She said, "Nothing will make me more comfortable than concluding this case." And as the words escaped her mouth, they walked directly beneath the shadow of the enormous military air engine; and on the machine's side Maria saw the name Valkyrie painted in cruel, sharp letters.
"Valkyrie," she nearly whispered. "What a dreadful ship. By which I mean, of course, it's a fearsomely ugly thing."
Under the dirigible where the bottom hull had been pried open, three men stood arguing over some finer point of which repair ought to be made in which fashion. Two were large white men, and one was a small black man who was holding his own in the fray. He spoke softly but with great confidence about replacement pipes and valve drains until, from the corner of his vision, he spied Maria and Algernon strolling past.
His technical diatribe snagged, and he hesitated as they walked past. He was trying not to stare, but he couldn't pull his gaze away completely.
His attention snared Maria's attention in return; she was being looked upon with something like recognition and fear, and she didn't know what to make of it. Many people knew who she was-she'd become accustomed to notoriety twenty years before. But this was a fretful gaze, and it made her feel fretful in response.
One of the mechanics said, just within her hearing, "Well, I think you might be right. And if it works, we can have her back in the air within an hour or two."
The black man didn't respond. He was still looking at Maria, and trying not to.
He was approximately her own height, which is to say, smallish for a man but tallish for a woman. He was maybe ten years her junior and slight in build, but he had an intelligent face and quick hands, and quick eyes that darted back and forth as he made his pretense of looking away.
She wondered if he might be a runaway slave. He was working on a Union warbird, so the odds weren't so stacked against it. Perhaps he recognized her from some old adventure, or she only made him nervous by virtue of her old alliances.
Maria looked away for good, feeling a weird sort of embarrassment.
Algernon Rice asked, "Is everything all right?"
And she told him, "Yes, everything's fine. It's just such an imposing ship," she misdirected. Then, because it did not seem to be enough to stop him from wondering, she added, "It reminds me of something I've seen somewhere before, but I can't put my finger on it"-which was a lie, but it was enough information to prevent the further asking of questions.
Beyond the service yards with the tethered airships bobbing in rows, Rice led her to a boarding house with a serving area downstairs where an early supper could be arranged. Maria was opposed on general principle. Fugitives weren't likely to hold still at her stomach's convenience, but her stomach's convenience was becoming a necessity, and the thought of food-a quick bite, at most-was enough to keep her another hour longer in the company of the Pinkerton affiliate.
At the Seven Sisters, an establishment that looked like a gingerbread dollhouse, Maria allowed Algernon Rice to secure her a room while she sat in the dining area and awaited a plate. She sat at a table by a window and fiddled with her handbag, and the folders within it-thinking that she ought to be elsewhere, doing something meaningful and productive, now that she'd reached her destination.
A knock on the window to her right made her jump, even though it was a quiet rap that could've been anything gentle from a passing elbow to a misguided grasshopper.
She saw a man in a gray suit, standing just beyond the window's edge. It was as if he were hiding there, lest anyone else inside the establishment see him. Maria couldn't see him perfectly, for he kept his face ducked in the shadow of his hat's brim, but something about him seemed familiar.
She frowned, squinting to see him better.
He lifted a hand from inside his jacket pocket and made a motion that asked her to join him outside.
She shook her head.
He made the motion again, more forcefully, and lifted his head enough for her to get a better look at him. The mystery man was a few years older than Maria, with a salt-and-pepper beard and eyes as brown as a chocolate cake. Those eyes were begging nervously; they were trying to draw her outside with the sheer force of their desperation.
At the edge of the dining area, Maria could see Algernon Rice standing at the desk, chatting with the clerk about her room. It couldn't possibly take him more than another few minutes to arrange it, but she nodded at the man outside and rose from the seat-telling the servant girl that she'd return momentarily.
She brushed by Algernon, tapping the edge of his arm and telling him the same. Before he could ask where she was going, she was gone-out the front door and down the steps, and then around the corner where the peculiar gentlemen was disappearing. The last of a gray pant-leg went dipping out of sight, and she chased it into a narrow spot between the boarding house and the office building next door…where the gray-suited, salt-and-pepper fellow was waiting for her
Before she could say anything he'd taken her hand and pulled her off the walkway and out of sight from the street. If he hadn't been so gentle, and he hadn't seemed so earnestly pleased to see her, she wouldn't have let him lead her that way-but the familiarity was driving her mad, so she said, "Sir, there are people expecting me inside the Seven Sisters-"
"I know," he said. "Maria, when I saw you sitting there I just couldn't believe my eyes. It's been years."
"More than a few," she replied, trying to shake the dubious tone out of her voice and not altogether succeeding.
He suddenly gathered that he ought to introduce himself, and he did so. "I'm so sorry, I know it's been a long time, and I realize I've changed a bit-though you look every bit as youthful as you did as a girl back in Richmond. But it's me, Randolph Sykes. We worked together briefly on the Jackson initiative back in 1869. I do apologize, I shouldn't have simply assumed that you'd know me and be pleased."
The name rang a bell, and she let her face light up. "Randy! Oh yes, I absolutely recall it now. And the apologies ought to be mine, for my feeble recollections. But what on earth brings you to Kansas City, and now, and with all this subterfuge?"
He didn't answer any of those questions, but instead he gave her a story that told her plenty, laid out in the homeland accent he'd only partially succeeded in muffling. "I knew you must be working. I saw you with the Pink operative, and I knew it must be a subtle play-a subtle play indeed. When the grayfellows told me you'd been sent on your way, I knew it wasn't true. I knew they couldn't doubt your loyalties; I knew it must be some strategic ploy-and here you are! Working side by side with the Pinkertons, and good heavens, lady, but what a brave-"
She was forced to stop him then, gently laying three fingers across is mouth. "Randy," she said with sadness that was not altogether calculated, "But I'm afraid it's all true. Our boys sent me home, and-"
He grasped her fingers and kissed them, "I understand!" he declared. "Times are tangled enough that you must preserve the masquerade, even to me-I understand, I do, and I won't ask you to lie to me further. But let me say, my dear, I am filled with such outstanding relief to see you here! And I know, that whatever strange duties you're pretending to perform for the Chicago organization, you're using the lot of them to sort out the terrible shipment bound for Louisville."
"I…I beg your pardon?" she said, and then, before she appeared too ignorant she amended herself. "I only mean, this terrible shipment, bound for Louisville-I know of it, yes, and I'm here to address it, absolutely. But you've put me into a corner, and I must admit that my understanding of the menace is somewhat limited. Rather, I know that there is a Union craft flying for Louisville, and that it's being pursued by one of the Macon Madmen, but I do not know what the craft is carrying. Oh Randy, if there's any further information you can share, I'd be forever indebted to you. I've been…living under another name, in Chicago and out west for long enough that the trail of gossip and warning has stretched thin."
Randy straightened himself. "I would be honored and delighted to assist you in any way you require! Though…" and he cast a sidelong glare at the Seven Sisters, "What is to be done about your companion?"
"My…companion. He's only a professional contact, I assure you. He's a Pinkerton agent, as you said; he's helped ferry me this far, from Jefferson City. I can escape him before long, but not immediately. You must understand, I'm working. He must believe that I'm no longer affiliated with the Cause in any way."
"Then I'll be brief for now, and pray for further audience later."
"Please do so, yes."
"A western dirigible is making a delivery to a sanatorium in Louisville-where a devious Union scientist is constructing a war machine the likes of which could end this conflict by ending the South altogether. The nature of this cargo isn't known, but it's the final piece of a device called the Solar Radiant Beam Cannon, which is being assembled at the behest of a loathsome lieutenant colonel named Ossian Steen. Maria, for the sake of our Cause and the sake of everyone you've ever loved in Danville, this part must not reach the sanatorium! It must not reach the scientist, or the lieutenant colonel, or the machine that's made to fit it!"
Maria seized Randy's collars and brought his face down closer to hers. "Sir, you've given me much to think on, and I only need a few more pieces before I settle this puzzle…is this Louisville-bound ship called the Clementine? And where is she located now?"
"The Clementine?" His expression said lots, much of which was confusing. "That old patchwork war machine? It's moored at a transient dock outside town, where it stopped to rest, refuel and repair. Apparently the ship took some damage on the western trail; but she's not the vessel that worries us. The craft in question is called the Valkyrie, and she's stuck in the service yard docks."