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In the quieter moments, she started to ask questions again. He was terse, even curt, hoping she'd realize that they were a distraction. Elizabeth was oddly persistent despite his one-word answers, and it finally occurred to him that her years on Monument Island hadn't given her much experience with the subtleties of tone. Faced with a choice between giving a lesson on social protocol to someone who'd brained him with a wrench, or simply indulging her for a bit, he chose the latter. She had to run out questions eventually.

No, he said. He never completed sixth grade.

Yes, he ran away to join the army at 15.

Yes, army food is terrible.

No, he did not want to talk about being in the military.

No, he did not want to talk about working for the Pinkertons.

Yes, you can get cotton candy in New York. (This amused him. She was embarrassed.)

No, he'd never been to a famous restaurant.

“What's with all the questions about food?” he said, mystified. They were in one of Finkton's innumerable office buildings taking advantage of the workers' holiday absence. Booker was moving from desk to desk shuffling through paperwork and, on occasion, pocketing anything that looked useful.

Elizabeth shrugged. “Songbird brought all my meals. When I got older, I realized the menu was on a 14-day cycle.” She extended her right hand, the one with that strange stumpy finger, and ticked them off. “Day one: Eggs and toast. Turkey soup and potatoes. Prairie chicken and vegetables. Next day: Pancakes and sausage. Clam chowder – that was my favorite. Beef stew with vegetables. And so on, and then it would all repeat.

“Steady meal's better than none.”

“It was boring,” she said. “But a good math problem when I started learning arithmetic. I knew what I'd be eating 200, or even 2,000 days from whenever. Like Zeller's congruence, just for turkey soup instead of which day it'd be.”

He paused at the next desk. “Zeller's what?”

“Oh. It – um – Zeller's is a formula that lets you calculate which day of the week it'll be when you pick a random date. A German mathematician invented it thirty years ago.” She sat on the last desk he'd emptied and looked up at the office clock. “I'm supposed to be having roast beef right now.”

“Mmph.” Booker jammed a screwdriver into a sticky drawer to lever it open, sparing himself a moment to wonder where the hell Columbia got its food. “Can't say I'm usually that lucky. Try living on rancid salt pork and hardtack with bugs in it for a few weeks.”

“No thanks. What are you looking for?”

“Anything that'll help us find Chen Lin. Failing that, I got no objection to money.”

She toyed with her thimble. “When did you have to eat the rotten stuff?”

“Army.”

“Why would they give you bad food?”

“They were leftover rations from the Civil War.”

“Really?”

“No, Elizabeth.”

She made a face at him. “Did you get to eat outside?”

“Yes.”

“On the beach, I saw people eating outside with their children. It looked like a lot of fun.”

He didn't comment, and searched two more desks.

“Why did you leave school early?”

“I wanted to.”

"But why?”

“Not much of a book learner, I guess.” He finished rifling through the drawer on the room's last desk and stood to find her with a disappointed look on her face. She had not quite mastered the trick of hiding the more socially problematic emotions around others. He was surprised that she'd thought he left school for more defensible reasons. He was more surprised to find that it hurt.

Why should he care? He slammed the drawer shut, startling her.

“Have to keep going,” he said tonelessly. She slipped off the desk and followed him.

They did most of the last room in silence. Elizabeth eyed him cautiously, knowing she'd caused offense but not certain how it had happened. Booker regretted the outburst. For all the irritation it caused, he found he still missed her chatter. Talking to her was like having a conversation with a brilliant child who had just enough flashes of adult insight to be interesting, but not enough to second-guess his judgment. In passing moments, she reminded him of something, and it ate at him – a niggling brain-itch that appeared and then vanished so quickly that it might not have existed at all. If they ever got out of Columbia alive, he intended to figure it out. But he knew that he couldn't afford to alienate her, not after that mess on the First Lady. Food was a safer topic than his personal life.

“So,” he said, making an effort. “You never got anything different in the tower?”

“Sometimes. On holidays, or what I think were holidays – whenever there were parade floats and decorations on the airships – I'd get something special like gingerbread or oranges. I loved those. And when I opened tears and saw food, sometimes I took a piece.” She paused at the contents of a drawer she'd upended, and looked momentarily guilty. “I guess that was stealing, too.”

“Maybe.”

“Once I found a pastry shaped like a C. It was the best thing I'd ever tasted, but I didn't know what it was.” She flipped him a coin from the desk. “I asked Songbird to bring me some cookbooks after. I found out it was a croissant.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“They have them in Paris,” she said, looking at him directly.

“They have them in lots of places,” he said shortly. When Fitzroy's men coughed up that airship, he hoped they would take the wrench with them.

“Have you ever had one?”

“No.”

“I've had three,” she said. “And what about you?”

“I just said I've never had one.”

“No, I mean -- what was the best thing you ever ate?”

Booker was midway through a stack of purchase orders, looking for addresses. “My wife cooked a goose for our first Christmas. I'd had it before on the Plains, but it was never as good as it was then.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don't think I've had that.”

“Geese are migrants. Maybe Columbia doesn't float too close to them.”

They lapsed into silence for another few minutes. Booker was beginning to wonder at it, and the return of the guilty look on her face, when she spoke. She was fiddling with her thimble again.

“I didn't mean to bring your wife up.”

“It's okay.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Really, it's okay.” He smiled. “Hadn't thought about that goose in a while.”

She smiled back, still twisting her thimble, but stopped. Her eyes narrowed. In the next moment, he heard what she did – footsteps in the corridor outside the room. He motioned to her to stay quiet, and they waited. With a few more footsteps, the door at the end of the room opened, and ah, fuck – it was a fat banker in a suit and a pince-nez, accompanied by a young clerk in a collar too big for him, carrying a huge stack of ledgers. They stared at Booker and Elizabeth for a split second, and then yelled and took off like panicked rabbits.

Shit!” Booker vaulted over the desk and sprinted for the door. Elizabeth hurried behind him, dodging the desks, shouting something – he couldn't hear what as he kicked through the junk they'd spilled and unholstered the pistol.

He was lucky. The banker couldn't run that fast. The clerk, well … the fool had hugged the ledgers to his chest like a toy as he ran. Either he was a company man that even Fink could be proud of, or he was so terrified that he'd never thought to drop them. But he had almost reached the front door, and if he did, the police would descend on Finkton like a biblical plague.

Booker sighted along the gun, squinted, and fired, catching the young man just above the heart from behind. He waited a moment to make sure, but knew from how quickly the blood pooled that it had been a clean shot.

Elizabeth's skirt rustled behind him. He turned to her, his mouth tight. “No one'll know they're dead for a few hours, but they'll get found eventually. Probably best to move on.”

She stared at the dead clerk, her lip trembling. “I thought everyone was home today.”

“Should've been. Maybe Fink wanted them to come in to fix something.”

She said nothing as he reached over the clerk's body to re-lock the office door, and nothing again as they retraced their steps to the last room. He'd found an old purchase order for Chen Lin with an address, and even though it was several years out of date, it was still the best lead they'd turned up. Pocketing it, he chanced a sidelong glance and found her sitting at one of the desks.

“Elizabeth, you've seen me kill a lot of people since we had that talk on the gondola. Why're you worried about these two?”

“They weren't armed, Mr. DeWitt.”

“Would've brought a whole mess of people with guns down on us.”

“I know. It's just … I saw that man's desk in the other room. He had a picture of his family.” She crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, and looked up at him with troubled eyes. “They'll be waiting for him to get home.”

He had no answer for that. They left the building through a side door and turned left, avoiding the main street through town and disappearing into the warren of alleys.

 


 

Later he remembered it was roast beef day for her. “You hungry?”

“Not really.”

He reached into his satchel and gave her an apple.