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Twenty-two

Briar held her breath while she stared.

Dr. Minnericht’s mask was as elaborate as Jeremiah Swakhammer’s; but it made him look less like a mechanical animal than a clockwork corpse, with a steel skull knitted together from tiny pipes and valves. The mask covered everything from the crown of his head to his collarbones. Its faceplate featured a flat pair of goggles that were tinted a deep shade of blue, but illuminated from within so it appeared that his pupils were alight.

No matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t see his face. He was neither short nor tall, fat nor thin. The whole of his frame was covered by a coat shaped like a duster, but made from dark maroon velour.

Whoever he was, he was staring right back at her. The sound of his breathing exhaled through the filtering tubes was a small musical of whistles and gasps.

“Dr. Minnericht?” Lucy said. “I thank you for making the time to see me. And this is a new friend. She came down off the Naamah Darling, and she helped me find my way to you, since my arm’s giving me hassle again.”

He said, “I’m sorry to hear about your arm,” but he didn’t take his eyes off Briar. His voice was altered like Swakhammer’s when he spoke. But the noise was less the sound of speaking through a tin can, and more the tune of a grandfather clock chiming underwater.

He came inside the warmly lit workshop, and Lucy chattered nervously as he shut the door behind himself. She said, “Her name’s Briar, and she’s looking for her boy. She was hoping maybe you’d seen him or heard about him, since you’ve got so many men out on the street.”

“Does she speak for herself?” he asked almost innocently.

“When she feels like it,” Briar answered, but offered nothing more.

The doctor did not quite relax, but he settled into a deliberately nonchalant posture within his oversized coat. He gestured at the table, inviting Lucy to come and sit on the bench beside it and set her arm down on the surface so he could see. He said, “Won’t you have a seat, Mrs. O’Gunning?”

Behind the door was a box that Briar had not yet seen. The doctor retrieved it and approached the place where Lucy had come to sit. Briar backed away from the pair of them, feeling her way along the cluttered walls until she came to a clear spot beside a window.

It was a horrible game—wondering if he knew, and wondering if he’d say anything. She was still very certain, wasn’t she? He wasn’t Leviticus Blue—she could swear as much, and she had sworn as much before, and she would swear as much again; but she could not deny that he moved with a certain controlled swagger that seemed almost familiar. And when he spoke, there might be a cadence that she’d heard someplace before.

Minnericht unfastened the box a buckle at a time, then opened it and added a set of articulated lenses to the faceplate on his mask. “Let me take a look at that,” he said, as if he intended to wholly ignore Briar. “What have you done to it this time?”

“Rotters,” Lucy said, and her voice was shaky.

“Rotters? That’s no surprise.”

Briar bit her tongue so she would not say, “Not for you, I don’t imagine—since you’re the man who sent them.”

Lucy mumbled, “We were leaving Maynard’s and Hank got sick. His mask wasn’t on him good, and he turned, and we ran into trouble. I had to bust my way to the Vaults with Miss Briar here.”

Within his mask he made a clucking noise that sounded like a parent’s gentle admonishment. “Lucy, Lucy. What about your crossbow? How many times do I have to remind you: This is a delicate piece of machinery, not a truncheon.”

“The crossbow… I didn’t have… there wasn’t really time. In the chaos of it all, you know. Things get lost.”

“You lost it?”

“Well, I’m sure it’s still down there somewhere. But when I got up topside, it wasn’t there anymore. I’ll find it later. I’m sure it’s still in one piece.” She cringed when he opened the top panel of her arm and began to poke through its interior with a long, thin screwdriver.

“You’ve let someone else work on this joint,” he said, and Briar could hear the frown she couldn’t see.

Lucy looked as if she’d like to go crawling away from him, but she held still and almost simpered, “It was an emergency. It wasn’t working at all, except to spasm and kick, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone so I let Huey take a crack at it.”

“Huey,” he repeated the name. “You mean Huojin. I’ve heard about him. He’s developing quite the reputation in your quarters, or so I hear.”

“He’s… talented.”

Without looking up from his work, he said, “I’m always interested in talent. You should bring him here. I think I’d like to meet him. But, oh dear—just look what he’s done. What is this tube made from, Lucy?”

“I… I don’t know.” Lucy clammed up, but Minnericht wasn’t finished with the subject.

He said, “Oh, I see what he was trying to do. Of course, he couldn’t have known what kind of heat the friction inside can generate, so he wouldn’t have known that this couldn’t work. Even so, I do want to meet him. I think that’d be a fair means of repayment, don’t you, Lucy?”

