Chapter Two

“Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, Uncle Teddy,” Luz said. “But you actually, finally managed to tire that crowd of little devils out. Of course, I had them swimming in formation most of the afternoon, except for Ted and Eleanor’s.”

The President gave his alarming Bull Moose grin, very useful for playing bear, which he’d been doing intensively. Luz remembered the excitement of it from her own childhood. And the ghost stories afterwards…

Theodore Roosevelt had always made time out of each day for his children, President or no, and he loved romping with youngsters in general. He’d once been seen lowering his own offspring from an upper-story window of the White House on a rope made from knotted bedsheets, really getting into the spirit of a game of “Frontier Fort” where they were escaping from imaginary rampaging Mohawks brandishing tomahawks.

The adults, her guests plus the Roosevelts and Director Wilkie, were all sitting at the table under the gazebo near the retaining-wall above the beach, which had the barbeque pits nearby, actually iron tubs on brick supports. The children’s table had been not far away and presided over by Simone Cheine and Susan Zhao, though now the youngsters had been carted off, somnolent with cake and ice-cream, while Simone retired to swot furiously at quadratics, this time without the tutoring Ciara usually provided.

The ice cream was laid over a foundation of roasted sweet corn on the cob—children could do amazing things with that, some even involving eating it—various salads fresh from the garden and dressed with olive oil from the trees not far away, ajies rellenos—peppers stuffed with beef, onion, tomatoes precooked down to a paste, bay leaves, garlic, dry white wine, raisins and olives; and a version of Pisto Andaluz vegetable stew taught her by an ancient and disreputable and genuinely Andalusian retainer of her mother’s as a girl… the secret to that was just the right amount of the olive oil.

And charcoal-grilled meats and albacore tuna with a variety of bastings, breads and rolls, garnishes…

That went rather well, Luz thought. It helps that everyone here’s a parent except Fumiko and Midori.

The adults were now drinking coffee, and in a few cases postprandial brandies, or tea, which Josh Taguchi and Edith Roosevelt preferred to the national beverage.

The Taguchi sisters were ostentatious coffee-drinkers.

“What a splendid set of youngsters! After a happy marriage I don’t think there’s any pleasure, any real long-term satisfaction, that approaches raising a family of healthy children,” Roosevelt said sincerely. “Doing a good job at work worth doing comes next, of course, especially if you’re serving the country at the same time.”

Josh nodded; he’d made a quick change into his Army Engineers walking-out uniform before the unexpected guests arrived, looking fit and relaxed in it. He’d also met the President and First Lady several times before, always here, and he and Ted Jr. were nodding acquaintances and fellow veterans of the European theater in the Great War.

“That’s why I’m so glad the Corps of Engineers has assigned me to the Edmonton-Fairbanks Railway project since the Armistice, Mr. President,” he said. “I’m on the forward survey teams, topographic and geological both—a lot of it’s unknown country, so we’re doing ground and air mapping. Connecting the lower fifty-eight with Alaska overland is absolutely necessary, given the world as it is today. Right now Alaska might as well be an island like Hawaii, as far as transport times and costs are concerned.”

“Yes, it is urgent, Major,” Roosevelt said, smiling—that railway had been yet another of his pet projects.

Taguchi swept on, his eyes distant: “It’s a big job… monumental, and it’ll take a decade at least… Maybe the whole rest of my career, particularly if the project decides to put in a motor road as well. A task to consume a man, but it’s gorgeous country. Bleak, hard, and hard to love at first, especially if you’re from California, but beautiful… forest, mountains, great rivers frozen half the year… And in the long winter nights, the sky has to be seen to be believed!”

He gestured out at the skyscape above, which Luz thought was quite dramatic enough, particularly given the way it reflected in glittering hosts on the calm Pacific water to the south.

“It makes this look washed-out! Throw in the Northern Lights, curling and crackling across the sky like curtains of colored fire, and the whisper of the stars—when you can hear the moisture of your breath freeze out each time you exhale.”

“Brrrr!” his sisters said softly in unison, shivering. “Brrrr! Brrrr! Brrrrr!

Josh ignored them ostentatiously; Luz noted that the President didn’t seem to hear them at all, while the First Lady and the First Daughter-In-Law were resolutely hiding smiles, or possibly giggles.

“Whisper of the stars… that’s a striking phrase, Major Taguchi,” Roosevelt said, keenly intent and showing his author’s ear for a descriptive turn. “Your own?”

“No, sir, it’s a translation from the Russian. We’ve gotten a fair number of Russian immigrants on the crews just this last year… refugees, really, on the run from the Germans or the Japanese. They’re at home in that type of country, less likely to make stupid mistakes that get fingers and toes frostbitten, and good workers mostly. If you can keep them away from the booze, which is a problem.”

“My father said the same thing about every work-crew he managed on that sort of project, ones out in thinly peopled areas,” Luz said. “Rootless men without families tend to it.”

“True, all the experienced men say so.” Josh said. “And the hunting’s good, sir, in what spare time we have. Moose, wolf, bear… grizzlies, and polar-bears a little further north… caribou and musk-ox too… Especially once you’re at home on skis and snowshoes, and I’m learning to use a dogsled and team of huskies from our local guides, who are invaluable. Winter is better; easier to move, no bugs… the bugs can be a real problem up there since that half of the continent turns into a bog in spring and fall.”

Bully!” the President said heartily, leaning over to thump him on the shoulder. “That’s the way a man worth the name approaches a real man’s job!”

“Tempting!” the President’s son added; he shared his father’s enthusiasm for the chase and love of hard wilderness travel.

Josh flushed. “Thank you, Mr. President, General. You should come see it for yourself, Mr. President—call it a tour of inspection. Some of it’s got great potential, the Peace River Valley for farming and there’s timber and minerals further north, but I think other parts, large parts, should be wilderness preserves so future generations can see it as it is now. I find having children lengthens your perspective.”

“You should do that, Uncle Teddy,” Luz said; she’d been a little alarmed at how tired he looked. “Skiing through taiga in the Yukon and sleeping through blizzards in an igloo and eating caribou stew and shooting a musk-ox or two would set you up—you don’t relax nearly enough.”

Theodore Roosevelt showed naked longing for an instant; though his idea of relaxation was more what most people called extreme effort. Edith spoke up, surprising Luz a little; she knew the President’s wife had few inhibitions about offering her opinions in private, but it was rare with outsiders present, particularly ones from outside the old-school Knickerbocker social circles she was most comfortable in.

“Luz is absolutely right. You should, Theodore, and it’ll help make the public aware of the project. You always look years younger when you come back from a trip like that, readier to face the frustrations of your work. It’s pacing yourself, not self-indulgence.”

He wavered, shaking his head. “There’s so much to do… and being President isn’t nearly as annoying as it was in my first two terms. Not since 1912.”

“Of course not, Theodore, because nobody tells you “no” anymore. You should still do it. See some of your precious wilderness while you still can, and while the country’s at peace. I didn’t tell you to take time off during the war, but I am doing it now, and you know I’m right. You have capable subordinates and you’re good at delegation, the country won’t go to the dogs in a month.”

“I will, by God!” he burst out. “After we get back from Manila. You can be my guide, Major Taguchi! To the project, and to the land there. I’ll write it up afterwards; it’s been too long since I did any writing as a naturalist, not a politician.”

Josh looked a little staggered—and it would do his career no harm at all, of course, provided none of the polar-bears or arctic wolf-packs ate the President. Then Edith cleared her throat, rose and caught the eye of the wives.

“We should leave the President and…”

She smoothly topped herself from saying the men, as she might have a few years ago, or today in different company.

“… the relevant people to discuss other matters,” she said. “Thank you for an absolutely lovely dinner, Luz dear, and you, Miss Whelan. All the fun of a picnic and none of the drawbacks. And it’s good to see children in this house again.”

“You’re very welcome, Aunt Edith. Always a pleasure to repay so many years of hospitality and kindness.”

Josh jerked slightly and rose too; Luz would have bet that one or both of his sisters had kicked him hard under the table. Luz caught their eyes and flicked hers down: stay. When the good-nights had been said, that left her, Ciara, the Taguchi sisters, James and Director Wilkie sitting to either side of the President and his son, after a little chair-shifting to make conversation easier.

Luz glanced aside for an instant. The moon was rising from the sea, and the stars were very bright; the breeze was cool but comfortable. This had always been the place she thought of as home… doubly so since she and Ciara had shared the pledge-rings they still wore on the terrace above and vowed to make a life and family together.

“I already presumed that this wasn’t a purely social occasion,” Luz said dryly. “I know how many people want some of your time, Uncle Teddy.”

“Everybody in America!” the President said with a laugh.

“One hundred thirty-nine million, then, as of the 1920 census,” Ciara said, with a wry smile, then added with a glance at the newly-appointed Governor: “That’s not counting the Philippines, General. That would be another ten million. Not many seconds left for yourself, Colonel!”

He’d suggested she use that title for him years ago—it was what he preferred from adults not quite close enough to call him Theodore, though Luz got a pass on Uncle Teddy because she’d been using that since she was in knee-socks.

Ted Jr. chuckled, but added seriously: “We’ll need to add them, eventually, I think. Which is why getting things there right, and doing it right now, modernizing the country on a Progressive basis, is very important. We’re going to need everyone… everyone we can get… in the world as it is. America will.”

Roosevelt nodded. “Exactly. That’s why I just quashed another damned attempt at immigration restriction: the idiots couldn’t see that Germany is making us a free gift of two million of Europe’s best every year to build up our country… like those Russians Major Taguchi mentioned. The nation needs everyone’s service, and it needs the best every son—

He glanced at Luz from under his brows and over the pince-nez spectacles he wore in defiance of modern fashions, like the bushy graying mustache under the nose that bore them.

“—and every daughter of America can yield, which is why it’s criminally stupid or treasonous or both to hold any citizen of the Republic back from exercising their talents to the full in the nation’s service. Now let’s get to specifics. John?”

The Director of the Black Chamber began:

“Unfortunately I’ll need to review some geopolitical generalities first. You’ll know the Japanese opened their first small V-gas plant in late ’18, almost exactly four years ago. In Korea—”

Which had been a Japanese colony for most of this century.

“—in the north, near the Yalu.”

“We were surprised they did it so quickly,” Roosevelt said.

“It’s a complex job,” Ciara said thoughtfully.

She and Luz had been involved in security work for the American V-gas factory in Zacatecas, down in the Mexican Protectorate, and foiled a German attack on it with smuggled sky-torpedoes towards the end of the Great War. Back when the little self-guided flying bombs were a novelty, another of the Wunderwaffen that had almost won Germany the war. And had won Berlin a dominion stretching from the Atlantic to Siberia.

“Right on the edge of the practicable, even for Germany’s chemical industry. The Japanese must have substantially increased their command of chemical engineering plant while doing it. It’s not like making bulk sulfuric acid.”

“The Japanese are an extraordinary people, Miss Whelan, fully our equals,” the President said thoughtfully. “I’ve always thought so—I met Japanese students at Harvard as a young man, and I counted one of them among my friends; smart as whips, disciplined as monks, demons for work, and proud as lions. They were polite to a fault, but brooked no insolence from any man.”

That was a high complement from the man who’d popularized the slogan: Speak softly, but carry a big stick.

“Look at what they’ve accomplished! When I was born in 1858 they were still fighting in armor with bows and swords, but they whipped the Russians on land and sank their fleet at Tsushima when I was in my second term… I thought they would win that war, but not many others did… and now they’re building first-class battleships and aeroplanes and they rule half of Asia!”

“Their industries still have technical weaknesses, though, sir,” Ciara said. “They’ve been growing very fast, but some things just take time. It took us generations of hard work to catch up to the British, and we started closer and could lure over their best to settle here. The Japanese began with final products and simple things like textiles and have been working their way back up the manufacturing chains. And adapting the technology to their circumstances and habits—very sensible of them.”

“Exactly, Miss Whelan,” Wilkie said respectfully. “And we determined that the Germans gave them substantial help with their V-gas factory. Technical information, crucial parts and the loan of several engineers who’d worked on their own plants in Staaken and then the one in Rostov-on-Don. Pardon me, in Ermanaricshafen.”

There were quiet snorts and rolled eyes: Ermanaric had been… probably… a quasi-mythical Gothic king in the Ukraine in the fourth century AD, one who figured prominently in the Völsungasaga and the Nibelungenlied. The Germans were notorious for ransacking history and legend for ethnically suitable names to plaster on their vastly enlarged realm. The Ukraine was the East Gothic Marchland these days; and Romania was the Government-General of Gepidia. Named after the Gepids, a wandering Germanic tribe who’d squatted on their hams and picked lice out of their butter-smeared braids there for a while in the Dark Ages before vanishing into the blue. Nobody but specialists had even heard of them until their monicker was dredged out of history’s dungheap.

Wilkie and both Roosevelts nodded to James Cheine; he’d sabotaged the Staaken V-gas plant. Coincidentally at the same time as Luz and Ciara were in Berlin stealing the secrets of the German Telemobiloscope, which had proved to be a life-saving coincidence for all three of them and several others besides including his wife-to-be Yvonne and their adopted daughter Simone.

“I’m not surprised, sir, Mr. President,” James said. “It was to their advantage to help the Japanese, even if Japan was technically on our side in the Great War. Most of Japan’s gains came at the expense of France and Russia. And the Dutch, after they were annexed by Berlin. The minor German possessions in the Far East that Tokyo snapped up in 1914 hurt nothing but the Kaiser’s pride.”

“It’s very much to Berlin’s advantage to have us facing another Great Power in Asia,” the President agreed. “And it is very much to our advantage not to drive Japan into a real alliance with Germany, which is why we didn’t object when we found that Japan was quietly buying parts… and manufacturing equipment… in our sphere and in the British Empire… for its second V-gas plant. It’ll be in Manchuria, by the way, not far from Harbin.”

Manchuria had been a formal Japanese colony for about four years now… and was safely distant from the ocean and its largest city, Harbin, was in the middle of Japanese-controlled territory for many hundreds of miles in all directions. The Germans had put their second V-gas plant in Rostov-on-Don—or Ermanaricshafen—for the same sort of reasons.

“We couldn’t stop them anyway, not short of war, sir,” Ciara said. “Only slow them down and aggravate them.”

“Whereas if we don’t, they remember how much they don’t want to be left alone with Germany,” Luz said clinically.

“Exactly,” the elder Roosevelt said. “A game with three sides is almost infinitely more complex than one with two. The Japanese are—for now—the weakest of the three major blocs in military and industrial terms, but they’re in the strongest diplomatic position because both the others are forced to court them.”

“A Three-Body Problem,” Ciara said, and he chuckled.

Luz was only vaguely aware that that referred to some mathematical-astronomical puzzle because her partner had mentioned it as a challenging one; from their blank looks nobody else in the gazebo even had that.

Uncle Teddy is the best-read man I’ve ever met, she thought. He can talk to nearly anyone about their specialty!

“But the problem is…” Luz prompted.

Wilkie sighed. “That someone else is buying the same parts as the Japanese, with their purchases as cover and the no questions asked way the deals were done helping them.”

“Clever,” Ciara noted.

“It’s why we didn’t spot it for so long. Some third party, not the Japanese government.”

The President sighed as well. “It’s bad that the Japanese have V-gas. For some other, unknown group to get it is worse… much, much worse. Potentially catastrophic. The Japanese are ruthless but rational: they know they’ve been very lucky as well as tough and smart.”

“They have what they want and they want to live to enjoy it, like the Germans,” the younger Roosevelt said.

“Exactly,” the President said. “But we cannot tolerate a wild card—not a wild card with V-gas.”

“Are you sure it’s a third party, John?” Luz said, feeling a jolt through her stomach that seemed to run like an electric current into her brain.

“Definitely. Not one of the main blocs, or at least not the official, known-at-the-top sections thereof.”

They all nodded; the Central Powers’ sphere was no more a complete monolith than the Oceanian Alliance, less so if anything. There were plenty of Austro-Hungarians who resented their country’s dependence on Berlin, and the same went in spades for the Ottomans, smarting under barely-concealed German contempt for swarthy Orientalische Barbaren.

“The kicker was the methods of payment,” Wilkie said. “The Japanese were putting their purchases through Swiss banks, which have taken over a lot of the things that the City of London used to handle… to the extent that those things are still happening at all. Paying with commodities at several removes… tin ore and petroleum, copper and cotton and rice and coffee and tea and timber, shipped to Italy and Switzerland, mostly, and sometimes sold on to buyers in the Central Powers. With the Swiss bankers using multilateral balancing to smooth the flow of cash.”

“And the Swiss bankers don’t talk to us about their clients,” Luz said.

“Or anyone else,” Wilkie said. “Which is convenient sometimes, and a pain in the… fundament at others, like this.”

A lot of world trade had just stopped when the two great financial centers of London and Paris and their clearing houses and banks had been wiped out on October 6th, 1916. The United States had suffered far less than most of the civilized countries simply because it was more self-sufficient, but what large-scale trade occurred now was much more constrained and largely directed by governments. Private exchanges functioned more within the new global blocs, or around the edges like this.

“This other purchaser, the wild card, Mr. X, is using dollars—which are accepted everywhere now, though under the table in the Central Powers’ sphere. But they’re getting the dollars, and this we just learned, by selling on the art and antiquities market, which has always been shady anyway to put it mildly. Apart from gold and silver in ingot form, which plenty of people will take and not give a tinker’s dam that the ingots are ancient; the rest is jewels, jade, incredibly well-preserved Oriental antiques, mostly of Chinese origin.”

The President amplified: “Song and Jin dynasties, some older than that, nothing later. Medieval Central Asian and near Eastern gear too, and a few Russian artifacts. Worth many millions in total.”

The Taguchi sisters looked at each other; they’d been taking courses in Asian art history, which partly explained why they were here now, Junior Field Operatives though they were. Their faces were another part, of course.

Luz closed her eyes for a moment weighing the possibilities. The problem was that V-gas was power in concentrated form; and who didn’t want power? For this purpose, or that, but it all came down to power.

“It couldn’t be the French, could it?” she said, opening them in alarm.

They had East Asian ties that had persisted after the loss of Indo-China, not least through their South Pacific island colonies, and they still owned a chunk of the International Settlement in Shanghai.

“God forbid!” the President said. “But no.”

The French had survived the destruction of Paris and the breaking of the Western Front as a nation only by mass flight; its European homeland was an emptiness now being resettled by the Germans, except for a few million survivors toiling in labor-gangs under kicks and clubs and dying like flies of hunger and disease. Thirty million French exiles now lived in the National Redoubt of Overseas France, just lately redubbed New France… formerly the French colonies and protectorates of North Africa from Tunis to Agadir.

Polite people in the Oceanian Alliance didn’t mention what had happened to the natives, the truth of which was…

Very much what happened to the Armenians, only bigger and faster, done with Christian discretion, efficiency and dispatch rather than slovenly Asiatic noise and fuss, Luz thought with mordant irony.

Wilkie shook his head. “We investigated that first; Station Chief Durán in New Paris…”

“Formerly Algiers, and aren’t there are a lot of places with new names these days!” Luz murmured; Roberto Durán was an old friend.

He frowned and continued: “… did an exhaustive comb-through. Plenty of people in Nouvelle France would gladly bring the whole world down in wreck if they could pay the Germans back in their own coin, but Foch and Lyautey are too sensible to risk the final extermination of their people for that, and they understand why we won’t let them anywhere near V-gas.”

Resentfully, but they do, Luz filled in, silently this time.

Roosevelt took up the logic-train: “We’ve independently corroborated their assurances. It’s not France, not officially and not some rogue faction either. Nor the British. Lord Protector Milner wants revenge too, but he wants it after the British Empire has re-established itself and not as part of a mutual suicide pact; he cooperated fully with us in making sure it wasn’t some blood-crazed British madmen out to visit London on Berlin.”

“Have we looked at Shanghai?” Luz said. “Since there’s a strong Asian angle to all this. The French and British aren’t the only ones who’d like to see Germany wiped out… ¡Dios mio! Who in Europe doesn’t, including some of their own allies? They have a gift for making people hate them. And the Japanese have made more than a few mortal enemies too—much of China, for starters. People who’d be delighted to see Tokyo or Kyoto go the way of London and Paris.”

The President and Wilkie glanced briefly at each other, with the expressions of men glad to see their judgment confirmed.

“Yes, Shanghai is one of the sources for the artifacts, and the largest,” Wilkie said. “It’s as far back as we can trace, at least, though we haven’t been able to find out who in Shanghai, and we’ve lost several good men trying—whoever it is doesn’t want to be known, emphatically so. And that makes anyone in the Central Powers’ sphere a very unlikely candidate.”

Roosevelt’s old-fashioned bushy mustache bristled thoughtfully as he pursed his lips and polished his pince-nez on a silk handkerchief.

“Either it’s independents… who could be Chinese, European exiles, a combination of those… or some faction or element in the Empire of Greater Japan who don’t have official approval,” he said.

Wilkie took up the thread: “Japan has a bad case of Victory Disease, and there are groups there who don’t like the cautious line the Genro, their elder statesmen, are taking now. Acute of you to deduce Shanghai, Luz; determining that took some effort, with assistance from the Imperial Secret Service.”

Which was the British equivalent of the Black Chamber.

“It’s just logical,” Luz said.

Susan had told her a great deal about her hometown, and she’d gone on from there to research of her own. It was an interesting city… as in may you live in interesting times.

“Everything’s for sale in the International Settlement, and there are major banks in Shanghai too, serious money. They’re much more autonomous now that the Bank of England and the Bank of France are one with Nineveh and Tyre… and the Imperial Bank in New Delhi hasn’t gotten a tight grip, not yet. Many of their directors are only notionally British or French nationals—British-Indians from Bombay, Parsis, and others who are Baghdadi Jewish by origin. The Sassoons, for instance.”

“And there’s been unrest in India. The British settlers there are twenty or thirty times more numerous now, more all the time and there to stay,” Wilkie noted. “It’d be much worse if there was any alternative except the Germans and the Japanese, but some individuals or groups could be indulging in wishful thinking about independence, not just the qualified Dominion Status they’ve got now.”

Luz made a gesture of agreement. “Plenty of well-placed financiers in Shanghai would serve as conduits and agents with no questions asked and official policy from New Delhi be damned. The Swiss are careless babblers by comparison.”

“In the US, the major entry port seems to be San Francisco—we have most of the people in the world with enough money to make that sort of purchase,” Wilkie said. “The rest, largely in the British Empire, and some in South America—Brazil and Argentina, perhaps Chile.”

“There’s a premium on items that combine light weight and small bulk with high realizable value,” James Cheine said thoughtfully. “A lot of wealthy Europeans have moved here or to South America, and they like to keep a just-in-case stash on hand lest they have to run for the exits again. So do the richer natives. It’s a lesson reinforced by bitter experience, and damned if they’d care where it came from if the price was right.”

“Everything’s negotiable down there,” Wilkie agreed.

“So, you want an operation mounted to find out where this stuff originates… which would give us whoever’s trying to set up their own horror-gas plant?” Luz said.

Small horror-gas plant,” Ciara added. “From what you said, Director Wilkie, I’d guess someone’s trying for a miniaturized plant, not really a factory—small-scale batch production, at least at first. I’d guess doing only the final synthesis, purchasing the precursor chemicals?”

Roosevelt and Wilkie looked at each other in satisfaction again and nodded.

“Of course, it doesn’t take much V-gas to… do… a lot,” Ciara concluded.

“It doesn’t take much of the… accursed stuff… to kill thousands or tens of thousands,” the President growled.

I’ve never heard him really swear in the usual sense, Luz thought. But that’s about as close as he’s ever come.

“We’ve managed to create a world with a lot of people mad for revenge and the perfect means to satisfy it just tantalizingly out of reach,” Luz said, and he nodded.

“Or worse, someone might be planning on using it and throwing the blame on one of the blocs, trying to start another Great War. We’re all on a hair trigger because striking first would give a substantial advantage. The consequences of that… just don’t bear thinking of. John?”

Wilkie nodded. “We actually intend two operations, running independently. One headed by you and Senior Field Operative Whelan, the other by Executive Field Operative Cheine.”

Luz gestured agreement; that was good practice. In fact…

“Which means we should discuss this separately from this point on,” she said. And for emphasis concluded with: “Sir.”

“Yes. But you should know that at least there is another operation, to keep from stumbling over each other. Refer your plans to me: I’ll let you know if anything’s incompatible. This has a top-priority authorization, so you can both ask for anything within reason in the way of resources.”

Luz and James Cheine looked at each other.

If I know James, and I do, he’ll go in lone-wolf. I’m going to want something a lot more elaborate, she thought, noting the shrewd blue eyes behind Roosevelt’s pince-nez looking back and forth between them and missing nothing.

“And one more question: how close is Mister X to a V-gas manufacturing capacity?” Luz said, feeling that she’d just barely beaten James to it. “Because we should know how long we have.”

Wilkie and the elder Roosevelt shared a glance again. “We don’t know,” the Director said. “Not precisely—because we can’t be sure we’ve identified everything they bought. But at a minimum…”

“Far too close,” Theodore Roosevelt said. “Far, far too close.”

She smiled, and the President matched it. After a moment, so did James.

It was a hunter’s smile.


Luz raised herself on one elbow. Ciara’s gurgling chuckle and the happy drum of her feet on the sheets was soft in the quiet of the guest room—perfectly comfortable, and not stuffy at all with the windows overlooking the courtyard open to mild air smelling of gardens and the sea, and under it a tang of musk and sweat. The moonlight was bright enough to glitter a little on her turquoise-green eyes.

Luz smiled a sated smile. “Nice to be appreciated, mi corazon,” she said.

“Oh, you were fierce tonight,” Ciara said. “Lovely! You always get that way when you’re scenting danger or working out plans in your head, darling.”

“I do?” Luz said, a bit surprised.

I shouldn’t be, that she knows me well, she thought. I was never with anyone long before her. It’s… very good.

Ciara smiled mischievously. “And it makes me feel so naughty doing that with the President in the house!”

Sobering, her partner went on: “I know we’ve talked this over… but that was general. It’s the children…”

“Children mean giving hostages to fortune,” Luz said gently.

Even more than loving, Luz thought, and continued:

“You could stay here with the girls,” she said.

Stray locks fluttered around Ciara’s face as she shook her head.

“No. Think of the last field mission,” she said.

Luz nodded: in Zacatecas it had been Ciara who put the final clues together, about how the Germans were planning on destroying the V-gas plant.

“This mission is going to have technical aspects too,” Ciara said. “And you need someone who can tap phones and set microphones and spot it when someone’s doing it to you. And… we saved the world together, darling!”

Luz laughed. “Yes, we did. And that was even before we’d… well, I was already in love with you.”

“And I with you. I had no idea what was involved but I was quite certain.”

“We could leave the kids here and have your aunties come and look after them,” Luz said.

Ciara sighed. Her aunt Colleen—and Colleen’s life-companion, honorary-Auntie Treinel—would do a good job of it. They’d done more than half the work of raising her and her brother Colm, when Ciara’s mother died not long after she was born, and they’d formed a mutual adoration society with what they considered their grandchildren on visits over the last few years.

Though of course they’re older now… and the girls are past four and a real handful…

“The thing is, Luz my heart… the children might not be all that much safer here,” she said. “There’s what happened to the Sommermanns…”

Luz nodded in grim agreement; eight months ago the wife and four young children of an operative in San Francisco had been found butchered in his home—and he’d shot himself without bothering to write down any suspicions first.

“There’s always the chance that our covers might get blown, and someone could try and use them as leverage against us. The Chamber could guard them…”

“But would anyone guard them as well as we can?” Ciara said. “Without us… it would mean locking them up, even if the prison was invisible and comfortable. Which I will not do unless there’s no choice.”

“They need their parents badly at their age,” Luz said. “If things get much more hairy than I think, we can put them in a safe-house later.”

They looked at each other: it was one of those situations without any really good answer.

“Let’s get your aunties here anyway,” Luz said, smiling. “They could enjoy the house and the climate—hard not to, after Boston winters—and look after Safira while the staff pamper them.”

Safira was their cat, and a bit older than their children; the aunties had recently lost the last of theirs to age and general decrepitude.

Ciara sighed. Luz could feel her pushing it out of her mind for now; you had to be able to do things like that. It was surprisingly hard…

And I always thought of myself as the hard one.

Then Ciara’s smile went from wry to devilish. She rolled over suddenly, atop and straddling Luz’ hips with hers, her hands pinning her shoulders to the sheet.

“Are you still feeling fierce, my darling?” she said, sliding her hands in until they cupped the back of Luz’ neck.

Luz smiled up at the shadowed face she knew so well, running her fingers lightly up the insides of the other’s arms.

“No,” she said. “But I could manage naughty.”


Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling