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Authors: Beth Cato

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BOOK: Breath of Earth
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When she was younger, being party to such knowledge was rather titillating. Now the subjects made her uncomfortable. The meaning of patriotism and sedition had evolved as she grew up, as the war dragged on. She had seen too many newsreels where hooded traitors convulsed at the end of a noose. In light of Captain Sutcliff's interest, the danger now felt eerily personal and real.

She straightened the books, simply because she couldn't bear the idea of them toppling over.

Why oh why had Mr. Sakaguchi spoken so openly to Captain Sutcliff? Why had the captain even regarded him as a suspect in the first place? She hoped that among Mr. Sakaguchi's calls, he had also contacted a lawyer. It was a shame he and Mr. Roosevelt had ended their acquaintanceship. He couldn't have a more powerful ally than an Ambassador.

She looked around Mr. Thornton's chaotic office. She couldn't see this as the work of Captain Sutcliff. If a man was particular enough to have his shoes shined in the middle of the day, he'd ransack a place and leave it tidier than he found it. It looked more like a hasty job of packing—valuable objects like coins still sat on the shelf, yet personal mementos like the map of India were gone.

She slipped her fingers around the revolver in her pocket.

The worn ivory handle perfectly fit against her small palm.

The stairs were quiet as she treaded upward. The bedroom was empty, a bureau left wide open. No sign of sickness or strangeness about the bathroom either. Had Mr. Thornton even made it home?

The feeling of terrible wrongness increased as she went
back downstairs to the study. If she summoned the police, then what? Captain Sutcliff was sure to find out that two wardens had been absent today, and if he knew she had been here, his suspicion of her and Mr. Sakaguchi would worsen. Actually, he was likely to blame them regardless. Belatedly, Ingrid set her hat on the desk and brushed a hand over her hair.

The floor creaked behind her. Ingrid whirled around, drawing the pistol.

A tall shadow of a man loomed in the doorway, and he moved as she did. With a flourish, he withdrew a metallic rod from beneath his jacket. At the twitch of his thumb it telescoped to the length of a walking stick. A blue orb topped the copper pipe. She immediately noted it wasn't kermanite but some other stone.

Heat rose to her skin. Gritting her teeth, she remembered Mr. Sakaguchi's warning and shoved her power down again. She straightened her arm, the revolver at the ready.

“You!” The stranger stepped into the light.

“You!” Ingrid echoed, her jaw dropping in surprise. It was the fine-looking man who had spoken to her on the auxiliary steps, the one asking after Mr. Thornton. His hat was off, his brown hair mussed in a way that begged to be smoothed.

She really hoped she didn't have to shoot him.

“What's that?” Ingrid asked, motioning her gun toward the device in his hand.

“A Tesla rod, miss. If the tip touches you, the reaction will be quite unpleasant.”

“Tesla! That fellow who blew up half of Long Island a few years ago?” Ingrid hastily backtracked until she half sat on the
desk. Papers splashed to the floor. She had already endured an explosion and been buried alive today, and had no desire to repeat the experience.

He sighed as if he'd gotten such a reaction before. “It's quite stable, miss. Nothing is going to blow up. Not unless I want it to.”

“That's hardly comforting. What are you doing here, sir?”

“You suggested I drop by here, so that's exactly what I've done. No one answered the phone.” He said this in as friendly a way as could be, as though they'd met in a café, no weapons involved.

She eyed the Tesla rod and considered the man again. He didn't strike her as a hooligan. He looked like a teacher or an accountant—and not a very well-off one, at that. His leather coat had a few years of wear to it, with the edges fuzzed to white. The condition of the jacket and tie beneath looked similar, being tidy yet shabby.

Peculiar, though, how he showed up at the auxiliary so soon before it exploded. Ingrid lowered the pistol but kept it in her grip. No reason to trust the man, even if she wanted to admire him like a Remington bronze.

“This morning, I do believe you mentioned you were a secretary at the auxiliary?”

“Yes, I am, sir. Ingrid Carmichael. I work for Warden Sakaguchi, specifically, and assist the board.”