“I don’t know.” She sounded like she might be choking. “I don’t know if his grandfather will let him—”

“Then bring his grandfather too. The more the merrier, as they say.” But it didn’t sound merry at all to Briar, who wished that the compartment were bigger—if only so she could farther remove herself from the man’s presence.

“Miss Briar,” he said, suddenly directing his attention her way. “Could I impose upon you for a very small favor?”

She said, “Sure, ask.” Her throat was too dry to carry the message with any coolness.

He used his screwdriver to indicate a place. “Behind you, over there. If you turn around, you’ll see a box. Could you bring it to me, please? ”

The box was heavier than it looked, and she would’ve preferred to hit him over the head with it than hand it to him; but she lifted it off the table and carried it to his side. Beside him, there was a cleared space on the bench. She placed it there and backed away again.

He still did not look at her. He said, “You know, Miss Briar, I can’t bite you through this mask.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” she said.

“I’m forced to wonder what dear Lucy here has told you of me, to send you so far out of my reach. Won’t you have a seat?”

“Won’t you tell me if you’ve seen my son?”

His hand froze and the screwdriver hung midair, suspended in his grip. He dipped it again, gave it a twist, and reached for a fresh tube from the box. “I’m sorry. Were we talking about your son?”

“I believe he was mentioned.”

“Did I mention that I’d seen him?”

“No,” Briar admitted. “But you didn’t say you hadn’t. So pardon me if I get a little more direct.”

Minnericht closed the panel that exposed the insides of Lucy’s arm; she tested it, and her face registered the deepest sort of relief as it worked in all the ways she required. She singled out her fingers and pointed them as if she were counting, then bent her wrist forward, backward, and left to right.

The doctor slid sideways, pivoting on his hip to face Briar while remaining seated. “Did you ask the airmen? Captain Cly—he’s the fellow on the Naamah Darling, isn’t that right?—he sees and hears more than most men. Perhaps it’s that unnatural height of his.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Briar said, and she hated herself for being childishly rude. It wouldn’t serve her purposes, and it wouldn’t move him to help her, but there was an old pattern in play and she couldn’t find a different track. She was angry, and frightened on top of that, and in those conditions she regressed into someone she didn’t like. “I asked him, and I asked every other airman who’d give me five minutes of his time. No one’s seen hide nor hair of him, which isn’t so crazy given that he came in from the water runoff, not from the sky.”

A flicker of the gleaming, flickering blue lights behind the mask almost implied a lilted eyebrow. He said, “Then why didn’t you do likewise? Surely it would’ve made for a much less… traumatic entrance into our fine and Blighted city.”

“The earthquake the other night. It flattened the tunnel and I had to come another way. Believe me, dropping a thousand feet through a tube into a furnace wasn’t my idea of a fun time, either.”

“It’s not nearly a thousand feet,” he murmured. “It’s only a couple hundred. But that’s useful to know, about the runoff tunnel. I’ll need to get it repaired, and the sooner the better. I’m surprised that you’re the first to say something about it. I would’ve thought…”

Whatever he’d been prepared to say, he abandoned it and said instead, “I’ll make a point to have it fixed. But tell me, Miss Briar, how did you intend to leave the city? If you knew the tunnel had collapsed, what sort of exit did you plan for him?”

“Where’s my son?” she asked bluntly, again forcing that sharp change of subject.

His answer oozed with something too theatrical to be meaningful. “Whatever makes you think I know?”

“Because if you didn’t know, you would’ve said so by now. And if you know where he is, and you’re giving me this runaround, then you must want him for something—”

“Miss Briar,” he interrupted, with more volume than was strictly necessary. The force of his voice, laden with strange weights and brass bells, brought her to silence in a way that chilled her. She didn’t mean to obey him when he told her, “There’s no need for abruptness. We can talk about your son if you like, but I won’t be subject to your accusations or demands. You are now a guest in my home. So long as you act the part, you may expect to be treated accordingly.”

Lucy’s breaths were coming in quick, asthmatic squeezes that counted the time like a second hand on a pocket watch. She still hadn’t risen from her seat on the bench, and now she looked positively unable to. The barkeep’s skin was nearly green with fear, and Briar thought that she might vomit at any moment.

But she didn’t, not then. She held herself upright and dry, and she said, “Please, I think—Briar, I think—let’s all stay calm. There’s nothing to be short about. We’re guests; it’s like he said.”

“I heard him.”

