Chapter Eight

“Your idea about the airships was inspired, Luz,” Julie Durán said. “Results almost immediately—and thanks to them, the Rangers got back quickly, too, so the information’s available.”

Luz looked at the contact report. “This isn’t very detailed,” she said.

“You should be able to quiz the commander of the detachment at my soiree tomorrow,” Julie replied. “It would be next week if he’d had to walk out. And on a personal note, and speaking of hunting, thank you so much for those superb Purdey side-by-sides you gave us for Christmas, Luz—Bob loved his and promised me an African safari after things settle down. Though the way it’s going by then we may both be drooling in bath-chairs pushed around by our great-grandchildren.”

She nodded to a rack behind the desk, which held a very practical Thompson, a cut-down Remington assault shotgun, a number of hunting weapons, a scope-sighted Springfield Sharpshooter and a pair of gleaming double-barreled big-game rifles from the famous English gunsmiths, their high-polished walnut stocks discretely inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, chambered to Luz’ order for the new .338 cartridge that fired a 250-grain bullet at nearly three thousand feet per second. Purdey & Sons wouldn’t be making any more of those bespoke masterpieces, since their shop had been in central London.

The desk also had a wooden rest with a strip of brass of the sort usually used for name-plates, engraved instead with a saying old Porfirio Diaz had made famous in the three decades of his rule in Mexico:

Cogidos en flagrante, mátalos en caliente y después averiguamos.

That meant more or less:

When you catch them in the act, kill them on the spot and get the details later.

Cheerful maxims of that sort were a tradition; Luz had heard of one Station Chief in southern Mindanao who had a polished skull on a mahogany base on his desk, one with a neat .30-06 hole above the left eye, most of the bone at the back raggedly missing, and a plate with:

Here lies a Moro who wouldn’t do what I told him to do. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

“Where is Bob, if you’re allowed to say?” Luz said. “I know the Director likes to use him as a mobile troubleshooter since you took over as Station Chief here.”

“Officially, he’s in New York. Unofficially, but not really secretly, he’s in Algiers getting our operation there going and cooperating with the French. If and when they’ll cooperate, he says they’re very touchy. Foch even more than Lyautey, who’s the smoother one on their Committee of National Salvation. An understandable attitude given what’s happened to… is happening to… France. It’s delicate work.”

There was pardonable pride in her voice; that was a very significant job indeed, since Algiers was obviously going to be an important listening-post and forward base for Chamber operations in German-ruled Europe and points south and east. Over the next few years at least and probably for longer.

“Oh, and he gave me an unofficial and extremely tantalizing message for you from one of their brighter intelligence people: Traveling Chilean feminists? I can’t believe I fell for that. Congratulations!

Luz grinned, or at least showed her teeth, remembering the disconcertingly sharp dark eyes in that customs shed in Tunis.

“Another milestone in our European theatrical careers,” she said cryptically, sharing a glance with Ciara.

Julie snorted. “And the rest went: We know it was you in Amsterdam and on the train, but all is more or less forgiven.”

“That’s nice,” Luz said calmly.

In fact she was irked; the survivors from that skirmish must have put two and two together with annoying intelligence—starting with the fact that someone in a skirt was shooting and throwing grenades and escaping with two Germans in one of their hijacked cars. They’d probably also figured out since then that she was somehow involved with thwarting the Breath of Loki attacks on the US… but not the simultaneous one that had destroyed Paris and broken the Western Front.

Julie’s raised eyebrow prompted Luz to review what could be said and she explained… somewhat.

“I had a bit of a run-in with the Deuxième Bureau—”

The Second Bureau of the General Staff was the French intelligence and covert-operations organization.

“—on my next to last trip to Europe in ’16. That was before the 6th, before everything went to Hell. I was deep undercover… penetrating an enemy operation… and their people on the spot thought I was a German asset and I could scarcely explain it to them, now could I? Unfortunate things occurred, errors in judgment, hasty and poorly considered actions. There were misunderstandings that produced hard feelings on both sides.”

Those hard feelings would have gotten us both unpleasantly killed… much more unpleasantly than most uses of the word “killed” imply… if they’d made us in Tunis in November. Things are different now; they don’t dare get the Director’s goat that way anymore, or Uncle Teddy’s.

Durán laughed, a quick hard chuckle. “How many of them did you kill in… Amsterdam, was it, Luz?” she said. “And on a train… probably a train to Germany?”

Between six and eight, depending on the whether any of the ones I pitched the grenade at lived, Luz thought. Fortunately they’re not a sentimental people, the French, particularly their spies. But I will be very careful around them for the rest of my life.

Aloud she said quellingly:

“Well, that’s water under the bridge now, Julie. Best not to dwell on old, unhappy things. The spirit of Progressive Americanism under the New Nationalism means a unified, disciplined focus on the future.”

“Imitating Secretary of Public Information Croly now, are you?”

“Oh, that’s just low!”

Julie’s smile grew wider and she winked at Ciara: “The opposition here used to call her Santa Muerte, and they swore she could see in the dark, turn herself invisible and walk through walls,” she said.

“So does Colonel Nicolai of Abteilung IIIb, these days,” Luz said with resignation.

Julie’s on a tear.

“And I hear they called her Mictēcacihuātl too, sometimes, down in Morelos,” Julie said. “There are more people who speak Nahuatl… that’s the old Aztec language… down there.”

Mictēcacihuātl?” Ciara said, butchering the Nahua word even more than Julie had.

“The Skull Goddess,” Julie said. “The Swallower of Stars, Lady of the Land of Bones. Queen of Hell and Death in the old religion, basically.”

Luz made a dismissive gesture. “That was my fault for being too flamboyant,” she said. “What can I say? We were young, and our souls were on fire.”

In fact she’d played up to that identification with the old Aztec monster-goddess, leaving little Day of the Dead sugar-paste skulls behind as a trademark and calling-card.

