City of Zacatecas
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 19th, 1917 A.D., 1917(b)
Luz followed her usual morning routine, developed since she and Ciara started routinely sharing a bed; rise first, start breakfast, brew coffee, and wave a cup of it near Ciara’s nose until her eyes blinked blearily open, before kissing her.
“Up! Up, slugabed!” she said, retreating and holding up the cup. “By the Power of the Omnipotent Bean of Wakefulness I conjure and command thee to arise from the inky depths! ¡Adelante, mi corazón!”
The younger operative staggered into the breakfast-nook of the little apartment in the government guesthouse, managed to tie the belt of her robe over her nightgown on the second try and slumped into a chair, blinking in the bright morning light from the courtyard. Luz set the coffee in front of her and poured in thick yellow Jersey cream—which must be from the Durán hacienda—and two spoonfulls of sugar.
“What do we do today?” Ciara asked. “More studying the files?”
After she swallowed a mouthful of the coffee; her morning persona grew rapidly more lively when stimulated that way.
“No, I think we’ve got all that. Today we play tourist, mostly; that means a lot of walking up and down hill, so wear good stout shoes.”
“I will… oh, my goodness, that smells wonderful! Seafood and onions and… what on earth is it?”
“You are waking up,” Luz said with a grin, whisking a small ceramic dish that bubbled gently in from the small kitchen with its compact, efficient modern gas range and icebox. “It’s something my mother liked for breakfast.”
“Cuban, it is?” Ciara asked.
“Sort of. Huevos a la Malagueña. Shrimp in lime juice, sweet red pepper sautéed with onions and garlic in olive oil, stir in tomato paste, wine, saffron and bay leaf, put it all in a dish and break the eggs on top, sprinkle some cilantro on them and bake for twenty minutes or a bit more. There was a baguette—someone must have opened a French bakery in town, of all things—so I toasted some of that to go with it. There’s a Copeman Electric Stove Company automatic toaster, the very latest thing.”
“Shrimp and wine and olive oil and saffron and French bread? And our hostess said she had a few basic things put in the kitchen here!”
Luz took a bite herself, making no comment. She detected a slight tinge of the hum of the wasp in the words, and it wasn’t even really unfair. Julie had been cheerfully uncomplaining of hardship, filth and squalor back when they were in the field, but she had old-money ideas of what constituted the civilized basics at home.
Instead Luz turned back to work:
“I need to develop a sense for this place again, it will have changed a good deal since my last visit, and you need to pick one up. Besides, it’s what our cover identities would do if they were really traveling around scouting places for technical schools for girls. And we’ll make contacts. You can’t say ahead of time which will be useful, but some of them will be. And you need to take it easy for a little while to get acclimated to the altitude—that hits some people hard. Say so if you feel you can’t catch your breath.”
Cira frowned a little. “It’s a pity we’re not looking for places to put technical schools for girls,” she said. “How I could have used something like that when I was younger! Secretary Addams is so wise to set them up, and they need it here even more.”
Luz grinned to herself. She agreed that the program was very worthy, but she also very much doubted that any Vocational Institute, even those established by Secretary of Education Jane Addams, could have outdone what her lover had accomplished by self-education and correspondence courses and the help of her Aunt Colleen the unofficial accountant and amateur mathematician, and honorary Auntie Treinel the certified High School teacher. Students at a conventional coeducational High School might well have mocked and frightened her out of pursuing her native talents in science and technology, which would have been a crime… and was also an unofficial reason Secretary Addams was establishing separate institutions for young women.
Though Stanford’s engineering faculty, as the war allows…
“Fear not, mi amor,” she said. “There is exactly such a program just getting started now down here, and we can probably swing something for Zacatecas if we feel it deserves it. Uncle Teddy and the Director tend to smile when you ask for favors for someone else, so it doesn’t draw down our… line of credit. We need as much of that as we can get, frankly, being circumstanced as we are.”
Ciara swallowed convulsively, stopped and sat upright, her busy fork halted in mid-air as a realization struck.
“Does…” she almost squeaked, and went a little pale. “Luz! Does the President know about… about you and me?”
Luz’ eyebrows went up. “Well, I’d be extremely surprised if he didn’t, sweetie. He’s a brilliant man, a polymath genius, the smartest President we’ve ever had bar none. Brilliant about people, too; I’ve never met a better judge. You danced with him at that barbeque we had at the Casa on New Year’s! And we haven’t exactly been hiding our light under a bushel.”
“A lot of men don’t pay… pay attention to women?” Ciara said hopefully. “If you know what I mean. They miss things?”
“I certainly do know,” Luz said.
She’d taken advantage of that weakness more often than she could count in the unforgiving trade she plied. It had helped keep her alive, and made quite a few oblivious men very dead.
“But Uncle Teddy?” she went on, shaking her head. “He looks, and he listens and notices. Did you think he didn’t know about… oh, Secretary Addams and Mary Smith? Uncle Teddy and Addams have been close political allies for years now—she gave the speech putting him up for the nomination at the convention in 1912, and people are still talking about how daring that was!”
“You think he wouldn’t mind, then?” Ciara said hopefully.
“Not a chance, sweetie. He’s a sincere and honest Victorian prude—I’m morally certain he’s never touched a woman he wasn’t married to, for instance, and as rich, powerful, handsome, charming men go that makes him a prodigy—so I very much doubt he approves of us, or of her. But she’s useful to the country and the Party, and as for us… my Papá went to Cuba with him in the Rough Riders, he was good friends with my parents after that, and he watched me play with his children as a little girl and told me stories. And most of all you and I have both done the United States very great service, and with Uncle Teddy the country always comes first. After the Breath of Loki… and Projekt Heimdall on top of that… nothing else even comes close.”
“Oh,” Ciara said, breathing out and taking a big gulp of water. “You frightened me a bit there, darling!”
“Sorry, sweetie. I wish we didn’t have difficulties that way, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t. But in this world we do—and you are so utterly worth it.”
That got her a brilliant smile, and Ciara returned her attention to spicy richness on her plate.
“I’ll want to look at the Dakota Project plant site, and the construction,” Ciara said after a few moments of consumption. “Plans are one thing, actual machinery another. I’ll need to walk over it to see the potential vulnerabilities—hopefully starting soon while it’s still new-built. I don’t see what you and I can do to increase security at the plant, but maybe something will come to me.”
“We’ll need to arrange excuses for that. We don’t have to do exactly what our covers would do, but we have to retain their general rhythm. And we’ll have clandestine meetings ourselves with various panjandrums, but discreetly, also to avoid blowing on our cover. I’m going to avoid the FBS as long as I can—in terms of concealment, they have trouble remembering to button their flies after using a toilet.”
Ciara giggled and then looked thoughtful. “Speaking of covers, how has Julie kept the Station secret?” she said.
Luz chuckled. “Since 1913? She hasn’t, that’s how. You can’t, not when you’re operating out of a stationary HQ in a city of forty thousand. Not everyone knows, but everyone who’s interested knows, or strongly suspects. She can keep some things secret, though: the identity of sources, safe houses like this, and so forth. And it helps to keep the pretense of Universal Imports up; you don’t have to ram something into people’s eyes. Can you just imagine putting the winged dagger over the door?”
Ciara rolled her eyes in agreement. The Black Chamber’s blazon—produced by el jefe himself back at the foundation, and fitting his romantic, boyish love of adventure—showed a double-edged dagger point-down between eagle’s wings, with the All-Seeing Eye in a pyramid over the blade.
From the shadows, steel…
“We don’t even have that at Headquarters,” Ciara chuckled; they’d gone there for a second debrief on the Heimdall mission a few months ago, mostly for her to talk to scientists. “Not outdoors! It’s… it’s ostentatiously plain there. But what if someone saw us at Julie’s?”
“Sometimes a visible outpost can be useful as a trap,” Luz commented.
“So you can sneak up on people while they’re looking at it and kick them in the backside?”
Luz smiled and took a bite and picked up one of the papers.
“Exactly! And it’s not a problem for us; part of Julie’s job is to keep an eye on newly-arrived gringos on her territory, particularly Protectorate employees, so being invited there when you get in is par for the course, though most won’t get a nice dinner and a chat about old times and a complementary pistol. And she’s openly part of the social scene here; the people we’re supposed to be would need to liaise with the local power structure. If everyone’s suspect, nobody in particular is.”
The papers included The Mexican Herald, the English-language newspaper from the capital; nowadays it was the Protectorate’s unofficial official organ along with its Spanish-language equivalent, El Progresivo, also helpfully provided. Luz propped the first up against the salt-cellar, unlikely to be needed with this meal. It was important to keep up with the world and not get too locked into professional tunnel vision. Things were changing, and very rapidly indeed. The world where she’d have to spend the rest of her life was in the process of being born.
“Greece and Portugal are dropping out of the war,” she said. “The Portuguese and the Spanish and the Italians are forming a ‘League of Latin Neutrals’. Or Brotherhood of the Utterly Terrified, really.”
“I don’t blame Portugal—the British left the Portuguese division behind in France,” Ciara said; she was never going to like the British Empire.
“And the British are handing over most of Africa to the USA,” she said, winked at Ciara’s surprise and went on: “The Union of South Africa.”
“That must cark Lord Protector Milner, giving all that to Botha and Smuts,” Ciara said, with a degree of Schadenfreude. “They having fought the English back when I was a little girl and they made them look so silly, the whole great Empire taking all those years to beat a few little farmers riding about on ponies. And Milner was so cruel to the poor Boers!”
If the British Empire had invaded Hell, people of the Fenian persuasion would have raised volunteers to aid the Satanic Host against the Saxon aggressor. She didn’t explain that the Union was getting millions of British refugees as well as millions of square miles of—mostly already inhabited—territory, and wouldn’t be run by Boers much longer, thus finally fulfilling one of Milner’s fondest dreams back when he’d been Imperial proconsul there at the turn of the century.
Instead Luz held the paper up and tapped a headline: “And Ireland, including Ulster, is to get a Home Rule Parliament,” she said.
“Éirinn go Brách!” Ciara said cheerfully: “Ireland Forever!” Softly: “Colm and Da would be so happy. They’d have preferred a Republic, of course, but this is… very good.”
“Lord Protector Milner says Britain, Australia and South Africa are all to have local Parliaments too,” Luz said, reading on. “And India. The five will be of equal standing, and have equal representation in an Imperial Parliament set over all to deal with the Army and Navy and trade, the currency and other joint matters… it’ll be meeting in New Delhi in January of nineteen-twenty… suitably out of bomber range of Germany. Kipling’s there writing a poem about it.”
