Chapter 4

Luz and Ciara walked quickly toward the great exit doors in the wake of their baggage like pilot fish behind a whale, anonymously upper-middle-class in their plain good tailleur shirtwaist outfits, slightly flared calf-length skirts, and moderately broad-brimmed round hats, each with a single pheasant feather in the band above the right ear. They came out into the brightness and mild warmth of the great curved loggia in front of the station, amid a spill of purple and crimson bougainvillea planted in man-tall ceramic vases between the soaring marble height of the Corinthian columns that burst into clusters of gilded acanthus leaves at their summits.

“There’ll be plenty of jobs for the Cockneys; right now, there’s work for anyone breathing,” Luz went on. “And we’re not short on food or clothes either, ¡gracias a Dios! Though with the way Los Angeles has been growing they may have to put them in prefab barracks or even Army tents for a while. No hardship in this climate, but I hope they’ve got better quarters ready for the ones they’re sending to Chicago or Minneapolis.”

“The unfortunate Sassenach can get work building houses to live in, then, the way our folk did in Boston, Luz,” Ciara said a little tartly.

She’d been utterly horrified by the Annihilation Gas attacks and risked everything to stop Germany’s Project Loki… but that didn’t mean Ciara liked the British Empire any better than she had. Ancestral grievance still spoke:

“There wasn’t anything like this on hand when our folk came off the coffin ships back in the famine years. Crawled off or were dragged off by the feet, often enough. And the signs they saw were likely to read No Irish Need Apply.”

It speaks loudest when she’s not looking at actual toddlers rather than theoretical enemies, Luz thought fondly. The niños turn her from Avenging Goddess of the Gael into a smiling puddle of goo making funny faces. ¡Dios mío! but she’s better than I deserve!

“I take the point and that’s gospel true, mi amor,” Luz said aloud. “But this is a better way to treat immigrants, and progress is what being a Progressive is about, isn’t it? They’ll be Americans soon enough, more sausage in the stewpot like all the rest of us. Besides—”

Luz nodded to a poster. This one showed Uncle Teddy, scowling through his pince-nez with his left forefinger stabbing forward and his right hand clenched into a fist—it was a print taken from a famous photograph of one of his speeches, and one that had always made her imagine he was about to jump on a miscreant and beat him senseless the way he had that drunken gunman in Nolan’s Saloon when he was ranching in the Dakota badlands.

Underneath was a familiar Party slogan: 100% Americanism! Vote Progressive Republican!

That was a little redundant given the results of Tuesday before last. The papers were still trying to come up with superlatives strong enough, since landslide and avalanche were plainly inadequate. The Party—and Uncle Teddy—believed in driving arguments home with jackhammer repetition; subtle boiled no potatoes. They knew you had to make people feel as well as think, feel like a tribe on the warpath or a pack howling in unison behind Wolf… or Bull Moose… Number One.

Half an hour of suffering through Woodrow Wilson droning abstractions and subclauses through his Princetonian nose is enough to illustrate the difference.

She went on: “Their children… like that little girl you had giggling… will be one hundred percent and then some. You won’t be able to tell that their ancestors didn’t help row Miles Standish ashore from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, or that they aren’t descended from Pocahontas like all those First Families of Virginia people.”

“Well, yes,” the younger woman said. “Still… oh, you’re right, darling, and half of the Cockneys probably have an Irishman in the woodpile, come to that. Plenty went east in the hunger time, to build railroads in England, and mine coal and load ships and work the looms.”

Other posters showed Uncle Teddy in his Rough Riders uniform, unmistakable though considerably younger and slimmer, with:

Leading the charge of Progress then and now! above, and two lines of print below:

The New Nationalism—Prosperity!—Unity!—Strength!

They maneuvered around a Four Minute Man standing on a box and holding forth to a small crowd, using another poster behind him as backdrop for a quick rundown on why the German Empire was, indeed, a very bad thing.

This one showed a snarling gorilla in a German uniform and obsolete spiked helmet dancing across a wrecked house amid the dead bodies of women and children with a blazing torch in one hand and a blood-dripping knife in the other.

You couldn’t even say it’s all that inaccurate, which must be a first for wartime propaganda. Germans just have no sense of public relations at all; no wonder they ended up fighting the whole world!

Uncounted American Schmidts and Bauers and Meiers were making quick visits to registry offices and emerging as Smiths and Farmers and Stewards, while the clatter of German-language newspapers and schools shutting their doors resounded all the way from Texas to Wisconsin.

Though of course…

The problem is that so far they’re beating the whole world, too, one enemy at a time.

Luz stopped at a newspaper kiosk and passed the disabled veteran who ran it one of the handsome new Walking Liberty half dollars for copies of the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlantic Monthly. Plus the All-Story Weekly for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s latest pulp adventure, “Wings of Death,” which involved evil Prussians with a flying U-boat in Lake Superior that shot invisible death rays capable of wiping out cities. And a kidnapped heiress surnamed Lehmann in revolt against her questionably patriotic parents; she sabotaged the devilish German plots while maintaining her virtue with the aid of a spy from a carefully unnamed agency undoubtedly meant to be the Black Chamber who’d infiltrated the crew.

The death rays were a lot more credible than they would have been a few months ago.

Plus the November issue of Croly’s rag, the New Republic, to brush up on what the Party leadership was thinking or at least wanted people to think they were thinking… that set of wheels within wheels got more wheels within it with every passing month, not even counting factions.

Ciara suddenly remembered she didn’t need to skimp anymore by buying her magazines a month late and used, and contributed a coin for Scientific AmericanModern Electrics and Mechanics, and the Technology Review.

“No change, sir,” Luz said to the man, who took the money awkwardly with a stiff left hand.

Then, stepping back and dropping back into Spanish, speaking softly because the man had probably acquired some south of the border: “All right, a lesson. How would we detect a tail here?”

Ciara nodded tautly; she always took work seriously.

“Look in that mirror above the booth?” she said.

“Yes; but be careful not to be too obvious about it. Windows are good for that too, especially shop windows; or you can stop and turn to look at your watch as cover. But always just a glance; staring alerts people faster than anything else. Keep your eyes moving, tracking across things.”

She tucked the newspapers and magazines under her arm, then turned and pointed at an aeroplane flying by, a much more frequent sight than it had been a year or two earlier but still rare enough to attract attention. Unless you were a New Yorker, but they probably wouldn’t let themselves show anything but jaded boredom even if giant apes climbed the Woolworth Building to be shot down by fighting scouts or if fire-breathing dinosaurs crawled out of the sea onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Or anything else it’s natural to look at. Scan the crowd quickly as your eyes drop from the sky. It’s hard to act completely natural when you’re tailing someone; you focus, and that’s detectable—it changes the way you walk and hold yourself. Most give themselves away without realizing it. They stiffen when you look at them, for example. You need to train your intuition to spot them, to see what’s giving you that hunted feeling.”

Ciara nodded as she gave the crowd behind them a quick glance, and they walked on. Luz continued:

“Now, when you check behind yourself again, you look for something familiar—hats and clothes are easier to spot than faces at any distance, but faces too.”

“I’m not very good at faces,” Ciara admitted.

“It’s just a matter of paying attention.”

Ciara pouted slightly: “But I don’t pay attention to people that much unless they have something interesting about them! Well, except you. I mean, you’re always interesting.”

“Flatterer. Don’t try to memorize the whole face, as if you were getting to know someone socially. Look for something out of the ordinary and mark that down.”

“And if I think I’ve spotted someone who’s following me? How do I make sure?”

“There are giveaways; we call them tells in the trade. That’s a gambler’s term originally.”

It’s interesting how much of the Chamber’s vocabulary comes from… irregular… sources, Luz thought. Clandestine work and crime have a lot in common. She went on:

“If someone stops every time you do, that’s an obvious tell, so you stop and start unpredictably; but a tail is most effective if it’s done by a team, the bigger the better so they can hand off. Even with only two, one walks by when the subject stops so it’s not always the same person behind you halting in unison. I don’t think anyone’s trying now, but you never know. When we get into the cab, notice if anyone else hurries to flag another one right after us; if they do, keep an eye in the rearview mirror for that cab. It’s easy since they have to have the license number on the front and rear bumper plates these days.”

Ciara smiled. “I will. Though I’ve never actually taken a taxicab before. Or any auto before I left Boston!”

“See how our friendship is bringing you all sorts of new experiences?”

“Oh, you!” Ciara said happily, and gave her an elbow nudge.

“Taxicabs are a wonderful institution from a spy’s point of view,” Luz went on. “We can wait here for a second and see if anyone stops without a good reason.”

Most of the disembarking passengers were walking three lanes out along brick paths through the asphalt of the roads and standing on the island there to take one of the ranks of big yellow-painted Greater Los Angeles Transportation Authority trolley cars; these days the GLATA could zip you all over the basin for a nickel or two, though Luz intended to use a cab. The trolleys pulled up, climbing from the underground section, filled up, and pulled away in endless succession with a rumble and an occasional ozone-smelling spark from the overhead lines.

“Now, if you’re using the trolley, you can get on, wait for a tail to get on too, then step off at the very last moment just as the doors close. That’s also good for identifying them—they tend to try to follow you and get caught in the doors, or glare through the windows. Give them a sweet smile and a wave and they’re more likely to do that.”

“And you can go through stores or restaurants and come out the back, you said?” Ciara said.

“Yes, but you have to be careful about that—if it’s a team, some of them may have whipped around to the alley at the back when you went in the front. Alleys are a good spot to do a snatch without being noticed, and you can just bundle the subject into an auto with a threat from a gun under the coat over your arm, and drive off, provided they don’t have the nerve to run for it, which is very irritating of them because then you do have to shoot them. Or you can sap them with a cosh and pretend they’re drunk or in a fainting spell, though that’s always very risky.”

“Chloroform?” Ciara asked, and rubbed the side of her head where Horst von Dückler had pistol-whipped her in that warehouse in Boston. “Hitting a head… it’s like hitting a teapot full of jelly.”

“A mixture of chloroform and ether works—but that takes a long time, several minutes, despite what the adventure stories would have you believe. The subject has time to… object forcefully. A cosh is quick at least, but if you hit hard enough to be sure… you’re absolutely right about that, it’s risking death or idiocy. Practice helps, but people’s heads just have a lot of variation. Now, knockout drops in a drink actually can work, but there’s rarely any privacy, so it’s better to make them woozy rather than try for a lights-out dose and have some kindhearted imbécil call for a doctor.”

She looked around at the crowds. “Thank God they got the station and the trolley lines finished before the declaration of war. It would be an even more complete zoo otherwise with this much traffic.”

Ciara took a glance too. “They’d have finished it anyway as a war priority if they had any sense,” she said. “You’d lose more resources on increased transport costs than you spent. Assuming the war lasts more than a few months, but then, has anyone expected the Great War to be over by Christmas since December twenty-fifth of 1914?”

Luz thought for a moment; it was an excellent point… though believing the war was going to last forever meant falling off the other side of the same horse, even if it was emotionally easier now.

“True, if they’re rational about it. But a lot of other projects are going to be slowed down or put in mothballs. Desvestir a un santo para vestir a otro.

“Taking the clothes off one saint to clothe another… Oh, I see!” Ciara said, and shifted back to English for a phrase: “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

“Yes, robbing Peter to pay Paul. They’ll be keeping on with the things like dams and roads that have a definite payoff, and leaving the pretty buildings for later,” Luz said, and sighed. “It’s a real pity, we had so much planned.”

The porter had spotted them and waved; Luz nodded to him and raised a hand toward the rank of waiting cabs. A plain Model T Ford type with open sides slid forward. That was common here since this climate rarely needed more, even in winter.

She gave the delighted redcap an additional dime, and was taken a little aback when she saw that the driver, while in the blue porterlike uniform of the local Municipal Cabdrivers Cooperative, a subbranch of the GLATA, was a tired-looking woman of about thirty with mousy brown hair pushed up under her billed cap.

“General Wheeler Airship Haven, thank you,” Luz said, as Ciara slid into the rear seat.

A female cabbie would have been very unlikely four years ago, and uncommon even last year; Luz thought of herself as flexible, but the pace of change in the modern era could make you dizzy sometimes. The cabbie didn’t touch the taximeter’s lever to start it ticking, either.

“Do ya one buck flat an’ no tip, miss?” she said, turning to look at them; her accent was purest quick nasal working-class New Jersey, or Nu Joisi, not the flat near-midwestern neutrality more common here.

Luz nodded and gave a sympathetic smile as well as two of the half-dollar pieces.

“Yes, that’s fine,” she said, sliding back into California English with long-practiced reflex. “Is your husband in the Army, Mrs.”—she glanced at the license displayed on the back of the driver’s seat—“Cardola?”

“Navy, miss, and his destroyer’s been transferred from the Pacific Fleet back ta Norfolk out east,” the driver replied with a smile in return as she engaged the gear. “Wish dey’d pick one place! Foist it’s Brooklyn, then we’re here just long enough to settle in, like, then it’s Norfolk—and there just ain’t base housing in Norfolk now, so’s me and the kids stayed here. An’ da shipyard workers! I hear dey’re hot-bunking ’em, got ’em hanging by da heels like dey was bats.”

Another porter blocked the path for a moment, and the driver leaned out the window, shook her fist, and yelled:

“Get da hell outta da way, ya bum!”

Then in a pleasant conversational tone: “With three kids… well, the separation allowance is pretty good, I got da driver’s-ed course free and dis job causa George, an’ we get a special ration book with da Eugenic bonus, but every bit helps da way prices have gone. Couldn’t drive dis heap a’ junk at all if dose Scout girls didn’t help out at the crèche.”

The one-dollar charge with the meter off was a minor fiddle. She wouldn’t have to pay her commission to the Metro Cabdriver’s Cooperative, since it was automatically deducted from her meter’s totals at the end of the day and the passengers would save about a dime out of it… assuming they’d intended to tip generously. The driver had probably chanced it since they were leaving the country, and made a snap judgment that they weren’t the type to take her license number and report her anyway. Ciara turned and looked behind them, then said in Spanish:

“The next cab was a family with small children. Probably not a tail?”

“Sí, tienes razón,” Luz said. “Mas—”

“You Italian, miss? My George’s folks met in Patterson, but dey were bot’ boin in Palermo,” the driver said. “Don’t talk it myself. My maiden name was McAdoo.”

“No, we’re brushing up on Spanish for our work in the Protectorate, Mrs. Cardola,” Luz said pleasantly.

Odd… it’s harder to give a chatty female cabbie a set-down, or at least it feels that way.

The cabbie went on chatting, mostly with Ciara. Taking Spanish for Italian was a natural enough mistake for an East Coast city dweller like her to make, though not one you’d expect from an L.A. native. The languages sounded similar to an untutored ear, Luz could easily have been Sicilian as far as looks went, and the already massive pre-1914 immigration that had produced the cabbie’s husband was getting plenty of reinforcement as prudent Italians looked north at the avalanche of disasters that was the Great War and scrambled to get out to the United States or Argentina or Brazil… or anywhere else, probably including Tibet… while they could.

Luz gave Ciara a glance out of the corner of her eye to say:

Don’t just assume someone doesn’t speak a language, and got a nod of acknowledgment.

They were out of the built-up area and its dense traffic quickly. The road went through a rather smelly oilfield, so new roustabouts were still capping a gusher that had left black sticky pools for hundreds of yards around and made the taxi skid dangerously, past busy-looking but ugly boxy factories with more under construction, and across pleasant leafy suburbs with brilliant gardens and palm-lined streets. Those quickly gave way to open farming country, heading northeast toward Pasadena. L.A. had still been a Mexican-flavored country town when Luz was born, but it seemed to grow inexorably by making a profit off that growth, as if it were grabbing its hair with both hands and pulling itself into the sky by main force.

“How pretty it is, and this November and all!” Ciara exclaimed in English, looking around at the countryside; her New England weather standards had been only slightly blunted by a short month’s honeymoon in Santa Barbara. “And it smells lovely!”

The two-lane road had a smooth concrete surface, courtesy of the Rural Roads Program, and ran between rows of pepper trees through a flattish landscape of small densely planted farms; most were in bushy-green orange groves, surrounded by windbreaks of blue-trunked eucalyptus or palms. There was a green, slightly flowery scent in the air now that they were well past the oilfield, and the trees were thickly starred with yellow fruit. Here and there workers in overalls and broad-brimmed straw hats were bringing in the golden harvest, picking from the ground or stepladders and filling traylike boxes, while others repaired the channels and pipes that carried water to the fields. Other fields were in different fruit trees—figs, pears, peaches, pomegranates, avocados—or grapevines, and open stretches showed rows of ground-hugging vegetables thriving through the wintertime in dirt as moist and rich and chocolate-brown as cake.

Even the roadside verges were green with the start of the winter rains. The distant San Gabriels had a dusting of snow on their tops, and it all had a feel of ripe, exuberant, well-tended fertility.

“Ah, you should see it in da spring when the citrus blooms, miss,” the driver said over her shoulder. “It’s like being inside a perfume bottle then! My George and me are going to get a place like dem dere over in the Valley… the San Fernando Valley… after the war, with da Veterans Settlement Program grants—we got it picked out an’ registered already an’ the water’s ready to hook up.”

Luz nodded politely; it had been policy to limit the size of irrigated farms for several years now. With strict enforcement, the bigger ranches were selling their surplus acres all over California and the rest of the dry West. The Veterans Settlement Program was a major beneficiary of that and the Bureau of Reclamation’s giant projects.

The cabbie continued happily: “You don’t need much to make a pretty decent living wit’ oranges. A little house and a big garden and good schools.”

“I sure hope that works out right for you, Mrs. Cardola,” Ciara said, obviously sincere.

“Que Dios lo conceda,” Luz said absently in agreement, which was just as sincere but less hopeful.

The cabbie’s husband was on a destroyer, which meant convoy escort or sub-hunting work, and from what she’d heard the convoys were running fights all the way across, with advantage seesawing back and forth between the Entente navies and the Kaiserliche Marinewith each change in tactics or gear. Just a few months ago Luz and Ciara had come back from Europe aboard U-150… and had been depth-charged by American destroyers as they came west. And it had been…

Very unpleasant, Luz thought mordantly at the memory of fear and helplessness and waiting for the inrush of water as the blasts rang the fragile hull of the submarine like a bell.

For the escorts and merchantmen, running fight meant torpedoes slamming home out of nowhere, men flayed alive in seconds by superheated steam from ruptured lines, damage control parties working beyond all hope in total darkness as the water rose and rose, survivors clutching wreckage in the frigid North Atlantic and hoping for rescue before the chill penetrated to their hearts.

She carefully did not add aloud: And I hope your George isn’t blown into fishbait or drowned or burned alive.

It was her job to stop that, after all; and now Ciara’s as well.

We too are among the ones who put our mortal bodies between our folk and the desolation of war.

They saw the hangars first, immense rising skeletons of girder and truss still under construction and bare to the sky. Then the airship; it was an American development of the Zeppelin company’s designs, but Zeppelin wasn’t a word much used since the declaration of war. You had to see it silhouetted against the bones of the immense buildings to realize the sheer size of the thing; it towered a hundred and fifty feet into the air and stretched nearly eight hundred feet long, like a great silvery whale ready to swim upward into blue distance. It was in an outdoor cradle as they approached the haven, one that ran on circular rail tracks around the docking tower, with little electric locomotives to pull the whole assembly around to point its nose into the wind and ready it to be launched into the sky. Ciara’s eyes opened wider as they approached the low-slung white neo-Spanish terminal building with its notice board reading:

American National Airways—flight southbound to: Mexico City, Caracas, Recife, Rio de Janerio, Buenos Aires w. connections to Dakar, Tunis via Recife.

Ciara’s gaze grew more rapt and her lips parted in awe with a sigh as she took it all in and the airship loomed over them. The more so as the cab dropped them off and they waited for a moment for a redcap to move the luggage and she had time to admire this embodiment of The Future.

Luz leaned close and whispered in her ear: “Usually when you have that expression on your face it’s because of something I’mdoing with you, mi corazón. Should I be jealous?”

Ciara jumped as she was startled from her rapt contemplation of the airship, realized what Luz had said, and flushed crimson under her fair skin.

“Luz!” she said, laughing and scandalized and giving her a covert poke in the ribs. “Oh, you!”

Then she looked up at the great dirigible again and spoke in a dreamy tone:

“From Europe to America on a submarine… and now back on an airship! What an age we live in! The adventure magazines have nothing on this!”

“I’ve already flown once; I’m totally blasé,” Luz said, grinning at the contagious enthusiasm, and read the name blazoned on the bows:

Manila Bay. Uncle Teddy really is getting nostalgic for the lost days of his youth.”

Though perhaps the nostalgia wasn’t just for being the brash young rising star of the 1890s. Or even for that single magic hour when he shouted Sound the charge! to the bugler and went up the hill, and the roaring host rose as one man and followed him.

Perhaps it was for an era in which the United States could choose its wars, and not have them thrust upon it.


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling