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Authors: Beth Cato

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BOOK: Breath of Earth
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“What?” she squawked.

Mr. Sakaguchi glanced toward the cracked door. “Start packing her trunk, Lee.”

“Damn it!” The words were barely audible from the hall.

Mr. Sakaguchi continued. “It will just be for a week or so, I hope, until more wardens arrive and stabilize the city. It will also get you away from Captain Sutcliff. He's far too interested in you.”

“But interested in you most of all. Why is that?” She stared him down. He shook his head, tight-lipped. “Despite everything you've said, you're probably only free because you're Japanese and he knows you need to be where you can conduct energy in case of a quake. Once more wardens arrive . . .”

“If I am arrested, so be it.” He made it sound so simple, as though the Unified Pacific didn't speed offenders through the system and execute them within weeks. And yet earlier, he'd made the comment he might be safer in UP custody. Nothing made sense.

“Where am I supposed to go?” Power and frustration burbled within her chest. Her hands curved into hard fists.

“I purchased multiple tickets as a precaution, creating—to use an American idiom—a wild-goose chase, but your real train ticket will get you to Fresno.”

“Fresno? What am I going to do, pick grapes?”

“Of course not. Grapes aren't in season.”

“Ojisan! I can't believe this.” She glared at Mr. Sakaguchi and was suddenly struck by how
old
he looked. His hair was more silver than black. Deep wrinkles furrowed his eyes.

“I can't go.” Her voice softened. “You nearly died today. Everyone . . . almost everyone else did die.” It would devastate him to know Mr. Calhoun was dead and Mr. Thornton was missing, but he had to know. He had to know it was even more important for her to stay to safeguard the city, and him.

Who else would pull him from his desk, remind him what it was to smile and laugh? Captain Sutcliff be damned. Mr. Sakaguchi needed her.

She continued, “When we were in that . . . bubble, you told me I had to fight, I couldn't give up. My power, whatever it is”—she waggled her fingers in the air—“is the only thing that saved us. I can't simply walk away from you, or from San Francisco. I need to stay here, and I need to fight!”

Ingrid struck downward with her fist.

At the same instant, a sharp snap pierced through the glass of the back door. Blood spewed in a fountain from Mr. Sakaguchi's shoulder. His head rolled back, jaw gaping as he flopped backward. He smacked against the floor in a horrible, fleshy crunch.

Ingrid had no chance to scream or gasp. One moment Mr. Sakaguchi stood there; the next, he was down. Spattered blood oozed down the wall.

CHAPTER 5

When the second bullet whizzed by her ear, Ingrid had the sense to drop to the floor. Her mind galloped—someone was shooting at them—what happened—who was doing this?! The shooter—was it Jennings?

But most of all—
Ojisan
.

Hunkered low against the floor, she crawled to him. Mr. Sakaguchi lay sprawled behind the desk. His hand was limp, fingers loosely curled, the palm faceup. His eyes studied her, brow furrowed as if in deep thought. His lips moved but no sound emerged.

“I'm here,” she whispered. Her hand twined into his and squeezed. How strange. They rarely touched like this, and today it happened more than once.

“Who?” The single word was a breath.

“I don't know. They're out in the garden.”

She peered around the desk. Nothing moved along the
patio. Mr. Sakaguchi moaned and shifted slightly. Blood poured from his shoulder and oozed an expanding puddle on the floor. She tugged the blanket from his reading chair and pressed it to his shoulder. His body arced in pain, sound escaping in a hiss.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she whispered, and pressed down.

The wound was inches above his heart. Had the bullet passed through? Had it ricocheted inside him? She had to get him to a doctor.

“Them,” he whispered. “Can't . . .”

She wanted to shush him, tell him not to exert himself, but she desperately clung to his every word.

Something scuffled in the hallway. She pivoted on a hip and fumbled inside her pocket.

Lee emerged from the shadows and into the doorway. “Damn! Where was he hit?” He crawled closer.

“Shoulder. Can you call the police? I—”

“Line's cut,” Lee said. “First thing I tried when I heard the shot.” Another bullet clinked through the glass. Splinters exploded in a small fountain not six inches from Lee's hand. He moved a little faster to reach the shelter of the desk.

She pulled out the pistol. “I must get him into the hall, maybe get him out the front. Shoot anything that moves out there.”

If Captain Sutcliff needed a proper excuse to fit her for a noose, now he had one. Supplying a weapon to a Chinese boy probably broke a dozen laws. Not that she gave a damn at the moment, not with Mr. Sakaguchi bleeding out.

Lee accepted the gun with a grimace and checked the bullets
in the chambers. With a jolt, she realized he knew what he was doing.

Lee had handled a gun before.

No time to mull over his sedition now. She crawled to Mr. Sakaguchi's feet and wedged herself between his calves. Hauling his feet up over each hip, she leaned forward. After a few seconds of strain, he slid forward. Ingrid thanked God for the slickness of the wooden floor. Mr. Sakaguchi made only the slightest whimper.

Shattering glass caused her to jump. She turned. Lee crouched to the side of the door and had knocked out the lower glass panel. He fired the gun once, twice.

A few more feet, and she had Mr. Sakaguchi in the claustrophobic shelter of the hallway. She crawled forward. The crown of her head butted against something warm. She fell against Mr. Sakaguchi's thighs with a squeal. A shadow stood over her.

“Get back!” she yelped. The faint tingle of energy welled up, and she shoved the intruder away.

The figure flew back five feet into a wall with a resounding thud and a rather high-pitched “Oof!” Lamplight illuminated the man's face and the rod in his hand.

“Mr. Jennings!”

The wall clock over his head tilted and slid straight down.
Stop!
she thought at the clock.

It did. Literally. It pinned itself to the wall, cock-eyed, not four inches over his cranium. She gaped. She had always had some extra awareness of things around her—like when that baseball almost struck her earlier—but hadn't manipulated something beyond her grasp before.

That sense of coldness crept into her veins again, and she shivered. At the motion, the clock resumed its slide, but at her gaze it again stopped. She was reminded of the bubble she created earlier, and how it popped when Mr. Sakaguchi surprised her by picking her up. She scurried forward and set the clock on the floor.

Mr. Jennings groaned. “How the . . . ?” He stared at her from beneath furrowed brows. He had donned his leather coat again.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Coming to check on you, miss. The boy told me to stay put, but I couldn't wait about while shooting's going on.” He pivoted his hand to show the Tesla rod, still contracted.

“You only have the rod, no gun?”

“No, miss. I'm a pacifist.”

“Bloody hell,” she muttered. Fancy that. Middle of a gunfight and here's this big, strong man, and he's a pacifist! She retreated to check on Mr. Sakaguchi. Blood had soaked through the thick blanket.

“My car's out front, but that sidewalk doesn't give us any cover.” Mr. Jennings scooped up his hat from the floor. She noted his shoes were on, too, the laces untied.

“I think the gunman's gone.” Lee backed into the hallway.

“Lee. When your ribs were bruised, you went to a man in Chinatown who did powerful Reiki—
lingqi
.” She hesitated to say the Chinese word for it, a word she shouldn't even utter. “Take Mr. Sakaguchi there.”

Lee stared at her. “Take Mr. Sakaguchi into Chinatown?”

“He's
dying
.”

Lee's face tightened as he nodded. “It's a risk, but . . . Jiao!” he yelled loud enough to be heard in the kitchen. “Run next door, tell the boys to drive the Suzukis' flatbed over! We have to get to Uncle Moon's, fast!”

Not two seconds later, the side door clattered. Ingrid hoped it was Jiao, not the gunman.

Don't die, don't die.
Ingrid laid a hand against Mr. Sakaguchi's cheek. She willed the words through her touch, as if she could stop his soul from leaving his body as she stopped that clock. The short stubble on his jaw prickled her palm. She had no sense of power, no flow of energy. She almost wanted another earthquake to happen—just a small one—so she might be able to do something again. Anything.

“Miss, sending a Japanese man into Chinatown, and a warden at that—”

“What else can we do?” she snapped at Mr. Jennings. Anyone desperate enough to venture into Chinatown for healing needed results, the kind that couldn't unfurl from a bucket of benign seeds. “I know the risks. But this—this is business. I'll pay your uncle whatever he needs, Lee. Mr. Sakaguchi just—he just needs to get in and out of there safely.”

Seventy thousand angry, despairing refugees in Chinatown, all of them there because of Japan. None dared to strike out directly against the Japanese, not even the Chinese
tongs,
but sending Mr. Sakaguchi into the heart of their district carried risks that Ingrid didn't want to contemplate right now.

She just needed her ojisan alive.

Lee defiantly tucked the gun into his waistband and stared at Mr. Jennings. “I've heard about you, Jennings. Everything
you've seen here, keep quiet. You have a good reputation, and you better live up to it. I know where you live.” Even with his soft prepubescent voice, the threat came across loud and clear.

Mr. Jennings nodded. The Tesla rod remained in his hand. “I carry no grudge against the Chinese. Don't intend to create any either.”

The front door banged open. Both Lee and Mr. Jennings turned, weapons at the ready. Ingrid shielded Mr. Sakaguchi. The Chinese servants from across the street skittered to a halt in the hallway, took in the scene in an instant, and shared an expression of shock and revulsion.

“You want to take
him
to Chinatown?” one spat.

“Yes, and you're going to help me carry him, even if you have to use a whole bar of soap after.” Lee's voice carried a gravitas that Ingrid had never heard before. “Come on!”

The men worked as a team to haul up Mr. Sakaguchi. Ingrid stumbled back, suddenly lost and useless. The police would be here soon. They would ask questions she couldn't answer, and then that captain was bound to nose around. This house might end up as ransacked as Mr. Thornton's.

Ingrid ran back to the study. She yanked Mr. Sakaguchi's safe-deposit keys from their hiding place on a shelf, and then grabbed his planner and notebook from the desk. She dropped everything into one of her abandoned hats and folded them up together.

As she dashed toward the door, her feet slid and she caught herself against the doorframe.

His blood. She slid in his blood. A violent tremor of awareness almost dropped her to the floor. Almost. Grinding her
teeth, she pushed herself away from the room, the doorway, the house. The stench of iron clung to her.

The young night sky glowered with gray clouds. A truck idled at the curb as the men set Mr. Sakaguchi in the back. Utterly distracted as she was, her foot struck something. Ingrid tripped and staggered forward, her house slippers flying from her feet. Her knee bounced against the walkway with a painful jolt as her hands caught her in time to prevent face planting. An object rolled beside her hand—Mr. Sakaguchi's slipper. She stuffed it into her makeshift tote. Abandoning her own stained slippers, she scampered forward.

“Damn it!” snapped Lee.

“A Durendal.” Mr. Jennings said it as a growl.

“What?” Ingrid looked up. Chinese men filled the appropriated truck. Mr. Jennings stood at the open door to his car, gaze focused up the street. Trees blocked her view.

The truck lurched from the curb with a sharp squeal.

“Wait! Come back!” Ingrid cried, even as she knew they couldn't afford to stay here, nor could Mr. Sakaguchi. The truck made a tight turn and bounced down a side street and out of sight.

“Miss Ingrid! Here!”

There was no time. A Durendal meant the Army & Airship Corps, and the A&A meant Captain Sutcliff and all his incriminations and innuendo.

She ran for the autocar as a blue sheen rose from the lawn. The pressure wave penetrated cotton and stroked her skin like a baby's breath. It was a tiny earthquake, the sort most people could dismiss as a passing large truck—or the grinding heaviness of a Durendal. Lukewarm heat looped in crazed circles
around her ankles and anchored on her bone, traveling up her calves with a static-electric zap.

The seism ceased just as she reached the car. She flung the door open and threw herself inside. She slammed the door shut as Mr. Jennings lurched away from the curb. Something hard jostled against her feet—her shoes, she realized. He must have grabbed them on the way out.

She twisted around to glance up the block.

The ambulatory tank's sleek metal body gleamed beneath the streetlights. Its two mighty treads crunched against the basalt block thoroughfare. From a block away, she could feel the vibrations of its approach. The gun barrel aimed dead ahead, as though it would blast any obstacle to smithereens. Along the right and left sides, objects bobbed behind a shielding wall.

“It's a transport loaded with soldiers. I'm curious to know why the A-and-A was on the way here before the shooting even happened, but I'm not about to linger to ask
them
questions.” He glanced at her, clearly expecting some answers.

Ingrid faced forward, gasping as they took a hard turn. A car horn blared. Gas lamps illuminated the residential street ahead. The truck bearing Mr. Sakaguchi had already vanished from sight. Grief twisted in her chest. What if he asked for her? What if he took a turn for the worse? She should be with him! Damn all the dangers of Chinatown, and damn Captain Sutcliff and his ridiculous suspicions!

Behind them, the kermanite-powered transport tank roared like a hungry lion, and she knew very well that it intended to gobble her up.

BOOK: Breath of Earth
4.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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