“We were young?” Henrietta chuckled and looked ostentatiously around the table. “Don’t see many gray hairs here even now, ladies.”

“A little flamboyance was a small price to pay for youthful energy and flexibility,” Luz said.

“Nobody had much experience at what we were doing with the Chamber, anyway. We got that on the job. Or died. And we took a lot of our ideas out of books,” Durán added.

“There were manuals then?” Ciara asked, puzzled because she’d read all the current ones and memorized them, including their publication dates.

“No, from adventure fiction. Things like Kim and Richard Harding Davis’ stories.”

Luz nodded at Ciara’s is this real glance and went into detail:

“And they often worked. Sinister gestures were useful to keep the enemy nervous and looking over their shoulders, for instance,” she said. “Style is important here. It’s a lot like advertising or popular fiction, in some ways—manipulating people’s conceptions. For example, you don’t have to have spies everywhere and that’s impossible anyway. You just have to make people believe you do.”

The Station Chief’s elegant blond brow arched a little further as she ignored the subject-changing. “And both of you getting the Order of the Black Eagle!” she said. “Non-posthumously! And I notice you’re an Executive Field Operative now, Luz.”

“We earned it. I credit enormous talent, Ciara’s magnificent bravery, and lots of luck,” Luz said.

Their eyes met in an instant of perfect understanding. Julie would have guessed that the medals had something to do with thwarting the horror-gas attacks, and that the details were in the Most Secret files and would stay there for a long long time. So would their subsequent excursion to Berlin to penetrate the secrets of the Telemobiloscope, the revolutionary German radio-rangefinding apparatus.

Though rumors had inevitably spread about the final bit, which had involved escaping the capital of Germany by hijacking a German Navy semirigid airship… equipped with the Telemobiloscope. And the role of then Colonel and now Brigadier Ted Roosevelt, Jr. in the final rescue—a man they both knew socially as well as professionally—that had captured it intact.

And who, if he lives, may well be president someday.

“How’s Algiers otherwise?”

“Bob’s sent me some really magnificent little French objets d’art, which are going cheap there if you can pay in dollars.”

Luz sighed heavily; there were times when Julie could wear on you.

Particularly with her clothes on, which is why it didn’t last; that isn’t enough, she thought, and went on aloud:

“We were through part of French North Africa not long ago, a little after the 6th that time, and it was already… rather bad.”

“While traveling as Chilean feminists? It got much worse, Bob hints cryptically. That made me do a little research—call in some favors for information—and apparently it’s the Entente’s very own Armenia, though we’re not supposed to say so.”

“I suspected it would be something like that,” Luz said with a sigh, and Ciara grimaced slightly and looked aside.

“Well, you did ask,” Julie pointed out.

Shoving thirty-odd million refugees into an area that only produced a modest food surplus for its twelve million or so natives and million French colons even in years of peace and good weather was something that just didn’t have any possible pleasant outcomes. Not with food short or famine-short or just not there at all everywhere from Normandy to China. And shipping even more so, what with the U-boat packs and conflicting priorities.

Julie shrugged and went on: “Though the French have their news blackout clamped tight and it’s mostly working, which is more than the Turks ever managed. No photographs, and I suspect no internal documentation that isn’t burned as soon as possible. Our very own Public Information is helping, of course, lest excessive truthfulness confuse the public.”

Julie added: “Their new public slogan is: “Ce sont les Français qui font le sol français, pas le sol les gens.”

“It is the French people who make the ground France, not the ground the people,” Luz murmured. “Fair enough.”

“The Great War is Moloch the Devourer come again,” Ciara said with a sigh and a troubled look, which was indisputably true. “It destroys everything it touches.”

“It’s a long ways from the first time,” Henrietta said.

When they all looked at her she quoted softly from the Book of Joshua, her eyes distant:

“So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings and peoples; he left none remaining, but slew all that breathed… the young and the old, the male and the female, and the ox and the ass and the sheep, with the edge of the sword, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.”

Then in her own voice: “And mostly nobody even remembers their names.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Luz sighed and decided to change the subject; there was little point in brooding on what you couldn’t affect.

“How’s Alice, Julie?” Luz said. “I hope she remembers me; I feel a bit guilty I couldn’t see her more often lately.”

Luz wasn’t more than a nominal, family-tradition type of Catholic these days. If nothing else, things in her personal life she wasn’t prepared to change made confession and going to Mass impossible unless she simply lied truth out of creation, which she wouldn’t do unless it was required in the way of business. But she’d been raised to consider being a madrina, a godmother, an important link and compadrazgo, co-parent-hood, a serious business and life-long bond. And children were looking cuter with every passing year. She knew Ciara felt the same way, only more so.

A flash of thought went through her: sitting on the patio back home in the Casa, sipping a glass of wine and watching Ciara playing with a toddler…

Julie beamed and reached over to the desk to pass them a color-tinted photograph that showed a curly-haired tot in a pinafore cradling a kitten. The kitten looked a little sulky at being beaten in the adorability sweepstakes, or possibly at the determined grip of the plump little hands.

“She’s healthy, flourishing, pretty much toilet trained, and asleep now, thank God, but since she turned two back in the spring she’s learned how to say no. Very loudly, over and over. Bilingually.”

Luz grinned at the painful pun; the word was identical in the two languages Alice was being raised in. She and Ciara cooed appropriately over the picture. Luz had to admit the coo-wattage was high; she found children much more appealing past the oozing, belching larval stage, though Ciara liked babies too.

“And the twins?”

“Eduardo and Catalina are sleep too, thank God, but they’re at the age where everything lying on the ground gets picked up and crammed in their mouths if it’s small enough and gnawed on where it stands if it isn’t… including garden shrubs, chair-legs and various ankles… I think Bob’s side of the family must include some maidens from the were-beaver tribes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Thank God good staff is easier to get here.”

“Even with security checks?” Luz asked, amused.

Julie was actually talking about the servant problem, probably the only Black Chamber regional commander who did, and in much the same way that her mother or sisters might with a few additions like making sure no enemy infiltrators entered disguised as cook’s assistants and housemaids. Everything else about her life was different from those of her kin… beyond their mental horizons, in fact, because her parents were utterly conventional exemplars of their class and generation and called Uncle Teddy that man in the White House… But not that concern with household staff. She’d fled the circles she grew up with, but you always took bits and pieces of home with you no matter how far you ran.

“Even with. Anita is an utter treasure…”

“And the revolucionarios burned her house and killed her husband and the rest of her family only survived because our troops came along,” Luz nodded, remembering.

The post as family nanny to the Duráns had involved citizenship, schooling and patronage for her own teenage children as well as a place and a comfortable wage for herself.

“I’d have gone mad long before this trying to juggle everything without her. How my mother did it with six of us I don’t know… no, I do, it was dear old nanny Maggie, bless her and κούφα σοι χθὼν ἐπάνωθε πέσοι—”

Oh, still quoting Euripides, Julie! Luz thought, and translated:

“Which is Classical Greek for, May the earth rest lightly upon her.

Julie sometimes forgot people who’d gone to university and done the Classics were a tiny minority.

“—but even so. Secretary Davenport says three is the absolute minimum you owe the American nation if you have good germ plasm. Three is what he’s got, I notice, not the great thundering herd of seven or eight he recommends for other people. Unless he’s disqualified for responsible reproduction by feeble-minded, epileptic, drunken microcephalic dwarf aunts in the attic he hasn’t let anyone know about.”

Everyone chuckled. It was notorious that eugenics fanatics were not very progenitive themselves, on the whole, including the Secretary of the Department of Public Health and Eugenics. They were given to do as I say, not as I do pronouncements, when it came to the Party’s slogan:

The Three Duties of the Citizen: Work! Fight! Beget!

At least Uncle Teddy practiced what he preached, since he and Aunt Edith had a swarm of boisterously impressive and healthy offspring.

And an ever-increasing roll-call of grand-spawn. Even Alice Longworth née Roosevelt is expecting, which is several types of miracle, though I’m not entirely sure even she is sure who Daddy is, except that it’s not Ambassador Nicholas Longworth III. And that’s why she paid him a short and literally flying visit in Tokyo on the American National Airways inaugural run in March: to make the arithmetic at least a bit credible. Alice is what Uncle Teddy would be if he didn’t have a conscience. ¡Dios Mio, what a man-trap, though!

“And apart from the little incident in the Sierra, how are things going here in general?” Luz said. “I’ve read your situation reports, of course, but…”

The maid set out coffee and plates of churros and a bowl of melted chocolate for dipping the long skinny deep-fried pastries. Julie opened a box—Luz thought it was certainly French and probably Napoleon III—lacquered in a mellow shade of old gold, with a vignette of an 18th Century romantic couple dressed in shades of pink and turquoise on the top, framed with a gilded swirling acanthus leaf border; the corners were decorated with gilded scrollwork interspersed with tiny, intricate carved flowers. Its gilt-speckled interior of brown walnut was full of cigarettes, Egyptian ones of a brand named Mogul, and probably more expensive than ever, with the near-total collapse of world trade.

Julie put her cigarette in an ivory holder and lit it from a granite-encased lighter on the table, waving gracefully at the box as she leaned back in the heavy chair like a lounging cat. Henrietta took one, without a holder; Ciara declined and so did Luz, though she was hiding a smile at the memories the scent brought.

“I still agree with the Boss,” she said.

The President notoriously detested tobacco in all its forms, which made using it very mildly daring for Party members. He was an extremely moderate and strictly social occasional drinker, almost but not quite a teetotaler; he’d quashed the Prohibition movement for alcohol because he thought it was stupid or unworkable or both, but he made up for it on cigarettes which he was convinced were filthy and unhealthy at any dose. He’d found statisticians at the Department of Public Health and Eugenics who thought there were disturbing correlations with various loathsome diseases. That was enough to make Luz glad that she just didn’t like the stuff to begin with, though you could prove anything with numbers if you tried hard enough.

“Teacher’s pet,” Julie said without resentment.

When the maid had finished clearing the table and left—the household staff might have been carefully checked but you didn’t take unnecessary risks—Durán resumed her answer:

“Well, officially, everyone here except German spies and a few of their dupes just absolutely loves us to bits because we invaded Mexico for Mexico’s own good and for the sacred cause of Progress and we are all happy and friendly and cozy as be-damned, tra-la, tra-la. If you don’t believe me, just read the New York Times! Or those articles in the Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic with pictures of adoring Mexican kids getting handed chocolate bars by soldiers or Plenipotentiary Lodge and his wife opening a vaccination clinic.”

Ciara’s smile was a little pained; the other three Americans laughed heartily.

“That’s not el jefe,” Luz said.

Uncle Teddy had never made any bones about that fact that while he expected Mexico to benefit eventually, the Intervention had been launched to protect Americans and their interests, not to mention avenging their wrongs.

Which is absolutamente why I was there from the beginning, lusting for revenge with all my soul and enjoying every moment of getting it.

“It’s that little toad Croly’s smarm and soul-butter,” she went on aloud.

She was naming, and insulting, Herbert Croly, Secretary of the Department of Public Information—overseer of the press and propaganda—and the Progressive Republican Party’s chief ideologist, as well as the author of the shatteringly dull and turgid Party bible, The Promise of American Life, a much-bought, little-read book. In which the phrase The New Nationalism had been coined, and struck Uncle Teddy’s attention like a thunderbolt about eight years ago. It wasn’t surprising he liked the book, which had used him as an exemplar of a new type of leader who embodied the popular will and the national destiny.

