Lucy’s smile faded into a tight line that had a question to ask. “Let me ask you something, if that’s all right.”
Briar said, “By all means.” She worked her sore hand under dusty covers. They smelled clean, but old—as if they were kept in a cupboard and rarely used. “If I get to ask one next.”
“Absolutely.” Lucy waited for a piercing fuss of steam from the pipes to quiet itself, and then she lined up her words with care. “I don’t know if Jeremiah’s said anything to you about it or not, but there’s a certain man down here. We call him Dr. Minnericht, but I don’t rightly know if that’s his given name or not. He’s the man who made me this arm.”
“Mr. Swakhammer might’ve mentioned him.”
She wormed herself more deeply into her own blanket and said, “Good, good. He’s a scientist, this doctor. An inventor who turned up down here not long after the wall went up. We don’t know where he came from, exactly, and we don’t know what’s wrong with him. He always wears a mask, even in the clean air here underneath, so we don’t know what he looks like. Anyway, he’s real smart. He’s real good with mechanical things like this.” She jiggled her shoulder again.
“And the tracks, and the Daisy.”
“Yes, those things too. He’s quite a fellow. He can make something out of nothing, like nobody I ever heard of before.” She added one more word, a word that strongly pointed at a question Briar had no intention of answering. “Almost.”
Briar turned over on her side and leaned on her elbow. “Where are you going with this, Lucy?”
“Oh come on, now. You’re not dumb. Don’t you wonder?”
“Not even a little bit? It’s a hell of a coincidence, isn’t it? There’s a lot of talk down here that it might be—”
Briar said flatly, “It’s not. I can promise you that.”
And Lucy’s eyes lowered, not with fatigue but with cunning that gave Briar a pang of paranoia. The barkeep said, “That’s a big promise, coming from a woman who’s never even seen our terrible old doctor.”
She almost snapped, “I don’t need to see him.” But instead she said slowly, measuring every word against Lucy’s eager eyes, “I don’t know who this Dr. Minnericht is, but he can’t be Leviticus. For all Levi was a wicked old fool, he was a wicked old fool who would’ve come for me if he’d been alive all this time. Or, if not for me, he’d come back for Zeke.”
“He loved you that much?”
“Love? No. Not love, I don’t think. Possessiveness, maybe. I’m just one more thing that belongs to him, on paper. Zeke is one more thing that belongs to him, in blood. No.” She shook her head. She uncrooked her elbow and lowered herself against the mattress, smushing the feather pillow and flattening it with her cheek. “He’d never let it stand. He would’ve come for us whether we wanted him to or not.”
Lucy digested this, but Briar couldn’t read the conclusion from the other woman’s face. “I suppose you knew him better than anybody. ”
Briar agreed. “I suppose I did. But sometimes, I don’t think I ever knew him at all. It’s like that sometimes. People fool you. And I was a fool, so it was easy for him.”
“You were just a girl.”
“Same difference. Same result. But now it’s my turn. I get to ask a question.”
“Hit me,” Lucy said.
“All right. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“That’s fine. There’s nothing you can ask that’ll embarrass me.”
“Good. Because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wondering about your arms. How’d you lose them?”
Lucy’s smile came back. “I don’t mind. It’s not a secret, anyhow. I lost the right one during the running time—when all of us were leaving because if we didn’t go, we’d die, or worse.
“I was on the far side of the square, closer to the city dump than to the nice hill you lived on. Me and my husband, Charlie, we kept up a place where people used to come—mostly men. The old wharf rats and fishermen in their oiled coats, the prospectors with their tin pans banging together on their backs… They came for the food. I’m sorry, I should’ve said so first thing—it wasn’t a cathouse or anything. We had a little bar, smaller than Maynard’s and about half as nice.
“We called it the Spoiled Seal, and we did all right with it. We served mostly brew and spirits, and fish poached or fried in sandwiches. We kept the place, just the pair of us—me and Charlie—and it wasn’t perfect, but it was fine.”
She cleared her throat. “So sixteen years ago this big old machine came crashing down from the hill, burrowing under the city. You know that part. You know the things it broke, and you probably know better than anyone whether or not the Boneshaker brought the Blight. If anyone knows, you know.”
Briar said softly, “But I don’t know, Lucy. So I guess nobody does.”
“Minnericht thinks he does,” she said, temporarily shifting the subject. “He thinks the Blight has something to do with the mountain. He says that Rainier’s a volcano, and volcanoes make poison gas, and if they don’t spew it out, it stays underground. Unless something breaks through and lets it out.”
Briar thought it was as good a theory as any, and she said so. “I don’t know anything about volcanoes, but I guess I’d believe that.”
“Well, I don’t know. That’s just what Dr. Minnericht said. Maybe he’s a crackpot, but there’s no telling. He made me this arm, so I owe him something, for all he’s made things difficult, too.”
“But you and Charlie,” Briar prompted her. She didn’t want to hear any more about Minnericht, not quite yet. The very letters of his name made her queasy and she didn’t know why. She knew he wasn’t Leviticus, even though she couldn’t tell Lucy how she knew. But it only mattered so much; the man might as well have been Levi’s ghost, if people still believed in him.
Lucy said, “Oh yes. Well, the Blight ate its way through town and it was time to run. But I was at the market picking up supplies when the order went out, and the panic hit us good. And Charlie was out at the Seal. We’d been married ten years, and I didn’t want to leave him, but the officers made me. They picked me up and threw me out of town like I was a drunk taking up space on the sidewalk.
“They were already putting up walls, those treated linen ones with the wax and oil. Those didn’t work too great, but they worked better than nothing, and workers were hammering the frames together. As soon as I could, a couple of days after the biggest part of the panic, I put on a mask and ran right on past them—back down to the Seal and to Charlie.
“But when I got there, I couldn’t find him. The place was empty and the windows were broken out. People had thrown things inside and were stealing. I couldn’t believe it—stealing at a time like that!
“So I came inside and called his name over and over, and he answered from the back. I climbed around the counter and stormed into the kitchen, and there he was, all bit up and covered with blood. Most of the blood wasn’t his. He’d shot three of the rotters who’d tried to bring him down—you know how they do, like wolves on a deer—and he was alone with their bodies, but he was so bit up. He was missing an ear and part of his foot, and his throat was half tore out.”
She sighed and cleared her throat again. “He was dying, and he was turning, too. I didn’t know which one he was going to do first. We didn’t understand back then, so I didn’t know that I shouldn’t get down close to him. His head was nodding all loose-like, and his eyes were drying up, going that yellow-gray color.
“I tried to pull him up, thinking maybe I’d rush him over to the hospital. It was a stupid thing to think. They’d closed everything up by then, and there wasn’t anywhere to go for help. But I got him up onto his feet. He wasn’t a big man, and I’m no tiny woman myself.
“Then he started fighting me; I don’t know why. I like to think that he knew it was the end, and he was trying to help keep me safe by pushing me away. But I fought his fighting me. I was as determined as hell to take him away and get him safe. He was equally determined to stay.
“We fell together, landing against the counter, and when I got him back up again, he was gone. He’d started moaning and drooling—with all those bites on him, the poison had worked its way inside him.
“That’s when it happened. That’s when he bit me.
“He only got my thumb, and he barely broke the skin, but it was enough. I knew he was gone then, even more than when his eyes had gone nasty and his breath had turned stale like a dead animal on the street. Charlie would’ve never hurt me.” She cleared her throat again, but she wasn’t crying. Her eyes stayed dry, glittering in the candlelight.
The pipes whistled again, and she used it as an excuse to pause. She continued with, “I should’ve killed him. I owed him that kindness. But I was too afraid, and I’ve hated myself for it ever since. Anyway, it’s all done now, or left undone, and there’s no fixing it. Point is, I ran out to the Outskirts and found a church where they let me lie down and cry.”
“But the bite.”
“But the bite,” Lucy said. “Yes, the bite. The bite took to rotting, and the rot took to spreading. Three of the nuns held me down and a priest did the first amputation.”
Briar cringed. “The first?”
“Oh, yes. The first one didn’t take enough. They only took my hand, right at the wrist. The second time they came back with the saw and they took it above the elbow, and then the third time I lost it all the way up to the shoulder. That did the trick, at least. I nearly died from it, each time. Each time the wound was red and hot for weeks, and I wished the sickness would just take me, or someone would just shoot me—since I was too weak and hurt to shoot myself.”
She hesitated, or perhaps she was only tired.
But Briar asked, “Then what happened?”
“Then I got better. It took a long time, about a year and a half before I felt like myself again. And then, I could only think of one thing: I needed to go back and take care of Charlie. Even if that meant putting a bullet through his eye, he deserved better.”
“But by then we had a wall.”
“That’s right. There’s more than one way inside, though, as you learned yourself. I came up through the runoff tunnel, same as your boy did. And I wound up staying.”
“But…” Briar shook her head. “What about the other hand? And what about the replacement?”
“The other hand? Oh.” She shifted again in bed, and the feathers in the mattress rustled together with the blanket. A great yawn split her face, and she used the tail end of it to blow out the candle beside her bed. “The other hand I lost about two years later, down here. One of the newer furnaces exploded; it killed three of the Chinamen who worked it, and blinded another one. My hand got caught by a scrap of white-hot metal, and that was the end of that.”
“God,” Briar said. She leaned forward and blew out her own candle, too. “That’s terrible, Lucy. I’m so sorry.”
Lucy said into the dark, “Not your fault. Not anybody’s fault, except my own for being down here after all that time. And by then we had our wicked old doctor, and he fixed me up.”
Briar heard a settling swish of legs turning over underneath flannel.
Lucy sealed off another yawn with a high, satisfied note like the warning whistle of a teakettle. “It took him a while, figuring out how he was going to do it. He made up all these plans and drew all these pictures. It was a game to him, putting me back together. And when he had it all made, and all ready to wear, he showed it to me and I like to have died. It looked so heavy and weird, I thought I’d never be able to carry it, much less wear it.
“He didn’t tell me, either, how he planned to make it work. He offered me a drink and I took it. I went out like a light, and I woke myself up screaming. The doctor and one of his fellows was holding me down tight—they’d strapped me onto a board like for surgery, and they were drilling a hole in my bone with a wood bore.”
“It was worse than the other times, and worse than losing the arms in the first place. But now, well.” She must have rolled, or tried to move the arm again. It jangled beneath the blanket, clattering against her chest. “Now I’m glad to have it. Even though it cost me.”
Briar heard a hint of something bad in the last thing Lucy said before she finally went to sleep, but it was late and she was too exhausted to ask about it. She’d spent almost her entire time in the walls running, climbing, or hiding—and she hadn’t yet found any sign of Zeke, who for all she knew might be dead already.
As Briar tried to calm her mind, her stomach grumbled and she realized that she hadn’t eaten anything in longer than she could remember. Even thinking about the lowest of possibilities nearly sent her belly crawling out on its own in search of food. But she had no idea where she would go, so she clutched it hard, curled up into a ball, and resolved to ask about breakfast in the morning.
Briar Wilkes wasn’t much of a praying woman, and she wasn’t sure she believed too hard in the God she swore by on occasion. But as she closed her eyes and tuned her mind away from the intermittent squealing of the heating pipes, she begged the heavens for help, and for her son…
… who, for all she knew, might be dead already.
And then she was awake.
It happened so fast that she thought she must be crazy and she hadn’t slept at all, but no—something was different. She listened hard and heard no sign of Lucy in the other bed, and there was a crack of dusty orange light leaking under the door. “Lucy?” she whispered.
No answer bounced back from the other mattress, so she fumbled around with her hands until she settled on the candle and a stray scattering of matches.
Once lit, the candle revealed that yes, she was alone after all. A half-moon dent in the featherbed showed the shape where Lucy no longer lay, and the pipes were silent, though when Briar leaned the back of her hand against them they were warm to the touch. The room was comfortable but empty, and her lone candle didn’t do enough to shove the darkness aside.
Beside the basin there was a lantern with a hurricane glass. She lit the lantern and added its light to the candle flame, which she abandoned to the table by the bed. There was water in the basin. The sight of it made her so spontaneously thirsty that she almost drank it, but she stopped herself and remembered that there were barrels of fresher stuff down the corridor.
She splashed a little on her face, pulled her shoes back on, and relaced her waist cinch. Down in the underground, she liked wearing it; it felt like armor, or a buttress that kept her upright when she was too tired or frightened to stand up straight.
The door was a lever latch, which answered her question about how Lucy might’ve left the room unaided. Briar leaned on it and it clicked open. Out in the hallway, small flames were mounted along the walls every few feet.
It was disorienting. Which way had she come from?
The left, she thought.
“All right, left,” she said to herself.
She couldn’t see the end of the tunnel, but after a few yards, she could hear it. The furnace wasn’t howling and the bellows weren’t pumping at full blast; they were cooling quietly, clicking and fizzing as the lava-hot fires inside mellowed during the cyclical downtime.
The barrels were beside the doors as promised, and a stack of wooden mugs were jumbled on a shelf above them.
God only knew when they’d last been washed, but Briar couldn’t make herself care. She grabbed the first, least dirty-looking one and picked the barrel lid away with her fingertips. Inside, the water looked black, but it was only dark from the shadows. It tasted no worse than the runoff they cooked at the processing plant, so she drank it down.
Her empty stomach gobbled at the liquid, and a little farther down in her bowels another gurgling told her to find the privy. At the other end of the hall she located a door and tried it. She emerged a few minutes later, feeling better than she had when she’d gone to sleep.
She also felt as if she were being watched, and she wasn’t sure why—until she realized she could hear voices nearby, and she’d misunderstood the sensation of barely being able to hear for that of being overheard. If she held very still she could recognize the voices. If she took a step to the right she could catch them more clearly.
“It’s a bad idea.” It was Lucy, sounding just short of openly confrontational.
“It might not be. We could ask her.”
“I’ve been talking to her. I don’t think she’ll go along with it.”
The other voice belonged to Swakhammer, without his mask. He repeated, “We could ask her. She’s not a kid, and she can answer for herself. It could be helpful; she could tell us for sure.”
“She thinks she already knows for sure, and she’s got other problems right now—speaking of kids,” Lucy said.
Briar slipped around the corner and pushed her back to the wall beside a door that had swung inward an inch.
“I think she talks like a woman who knows more than she’s saying, and if she does, then it’s no call of ours to drag it out of her,” Lucy said.
Swakhammer paused. “We don’t have to drag anything out of anybody. If she sees him, and he sees her, then everybody knows. He won’t be able to hide underneath some other crook’s mask; and the folks down here who are scared of him will have a reason to stand up.
“Or he could try and kill her, just for knowing the facts about him. And that means he’d kill me too, if I bring her to him.”
“Your arm needs fixing, Lucy.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, and I think I’m going to ask Huojin. He’s good with mechanical things, too. He’s the one who fixed up the furnaces after they went down last month, and he fixed Squiddy’s pocket watch for him, too. He’s a smart fellow. Maybe he can make it work all right.”
“You and those Chinamen. You keep making friends with them like that, and tongues will wag.”
“Tongues can wag all they want. We need those men, and you know it same as I do. We can’t keep half this equipment running without them, and that’s a fact.”
“Fact or no, they worry me. They’re just like those goddamned crows who hang out at the roofs—you can’t understand them, they talk amongst themselves, and they might be for you or against you, but you’d never know it until it’s too late.”
“You’re an idiot,” Lucy said. “Just ’cause you don’t understand them don’t mean they’re out to get you.”
“What about Yaozu?”
She made a snort. “You can’t call them all bastards just for one bad apple. If I did that, I’d never be civil to any man again. So get down off your high horse, Jeremiah. And leave Miss Wilkes alone about Minnericht. She don’t want to talk about him; so she sure as hell don’t want to talk to him.”
“See, that’s what I mean! She avoids the subject and she’s not stupid. She must wonder. If we asked her, she might be willing—”
Briar leaned her foot on the door and pushed it open. Swakhammer and Lucy froze as if they’d been caught at something naughty; they were facing one another on either side of a table with a bowl of dried figs and a stack of dried corn.
“You can ask me anything you want,” she said, though she made no promises about what she’d answer. “Maybe it’s time we put all our cards on the table. I want to talk about this doctor of yours down here, and I want Lucy to get her hand fixed, and I want one of those figs worse than I ever wanted a piece of pie on Christmas—but most of all, I want to go find my son. He’s been down here for… how long? A couple of days now, I suppose, and he’s alone and I don’t know—maybe dead already. But one way or another, I’m not leaving him down here. And I don’t think I can work this place on my own. I think I need your help, and I’m willing to give you mine in return.”
Swakhammer picked up a fat, soft fig from the top of the pile and tossed it to her. She caught it and chomped down on it, killing it off in a bite and a half, and sitting down beside Lucy, facing Swakhammer because she suspected he’d be easier to read.
Lucy was red, but not with anger. She was embarrassed to have been caught gossiping. “Darling, I didn’t mean to go behind your back and talk out of turn. But Jeremiah here has a bad idea and I didn’t want to show it to you.”
Briar said flatly, “He wants me to go with you and see Minnericht, to ask about your hand.”
“That’s the long and short of it, yes.”
Swakhammer leaned forward on his elbows, fiddling with an ear of corn and making the most earnest face he could manage. “You’ve got to understand: People will believe you if you set eyes on him, and if you say he’s not Blue—or he is. If Minnericht is Blue, then we have a right to hold him accountable for this place, and throw him out of it—give him to the authorities and let them handle him.”
“You can’t be serious.” Briar made it a statement.
“Of course I’m serious! Now, whether or not other people down here wouldn’t drag him into the street and feed him to the rotters… I’m not in a position to say. But I didn’t get the impression that you were real worried about anyone hurting him.”
“Not remotely.” She took another fig, and a swig out of the wooden mug she still toted. Swakhammer reached into a box behind his chair and pulled out a pouch of dried apples, which Briar pounced upon.
“Here’s the thing,” Swakhammer said while she chewed, again with his earnest face firmly established. “Minnericht… he’s… he’s a genius. A real bona fide genius, not the kind you read about in dreadfuls, you know? But he’s crazy, too. And he’s been down here, treating this place like it’s his own little kingdom, for the last ten or twelve years—ever since we figured out that we needed him.”
He didn’t like saying that part; Briar could see it in the way he balked around the word “needed.” He added, “At first, it was all right. Nothing was very organized, and this place was a real madhouse, since we didn’t have all the tricks nailed down yet.”
Lucy interrupted and agreed. “It was all right. He kept to himself and didn’t bother anybody, and he could be real helpful when he wanted to be. Some of the Chinamen treated him like he was some kind of magician. But,” she was quick to point out, “they didn’t treat him like that forever.”
“What changed?” Briar asked around a mouthful of apple. “And is there anything else to eat around here? I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m starving.”
“Hang on,” Swakhammer said, and he rose to a set of crates that must have functioned as cabinets. While he rummaged, Lucy continued.
“What changed was, people figured out that you could make good money off the Blight gas, if you turned it into lemon sap. And by ‘people’ I mean Doctor Minnericht himself. As I heard it, he was experimenting with it, trying to turn it into something that wasn’t so bad. Or maybe he wasn’t. Nobody knows but him.”
Swakhammer turned around with a tied-up sack. He pitched it to Briar, and it landed on the table in front of her. “What’s this?” she asked.
“Dried salmon,” he said. “What Lucy is leaving off is that Minnericht used to test it on his Chinese friends. I think he wanted them to treat it like opium. But he killed a bunch of them that way, and finally the rest of them turned on him.”
Lucy said, “Except for Yaozu. He’s Minnericht’s right-hand man, and he’s the business arm of the operation. He’s mean as a snake and—in his way—he’s smarter than Minnericht, I’d wager. The pair of them make an amazing amount of money together, running their little empire based on that nasty yellow drug, but God knows what they spend it on.”
“Down here?” Briar took a handful of salmon jerk and gnawed it. It made her even thirstier, and she was out of water, but she didn’t stop.
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “Money isn’t worth much down here. People only care about things you can trade for clean water and food. And there’s still lots of houses with good stuff left for salvage. We haven’t combed over every inch of the walled innards by a long shot. All I can figure is that he’s using the money to bring in more metal, more cogs, more parts. More whatever. He can’t manufacture the stuff out of thin air, and most of the metal that’s been found up topside isn’t any good anymore.”
Swakhammer answered. “Water and Blight rust it out crazy fast. You can slow it down if you oil up your metal parts good, and Minnericht has this glaze he uses—like a potter’s glaze, I guess—that keeps steel from going too brittle.”
Lucy said, “He stays out there, out on King Street—or that’s what he calls it, because he’s the king, or something. No one goes out there and looks too close, though some of the Chinamen keep homes out that way, on the edges of their old district.”
Swakhammer added, “But most of them moved for higher ground, once they got tired of being treated like rats. The point is this, Miss Wilkes: Dr. Minnericht controls almost everything that happens down here. Those airmen—Cly, Brawley, Grinstead, Winlock, Hainey, and the rest of them—they’re all subject to Minnericht. They pay him taxes, sort of, in order to take Blight out; and all the chemists who cook it in the Outskirts, they had to buy the knowledge off him.
“And the runners, and the dealers—they all owe him, too. He set them all up on consignment, saying they could pay him later out of their profits. But somehow, no one ever manages to pay him in full. He adds on interest, and fees, and tricks, and eventually everyone understands that they belong to him.”
Briar gazed down at Lucy’s lone, broken arm and said, “Even you.”
She fidgeted. “It’s been, what did I say? Thirteen, fourteen years now. And somehow, he’s never satisfied. Somehow, there’s always something else I owe him. Money, information, something like that.”
“What if you don’t give it to him?”
Her lips twisted together, hugging each other and finally parting. “He’d come and take it back.” She added fast, “And maybe you think that’s not excuse enough to let myself be owned by the old rascal, but you’ve got two good arms and I don’t have half of a good one without this machine.”
He hemmed and hawed, and said, “It’s hard to live down here without certain supplies. I nearly died more times than I could count before I got this gear. And before that, I lost a brother and a nephew. Down here, things run different. Down here, we… we do things that… if people up in the Outskirts knew about them, we’d get hauled up in front of a judge. And Minnericht uses that, too. He threatens to get us all thrown out and left to the mercy of whatever law is left.”
Lucy said pointedly, “And Maynard’s dead. So there’s no one in charge out there who we’d trust as far as we could throw a horse.”
Swakhammer came back around to his original idea. “But if you could tell us for sure it he’s Blue, then people would have a little leverage back against him. You understand?”
Briar tipped her mug upside down and let the last drops of water fall down into her mouth. She set it down hard. “Here’s a crazy question,” she said. “Has anyone tried asking him? I mean, couldn’t someone just walk right up to him and say, ‘Is Minnericht your real name, or might you be a certain Leviticus Blue?’ ”
“I’ll get you some more,” Swakhammer said. He reached for her mug and she handed it over.
He left the room and Lucy said, “Sure, people’ve tried it. He won’t confirm or deny anything. He’s happy to let the rumor grow and spread. He wants to keep us all under his thumb, and the less we know about him—and the more scared of him we are—the happier he stays.”
“He sounds like a real peach,” Briar said. “And I’m still sure he’s not Levi, but it sounds like they’re cut from the same cloth. I don’t mind going down there with you, Lucy. Maybe he won’t even know who I am. You said he didn’t come here until after the walls went up, so maybe he’s not local.”
Swakhammer returned bearing a full mug of water, and behind him came an older Chinese man with his hands folded politely behind his back. Swakhammer said, “Here’s your water, Miss Wilkes, and here’s a message, Miss Lucy. You talk to him. I can’t make heads or tails out of what he’s saying.”
Lucy rattled off an invitation to sit or talk, and the man spoke in a string of syllables that no one present but Lucy could follow. At the end of his spiel she thanked him and he left as quietly as he’d entered.
“Well?” Swakhammer said.
Lucy stood. “He said he just came back from the east tunnel and main blockade down at Maynard’s. He says there’s a mark left out there, a big black hand plain as day. And we all know what that means.”
Briar looked at them questioningly.
So Swakhammer told her, “It means the doctor is taking credit for his handiwork. He wants us to know that the rotters were a special gift from him.”