Casa de los Amantes
Santa Barbara, California
October 1st, 1922 A.D., 1922(b)
“So, how did you like my alma mater?” Luz O’Malley Aróstegui said to her childhood friend Midori Taguchi. “The Chamber’s kept you two hopping with training since graduation.”
At least, she was fairly sure it was Midori in the next lounger and not her sister Fumiko, who’d been doing lengths and was walking over toweling bobbed black hair. They weren’t twins, but they were less than a year apart—about the biological minimum, in fact, and Luz suspected Fumiko had been a desperate try for a second son. They resembled each other very closely indeed.
And they absolutely enjoyed keeping people guessing which was which and had since childhood. She’d even caught them doing it with their own father, often successfully, though with him they had the decency to laugh only later.
In a way it’s a good introduction to the secret world, where nothing is as it seems and you can never take anything at face value.
“In my day—”
Luz had talked, charmed, and emotionally blackmailed her way into the Chamber right at its birth, just a decade ago now; she’d have been a little too young to vote, even if women had been able to before the 1913 Equal Rights Amendment.
“—they just threw us in and we learned on the job, or between assignments. Or died,” she added.
Midori rolled her eyes. “And you walked to school uphill both ways, in the snow, fighting off wolves and Indians.”
“Don’t forget the redcoats,” Luz said affectionately.
“Amazing how we started at the same school only two years later and no sign of snow, redskins, or the British,” Midori said.
“We were disappointed after all the whoppers you’d told us,” her sister added, halting the toweling for a second.
The loungers were in a row, in the dappled shade of a trellis overgrown with frangipani vine thickly covered in white flowers with golden centers, a strong sweet scent drifting down and only the tiled walk and hedge between their backs and the sun-heat reflected from the cream stucco of the house wall. The pool was a long oval of blue water and white marble ringed in colorful hydraulic tile in a Cubano style that had been a novelty in California when her father built the place a generation ago, though common now. It was big enough to swallow seven energetic little children playing—and shouting and splashing—in the shallow end, and their minders, and several adults.
Beyond a screen of tall Italian cypress her view ran south over green lawns, flowerbanks, paths of white crushed stone, minty-smelling eucalyptus and groves of giant California live-oaks old when the only people here were Chumash, to a gazebo above the retaining wall that separated the gardens and the beach.
You could just hear the light shussshhh of the waves on the sand in the distance, and beyond the blue of sea and sky ran on until it dissolved in pink around hints of the islands in the channel. Dapples of light drew warmth across her skin as leaves and blossoms shifted above her, and there was the sound of birds—right now, yellow-striped warblers and kinglets, and the buzz of Anna’s Hummingbirds like darting emeralds between a blur of dragonfly-wings—and drifts of monarch butterflies, which her mother had loved and encouraged to over-winter here by planting the things they favored.
Luz stole a quick glance at the younger woman’s left knee with an undetectable spy’s flick of the eye; yes, there was the tiny scar that marked Midori’s fall from a tree on the grounds of this very house, back around the turn of the century. Taguchi Gardens & Nursery had worked on many of Patrick O’Malley’s projects around here, and their parents had become friends as well as business associates.
“Though we liked Bryn Mawr fine,” Midori said, and her sister nodded as she emerged from the towel and plied a hairbrush left on her lounger.
“Though not as much as the Chamber training courses.”
“Or our year as interns in Zacatecas for Senior Field Operative Colmer.”
Luz could see the scar because they were in bathing costumes—everyone here had changed after lunch, including the two adult men, James Cheine and Josh—Yoshi—Taguchi, Midori’s elder brother who was on leave from a big Corps of Engineers project in the far north. All the women were wearing outfits from Coco Chanel’s latest and most daring line of swimwear, light sleeveless scallop-necked belted tunics of thin colorful cotton over halters and built-in pantalettes.
Luz had used pull to get her favorite modiste sent a special government laissez-passer in late 1916, and Coco had used it to escape from Biarritz to New York through the bloody chaos of the French collapse. She was tangibly grateful, which Luz exploited to get first looks and choice deals for herself and her friends and their relatives.
“Any problems there?” Luz asked, not needing to ask what kind.
Strings… or ropes or cables… had also been pulled to get the notably snooty people who ran Bryn Mawr University to accept the daughters of a modestly prosperous Japanese-immigrant businessman in far-off California, though the Director had agreed that was institutional need, not personal favoritism. Everyone could see that operatives who could pass as Asian were going to be valuable, the courses were relevant, and the location made other resources easily accessible.
There weren’t many forces stronger than President Martha Carey Thomas’ rather bigoted and extremely snobbish conception of who constituted the right sort, but the Black Chamber was one—or in Luz’ own Cuban-Irish-Catholic case, her father being a personal friend of the President. The Taguchis had probably compounded Miss Thomas’ ire by effortlessly finishing a four-year program in two instead.
Both the young nisei women shrugged, with what-can-you-do expressions.
“Fewer problems than we’d have gotten on this coast,” one said.
The events of the last decade had added some reality-grounded fear of Japan to longstanding Yellow Peril hysteria and labor-union hatred of competition here in California, as Dai-Nippon grabbed off the wreckage of the French and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia, occupied chunks of China, annexed half of Siberia and then acquired its own V-gas capacity.
“Unless the vile northeastern weather is a problem, in which case it was two years of imprisonment in Nordic Hell. It’s the Congo in summer and the North Pole in winter.”
Luz nodded sympathetically; she was a California native too and had spent her childhood mostly either here or in the tropics. Pennsylvania in winter had been a bit of a shock.
“Less in the way of problems than at a coed university too, I think,” one sister added.
“You certainly do less face-smacking; I’d much rather be socially snubbed than have to break the thumbs on wandering hands.”
“I thought you enjoyed that?” Luz said. “You were certainly enthusiastic back in the day when I showed you how.”
“It’s only fun the first couple of times after you learn the trick,” Fumiko said.
“Fewer problems than Josh had at Stanford, and that’s a fact!”
They had a trick of speaking antiphonally, and sometimes of completing each other’s sentences. Like their equally irritating habit of wearing identical clothing, or silently switching non-identical items at irregular intervals, it was aimed at keeping people off-balance.
She’d caught them standing side-by-side in front of a mirror practicing synchronizing their expressions once, years ago. It showed an acting talent that might well be extremely useful in their new career in espionage, though.
“Though I suspect a lot of people at Bryn Mawr were surprised we didn’t show up in kimono.”
“With our faces painted white like geisha.”
“And walking like—”
She made a gesture with two fingers across the other palm mimicking the mincing gait that court ladies and very old-fashioned and very grand courtesans in Japan used.
All three rolled their eyes, and Luz chuckled reminiscently:
“I did feel tempted to dance the fandango along the way between classes sometimes, stamping my heels and clicking my castanets with a rose clenched between my teeth, setting the hair of passers-by on fire with my dark and smoldering Latin gaze. ¡Olé!”
Her long-limbed build, five foot six of height, the narrow streaks of blue near the pupils of her otherwise night-dark eyes and the cleft in her small square chin came from her father’s side; he’d been six feet of dashing Black Irish good looks, with a body ideal for a really fast, shifty running back, which was the position he’d played for the Tech-Men team at MIT in the ‘80’s. But for the rest she favored the Criollo-Spanish-with-a-dash-of-Taino-Indian Aróstegui looks of her mother’s family: high cheekbones, full lips, straight nose, straight hair of an iridescent raven-wing black and a complexion that started out a smooth olive naturally and quickly took the sun to turn a warm even honey-brown that was actually a bit darker right now than the Taguchi sisters.
It had been a very convenient set of attributes when passing for a local while working undercover in Mexico, and in Europe she could easily be Spanish or Italian, or Provençal-French or from anywhere in the Balkans, or Levantine… and though imitating a Bavarian convincingly had been harder, she’d managed it for one memorable mission in Berlin during the war without arousing too many questions.
Unless you count the way we left amid a hail of gunfire in a stolen German Navy semirigid with an even more stolen Telemobiloscope, she thought. But that was because they picked up our wireless broadcast about Projekt Heimdall and triangulated our safe-house. Not anyone disbelieving my cover. We didn’t save America that time, but we may well have saved Britain… which is sort of ironic. But we need them.
“We actually did show up in kimono once or twice but it ended up in more of a fashion discussion than anything, which spoiled the joke,” one Taguchi sister said.
“And some of the other students bought kimono outfits themselves because they were so comfortable and then there were kimono parties in Denbigh Hall.”
“One of them actually went the whole hog and became a Sōtō Zen Buddhist.”
“Probably the only one in Pennsylvania!”
“Besides us, of course.”
“Certainly the only natural blonde Sōtō Zen Buddhist in Pennsylvania.”
“She’d been raised a Unitarian, so she was probably in a state of spiritual starvation anyway.”
“It’s a religion for people who want to have a religion but without really having a religion.”
“Because that’s so common.”
“Unitarianism is like the sound of no hands clapping.”
The three of them chuckled at that pun on a Zen koan.
“We thought about fibbing that our parents were really Methodists or Baptists, just to see the look on her face…”
“But didn’t have the heart.”
Then: “Hi, Ciara! Have your great swarm of noisy offspring driven you out of the pool in search of adult company?”
“Our four were quite enough to exhaust me out of it, Fumiko. Golly, they’re worse than kittens with a ball of yarn when they get excited!” Luz’ partner said, as she made an exaggerated flop onto the lounger at Luz’ feet and mimed panting collapse, startling the cat curled up there into affronted retreat. “I thought the crawling stage was bad, but now they can run on their own—and they run towards mangling and death by instinct, I’d say.”
“Bah, you youngsters in these degenerate times have no stamina,” Fumiko… or Midori… said.
Ciara had spent the last six years getting her bright red-gold mane into an unfashionable mass long enough to reach her waist again, which she started to wring out as she sat on the foot of Luz’ lounger. Her one experiment with short hair had been for operational reasons during the war, and she’d loathed the way it looked on her. Her eyes were a turquoise blue-green in a round snub-nosed, wide-mouthed freckled face that couldn’t have said Ireland more loudly unless she had a harp tattooed on her forehead and a shamrock on each cheek.
The Taguchi sisters were a few years younger than Luz’ thirty, though the delicate bones of their faces exaggerated that to most American eyes; that made them older than Ciara’s twenty-six by about the same margin.
“Though I must admit you’re looking very trim these days,” Midori added.
They both laughed when Ciara jerked her thumb in Luz’ direction and said:
“If I’m Scathatch o’ Sgitheanach come again now—”
They nodded recognition of the name, a warrior-woman who’d been Cú Chulain’s tutor in arms in the ancient Irish hero-cycles. Ciara’s family had been raised on them, since her father had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who’d left Dublin for Boston one jump ahead of Special Branch detectives and Royal Irish Constabulary constables with humorless killjoy attitudes towards bombings and assassinations. In fact, she and Luz had met in Germany with Luz impersonating a Mexican revolutionary to fool the Germans and Ciara actually being a genuine IRB courier, though she’d switched sides when she learned about the Breath of Loki.
“—it’s her fault. So I do too have youthful stamina… you wrinkled, ancient and tiny hags.”
Both were also five foot two, a pair of inches under Ciara’s height, which made her average and them towering compared to their mother and just as tall as their father; they were slenderly athletic in a way that was very fashionable, and had their hair cut equally modishly in what was called a Pageboy bob this year—Luz’ own Polaire bob was in an older style dating from just before the Great War, closer to shoulder-length.
“And the exhaustion’s your own fault for having twins,” Fumiko or Midori said.
“Two sets of twins,” her sister added with a straight face. “It’s disgustingly outré.”
“Do you know the odds on that?”
“Yes,” Ciara said in a quelling tone. “One in a hundred births, roughly.”
“For one set.”
“The odds for two sets of twins, even with the same father?”
“And both sets looking the same?”
“One in four or five thousand is not astro—” Ciara said, making a valiant attempt to interrupt the flow.
In chorus: “Un-Progressive.”
“You’re ones to talk, the way you look!” Ciara said with mock indignation. “I think you resent ours because you’re not unique around here any more.”
The Taguchi sisters pointed at each other with a gesture so synchronized it was like the view in a mirror.
“Unique?” they said in unison.
“Oh, touché,” Luz said. “I’m sorry, mi dulce amor, but… touché.”
“And we didn’t have twins, and we aren’t even twins ourselves! We just… have a strong family resemblance that fools the unobservant.”
“There’s a difference,” one of them said with a lofty sniff.
“Having twins means that you get two children for only about 115% the effort of one,” Luz said dryly. “Which is highly efficient in terms of time spent being pregnant, let me tell you. Which I didn’t much enjoy—Ciara loved it.”
“You’re quite the fond momma, though,” Midori said.
“I like the product; the process is barbaric, in my opinion, at least after the conception part.”
Ciara grimaced slightly; she hadn’t enjoyed the impregnation at all, even with Luz there to hold her hand, but vomiting hadn’t lessened her contentment during pregnancy. Luz went on:
“I’m not altogether sure that Luciana and Patricia are exactly alike. They may just look a lot like each other.”
She added dryly: “Full sisters often do…”
Midori nodded acknowledgement and made a mark in the air with a fingertip: “This set to O’Malley, but the game continues!”
“… and they often have the same blood-types; and their father had a twin sister. Their fingerprints aren’t very similar at all.”
“Neither are ours!” Fumiko, or Midori, said.
“We were shocked at that too!”
“Fortunately even in this Progressive age most people don’t carry fingerprint kits.”
Though nearly everyone had their prints on file in the central Federal Bureau of Security repository these days, which the Chamber could also access. It wasn’t exactly compulsory in itself, but several things that were compulsory nowadays involved being fingerprinted and blood-typed—school, the Boy and Girl Scouts, National Service…
Oddly enough, the best way to avoid really being in the general files is to be a Black Chamber operative. My file is as much fiction as anything Edgar Rice Burroughs or Francis Stevens writes. I’d have been bored to death by my official social-butterfly trust-fund life!
“And if you understood statistics, you’d understand that unlikely things happen all the time,” Ciara said; she really did understand them, and they were real to her down in her bones. “We were surprised, but pleased,” she added.
“Gracias, Chavela,” Luz said, turning her head with a smile.
That was to one of the housemaids with a tray of drinks—aperitifs, and lemonade and orange juice, both freshly squeezed from the fruit of little groves that had already been here along with a small vineyard and olive-grove when her father accepted title to this land as payment for his first big local project. Ciara took a tall glass of chilled lemonade; Luz and the Taguchis selected small ripe coconuts filled with a mixture of rum, coconut milk, coconut water, fresh pineapple juice and a dash of lime and lemongrass, sipped through a straw in one of the eyes. Tropical fruit had gotten cheaper and more common in the US now that the country stretched legally from Iceland to the Guatemalan border and for all practical purposes—including tariffs and train-connections—to Columbia’s frontier with Panama.
The rum was from Santiago de Cuba, her mother’s birthplace, and laid down in white oak barrels in 1896, when Luz was a child of four herself. Her mother’s father had tried to have his daughter and her lover killed by henchmen the night they eloped… but that hadn’t kept Luciana O’Malley Aróstegui from buying rum from the family estates, through middlemen. Luz remembered it being brought out for special occasions all her life, back to days she was only allowed a tiny taste from her mother or father’s glass as she sat on their laps; she sipped nostalgia along with overtones of banana dipped in caramel and vanilla, with a hint of a pleasing oaky bitterness after a moment.
Luz cocked an eye at the pool, as she had been doing every little while all that afternoon, when she wasn’t in it herself. It would be time to cart the children off soon, which might take some effort, and start on dinner, which wouldn’t be much effort since it was a barbeque and anyway, she enjoyed cooking as a hobby and had been getting things ready since yesterday. It made her remember her mother…
Their own four—Luciana, Patricia, Colleen and Mary—were currently climbing out and cannonballing back in over and over full-tilt with the demented abandon only healthy, active children between four and five could manage. The rest were mostly grappling with various colorful floating toys of canvas-covered cork, each other, or both.
All were being rescued from drowning as necessary by Midori and Fumiko’s sister-in-law Susana Wentworth Taguchi, who invalidated the myths about redheads by being quiet and retiring; and by Yvonne Cheine and her—genuinely—adopted eighteen-year-old daughter Simone Cheine, down for the weekend from Stanford, where she was a freshman this year studying engineering.
And by Zhao Haiyun, aka Susan Zhao, the nanny Luz and Ciara had hired in 1918. She was a woman of about thirty with unexpected talents and was the reason their children were learning Shanghainese and Mandarin (with a Shanghai accent), along with English from their mothers, and native-fluent Spanish, Japanese, French and German from Luz. Luz had mastered the two new tongues perfectly as well—languages were a talent and hobby of hers.
By now Ciara could speak Mandarin understandably though with a thick accent, since her native bent was much more towards the sciences, but her near-perfect memory had put her ahead of Luz on learning the thousands of characters in the logographic Chinese script. They were reading The Dream of the Red Chamber together in the original to help.
“Ah… by the way, Luz…” Midori said, in her this is really serious voice.
“It’s about your Japanese.”
They’d been slipping in and out of that language all afternoon, just as they’d done as girls.
“I’m told I speak like a samurai born, now,” Luz said; she’d been taking lessons in Los Angeles for the last year, and occasional classes at Stanford and Berkeley on the Rube Goldberg extravagances of the written form of Nihongo for longer.
Midori and Fumiko looked at each other. One said:
“Ahhh… yes, you don’t speak like a Hiroshima Prefecture hick from the paddies with night-soil between her toes anymore,” one sister said.
“Well, neither do you two, anymore—I can hear that clearly,” Luz said.
They looked at each other again.
“Yes, but we sound like lady samurai now,” probably-Fumiko said, and her sister continued seamlessly:
“Or at least like upper-middle-class Tokyo girls whose parents got them a tutor so they could sound as if their grandparents were Daimyō before the Restoration.”
“You sound like a retired general,” Fumiko continued. “A grumpy old man who barks orders at people. Really. It’ll stand out.”
“My tutor runs a kendo academy,” Luz said thoughtfully. “I think he’s here because of some political thing back home.”
“People will giggle.”
“Like this, if they’re female,” Midori added helpfully, and did, turning her head away, lowering her eyes and putting her fingers in front of her mouth with a coy smile as she tittered.
“¡Mierda!” Luz swore; English profanity had never felt very satisfying to her. “Most languages have different… call it registers for men and women…”
“Oh, not like Nihongo does!” they said in chorus, and Midori continued:
“Half the words in a sentence can be different according to your sex—men notice it if you do it wrong, but women really notice. If you weren’t gaijin they’d think you were… strange.”
“Like a transvestite,” Fumiko clarified helpfully.
“Like an onnagata, but in reverse.”
Onnagata were the specialist male actors who played female roles in Kabuki drama; they usually stuck to female dress and manners in ordinary life too.
“It’s worse than Chinese that way?” Luz said. “Because until now I thought that took the cake…”
“It’s much, much worse,” Fumiko said. “Particularly if you aren’t peasants like our parents.”
“Peasant women don’t do the full refined, soft-voiced…”
“Or maybe schtick.”
“Mom’s dialect improved a bit, because she left her village and worked at a ryokan inn before she met Dad, and listened to the customers.”
“But she still had to think about it before she remembered to call it a toilet and not—“ she shifted to her parents’ rural dialect “—the shitter.”
“We went to a lot of trouble to make sure we got a female tutor to improve ours.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a good female Japanese tutor out east?”
“And nobody in the Chamber knew enough about Japanese women to warn me,” Luz growled. “Incidentally, your Chinese is still fairly distinctive.”
Which was true. She might have mistaken it for the accent of someone whose home tongue was one of the many other non-Mandarin dialects of Chinese, most of which were unintelligibly different from each other, but Susan Zhao had privately told her it was unmistakable.
“Oh, we know we speak Hànyǔ like xiǎo dōngyáng guǐzi,” Midori said.
Ciara looked a question at Luz: she knew the word Hànyǔ meant ‘Chinese’—literally, ‘Han language’—but the rest wasn’t a combination she’d heard.
“Chinese… slang… for ‘Japanese person’,” Luz said; though in fact the whole phrase was wordier than a native speaker would usually use. “Ah… guǐzi means…”
“Demon,” Midori said. “Or devil. Or evil spirit. Freely translated. With from the East and dwarf in front of it. Eastern Dwarf Devil… Japanese.”
“We’re working on our accents,” Fumiko said. “After all, we might want to pass as Shinajin ourselves someday. At least we’re tall enough.”
“Shinajin means… pretty much the same thing as Chink,” Luz explained. “Or maybe Chinaman. It’s not very polite, not these days.”
“Or pass as Chankoro,” Midori said. “That’s another word for ‘Chinese person’, Ciara, the older one. Less formal.”
“The one our parents always used.”
“And Chankoro means pigtail slave,” Luz said. “And it’s really not polite and never was.”
“Well, technically it originally meant Slave of the Qing, the Manchu dynasty.”
“They being the people who made the Chinese wear pigtails.”
“But yeah, pigtail slave gets the flavor pretty well.”
Ciara cast a worried glance at the pool and Susan Zhao.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Midori said. “We’re polite Eastern Dwarf Devils; we won’t say those names in front of a Shinajin.”
“Or in front of a Chankoro, especially a nice one like Susan.”
“She’s Chinese-born and still probably actually worries about all that Old-Country crap instead of thinking it’s funny.”
“We’re xiyáng guǐzi too,” Fumiko said.
“Since we’re native-born American citizens.”
Ostentatiously so, Luz thought.
“I wonder… is Eastern and Western Dwarf Evil Spirit even good grammar?”
“Congratulations,” Luz said dryly. “Now you’re going to be drilling me on how to sound like a lady in Nihongo an hour a day, and I’ll help you sound like a well-educated pigtail slave from Shanghai.”
Their faces fell slightly, which was what she’d been aiming at.
“But,” Luz added, “don’t worry—you know I’m a quick study.”
In fact, it might be useful to be able to shift from female to male registers in Japanese, and the language of the body they use. I’m just on the short side of average for an American man, and I’ve passed for a male here and in Europe when it was necessary. I’m actually about three to four inches over the average Japanese male’s height, so conceivably… in some circumstances…
“And we can work on the little red-haired devils too,” Midori said with a fond look at the pair’s children… and in Chinese.
The O’Malley-Whelan children called the two sisters obachan lately, which meant auntie in Japanese, pretty much, and they got on very well.
Red-haired devil was what ang mo gwáilóu meant, roughly, in the southern varieties of Chinese; or possibly Red-Haired Ghost… Luz wasn’t very familiar with those dialects yet.
She had learned that East Asia shared one thing with Europe, Africa and the Indian tribes of the Western Hemisphere: the vast majority of informal folk-level names in every language for all the neighboring ethnic groups were a gross insult, and a group’s name for itself was usually a self-flattering boast.
“Though it would be so cute if they talked Japanese like a retired general,” Fumiko said thoughtfully.
“Luciana and Patricia aren’t red-haired, really,” Ciara said; in fact right now their hair was sun-bleached to tow. “Though Colleen and Mary are… not quite as much as I am, though, more yellow in theirs.”
Luz suspected her pair’s hair would darken later to brown at least; Patrick O’Malley had been blond until around the age of eight, from what she remembered of his stories, though as an adult his hair had been about as black as his daughter’s, or his wife’s.
“Well, that’s where the “ghost people” thing comes in,” Fumiko said. “If you’re Cantonese, at least. That’s the part that covers the repulsive fish-belly pallor which afflicts certain people.”
She added graciously: “No offense.”
“Iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu,” Luz said, which was an old Japanese saying. “White skin covers the seven faults,” she translated for Ciara. “And… kome no meshi to onna wa shiroi hodo yoi. Which means: in rice and women, the whiter the better.”
Luz smiled and finished: “Which makes Ciara a bihaku, right?”
Midori pursed her lips thoughtfully. Fumiko rallied, though Luz thought her riposte was rather weak:
“Pale beauty is one thing, but pink is another.”
In fact Japanese… and Koreans and northern Chinese… really didn’t differ much from southern Europeans or Near Easterners in complexion. And like Europeans, Turks and Arabs, the Japanese had always valued a pale complexion, particularly in women, and probably for exactly the same reason—because it showed you didn’t have to work outside in the sun, which gave it an association with the upper classes.
They all dissolved in laughter at the multiplying absurdities with which the Old World was afflicted.
“It’s really surprising how two pairs of random twin orphans look like their adopted mothers,” Fumiko added innocently, to further merriment, this time mocking native-born American stupidities. “And how much all four of them look like each other.”
Luz and Ciara’s theoretically and legally adopted orphans were in biological fact half-sisters who now unmistakably resembled their mothers and their sire, a man named Sven Lundqvist who’d met her and Ciara under carefully arranged false circumstances. With the expectation that he’d soon be five thousand miles away and under the impression that his extremely entertaining weekend at a hot-springs resort in West Virginia had been just good luck or charm on his part; in fact his ship had disappeared on the way back to Stockholm, possibly a U-boat, probably a mine.
And Sven was, indeed, very blond even for a Swedish diplomat, Luz thought, as the chuckles died down. All the girls have his sky-colored eyes, for instance, that lovely pale gray with just a hint of darker blue around the rims. Well, my last male might as well be aesthetically satisfying. And the fact that all four look like sisters… I’ve caught a couple of people looking at them, and me, and Ciara and thinking: how the Devil did they manage that?
In fact their common sire been picked… targeted… by Luz in a coldly calculated and precisely timed selection process that would have gladdened the heart of the Secretary of Public Health and Eugenics, Charles Benedict Davenport, if he hadn’t been such a frigid censorious Puritan prig of a man. Luz was quietly surprised Davenport had managed to produce children at all himself.
But then, it’s amazing what a sense of duty can do, she thought snidely. No doubt he closed his eyes and thought of America’s collective germ plasm.
Josh and Susana Taguchi had a son and daughter, four and two years old respectively, both currently splashing; besides adopted Simone in the glory of her gawky adolescence, Yvonne Cheine had a daughter of her own body about five, giving a good imitation of an otter changeling masquerading as a young human sleeking through the water, and a son only six months old, now sleeping in a cradle by her husband as he contemplated the pool over his bare toes and sipped rum from his own coconut not far away. Josh Taguchi was in the water too, but he was in the deep end and actually swimming, which he did very well indeed, like his sisters; and like them he’d learned in this pool.
“Your other warning about Bryn Mawr was useful, though,” Fumiko said, grinning.
“Which one?” Luz said.
She’d given them a comprehensive rundown back in ’17 when they were recruited to the Chamber and got the scholarship.
“That there would be many efforts to charm the knickers off Madam Butterfly,” she replied. “As you put it with your invariable politesse and restraint. So let her who is without sin in the verbal delicacy department, cast the first boulder from her catapult.”
Her sister nodded and rolled her eyes. “A fine school academically, they don’t compromise, and no men helps with that, but on the social side… talk about Sappho U! Oh, the emotions! The crushes, the quarrels, the reconciliations, the meaningful glances, the jealousies, the cliques worshipfully following the girl everyone wants, the bad poetry…”
“Bad poetry slipped under doors or tearfully recited at the moon…”
“Weren’t any of them happy?” Ciara asked, a little wistfully.
University—or even finishing high school as the Taguchis had before fate, Luz and the Black Chamber intervened—was rare for a girl in her circumstances and out of the question if you needed to look after an ailing father and take on more and more of the work of running the family bookstore. She’d taken courses at Stanford in the last few years, but that was a different experience.
“Happy? Plenty of them were sappy.”
“Blushing, gazing into each other’s eyes…
“Sneaking kisses when they thought nobody was looking…
“Bumping into things on the way to class with eyes blinded by bliss…”
“Talking on and on about some spotty girl from Muncie, Indiana as if she were a cross between Artemis and Athena…”
“Seductio Ad Absurdum!”
“No wonder Secretary Davenport complains that two-thirds of the graduates don’t get married and perform their reproductive duty to the nation!”
“Though he hasn’t figured out why, at least in public.”
Ciara wrapped her thick plait of damp hair around her head and pinned it. She added a broad-brimmed straw hat right away, even in the dappled shade; she had the complexion that went with her hair-color, and her round pink face was showing more freckles than usual at the end of summer. The wet fabric of her outfit clung to a figure fuller than was chic right now, even after years of the active outdoors life she and Luz shared.
¡Es la leche! To hell with fashion! Luz thought with the smug contentment of the happily married.
“So… did any of the young ladies at Sappho U. succeed with your knickers, Mesdames Les Papillons?” Ciara said in an elaborately innocent tone.
Luz reflected that she’d gotten a lot less shy since their initial meeting in Germany in 1916. But then, her life since then hadn’t been much like the quiet respectable lower-middle-class first twenty years in Boston’s Southside.
Identical Taguchi grins grew sly… identically.
“Well, let’s put it this way…”
“That’s for us to know and you to guess…”
Each sister simultaneously pointed at the other, like images in a mirror once more.
“—she’s lying to me.”
“That would be like lying to myself!”
“You do that all the time, sis.”
Ciara sighed with a note of exaggerated pity.
“Some people just don’t know how to appreciate the finer things in life even when they get the chance,” she said, then blew a long loud raspberry at the Taguchis.
They all laughed again, and James Cheine sighed to himself and took another sip at his drink.
“Something wrong, James?” Luz said, turning her head to the other side.
“Wrong? I’m sitting here in weather fine even by Californian standards, amid beautiful gardens, sipping well-aged rum and fresh lime and pineapple and coconut, anticipating a wonderful dinner with rationing now merely an unhappy memory of the Great War, and surrounded by lovely women… or possibly I’m amid beautiful women and surrounded by lovely gardens. I sigh the sigh of contentment, Luz old thing,” he said in patrician tones of an East Coast, Groton-School-and-Harvard-Yard variety much like the President.
“Perhaps you should think of it as surrounded by beautiful women in the sense of surrounded and vastly outnumbered,” Luz said.
“Like General Custer and the Sioux, James,” Ciara clarified helpfully, not quite successfully suppressing a giggle; she’d come to like James Cheine, but regarded him as an acquired taste who needed taking down a peg now and then.
“Exactly, mi viejo camarada,” Luz concluded.
They were old comrades, both having been in the Chamber since the beginning, though Luz thought he’d gotten much more agreeable since he married Yvonne after they all escaped from Germany together. Or possibly he was just mellowing with time and family responsibilities. Certainly he didn’t give off such strong emanations of considering himself God’s gift to womankind anymore; or of being a ruthless cad and bounder, to put it less diplomatically, which was why she’d steadfastly ignored his fairly suave and repeated attempts at seduction back in the day. And while he was still lithe and muscular, his slim six feet were just a little better padded now.
Yvonne came up from the pool, checked the diaper of the baby, and slapped her husband on the back of the head.
“Petit James is wet and needs to be changed, my lazy one!” she said in French.
“Sorry, my love, but he wasn’t crying,” Cheine replied.
In the same language, with a smooth 8th Arrondissment accent that recalled the drawing rooms of vanished, fallen Paris in contrast to his wife’s decidedly regional tones, not really Chtimi patois but very redolent of the far north near the Belgian border. Like Luz, languages came easily to him, not an absolute necessity for a spy but very helpful indeed.
“Le Bon Dieu gave us fingers as well as eyes and ears and noses, and he would have been crying in a few minutes! Watch the others; I shall return,” she added, scooping up the infant and marching off to the Moorish-style poolside changing room with James’ eyes following them.
The Cheines could easily have afforded a nanny—James had a serious, well-aged New York family fortune despite being politically on the outs with his parents, who were actually rich as opposed to Luz and Ciara’s merely having a good deal of money. And like many of the older generation of the Upper Ten Thousand they were distinctly anti-Party and very anti-Roosevelt, the more so since he came from their own Manhattan-and-Long-Island Knickerbocker milieu.
They hadn’t hired a nanny because Yvonne preferred to handle all the childcare herself. The birth of an indubitably Cheine grandson, their first, had mellowed the new-minted grandparents.
Little Eleonore Cheine—who’d been born very shortly after the wedding and whose actual sire was some anonymous German off in Europe who’d met Yvonne under highly coercive circumstances when she was deported from Lille as forced labor—came running over. Without pausing she leapt onto his chest with a wetly audible five-year-old-sized thud that knocked a grunt out of her father-of-record, butted her blonde head under his chin, and went to sleep with eyeblink suddenness.
“I also sighed to see the great American fighting tradition of cracking wise in the face of danger and death continuing,” James added.
He put an arm around her and cocked an eye past her at the pool, where adolescent Simone Cheine was pursuing the Taguchi sisters’ young niece with an expression of mock ferocity on her rather gamine-like and extremely French face as the two-year-old made a valiant effort to swim despite the inflated contraption under her arms that kept her from sinking and shrieked in delighted terror.
“Danger here, Executive Field Operative?” Fumiko said.
“Danger of gorging ourselves to death on Luz’ Camarones al mojo de ajo?”
“And her shrimp-and-avocado salad and stuffed peppers?”
“Her San Francisco sourdough oyster loaf?”
“And her barbequed chorizo?”
“The green ones she makes herself with tomatillo, cilantro, chili peppers, and garlic mixed in with the minced pork loin?”
“And the barbequed pulled pork with guava glaze on Cuban bread?”
“And the skirt steak with tomato escabeche and that mango sauce?”
“And the dulce de leche cheesecake?”
“Oh, and the pastellitos de guyaba with ice cream?”
One of the sisters clenched hands together beneath a face contorted with desperate lust, while the other made mooing sounds:
“Oh, stop me, stop me before I drool again!”
Cheine snorted at the foolery, but went on to Luz:
“I know you can do classical cuisine—”
By which he meant essentially French cooking, the slightly Americanized Escoffier derivatives his family’s cooks had made.
“—too, as well as this tropical stuff, which is very well in its way. Is there anything you can’t cook?”
“¡De ninguna manera! I can’t do Japanese, for example!”
“That’s because she learned better than we did when Mom tried to teach us all,” Fumiko said.
“Luz pouted if she couldn’t join in.”
“We dragged our feet because we wanted to eat the same things as the other kids at school.”
“And Mom stopped trying because she didn’t want a gaijin girl, even a nice one, showing us up.”
“But I admit I’m pretty good at quite a few styles,” Luz said. “For example I’m told…”
She waited with malice aforethought until the drawing-in of his lean cheeks showed he was sipping.
“… that I’m absolutely magnificent at making tortillas.”
The only one in hearing who hadn’t spent time living in the Mexican Protectorate and doing it in the local language was little Eleonore, sleeping the sleep of a tired happy child in the arms of an adored and trusted parent. She stirred and stretched and yawned as her father fought not to go into convulsions and snort diluted rum out his nose and glared helplessly at Luz. The Taguchi sisters collapsed quietly into each others’ arms, choking on their laughter.
Ciara took a beat longer to remember the metaphorical meaning of patting out flatbread in Mexican slang, then hissed:
And grabbed one of Luz’ feet and began a determined tickle.
“!Aaaaaayyyy!” Luz shrieked—softly—and writhed.
“But in all seriousness, I’ve heard some rumors, Luz, and one of them is—” Cheine began.
Then an electric bell rang behind Luz and Ciara’s hand paused in mid-tickle. Luz sighed, put up a hand of her own in a hold-that-thought posture, rose, and opened a metal box on a cast-stone pillar there. Her father had installed telephones when the house was built in 1891 along with all the other modern conveniences. He’d also installed several internal lines, a novelty then outside hotels, and Ciara had extended and modernized the system since she moved in with Luz in late 1916, being of a similar engineering cast of mind.
Friends of hers from her classes at Stanford had shown up unpredictably to help with that, and the ingenious alarm system she’d designed, filling the house with the sound of drills and their meals with lively discussions around the table in the exotic foreign tongue of electrical engineering-ese and diagrams drawn with thumbnails on the tablecloth or pencils on scraps of paper while Luz sat back in silent pleasure, watching Ciara sparkle.
“Yes, sir?” she said, recognizing the voice of Director Wilkie.
Who she addressed as John on social occasions, and sir on business ones, though sometimes the two blurred.
Everyone within earshot looked at her. They heard:
“All right, sir… how many? Yes, dinner’s possible, I’m having a house party… yes, they’re here too… ah, that was the point? And when, exactly? Yes, sir, apology accepted. I realize that no warning is good security practice. Thank you.”
“I asked for this,” Luz said quietly and ruefully to herself, then pushed another button on the Bakelite body of the phone. “My patriotism truly approaches the pathological level. I am become the New Nationalism incarnate. I’ll be doing the Bellamy Salute instead of shaking hands next.”
“Belén?” she said, switching her internal voice to thinking in Spanish with a lifetime’s ease as her housekeeper answered.
“¿Si, Doña Luz?”
“We’re going to have more people for dinner than we thought, and more overnight guests—two couples, one with four children ranging from nine years to one year old, and a single gentleman. We’ll need every bedroom ready, fresh linen and toiletries. Oh, and move everything Ciara and I really need for one night to a guest room; the main’s for a visitor and his lady… who gets the master bedroom because of who he is, Belén, but don’t ask. Don’t gossip after you find out, either.”
Belén was extremely reliable, partly because that was her nature, partly because she’d been treated with consideration here, and partly because the job had gotten accelerated citizenship and jobs for a lot of her family.
“¡Si, Doña Luz!”
The Casa had seventeen rooms not counting the utilities, pantries and so forth, which made it medium-sized for Montecito, an affluent suburb on Santa Barbara’s eastern edge, and the staff quarters were cottages around the edge of the property, not under the main roof. Thirty years ago this had been out past the edge of town, still farming country though beginning its transition to country-estate, horse-farm and very-elaborate-vacation-home status for wealthy easterners escaping the winters. That had been long before urban planning, zoning and agricultural reservations, of course.
Luz went on:
“Get on to Diehl’s Grocery in town, and have them duplicate yesterday’s order or as close as they can and still deliver in the next hour, plus two dozen fresh rolls and four assorted loaves and a selection of cakes and pastries equivalent to what I baked earlier; pay whatever’s necessary. See what you can get out of the garden for another salad—”
Which ought to be enough, she thought: Taguchi Gardens kept it up for her and took the surplus as payment on Mondays.
“—put another two pounds of the shrimp on to boil as soon as it gets here, make up as many more butter-balls as the first lot, and tell your nephew to move half the charcoal burning in the first hearth to the second, and then fill them both up and mix it thoroughly with the shovel; that should be ready soon enough.”
They were planning a California barbeque and dinner al fresco, fortunately, which meant expansion was relatively easy and timing flexible.
“I’ll be there to help in a few minutes with some of the others.”
Then she hung up, turned pool-ward, waved her arms overhead and called:
“Friends, Americans, countrymen! Lend me your ears!”
When more-or-less silence had fallen: “You’ll never guess who’s coming to dinner.”
Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling