Zeke reluctantly followed Rudy’s orders; he shut his mouth and listened. Down below, somewhere on the street, he thought he heard something shuffle or scrape. But he saw nothing, and he wondered if Rudy was only trying to scare him. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Good. If you see them, it’s probably too late to get away from them.”
Rudy said, “Rotters. You ever seen one?”
“Yes,” Zeke lied. “I seen plenty.”
“Plenty? Where’ve you seen plenty, over there in the Outskirts? I doubt you’ve ever seen one or two together, and if you have, then I’m a liar and that’s fine. But in here, there’s more than one or two. We’ve got them in packs, like dogs. And by Minnericht’s best count, there are at least a few thousand of them—all crammed together inside this place with nowhere to go and nothing to eat.”
Zeke didn’t want to let Rudy see him shudder or worry, so he said, “Thousands, huh? That’s a lot. But who’s Minnericht, and how long did it take him to count them all?”
“Don’t get smart with me, you little bastard,” Rudy said, and he tipped the bottle toward his mouth again in that futile gesture that wanted a drink and couldn’t have it. “I’m just trying to be the good guy and lend you a hand. If you don’t want it, then you can jump off the building and play tag with the walking dead and see if I give a damn. Here’s a hint: I won’t.”
“I don’t care!” Zeke almost shouted again, and when Rudy jumped off the ledge Zeke jumped too, backward and almost back down the hole where the ladder had led him onto the roof.
Rudy shoved his heavy-looking cane up underneath Zeke’s chin and said, “Shut your mouth. I won’t ask you twice because I won’t have to. You make a stink and bring out the rotters, and I’ll push you into the street myself. Make trouble for yourself, if that’s what you’re going to do, but leave me out of it. I was just enjoying the peace and quiet when you came along, and if you wrench that up for me, I’ll have your head off for it.”
Without taking his eyes off Rudy, Zeke fumbled with his bag, trying to retrieve his gun. With a fast flip of his wrist, Rudy used his cane to pick the strap off Zeke’s shoulder and knock the whole bag to the floor.
“This isn’t the Outskirts, junior. You act like a fool out there, maybe someone takes a switch to you or pops you in the jaw. You make problems in here, and you’ll be rotter shit before dawn.”
“It’s a long way till dawn tomorrow,” Zeke gasped against the cane’s tip, which was still shoved against his neck.
“You know what I mean. Now are you going to keep it down, or is this going to get ugly?”
“It’s already ugly,” Zeke gasped again.
Rudy withdrew the cane and scowled about it. He dropped its tip back onto the floor and leaned against it, propping himself up on that one hand, balanced on the top of that cane. In his other hand he still held the bottle, even though it was all but empty.
“I don’t know why I even bothered,” he grumbled, and backed away. “Do you want to go see that house, or not?”
“Then if you want to live long enough to set eyes on it, you’re going to travel on my terms, do I make myself clear? You’re going to keep your voice down and your mouth shut unless I tell you it’s all right to talk, and you’re going to stay close. I’m not pretending, and I’m not trying to scare you when I say it’s dangerous down there—and I don’t think you’ll survive an hour by yourself. You can try it if you like and I won’t stop you. But you’ll be better off to stick with me. It’s up to you.“
Zeke picked up his bag and hugged it while he tried to decide. There were many things about the situation that he did not like.
First of all, he had little patience for being told what to do by anyone, much less a stranger who appeared to be inebriated and looking to become further inebriated at the nearest opportunity. Second, he had deep-seated doubts as to why this man who’d initially greeted him with threats of bodily harm might be moved to help. Zeke didn’t trust Rudy, and he didn’t believe much of what Rudy had told him.
And furthermore, he didn’t like him.
But when he looked out over the side of the roof and saw only the swirling, billowing air the color of soot and rotting citrus, and when he looked up at the taller buildings and saw the gold-glittering eyes of a hundred wary black birds watching back… he reconsidered his stance on going it alone.
“Those birds,” he said slowly. “Have they been there all this time?”
Rudy said, “Sure.” He tipped his bottle upside down and dumped the contents over the side of the building—then set the glassware aside. “They’re the gods of this place, insomuch as anything is.”
Zeke scanned the ledges, windows, and architectural lips where the blue-black feathers and glass-beaded eyes glistened against the watery light of the new day. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Rudy walked to the nearest small bridge and climbed up onto the ledge beside it. With a wave, he suggested that Zeke follow. He said, “They’re everywhere, and they see everything. Sometimes they’re helpful, and sometimes they attack you—and you never know which, or why. We don’t understand them, and we’re not sure we like them. But”—he shrugged—“there they are. You coming or not?”
“I’m coming,” Zeke said, though for a moment he made no move to follow.
Something was working against his feet, and he didn’t know what it was until the building beneath him started to quiver. “Rudy?” Zeke asked, as if this was something the other man was doing, and he ought to stop it.
The shaking went harder and faster, and Rudy said, “Earthquake. It’s an earthquake, kid—that’s all. Hang on.”
Zeke retreated from the hole in the roof and ducked down in the corner near where Rudy was crouching and holding onto the edge, waiting. Zeke waited too, clinging to himself and to the wall, praying that it didn’t get any worse and that the place he knelt would continue to stand.
“Just wait it out,” Rudy said. He didn’t sound perfectly confident, but he didn’t sound surprised, either. He braced his body against the bricks and even put out a hand to hold Zeke down.
Zeke didn’t think that it made him any safer, but he was glad to have Rudy there all the same. He took Rudy’s hand and used it to pull his way closer to the man and the wall. When the rumbling ruckus peaked, the boy closed his eyes, because he did not know what else to do.
“First quake?” Rudy said conversationally. He didn’t release his squeeze on Zeke’s hand and arm, though.
“First real one,” the boy said. His teeth knocked together when he tried to talk, so he crushed his mouth shut.
And it was over, as quickly as it had begun. That’s not to say that the knocking, breaking waves of motion stopped in a perfect moment; but they tapered sharply and then fizzled to a wobble, and then a faint shudder.
The whole thing had lasted perhaps two minutes.
Zeke’s legs felt like pudding. He tried to pull himself up, and using the wall and Rudy’s arm, he succeeded enough to stand. His knees nearly folded, but he locked them. He stood up straight and waited, knowing that the rushing noise and the jostling floors might return at any second.
The noise had dwindled, and where it was once a full-on roar he could now hear only the crackling of old bricks settling and the patter of loosened masonry hitting the pavement.
“That was…” Zeke said. “That was…”
“That was an earthquake, that’s all. Don’t make a mountain out of a shaky little molehill.”
“I’ve never been in one like that before.”
Rudy said, “And now you have. But that one wasn’t so bad. Maybe it just felt worse because you’re all high up. Anyway, we ought to get running. There’s always a chance that the shaker knocked the tunnels up, and we might have to improvise a path. We’ll see.”
He patted himself down, checking his cane and straightening his overcoat. Then he said, “You can leave the lantern here. In fact, I recommend that you do so. We’ve got lights scattered everywhere, and you’ll just lose that one or leave it someplace. Besides, we’re going to have to hit street level soon, and it’ll only draw the kind of attention that we most definitely do not want.”
“I’m not leaving my lantern.”
“Then put it out. I’m not asking you, boy. I’m telling you that I won’t take you down there until you let that go. Look, stick it over there in the corner. You can pick it up on your way back home.”
Zeke reluctantly complied, leaving the lantern stashed in the nearest corner and covering it with some scraps he found there. “You don’t think anyone’ll take it?”
“I’d be astounded,” Rudy said. “Now come on. We’re burning daylight, and we haven’t got any to spare down here. It’s not a short jaunt over to your parents’ old place.”
Zeke carefully scooted onto the ledge to follow. He worried about a man with a limp tackling the fragile bridge, but the odd assortment of boards and strips of scrap creaked and held beneath their collective weight.
Zeke was glad he couldn’t see very far below, but he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “How far up are we?”
“Just a couple of stories. We’ll go up higher before we go lower, so I hope the heights don’t bother you.”
“No sir,” Zeke said. “I don’t mind the climbing.”
“Good. Because we’re going to do plenty of it.”
They stalked across the bridge and up against a window next door. The wood seemed to dead-end against it, but when Rudy shoved a lever, the window opened inward and they both stepped inside, into darkness that was profound and wet—just like the bakery when Zeke had first let himself into the city’s interior.
“Where are we?” he whispered.
Rudy struck a match and lit a candle, although technically the sun was still up. “As I understand it? We’re in hell.”