“Then I’d ask you, for my sake, to accept his hospitality. He says you can talk, and he’ll let you talk. I’m only asking you—in a motherly way, if you don’t mind it—to mind your manners.”

It wasn’t motherly at all, the way she was suggesting restraint. It was the trembling attempt of a child trying to appease two bickering parents.

Briar swallowed whatever else she was going to say. It took her a moment; she was forcing down a great knot of things she wanted to shout. And then she said, with words she’d measured as neatly as buttonholes, “I’d appreciate the chance to speak with you, yes. Whether it’s here in your home, as a guest, or elsewhere, I have no preference. But I only came here for one thing—not to make friends, or to be a pleasant guest. I came here to find my boy, and until I do, you’ll have to forgive me if my attention lies somewhere other than my manners.”

The blue lights behind his mask—those flame-bright nubs that stood in place of his eyes—did not blink or waver. He said, “I understand, and my forgiveness surely follows.” And immediately afterward, a gentle pinging noise sounded from his chest.

For one irrational, delirious moment Briar thought it must be his heart, a carved or assembled thing without a soul or a drop of blood; but he reached into a pocket to remove a round gold watch, checked its face, and made a small grunt.

“Ladies, I see that it’s getting late. Please allow me to offer you quarters for the evening. It won’t be the Vaults, but you might find it suitable, regardless.”

“No!” Lucy said, too fast and too loud. “No, we couldn’t impose on you like that. We’ll just be heading on our way.”

Briar argued, “Lucy, I’m staying until he tells me what he knows about Zeke. And I’ll stay as a guest if that’s how he wants it. You don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” she added. She looked into Lucy’s eyes with what she hoped was a meaningful gaze, and she said softly, “I won’t take it personal if you want to see your own way home, now that you’re all fixed up.”

It wasn’t just fear Briar saw on Lucy’s face. Suspicion crept there too, and curiosity too strong to be extinguished even by terror. “I won’t leave you here alone,” she said. “And anyway, I don’t want to go back by myself.”

“But you could, if it came to that. I’m happy for your company,” Briar said, “but I wouldn’t ask you to stick around if you don’t want to.”

Minnericht rose from the stool and assumed his full height once again. Briar was closer to him now, and she couldn’t decide, or couldn’t remember, if his height: was the same as Levi’s—or if he was shaped the same way.

He said, “Actually, come to think of it, Lucy—I have a bit of an errand I’d like for you to run.”

“You already said you wanted me to bring Huey out here, and that would pay you for fixing the arm.” She did not sound even remotely charmed by the prospect.

“And I note you made me no such promise or agreement,” he said with some displeasure. “But that’s neither here nor there. You’ll bring him here, or you’ll wish you’d done so later. I thought you valued Maynard’s, Miss Lucy. I thought it was worth something to you. Worth preserving, if nothing else.”

“Don’t be a bastard,” she spit, her own manners forgotten in the face of his unveiled threats.

“I’ll be a bastard and worse, if it pleases me.”

Briar thought she could see some curtain being drawn aside; she could see one mask sliding slowly away, even as the one he wore seemed bolted onto his very skeleton. He said, “Tomorrow or the next day, you’ll bring me Huey so that we can discuss tinkering and other assorted things; and tonight, you will go out to my fort.”

“Decatur?” Lucy asked, as if the prospect honestly surprised her. Briar did not like his claim to the place.

“Yes, I want you to go there and deliver a message for me,” he declared. “We have more unexpected guests inside our walls than just your friend here, and I want to make sure they understand their place.”

“And what place is that?” Lucy asked.

My place.” He reached a gloved hand into an interior pocket of his vest and withdrew a sealed letter. “Take this to whatever captain you find there. I understand that someone is using my old lot to make repairs.”

Lucy was furious, but not stupid enough to put it on display. She said, “You could get anybody to carry a message for you. There’s no sense in sending me out into the streets, late at night, through crowds of hungry rotters just to get me out of the way. I’ll just leave, if that’s what you want, and if Briar says it’s all right with her.”

“Lucy.” He sighed as if she were truly tiring him with her protests. “You and I both know that you won’t set foot on any street this evening. If you haven’t figured out the fort block tunnels by now, then I’ve overestimated you for many years. Take the south fork at the third split, if you aren’t so certain. It’s marked in yellow. If you would rather not return all the way to your place in the Vaults, you may return here if you like—and we’ll have Richard set you up in the bronze wing.”

He presented the last sentence with a resounding vibe of dismissal. His hand was still holding the envelope with whatever instructions or requests for bribery it might contain.

Lucy glowered at his hand, and at his mask. She snatched the envelope and shot Briar a look that was too loaded to decipher.

Briar said, “Do it, if that’s how this works. I don’t mind, Lucy. I’ll be all right, and I’ll see you back at the Vaults in the morning.”

Minnericht did not agree with this claim, but he did not contradict it either, even though Lucy gave him time to do so.

“Good. If anything happens to her”—she indicated Briar—“we won’t be so easy to dismiss. You won’t be able to pretend we’re all friends here, not anymore.”

He replied, “I don’t care if we’re friends. And what makes you think anything untoward will happen to her? You won’t threaten me, not in my own home. Get out, if you’re going to make a nuisance of yourself.”

“Briar…” Lucy said. It was a plea and a warning.

Briar understood that the conversation was crowded with things she didn’t understand, and for which she had no context. She was missing something in the forced exchange, and whatever it was, it sounded dangerous. But she’d dug her own grave now, and she’d lie in it if she had to. She said, “It’s all right. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Lucy took a deep breath. The mechanisms in her clockwork arm gave a rattling patter as if they were straining. “I won’t leave you like this,” she said.

“Yes, you will,” Dr. Minnericht corrected her as he ushered her to the door and shoved her past its threshold.

She turned on her heel with rage in her eyes. “We’re not done here,” she said, but she left, letting the train door slam in her wake. From the other side, she shouted, “I’ll be back tonight!”

Dr. Minnericht said, “I wouldn’t recommend it,” but Lucy couldn’t hear him. Her retreating footsteps sounded like fury and humiliation.

Briar and Dr. Minnericht gave one another space, and the silence to think of a conversation safe enough to share. She said first, “About my son. I want you to tell me where he is, or how he is. I want to know if he’s alive.”

It was his turn to kick the subject ninety degrees without a transition. He said, “This isn’t the main body of the station, you know.”

“I realize that. We’re in a buried car, is all. I don’t know where you live down here, or what you do. I just want my boy.” She balled her hands into fists and unclenched them, using her hands to smooth her pockets instead. She wrapped one row of fingers around the strap of her satchel, as if feeling its weight and knowing what it held might give her some strength to stand her ground.

“Let me show you,” he said, but he didn’t clarify what he intended to share. He opened the train car door and held it for her like an ordinary gentleman.

She stepped outside and immediately twisted to face him, because she could not stand the thought of him walking behind her. Her mind was churning with reassurances and logic, and with all her heart she knew that this was not her husband, who was dead. But that didn’t change the way he walked, or the way he stood, or the way he watched her with polite scorn. She was dying to yank his helmet away and see his face, so that she could quiet the screamed warnings that distracted and harangued her. She was wishing with all her heart that he would say something—say anything—to either confirm or deny that he knew who she was and he intended to make use of that knowledge.

But no.

He led the way back into the corridor that ended in lights, and he guided her to another platform on pulleys. This platform was not like the rough-edged wood of the walkways outside; it was more carefully assembled, and designed with something like style.

Dr. Minnericht pulled a lever, and an ironwork gate slipped shut, closing them together inside a box as big as a closet. “Down one more level,” he explained. He reached for a handle overhead and tugged it.

A chain unspooled, and the lift began to drop, settling on the floor below only seconds later.

On the other side of the ironwork gate, which slid aside with a thunderous rattle, Briar found a place like a ballroom—all gleaming and gold, with floors as bright as mirrors and chandeliers that hung from the ceiling like crystalline puppets.

She found her breath, and said, “Lucy told me this place was nicer than the Vaults. She wasn’t kidding.”

“Lucy wouldn’t know about this level,” he said. “I’ve never taken her here. And this is not our destination—it’s only a place we’re passing through.”

Briar walked under the glittering lights and they seemed to turn as if to follow her—and they weren’t crystals, they were glass bulbs and tubes, laced together with wires and gears. She tried not to stare, but failed. “Where did those come from? They’re… they… they’re amazing.” She wanted badly to say that they reminded her of something else, but she couldn’t confess it.

As the light tinkled down in shattered rays, sweeping the floor with white patterns that said strange things to the shadows, Briar remembered a mobile Levi had made when they’d talked about a baby.

She hadn’t known about Zeke when the Boneshaker had ravaged the city. She hadn’t yet suspected, but they’d planned.

And he’d made a lighted fixture—so clever and so sparkling that although she was no infant herself, she’d been fascinated with the trinket. She’d hung it in a corner of the parlor, intending to use it as a lamp until they had a nursery to put it in, though the nursery never happened.