The rest of the war news amounted to inconsequential skirmishing, mostly in southern Palestine and Mesopotamia between the British-Indian forces and the Ottomans, and some air fights over the English Channel and raids with bombers carrying what were coming to be called conventional weapons; all unpleasantly final for anyone killed there and their relations and friends, but small-scale.
Plus the grim and endless naval guerilla between the U-boats and the USN and Royal Navy. It was an odd feeling, to have the Eastern and Western Fronts both shut down after three years of epic bloodletting…
The remainder was filler. One article extoled the success of the Burnham-Duquesne plan to introduce hippos in the bayous of Louisiana as a solution to the high price of beef. Which was at least more interesting than Governor Haynes’ promise in California to work with the Bureau of Reclamation to create fifty thousand new family farms in the Central Valley and Imperial Valley irrigation projects—very worthy and very dull, unless you wanted to start a farm near Bakersfield and grow raisins, while turning into one yourself. And an artist’s conception of what the giant new Boulder Gorge Dam would look like when it was finished had a certain grim majesty, with a seven-hundred and twenty-six foot high American eagle spreading its twelve-hundred-foot wingspan in low relief across the face.
And last but not least, a triumphant article proclaiming that ninety percent of the butter in Wisconsin was now made by farmer-owned co-ops, those pillars of the Party’s Country Life Program.
“¡Dios Mio! Think of that, ninety percent—the millennium is at hand!” Luz said sardonically.
Ciara frowned thoughtfully. “That isn’t important?”
Luz chuckled. “Oh, it’s important, it’s why I told our stockbroker—”
Ciara shook her head and said with lingering disbelief: “Me having a stockbroker!”
Luz had made a will naming Ciara her heir after their first mission, when they moved in together; after their exchange of pledge-rings and their return from the second operation she’d set up a joint trust for her considerable and pleasantly compounding inheritance with both of them as co-trustees holding an undivided half-interest. It had taken a bit of effort to convince Ciara she was serious and wouldn’t take no for an answer; just about the same three weeks as it had taken the lawyers in San Francisco to draft something unbreakable and minimally taxed in the way of a transfer inter vivos.
“—told our stockbroker to sell our shares in all those milling and meat-packing companies and International Harvester and Dow Chemical’s fertilizer company. Eventually the farmers’ co-ops are going to own all that… though then they’ll have to deal with the Amalgamated Foods Union and the United Chemical Employees, and much joy may they have of each other. So it’s very important. It’s just not interesting, as far as I’m concerned.”
Like Uncle Teddy, she found money and finance rather boring… which might be due to the fact that they’d both gotten considerable though not huge chunks of property from parents who were working-affluent but not really wealthy by the standards of the really wealthy, and so had never expected to have to think much about earning their daily bread.
Unlike him she’d avoided losing her inheritance on hair-brained schemes like the ranch in the Dakotas that had cost him his shirt and left him dependent on book-royalties and writing for the magazines until he moved into the White House for good.
She patted her lips with her napkin before she went on:
“Let’s clean up and get going. We’ll see some sights, tour the Plaza de Armas, visit the Mercado… and let some information roll downhill towards us.”
“And make contacts?” Ciara said.
“Different forms of the same thing. Something will come up, one place or another. The trick is recognizing it when you see it, and seizing the fleeting chance.”
Luz and Ciara both removed their hats, letting them fall down their backs. Then they pulled the white lace mantillas they’d brought over their heads and threw one end to the side and over their shoulders to frame their faces before they entered the local Cathedral—technically, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption of Zacatecas. The infinitely familiar Sunday-scent of old incense enveloped them as they touched their fingers to the holy water in the font and crossed themselves, murmuring:
“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” and then:
“Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,” as they faced the tabernacle and bent their right knees to the ground for a moment in the genuflection, that graceful almost-curtsey gesture you learned as a girl, one that briefly left your skirts pooling around your feet.
“Very pretty,” Ciara said softly, looking around at the gold-and-white splendors of the interior rising to an octagonal dome. “Not very much like the outside, though!”
Luz nodded. It was more neo-Classical than Baroque, and though elaborate not enormously so since it had been plundered by the anti-clericals during the endless Mexican civil wars of the last century, before Don Porfirio gave the place a generation’s respite, and only partially restored since.
Parts of it down in the foundations were nearly four hundred years old, dating back to the original parish church when this was a Spanish outpost in the country of the wild northern Chichimeca barbarians, and the present building had taken a century to complete.
Zacatecas had been a city sixty years before Englishmen started dying like flies of starvation and Indian arrows in their first settlements in Virginia, and it had had mansions and a Baroque governor’s palace and a Jesuit academy with a library of twenty thousand volumes before a few ragged, quarrelsome Puritan sectaries had come ashore in Boston and started hitting each other over the head with ironbound Bibles in their new cod-scented wilderness shantytown.
The original altarpiece had been lost a few generations ago but there was a very handsome marble-and-gold-foil replacement in a modern European style, contributed according to an inlaid plaque by one Gobernador Don Carlos Seelmann. With Julie Durán clandestinely kicking in help from the Chamber’s Special Operations fund, a perfectly legitimate use of the money since it would be intended for public-relations purposes. It was Protectorate policy to maintain a formal separation of Church and State, as the laws of the Mexican Republic had done, but in a way that was ostentatiously polite and respectful to the faith of the overwhelming majority here.
That had probably done as much as several divisions of infantry to aid in restoring quiet after the main fighting ended; Luz knew it had also been policy set from the top to see that American Catholics were well-represented among those in the Protectorate’s administrative posts, and to firmly quash any too-public displays of militant Protestantism.
It helped that Uncle Teddy himself was barely even a deist, profoundly uninterested in theology and utterly disdainful of the squabbles between denominations, though he valued religion highly as a tool for spreading proper morals and fellow-feeling. He’d been careful to mention the contributions of Jews and Catholics—and men of Spanish and Indian and part-Indian blood—to the Rough Riders when he came to write his famous regiment’s story, and had bluntly stated more than once that America would have Catholic and Jewish Presidents before the century was out. He’d also been the first to appoint a Jew to Cabinet rank, joining action to words, and the first President to invite a black man to a formal dinner at the White House, which had caused no end of a fuss.
There weren’t many people here early on a weekday, though there was a priest kneeling in silent meditation before the altar, and a few worshippers in the pews telling their rosaries. A group of about a dozen more, women of all ages from their teens through their fifties and dressed in respectable middle-class fashion, were reverently taking up and folding the altar cloths before the images of the saints and the Virgin in the side chapels, and gently placing and smoothing new ones, intricately crocheted and embroidered. They would be taking the old ones to be cleaned and repaired; doing that was a devotion volunteers made in many Catholic countries. And they also seemed to be supervising the much more humbly dressed and much darker women who were sweeping and cleaning, and who were almost certainly their servants.
Luz was conscious of their glances, but did nothing more than give a courteous nod in return. She and Ciara lit votive candles before a side-altar to the Virgin on the southern side, portrayed as Our Lady of the Assumption, knelt silently with their heads bowed over clasped hands, then respectfully signed themselves with the holy water again as they faced the altar before leaving.
“I do miss going to Mass, sometimes,” Ciara sighed when they were outside in the bright midmorning sun, giving the façade another look.
“I too, mi dulce amor,” Luz said; which was true, though apart from a romantic spell in her early teens she’d never been more than conventionally dutiful, and that had faded. “At least we can look, though!”
The façade of the Cathedral was worth any amount of careful attention, though oddly enough it faced the street, with a small plaza where you stepped down. The usual center of a town anywhere in the old Spanish Empire was a square called the Zocalo; Zacatecas had the Plaza de Armas, instead; it ran along the side of the church and was faced by the old governor’s palace. This mining town in the hills of a tough frontier had never had the usual elaborate grid-plan imposed on it.
Doing a slow tourist tour of the town fit their cover identities. In contrast to the relatively spare interior, the dusky-rose stone front of the church was a riot of ornamental carving, with engaged statues of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles standing in niches, the Virgin over the entrance, and every inch of the pillars and arches stretching up and up done in a regular froth of Churrigueresque symbolic sculpture, in a local variant of the style even more ornate than its Spanish and Mudéjar originals.
“Though it does look just a bit like Balboa Park in San Diego, where we had that lovely stroll in May,” Ciara observed, her eyes methodically memorizing and cataloguing dimensions and facts.
Luz smiled at the memory of a carefree holiday. “It’s the sort of thing that Goodhue and Winslow copied for the San Diego part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition back in ‘15, querida,” she said. “Possibly the very one. Extremely popular nowadays, though personally I think it should be kept for churches and big public buildings—Spanish Colonial is wonderful for houses, but not this particular sub-variety of it.”
“The Casa de los Amantes is absolutely perfect,” Ciara said, threading her arm through Luz’ and grinning. “Because it’s our home.”
“Agreed!” Luz looked up again. “You know… this reminds me… somehow, I couldn’t definitely say how… of the Aztec Calendar Stone, the Piedra del Sol, they keep in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City. Possibly just the intricacy of the carving.”
“I’ve seen photographs… a great round thing, it weighs twenty-four tons. Is it like the pictures?”
Luz shook her head. “No. They don’t get the detail, the depth, the subtle effects—whoever did that carving knew what they were doing, knew it right down in their souls, just like the ones who did this. And… it has this sense of impact, like the Cathedral here. It hits the same part of the psyche, but in a completely different way.”
Luz made a gesture of uncertainty: “I don’t think it was actually used as a calendar by the ancient Mexica. I think it was an altar to their demon gods, an altar of sacrifice, and it still stinks of blood and fear, not to the nose but to the soul. Even after all these years, you can still feel it. Or possibly I’m being over-imaginative.”
Ciara shivered and hugged her arm as they turned to go. Nobody thought anything of young women walking arm-in-arm, or usually even hand-in-hand in the US, though you had to be a little careful about that sometimes; and if anything even less so here in Mexico. It was one of the advantages of femaleness.
Someone cleared her throat. Luz turned smoothly, her cover persona falling into place with effortless ease.
“Yes?” she said politely, smiling and meeting the other’s eyes for a moment and then glancing slightly aside. And remembering to keep the appropriate distance, which was a bit less than she would have in, say, New York or London.
When there was a London, she thought with a mental stutter; it wasn’t something you adjusted to overnight.
“Buen día, Señora?” she added, starting the conversation as was appropriate from younger to elder, from the petitioner to she who could give or withhold acceptance.
“Buen día, Señorita,” the woman said, smiling also though less broadly. “¿Viene de visita?”
Which was a polite way of asking what she was doing here in town: open curiosity about a stranger didn’t violate local custom.
“Pues, si. Hé venido a trabajar a Zacatecas. Y pensé venir a visitar el famosa catedral.”
Which meant she’d come to work here, and wanted to see the famous Cathedral.
That appeal to local pride got her a broader smile; the woman was one of the volunteer ladies from inside, all of whom had followed her in a flock, along with their scrubbing-and-dusting servants putting their gear in bags or baskets.
In her case she was middle-aged and also socially a lady, and probably a widow, judging from her mourning-black and rather old-fashioned but high-quality dress and from the lack of the weather-beaten and prematurely aged look lower-class women usually had here. Her face had a grim strength, though, obviously in the process of becoming one of those formidable abuelas who ended up running so many Mexican families with iron will and hand. Mexican men liked to think they were always in charge of the females in their lives, and in some senses they were. But she’d rarely met one who didn’t regard his grandmother with a mixture of love and fear, and dread her disapproval like a small boy.
There was a moment’s silence. Luz nodded to the embroidered cloths in the older woman’s hands.
“Habra un festival?” she said, asking if there was to be a festival.
The mosas—the much-more-Indian women who’d been scrubbing the floor; nearly everyone in Zacatecas was a mestizo, but some more so than others—were sitting back on their heels listening avidly, and the whole little flock of respectable females were gathering around, trying not to appear avidly curious and failing. Though they left the actual speech with the strangers to…
Give you odds her husband was a doctor, Luz thought. Or a notario or something of that order.
…to La Doña del Doctor, as was her right and duty.
“Have you come to hear mass here?” the widow-lady asked, establishing her bona fides before answering the question.
“Ah,” Luz said, casting her eyes down and looking sad. “I have fled the battlefield; I have not yet felt ready to come to mass.”
Which was a diplomatic way of saying she didn’t plan to, ostensibly at least because she felt too sinful to be worthy.
“But today, today, me and Miss Cavanaugh felt the need to come to see the great church at least,” Luz went on.
Ciara smiled and said in her careful Spanish, which was now fully fluent but still distinctly accented, with her b-sounds too strong and the flattened r’s of a foreigner:
“Such a lovely Cathedral! And inside one really feels the Presence!”
Luz nodded. “I have seen larger ones, in Mexico City and Puebla, but none finer anywhere,” she said, which was quite true and more importantly useful.
That led to an exchange of names; the formidable lady turned out to be a doctor’s widow in truth, and named Dolores Gutiérrez y Coa. Luz gave her own as Graciela de Jesús Calderón Menéndez, and Ciara’s as Mary Cavanaugh; Irish names were exotic but not altogether unfamiliar in Mexico, since Irishmen had been frequent in Spain’s service and some had settled here since, and were known mostly as co-religionists. Nodding once more at the colorful folded cloths in their hands she asked again:
“Will there be a festival, Señora Gutiérrez?”
“Oh, yes, soon there will be La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista. We take these home to mend and make perfect for the Lord before the celebration.”
Which celebration of John the Baptist would be towards the end of the month, on June 23rd and 24th. It had been a safe bet; there weren’t any months without a Saint’s day, and a lot of them had festivals attached. It was another thing that drove the more Puritanical sort of American crazed down here.
“Would you like to see them?”
“Oh, very much, Señora Gutiérrez!” Luz said
Ciara nodded enthusiastic agreement. It was more genuine in her case; they’d both had sustained exposure to needlework, as any respectable girl did, but Ciara had enjoyed it more, or at least accepted it as necessary to keeping life going in her milieu, where a lot of clothing and household linen was still hand-made or heavily taken in and altered, and everything was repaired and had its life prolonged as much as possible. Lower-middle-class respectability required a world’s worth of hidden female labor.
“That is very kind of you to strangers,” Luz added.
The other women were informed by Señora Gutiérrez, as if they hadn’t heard already, that the two strangers were interested in seeing the altar cloths, which made them suitable to talk to. A chattering flock swept up from the plaza and the side of the hill to an iron door in a pink wall that lead into a patio, much like Julie Durán’s except that it was about half the size and didn’t have an active fountain, though there were plantings and flowers and shade in the arcaded corridor that ran around it. There was a bustle of shawls and hats and servants, and brisk commands for water of oranges.
Luz saw Ciara’s eyes darting to either side, at the remarks that were being made—Skin like transparent alabaster! So perfect! Those eyes, like fine Chinese jade!—and the fingers reaching up to touch her hair, obviously itching to pull it down and brush and redo it. It was all perfectly respectful, in fact a mark of friendly, companionable interest and acceptance, just a difference in custom. Those could be startling, though.
“Ladies!” Luz said, smiling and preempting any shocks. “I must make a confession for both of us! Seven months ago, late last year, we were both very ill with fevers, and had our hair cut. Yes, these are wigs! But wigs made of our own hair—see, I will show you.”
She reached out and parted Ciara’s wig, down to the ultra-fine lace skullcap that underlay it. That exposed a lock of Ciara’s own red-blond hair, drawn out through the lace to mix with the wig’s tresses and hold it firmly. Half a dozen crowded close to look, exclaiming.
“As you see, exactly the same shades; and the same for me.”
That got more exclamations, this time of sympathy and also of admiration for the lace and the superlatively fine needlework that drew the individual hairs so densely through it. The thought of a woman having to crop her hair short was genuinely shocking here, but they recognized the folk-treatment for a high fever. They were also interested in the newcomers’ clothes, impressed by the workmanship and materials—wool knits weren’t common here—and intrigued by the cut.
“These were designed by a French lady. From Paris, but now living in New York,” Luz said. “One who escaped recently from the war there.”
“¡Ay!” one of the younger women said, though she was a widow.
Luz’ memory picked María Luisa Muñoz Herrera out of the list of introductions.
“The unfortunate one, what she must have gone through, before she found safety! So terrible, what has happened, is happening, in France. All those poor people! Killed by surprise, unshriven, with no chance of the last rites or anyone to bury them in holy ground or mourn them or set out offerings on the Day of the Dead… and los niños in their cradles.”
“Surely God will take the little ones to Himself and Our Lord will comfort them,” another said, crossing herself; everyone present followed suit. “The Lady of Sorrows, herself a mother pierced by grief, will intercede for them.”
“May it be so,” Luisa nodded, but continued: “And Paris gone, the beautiful city, with its cathedrals and churches and great buildings of the past, all gone to nothing… War is very hard, war is suffering and loss and grief, we all know that, hasn’t Mexico suffered over and over since the time of our grandparents? But this that has happened to Paris, that is a new thing that has arisen and is very bad, very evil. It will beget nothing but more evils.”
There were nods and sighs at that; someone mentioned Saint Thomas and St. Francis. Another was thankful that old Don Porfirio had died naturally in his Parisian exile, before the disaster. A third crossed herself and murmured that surely God would protect them in the end.
Señora Gutiérrez cleared her throat. “Let us examine the manteles, the altar cloths, ladies. We must find all the things that need repair. All must be perfect for the fiesta and for God and the good saint.”
The cloths were set out on clean tables in the broad patio, where the strong natural light would reveal any faults, and the gear for repairs was brought out.
All the cloths were on a foundation of fine white linen; many were white-on-white, with broad central areas of drawn threadwork. Ciara helped smooth one. Diamonds, arranged in a lattice pattern, were filled with finely worked designs of spider monkeys, mermaids, women wearing hats and wide skirts, birds of many kinds, flowers, sacred hearts, crosses and hands.
“This is marvelous work!” Ciara said approvingly, bending close. “So subtle, and so regular. The stitching is very even… I cannot see any gaps or mistakes even in this bright sunlight!”
“Es trabajo devocional,” Señora Gutiérrez said, meaning that it was done as a devotion, an act of worship between the maker and God, a prayer in thread and cloth. “Human eyes may not see it inside the Cathedral, but those of the Lord do.”
And to be sure, also done for the maker’s honor before her family and friends, Luz thought, smiling; most men might not notice the work much, but other women would see a good deal more even in dimness…
Other images were done by couching, with gilt threads and purl, very fine gold or silver wire, laid across the surface of the ground and secured by a succession of small stitches, a technique which required an infinite capacity for taking pains to do well, not to speak of creating the images in the first place. That was an art as exacting as oil-painting.
Splashes of wax or other stains brought out cloths and bowls of warm water and patient care. Needles were threaded to repair spots worn or frayed, and after a while the strangers were allowed to help with the simplest parts. Conversation didn’t stop during any of that, involving a good deal of gossip and teasing, and the two outsiders came in for a cheerful grilling. There were occasional pauses for more water of oranges, little glass cups of Arroz con leche—which was a sweet creamy rice pudding seasoned with cinnamon and bits of fruit, and biscuits and coffee. Luz had never been invited into a Mexican home, however humble, without being offered something to eat.
“Yes, my father was an engineer in California,” Luz said; the best cover stories played with the truth rather than simply trying to cover it up. “My family has lived there for a long time; a hundred and twenty years, since the days when it was ruled by Spain. My grandfather’s grandfather was an officer in the King’s army and received a grant of land when he retired, near the town of Los Angeles. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, in full, a very small place then but a city now. Quite a lot of land, fine grazing and good for crops too, but he was blessed with many sons, and his sons were blessed with many sons, and so—” she shrugged. “—we are not poor, but we are not rich, either.”
That put her right in the middle of this middle-class gathering, avoiding the chilling effect of great wealth and the condescension directed at the lower orders.
“Your family kept their land when the gringos came?” someone asked.
“About half of it; there were quarrels, and cheating, but not always, and alliances too. Our family did better than most, I admit.”
“Alliances like Concha de Moncada,” someone said with a laugh, and there were more sighs, dreamy ones this time by the younger women. “Don Carlos, what a catch. The Governor!”
Luz’ spying ears pricked up; the Governor of this State was a Midwesterner named Carl Seelmann, and the de Moncadas were rich mine and land-owners.
I’ll have to get Julie to fill me in on the details.
“And so handsome, such a real man, so dashing and brave, a true caballero, but locamente enamorado—ready to tear out his heart with crazy love for her.”
That was accompanied by a dramatic heart-ripping gesture and an expression that was the speaker’s idea of romantic agony and looked to Luz more as if something furry and large was biting her foot.
“And a baby coming already! No wasted time!”
The love-lives of the upper crust were as much a cherished spectator sport here as anywhere.
Señora Gutiérrez sniffed. “Earthly love is but a path to love of God at best,” she said. “So through her, Don Carlos was brought to the Church, to the salvation of his soul, and so his children will be brought up in the true Faith.”
“Yes, alliances like that,” Luz said, blessing the vagaries of Governor Seelmann’s heart. “My father’s mother was a girl from Maryland… Catholic, of course… and his father’s sisters married among the newcomers; my cousins in those families do very well now.”
Which was true enough in Santa Barbara; half the big ranchers around there had a Californio girl in the bloodline, which was regarded as rather chic nowadays provided the Californio was sufficiently wealthy and not too dark. In the last days of Mexican California, when a growing stream of Yankee adventurers had already started to settle in, there had been a popular saying that thirty thousand acres of dowry added amazingly to a young lady’s charms… and that a big ranch was worth a mass. She was basing this identity partly on a daughter of Francisca De la Guerra she’d gone to school with.
Eventually: “… and as the eldest of five girls, I must find work to help them and my mother, when dear Papá died so young,” she said.
Which gave her a good daughter’s excuse, centered on her family, for being unwed well past the usual age in Mexico. Spinsters weren’t unknown here, though they were pitied, especially when they ended up living with relatives as hangers-on, often no better than an unpaid upper servant.
Mary Cavanaugh was supposedly an orphan from Chicago, raised by an aunt who acted as housekeeper to a group of priests who taught in a Church school, hence the recipient of an excellent education which included tutoring in Spanish.
“So you are here to find the locations for schools?” Señora Gutiérrez said.
“Yes, Señora. Schools for girls, teaching skills such as nursing, or as accountants and telegraphists and telephone operators—”
And pharmacists and X-ray technicians, but let’s not get too esoteric.
“—and the like, to provide respectable employment.”
That was routine enough in the US now not to be much of a novelty anymore, but still a very recent development here.
“Surely girls should marry,” Señora Gutiérrez said. “Or take the veil.”
“Oh, of course, and most will marry no doubt, such is the way of nature and God’s will,” Luz said, getting thoroughly into character. “But think, Señoras, so many lost their intendeds, or those who would have become their intendeds, in the war here. Others lost their prospects when their families were ruined and have no dowries now. Some such will take the veil—one of my sisters is a novice of the Discalced Carmelites—but not all have a vocation. I do not, and it is a great sin to pretend one falsely. Surely there should be a way for them to win their bread, a way that will not mean hardship for them or their families.”
That brought a buzz of interest, especially when she mentioned the wages that sort of work could command—nothing out of the ordinary north of the border, but still very generous here; it would be some time before incomes found a level across the vastly expanded domains ruled from Washington. Though the cost of living was lower here too, not just compared to New York or Chicago, but to places like Little Rock or El Paso.
As Julie pointed out, here it’s all a pyramid based on men with oxen and wooden plows, Luz thought. Even the peak can’t get very high on that.
“I would have thought such things would be put in the capital,” Señora Gutiérrez said.
“Ah, the capital already has several,” Luz said. “Also it is policy now to put things elsewhere—so that taxes will not always flow from places like this to be spent far away. And there are fewer temptations, problems, distractions, for young ladies away from the capital.”
That brought a pleased chorus of agreement; one young matron clapped her hands in glee. If there were two things you could usually expect a middle-class audience in a Mexican provincial center like this to agree on, it was that Mexico City was a vampire sucking their blood, and that it was a den and sink of iniquity and sin besides. Fortunately, the Protectorate actually had such a policy and program; the Black Chamber operatives were simply impersonating its agents.
And of course the Mexico City crowd think of these people as rubes, hicks, and dullards who deserve to be plucked, Luz thought.
“What a charming group of ladies!” Ciara said a few hours later, waving over her shoulder. “And so friendly to two strange Americans.”
“Well, it helps that we’re Catholic,” Luz said. “Which incidentally is hard to fake convincingly. And that my assumed name was Mexican, and of course that we both speak the language. Señora Gutiérrez is too shrewd and too strong-minded to be safe to be around much for honest spies, but I think a couple of the others might be quite useful as sources.”
“That young widow, Luisa Herrera, for example?” Ciara said. “I liked her… you think she might be pro-American?”
“Do I think that she wants us to rule Mexico? No. I doubt a tenth of them are, in that sense of the term, and that’s being optimistic.”
“I did get the distinct impression she didn’t actually dislike us, and that she thought the Germans were much worse,” Ciara said, with a shudder. “Which is true. That horrible thing at Castle Rauenstein…”
Luz nodded; they’d seen the horror-gas demonstrated there on a regiment of captured Czech deserters, while they were both under cover as German assets—as a Mexican and an Irish-American revolutionary respectively. Though that had only recently become pretense on Ciara’s part.
“And she mentioned her husband was killed in the fighting before the Intervention,” Luz said. “I’ll see if she has a dossier, and which of the factions he was fighting for.”
“There’s a possibility that she’s pro-American in the sense that she thinks we’re the best of a bunch of bad alternatives, including some Mexican alternatives. It’s just a hunch…” Ciara said.
“… but a hunch is your mind working where you don’t notice it.”
And that part of my mind has a lot of hands-on experience, she thought; she didn’t think that was vanity, but it wasn’t something you said aloud. Nice to see my beloved educating hers.
“I see what you mean, but even if she is, what would she know?” Ciara said.
“Possibly nothing, possibly more. Men tend to dismiss women’s gossip for the same reason everyone tends to forget servants have eyes and ears, but tapping that telegraph can be extremely revealing. We should cultivate those ladies if we can, inconspicuously. In particular, take any opportunity you have to get to know Luisa. I think she liked you, too.”
Ciara laughed a little self-consciously. “I was never much of a mixer… you’re the one with the charm!”
Luz shook her head. “Don’t underestimate yourself, querida. You just didn’t have much opportunity, busy as you were.”
Running a bookstore, caring for an increasingly ailing father, and self-administering the equivalent of at least a university degree would do that.
“I’ve noticed that people like you, especially when you’re being spontaneous.”
“Spontaneous under an assumed name?”
“That’s just a matter of living the part. You only need to say something specific from your cover when it comes up—don’t volunteer information much, it sounds suspicious.”
Ciara nodded gravely; she was always serious about work. Then:
“The Mercado,” Luz said, naming the main town market as opposed to the periodic street-and-square variety. “The Jesús González Ortega Market, to get technical. We need to do some shopping… and it’s where the whole city comes together. I’ve found it useful before, but nobody will put this identity together with the covers I used then.”
The Mercado was only a block from the Cathedral and the Plaza de Armas, a handsome building reconstructed after a fire early in the century, then rebuilt and reopened in the last prosperous days before the revolution, and of which the locals were immensely and rightly proud. The frame was cast iron, the nineteenth century’s idea of modernity, but much of the facing and all of it on the Beaux Arts single-story frontage of square windows and pillared portico on the Avenida Hidalgo was pink stone; the ground dropped away steeply behind, leaving the lower level two stories high and featuring a covered section with a roof supported on cast-iron columns and lacework that had been the last word about the time Luz was born. Every detail had been copied from somewhere else, but the ensemble was intensely Mexican.
They walked in amid the thronging crowds and a white waterfall of noise, buying two wicker shopping baskets for a nickel from a vendor at the entrance and putting them over their arms.
“Now, this is lively, as lively as the produce stalls down by the Haymarket back in Boston!” Ciara said. With a smile at Luz: “And it’s such fun, doing the marketing together!”
“It is, querida,” Luz said sincerely.
And a bit like old times, she added to herself, looking around.
At butcher’s stalls, bakers, and quite literally candlestick-makers, piles of strange gaudy fruits and the first small sweet local peaches and baskets of cherries, piles of potatoes and beets and onions and nameless roots and strings of chilies, vendors of street-food tending their pots of beans or vats of hot oil, porters trotting by under enormous stacks of anything at all and everyone shouting their wares or bargaining at the top of their voices under the high arched ceiling… which echoed so that you had to shout to be heard.
In July of 1913 she’d shot a man named Felipe Ángeles, a Mexican commander who was far too honest, popular and capable to be allowed to continue as head of the city’s defenses against the approaching Americans, in a crowd even more densely packed than this, at high noon, not twenty steps from where she stood almost exactly four years later minus one month. She’d faked a stumble with her little FN pistol muffled in a serape folded and pressed against his chest, and then lowered his body to prop him sitting against the wall and drape the colorful rectangle of woven wool from chin to knees. Next to—ironically—a butcher’s stall with strings of sausages and piles of chops and tripe and pig’s-heads on hooks, which neatly covered any smell of blood.
And all the while she’d loudly berated her supposed husband for spending their money on pulque while she did all the work, with a final shrill yell advising him to sleep it off before he came home if he didn’t want a comal broken over his worthless, lazy, drunken head. The sugar skull had been inconspicuously tucked into his hand beneath the woven wool…
None of the few to notice her at all had done anything but laugh at the little bit of street drama while she tucked the cloth around him. Then she’d bought a gordito stuffed with pork-rind chicharrón, lime and salsa from a vendor standing beside her nearby tub of hot oil. The seller had given her an approving grin at her treatment of the worthless male of the species, and Luz strolled away eating it with a hand held to keep it from dripping on her blouse, passing between two men assuring each other that General Villa would stop the gringos far north of Zacatecas… at the worst, no closer than Torreón, surely…
The screams and commotion started when she was crossing to other side of the road in front of the Cathedral just off the Plaza des Armas, probably because someone had seen more blood flowing out between the iron pillars of the market arcade than legitimately deceased porkers could account for.
Luz blinked herself back to the present. “Let’s get some greens, chat with some of the sellers and share a gordito,” she said to her partner. “And then drop them off at the icebox; I want your green salad nice and crisp, to help your lovely hair grow back.”
There was a message waiting on the table of their dining-nook, probably courtesy of the secret passage.
“¡Aja!” Luz said, as she read the three cryptic lines. “Well, I’ll be taking the salad along to a potluck, it seems.”
Ciara looked at her and raised a brow. “And when you say Aha! in Spanish, it bodes ill for someone, darling. What is it?”
“We’re dining with the Station Chief again, late, and via the confidential entrance. It seems that the airships arrived promptly, and the Rangers made a contact. She’ll need to brief us; apparently it’s not clear whether they got them all or not.”
Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling