He said, "You're speaking of your Union lad. I bet old Stonewall and precious Mr. Davis sent you a damned fine set of wedding china."
She ignored the jab and said, "My husband's name was Samuel and he was a good man, regardless of the coat he wore. Good men on both sides have their reasons for fighting."
"Yes, and bad men too, but I'll take your word for his character. Look, Miss Boyd-I know how good you are. I know what you're capable of, and I know what a pain in the neck you've been to the boys in blue, and it might be worth your peace of mind to know that I've taken a bit of guff for bringing you here."
"Guff?" she asked with a lifted eyebrow.
He repeated, "Guff. The unfriendly kind, but this is my operation and I run it how I like, and I bring anyone I damn well please into my company. But I'm telling you about the guff so you're ready to receive it, because I promise, you're going to. Many of the men here, they aren't the sort who are prone to any deep allegiance to any team, side, country, or company; they work for money, and the rest can rot."
He agreed, "Yes. Of a kind. And most of those fellows don't care about who you are or whatever you did before you came here. They understand I take in strays, because strays are the ones you can count on, more often than not."
She said, "At least if you feed them."
He pointed a finger at her and said, "Yes. I'm glad we understand one another. And you'll understand most of my men just fine. But I've got a handful who think I'm a fool, though they don't dare say it to my face. They think you're here to stab me in the back, or sabotage the agency, or wreak some weird havoc of your own. That's partly because they're suspicious bastards, and partly because they don't know how you've come to my employ. I haven't told them about your circumstances, for they're nobody's business but your own. You can share all you like or keep it to yourself."
"I appreciate that," she said with honesty. "You've been more than fair; I'm almost tempted to say you've been downright kind."
"And that's not something I hear every day. Don't go spreading it around, or you'll ruin my reputation. And don't assume I'm doing this to be nice, either. It won't do me any good to have a team full of people who don't respect each other, and maybe they won't respect you if they think you're here due to hard times. They'll give you a wider berth if they think I campaigned to bring you here, and that might put you on something like equal footing-or at least, footing as equal as you're likely to find in a room full of men." He didn't exactly make a point of dropping his eyes to her chest, but his gaze flickered in such a fashion that she gathered the point he'd avoided making.
She didn't stiffen or bristle. She reclined a few inches, which changed the angle of her cleavage in a way she'd found to be effective without overt. Then she said, "I know what you're getting at, and I don't like it. For whatever it's worth, I've never been the whore they called me, but the Lord gives all of us gifts, and mine has never been my face."
He replied with a flat voice that tried to tell her she was barking up an indifferent tree. "It's not what's beneath your boning, either. It's what's between your ears."
"You're a gentleman to say so."
"I'd be an idiot if I didn't point it out," he argued. "You're a competent woman, Miss Boyd, and I value competence beneath few other things. I trust you to sort out any issues with your fellow agents in whatever manner you see fit, and I trust you to make a good faith effort to keep disruption to a minimum."
"You can absolutely trust me on that point," she confirmed.
"Excellent. Then I suppose it's time to talk about your first assignment."
She almost said, "Already?" but she did not. Instead she said, "So soon?" which wasn't much different, and she wished she'd thought of something else.
"You'd prefer to take a few days, get the lay of the office, and get to know your coworkers?" he asked.
"It'd be nice."
He snapped, "So would a two-inch steak, but the soldiers get all the beef these days and I'll survive without it. Likewise, you'll survive without any settling-in time. We've got you a desk you won't need, and a company account with money that you will. I hope you haven't unpacked yet, because we're sending you on the road."
"All right," she said. "That's fine. And yes, I'm still packed. I can be out the door in an hour, if it comes down to it. Just tell me what you need, and where you want me to go."
He said, "That's the spirit, and here's the story: We've got a problem with two dirigibles coming east over the Rockies. The first one is a transport ship called the Clementine
. As I understand it, or as I choose to believe it, Clementine moves food and goods back and forth along the lines; but she was getting some work done over on the west coast. Now she's headed home, and the government doesn't want her busted up."
Maria asked, "And the second ship?"
"The second ship is trying to bust her up. I don't know why, and if the Union knows, nobody there is willing to talk about it." He picked up a scrap of paper with a telegram message pecked upon it. "I'm not going to lie to you. Something smells funny about this."
She frowned. "So…I don't understand. This second ship is following the first? Harassing it? Trying to shoot it down?"
"Something like that. Whatever it's doing, the officer who's expecting his Clementine back in service doesn't want to see it chased, harassed, harried, or otherwise inconvenienced on its return trip. And part of the Union's displeasure with the situation comes from a rumor. Let me ask you a question, Miss Boyd. Are you familiar with the fugitive and criminal Croggon Beauregard Hainey?"
She knew the name, but she didn't know much about its owner and she said so. "A runaway Negro, isn't that right? One of the Macon Madmen? Or am I thinking of the wrong fellow?"
Allan Pinkerton nodded and said, "You're on the right track. Croggon was one of the twelve who made a big, nasty show of escaping from the prison there in '64. He was a young man then, and wild and dumb. He's an older man now, and still wild but not a bit stupid, I'll warn you of that."
"Then I'm afraid to ask what he has to do with these two ships, but I'll do so anyway."
"We think he's piloting the second dirigible," Pinkerton said with a thoughtful scowl. "We don't know for certain, but that's what the Union thinks, so that's what we're forced to work with."
Maria made a thoughtful scowl to match the old Scotsman, and she asked, "So what if he is the pilot? Doesn't that strike you as peculiar? Ordinarily, escaped slaves tend to work with the Union, not against it."
"Not this one," he corrected her. "Near as we can figure, he doesn't work with anybody, and the Union would be just as happy to collar him as the Rebs. Hainey makes his reputation running guns, stolen war machines and parts, and God knows what else from sea to shining sea; and when he runs short on cash, he's not above doing a little bit of bank robbery to fill his coffers."
"Essentially, you're telling me he's a pirate."
"Essentially, that is a fair assessment." He folded the telegram slip between two fingers and tapped it against his desk. "And whatever havoc he wreaked on his way out of Georgia, he's made a similar mess in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania."
"Places where a Negro isn't assumed to be a slave, and where he might have the freedom to approach a bank," she inferred. "He can move more freely up north, and so he has more latitude to make trouble."
"Now you're getting the feel of the situation. And now you're likely wondering, same as me, what this fellow's doing chasing a craft that he ought to run away from, if he had any sense-because as I've mentioned before, for all of Hainey's personal faults he's got plenty of sense. I don't know why he's on the prowl, but I have to guess it's got something to do with Clementine's cargo, or that's the best I can come up with at the moment."
Maria wanted to know, "What do you think she's really carrying?"
"I asked about that," he said. He unfolded the telegram again, scanned it, and read the important parts aloud. "Humanitarian cargo bound for Louisville, Kentucky, Sanatorium."
"And you believe that?"
"I believe it if I'm told to," he said gruffly, but not with any enthusiasm. "And you're welcome to believe what you like, but this is the official story and they're sticking to it like a fly on a shit-wagon."
She sat in silence; and much to her surprise, Allan Pinkerton did likewise.
Finally, she said, "You're right. This stinks."
"I'd like to refer once again to the aforementioned shit-wagon, yes. But it's not your job to sort out the particulars. It's not your job to find out what the Clementine really carries, and it's not even your job to apprehend and detain Croggon Beauregard Hainey or bring him to justice. Your job is to make sure that nothing bothers the Clementine and that she delivers her cargo to Louisville without incident."
"How am I to do that without apprehending and detaining Croggon Hainey?"
"Ah," he said with a wide, honest, nearly sinister smile. "That is entirely up to you. I don't care how you do it. I don't care who you shoot, who you seduce, or who you drive to madness-and I don't care what you learn or how you learn it."