El Paso-Mexico City Express
American National Railways
Approaching City of Zacatecas
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 15th, 1917 A.D., 1917(b)
“This is a bit of a change,” Luz O’Malley Aróstegui said with a reminiscent chuckle as she came back from the ladies’ WC.
She stood for a moment before the observation car’s curved stern of knee-to-ceiling windows, reluctant to get back in the perfectly comfortable chair. Luz loved to travel…
Except for all the sitting. Right now I would kill… or at least maim… for a brisk three-mile walk.
Standing here gave at least gave the illusion of personal motion.
“A change, dearest?” Ciara Whelan asked, glancing up from the book she was reading and putting a finger to mark her place.
Luz had a trained spy’s ability to read quickly, at a distance, and upside down. The finger rested at a line that went:
Ca3(PO4)2 + 5C + SiO2 → 3 CaSi03 + 2P + 5CO
Whatever Ca3(PO4)2 + 5C + SiO2 → 3 CaSi03 + 2P + 5CO means! Luz thought affectionately.
Luz wholeheartedly admired her partner’s extraordinary self-taught grasp of the practical sciences without in the least envying it.
The cover of the weighty tome in Ciara’s lap proclaimed it to be Outlines of Industrial Chemistry, written by one Warren K. Lewis, Ph.D, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Third Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1916), useful as background for their current assignment and also something she might well have read just for the fun of it, though electrical engineering remained her first love.
And like the man Luz called Uncle Teddy and the rest of the world knew as President Roosevelt, Ciara could read several books a day at speed and remember them verbatim years later.
“Quite a drastic change from my most vivid memories of this stretch,” Luz said.
“Good for you,” Ciara said, rolling her eyes with a sigh of very mild sarcasm.
They’d be at their destination soon; she inserted a ribbon and closed the book before she went on:
“Because I can’t see that anything’s changed since we got east of Riverside the first morning out of Los Angeles! Golly, but America is big! And a lot of it is full of bushes and sand and rocks and lizards and buzzards and underfed livestock!”
Wet steel rails receded endlessly behind them as the Mexico City Express ground away the miles between El Paso and the Protectorate’s capital. The metal gleamed and then vanished over and over again, distance fading into the murk beyond the cone of light. This was a comfortable train and fast, if not as fancy or fast as a luxury hotel on wheels like the 20th Century Limited or the new Aztec Chief, which ran from Chicago to Mexico City four times a week. But photographers tended to show up where those stopped, seeking fodder for the Society pages of national newspapers.
Which the two of them very much did not want, even if they were only tiny figures in one upper corner of a shot centered on cinema celebrities like Chaplin and Mary Pickford, or Party bigwigs like Jane Addams and Herbert Croly. The enemy read the newspapers too, read them very carefully, and they had people who could recognize Luz’s face, and Ciara’s.
“We always were big enough that getting around took time,” Luz said; she’d travelled all her life.
She put her hands on the brass rail and took the opportunity to stretch discreetly, using a routine that set muscles working against each other. Then she sat, gripping the arms of the chair rhythmically and unobtrusively, pushing herself backward and relaxing, then lifting her body just a little on one foot against the foot-rail, holding it until the muscles began to quiver and hurt, and then the other, then both…
“But a lot bigger now, thanks to el jefe,” she added.
That was the way Black Chamber operatives usually referred to President Theodore Roosevelt, or less often with the English equivalent: the Boss. The Chamber was his personal creation, begun even before his landslide victory in 1912 and operating months before he was back in the White House; that had been before the amendment that moved Inauguration Day from March to January, of course. Things had been moving fast as people abroad and at home realized that the new Theodore Roosevelt and the New Nationalist movement and the new-minted Progressive Republican Party meant a change of regime, not just of names and faces and policy, and there hadn’t been time to wait on formalities—which was the Chamber’s modus operandi to this day.
“The United States has nine million, six hundred and forty-eight thousand, three hundred and ninety-five square miles currently,” Ciara said, in the voice she used when quoting some card-file in her head.
Luz found it fascinating; the finer points of human speech were her field of interest and expertise. And Ciara was never wrong when she spoke like that, not about anything quantitative.
Unless her source was, I suppose, Luz added to herself. Ciara went on:
“As opposed to three million, eight hundred and sixteen thousand, seven hundred and forty-two square miles before Mexico and Canada, umm…”
Her voice went from information-transfer to ordinary-conversation mode.
“—joined us. And then we… umm, bought… Greenland and Iceland from Denmark just now.”
The price had been ten million dollars, accompanied by destroyers and battalions of Marines as real-estate agents.
“It’s understandable that the Danes let the Germans resupply U-boats in their waters, given that Berlin has a gun to their heads, but… Uncle Teddy certainly makes things happen. Never a dull moment with him in charge!” Luz said.
Ciara nodded, but not entirely in agreement:
“Not geopolitically dull, but if you’ve seen one mesquite or cactus, you’ve seen them all. Or glaciers in Greenland, I suppose.”
“We’re just about on the edge of that, says the voice of experience! The shrubby and dry bit, not the glaciers.”
South of here fifteen hundred miles of very-to-somewhat-arid gave way to the fertile closely-tilled upland basins of the Bajío, and the gleaming cities the Spaniards had built on silver and Indian slaves in the days when their rule spanned continents and kings in Madrid dreamed of universal empire.
Ciara laid the chemistry textbook aside with a regretful glance; she’d been making little sighs of contentment and ah and oh and murmurs of yes, I see! as she read.
And reading a textbook in public is merely eccentric, Luz thought. Reading a set of Black Chamber briefing files with the Winged Dagger and All-Seeing Eye on the page headers would be both conspicuous and reckless, so in the secret compartment they stay. I do wish we’d had more than a few days notice for the mission. I’m starting to worry that the Director and Uncle Teddy have aneven higher opinion of us than I do.
On the arm of Luz’ chair was her choice of recreational reading, when she wasn’t indulging her weakness for French symbolist poetry by the likes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud: the latest All-Story Weekly, with a tale by Edgar Rice Burroughs set in California and involving hobos, a missing heiress, a mysterious gypsy girl living in the woods, private eyes, a car chase, a puzzling body, disguise, mistaken identities and a grizzly bear named Beppo by someone very eccentric who was keeping it as a pet.
It was enjoyable blather, but then she and Ciara had done things almost as wild themselves…
Hijacking a German airship to escape from Berlin with a secret electronic rangefinding device, for instance…
“So what do you remember differently?” Ciara asked. “This landscape looks as if it’s been the same since it had mastodons on it.”
“Not the scenery, the circumstances,” Luz said. “I was remembering coming down this line through Zacatecas to Mexico City in June of 1913, when Pershing took First Army across the frontier and we were running interference ahead of his Brute Squad, keeping the enemy confused and slow and helping him trap them. And again about six months later, after I’d done some… work… in Mexico City and Puebla and Cuautla with…”
Done things to might be more accurate.
“… the revolucionarios and Zapatistas. And it was different then.”
“Solo un poco,” she added with ironic understatement; just a little. “That winter and spring were the worst, when it looked as if the Intervention might fail and take the Party and the movement down with it. Not like this at all.”
She waved a hand at the comfortable and not over-crowded car as they clacked south through the rainy night at a steady fifty miles an hour behind the American National Railways’ workhorse Pacific Standard 4-6-2 locomotive, with a smoothness that told of recently re-laid track and a good roadbed. The table between them held cups of steaming Mexican coffee—brewed strong with piloncillo sugar and cinnamon and orange peel and topped with melted chocolate ice cream, the rich dark scents overcoming the leather-polish-fuel-oil smell of modern rail travel. And also a plate of crumbly, cinnamon-rich Polvorones de Canela.
“That was when we all had to become… hard.”
If they spoke quietly, they were effectively as private as a locked room.
“What was the trip like then?” Ciara asked; they were still learning each other’s pasts, though no longer trying to swallow decades at a gulp.
“No pastries, I imagine!” she added, as she finished off her own buttery cookie, dusting her hands and brushing off a few crumbs from the front of her blouse.
They’d missed dinner so far today because they planned to eat at their destination and there had been a scheduling problem. And also to get their bodies accustomed to Mexican rhythms. Down here local custom kept the old pattern with the main meal, the comida, in the early afternoon and a cena—a dinner-snack—quite late.
Soldiers could afford to live in a bubble of home they carried around with them; spies could not.
“We were living on stale tortillas and dubious beans we scavenged,” Luz said. “And Libby’s canned corned beef when we were lucky—every supply convoy from the north had to fight to get through. It was like swatting clouds of wasps while they tried to sting you to death.”
“That must have been… exciting,” Ciara said, giving a good game try at hardened indifference to risk.
Two very eventful missions together was more than enough for her to pick up the principle that excitement wasn’t a desirable quality in their line of work.
“Very exciting,” Luz admitted ruefully. “But… we all got very good at swatting wasps before they could sting. The survivors did.”
The main annoyance for the Black Chamber operatives this time had been from men who thought two attractive young women traveling by themselves must be wasting away for want of male company, which had necessitated a number of chilling set-downs and one smacked face.
“And at that, it was better than… the last ocean cruise you and I took back from Europe,” Luz said with a smile.
Ciara rolled her eyes in agreement; they’d made that under false pretenses on a German U-boat last year, one of the fleet sent to destroy the east-coast cities, and to add a little irony they’d nearly been killed by the depth-charges of US Navy destroyers before they got to Boston and broke free in a hail of gunfire to alert Uncle Teddy to the Breath of Loki. The next assignment, undercover in Berlin, had been just as stressful.
This year had been much more pleasant so far, mostly training and planning in San Francisco, with Ciara enjoying herself immensely doing courses at Stanford and very discreet consulting stints at the plants in the Bay Area that General Electric and Westinghouse were setting up to manufacture an American version of the German Telemobiloscope they’d stolen and doing it as far away from Germany as possible. Nobody on either side hesitated to copy the other’s inventions anymore, beyond giving them a new name or even just a lick of paint in the national colors.
This mission was supposed to be an important job, but not really hands-on dangerous.
Which I will believe afterwards, if it turns out that way. I seem to have some sort of malignant field around me, like those all-pervading electro-magnetic forces Ciara talks about, one that attracts wretched violence into my life.
“Sometimes getting there isn’t half the fun,” Ciara said. “But—” she inclined her head to indicate the outside “—this… In the adventure stories it’s all lions and tigers and bandits and going over waterfalls all the time. Or magnificent glaciers and storms at sea…”
“Nobody would read them if they left in the seven weeks of flies and sore feet and runny guts. My family went through this way many times when I was a girl, too,” Luz said. “My Papá built some of the branch lines!” she added proudly.
Ciara’s turquoise-green eyes showed a quick sympathy, and she leaned forward to give Luz’ hand a squeeze. She knew those travels had ended when Pancho Villa’s men had butchered Luz’ parents during the sack of the Sonoran hacienda where they were staying, while Luz herself hid at the back of a wardrobe in the same room with her pistol pressed under her own chin in case they found her. And crawled out afterwards beneath the smoke of the burning Casa Grande, through sticky congealing puddles of their blood. That had been…
¡Dios Mio! Luz thought. Going on six years ago now! Another world, not just another time. Before the Great War; before the Party, even.
She smiled as she returned the pressure of her lover’s fingers for a moment. The memory was still bitter, but it didn’t paralyze her inside with cold murderous rage as it had for so long, and it had been months since the last nightmare about it.
Killing most of the men who did it helped. Catching Villa and watching him die did too. And love… maybe love doesn’t heal all, but it certainly helps.
Ciara released her hand with a final squeeze. “I don’t think I’ve told you how much I admire the way you didn’t let that… that awful thing you went through make you hate all Mexicans,” she said. “I hated the English, after they killed Colm in Dublin last Easter. And that killed my Da, as surely as a bullet. Oh, I hated them, and it was bitter.”
Luz reached out a finger and playfully tapped the air in front of Ciara’s snub nose, which was set in a round freckled face, fresh and pretty rather than beautiful by most standards.
Entrancing by mine, she thought, and went on aloud:
“But you didn’t hate them enough to go along with the Breath of Loki, sweetie, when you found out what was planned,” she pointed out; her partner had been there in Germany as a courier from the… extravagantly… illegal Irish Republican Brotherhood before she switched sides.
Ciara waved a hand dismissively, and shuddered a little: “That? Killing all those women and little children in London, and all the poor common workingmen who had no politics and only wanted to get enough for the rent and food for their families and a pint at the pub now and then? That would be… be like spitting on my brother’s grave! He died fighting openly for what he loved, against armed men.”
“Still,” Luz said. “Mind you, sweetie, I hated the Mexicans who actually did it.”
She shrugged. “After that I fought Mexicans I had nothing personal against because my tribe was at war with their tribe, and because Uncle Teddy was my war-chief and he told me to fight. I liked Germany and the Germans I knew at school there… and I liked some of the ones we met there on our last mission… but I fight them too for the same reason.”
And frankly, because I enjoy fighting… or maybe it’s the winning part. It makes me feel alive, she thought. In a way only you do otherwise.
Aloud she continued:
“Human beings have always had tribes, and they always will, and the tribes have always fought for land and booty and power… and they always will. So the important thing is to win.”
“Well, we have nations now,” Ciara said, uncertainly.
What Luz had said wasn’t exactly Progressive rhetoric, though large parts of the New Nationalist brand of national-social Darwinism could be boiled down to about that. For a naturally jovial, genial man of deep affections and strong friendships… who’d once walked all around the White House neighborhood cradling a stray kitten he’d saved from dogs until he found it a good home… Uncle Teddy had a rather combatively bleak view of human nature and history.
Luz spread her hands. “Nations are tribes writ large with fancier names and machine-guns instead of spears. It’s not usually about right and wrong—”
For her, close reading of Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals in her late teens had confirmed long-held inchoate doubts about whether those concepts had any real substance beyond local custom and personal preference.
“—it’s just Us and Them, which is a lot more common. I actually like Mexico, and a lot of its people. I’d much rather live here than… oh, Illinois, say. I’ve… let it go. There’s a time to heal.”
And especially since meeting you, my heart, my darling. Which reminds me… I’ve been putting this off… let’s get it over with…
“Ah… there is one thing you should be aware of, mi amor, about the Station Chief in Zacatecas, Julie Durán.”
“It’s very Progressive, a woman holding a job like that,” Ciara said enthusiastically. “What an age we live in!”
Well, every word of that’s true, but… this is going to be awkward… I really should have bitten the bullet and said something earlier…
“She’s the only woman who’s a Station Chief, so far, I’m afraid, out of fifty-three domestic Stations, six in the Philippines and a round dozen and climbing abroad,” Luz said. “Though there are two more as Assistant Station Chiefs… Alma Michaelis in El Paso, and Theresa Baez in Merida down south, if I remember the current roster correctly.”
“Bob… her husband… is… remind me…”
Her perfect memory doesn’t work quite as well with people, Luz thought, and filled in:
“Executive Field Operative Roberto Durán. He’s New Mexican—old ranching family from up north of Taos, and they own land in the San Luis—southern Colorado—too. He was the first Station Chief in Zacatecas, and Julie was his assistant—they were the ones who made sure there wasn’t going to be a ‘marriage bar’ in our outfit—”
Many organizations public and private made women retire when they married, or used the prospect as an excuse not to hire them in the first place; not, however, the Black Chamber. Everyone got paid the same according to their rank, too, which wasn’t at all common even among Progressives.
Yet, she thought, and went on:
“—because he flat refused to take the job without her staying on the rolls officially, and I backed him up and got Uncle Teddy to put a word in and he talked the Director around. The fact that Bob’s a cousin of the governor of New Mexico didn’t hurt at all. The Director has him off doing something hush-hush now, so Julie got the job, to maintain continuity. She’d been doing most of it for a while anyway, while he got roving assignments.”
“A cousin of State Governor Miguel Otero, he would be; and Otero was Territorial Governor too,” Ciara said, showing she’d been paying attention.
New Mexico had only become the forty-seventh State in 1912… though there were fifty-nine and rising now. The starry flag was getting crowded.
“Yes; Otero’s influential in the Party because he was one of Uncle Teddy’s early backers in ’12, when it was risky. El jefe never forgets that sort of support. The Durán family are very well-to-do but not really rich… not by East Coast or Californian standards.”
Ciara snorted quietly, and Luz made an acknowledging dip of her head; that was a matter of perspective. To a shopkeeper’s daughter from South Boston Luz was rich, though she’d never seen it that way herself. Her father’s business as a consulting engineer planning and running projects had meant contact with people who really were rich—which in those circles didn’t mean having millions, it meant being able to spend millions.
“Bob’s Papá was in the Rough Riders like mine, so we met and hit it off in our teens when our fathers were at the reunions; a lot of the Rough Riders were from the New Mexico Territory, as it was then, and the Duráns are just the sort of frontier-baron-rancher people Uncle Teddy likes—he was at Julie and Bob’s wedding. I put in a word for Julie when she wanted to join… our organization… in late ‘12, when we were just getting going, and the three of us worked together a good bit afterwards. I introduced them, in fact… she was Julie Foederer then, of course… and they fell for each other like a pair of bricks tossed down a well. It was obvious by then that there was going to be war soon.”
“Yes, I remember how angry people were.”
Plenty of Americans had been killed in Mexico by that time—including her own parents, and very nearly herself—and tens of thousands driven out, and there had been deaths on American soil. Scores of volunteer Rough Rider regiments had sprung up in response to Uncle Teddy’s call even before the election was over.
“Julie was in her senior year at Bryn Mawr when I arrived in ‘08, though; her people, the Foederers, are from Philadelphia. She took me under her wing…
… elegant, bat-like, old-money, been-to-Paris-and-met-Natalie-Barney wing…
Get to the point, Luz, you’re dithering, she thought.
“I’m sure we’ll all get along well on this job, then!” Ciara said happily.
“Ah…” Luz said, glancing upwards as she summoned all her reserves of social tact, not to mention courage, and cleared her throat. “At Bryn Mawr Julie and I were, um, close… extremely close… for a while. That ended with a few tears, but no anger, and we’ve been friends since.”
In fact, we had a brief but extremely torrid affair, Luz thought, as she saw Ciara frown and then drop her eyes and flush beneath her transparent redhead’s skin as she caught the implications.
“Oh,” she said.
Luz carefully did not smile at rather fond memories; that oh was quietly pained.
Third person I’d ever been to bed with, and the first woman. ¡Ay, but that was fun! And an eye-opener.
It was her turn to reach out and take Ciara’s hand for a comforting squeeze. One of the many reasons she was glad she’d been born female was that women, even Anglo-Saxon ones…
Which, gracias a Dios, I am not, she thought. Though I can fake it if you hum a few bars.
… weren’t expected to act with the sort of perpetual bottling-up and emotional constipation that men had to show, especially in public and especially with each other. It also made discretion about certain things less difficult and irritating than it was for men in the same situation, though you had to be somewhat careful and annoyance at the world’s idiocies never entirely went away.
“I’m yours forever now, querida, but I can’t abolish the time before we met,” she said softly. “And I am a little older than you.”
“I wish you’d told me earlier!”
Luz met her eyes. “Did you want me to? I didn’t think you did. I’m sorry if I was wrong about that.”
Ciara hesitated. “No,” she said. “I didn’t… but I’m… well, I’m a little angry now you didn’t anyway!”
“So you’re angry now that you weren’t angry earlier?” Luz said. “If I had told you, would you have felt better on this trip?”
“No,” Ciara said unwillingly. “I’d have been… anxious.”
“And I was afraid you’d be angry and that there was nothing I could do about it, so I hesitated,” Luz admitted.
“You? Afraid?” Ciara snorted.
“Different type of afraid, sweetie. There aren’t many people whose anger I really fear, but you’re one.”
Ciara’s smiled died. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I… I’ll never be that angry with you, Luz. Never angry enough to hurt you.”
Then were silent for a moment, and then Luz nodded and spoke more lightly:
“Throw in that we couldn’t possibly turn down this assignment for personal reasons!”
The Director and el jefe certainly know about Ciara and me, Luz thought; they’d been moderately discreet, but they were living together. And as long as we deliver the goods, they’ll look the other way. If it started interfering with business, though… and they could certainly find out about me and Julie back in the day, if they started someone tapping into the ever-grinding Bryn Mawr alumni gossip mill…
Ciara took a deep breath and smiled, though it was obviously a little forced. “No, of course we couldn’t, love. Thank you for explaining. It might have been awkward if you hadn’t. At… at least we know she won’t be shocked about… us.”
“Well, no. But she’s a bit of a jokester and teases people sometimes,” Luz said, and added to herself:
Everyone. Incessantly. Mercilessly.
The fact that Julie was married now, was triply a mother and that Luz had introduced her to her husband wouldn’t have much impact on the way Ciara felt, though her basic sense of fairness would; she didn’t dislike men, but Luz strongly suspected that when it came to matters of romance they just didn’t exist in Ciara’s emotional universe. Until she and Luz met she’d assumed that was because she was a good Catholic girl and God was saving the spark for a husband, but she’d learned better in a hurry.
Whereas I… well, Julie and I used to travel à voile et à vapeur, both by steam and by sail, as the French say. Now I’m just happily monogamous.
Ciara was silent for a moment, then went on: “I’m… it’s very odd, looking inside… me.”
Which she does much better than most people her age, Luz thought. Much better than I did. I was smart back then, but also a tight-wrapped bundle of rage with a hair trigger and a knife in my pocket.
Ciara went on: “I really am sort of… of angry you didn’t tell me earlier! I knew there must have been… before me, I mean… But I didn’t want to know the details! So now I’m angry you did tell me… and that you didn’t. It’s… it’s illogical!”
Luz chuckled; for Ciara that was a serious self-accusation, since she was one of the most spontaneously rational people Luz had ever met.
“The heart has its own reasons the head knows not!” she said. “That’s jealousy you’re feeling, sweetie. You haven’t met the green-eyed devil much before, which says something good about you.”
Ciara made a shocked sound of denial and Luz gave her a fond smile. “I’m not blaming you, and I’m not angry! It’s not a rational emotion, and it never feels nice.”
“The locomotive’s slowing,” Ciara said with relief, her head coming up.
She was reading clues in the machine sounds, seconds before even Luz’ acute senses caught the feeling of deceleration, and a long melancholy hoot from the steam whistle followed on the heels of her words.
Shortly afterwards the conductor came through, announcing their arrival in Spanish and good, though accented, English just before the train took a steep downward slant toward the valley that held the town, a glowing snake of electric lights amid darkened hills. They went back to their compartment and packed and closed their cabin bags and hatboxes to be ready when the train halted for the fifteen-minute stop.
They stepped down quickly at the cry of: “Zacatecas! All passengers out for Zacatecas! Todos los pasajeros con destino en Zacatecas!”
And ducked their heads for a moment to avoid the sideways drive of chilly rain in the narrow gap between the train and the overhanging roof that covered the platform. The moderately-sized station here was brand-new and well-lit, built or at least faced in the local cantera stone which came in a dozen shades of pink and rose-red, all in a restrained Spanish Colonial style that wouldn’t have been out of place in California or the American Southwest either these days. But it and the small city it served weren’t nearly big enough to extend to the giant glassed-roof shed over the tracks that major centers had.
Luz smiled again at the contrast with her memories of previous visits, ones of bullet-pocked walls in the bright light of noon, barbed wire and machine-gun nests and the stink of smoke and, faintly, of rotting bodies. Now it was nine o’clock and the sky was black with the drizzling clouds, rain still pattering on the roof over the sidings and reducing the metallic burnt-oily-steamy smell of petroleum-fueled locomotives and sharp tang of creosote tar from the sleepers in the roadbed.
There were American soldiers this time too, but only a dozen, a squad’s-worth of young conscripts from someplace where, judging by the name-tags on their left breast pockets and the faces under their steel helmets, most of the people had four Swedish grandparents, directed by a corporal who looked as if he was old enough to shave but only just. They were spruce and heavily armed and doing everything just as they were supposed to do, right down to never putting the index finger inside the trigger guard.
But under their discipline they were obviously profoundly bored, amid a bustle of people disembarking and meeting friends or family and trundling off to the baggage claim, and they were talking quietly among themselves about an impending reassignment, which couldn’t come too soon.
One idly whistled the tune of an officially-discouraged marching song that dated back to the Philippine Insurrection, a ditty titled Little Brown Brother that Luz knew well:
Social customs here are few
The females they all smoke and chew
The men do things the Padres say are wrong;
So kill beneath the starry flag!
Let’s civilize ‘em—with a Krag!
And return us to our own beloved homes!
There was even a local band dressed in vaguely 19th-century quasi-uniforms wandering through and wheedle-de-dumping out a brassy march in the background… a very Latin version of There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight; street music was one of the features of these highland towns, often leading to impromptu dancing, and they were probably in the station because this was a good place to get out of the rain and get a few tips.
Mexicans who could took a long leisurely midday rest with their comida, and then stayed up much later than Yankees generally did. It often drove the efficiency-worshippers endemic in the Progressive movement mad with frustration, especially if they were the sort of obsessive who pursued efficient citizenship by doing time-and-motion studies of the best way to put butter on toast to avoid wasting precious time at breakfast that could and should be spent building the nation instead, but long exposure made the adjustment easy for her. It also made the streets lively in a way Luz liked. An equivalent small city in most parts of America would have rolled up the sidewalks by now on a weekday, with a late-night bridge game considered hot stuff.
“Brrrr!” Ciara said, shivering a little at the contrast with the heated train.
They set their hat-boxes and coach suitcases down on the colored tile of the floor for a moment to await the redcap who would bring their trunk out to the street entrance; the air was around fifty, but felt more chill than that with the damp.
“I see what you meant about packing some warm clothes, darling! In summer, too. How did that story about Mexico being hot all the time get started?”
“At sea level, mi amor. In places like Veracruz or the Yucatan or Tampico, where you stew amid the bananas and mangoes and your shoes rot and fall apart like damp cardboard and fungus grows on you in embarrassing places you can’t scratch in public,” Luz said. “We’re at eight thousand feet here; tierra fría, the cold country. Warm days and cool nights in summer, cool to cold in winter. It’s a different world down there in the tierra caliente.”
“Nice traveling with a native guide, that it is!”
Luz laughed, but there was a real pleasure in showing Ciara the places she’d known. She was looking forward to the chance at a long vacation in Boston, for the reverse.
“Oh, and watch out for being short of breath. It happens sometimes when people come up from sea level. Don’t try to ignore it, just rest when you have to and adjust gradually. And drink lots of water, the air here sucks it out.”
There was adequate warmth in their quietly modish but not excessively eye-catching summer traveling suits of knit wool fabric, whose cut was among the fruits of Coco Chanel’s first American year, which had included ordinary streetwear as well as high fashion. Luz was quietly proud of suggesting to Director Wilkie that it would benefit the American economy if a message was sent to Biarritz offering asylum to Luz’ favorite modiste. With lightning-quick wits and a ferocious concentration on the main chance the young designer had set speed records through the deadly chaos of the French collapse for the nearest American outpost waving the letter overhead.
She was now sleekly ensconced in a splendid apartment in the El Dorado at 302 Central Park West, laying down the law on fashion to the wealthy barbarians of the New World with steely French arrogance, charging heavily for the privilege, and accumulating socially prominent male hangers-on. She’d also—somehow—found out who was responsible for her good fortune, and gave them special deals on her output. Luz and Ciara both had the V-necked silk blouses over a chemise, tunics, slightly flared shin-length overskirts and four-pocket vaguely military-style overcoats with natural-waist belts that she’d produced in this spring’s season, in maroon and dark green respectively, and plain low-crowned brimmed hats with only a little Chantilly lace for trim.
The clothes suited their covers as Protectorate upper civil servants with good Party connections too, specifically a roving inspector looking for new places to put all-female technical training institutes and her assistant. Their youth was credible enough; the civil service hadn’t expanded quite as fast as the military since the change of regime in ‘12, but it was close—and closer still here down in the Protectorate, where Plenipotentiary Lodge had had to start from scratch. Promotions came fast and seniority meant very little, since nobody actually had any relevant experience.
That cover gave them good and legitimate reasons to meet with anyone including government officials, and to wander around being inquisitive and asking people questions, whether local or gringo. People might suspect they were government secret agents, but they’d suspect that of any newcomer anyway. As an added bonus the clothes were comfortable, gave very good freedom of movement even by modern standards, and made it easy to conceal bits of gear, especially with some subtle modifications.
In Luz’ case the gear included a chamois leather sap filled with fine lead shot, a wire garotte with cocobolo-wood handles, a set of lockpicks, a miniature camera in the handle of her purse, a .380 Browning FN automatic pistol her father had given her as a twelfth birthday present, and a beautiful, authentic and viciously effective six-inch folding navaja with a Toledo-steel blade in the classic Sevillana style.
She’d learned to use that semi-clandestinely in her childhood from an ancient and very disreputable retainer-coachman-bodyguard of her mother’s known as Pedro el Andaluz, who’d told her once that she was the sort of girl who’d need it very badly someday. She gave a reminiscent smile at the memory of the evil old baratero, who she’d loved like a cross between a grandfather and an accomplice, and then shouting caught her attention.
A score or so of young men were huddled off in one corner of the station’s platform, none older than her own mid-twenties. They were Mexicans, ordinary local mestizo peasants from their looks, their loose off-white clothing, the colorful fringed serapes they wore cloak-style against the chill, the sandals or less on their battered feet and the tall-crowned, broad-brimmed and often ragged straw sombreros on their heads. All of them had small bundles of possessions tied up with cord on the ground beside them, so they must be traveling as a group. They were staring at—and some of them were starting to mutter resentfully back at—at an American soldier who was waving his arms and pointing to a clip-board in one hand while he used loud fragments of what he thought was Spanish over and over again to tell them they had to wait; for a train, for dinner, or simply wait in general. The repetitions got more confusing as he went on, and they’d started out badly.
“Just a second, querida,” Luz said.
The tall lanky soldier had sergeant’s stripes on the loose-cut and infinitely drab brownish-gray-green modern US Army field uniform, a color designed to blend in to nearly anything except snow, and a Thompson gun with a fifty-round drum slung over his back. He also had a Deep South low-country gumbo accent, a flushed sun-red cracker complexion and sandy hair cropped close under a turtle-shaped oblong steel helmet with a few raindrops running down its dull grit-finished rustproof surface. His Spanish wasn’t nearly as good as he obviously thought it was, and what he did have sounded as if…
As if he learned it from someone in the Yucatan. ¡Madre de Dios!, he said pibil instead of horno for oven… make that he learned Spanish in the Yucatan from someone whose own first language was Mayan! And he’s saying… I think he’s saying… it go in oven-ing big long long time instead of just wait because it’s cooking now. It’s like a Russian peasant trying to talk to farmers from Maine in bits of English that he learned from a Chinaman in the Bronx.
Nor did yelling make you more comprehensible, despite the fact that people the world over seemed to think so by instinct.
Luz sighed. Besides being a good deed, stepping in was entirely in concert with her cover role; Party functionaries usually loved setting situations… and people… to rights with a brisk efficiency that sometimes slopped over into what unkind souls called being bossy self-righteous finger-wagging scolds. Their much-delayed dinner would have to wait a little longer.
“Sergeant?” she said, stepping close.
And with an effort of will she dropped back into her native Californian-style General American English, crisply leavened by European finishing schools and Bryn Mawr. She and Ciara had been talking mostly Spanish and German for months, to improve the younger agent’s skills.
Then a little louder: “Sergeant!”
The man wheeled on her, face and fists clenched with anger and frustration and eyes red with a long day that had probably started before dawn, obviously trembling on the brink of telling her to go mind her own business, with embellishments.
She gave him the Bellamy Salute—coming to attention with the right hand placed over the heart, then the arm extended at a forty-five degree angle with the palm up. It had started as the gesture used by children and teachers during the Pledge of Allegiance each morning at school, and had more recently become a commonplace for civilian adults at patriotic occasions; during the national anthem or a flag-raising or a parade on a public holiday and at official speeches and the like. Here she was technically saluting the American flag patch on his shoulder.
It wasn’t officially a thing only Party zealots did in an everyday one-on-one encounter like this, but that was the way to bet. He straightened as he took the gesture in, that and her clothing and a manner that also reeked of upper-middle-class status and probable connections to powerful people who could start a chain of chewings-out that would end in the painful gnawing of his very own personal buttocks.
“Ma’am?” he said tightly.
“I don’t think they understand you, sergeant.”
Tactfully, she added with a friendly smile: “I can hear you were stationed in the Yucatan. Spanish here is different from what you’re used to—it’s like the different ways people talk in Alabama and in Massachusetts.”
His brow cleared; evidently he hadn’t thought of it that way, but he’d certainly have had experience with regional dialects of his own language in the Army.
“I’ll translate, if you tell me what the problem is. What’s going on here?”
“They’re Army recruits, ma’am,” he replied. “Fo’ this-here new Mexican voluntary enlistment program.”
She nodded and smiled encouragingly; it was very new, and it promised Mexicans enlisting in the US armed forces citizenship for themselves and their immediate families and a land-grant of a hundred and sixty acres after four years or the duration of the war, with help to stock it.
Luz suspected it was going to be very popular, too. The dollar-fifty daily wage of a buck private in the US Army was four or five times what a peon, a country laborer, made here, not to mention the separation allowance for dependents, and the rest of the package was very attractive indeed. That was enough land to make you someone of considerable substance in these parts, a man of respect, what their neighbors would call el gran ranchero de por aquí. Those were a class the Protectorate administration wanted to expand and tie to the new regime and the United States, which would be a useful byproduct of the Army getting more raw material.
And the Army’s used to dealing with rustic young men who don’t speak much English, she thought.
The machine took them all—Norski farmboys and Finnish lumberjacks from the Upper Midwest, Lithuanian Jews in the pushcart-and-tenement sweatshop warrens of the Lower East Side, Sicilian fishermen in San Francisco, anything you could imagine—and turned out a standardized crop-haired, shoulder-braced product at the other end, able to read, write and speak the national language well, understand a map or written orders, handle machinery, swear with vivid obscenity and scatology in good Anglo-Saxon fashion, make a neat cot in barracks and brush their teeth American-style after chowing down for years on the bland abundance and vaguely Midwestern-cum-Southern uniformity of mess-hall food.
Same principle here. It worked for the Romans, no reason it shouldn’t work for us.
“I’m tryin’ to tell these here gre…”
He checked himself. Using the word greaser was against regulations, on the principle that it was better to expend a little courtesy than a lot of ammunition; a safe enough rule to break among his own kind, but not here with some prim censorious Party functionary on hand.
“… ah, these here boys, the train north is delayed, and they’ll get fed when the vittles I spent the expense money on get delivered, Ma’am,” the sergeant said. “And then they got all upset. Hell fire, they’re supposed to want to be so’jers! Late for dinner? Ain’t nothin’ no-how t’ what they-all be getting.”
“It’s not that; they’re used to being hungry. I think they thought you were telling them they had to go and find their own dinner if they wanted to eat at all, Sergeant.”
Meaning they thought you’d pocketed the money that was supposed to feed them—which if you grew up poor in Mexico is the first reason that would naturally come to mind dealing with anyone in authority.
“Let me help,” she added.
“Uhh… thank y’kindly, ma’am,” he said.
“You’re serving America, sergeant, so I’m just helping the country,” she replied.
Realization showed on his face as if a light-bulb had gone on over his head; now he wasn’t going to have to explain a screwup to an officer after all, or admit that he didn’t have the command of the language he’d claimed. For obvious reasons soldiers stationed in the Protectorate got substantial bonuses for being bilingual, especially ones on detached duty.
She turned to the men and switched back to Spanish, using the clipped Mexico City variety she’d learned there at private schools and social engagements in her teens, different from the lively bounce of her mother’s Cuban dialect and even more so compared to abuelo Pedro’s d-dropping Andalusian drawl.
“Señores, be calm!” she said, making a soothing palm-down gesture with both hands. “There has been a misunderstanding here. Let me explain.”
Those crisp tones would be familiar here in the central highlands, and sounding like a great landowner’s daughter down from the capital would be all to the good, giving her authority. Languages had always come easily to her, and their variations and varieties.
The peones straightened up too, as they would for the lady of their patrón back home; just because a man was illiterate and spoke only one language didn’t mean he was stupid, or couldn’t pick up on the clues of dress and accent or notice the respectful way the American sergeant had talked to her. Their square brown faces relaxed in relief as she made the message clear. As she’d said, hunger was as familiar to them as daylight; their anger was at the thought of being cheated.
One of them removed his hat and held it before him in both callused hands as he gave her a little bow.
“Thank you very much, Doña,” he said, using the formal usted and the word for lady that paralleled the respectful male Don, as he tried to be as polite as he knew how.
It was the careful courtesy of a proud man who had nothing else to give in return for a favor.
“You speak most excellent Spanish, Doña,” he added.
Unlike that noisy gringo, went unspoken in the flick of his eyes to the noncom.
Luz gave a very slight nod in return, maintaining a cool de-haut-en-bas distance towards strange men not of her family or social circle, in accord with local custom. What Americans considered ordinary friendliness could be badly misunderstood here.
“Good Spanish? How not, when Spanish was the language sung to me in my cradle, the tongue of my own dear mother?” she said, crossed herself, and added:
“Que dios la tenga en su Gloria.”
Which was the local equivalent of saying: May God rest her soul.
That brought broad smiles, and most echoed the pious gesture; they probably thought she meant her mother was Mexican.
It was perfectly plausible, and she’d often passed for a local on undercover missions south of what used to be the border; her long-limbed build was from her father, but otherwise her looks favored the Aróstegui side of the family, who were criollo Cuban-Spanish. With an unadmitted but inevitable dash of Taino Indian and God-knew-what, almost certainly including the odd quadroon, all picked up in the three and a half centuries since they’d moved from Santander in the Basque country to Santiago de Cuba and started accumulating sugar plantations. She had a smoothly olive complexion that darkened quickly to light wheat-toast brown in the sun, straight silky hair of raven-wing black, eyes that were very dark save for narrow blue streaks near the pupils and a face that was a little high in the cheekbones, straight-nosed and full-lipped above a small but square and slightly cleft chin.
It was a set of features that could pass unnoticed save for unusual comeliness in most places from the Rio Grande all the way to southern Chile, or for that matter anywhere around the shores of the Mediterranean, north or south.
Several of the men whispered to the one who’d spoken and nudged him. He moistened his lips and went on:
“Doña, with all respect, may I ask you a question?”
She nodded, and he went on:
“These promises that el Presidente Teodoro makes, can they be trusted? Will the gringos treat us honestly?”
Luz thought for a moment and decided that even for a spy sometimes honesty was the best policy. Occasionally, at least, and especially when nobody was in hearing range except men who’d all be a thousand miles away getting yelled at by drill instructors in a day or two.
“That is two different questions, Señor, and requires two different answers. As to el Presidente, yes. He is a hard man with a hard hand if you stand against him—”
There were nods at her short punching gesture with a clenched fist; nobody who’d lived through the Mexican Intervention was going to doubt that.
“—but he is a good friend, a good jefe. He was a brave soldier himself in the American war with Spain when we were children, one who always led his men from the front into the teeth of the bullets and the steel. Afterwards he defied his own superiors to get care for them when they were sick or hungry. When he rose to great power, those who had fought by his side were never turned away from his door, however poor they were or whether they were Anglo or Indio or of Mexican blood. Above all things he respects and honors brave and loyal men, and he does not forget those who followed him and supported him, whoever they are. You will get the pay you were promised, and the land and tools and animals, and the citizenship papers. Or quite likely death in battle, but you know that, eh?”
That got a chorus of smiles and nods and instant understanding; the bonds between a patron-boss, a jefe, and the clients who supported him in return for protection and favors were something people here absorbed through their skin in childhood. And nobody who’d ever fought Mexicans really thought they lacked sheer guts. She went on:
“As to your second question, some of the gringos will deal fairly with you if you do your best. Others will despise you and treat you badly from spite, or will insult you because they do not know or care about your customs. May you meet few such, but you will meet some and they will give you trouble.”
The nods were sober this time, though they weren’t surprised. If any group of people on the whole round earth knew what it was like to be stuck at the bottom of the social sewer-pipe where everything nasty eventually fell on your head, it was Mexican peones.
“Thank you for your honesty with us, Doña,” the man said.
The sergeant was looking at his watch and over his shoulder, obviously wondering fretfully where the hell the food he’d ordered was, but unwilling to go look himself lest the situation unravel in his absence. Luz made an instant decision, and spoke to him:
“I’m going into a bit more detail, Sergeant.”
Then to the recruits: “Let me tell you a little story, Señores,” she said, and they watched her intently, a few squatting on their heels and lighting hoarded cigarettes. “My father’s grandfather came to America… to a city named Boston… seventy years ago, fleeing from a famine that killed most of his village.”
Grave nods at that; they all knew what a time of hard want was like, and had felt it in their own bellies and seen it the faces of gaunt children when war and drought passed over these lands.
“He was like you, a campesino, a peasant who had always labored on the lands of others for nothing but scraps and kicks. He was Catholic, spoke not one word of English, and he could not write even his own name. The people of Boston were all Protestants then, and all of English blood. They looked down on those like him, spat on them, mocked their holy things, called them stupid apes and dirty drunken savages fit only to live like pigs and work like mules. He did work, at first carrying a hod of mortar up ladders, then learning to lay the bricks himself; and he taught himself English and his letters in the evenings after long days of toil. He saved pennies for years, and bought a horse and wagon, and by the end of his life had his own little house on his own patch of land, and a few men and boys working for him and beside him. He saw that his son attended school.”
She made a gesture with both hands palm-up and slowly rising.
“That son did better, and became a man of property in a small way, and his son, my father, went to a great university with the children of the ricos and outdid them by wits and hard work. He became an educated man, an engineer who designed and built mills and railways and canals that gave food and work to thousands. You have chosen a dangerous road, Señores, but one that may lead to a good place if you do your best and have some luck. And may God and His Mother and your patron saints watch over you.”
She crossed herself again, and turned away towards the waiting room and the exits in a murmur of thanks. Ciara took her arm and smiled beside her as they passed a handcart going in the other direction that held the promised dinner, judging from the appetizing smell of the frijoles refritos and eye-wateringly chili-rich local birria de chivo—goat stew—and the round baskets of tortillas, festival-food by peon standards.
“That was kind of you, my darling,” she said quietly.
Luz shrugged. “Well, it was good for them and for the country,” she said, slightly embarrassed. “Build your body and your mind to build yourself, but build yourself to build America,” she added, falling back on a basic Party slogan.
If there was one thing the New Nationalist movement agreed on it was that you had to put duty to the whole first. That was why extending rights and education for all was policy. Not for the sake of individuals, who were only cells in the body politic, but for the welfare and future of the nation and its people, because it made each citizen better able to contribute to the country.
As they reached the arcade facing the street, a hand beckoned from the window of a plain Model T.
Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling