The Free Crow's left thruster fired up against the nameless ship's hull, down at the cargo bay where it scorched a streak of peeling paint and straining, warping metal. The engine chewed hard at the unimportant bits of the latched-on ship, but the ships were bound together like bumblebees mating and now, they could only move together.
Hainey's thrusters had been cut at the collision, and inertia pushed the ships together in a ballroom sway that made a wide arch away from the temporary docks. Locked as they were, the ships made half of a massive, terrible spiral until the right thrusters on the Free Crow blasted out a full-power explosion-jerking both the vessels and tightening the gyre until the ships were simply spinning together, a thousand feet above the plains.
Within the nameless ship all men grasped everything solid, and Simeon even closed his eyes. He said, "Sir, I don't know if I can-"
"You can take it," Hainey told him. "Hang on, and hang in there. We're going down."
"Down?" Lamar asked, as if saying it aloud might change the answer.
"Down," the captain affirmed. "But it's a carousel of the damned we've got here; it's…hang on. Jesus, just hang on."
The landscape rotated in the windshield, pirouetting first to the brown grasslands below, and then to the brilliant blue and white sky, and then back to the horizon line, which leaped alarmingly, and then again, to the earth that was coming up so fast.
In glimpses, in those awful seconds between spinning and falling and crashing, Hainey saw a tiny corner of the Free Crow's front panel and he could spy, through the glass, a tumbling terror on the deck of his beloved ship-and it pleased him. He tried to count, in order to make something productive of the frantic moments; he saw the red-haired captain, and a long-haired man who might've been an Indian. He saw a helmeted fellow, he thought; and for a moment he believed he saw a second long-haired man, but he might've been wrong.
The ground lurched up and the nameless ship lurched down, until there was nothing else to be seen out through the windshield and the end was most certainly nigh. Hainey covered his head with his hands and Simeon propped his feet up on the console, locking his legs and ducking his own head too.
And a tearing, ripping, snapping noise was accompanied by a yanking sensation.
"What was that?" Lamar shrieked.
No one knew, so no one answered-not until the second loud breaking launched the nameless ship loose from the Free Crow, and flung it into the sky.
"The cables!" Hainey hollered, calling attention to the problem even as it was far too late to do anything about it. "Thrusters, air brakes, all of it, on, now!" He slapped at the buttons to ignite the thrusters again and tried to orient himself enough to steer, but the ship was light and it was flying as if clipped from a centrifuge and they were no longer falling, but destined to fall and to skid.
The thrusters burped to life and Hainey aimed them at the ground, wherever he could spot it.
Simeon said, "We have to get up again. We have to get some height under us."
"I'm working on it!" Hainey told him.
But the thrusters weren't enough to fight the gravity and torque of the broken hook cables, and the downward spiral cut itself off with an ear-splitting, skimming drag along the prairie that jolted all three men down to their very bones. The ship tore against the ground, and the men's bodies were battered in their seats; the dust and earth scraped into the engines, into the burned cargo bay, and into the bridge; and in another minute more, the unnamed ship ground itself to a stop while the so-called Clementine staggered across the sky towards Kansas City.
Maria Isabella Boyd had never had a job like this one, though she told herself that detective work wasn't really so different from spying. It was all the same sort of thing, wasn't it? Passing information from the people who concealed it to the people who desired it. This was courier work of a dangerous kind, but she was frankly desperate. She was nearly forty years old and two husbands down-one dead, one divorced-and the Confederacy had rejected her offers of further service. Twenty years of helpful secret-stealing had made her a notorious woman, entirely too well known for further espionage work; and the subsequent acting career hadn't done anything to lower her profile. For that matter, one of her husbands had come from the Union navy-and even her old friend General Jackson confessed that her loyalties appeared questionable.
The accusation stung. The exhaustion of her widow's inheritance and the infidelity of her second spouse stung also. The quiet withdrawal of her military pension was further indignity, and the career prospects for a woman her age were slim and mostly unsavory.
So when the Pinkerton National Detective Agency made her an offer, Maria was grateful-even if she was none too thrilled about relocating to the shores of Lake Michigan.
But money in Chicago was better than poverty in Virginia
. She accepted the position, moved what few belongings she cared enough to keep into a small apartment above a laundry, and reported to Allan Pinkerton in his wood-and-glass office on the east side of the city.
The elderly Scotsman gave her a glance when she cleared her throat to announce that she stood in his doorway. Her eyes were level with the painted glass window that announced his name and position, and her hand lingered on the knob until he told her, "Come in, Mrs.…well, I'm not sure what it is, these days. How many men's names have you worn?"
"Only three," she said. "Including my father's-and that's the one I was born with. If it throws you that much, call me Miss Boyd and don't worry with the rest. Just don't call me 'Belle.'"
"Only three, and no one calls you Belle. I can live with that, unless you're here to sniff about for a new set of rings."
"You offering?" she asked.
"Not on your life. I'd sooner sleep in a sack full of snakes."
"Then I'll cross you off my list."
He set his pen aside and templed his fingers under the fluffy, angular muttonchops that framed his jawline like a slipped halo. His eyebrows were magnificent in their wildness and volume, and his cheeks were deeply cut with laugh lines, which struck Maria as strange. She honestly couldn't imagine that the sharp, dour man behind the desk had ever cracked a smile.
"Mr. Pinkerton," she began.
"Yes, that's what you'll call me. I'm glad we've gotten that squared away, and there are a few other things that need to be out in the open, don't you think?"
"I do think that maybe-"
"Good. I'm glad we agree. And I think we can likewise agree that circumstances must be strange indeed to find us under the same roof, neither of us spying on anyone. This having been said, as one former secret-slinger to another, it's a bit of a curiosity and even, I'd go so far as to admit, a little bit of an honor to find you standing here."
"Likewise, I'm sure." And although he hadn't yet invited her to take a seat, Maria took one anyway and adjusted her skirts to make the sitting easier. The size of her dress made the move a noisy operation but she didn't apologize and he didn't stop talking.
"There are two things I want to establish before we talk about your job here, and those two things are as follows: One, I'm not spying for the boys in blue; and two, you're not spying for the boys in gray. I'm confident of both these things, but I suspect you're not, and I thought you might be wondering, so I figured I'd say it and have done with it. I'm out of that racket, and out of it for good. And you're out of that racket, God knows, or you wouldn't be here sitting in front of me. If there was any job on earth that the Rebs would throw your way, you'd have taken it sooner than coming here; I'd bet my life on it."
She didn't want to say it, but she did. "You're right. One hundred percent. And since you prefer to be so frank about it, yes, I'm here because I have absolutely no place else to go. If that pleases you, then kindly keep it to yourself. If this is some ridiculous show-some theatrical bit of masculine pride that's titillated at the thought of seeing me brought low, then you can stick it up your ass and I'll find my way back to Virginia now, if that's all right with you."
His rolling brogue didn't miss a beat. He said, "I'm not sticking anything up my ass, and you're not going anywhere. I wouldn't have asked you here if I didn't think you were worth something to me, and I'm not going to show you off like you're a doll in a case. You're here to work, and that's what you'll do. I just want us both to be clear on the mechanics of this. In this office, we do a lot of work for the Union whether we like it or not-and mostly, we don't."
"Why's that?" she asked, and she asked it fast, in order to fit it in.
"Well maybe you haven't heard or maybe you didn't know I didn't like it, but the Union threw us off a job. We were watching Lincoln, and he was fine. Nobody killed him, even though a fellow or two did try it. But this goddamned stupid Secret Service claimed priority and there you go, now he's injured for good and out of office. Grant wouldn't have us back, so I don't mind telling you that I don't mind telling them that they can go to hell. But they can pay like hell, too, and sometimes we work for them, mostly labor disputes, draft riots, and the like. And I need to know that you can keep your own sensibilities out of it."
"You're questioning my ability to perform as a professional."
"Damn right I'm questioning it. And answer me straight, will this be a problem?"
Maria glared, and crossed her legs with a loud rustle of fabric. "I'm not happy about it, I think that's obvious enough. I don't want to be here, not really; and I don't want to work for the Union, not at all. But I gave the best years of my life to the Confederacy, and then I got tossed aside when they thought maybe I wasn't true enough to keep them happy."