The Russian Cage – Charlaine Harris

Isat at the table in my cabin, my sister’s letter in my hand, and read it for the third time. After that, it was hard to sit still. Part of my head was making a list of the things I had to do now. The other part still couldn’t believe Felicia’s message. I’d gotten a letter from her right after Christmas, a thank-you note for the deerskin jacket I’d sent her. Getting another letter this soon after the first one had been a surprise. As I’d walked out of the Segundo Mexia post office, I’d stuffed it in my pocket, figuring it was full of chatter about what the students had done for the rest of the holiday. Holy Russian stuff. I hadn’t felt any need to hurry back up the hill to my cabin, and I’d put away my groceries before I’d opened Felicia’s letter. Dear Sister, Felicia began. Thanks so much for the warm jacket. It is eligant! Right away a bell had started ringing. From eleven-year-old Felicia’s very first letter to me, every word had been spelled correctly (her handwriting had steadily improved, too). Her whole class had to write letters home at least once a month—at least, those who had homes—and they had to keep a dictionary beside them while they wrote. Felicia had underlined the misspelled word.

Just in case I didn’t notice. Too bad I can’t use it now. It was lovely and warm. I know you spent a lot of time with it. It’s stored away in a box until you can repair it. With it. Not working on it. She’d had to put away her deerskin jacket? Why? I knew winters weren’t really cold in San Diego, but surely a jacket … ? I wish you were closer, so we could talk face-to-face. Maybe you could visit. Let me know! I remember when I met you in Mexico, and you sent me here to the HRE.

That was a great day with good companions. I hope you’re well and you feel like traveling again soon. Your sister Felicia I hadn’t spent much time with my sister—hardly any, in fact. But I knew some things about her. Not only was she smart, she was devious. Felicia expected me to figure this out. All right, working backward. The “good companions” we’d had on the train platform in Ciudad Juárez were Klementina and Eli, both wizards from the Holy Russian Empire. Eli had been on a mission to find descendants of Grigori Rasputin, since Rasputin had died. The wizard’s blood had been keeping Tsar Alexei alive.

Felicia was Rasputin’s granddaughter by one of his bastards. Klementina, ancient and powerful, had come to check on Eli’s progress. She wasn’t the only one. A group of grigoris who wanted to topple the tsar had shown up to stop Felicia from reaching him. The aged Klementina and I had held them off while Eli and Felicia boarded the train to the Holy Russian Empire. Klementina had been killed. I had survived. Eli and Felicia had reached the HRE. So that left Eli. Eligant.

Felicia was telling me that she couldn’t see Eli any longer. That now he was in a box. She couldn’t mean a coffin; I could “repair” it. I stared at the letter for at least three minutes before I understood. Eli was in prison. Felicia hoped I could get Eli out. She wanted me to come bust him out of a cell. My mind raced ahead, much as I told myself to slow down. I’d have to take a train, probably several trains. I needed to go to my mom’s house and fish my money out of the hidden hole in the wall in my old room.

I hoped I’d have enough. I actually rocked on my feet, torn between running back to town to visit my mother and Jackson and packing my stuff here and telling my nearest neighbor, Chrissie, I’d be gone for a while. In the back of my head, I knew the smartest thing to do was to sit tight. Eli was resourceful; he could get out of this dilemma by himself. But I knew I wouldn’t do that. CHAPTER TWO My stepfather, Jackson Skidder, took me to the train station in Sweetwater the next day. I’d worked out my route on the railway timetables Jackson kept at his hotel. I had to travel light. I had two changes of clothes, some extra ammunition, my savings in New American dollars, and fifty dollars in HRE money courtesy of Jackson. Jackson had always been good to me.

This was the best. And he didn’t get all upset like my mother had. She was a calm and beautiful woman, but she hadn’t been calm when she’d found out what I was planning. Jackson, who understood me better, knew I had to go. On the drive to Sweetwater, Jackson said, “Pretty dangerous in San Diego, from the papers. Lots of men out there who were let go when the armed services collapsed.” I knew exactly what desperate men were like. I nodded. “Bring Eli back here, when you got him.” I’d get Eli out or die trying.

I hoped I’d see Jackson again. He’d always been good to my mother and me. “I will,” I said. As I got on the train with my leather bag slung over my shoulder, Jackson said, “Easy death, Lizbeth.” My backbone felt straighter when he said the good-bye reserved for gunnies. I nodded. And in ten minutes I was on my way. I was scared shitless. CHAPTER THREE It took me four days and three nights to reach San Diego. We passed out of Texoma (used to be Texas and Oklahoma) and into New America pretty quick.

The flat land and broad plains, the empty towns everyone had left to find a way to survive, poured past my window in a steady stream of sameness. Every now and then we saw buffalo, or a pack of wild dogs, or some little settlement clinging to life. I ate the food I’d brought with me. There wasn’t such a thing as a dining car on most of these trains. Every so often, I got off at a stop and bought whatever I could find available—mostly tamales, at little stands run by children. I can’t say I was too hungry. The constant sound, the constant movement, and switching from one train to another as my route required shook me up. At least the trains weren’t crowded until we got closer to the Holy Russian Empire, which used to be California and Oregon, my mother had told me. I wore my guns the whole time, so only people who saw no other vacant place sat by me. They didn’t know what a risk they were taking.

I was short on patience and long on aggravation. One man thought I might be posing as a gunnie, and he had a broken finger to add to his problems after he touched me while I slept. After so many hours I’d lost count, I was on the final train, the one that would cross the border between New America and the Holy Russian Empire. A billboard announced it as HOME OF THE MOVIE INDUSTRY, ORANGE GROVES, AND THE TSAR AND TSARINA. And right after I’d read the sign and gotten all excited, the train stopped. We were at the border. I’d expected this stop from hearing the other passengers chatter. I didn’t expect two guards to board the car. The two men wore gray and red uniforms and black gloves. One had probably wandered for years with the tsar’s flotilla when he escaped from the godless Russians.

I figured that because he had a gray mustache, and he just looked different. The other man? Probably born in the state of California, as it had been. Both of the border guards looked bored until they saw my guns. They were checking passports, recording the name of everyone going into the HRE. Lucky I’d had the time (while I was getting over my last gunshot wound) to get a passport, just in case. I handed the tan and green booklet to the born Russian. While his buddy looked at my sidearms real careful, the older man opened the passport to look from my picture to me. The American-born one said, “You’ll have to put your guns in the safe at your hotel. You can’t carry ’em openly in the HRE.” I nodded.

The two passed on, the Russian having handed my passport back to me. Welcome to the Holy Russian Empire. CHAPTER FOUR By the time the train pulled into San Diego, I was hardly able to put two words together. It was evening when I stepped out of the station on Kettner Street. Lucky all I had to do was find a hotel. The first place I stopped was too expensive. I plodded on. About six in the evening I found a place I could afford two blocks east. It was called the Balboa Palace. It was not anyone’s palace.

But the place looked clean, and I could pay for it without crying. “Can’t carry guns on the street,” the clerk told me, nodding at my Colts. I nodded back, to show I’d heard him, and he handed me my key. My hand was shaking. I took the stairs to the third floor. The clerk called, “We have an elevator!” I nodded to show I’d heard him, but at the moment I wasn’t up to anything new. Stairs were good enough. I locked my room door behind me. I stripped off my nasty clothes and dropped them to the floor. Then I was in a real bed, and it did not move, and I slept for twelve hours straight.

When I woke up the sun was shining in the window, and the sounds of a city were cranking up outside. I lay there thinking for a bit but then couldn’t stand myself anymore. I had a bathroom of my own, not the norm at Texoma or New America hotels. There was a showerhead over the tub. By the time the water got the right temperature, I was excited about stepping in. I washed myself twice. Then I washed the clothes I’d worn since I stepped on the train in Texoma. I hung them up around the room. With the windows open to the cool air, I figured they’d dry pretty quick. I put my guns in the wardrobe and hung out the DO NOT DISTURB sign as I went in search of food.

I hadn’t even registered that there was a dining room the night before. It was right off the lobby and two steps down, and it had windows onto the street and its own door. I was glad to sit at one of the tables to watch people pass by. It was like watching a circus. I drank good coffee and ate good pancakes and eggs. I saw Chinese people and old-fashioned Russians and quite a few I could not even identify. There weren’t any women wearing jeans and boots like me. Oh, some women wore pants, but they were loose in the leg and tight in the waist and matched their blouses. Their shoes had heels, which I was not going to do. I’d worn ’em in Dixie.

I wouldn’t do that again. The clerk—not the man from the night before—was standing behind the reception counter, going through a stack of white cards. He was in his fifties, I reckoned. Not as weatherworn as people got in Texoma, but he didn’t look soft. “What can I do for you this morning, miss?” he asked, real polite. “Rose. Lizbeth Rose.” I shook his hand, which surprised him. “Paul McElvaney.” “Do you have a map of the city?” I didn’t know if this was a ridiculous question or not, but if I didn’t start asking, I’d never get answers.

“Right here.” McElvaney pointed at a rack to the left of the high counter. “They’re free.” That was luck. I took one and said, “If you got a minute, can I ask some more questions, Mr. McElvaney?” There wasn’t anyone else within earshot. McElvaney nodded. “Call me Paul.” “Is it really against the law to carry guns on the street?” “Yes. The police don’t take kindly to open carrying.

It would be a big risk on your part, not one you should take.” “Then do you have a safe? That guests can put things in?” “We do. You can put in anything you want.” “I’ll bring my guns down, then. How would I look up someone’s address?” “Phone book. There’s one in the phone booth on each floor, next to the elevator.” I had wondered what that was. “Thanks. I heard about trolley cars. How do you get on one? How do you buy a ticket?” San Diego was too big for me to walk everywhere.

Paul told me what I had to do. He hesitated for a second. There was something else he wanted to say. I made a come on gesture. “I should warn you,” Paul said. “When California broke off, there were a lot of USA army and navy men here. Quite a few of them didn’t go home. Some of them got jobs in the guards, the police force, for builders. A lot of them didn’t. There are gangs in San Diego that make the streets—well, you have to be careful.

” “I thought the HRE was hard on lawbreakers.” Tracked them down and killed them, was what I’d heard. “If robbers or killers are on their own, the grigoris and the police take care of them pretty quick. But the gangs have more strings to pull. And there are some Russians mixed in.” “Thanks for telling me,” I said. I offered him some of my Russian money. “No,” Paul said. “I was warning you like I would my own daughter. She’s your age.

” “Good to know,” I said. “Thanks, Paul.” “I can tell you’re a young lady who’s used to taking care of herself,” the clerk said. “This is a lovely city, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you here.” I nodded, and went to the elevator. Getting the free map and the good advice had made me bold. I watched other people for a minute until I understood the procedure. I pressed the button to call the elevator. It came down, the doors opened, and there was a woman sitting on a little stool. I stepped inside.

“What floor, please?” the woman asked. “Three,” I said, and she closed the open grille and then the elevator doors and pulled her handle. Up we went. I had a little whoopsy feeling in my stomach, that was all. The elevator came to a decided stop. I didn’t know what to do next, but the woman opened the doors, first the grille set and then the solid set, and there was my floor. I’d already had my first adventure of the day. I found a pad of paper and a pen handy in the desk in my room, both printed with BALBOA PALACE. I carried both back to the phone booth, marveled at the folding door on it, opened and shut it a few times just to avoid the next step in my search for information. No one interrupted me while I looked up a lot of places I needed to visit and wrote down the addresses.

Then I read all the directions on the pay telephone, so if I had to use one, I was ready. While I did all this, the maid had been cleaning my room. I sat at the desk with my maps, both the street map and the trolley map. My head was tired by the time I had it all worked out. The Grigori Rasputin School was on the mainland side of the bay, not far from the palace and many government buildings located on North Island, which wasn’t really an island. After I figured out my route to the school, I estimated it would take me forty minutes to walk there. I thought of calling the number I’d written down just to forewarn them I was coming to see my sister. But that seemed … not as good as showing up, somehow. Also, phone calls cost money. So step one was decided.

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