Chapter 5

Luz put down her fork and laughed as she looked out at the huge crumpled landscape of central Mexico a thousand feet below, tawny-blue-umber-tinged at the edges with crimson in the last rays of evening and stretching to the edge of sight in every direction.

She and Ciara had an excellent view from their wicker-and-aluminum table with its snowy linen cloth, now that the lights had been dimmed; the middle deck of the Manila Bay was built into the lower curve of the airship’s teardrop hull, and the dining room in its center had a view through the vast reach of inward-slanting windows along the galleries to either side now that the fabric partitions had been removed. Big airships could be lavish with space if not with weight, and the roof with its painted mural of constellations was eighteen feet above her.

“What is it, darling?” Ciara asked, patting her lips with the napkin and giving a pleased sigh; she had a healthy youngster’s appetite.

“I was just thinking that… our employer…” Luz began.

She didn’t say Black Chamber; those two words had gotten overly well-known lately. And down here in the Protectorate people often blanched, crossed themselves, and went elsewhere as quickly as they could without drawing attention when they heard la Cámara Negramentioned. Key words like that often stuck out and struck the ear even when the rest didn’t.

“… has given us a very nice honeymoon cruise, regulations be damned and all expenses paid.”

Ciara frowned. “Is… are we against regulations?”

“No, I don’t think it is against regulations for operatives to be lovers,” she said, mentally running through the—rather slim—volume of written rules the Chamber had accumulated in its brief, eventful career.

“Not technically,” she went on. “Probably because the regulations assume but don’t actually say that all operatives will be men, which isn’t so… and that none of those will love other men, which I also know isn’t so. Though that is illegal at common law for them, poor fellows.

“And we’re not illegal?”

“No, we’re not, in most places. Not technically, again. I looked that up… some time ago.”

She trod a little delicately there; Ciara didn’t much care to remember that Luz had been sleeping with the German agent Horst von Dückler when they first met, though that had been business… albeit rather enjoyably so. And Luz thought Ciara really wouldn’t be too happy to hear of any past affairs with women, though she must know there had been. Lightly, she went on:

“But I suspect that’s only because it never occurred to our august ancestral lawmakers that anyone without… the male organ of generation… was important enough to rate a mention in the law. Tontos. And now they’d have to throw Secretary of Education Addams in jail, too; everyone knows about her and Mary Smith. For that matter, I strongly suspect that’s the reason Madison Grant—

Who was a longstanding personal friend of the president, a cofounder of the Boone and Crockett Club, energetic savior of buffalo and redwoods, promoter of bird sanctuaries, and a major string-pulling, behind-the-scenes mover and shaker in the nature conservation and eugenics movements, both dear to the Party’s collective heart.

“—has never married, for all that he’s obsessed with getting people of good blood to have enormous litters of offspring.”

Ciara grinned impishly and raised her wineglass in a toast.

“Well, long live laws and regulations based on false premises, then! Because this is a beautiful cruise even if we’re going… somewhere bad.”

Luz gave a slight nod of approval as she clinked her glass against her partner’s and sipped the excellent California zinfandel. ANA was patriotic that way, and after starting out on sweet dessert wines Ciara was coming to appreciate the drier types.

She didn’t say to Germany either. Quick learner!

The six brand-new vessels of the Battle class (Mk. II)—half of them were still under construction—were probably the last civil airships anyone was going to make for quite a while, but they made up for it in range and size and luxury, and even in a global war some people had to travel. Since an intercontinental airship ticket cost twice the average family’s annual income, most of the passengers were either wealthy or working for a major corporation or traveling on some government’s nickel, usually Uncle Sam’s on this ship. Or all three.

Whoever the bill ended up with, the price of a ticket on ANA could buy you things nobody else could get, or even could have gotten until the last year or so. Things like this opportunity to dine while watching the lights of Mexico City twinkle on below and fade behind them. Ahead the sunset added a tinge of pale red to the crisp white snows on Popocatépetl, towering another ten thousand feet into the darkening star-spangled sky ahead as the airship droned southeastward at a steady sixty-five miles an hour.

The price you paid for it was also not entirely monetary; some of the passengers were probably a little short of breath. The city’s mountain basin was around seventy-two hundred feet, and the airship was flying a thousand above that. The heat exchangers running off the engines were keeping the thin chill air of a high-altitude November comfortably mild inside the passenger sections, but they couldn’t help with the thin part. The crew had discreetly hidden oxygen cylinders and masks ready if anyone started panting too badly.

“Let’s take a look around at our fellow passengers, speaking of… business. Sizing people up quickly is necessary, because our business is people, esencialmente; but you can’t get too wedded to first impressions,” Luz said.

“Or you’d tailor evidence to suit it without even noticing,” Ciara said, surprising Luz a little.

She went on: “That’s what the textbooks say about lab work too, pretty much—you have to keep an open mind. It’s very, very easy to see what you want to see. That’s why you have to have independent confirmation of your experiments.”

“Very good!” Luz said softly. “Don’t whisper, it attracts attention. Just speak quietly. Now, starting with the people behind you, the three couples… that’s right, drop your napkin and pick it up…”

“American? Rich? And all middle-aged. And they were talking about a cracking plant when we came in, I’m pretty sure I caught that and that means a Burton-Humphreys refining plant, so they’re something to do with oil?”

“Excellent! The technical details are useful, and I wouldn’t have known what that meant. And where does this airship stop?”

“San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City—they got on in Mexico City—then Caracas… oh! Back two years ago they discovered oil in Venezuela, didn’t they? Lots of it?”

“Yes, they did. And the concession was to a Dutch company.”

“Uh-oh,” Ciara said.

They’d both been reading the newspapers and magazines more carefully since they left Santa Barbara.

“And the Dutch just joined Germany. Well, were annexed, really,” Ciara said.

Luz nodded. The official story from Berlin, and between gritted teeth from Amsterdam, was that the Kingdom of the Netherlands as a quote kindred Germanic people unquote had been invited to come home to the Reich on the same basis as the constituent kingdoms of Saxony and Bavaria and Prussia, and had joyfully embraced the opportunity to be protected against the brutal and perfidious Anglo-Saxons and depraved Latins.

She leaned forward and spoke a rhyming couplet, an old German folk saying:

“Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein,
So schlag’ ich Dir den Schädel ein.”

Which translated roughly as: Be my brother, or I’ll smash your skull.

Ciara nearly snorted her wine out of her nose as she suppressed a laugh. Luz supposed it was all grim enough in Amsterdam, but if you couldn’t laugh at that you’d probably had your Organ of Irony surgically removed. The Germans were throwing in the Flemish-Dutch parts of Belgium and French Flanders as a sweetener, while the rest of Belgium became the puppet Grand Duchy of Wallonia under Prince Bernhard of Lippe.

Horst had hinted that the Germans were thinking of something like that when he and Luz—under her cover as a pro-German Mexican revolutionary—had arrived in Amsterdam on the San Juan Hill not long ago.

A lot of German princely younger sons and Grand Ducal spare heirs are getting principalities of their own right now, Luz thought, and went on:

“Taking Holland off the board means a lot is up for grabs and everyone with a free hand is grabbing. We’re impounding any Dutch merchant shipping we can get for the National Merchant Marine Authority and taking their Caribbean colonies—in trust, officially, but once our Marines are ashore… well. The Japanese are taking the Dutch East Indies, again officially to keep the Germans out of it, and French Indochina for the same reason, which is really a bit of a stretch and isn’t going to please Uncle Teddy at all, but there’s not much we can do about it except warn them off Australia and the British possessions—which might as well be ours, now.”

Ciara frowned thoughtfully as she traced the implications of the bigger picture for the people in this room.

“So we’re sending people to take over the Dutch oil interests in Venezuela?” she said. “Those people at the table are part of it?”

“Exactly. They’re probably Standard Oil executives and their wives; they’re too well dressed to be Department of Commerce or War Trade Board bureaucrats. It’ll be more tactful if it’s done through a private company and greased with bribes as well as threats—our troops and warships in Curaçao will speak for themselves. Standard Oil has learned it pays to cooperate with the Party, and they’re big in the Protectorate these days, so they’d have appropriate people on hand.”

“We’re not wasting any time!” Ciara said admiringly.

“The president doesn’t dither or hesitate, and neither does Elihu Root,” Luz said, naming the secretary of state. “The War Trade Board will be putting the knuckle on in various ways all over South America since the declaration of war, snapping up Dutch and German investments and properties at a few cents on the dollar… and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the Belgian and French ones end up in American hands now too.”

She indicated another table with her eyes. “Now, those soldiers. They got on in Mexico City as well, and so they’re very probably from Southern Command GHQ.”

There were five of them. Four looked as if they’d been stamped out by a press in a Midwestern military factory; a Marine captain in dress blues with the globe-and-anchor tabs on his collar, a naval lieutenant, and two Army officers with the scarlet-and-white piping of combat engineers. The wiry Air Corps type with the new winged propeller badge was slighter and darker, and had a big nose and clever black eyes and black hair that was probably curly when it wasn’t cut so short; he might be Italian or Greek or Jewish or Armenian by background, and he looked dangerous and quick. The Marine was a bit older than the rest, a weather-beaten thirty or so, and even tougher-looking than his comrades. She let her eyes flick on after a quick once-over; it was rarely wise for young women to stare openly at men.

“Recife…” Ciara said. “The new naval base we’re building in Brazil? It’s a short voyage over the Atlantic from there to Dakar in French West Africa. They’d be part of that? The engineers… and the pilots for the aeroplanes and airships that escort the convoys against U-boats?”

Then she added: “That was delicious!”

Sincerely, but apropos of nothing as two attendants arrived to clear the dishes. Luz sipped the last of her wine and enjoyed the vast panorama of field and mountain as the white-jacketed waiters took their plates, deftly scraped up crumbs with an ivory rulerlike tool, and put out coffee and brandy and pastel de tres leches, adding whipped cream and fresh strawberries to the top. The brandy was French, a very nice Augier cognac. Therefore it would vanish soon, one more thing the Great War had destroyed.

So far you didn’t need to use ration-book coupons in addition to money for meals on ANR or ANA either, though she supposed that would be coming quite soon. Herbert Hoover was a bit of a puritan. Also very, very thorough, and he didn’t care whose toes he stepped on.

“So this is how Mexicans eat?” Ciara said, taking a first forkful of her cake.

They’d had caldo tlalpeño, a soup of avocado and shredded chicken in a spicy cilantro-flavored stock; mole poblano (the full twenty ingredients including ancho, mulato, and pasilla peppers, cloves, cinnamon, plantain, garlic, and chocolate) over a cut of slow-cooked pork shoulder; red rice; and a number of other things. All very well done, if toned down just a bit for delicate gringo palates.

Luz smiled as she shook her head. Corrupting her lover’s rather spartan Irish-American childhood eating habits with novel epicurean delights was great fun. Almost as much fun in a restaurant as it had been to cook for her with her own hands, and with the added pleasure of doing it on their field operatives’ expense accounts, though she could have afforded airships as an occasional treat.

“No, most Mexicans eat tortillas and refried beans and chilies with a little chicken or pork or turkey in the vegetable stew when they’re lucky,” Luz said. “This is how the ones with enough money eat. If they’re not too snobbish.”

Their costumes were on Uncle Sam’s account too, and they weren’t using their Chilean identities yet, which would call for a more old-fashioned look and would be furnished by the Technical Section’s experts; currently they were supposed to be upper-class Americans. Ciara was in an emerald drop-waist chemise dress that flattered her milky complexion, red-gold hair, and turquoise-and-sapphire eyes to perfection. Luz had no idea whether Coco Chanel had survived the wreck of France, but she certainly hoped so. Her own outfit was in a soft dark maroon knit by the same designer, and not only stylish but the most comfortable and least constraining semiformal day dress she’d ever worn.

Which says something about the merits of finally having a woman designing haute couture. Maybe with the war the New York fashion houses will have to hire more females too. Or the Chamber could send a mission to rescue and/or acquire Coco? She’s been living in Biarritz, so she probably didn’t get caught by the horror-gas… I wonder if I have enough pull to suggest that? She would be an economic asset for the country, after all.

“The money I can see, but snobbery?” Ciara said. “It was exquisite! And… complex. You could tell cooking it must have been like a juggler keeping a dozen balls in the air at the same time.”

“Rich, snobbish Mexicans… most of them would murder you if you offered them a tortilla. They like their menus in French and they’d rather eat haute cuisine… even second-rate attempts at it… than this, at least when anyone can see them.”

Her family had moved in those circles while her father worked south of the border, back when the iron hand of cunning, ruthless old Don Porfirio kept the peace and kept foreigners respectful; Mima’s exalted family background in Cuba had helped there, opening doors that a mere gringo engineer might have found closed or not even known existed.

One of el Necesario’s favorite sayings had been: Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States. What happened after his exile gave spice to the jest; el Necesario meant The Indispensable One, and a great many people south of the border wished now that they hadn’t decided in 1911 that thirty-two years of Don Porfirio were enough.

“They’re like rich, snobbish Americans and their French chefs?” Ciara said with a chuckle. “And places that can’t serve you a plate of beef stew with onions and mushrooms without calling it boeuf bourguignon, like putting a fancy Paris bonnet on a pig?”

Luz laughed. “Pretty much the same, but worse. And they avoid indio things because they like to pretend they’re de raza pura españolaby blood, which mostly they’re not, any more than the Arósteguis are. It would remind them of their many-times-great-grandmothers kneeling on the ground grinding corn on a metatl when Hernán Cortés rode by on his horse eyeing their bottoms lasciviously. Now, back to work.”

She inclined her head slightly to a nearby table.

“Those—no, don’t look directly or meet their eyes! They’ll take that for an invitation… those are men from Yucatán, and just the type I meant. Let your gaze slide by and look out the windows past them, you don’t need to focus directly to pick up details.”

Ciara did, and shook her head. “Sorry, darling, all I can tell is that they’re Mexican and very well-off… and there aren’t any poor passengers here of any description, are there?”

Luz nodded. “Everything they ordered was French, or as French as upper-end Harvey House food gets; vichyssoise, artichauts à la Provençale, lobster Thermidor… all straight Escoffier.”

“You noticed what they were eating?”

“It only takes a glance.”

“And how can you tell where they’re from, darling?”

“Well, their looks for starters; not any single thing, but the combinations.”

She listed them. All three men were in their thirties or forties, with upswept waxed black mustaches and center-parted hair a bit longer than most Americans would wear it, and slicked back. They were slightly plump in a sleek sort of way, and extremely well-dressed in a very slightly out-of-date manner, lounge suits of light fabrics and high winged collars, with narrow four-in-hand ascot neckties and two-tone buttoned shoes that looked like spats but weren’t. None of them wore the newfangled men’s wristwatches, but all had elegant gold watch chains on their waistcoats with a few fobs, studded cuff links, and jeweled stickpins in their ties, and one wore a diamond ring on his pinkie. Their complexions were smoothly olive, not much different from her own, and their faces a bit broad across the cheekbones and full in the lips.

And all three looked enough alike to be brothers.

“What they’re speaking is Mérida Spanish—the way they lengthen their vowels, and one of them said SHincuenta instead of Cincuentafor ‘fifty’ and called the one next to him mi hermano instead of pronouncing it mi ’ermano the way most people do. And they’re Casta Divinatoo, or I miss my guess.”

“Divine… class?” Ciara said.

“Divine Caste is closer; it’s sarcastic, even the Casta Divina aren’t conceited enough to call themselves that. Henequen planters, the hacendados who own the State, a hundred families of conquistadores who’ve been marrying each so many centuries that they’re all first cousins. My papá did projects in Yucatán, during the Porfiriato—before the Intervention—and they were rich enough to pay well then. Now they’re very rich, even if Plenipotentiary Lodge makes them toss their peones a few cents now and then instead of just flogging them. You’d have to spend seven or eight hundred dollars for what they’re wearing. Each. Those are emeralds in the middle one’s cuff links.”

“Gosh!” Ciara said, her thrifty neighborhood shopkeeper soul slightly shocked and turning to stare at the henequeneros for an unguarded moment until Luz tapped a foot on hers below the table. “Golly!”

Seven hundred dollars was a year’s wage for a laborer in Boston, a dockwalloper or hod carrier, and not the worst one either even in a time of rising prices. It was about four tenths of the respectable middle-class salary Ciara was now getting as a junior field operative (with the Order of the Black Eagle bonus), and which had struck her as amazing affluence when she learned about it. Though to be sure, part of the amazement had been because the Black Chamber’s policy of paying women the same as men in the same grade wasn’t common at all.

“Don’t stare!” Luz said quietly but sharply.

“Sorry, love. I was just thinking of all the uses for henequen.”

As they spoke the band had been setting up on the stand in the lounge area closer to the windows, where the light of the waxing gibbous moon shone on the crumpled landscape of the Mexican highlands below. The musicians were all young Negroes in evening dress, and the bandstand had a sign reading Morton’s Red-Hot Ragtime Band in jaunty curling script of a type she’d seen in New Orleans.

“Ah, I heard them on the San Juan Hill,” Luz said. “They’re very good—and very original, too!”

Ciara’s ears perked up as the seven-piece band started their first number; presumably their leader Morton on the aluminum-framed piano, a cornet, a trombone, a clarinet, and a double bass and drum.

“You’re right,” she said, nodding along to the lively tune; she usually played the piano when they did duets, with Luz on the violin. “But that’s not ragtime… not really… it’s looser. Oh, my goodness, darling, just listen to the way the pianist is separating the rhythms of his hands!”

“Yes, one’s doing a sort of tango thing and the other… that’s five notes in the time of four. Which combination I wouldn’t have thought was possible without your head exploding.”

“Saints, yes! It makes my fingers ache thinking about it. And… and yes, he’s doing the melody there with his right thumb and the harmony above it with the rest of his hand! Wouldn’t that be lovely music to do a foxtrot to?” Ciara said wistfully.

“Four-four time except for that extra bit,” Luz agreed.

The eighty or so passengers were about three-fifths male, but several of the couples had risen and were doing exactly that, their feet tapping on the spruce veneer that covered the aluminum deck. The foxtrot was all the rage these days, and had been since it burst on the scene in 1914.

“Yes, it’s…”

Her head came around as she sensed motion out of the corner of her eye.

¡Ay, maldición! I was afraid of that, if they realized we were talking about them.”

“Sorry,” Ciara said contritely. “I’ll try to be less obvious from now on. Men are so very strange that way.”

Luz sighed. “They’d probably all die as virgins if they didn’t assume they were irresistible to every woman they see. Some of them are going to be right about some woman eventually.”

“Like a stopped clock,” Ciara agreed.

One of the henequen planters made his way over to their table, with a broad white smile and a scent of very expensive French cologne… which was going to be even more expensive soon, with Paris gone and France wrecked, unless some refugee started making it in Algiers.

“Señoritas,” he said, bowing slightly. “It is a tragedy that two such lovely young ladies should not dance… may my friends and I request the pleasure of your company on the floor? I am Don—”

Ciara glanced deliberately away, ostentatiously withholding her attention. Luz didn’t think that pointed silence would work; neither would dancing. That would just encourage them. She gave the man a cool glance.

“Señor,” she said glacially.

Putting on her best upper-class Mexico City accent, which would make the henequenero feel like a provincial hick no matter how rich he was:

“My cousin and I could not possibly grieve our parents by speaking to or dancing with men to whom we have not been introduced by our families. Thank you, but no.”

“Ah, but your parents are not here and would not know, so what harm?” he said.

Which made perfect sense and was just what you’d expect… if you knew the country. In her experience, the Latin lands—and Japan, for that matter—relied on the fear of being shamed before kin and neighbors to enforce custom; Yankees and Germans and Irish went more in terror of a scolding from the little schoolteacher-parent-priest who lived in their heads and tormented them with guilt. Both had their drawbacks.

And I, being what I am, can view both from the outside, she thought.

“I can keep nothing from my family, señor,” she said, letting a slight edge into her voice. “Or from God. Thank you, but no.”

“Oh, come now—” he began.

Luz sighed and went through the same verbal circuit twice more with slight variations, with her side of it getting slightly less polite and the man’s voice rising a little and a flush growing up from his collar. He was probably also very conscious of his friends’ eyes and feared their scorn if he returned without the prize he’d doubtless boasted was his for the plucking.

Luz smiled sweetly and switched to English, pitching her voice very slightly higher so that it would carry:

“I am sorry, sir, but my cousin and I do not care to dance or speak with you and your friends. Please do me the courtesy of taking me at my word or I will have to ask for assistance.”

Then, the smile growing a little cruel, she went on in Spanish again: “Señor, do you see those gringo soldiers two tables away?”

The man’s head whipped around in alarm; whether or not he spoke English himself, he now recognized that she did, and fluently. It probably hadn’t occurred to him that they were American once he’d heard her and Ciara speaking Spanish to each other, and unless he was even more stupid than she’d assumed, he was realizing just how far out on a limb he’d gone.

The officers had finished the steaks and pork chops, peas and creamed corn and baked potato and apple pie with ice cream that were their idea of a fancy meal. Now they were talking among themselves and drinking Carta Blanca or Siglo XX beer—which in her experience nine out of ten American military men preferred to the northern brews once they’d been stationed in the Protectorate for more than a month—and nodding and tapping their feet to the wild syncopations of the music.

In another time and place Luz thought they might have been a problem themselves, but give them a target they hated and despised, and a chance to show it by defending two fair flowers of American womanhood…

She didn’t need to say anything more. Several of the soldiers had looked over at Luz’s table as the voices rose and she nodded directly toward them, their gaze passing appreciatively but politely over the two young women, and then locking on the man standing by her chair. They’d been discussing a war they probably didn’t expect to survive, and they were looking at someone who’d do nothing in it except add even more money to a fortune already many times larger than their combined lifetime earnings.

“You cannot speak to me like that!” the hacendado said, but kept his tone quiet; and the maître d’hôtel was also looking in their direction and frowning.

“Really, señor, it would be better if you left before others become involved.”

The Marine rose and stood looking at them, cold killer’s speculation in his pale eyes, a blank readiness to do anything at all. The hacendado flushed darkly, and Luz could actually hear his teeth grinding; she suppressed a happy giggle, for fear he would drop dead from a stroke or lose all sanity and attack her there and then.

“¡Pelaná!” he snapped, which was a regional insult and originally Mayan, and then over his shoulder as he stamped back toward his table something more broad-spectrum: “¡Tortillera!”

The hooked fish-shaped hilt of her navaja sevillana was in her hand, under the napkin in her lap; the one her mother’s coachman-cum-bodyguard old Pedro El Andaluz had taught her to use.

He told me once I was the sort of girl who’d need it badly sooner or later… which I didn’t understand at the time. Help may not always be at hand, but this faithful little friend never leaves me.

Ciara looked at Luz as she slipped the knife inconspicuously back into the special pocket of her skirt. Meanwhile the baffled man from Mérida tossed down his drink and then left the room equally abruptly.

“Tortillera?” she asked curiously. “Woman who makes tortillas? Why on earth would that nasty abhlóir call you that?”

“I’ll show you later,” Luz said, grasping the meaning of the Gaelic insult Ciara had used from context, and winked. “That’s a promise. Making tortillas can be a lot of fun.”

The Marine captain finished his beer and came over to their table, standing at a respectful distance with his blue-and-white peaked cap in his left hand, the one that bore a gold wedding band.

“Was that fat dago a problem, miss?” he asked. “You need him taught a lesson?”

His accent was a flat Cornhusker rasp straight off a Nebraska farm, and one big fist had closed into a knobby bone club, probably without his being aware of it. From the voice and the brawler’s scars on his knuckles Luz decided he was probably a mustang, someone promoted from the ranks via a four-month Officer Candidate School course—there was a lot of that in an American military that had doubled or tripled in size every year since Uncle Teddy swept back into the White House and that now numbered in the millions.

“No, no problem after I took your name in vain and implied you’d thrash him if he didn’t go away, Captain…”

“Moore, miss,” the man said with a grin. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you said; I know the lingo a little. Learned it from the missus.”

He touched his ring finger with his left thumb, probably unconsciously. The grin said he’d have been delighted to do exactly that.

“Captain Vince Moore, USMC,” he added.

“Our thanks, Captain Moore,” Luz said, and gave him their aliases. “The music is fine, the choice of partner… no.”

The Marine nodded. “It is pretty good, miss; that colored boy really knows how to tickle the ivories.”

His eyes grew a little distant. “They say they’ve got a natural sense of rhythm… they say a lot of things, but don’t believe anyone who tells you they can’t fight. The Tenth Cavalry were right beside the Marine brigade at Veracruz back in ’13—Black Jack Pershing’s old regiment. Nobody had the fancy gear then we’re getting now, but they could use Springfields and bayonets just fine, by God!”

“Veracruz, Puebla, and Mexico City,” she said, reading the battle ribbons marked on his dress jacket; a fair number of civilians could, these days, but he still smiled.

She’d crossed the border overland with Pershing in 1913 herself, heading for Zacatecas via Juarez and Chihuahua while the Marines went ashore at Veracruz, but she’d been there for Puebla and Mexico City, doing things behind the other side’s lines that never got into the public eye. Agents who could pass convincingly as Mexicans hadn’t been common enough to let any sit idle.

He also had the Intervention Campaign Ribbon and the heart-shaped Military Merit badge, usually given for being wounded in action… with four circled lines around it to show how many times he’d beaten the odds.

“My, you have been busy, Captain Moore! The Tenth Cavalry were with…”

She stopped herself just before saying Uncle Teddy.

“… the president in Cuba, as I recall. Thank you again, Captain, and your friends. I really don’t think my cousin and I should accept anyinvitations to dance, though. We don’t want to spoil anyone’s evening with a set-to.”

From the look of the Marine’s fists and the rather battered-looking face below the cropped sandy hair, he’d probably spent a lot more time in dives with sawdust on the floor than in places like this, ones where a fight would just be the perfect ending to everyone’s evening, and any females present would pick pockets during it, or screech and throw crockery or pull out straight razors tucked into their garters. But he’d obviously also picked up the etiquette expected of an officer and gentleman, and gave a slight bow to them both:

“Right, miss. And you, miss.”

He smiled at Ciara. Luz was strikingly attractive in a slightly exotic fashion, but Ciara looked very much like most American men’s subliminal conception of younger sister or the girl next door.

“And if there’s any problem, we’ll settle it—just give the word.”

“That’s what I told the gentleman,” Luz said, and they shared a smile before he nodded to each of them with a murmur of:

“Miss… miss…” and returned to his friends.

Ciara looked after him and shivered a little. “He reminds me of Horst, even though he doesn’t look like him,” she said.

Luz mused for a moment. Both were big and fair-haired, but otherwise there wasn’t much resemblance between the midwestern plowboy turned Marine and the Silesian soldier-intelligence-agent-aristocrat whom she’d deceived on the last mission. Except for one impalpable thing. It was good that Ciara was picking up on the subtleties.

“Both very dangerous men,” she said. “There’s something about someone who kills quickly and without a second thought. Most soldiers don’t have it, but he and Horst both do.”

And so do I, but I hide it better until it’s time to let it out to play.

Ciara nodded thoughtfully. “And…” Luz continued, “We now have a perfect excuse to do that foxtrot together. Shall we?”

Ciara’s face lit with a delighted grin. “And we’ll just look too old-fashioned and prim and proper to dance with any man without an introduction!”

That sort of Victorian reserve was mostly dead at the social level of people who could afford an airship ticket… but mostly dead was not the same as altogether, absolutely dead. Luz suspected that it had always been used in ways other than the obvious. Even today, nobody expected women not to dance just because there wasn’t a socially suitable male partner to hand.

As they made their way out to the floor with a nod and smile to the table full of officers, a pale and utterly unremarkable man stepped out from behind the shelter of a potted palm made of colored aluminum in the moderne style and looked after them speculatively through the thick wire-rimmed glasses that hid much of his moon-shaped face.

“Ach, so,” he murmured to himself.


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling