highly decorated lieutenant. Which is to say, she could make a case for it… but at the end of the day, sheain’t.” He poked at his shoulder and grimaced—with anger more than pain, Zeke thought.
“You’re a lieutenant? For what army?” he asked.
At the next interlude of light, Zeke stared hard at Rudy’s clothes and again noted the dark blue fossils of a uniform. “Union, I guess. What with the blue and all. And you don’t sound like no Southern man I’ve ever heard, anyway.”
“Well, there you go,” he said idly.
“But you don’t fight with them no more?”
“No, I don’t. I think they took plenty out of my hide before spitting me out. How do you think I got the limp? Why do you think I walk with the cane?”
Zeke shrugged and said, “Because you don’t want to look like you’re armed, but you want to be able to shoot people anyway?”
“Very funny,” he said, and he actually sounded like he might be smiling. After a pause that implied he’d given Zeke all the reaction he was planning, he continued. “I took some cannon shrapnel to my backside at Manassas. Tore up my hip but good. They let me go, and I never looked back.”
But Zeke was remembering what Angeline had called him, and he pressed the subject. “Then why did that lady call you a deserter? Did you really desert?”
“That woman is a lying whore and a killer, too. She’s as crazy as can be, and she has some weird feud going on with a man I sometimes work for. She wants to kill him, but she can’t, and it makes her mad. So she takes it out on the rest of us.” He reached into a nook on the wall and pulled out a candle, then struck a match and explained, “No skylights down this one, not for a bit. We don’t need much light, but we’ll need a little.”
“What was it like?” Zeke asked, changing the subject as much as he was willing to. “Fighting in the war, I mean?”
He grumbled, “It was war, you dumb kid. Everybody I liked got killed, and most of the folks I’d just as soon have shot made it out with medals on their chests. It wasn’t fair and it sure as hell wasn’t any fun. And Jesus knows it’s been going on way too long.”
“Everybody says it can’t last much longer.” Zeke parroted something he’d heard someplace else. “England is talking about pulling its troops out of the South. They might’ve broke the blockade a long time ago, but—”
“But it’s coming back, a little bit at a time,” Rudy agreed. “The North is choking them slow, and it’s harder on everybody this way. I’ve got a lot of wishes about it, but you know what they say. ‘If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.’”
Zeke looked confused. “I’ve never heard that before in my life, and I’m not sure I even know what it means.”
“It means that you could spit in one hand and wish in the other, and we all know which hand’ll fill up quicker.”
He took the candle and held it high, almost high enough to char the wood-beam ceiling above them. All around them the world was wet and bleak. Above them, feet were randomly running here and there, or nowhere in particular. Zeke wondered about the feet, and if they belonged to rotters or to other people, but Rudy didn’t seem to know—or if he did, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Instead he continued talking about the war. He said, “What I’m saying is, if that general of theirs, that Jackson fellow, had died at Chancellorsville like they thought he was going to—then that would’ve taken a few years off this thing, and the South would’ve gone down to its knees that much sooner. But he recovered after all, and he’s kept them in the game on that front. That bastard might be blind in one eye, missing an arm, and too scarred-up to recognize on the street, but he’s a mean tactical man. I’ll give credit where it’s due.”
He took another turn, this one to the left, and up. A short stack of steps led into another, more finished tunnel—one with skylights, which prompted him to blow out his candle and stash it against the wall. He continued, “And then, of course, if we’d managed to pull that first cross-country railroad up to Tacoma instead of letting it take the southern route, they wouldn’t have had such a good transportation system, and that would’ve knocked another few years off the time they could hold on.”
The boy nodded and said, “All right, I get it.”
“Good, because what I’m trying to tell you is, there are reasons the war has lasted as long as it has, and most of those reasons have got nothing to do with how hard the South’s been fighting. It’s been chance, and circumstance. The fact is, the North has a whole lot more people to throw at the fighting, and that’s all there is to it. One day, and maybe one day soon, we’ll see an end to it.”
After a pause, Zeke said, “I hope so.”
“My mother wants to go east. She thinks it’ll be easier for us, once the war’s over. Easier for us there than here, anyway.” He kicked at a stray crumb of brick and shifted his shoulders underneath his bag. “Living out here is… I don’t know. It ain’t good. It can’t be too much worse than someplace else.”
Rudy didn’t answer right away. But then he said, “I can see why it might be hard for you, and for her, sure. And I’ve got to wonder how come she didn’t take you away when you were smaller. Now you’re nearly a man, and you’ll be able to leave on your own if it comes to that. I’m almost surprised you haven’t taken off to try your hand at soldiering.”
Zeke shuffled his feet, and then picked up a steadier pace as Rudy sped up to climb an uncomfortable grade. “I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “But… but I don’t know how to get back east, and even if I did manage to catch a dirigible or get on board a supply train, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself once I got there. And besides…”
“Besides?” Rudy glanced back at him.
“Besides, I wouldn’t do that to her. She’s sometimes… she’s sometimes a little mad and sometimes she’s real closemouthed, but she does the best she can. She’s tried real hard to do right by me, and she works real hard to keep us both fed. That’s why I got to hurry this up. I’ve got to find what I came for and get the hell out of here.”
Up ahead, Zeke thought he could hear the chattering patter of conversation—but it was too far away to make any sense to him. “What’s that?” he asked. “Who’s talking? Should we be quiet now?”
“We should always be quiet,” Rudy said. “But, yeah. Those are Chinamen. We’ll avoid them if we can.”
“And if we can’t?”
Rudy’s only answer was to start reloading as he limped along. Once he’d locked his weapon into position, he switched back to using it as a cane. He said, “You hear that, up there? That whooshing noise, like a big gust of wind coming and going?”
“I sure do.”
“Those are the furnace rooms and the bellows. The Chinamen work them; they’re the ones who keep the air down here good and clean, as far as it ever gets good and clean. They pump it down here from up top, by these big ol’ tubes they made. It’s loud, hot, and dirty, but they keep it up anyway, Christ knows why.”
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.”