But these lights were much larger, big enough to fill a bed. They would never fit in a corner or over a crib. Still, she couldn’t deny that the design was similar enough to startle her.

Minnericht saw her looking and said, “The first one is there.” He nodded up at the center light, the biggest of the assortment. “It had been shipped to the station for use in the main terminal. You can see, it’s not like the rest. I found it on a car, boxed and covered in earth like everything else on the south quadrant of the city. The rest of them took some assembling.”

“I bet,” she said. It was too much, this familiarity. It was too strange, the way he rambled the same way about the things that pleased him.

“It’s an experiment, I admit. Those two over there are powered by kerosene, but it’s a bit of a mess and they smell more strongly than could be called pleasant. The two on the right are run by electricity, which I think might prove the better option. But it’s tricky, and it can be just as dangerous as fire.”

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, as much to break the spell of his mellow enthusiasm as from a desire to know.

“To a place where we can talk.”

“We can talk right here.”

He leaned his head in a mimed shrug and said, “True, but there’s nowhere to sit, and I’d prefer to be comfortable. Wouldn’t you prefer to be comfortable?”

“Yes,” she said, though she knew it wasn’t going to happen.

It did not matter that he’d shifted back into the civilized personality that had slipped when she’d confronted him. Briar knew what waited on the other side of his social warmth, and it was marked with a black hand. It smelled like death, and it moaned for the flesh of the living; and she was not swayed by any of it.

Finally they came to a carved wooden door that was too dark to be stained and too ornate to be merely a piece of salvage. Made from ebony that grew the color of coffee, the door was marked with scenes from a war, and with soldiers in costumes that might have been Greek or Roman.

It would have taken Briar time to decipher the decoration fully, and Minnericht did not give her any time.

He whisked her past the door and into a room with a carpet thicker than oatmeal, but about the same color. A desk made from some lighter wood than the door hulked in front of a fireplace that looked like nothing Briar had ever seen before. It was made of glass and brick, with clear pipes that bubbled with boiling water, burbling like a creek and warming the room without any smoke or ash.

A round, red settee with plush dimples sat in front of the desk, at an angle; and an overstuffed armchair lurked beside it. “Pick one,” Minnericht invited.

She picked the armchair.

It swallowed her with squeaky, slick leather and brass rivets.

He took a seat behind the desk, assuming authority as if it were his birthright. He folded his hands together and rested them on the top of the table.

Briar felt herself getting hot, starting with the spots behind her ears. She knew without looking that she was flushing, and that the dark pink was blossoming down her neck and across her breasts. She was glad for her coat and her high-collared shirt. At least he could only see the color in her cheeks, and he might assume that she was merely warm.

Behind the doctor, the bright tube fireplace hummed and gurgled, occasionally spitting small burps of steam.

He looked her in the eye and said, “It’s a ridiculous little game we’re playing here, isn’t it, Briar?”

The easiness with which he used her name made her teeth grind, but she refused to be drawn in. “It certainly is. I’ve asked you a simple question and you’re disinterested in helping me, even though I think you can.”

“That isn’t what I mean, and you know it. You know who I am, and you’re pretending you don’t, and I can’t imagine why.” He templed his fingers and let the structure fall, patting his hands against the desk surface in an impatient sort of patter. “You recognize me,” he insisted.

“I don’t.”

He tried a different approach. “Why would you hide him from me? Ezekiel must’ve been born… so shortly after the walls went up, or right around that time. I’ve not been much of a secret inside here. Even the child had heard that I survived; I find it difficult to believe that you did not.”

Had she mentioned Zeke’s name? She was almost certain she hadn’t, and so far as she knew Zeke had never implied that he thought his father might have survived. “I don’t know who you are.” She stuck to her story and kept her words as flat as if she’d let all the air out of them. “And my son knows that his father is dead. You know, it’s very improper for you to—”

“Improper? You’re no one to speak to me of improper behavior, woman. You left, when you ought to have stayed with your family; you fled when your duty was to linger.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said with more confidence. “If that’s the worst you’ve got to accuse me of, then you may as well confess your deception now.”

He feigned offense and leaned back in his chair. “My deception? You’re the one who came here acting as if perhaps it had been so long I might not know you. Lucy knows what’s going on too, I suppose. She must have, or else she would’ve used your full name to introduce you.

“She was being careful because she feared for my safety in your presence, and it seems she had good reason to.”

“Have I threatened you? Shown you anything apart from courtesy?”

“You still haven’t told me what you know of my son. I consider that the very height of rudeness, when you must be able to guess how much I’ve worried for him over these last few days. You’re tormenting me, and taunting me with the things you keep to yourself.”

He laughed at her, softly and with condescension. “Tormenting you? Good heavens, that’s quite a claim. Here, then. Ezekiel is safe and well. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Yes, but she had no way of knowing if it was true. It was almost too hard to hope through his screens, and lies, and deliberate misleading. “I want to see him,” she said without answering his question. “I won’t believe you until I do. And you might as well say it. Say what you’re implying so strongly, unless you don’t dare—and I think you shouldn’t. Half your power over these people comes from the mask, and the confusion. They fear you because they aren’t certain.”

“And you are?”

“Quite.”

He rose from his chair as if he couldn’t stand to sit there another moment. He vacated it with such force that it rolled out from under him and knocked against the desk. With his back turned and his gleaming mask facing the faux fireplace he said, “You’re a fool. The same fool you’ve always been.”

Briar kept her seat, and kept her grim tone intact. “Maybe. But I’ve survived this long in such a state, and maybe it’ll keep me a little longer. So say it, then. Tell me who you are, or who you’re pretending to be.”

His coat flourished when he whirled around to face her. Its hem scattered papers on the desk and caused the crystals on the desktop lamp to tinkle like wind chimes. “I am Leviticus Blue—your husband then and still, who you abandoned in this city sixteen years ago.”

She gave him a moment to revel in his announcement before saying very quietly, “I didn’t abandon Levi here. If you were really him, you’d know that.”

Inside the doctor’s mask something squeaked and whistled, though he gave no outer sign of feeling her rebuttal. “Perhaps you and I have different ideas of what abandonment means.”

She laughed then, because she couldn’t help herself. It wasn’t a big laugh or a loud laugh, but a laugh of pure disbelief. “You’re amazing. You’re not Levi, but whoever you are, you’re amazing. We both know who you’re not, and you know what? I don’t even care who you are. I don’t give a good goddamn what your real name is or where you came from; I just want my boy.”

“Too bad,” he said, and he made a swift yank on the desk’s top drawer. In far less time than it would’ve taken Briar to ready her Spencer, Dr. Minnericht was pointing a fat, shiny revolver at her forehead. He cocked it and held it steady. He said, “Because your boy is staying here with me, where he’s made himself quite comfortable over the last day or so… and I’m afraid you’ll be staying here too.”

Briar forced herself to relax, letting her body settle more deeply into the chair. She had one card left to play, and she was going to play it without giving him the satisfaction of seeing her scared. She said, “No he’s not, and no I’m not, and if you’ve got any sense, you’re not going to shoot me.”

“Is that what you think?”

“You’ve been building this up a long time, slowly feeding people clues that you might be Levi, and getting them so nervous about you that it’s made you powerful. Well, they’ve been arguing out there in Maynard’s, and in the Vaults, and in the furnace rooms—trying to get me to come out here and take a look at you because they want to know for sure, and they think I can tell them.”

He came around the side of the desk, bringing the gun up closer but still not firing it, and not telling her to stop talking. So she didn’t.

“You tried to convince me you were Levi, so that must be your goal—to make it official. It’s one hell of an identity to steal, but if you want it, I say you can have it.”

The gun jerked in his hand; he aimed it at the ceiling and angled his neck like a dog asking a question. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said, you can have it if you want it. You can be Levi—I don’t care. I’ll tell them that’s a fact if that’s what you want—and they’ll believe me. There’s no one else in the world who can confirm or deny your claim. If you kill me, they’ll figure I knew you were a liar and you felt the need to shut me up. But if you let me and Zeke go, then you can be whatever legend you want. I won’t muck it up for you.”

It might have only been her imagination, but Briar thought that the bright blue flecks took on a crafty look. He said, “That’s not a terrible idea.”

“It’s a damn fine idea. I’d only ask for one provision.”

He didn’t put the gun down. He didn’t aim it at her face again, either. He said, “What’s that?”

She sat forward in the chair, and it released her back and her satchel with a squeak. “Zeke has to know. I won’t let him think you’re his dad, but I’ll sell him on the story, and he’ll run with it. He’s the only one who needs to know the truth.”

Again the blue lights flashed. Minnericht didn’t argue. He said, “Let me think about it.”

And faster than Briar would’ve believed the man could move, he struck her across the head with the butt of the gun.

A searing bolt of pain sounded like a gong against her temple.

And everything everywhere went dark.


Twenty-one | Boneshaker | Twenty-three



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