“Don't see many secretaries toting about pistols.”

“Shooting is taught right along with coffee brewing, shorthand, and bookkeeping, though I haven't taken the course in knife throwing yet. That's next on the list.”

Amusement glistened in his brown eyes. “Maybe I should look into this training as a secretary. Might come in handy.”

“Always good to have another trade.” She almost smiled, but resisted the urge; no need to appear vulnerable. But goodness, this man made her want to smile, and for him to smile back. “Why's your need for kermanite so urgent?”

“It's for an airship, miss. Newly built by myself and my partner. Just need the kermanite, and we'll have her airborne.” He frowned. With a twist of his wrist, the rod fell back in on itself. “What happened here?”

“I'm not sure. I came to check on Mr. Thornton and found the place like this.” She stepped forward a little as he tucked the rod back at his waist, but still kept her distance.

“I wondered about that fine-smelling soup at the door. Have you checked upstairs?”

“Yes. Most everywhere. He's not here. The whole house is like this. What was your name again, sir?”

“Mr. Cypress Jennings. Cy for short.” The smile faltered. “Shouldn't we . . . contact the authorities?”

She opened her lips to speak and then stopped. This Mr. Jennings sounded hesitant about calling the police. Did he have something to hide? Well, so did she, but at least she knew her reasons were valid.

More importantly, this crisis needed to stay among the wardens. The public knew the auxiliary had exploded, but they didn't know most everyone was presumed dead. If they did, there'd be a panic. Now, with this matter of Mr. Calhoun dead and Mr. Thornton missing, the situation had grown even more dire. Any evacuation needed to be handled in a proper manner, not spurred by gossip.

“I need to consult with Warden Sakaguchi.” She looked past Mr. Jennings to the wooden phone box on the wall. The switchboard line meant there'd be no chance of privacy, but if she could ask Mr. Sakaguchi to meet them at Mr. Thornton's house, that'd be enough. “Pardon me, please.”

Ingrid might have just happened to brush her body against his as she passed by. He felt as solid as he looked, though he quickly backstepped as a gentleman should.

Goodness, she just met the man and here she was, all ready to drag him into the broom closet to sneak a kiss. She was almost giddy. She pulled the mouthpiece down and pressed her ear to the Bakelite receiver.

“Hello? Hello? Central?” She stared at the mouthpiece in her hand. “There's no sound.”

“Allow me, miss.” Long, thick fingers plucked the mouthpiece away. Mr. Jennings inspected the box and then undid the latch to open the cabinet. “Here's the problem. The kermanite's gone. There's no transmission power.”

Other devices around the house had kermanite the right size to work in the telephone box, but Ingrid had no desire to linger here while a stone was wired in. “That explains why none of Mr. Sakaguchi's calls got through. There are public telephones close by, but . . .”

“I can drive you home, miss. If you don't mind, that is. It's a two-seater.” He ducked his head in a deferential way.

She gnawed at her inner lip. Accepting autocar rides from strange men wasn't a wise course of action, but she didn't fancy another long walk, even downhill. Her legs might give out and she'd roll down Chestnut Street like a snowball in skirts.

“If you don't mind.” Caution edged her voice.

“Not at all, miss, though I do have one favor to ask.”

“And that is?”

“Can you put the pistol away? Unless I really am your hostage, in which case we should probably get some rope to make it all official.”

Amusement lit his eyes again, and it occurred to her that the obi of her dress could work quite well to bind someone. Hog-tying wasn't a skill taught by Mama, but maybe Ingrid needed to look it up. It might come in handy.

She slipped the pistol into her pocket, but made sure to hover her fingers just above the opening. She didn't need a gun to defend herself, but he didn't know that.

And while her body might not mind some broom closet time with this fellow, her brain knew better. He was a stranger and not to be trusted, and she'd take care of him if necessary.

CHAPTER 4

Ingrid hated leaving Mr. Thornton's house in such a state, but what did she know? It's not as if the place featured smears of blood or direct evidence of any crime. Things were missing, true, but Thornton could have removed them himself. Maybe he had hurriedly packed his valuables and traveled to a friend's home for his convalescence. The lack of communication about Mr. Calhoun's death made it clear that if a message had been sent to the auxiliary, no one would know.

A harsh chill shook her, and she clenched her hands together on her lap, the slight bulge of the gun close by. Everything was going so horribly wrong. She and Mr. Sakaguchi needed to leave the city. If they couldn't save everyone, they could at least save themselves.

She thought that, but she knew Mr. Sakaguchi would never abandon San Francisco. And she would never abandon him.

Mr. Jennings's autocar puttered along. The interior displayed
the same tidy shabbiness as the man's clothes. He definitely didn't come from wealth, yet he somehow had the money to buy a sizable chunk of kermanite.

Ingrid sat in the back, as was proper, and leaned closer to him to speak. “You said you and your partner have an airship?”

“Oh. Yes, miss. All ready but for the engine installation. We run a machine shop located South of the Slot. We repair automobiles, airships, washers, dryers, most anything with an engine.” His voice contained a lovely, rollicking rhythm.

“Do you hail from Atlanta?”

His head jerked to one side, showing his profile briefly. “Thereabouts.” He focused on the narrow street again and braked as two children and a dog dashed across. The dog trailed a tattered scarf. Children playing at Thuggees.

Mr. Jennings's accent indicated southern roots, but most every mechanist she'd ever encountered could claim Atlanta as home at some point. After Reconstruction started in 1863, the heart of Dixie re-created itself as a capital of industry. Atlanta boasted a dozen technical universities and factories beyond count, and produced most of the Unified Pacific's dirigibles. Part and parcel of that, the city's Japanese population was quite high. Mr. Sakaguchi flew there on occasion to meet with officials from his native land. People joked that babies around Atlanta were born with a wrench in one hand, blueprints in the other, and a hankering for sushi with their milk.

“Mr. Sakaguchi might be able to help you. The wardens don't generally poach from each other's private sales, but these are special circumstances, and . . . oh.”

Most of the western United States's stockpile of kermanite was kept in a vault at the auxiliary. Mr. Sakaguchi had some at the house and larger rocks at the bank, but not much. He'd mentioned the consequences of a lack of geomancers to fill kermanite, but what if the crystals had been destroyed as well? Good God, the shortage would create a panic in industries across the country.

“Are you all right back there?” asked Mr. Jennings.

“I have a lot to think about.” She and Mr. Sakaguchi would tend to the catastrophe. They had to.

“At least it's a beautiful evening.” At that exact moment, a drop of rain splattered against her hand, and one must have struck him as well. “Tommyrot,” he muttered, and reached for the dashboard crank for the roof canvas.

Ingrid couldn't help but smile. Mr. Jennings made for a pleasant distraction. “How long have you been in the city?”

“Six months. We don't set down roots for long.”

“I see.” She paused. “What would convince you to stay?”

His head jerked to one side. “Pardon?”

“I said, what would convince you to stay?”

“World peace.”

The answer took her aback. “Well, that sets the bar high, and doesn't sound good for your business. Most industry is spurred by the war these days.”

“My father's a businessman. He always said a person ought to be flexible, know a variety of trades. He . . . he told me once that if he had his druthers, he'd have been a baker, settled out in the desert, where he could breathe easier.” Mr. Jennings chuckled to himself. “Hard to imagine that.”

“What's his business now?”

“He runs a company. Airships, motors, that sort of thing.”

“Like father like son. Now I understand your comment back at Mr. Thornton's house. I think you'd be a fine secretary.”

His rich laugh filled the car. “Thank you kindly for the endorsement. It'd be nice to stay in the city, if circumstances allow. You're going to set about creating world peace, then?” The autocar stopped as a small mob of ladies in gargantuan hats strolled across the street. He glanced back at her, grinning.

“Someone needs to.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“I do like the way you think, Miss Ingrid.”

Happy heat bloomed in her stomach and went straight to her cheeks. The man was
flirting
with her, treating her with respect and equality, as if she looked more like Mama instead of . . . well, herself. She smoothed out her skirt and stared out the window, suddenly shy. “Ah. You'll want to take a left up here. We're almost there.”

Mr. Jennings parked in front of the house. She demurred to his offer to take the kettles and hauled the cooled soup up the steps to her home.

Like many houses in the neighborhood, it melded several modern aesthetics. An asymmetrical Queen Anne facade and wraparound porch were topped off with a Japanese irimoya curved roof. For the second time that day, the mere sight of the place was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

Lee answered the door. His sharp gaze shifted from the kettles to the strange man behind Ingrid, then lowered in subservience.

“Things are complicated,” she said, and stepped inside. “This is Mr. Jennings. I'd like to talk to Mr. Sakaguchi before they make their acquaintance.”

“Please, enter,” Lee said, bowing low. Upon straightening, he plucked the soup pots from her hands. “I'll tell Warden Sakaguchi that you have returned with a guest, Miss Carmichael.” He dashed away as she set aside her hat.

“Well, he's fast!” Mr. Jennings hooked his battered hat on the hallway rack and shrugged off his coat. “I didn't even get to tell him thanks.”

Ingrid looked at him in surprise. That small show of respect for Lee raised Mr. Jennings in her esteem even more.

She sat and quickly removed her boots. Mr. Jennings did the same. She reached into the shoe cupboard and set down a pair of house slippers designed for larger American feet.

“Thank you kindly, miss,” he said. Ingrid pulled on her regular slippers. Together, they stepped up from the genkan.

“You're welcome. Here's the parlor.” She motioned him into the next room. It displayed more Japanese influence with pale silk upholstery, bamboo, and a singular shelf of books. A taxidermied crane, an old gift from Mr. Roosevelt, stood in the corner with one leg curled. “We don't keep a large staff here, but I can certainly fetch you a drink, if you like. Lee should be back in just a few minutes.”

His attention immediately focused on the bookshelf; her gaze traced his backside. His suit jacket fit a tad too wide at the shoulders, which were about the level of her head. Not a bad height difference, really. His hands would fit just perfectly atop her hips and her head could easily tilt back for a kiss.
Goodness. She'd survived the day and now it was like she'd gone into heat to celebrate.

“I'm fine for now, miss, thank you.” His fingers caressed the book bindings.

“Do you read?” she asked.

“Fairly well.” He grinned over his shoulder as she rolled her eyes. “I used to read a great deal, but the life of a nomad makes it a challenge to carry books.”

“You like Mark Twain?” She nodded to where his hand rested on the shelf.

“Indeed.
Connecticut Yankee
is an old favorite of mine. My sister and I read it to tatters. Can't help but enjoy a book where a man engineers a kermanite engine using Guinevere's stolen brooch and a medieval blacksmith's shop.”

“That's one of my favorite books, too!”

“My sister loved the book, to a point, and then she needed to dismantle it, like she did everything.” He stared beyond the shelf. “Was like poison ivy on her brain that the science wasn't right. Kermanite of that size wouldn't be able to run such an engine, she argued, and found most every other technical flaw she could.”

“But she was fine with the idea of a man slipping through time?”

“Oh no. Not after a while. Not even Merlin's magic was right—didn't fit into any proper schools of the art. As for Hank's engine, she drew up schematics of what he would have really needed, even what kind of metallurgy was available in Britain at the time.”

“How old was she then?”

“Seven.” At Ingrid's arched eyebrow, Mr. Jennings smiled. “My twin sister was the cleverest person I've ever known. Made me look like a bumbling fool in comparison.”

Ingrid noted the past tense but didn't wish to pry. She also observed how his hand lingered on the book's binding. “Mr. Sakaguchi may be willing to let you borrow books, if you meet with his approval. He won't lend to just anyone, of course.” It'd give Mr. Jennings a good excuse to visit more often, too.

A smile crinkled at the corners of his eyes. “I'm doubly honored, miss. You didn't shoot me, and now you want to lend me books.”

“Mind you, if you treat the books poorly—” She made the motion of aiming a gun, as if she played kitsune-ken.

“You should manage more libraries, miss. Patrons would be sure to return books in good shape and promptly.”

“Or they'd be terrified to borrow books at all.”

“All the more books for loyal patrons to choose from.” That smile of his warmed her like a furnace.

“Miss Carmichael!” called Lee.

She turned, mentally cursing the interruption. “I'll return shortly, Mr. Jennings.”

“Much obliged.” He dipped his head.

She followed Lee into the hallway. His poise dissolved. “What's going on, Ing?”

“Long story. I don't want to tell it too many times.”

“Ah. Understood. I'll eavesdrop from the hallway.”

She jabbed him with an elbow. “Watch our guest.”

“I was watching how
you
watched him. I thought he might have ripped his pants, but I guess they're fine.”

She scowled and aimed a kick his way, but he scampered ahead, agile as a hummingbird.

Lee opened the door to Mr. Sakaguchi's study. Mr. Sakaguchi stood in the double doorway across the room. One of his sleeves was drenched with water. Weak evening light cast the backyard in gray but for the colorful motes of pixies above the pond.

“Playing with your fish again?” She caught him like this about once a week.

His eyes were thoughtful. “The catfish are restless. Strangely so.” He used a towel to dry his jacket.

Ingrid couldn't help but look at the namazu-e prints on the walls. The giant catfish hidden beneath Japan was said to warn his brethren when he was about to move. “Well, if I saw your hairy fist coming at me through the water, I'd be worried, too.”

Normally, her humor could coax a smile, but now he shook his head. “I don't like it. We don't have enough geomancers here. If I see other animals becoming restless as well, I'll have to press Mayor Butterfield again. Have you felt or seen anything since we returned home?” He tossed the towel onto the bench outside and shut the doors. The shutters remained open to show the green backyard.

“Yes. A very minor seism on my walk, but otherwise nothing since the Reiki.”

“Are you hurting since your walk?” he asked.

“A little stiff, that's all.”

Mr. Sakaguchi crossed to his desk. “If you feel a major earthquake coming, what do you do?” His brisk tone caused her to straighten as if she feared the slap of a ruler.

“Transmit energy to the kermanite I have at hand, and when I feel the flush of a fever, break contact with the ground immediately.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Jump onto furniture, with metal being the best. Go upstairs. Lift myself up. Keep my wits at all times, because it's chaotic during an earthquake. Oh yes. I may need to escape a building. Many people die as they flee from a house because of falling bricks or masonry, so I should use extra caution. Should I go down the full list? There are other things I really need to tell you.”

Mr. Sakaguchi sighed. “You're arrogant, Ingrid.”

She blinked, taken aback. “What?”

“You can carry power and use it. You're not limited by kermanite. You see colors overflow the earth. It's made you cocky. It scares me. It scared your mother. If something terrible does befall the city, you can't simply stand there and assume you can use the energy as it comes in. In a prolonged earthquake, the fever could take you in a matter of ten, twenty seconds. I saw it happen to my father in Edo, when I was just a boy. I only survived because I climbed a tree, but even so, it was a tree and I still took in too much.”

“Yes, I know, and you were left delirious for several days as your body fought through sickness, but that may not happen here, Ojisan.” Ingrid didn't fully believe her own denial.

“The catfish are restless,” he murmured again. “Never have I seen them behave like this in San Francisco.” He braced himself against his desk. “I've loved you as my own since you were a little girl. I loved your mother dearly.” His voice softened. “I
should have married her, Ingrid. I should have damned all the social constraints and . . . and . . . everything else in our way. Your mother didn't care about the scandal. I did.” Mr. Sakaguchi blinked rapidly and stared downward. Through his thinning black-and-silver hair, she could see the slight sheen of his scalp.

“The baby,” Ingrid whispered. Mama had died in childbirth. The baby had never drawn a breath.

“Yes, our child, and more. Things that, God help me, I hope you never know. You're all I have left, Ing-chan. That's why I must send you away.”

BOOK: Breath of Earth
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