Sometimes Luz thought Croly must feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but her sympathy was underwhelming.

“And underneath the Department of Public Information’s soul-butter?” she asked.

Julie nodded. “Unofficially, things are… not bad at all, compared to the way they were a couple of years ago. Steadily improving, I’d say. Most people are just glad the fighting’s over and there’s enough to eat, though God knows how long that’ll last once they get used to it again.”

“Ah, but you forget the universal power of enduring gratitude,” Luz said with owl solemnity, and Julie snorted as she continued:

“The Army’s cooperative… we have a new regional commander, Major-General Young, but he seems very competent… and the FBS… well, they’re the FBS.”

All four of the Black Chamber operatives smiled or shrugged at that; to them Federal Bureau of Security meant plodding bureaucratic second-raters at best and opinions went downhill from there. Plenty of sulky resentment of reckless cowboys and lunatics came back their way, along with pouting on the order of: Daddy loves you best and that’s NOT FAIR!

“Though I admit the FBS did get the local police up to the mark on suppressing ordinary crime, and they’ve even cut the corruption.”

“Honest Mexican police?” Luz said skeptically, having lived in the country during the Porfiriato.

“No, no miracles; they just cut it down to, say, traditional Chicago or New York or St. Louis levels of corruption… which on second thoughts is a miracle and it’s much appreciated and gets us a lot of credit.”

“The local cops still take bribes, but no more shakedowns or demanding the maidenheads of daughters or shooting people because a personal enemy of the shootee paid them off or because they’re bored and it’s a hot day?” Luz said.

“About that. Crops have been good the last few years too, there’s plenty of work with all the construction projects—even the hacendados have taken to investing with deranged optimism—and of course there’s plenty of demand for everything the place grows or mines or makes, what with the war, and now that Mexico’s inside our tariff wall. And we’ve managed to keep basic food prices reasonable. By shipping in subsidized corn from the Midwest, sometimes.”

Luz nodded, happy though not surprised to hear it. “Neglecting that was one of old Don Porfirio’s worst mistakes, there at the end when he started to lose his grip. You don’t want people cursing your name every time they go to market or make a tortilla or hesitate to take a bite for themselves because their children are looking at them but have to do it anyway because they need the strength to keep their job.”

Ciara nodded vigorously too. She’d grown up in a working-class neighborhood where food took more than half the average family’s budget, and a breadwinner’s accident on the docks or the mass layoffs that followed a trade panic like the one in ’07 could mean going from meat every day to living on potatoes and wearing shoes an extra year, holes in the soles or no. Her own family had always been a little better off than that, but in daily contact with those less fortunate.

Julie waved agreement with the chocolate-dipped piece of churro in one hand, and drew on her Egyptian cigarette and blew a smoke-ring towards the ceiling before she continued:

“Wages are up more than prices, not least because of people working up north and sending money home, which is one reason the landowners are buying American-style farm equipment, a lot of it second-hand. There are still Carranzistas—”

“Even though he’s dead?” Luz asked curiously.

She’d helped track Venustiano Carranza Garza to his final hiding place near Saltillo in early 1915, part of the steady grinding-down and tidying-up process, though the FBS had made the actual arrest.

“Still. A lot don’t believe he just dropped dead in custody. The irony being that for once it really was just natural heart failure.”

Heart failure was to the Protectorate what shot while attempting to escape had been to Don Porfirio’s government. They were linked; being shot did make your heart fail.

“And we didn’t get quite all the PNR anarcho-communard revolucionarios and there are plenty of common or garden don’t-like-the-gringos types mouthing off in cantinas when they think nobody’s listening.”

“They could find out they’re wrong about that someday,” Luz said with a grin.

She cleared her throat and sang a snatch from The Mikado, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta she and Julie had both appeared in as members of the drama club at Bryn Mawr:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list—I’ve got a little list
Of offenders who might as well be underground
And who never would be missed!
Who never would be missed!”

Julie laughed, thought for a moment to summon memory and then completed it in a pure well-trained soprano:

The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list
For they’d none of ’em be missed!
They’d none of ’em be missed!”

Then she continued: “There aren’t any active cells that we’ve found for the last eighteen months, but there are probably sleeper groups hiding in the hills and among the public and waiting for a chance, or for us to get sloppy and let down our guards. They’ve learned to keep their heads way, way down, which is good enough.”

“Pro-German activity?” Luz asked.

“Some but nothing serious, the odd ¡Viva Alemania! or ¡Victoria al Kaiser! written on walls, on the enemy-of-my-enemy principle, but the Germans didn’t help themselves by boasting about London and Paris rather than denying it. And of course Public Information had plenty of really, really ugly pictures to show. Moving picture newsreels too, there was some screaming and fainting and vomiting among the audiences. They bothered me, and you know I’m not at all tender-hearted.”

Henrietta nodded, stone-faced and silent for a moment, with a quiver so slight that Luz wasn’t quite sure she’d seen it. When the woman from Savannah spoke her voice was flatly calm:

“I know up here the horror-gas can’t kill you deader than a bullet.”

She tapped her head and then the spot below her sternum: “But your heart an’ stomach don’t necessarily follow along. Granted that’s how my family died, but I don’t think I’m bein’ softheaded because of that.”

Sentimentality, or even worse, Victorian sentimentality, was not an attitude the Party encouraged. You were supposed to cultivate a hard objectivity, to be an engineer of your own life and soul.

Ciara gave her a sympathetic glance, and then frowned as something struck her. “Would anyone have believed the Germans if they had denied it? With the pictures and such?”

“Some would have pretended to, at first, and then actually started really believing it because they wanted to so badly,” Julie said.

Ciara blinked a bit at the overwhelming cynicism, but Luz nodded; it fit precisely with her observations of how human beings acted. In fact, that type of selective memory was something she regularly checked herself for, despite the unpleasant mental sensations doing so gave you.

“It does help that the Germans are so reliably ham-handed. It makes it easy to look good by contrast,” Luz noted. “They just have no capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, even for tactical reasons. Look at that medal they put out after they sank the Mauretania, with the passengers buying tickets from a skeleton!”

“And they never had any earthly idea why the British made thousands of copies of it and distributed them all over, it’s the same thing that makes them such terrible spies,” Julie agreed, and then went on: “We worried that the declaration of war on Germany might start something, but it depressed the holdouts instead. We lost the half of the 15th Minnesota Infantry division assigned here, they’re just pulling out of this military district—”

Which consisted of four states that covered much of north-central Mexico.

“—as part of the general mobilization plan, but we got a new division at full strength instead, the 32nd Infantry, Regulars. The switchover’s about complete now. They’re mostly green in terms of work in the Protectorate except for some of the officers and noncoms, but they look menacing enough and the commanders have them out working hard across the countryside and up in the Sierra Madre Occidental.”

“Green… the 32nd… that’s a Negro division,” Luz said, her eyes going up slightly as she consulted her mental files. “Major-General Young got them last October… West Point, Class of ’89… fought in the Philippines, then was military attaché in Haiti—he did good intelligence work there, I’ve seen the reports and they’re models—fought at Veracruz and Pueblo in 1913 as Colonel of the 10th Cavalry, brigade command in Morelos and Chiapas, then Chief of Staff for the 32nd… He’s the first Negro ever promoted to general rank, too.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Henrietta said neutrally. “Judgin’ from the fact that they were used in the Gulf states during the martial law period, the 32nd was probably sent here because el jefe is absolutely sure they’re reliable.”

Yes, she’s quite sharp, Luz thought.

“And because the General Staff and the White House thought well of General Young’s ability to handle a delicate situation. This is a high-priority posting now.”

Then to Julie:

“And because we couldn’t send them to Europe. Without the horror-gas we’d be driving the Germans back through Belgium right now and we’d be across the Rhine before the end of next year. There’d be a massive butcher’s bill, but we could do it.”

That got a nod; they both knew the plans and the balance of forces. If the American army had been able to funnel itself through Britain and the Channel ports, attacking along the old Western Front with intact French and British forces by its side… but it hadn’t.

October 6th—changing everything again, Luz mused, knowing they were all thinking the same thing, that everyone who’d been adult on that day would go on doing so all their lives, and went on aloud:

“But as it is, the Army’s all dressed up with no place to go—the General Staff are still racking their brains about it in the Iron House, and so is the Boss.”

“Better el jefe and the Iron House than me,” Durán said. “I’ve got quite enough to do cultivating my own garden, if you want to invoke Voltaire. Fortunately, the civil government in this State has been doing quite well too. Governor Seelmann’s been doing well implementing Plenipotentiary Lodge’s program here—roads, tube wells in the villages, clinics, forestry… The death rate’s down, there are more kids in school, a lot more paved roads, a couple of small factories have opened this year, that sort of thing. Just as importantly, people are getting to believe there will be more of the same to come while we’re charge, which also gives us added prestige.”

Ciara nodded happily, Luz noticed; that was more the sort of thing she wanted to hear, being basically inclined to carrots rather than sticks. Durán went on:

“He speaks the language well, which is appreciated… I know it’s supposed to be compulsory for permanent upper-level administrative types here but a surprising number seem to be baffled at anything more than the pass the salt level… and he married a local girl this spring, which was popular. Except with the people who really, really hate the hacendados, and they’re not going to like us anyway.”

“I heard her mentioned by some local gossips. Details?”

“One of the de Moncadas; Maria Concepción Ursula de Moncada y de Camino. Seelmann y de Moncada, now.”

“The de Moncadas… land, of course, and silver and lead mines,” Luz said.

She recognized the surnames of the local elite, but not the young woman specifically. And this assignment had been something of a surprise, dropped on them only days ago; she’d expected another trip across the Atlantic rather than a return to Mexico.

Not that it wasn’t a compliment, given the reason for dispatching an Executive Field Operative and her Field Operative assistant here. Keeping her and Ciara together was a mark of the high command’s favor too. Though when you kept pulling rabbits out of your hat, the aforesaid high command did start to assume you could always furnish the meaty part of the Hasenpfeffer, which was a form of pressure all its own.

“The de Moncadas have been here and rich for centuries,” Julie said. “Younger-son Catalan cavallers originally, arrived in the 1530’s, successful free-lances during the Chichimeca Wars… ennobled under the Bourbons… rode out the independence war and the First Mexican War and the French occupation, and then did very well out of the Porfiriato. The revolucionarios scared them into our arms along with all their followers, clients and hangers-on. Concepción’s a nice girl, very pretty indeed if you like the Latin type, which I do—”

“Your name is Durán these days,” Luz pointed out. “Why, you might as well be a damned dago yourself.”

She did not add aloud: since you’ve slept with so many of us, though she was sure Julie had caught that in the smallest quirk of an eyebrow.

“Exactly. Concha’s quiet—”

Concha was the standard short form for the rather formal Concepción. She’d go by that, because as the local joke went if you walked out the door and shouted ¡Maria! here half the women in the street would turn and look at you.

“—but no fool, and she was educated at private schools in Mexico City and by good European governesses… English and French and Swiss, not German, I checked…”

“Not that someone named Seelmann would have anything to say to that,” Luz noted.

An amazing number of Americans with German surnames had paid quick visits to registry offices lately and emerged to bland Anglo-Saxon anonymity; going for patriotic handles on the order of Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and Grant and Sherman was popular, and the number of Roosevelts would have soared if Uncle Teddy hadn’t put his foot down. Governor Seelmann had apparently decided the Governor part and his military record were more important than an unquestionably Fritz moniker.

“Agreed. She speaks English and French, and has passable general knowledge as well as the accomplishments, and her family took her along on trips north… not Europe, she was too young before the war started, but St. Louis and Chicago and New York. She’s just nineteen now, in fact, which is a little bit young for him if we were up north, he’s a childless widower and thirty-five.”

That sort of age gap between bride and groom was nothing out of the ordinary among upper-class Mexicans, particularly when a man married for the second time.

“Was it political?” Luz said.

Julie and Henrietta both grinned and glanced at each other as if at a shared joke, and the Station Chief continued:

“No, it was a love-match. Really. Carl was smitten in the grand fashion, though her family most certainly didn’t object to having the Governor as an in-law, and neither did their innumerable relations. They started inviting him over all the time as soon as they knew his intentions were honorable, which was obvious from his stunned-ox look and the way he treated her as if she was made of spun glass and silk and went babbling on about her keen wits and natural gentle charm and beautiful laugh and deep, kind nature. Honestly, you’d have thought he was sixteen from the way he shuffled his feet when she smiled at him. And he started asking me for advice on how to court her, which was flattering, but… sad, in a way.”

“What about her?” Luz said. “Or did her parents just lean on her?”

Henrietta sighed melodramatically and put the back of one hand to her forehead while patting her heart with the other in a quick vibrato:

“Oh, he talks to me,” she said, obviously quoting what she’d heard from Concha with Julie’s company rendering her socially invisible. “Oh, he’s the only man who ever listened to me. The others flatter me but they don’t talk to me, they’re such boys, all they want to talk about is love. He’s interested in what I think about things… oh, he has such depths of soul, he’s so lonely and misunderstood, and he knows Wordsworth…”

Julie joined the general laughter. “I remember those conversations. I think she meant ‘he’s not just interested in getting his hands on mis chichis’ and ‘likes the same poets’. Granted that would be a contrast with most boys her own age, her duenna could keep them at bay and polite but not control the direction of their hot panting gaze…”

Henrietta nodded. “God’s truth, judging by the ones I meet. You feel like puttin’ an arrow on your blouse and a note sayin’ my eyes are up here.”

Everyone sighed or groaned.

“There are worse reasons for a nineteen-year-old to decide a man is interesting than the fact that he listens to her,” Luz said.

Ciara nodded: “Especially if the girl wasn’t one of those who think flirting is a sport like baseball and spend all their time on batting averages and trading cards, so to say.”

“No, she’s serious-minded,” Julie said.

“He converted?” Luz asked. “I don’t suppose the de Moncadas would let their grandchildren grow up outside the Church, Governor-in-law or no.”

Julie had done just that when she married into the Duráns; Luz knew she paid exactly as much attention to the Catholic Church now as she had to the faded, attenuated post-Quaker Unitarian wishy-washiness of her parents as a girl, which she’d once described to Luz as the Church of GAAVEB—God As A Vague Elongated Blur. And also as a form of inoculation against ever taking religion seriously, like the weakened virus used in the vaccination against smallpox.

“Converted? I’ll say he did! He went Catholic publicly, and well before he got a yes from her.”

“While they were still talking Wordsworth and he was revealing the depths of his soul,” Henrietta said. “Maybe she tried to save his soul—she’s very regular about confession and going to Mass.”

“If she’d been a Satanist, he’d be wearing a crucifix upside down now and intoning the Lord’s Prayer backwards,” Julie said. “But if the Hierarchy has a passkey Carl’s through the Pearly Gates already. The ceremony was overseen by the Archbishop. In the Cathedral, at the Easter Vigil… he spent the night on his knees… with her parents as padrinos. Baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist all in one. And then a procession, with piñatas full of silver quarters hung up in the streets, dedicating a chapel to the Virgin of Zacatecas as Our Lady of the Assumption and a new altar for the Cathedral… which incidentally mysterious sources helped pay for…”

¡Ay!” Luz said, startled. “That’s going the whole hog!”

Julie went on with an ostentatiously evil smile:

“I managed to convince him that doing a serenata during the courtship would help. In full charro fig, underneath her balcony, with two Mariachi guitarists also in full fig backing him up…”

She strummed an invisible instrument, threw back her head with an expression of exaggerated blissful torment and sang, quite well, but with a deliberate cat-on-a-fence-seeking-love overtone:

Dulce amor de mi vida,

“In a charro suit?” Luz said; that was what folk-singers wore, an exaggerated version of old-fashioned Mexican cowboy garb. “Oh, Julie, you didn’t talk him into that!”

Henrietta wiped her eye. “Yes, ma’am, she did—I heard her do it, as solemn as a judge. And when she told Concha about it at the reception, the poor girl flushed like a beet and began hitting the Station Chief here with her fan and calling her an evil triply-cursed daughter of Satan and saying: I hate that song!

¡Dios mío!” Luz wheezed. “I’d forgotten how diabolical you could be, Julie.”

Ciara was smiling, but looking a little uncertain. “I don’t quite understand… it all sounds so sweet? Except the bit with the fan.”

Luz recovered. “It is sweet, querida… but… oh, my goodness, let’s say a man went to Ireland and moved into Wexford or Cork… or the village of Skibbereen, for that matter… and tried to fit in by wearing knee-breeches and buckled shoes and a green tailcoat and a weskit with brass buttons and a top-hat and smoking a little clay pipe like a pottery leprechaun. And carrying a shillelagh and starting all his sentences with begorrah or bejabers or top o’ the mornin’ to ye!”

Ciara winced, and then started laughing too.

“Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as that,” Julie grinned. “Though one of my informants did report a spectator saying during the procession after the wedding that he hadn’t realized that Don Raul’s daughter was marrying the King of Spain instead of just some gringo. They do like a performance here, but there’s a certain sense of proportion.”

That set everyone off again. When she could speak coherently, Luz asked:

“No, seriously, as a professional, what was the reaction?”

“Affectionate and indulgent, more than anything—he got real points for trying and for meaning well and for being so desperately in love—particularly from our half of the population. It would have been different if he wasn’t respected for being firm when he has to be, but he is, and he’s a very good horseman and was a champion fencer at West Point and has a couple of combat medals and some nice small romantic scars, which also gets him credit for being a real man, as they say here.”

The actual phrase she used was un varón de verdad, which had a rather… earthier… connotation, something more like a complete stud. Julie went on:

“Don Raul gave them a hacienda west of town as a wedding gift, not far from our place, as a matter of fact—it was part of Concha’s herencia materna from her grandmother’s sister anyway, who died without issue. She’s expecting, by the way… Concha, not the dead great-aunt… and that’s popular too. Protectorate HQ has quietly let it be known that Carl can be governor here as long as he wants, and that’s popular, since people know they’re not going to get a stranger who doesn’t know them dropped on their heads and they like the idea of a Governor who’s tied his fortunes and his bloodline to the place and to their people.”

Julie turned sober and cleared her throat. “And he’s getting credit for snagging this Dakota Project they’ve been building since January out east of town… everyone loves the government money that’s gone into circulation here.”

Silence fell. Luz said, a little defensively: “Well, it has.”

More silence, and she went on: “Julie, mi amiga, this decision was made far, far above my pay-grade or yours. You can imagine how urgent the priorities are, and it has to go somewhere; that it’s here shows the men at the top think you… and Carl Seelmann and General Young, I suppose… have things well in hand. All we can do is try to make it work safely. Do you want me helping with that, or a stranger doing it? Someone who’d tell you not to worry your pretty little head about it? I can call in some markers and get us assigned to something else, if you’d rather.”

Julie sighed. “That is a point. All right, let’s do it. Oddly enough, I’ve started to think of this place as home… certainly more than Taos or Santa Fe. Or Philadelphia!”

They shook hands on it, a firm grip. Ciara yawned involuntarily behind a hand, and Julie said:

“The altitude here makes people sleepy until they’re used to it. Let’s have a toast, and then back through the tunnel and off to bed.”

She produced a bottle from a cabinet, and Henrietta set out the four small glasses. Luz smiled when she saw the label; it was tequila, but not the usual silver variety, double-distilled and unaged. This was from Don Eladio Sauza’s property in Jalisco, just outside the town of Tequila, and he’d taken to aging it in Tennessee white-oak barrels lately—originally simply because he was the first to export the liquor to the US and could get them cheap and used from the bourbon distilleries there, and then seizing on it when he discovered how different it made the drink. This añejo variety had a slight golden tinge and a much mellower taste, and returning soldiers had spread its fame north of the former border and bade fair to make Don Sauza fabulously wealthy.

“He still sends you and Bob bottles?” Luz asked.

“Regular as clockwork, Christmas and the birthdays. And to you and James, I suppose?”

“Well, the four of us did save his life and his hacienda. It’s rather charming, in a way. And it is the best tequila in Mexico—the Sauzas were the first to use only the agave azul.”

“To gratitude—not quite as rare as the passenger pigeon,” Julie said, and they all raised their glasses and sipped.

“I hear James got married,” Julie added, dipping back into Chamber gossip. “Who’s the unfortunate Mrs. Cheine? He’s quite scrumptious and dreamy, I admit, and rich as sin too, but marrying him? The man’s a shameless tomcat, and a heartless one too.”

“It’s a Frenchwoman of my acquaintance, Yvonne Perrin… Yvonne Cheine, née Perrin, now… and a very strong-willed lady, pretty much a match for him, I think. A refugee—she saved his life, under circumstances… well.”

They both made a gesture that involved pinching the lips together.

“He’s effectively adopted the baby, too. Though nothing official was necessary, little Eléonore wasn’t quite born yet at the marriage, though it was close, but you know what I mean. I’m… well, Ciara and I are both madrinas.”

“And he has officially adopted Simone—she’s a young girl, about six years younger than me, who escaped with Yvonne and the others,” Ciara said enthusiastically. “A really nice girl, and smart as a whip, too.”

She and Simone had become fast friends during that last mission in Europe, which had involved rescuing Yvonne Perrin and her circle of friends from German captivity and more or less certain death. There had been good operational reasons for it, but it had been done; all of them had settled in San Francisco. Where Simone had been ensconced in a private girl’s school with good mathematics and science teachers, she having decided that Ciara was a heroine to emulate.

And there are certainly worse models, Luz thought.

“They seem quite happy, the Cheines,” Ciara added. “Well, not Mr. Cheine’s parents, but they and he have never gotten along anyway, I understand. Politics.”

Julie’s brows went up, but Luz confirmed it with a nod.

“I don’t understand it either,” she said. “I always agreed with you about James… brave and clever, and a highly-polished piece of Knickerbocker old-money cad pur sang. But people can surprise you.”

“Well, I never saw him do anything ungentlemanly, darling,” Ciara said. “Except deceive and kill people, of course, but that was in the line of duty—they were all Germans.”

They all shared a chuckle, and Henrietta’s eyes showed a flicker of grim satisfaction. She raised her own glass:

“Confusion to the Kaiser!”

They all echoed it and drank the last drops, and Julie refilled the glasses.

“To el Jefe and absent friends!” she said.

That was the usual concluding toast; absent friends were the Black Chamber’s dead, of course.

El Jefe!” they all chorused and drank. “And absent friends!

“And three times three, to the Boss!” Luz thought she heard Henrietta Colmer say under her breath as she drained her glass.

Which wasn’t surprising, considering what had happened down South since Luz and Ciara came back with the news that the reborn Klan was conspiring with the Kaiser’s men. That panicked response to the collapse of the power of the Democratic Party, and hence of Dixie, in Washington and the growing strength of the Federal government under the New Nationalism had spectacularly backfired. Not least by activating Uncle Teddy’s old-fashioned Lincoln-loyalist, Union-forever side, and while Party activists weren’t usually much concerned with the plight of the Negro—even those who didn’t actively dislike them mostly wished deeply that they just weren’t there—they were also very happy to use them as a handy political stick to beat the Bourbon Democrat opponents of the Progressive project.

They were calling it the Second Reconstruction now.

They all parted, and Luz took the tunnel back to their apartment; they’d walked in from the street the first night here, to fit with their covers, but this time the whole visit was in secret.

The guest-house had started out as a mansion much like the Black Chamber HQ; it had been split into six apartments, each of four rooms plus a small bathroom with a shower-bath and modest kitchen complete with icebox. Nobody knew—hopefully—that the Black Chamber actually owned and ran the place, and that one particular suite had a neat little tunnel connection running into the back of a wardrobe in the bedroom, disguised in the best adventure-fiction style.

A seventh apartment housed the large local family that did the maintenance and provided maid service and laundry and deliveries; the other suites were occupied by groups of engineers busy with the Dakota Project, or in one case an engineer and his wife and two small children, all of whom would move out when they found more permanent quarters or the Dakota Project was up and running and they moved on to the next project.

When Luz flicked on the electric light within their night-things had been laid out on crisp lavender-scented sheets, and a cheery fire was crackled in the tile-bordered hearth behind a screen of pierced brass. A fire at night was almost always pleasant here, even in high summer when days could be hot.

Ciara was slightly unsteady; a large beer and two quick shots of tequila were more than she was used to.

“Julie… Mrs. Durán… is very elegant and sophisticated,” she said. Then: “You two… really are still good friends, aren’t you?”

Luz met her eyes. “Yes, darling, we are,” she said. “Bryn Mawr and what happened there isn’t the biggest part of that. Afterwards we…”

Her own eyes glazed for a moment: she smelled death again, and tasted fear and pain and an exhaustion that was pain in itself.

“We went through a good deal together.”

Ciara blurted—probably due to the tequila: “I am jealous!”

Luz reached out and took both her hands. “I know, darling, and I know it feels… rotten. And it doesn’t help that Julie never did know when to stop teasing.”

“You’re not angry?”

“No, I’m not—not at you. And I’m used to being annoyed at Julie! We’ve been friends for… ¡Dios mio! Eight years now! And I can’t recall ever being in her company for any length of time without being annoyed with her about something, except when we were both in peril of our lives or concentrating totally.”

“I’m doing better than that!”

“Infinitely! I want to live with you for the rest of my life. I’d kill her within a month, or vice versa.”

“I know who I’d bet on!” Ciara said stoutly. Then, softly and looking down: “She made me feel such a… such a schoolgirl! And a frump!

Luz didn’t reply in words; instead she swept Ciara into a clinch and a long kiss that tasted of tequila and chocolate and spices. That went on for some enjoyable time.

“Oh… my!” Ciara said, breathless. “Let’s do that again!”

They did. “There’s my opinion on who is or is not a frump,” Luz said softly a long minute later.

They helped each other undress—even wearing Coco Chanel’s latest that was still easier with some assistance, and besides that it made a pleasant little evening ritual—and Ciara carefully removed the lace skullcap of her wig before the tall mirror, set it on a folding stand, and ran her hands through her six-inch mass of fine red-gold hair, rubbing her fingertips vigorously into her scalp. Her hair was straight or very gently wavy when it was long, depending on the weather, but right now had a tendency to stand out in all directions like a glorious silky sunset or a very colorful dandelion ball. It also made her roundish, freckled, snub-nosed face look rounder than it was.

“I hate this!” she said. “It makes me look like a boy!”

“No, it doesn’t,” Luz said sincerely; hers was an ear-length cap of midnight now. “Nor do I.”

“You look dashing with short hair, darling,” Ciara said. “Like Artemis or a dryad or Queen Maeve. But… oh, Mother of God, it would have been awful as the dye grew out…”

Not least because everyone would have seen that she’d dyed her hair, still rather fast behavior in the circles she’d been raised in; she could scarcely pin a note to it reading Done for Patriotic Reasons.

“… but… I do look like a boy. Or one of those bug-eyed dolls… only a boy doll.”

Her hair did look a little strange like this. Luz had been bobbing hers to shoulder length for several years now, a look inspired by the French actress Polaire, and it wouldn’t be long before it was back to that, but Ciara wouldn’t be content until hers fell to the small of her back again. Bobbing was still a minority habit and a bit daring though spreading fast… but not yet in the intensely respectable lower-middle-class circles Ciara had inhabited until recently.

Luz came up behind her, smiling over her shoulder into the mirror and touching a finger to each side of her garter-belt below the chemise she still wore. Ciara was several inches shorter than her, weighed about the same, and had an hourglass figure that would have been much more fashionable back at the turn of the century before an athletic slimness became the female ideal.

And she’s got this underlying conviction she’s not desirable. ¡Qué absurdo! Well, if persuasion fails, there’s always demonstration. It’s almost embarrassing how I look at her sometimes… or just smell her hair, or see her smile or laugh or tilt her head or vanish into a book… and my mind leaps into bed and the toe-nibbling stage. Love and lust are both wonderful things, but when you put them together… ¡Ay! Fire!

Mi amor, you don’t look anything like a boy, gracias a dios… not above the neck and even less below it… but… well, if you wanted to, we could pretend to be two boys together… that might be interesting… You can be Kevin and I’ll be Lucio…”

A peculiar expression came over Ciara’s face as she parsed what Luz had just said, followed by a crimson blush and a laugh. Then:

Luz!” and a poke in the ribs delivered backwards. “Oh, you!”

Her face grew sober. She turned and gripped Luz fiercely.

“I wish… she began. “Darling,” she said into Luz’ shoulder. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Anything, my heart,” Luz said gently, a little surprised.

“Right now… would you make me forget everything but you for a while?”


Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling