She saw him, and she stopped a few feet from the stairs.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The woman in the dull black overcoat didn’t blink and didn’t move. “What do you want?”
He’d prepared a speech, but he couldn’t remember it. “To talk. To you. I want to talk to you.”
Briar Wilkes closed her eyes hard. When she opened them again, she asked, “Is it about Zeke? What’s he done now?”
“No, no, it’s not about him,” he insisted. “Ma’am, I was hoping we could talk about your father.”
Her shoulders lost their stiff, defensive right angles, and she shook her head. “That figures. I swear to God, all the men in my life, they…” She stopped herself. And then she said, “My father was a tyrant, and everyone he loved was afraid of him. Is that what you want to hear?”
He held his position while she climbed the eleven crooked stairs that led the way to her home, and to him. When she reached the narrow porch he asked, “Is it true?”
“More true than not.”
She stood before him with her fingers wrapped around a ring of keys. The top of her head was level with his chin. Her keys were aimed at his waist, he thought, until he realized he was standing in front of the door. He shuffled out of her way.
“How long have you been waiting for me?” she asked.
He strongly considered lying, but she pinned him to the wall with her stare. “Several hours. I wanted to be here when you got home.”
The door clacked, clicked, and scooted inward. “I took an extra shift at the ’works. You could’ve come back later.”
“Please, ma’am. May I come inside?”
She shrugged, but she didn’t say no, and she didn’t close him out in the cold, so he followed behind her, shutting the door and standing beside it while Briar found a lamp and lit it.
She carried the lamp to the fireplace, where the logs had burned down cold. Beside the mantle there was a poker and a set of bellows, and a flat iron basket with a cache of split logs. She jabbed the poker against the charred lumps and found a few live coals lingering at the bottom.
With gentle encouragement, a handful of kindling, and two more lengths of wood, a slow flame caught and held.
One arm at a time, Briar pried herself out of the overcoat and left it hanging on a peg. Without the coat, her body had a lean look to it—as if she worked too long, and ate too little or too poorly. Her gloves and tall brown boots were caked with the filth of the plant, and she was wearing pants like a man. Her long, dark hair was piled up and back, but two shifts of labor had picked it apart and heavy strands had scattered, escaping the combs she’d used to hold it all aloft.
She was thirty-five, and she did not look a minute younger.
In front of the growing, glowing fire there was a large and ancient leather chair. Briar dropped herself into it. “Tell me, Mr… I’m sorry. You didn’t say your name.”
“Hale. Hale Quarter. And I must say, it’s an honor to meet you.”
For a moment he thought she was going to laugh, but she didn’t.
She reached over to a small table beside the chair and retrieved a pouch. “All right, Hale Quarter. Tell me. Why did you wait outside so long in this bitter weather?” From within the pouch she picked a small piece of paper and a large pinch of tobacco. She worked the two together until she had a cigarette, and she used the lamp’s flame to coax the cigarette alight.
He’d gotten this far by telling the truth, so he risked another confession. “I came when I knew you wouldn’t be home. Someone told me that if I knocked, you’d shoot through the peephole.”
She nodded, and pressed the back of her head against the leather. “I’ve heard that story, too. It doesn’t keep nearly as many folks away as you might expect.”
He couldn’t tell if she was serious, or if her response was a denial. “Then I thank you double, for not shooting me and for letting me come inside.”
“May I… may I take a seat? Would that be all right?”
“Suit yourself, but you won’t be here long,” she predicted.
“You don’t want to talk?”
“I don’t want to talk about Maynard, no. I don’t have any answers about anything that happened to him. Nobody does. But you can ask whatever you want. And you can take your leave when I get tired of you, or when you get bored with all the ways I can say ‘I don’t know’—whichever comes first.”
Encouraged, he reached for a tall-backed wooden chair and dragged it forward, putting his body directly into her line of sight. His notebook folded open to reveal an unlined sheet with a few small words scribbled at the top.
While he was getting situated, she asked him, “Why do you want to know about Maynard? Why now? He’s been dead for fifteen years. Nearly sixteen.”
“Why not now?” Hale scanned his previous page of notes, and settled down with his pencil hovering over the next blank section. “But to answer you more directly, I’m writing a book.”
“Another book?” she said, and it sounded sharp and fast.
“Not a sensational piece,” he was careful to clarify. “I want to write a proper biography of Maynard Wilkes, because I believe he’s been done a great disservice. Don’t you agree?”
“No, I don’t agree. He got exactly what he should have expected. He spent thirty years working hard, for nothing, and he was treated disgracefully by the city he served.” She fiddled with the half-smoked wand of tobacco. “He allowed it. And I hated him for it.”
“But your father believed in the law.”
She almost snapped at him. “So does every criminal.”
Hale perked. “Then you do think he was a criminal?”
One more hard draw on the cigarette came and went, and then she said, “Don’t twist my words. But you’re right. He believed in the law. There were times I wasn’t sure he believed in anything else, but yes. He believed in that.”
Spits and sparks from the fireplace filled the short silence that fell between them. Finally, Hale said, “I’m trying to get it right, ma’am. That’s all. I think there was more to it than a jailbreak—”
“Why?” she interrupted. “Why do you think he did it? Which theory do you want to write your book about, Mr. Quarter?”
He hesitated, because he didn’t know what to think, not yet. He gambled on the theory that he hoped Briar would find least offensive. “I think he was doing what he thought was right. But I really want to know what you think. Maynard raised you alone, didn’t he? You must’ve known him better than anyone.”
Her face stayed a little too carefully blank. “You’d be surprised. We weren’t that close.”
“But your mother died—”
“When I was born, that’s right. He was the only parent I ever had, and he wasn’t much of one. He didn’t know what to do with a daughter any more than I know what to do with a map of Spain.”
Hale sensed a brick wall, so he backed up and tried another way around, and into her good graces. His eyes scanned the smallish room with its solid and unadorned furniture, and its clean but battered floors. He noted the corridor that led to the back side of the house. And from his seat, he could see that all four doors at the end of it were closed.
“You grew up here, didn’t you? In this house?” he pretended to guess.
She didn’t soften. “Everybody knows that.”
“They brought him back here, though. One of the boys from the prison break, and his brother—they brought him here and tried to save him. A doctor was sent for, but…”
Briar retrieved the dangled thread of conversation and pulled it. “But he’d inhaled too much of the Blight. He was dead before the doctor ever got the message, and I swear”—she flicked a fingertip’s worth of ash into the fire—“it’s just as well. Can you imagine what would’ve happened to him, if he’d lived? Tried for treason, or gross insubordination at least. Jailed, at the minimum. Shot, at the worst. My father and I had our disagreements, but I wouldn’t have wished that upon him. It’s just as well,” she said again, and she stared into the fire.
Hale spent a few seconds trying to assemble a response. At last he said, “Did you get to see him, before he died? I know you were one of the last to leave Seattle—and I know you came here. Did you see him, one last time?”
“I saw him.” She nodded. “He was lying alone in that back room, on his bed, under a sheet that was soaked with the vomit that finally choked him to death. The doctor wasn’t here, and as far as I know, he never did come. I don’t know if you could even find one, in those days, in the middle of the evacuation.”
“So, he was alone? Dead, in this house?”
“He was alone,” she confirmed. “The front door was broken, but closed. Someone had left him on the bed, laid out with respect, I do remember that. Someone had covered him with a sheet, and left his rifle on the bed beside him with his badge. But he was dead, and he stayed dead. The Blight didn’t start him walking again, so thank God for small things, I suppose.”
Hale jotted it all down, mumbling encouraging sounds as his pencil skipped across the paper. “Do you think the prisoners did that?”
“You do,” she said. It wasn’t quite an accusation.
“I suspect as much,” he replied, but he was giddily certain of it. The prison-boy’s brother had told him they’d left Maynard’s place clean, and they didn’t take a thing. He’d said they’d laid him out on the bed, his face covered up. These were details that no one else had ever mentioned, not in all the speculation or investigation into the Great Blight Jailbreak. And there had been plenty of it over the years. “And then…” he tried to prompt her.