Paradise

The first small gestures of rapprochement between the Union and the Free States brings not only hope for the future, but a new terror that no one had quite imagined. Disease attacks those at a governmental function, and those who have succumbed have only a small chance of survival. Can Rook and Thorn, partnered with agents from the Free States of America, get to the bottom of who is spreading disease and why before threats of plague and fire become more than mere hyperbole? Religion and politics swirl together to form a dangerous and explosive mixture from which no one may emerge unscathed.

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The first small gestures of rapprochement between the Union and the Free States brings not only hope for the future, but a new terror that no one had quite imagined. Disease attacks those at a governmental function, and those who have succumbed have only a small chance of survival. Can Rook and Thorn, partnered with agents from the Free States of America, get to the bottom of who is spreading disease and why before threats of plague and fire become more than mere hyperbole? Religion and politics swirl together to form a dangerous and explosive mixture from which no one may emerge unscathed.

Chapter 1

THORN

When she’d been a child, Delilah Thorn had loved the Day of the Accords. In the morning, she and her sister held their parents’ hands and stood along the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan and watched in reverence as military bands and honorary militias in their beautiful crisp black uniforms had marched down the street. The twenty-nine-star flag of the Union waved from nearly every window.

After the parade, it was time to go to grandma’s house on Long Island to eat barbecue, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and pie. Lots and lots of pie. Almost every neighborhood shot fireworks into the air; the bright blues and reds of the exploding stars dazzled the young Delilah’s eyes. Holiday specials aired on television, full of strong, square-jawed heroes, rousing patriotic music, and beautiful scenes of the Union’s vast landscapes.

At the end of the day, as she’d dropped into bed after midnight, exhausted, full of food, and still seeing stars, little Delilah had dreamed, one day, she’d work for the Union. One day, she’d be one of the heroes who would keep it safe, keep it beautiful, keep it, in a sense, holy. That sense of calling stayed with her, even as they’d traveled back to Ohio after the holiday. It stayed with her after grandma had died and no one bothered to go to New York anymore to celebrate the holiday. It stayed with her throughout her education, as she’d debated whether or not to pursue her dream in Manhattan, or stay home in Ohio and work at a boring, but secure, job.

She’d gone to New York, been accepted into the Citadel’s training program, graduated into the corps of the Civil Service, and had watched video feeds for security issues for years.

Then she’d been sent into the field and her life had changed forever.

Beside her, her partner, Porter, stirred. They had been watching the parade down the Avenue of the Americas from their tiny apartment on the 60th floor of the building. Watching people from so far up was preferable to watching at street level, as far as Thorn was concerned. These days, that old patriotic mindset was impossible. In a way, she missed the simplicity of it: the love of country, the pride in the flag, the unwavering loyalty to Union.

She’d been to other countries, to other places on the continent where people lived much different lives. Some of the people in those countries had become her dear friends. She couldn’t feel the love of country as she once had, but neither did she feel disloyal. It was more that she recognized the Union for what it was: both a shining example of unity and federation, and a flawed place that needed to learn from its own mistakes. That needed to look outside its borders more often, and to not be so afraid of the outside world.

“Isn’t the phrase, people look like ants from up here?” asked Porter with a small smile. He put his arm around her waist and Thorn leaned against him.

“Everything looks like an ant from up here,” she said. “Even the cars.”

She didn’t say what she was really feeling; the loneliness was something she didn’t wish to share. Ideally, she wanted to stay in Manhattan with Porter, but realistically, she had to go where her boss said she was needed. Most of the past three years with Porter had been spent apart from him, and while Thorn had learned to endure it, she also resented it. Field work was what she was good at, and looked forward to, but the time away from Porter was a torment.

In a way, she felt she understood a little about the lives of the soldiers who fought in the war that had ended the original Union. They’d written letters home and had sometimes received letters in return. They had been just as lonely as she, when apart from those they loved.

“I see where your thoughts are headed,” said Porter. His dark brown eyes were full of kindness and compassion; his gentle nature one of the first things that had attracted Thorn to him. He kissed her cheek. “You know your sister and niece will be over tomorrow morning after they get back from their trip. You’ll get to load up on family and friends before you go. And it’s only for a week or two. We’ve been separated longer than that before.”

She laughed a little. “You know how field work goes. It’s never what you think. Two weeks turns into a month, or a year.”

“Well, that gives me more time to find a girlfriend,” said Porter. “Though where I’m going to put her in this postage stamp-sized apartment is a mystery.”

Thorn surveyed their cozy space, where they spent little time. It was still undecorated. Thorn had no idea what she’d want to put on the walls, and, in any case, she was leaving again, so what did it matter? Home was wherever Porter was.

Someone knocked on the door.

“Guess they’re here,” said Porter. He laughed. “Dane is never so punctual when he’s alone.”

Thorn went to the door. Her friend Dane Rook, who had been with her on her first field assignment, and his wife Chrissy, were due for an Accords Day luncheon. It wouldn’t be the kind of Accords Day celebration Thorn loved in childhood, but she looked forward to this one almost as much as she had those of the past. This would be her first chance to celebrate the news of Chrissy’s freshly-announced pregnancy with the couple.

Thorn opened the door and swept Chrissy up in a big embrace. “Congratulations, you two!”

Chrissy glowed. Thorn smiled at Rook, who gave her an uncharacteristically enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. He looked beyond happy.

“Congratulations,” said Porter as he came to greet the new arrivals. He shook Rook’s hand as Thorn ushered her guests inside.

“I can hardly believe it,” said Rook.

“I bet your parents are thrilled,” said Thorn to Chrissy, who beamed. Thorn glanced at Rook, “I suppose your family doesn’t even know.”

Rook shrugged, a look of indifference plastered on his face. “You know how they are. The Union is the source of all evil, if you listen to them. They’ll never accept Chrissy as family and prefer to forget I even exist.”

Thorn nodded. Rook was from Kentucky, one of the Occupied Territories. Although Kentucky hadn’t seceded from the Union, its people resented rule from New York. For Rook’s family, his job with the Citadel, as well as his marriage to a Yankee, were reasons for grief and anger, not celebration or pride. A half-Yankee grandchild born in the Union capital would be far outside the boundaries of acceptability.

On the other hand, Chrissy’s family adored Rook, and were, no doubt, going to spoil this child rotten, so it would have plenty of loving family to dote on it and help raise it to be happy and healthy.

Thorn gestured for her guests to sit on the couch while Porter excused himself to check on the food. Most had been ordered from a local catering service. Thorn was no cook and wasn’t home enough to make a habit of it. Porter had no interest in learning. Ordering in had gotten to be their habit.

Rook held up an insulated bag. “Got some pie. My family never celebrated the Day of the Accords, of course, since they all felt they ended up on the wrong side of the border. I heard that you Yankees must have pie.”

Thorn laughed at the phrasing. “Yankee” was the worst thing one could be called in the eyes of the people of the Occupied Territories, but while Rook’s family would have used it derisively, for Rook to use it was just banter among friends. She took the bag from him. “That’s right. I think it’s a law, or maybe even an amendment to the Constitution. Accords Day equals pie to us Yankees.” She took the bag to the kitchen, where she had to maneuver around Porter to get to the counter. She took two pies out of the bag and placed them next to the apple pie the catering company supplied. The offerings from Rook and Chrissy were covered in foil. “What are they?” Thorn called out.

“Pecan and cherry,” said Chrissy from the other room. “Pecan’s my favorite. Cherry’s what my mom always made. I’d put most pies above cherry, but I admit, a Day of the Accords without it doesn’t seem quite right.”

Porter chuckled. “Family traditions are odd, aren’t they? My mother always made cake for the day. Red velvet cake, of course. She put blue food coloring into some of the icing so the cake was red, and the icing was part white and part blue. Had to have those patriotic colors for dessert.”

“We don’t have cake, though,” said Thorn.

Porter shook his head. “I’m not stuck on the cake part. What makes Accords Day, for me, at least in terms of food, is ham. For some reason, the deli didn’t have ham this year. Must be too much in demand at Accords time.”

“Huh. For my family, it was thick steaks,” said Chrissy. “I felt like I was eating enough meat to feed a family of six with just one of them. We didn’t eat those steaks at other times, though, too expensive.”

“Well, I don’t have steaks, but I’ve got hamburger, because there’s nothing Delilah likes more than grilled ground beef,” said Porter. “Of course, hers will be medium rare at best, but I’ll cook everyone else’s a proper amount. So, as far as tradition goes, we’ve got pecan pie here for Chrissy, hamburgers for Delilah, and mashed potatoes and corn on the cob for me. Plus, a dozen other things. It’s all good for Rook, who has no family tradition to uphold.”

Rook raised an imaginary glass in a toast. “I look forward to every kind of meat, vegetable, bread, and pie. I’ll gain twenty pounds in one afternoon.”

The four of them sat while Porter loaded up the plates and Thorn poured glasses of water and wine for everyone except Chrissy. In the distance, she could hear the cheers of the crowd at the parade. The faint sound of the music played by the bands filtered through the air and mixed into a cacophony of different patriotic tunes.

“I’m surprised we made such good time getting here,” said Rook as he took his first sip of wine. “The protesters were out in force.”

“Protesters?” asked Thorn. “I thought the Citadel would have had a better handle on security and wouldn’t have allowed any.”

Chrissy shrugged. Her delicate features reflected disgust, as if she’d smelled something fetid. “I think a bunch have been arrested, but one group is no more swept up by a raid than another one starts.”

Rook shook his head. “You’d think people would want to see the Union and the Free States form an alliance. We used to be the same country, after all. Now they say any contact between the Free States and the Union is bad. The president is losing her patience.”

Thorn sighed.

“I hope she can find a bit more,” said Porter. “Change is hard. For one hundred and sixty years, we’ve been trained to be suspicious of anyone south of the border. Now we’re asking people, with very little preparation, to accept we’re going to sign some kind of trade agreement. That the border will be open to tourists from the Free States. That we’ll install Free States diplomats into some offices in the old State Department building. We may not be calling Stephens an official ambassador, but everyone understands that’s what he is.”

“He’s the Delilah Thorn of the Free States,” said Rook with a smile.

Thorn shook her head. “Yes and no. My job was to help smooth the first steps in between the Union and the Free States, but I never acted as ambassador, and Stephens will, even if he doesn’t have the title. Also, nobody in Atlanta protested my presence. I was greeted with shrugs more than anything else. As if no one cared if there were an official Union presence in Atlanta.”

Rook ladled mashed potatoes onto his plate. “No one should care. Stephens is here in New York. Do people think the Citadel’s going to let Stephens and his staff out on the street, without any guidance or observation? Every step he and his staff take will be logged and studied. There will be a whole floor of entry-level video analysts who watch their every move. If they even sneeze, Undersecretary Gordon will hear about it.”

“I’m glad no one watched me like that, at least back in Ohio,” said Thorn. Growing up in the Union, she’d never considered the security protocols oppressive until she’d left the country and experienced a different level of security. By Citadel standards, the Free States were woefully unprepared for security issues. In the Free States, the level of security promoted by the Citadel was far in excess of any actual real-world security threat.

Thorn could see both points of view, though she found it preferable to live under less security. It was nice to be able to take a walk without running into at least one Aegis checkpoint. It was pleasant to walk into a store without having to pass through metal detectors and possibly having her purse searched.

“Well, the protesters should just be glad to live where they’re safe,” said Chrissy. “And that’s all I have to say about it.”

With that, the conversation turned to more personal things, like what color Rook and Chrissy would paint the baby’s room.

The phone rang. Thorn glanced at Porter. “Who could that be? Everyone should be at a parade or stuffing themselves with food.”

Porter shrugged. “Who knows? I’ll see who it is.”

He answered the phone. Rook had already set-to on his plateful, and Chrissy watched him, her eyes bright. Thorn spared a moment to wonder what this child would look like. Both parents were pale-skinned, but Rook had black eyes and hair while Chrissy’s hair was a blond so pale, it was almost white. She’d never taken a genetics class, so she had no idea if the child were likely to favor one parent over another.

“Delilah,” said Porter from behind her.

She turned. He held out the phone to her with a smile.

“I think you’d like to take this call.”

Curious, she did. “Hello?”

“Hey, Yankee,” said a familiar, Arkansas-accented voice.

“Morris?”

Rook looked up, a question in his eyes. Morris was one of the Underground Railroad members they met in Arkansas, and who Thorn worked with in Alabama. He’d married a woman from the Free States, and they now lived in Florida near her family.

That he could call someone in the Union was a bit of a jolt.

“Are the phone lines between the Union and the Free States open?” Thorn asked. “Not that I’m not happy to hear from you, but I was sure it was still under negotiation.”

“As far as I know, negotiations are ongoing, yes, but I’m calling from down the street. Lynne and I are going to some Accords Day soiree. I asked if you or Rook were going to be there. No one seemed to know, so I asked how to get your number, and now we’re talking. One thing I’ve got to give up for these red badges, they are organized and get things done. I think I get you a bit more now.”

Thorn blushed. A few years ago, she would have puffed with pride to be seen as so thoroughly Union, but now she was a bit embarrassed by that earlier, unapologetically patriotic, nationalistic self.

“Rook’s right here,” said Thorn. “We’re having an Accords Day meal with him and Chrissy. They’re having a baby, by the way.”

“Congratulations to them,” said Morris. He and Lynne had their second child, last Thorn had heard. Lynne was retired from the Free States special ops and now she and Morris organized the resistance to the Confederacy from the Free States’ side of the border.

“So, what are you doing in New York?” asked Thorn. “I mean, besides attending a party.”

Morris laughed. “I’m not eager to go to the party, as you might imagine. I don’t see either you or Rook being fans of such a thing, either. But you do what you gotta do. We were invited here to talk about the Railroad, and how the Union might join the Free States in supporting it.”

“Wow,” said Thorn, aware of how stupid that sounded. The Union hadn’t been interested in getting involved in issues between the Free States and the Confederacy. At least, not until the election of President Alanna Garfield. She ran on a platform of becoming more involved in the outside world. Not just Europe, but the Union’s neighbors to the south as well.

She won the election by a razor-thin margin. Although many younger people were unenthusiastic about remaining isolated from the world, wanted access to international goods and travel, and didn’t care about either confederacy, older people were much less interested in anything outside the Union’s borders.

“Yeah, wow,” said Morris with a laugh. “Four, almost five years ago, who would have imagined it?”

“Not me,” said Thorn, thinking of her old cubicle job where she watched videotaped security feeds all day, every day. “It would be nice to see you. How long will you be in New York?”

Morris laughed again. “Oh, I wrangled you and Rook an invitation for tonight. See you then? I think they start serving the cocktails at six.”

Chapter 2

Thorn stood in the doorway of the lounge where the cocktails were being served and wished she were back home. She was so full of hamburgers and potato salad and pie, she felt bloated and was sure she’d be uninterested in food for at least a year.

Rook stood next to her. Though Porter and Chrissy were invited as well, Chrissy had begged off due to exhaustion, so Porter had taken her home. Thorn was a bit jealous that, while she and Rook were going to be stuck at this party, their partners had managed to wriggle out of the invitation.

Still. She was excited about the prospect of seeing Morris and Lynne.

Thorn wore her black-on-black Citadel uniform, the most formal clothing she owned. Rook hadn’t had a chance to go home, so he still wore his casual clothes. He seemed quite comfortable in slacks and a simple button-down shirt and jacket, even though the other men were in black suits with boring-colored ties. But then, Rook had made a bit of a hobby to show up to Union events without ID or dressed casual. Thorn didn’t think anyone who knew him would be surprised by Rook’s outfit tonight.

Thorn wore her green badge with the two black stripes, a visible sign she was a field agent of some experience. Rook, as usual, didn’t. At least he could claim to have left it at home, though protocol stated he should have it with him at all times, even if it were just in his pocket.

Thorn learned long ago Rook liked bucking the rules when he could get away with it. She wondered why their bosses put up with it, but she felt it was probably due to bosses seeing Rook’s small rebellions as part and parcel of his successes in the field, or what was to be expected from someone from the Occupied Territories.

Or else they were a bit jealous they’d never tried such tricks when they were lower-ranked officials.

“Delilah!”

Thorn turned to see Morris wave and hurry to her. He’d filled out since she’d seen him last, and he’d even managed to sprout a thin beard. His dark suit, paired with a dark red tie, set off his coffee-dark skin. He held hands with a woman Thorn barely recognized.

“Oh my gosh,” said Thorn. She reached out to hug first Morris, then Lynne. “I would have passed you on the street.”

Lynne laughed. “You like it?” She gestured toward her elaborately-styled hair that fell to her shoulders. The last time Thorn had seen her, Lynne was a colonel in the special ops, and had worn her hair very short. She’d moved stiffly, as if always aware she should be marching or at attention. Now, she wore a floor-length red dress and had matching lipstick and fingernail polish to set off her skin color, just a shade lighter than her husband’s. She moved fluidly across the floor, like a dancer.

“You’re stunning. The dress, the hair, all of it,” said Thorn with a laugh. “Motherhood seems to suit you.”

“Don’t let her fool you,” said Morris as Lynne hugged Rook. “She’s training Yancy to make his bed like he’s a boot camp recruit. If he doesn’t do it to her satisfaction, she makes him do it over.”

Lynne shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. “Some habits are good to establish early on. Keep yourself clean, keep your environment straight, and any task you need to do is worth doing well.”

“He’ll be in the special ops by the time he’s twenty,” said Morris. He seemed both proud and ambivalent. Of course, he’d never been in the military. He’d worked undercover, gathering people to oppose the Confederacy through vandalism, arson, and whatever other forms of rebellion he could organize, knowing any act could invite retaliation from local authorities onto people who had nothing to do with the Underground Railroad. He’d grown up hungry and afraid, always looking over his shoulder. His father, Yancy, and Rook had been in a death camp together. Thorn and Morris were part of the group that rescued them.

“How’s your father?” asked Thorn.

Morris’ face fell. “I don’t really know. I haven’t been able to get word from the depots in that area, and of course, there’s very little infrastructure. It’s too dangerous to send someone in, just to satisfy my curiosity. I’d love to send him photos of little Yancy, but I realize he’ll probably never see my son.”

Lynne put her hand around Morris’ elbow. “He will, one day. The Confederacy can’t stay the way it is now. It just can’t. Too many people are waking up to the realization things can change.”

“Yeah, but the people who want things to stay the same are the ones with the guns,” said Morris.

“It’s not hopeless,” said Rook. “Thorn and I can’t talk too much about what we were doing in Baton Rouge, of course, but Louisiana is making some strides Bradenton isn’t going to like in his Birmingham office.”

Morris nodded. “The depots in Louisiana say much the same. To someone in Perdition, Arkansas, Baton Rouge might as well be the moon. Hell, Doniphan, Missouri, might as well be the moon, and that’s twenty miles away.”

Lynne smiled and nodded toward the far side of the room. “The cocktails and appetizers are suitably restrained, very much what I would expect from the Citadel, but they’re still tasty.”

Thorn shook her head. “I ate so much at our Accords luncheon; I don’t think I’ll be able to eat again this year.”

Morris nodded. “We had a lunch, too, and there was enough food there to feed the entire town of Perdition for a month.” He seemed both impressed and appalled by the abundance, though he had surely seen similar meals on the occasions he was sent to Atlanta to brief someone on the activities of the Railroad.

Rook said, “Can we ask why you’re here? It doesn’t seem like the current discussions going on between Atlanta and New York are your area of expertise.”

“True,” said Lynne. “The bigwigs have things to chat about like trade agreements, and how open the border can be, and whether or not the Free States can send a military band to march in next year’s Accords Day parade. We’re here to update folks on the status of the depots in the Confederacy. They’re making a lot of headway.”

“There’s not a single camp left anywhere,” said Morris with some pride. “Not one camp.”

Thorn smiled, glad to hear it, but noted a look of pain crossed Rook’s face. He’d had a lot of therapy after his time in the camp, and it had helped, but he still lived with shadows he might never be able to banish entirely.

Lynne noticed, too, and gave Thorn a concerned look. Thorn just shrugged. At the moment, neither she nor Lynne could do anything to help, except keep the conversation moving.

“What else is happening?” asked Thorn, aware most of the news Lynne and Morris had might not be anything they could share, especially in an environment like a party. She let the question hang in the air so Lynne or Morris could interpret it however they wanted, from discussing the Underground Railroad to the latest adventures of their toddler.

“Well,” said Lynne with a sly grin, “I think there’s someone else here you’d be pleased to see.” She turned and searched the room. “Ah, there. I think an undersecretary tried to get flirtatious and she set him straight.” Lynne waved at someone Thorn couldn’t see, but recognized immediately. Hollis Fairfield, a demure, quiet girl who’d discovered her inner strength when called upon to oppose the death camp system.

Thorn didn’t wait for Hollis to get all the way across the room but walked to meet her halfway with in a huge hug. “I’m so glad to see you!”

Hollis was blushing when Thorn let her go. Her dress was high-necked, long-sleeved, and fell to her ankles so only her face and hands showed, despite the warmth of the room. However, her hair had been styled to include a few ringlets down the sides of her face. It seemed Hollis managed to maintain her own sense of propriety and modesty while adopting a few flourishes to set off her conservative choices.

“I’m happy to see you, too,” Hollis said in her southern Alabama accent.

“What have you been up to?” asked Thorn. “How’s Lucy?”

“She’s fine. She’s at college,” said Hollis. “I’m still trying to catch up, but I can read well now. I have my own place, too. It’s, well, different, living alone. I’ve never done it before, but I’m getting used to it.”

“Surely Nadine would have let you stay.” Nadine was Lucy’s mother, and she lionized both Hollis and Thorn after they had helped her daughter escape captivity in a Confederate death camp. Thorn felt a bit odd to be lauded so much by Nadine, and she was sure it had been harder on Hollis, who had been raised to be quiet and subservient, like a good Confederate girl should be. Having the attention of a strong, opinionated, and socially powerful woman like Nadine could be claustrophobic at the best of times, and even if someone were used to those kinds of women. Hollis had not been, but she coped well, as far as Thorn had been able to see. Even if Hollis had snapped and let Nadine know what she thought about all the suffocating attention, Thorn couldn’t imagine Nadine would ever toss Hollis out on the street.

“She would have. She’d give me anything I asked for, for Lucy’s sake. I felt like I should try to expand my horizons a bit more,” said Hollis. “I can’t be the naïve unschooled Alabama girl forever. The world is bigger than I ever dreamed, and I haven’t found a place for me just yet. I will. I’m going to, but I’ve got to figure out some things first.” She laughed. “That sounds ridiculous out loud. My family would never understand why marriage at seventeen and life as a farm wife raising chickens and children wasn’t for me. If it was good enough for all the other women in the family, it should have been good enough for me.”

“You’ve made a lot of changes,” said Thorn. “You’re still young. There’s no rush.”

Hollis nodded. “A few young men have come knocking on my door, but I can’t even consider fitting a man into my life right now. Maybe someday. One thing’s for sure, I won’t settle for someone who just wants a woman to make his dinner and raise his kids. That’s fine if you want it, but there’s so much more in the world. I somehow want to know it all and do it all, and I don’t even know what all is!”

Thorn laughed. “Who does? Hey, you didn’t have a chance to meet my fellow Yankee,” she turned to see where Rook might be, but she’d lost sight of the others as the crowd drifted and swirled around them. “Well, maybe you’ll have a chance to meet him. He’s recovering from wounds received in a previous mission when I was in Alabama.”

“Ah,” said Hollis. She heard a bit about Rook from Thorn, and knew he, like Lucy, had been a prisoner in one of the Confederate camps. “I’m glad he’s well.”

“Yeah,” said Thorn. “With all the camps closed now and things changing in the Confederacy, do you ever think about being able to visit your family?”

Hollis shook her head. She looked resigned but not hopeless. “I haven’t, not seriously. I’d like to be surprised on that score. It won’t happen as long as President Bradenton is in charge, of course. He’s mad as a hornet the camps are gone, or so they say. Guess he didn’t kill as many people as he wanted.” Disgust washed across her face. “He won’t be president forever.”

“Well,” said Thorn. “You can see President Garfield is pushing New York to expand its horizons internationally, so a change in leadership can certainly make a difference. We don’t need to talk about Bradenton and his administration at a party! Have you seen anything you like in New York?”

Hollis glanced around and made a one-armed shrug. “What’s not to like? Lots of people crammed into small spaces made of glass and steel. Even on the street, all you smell is the fumes from taxis and the wind is blocked by all the tall buildings.”

“Not much like Tensaw, is it?” asked Thorn. “Or Atlanta.”

“Not much,” said Hollis. It was clear she didn’t care for New York, but the manners she’d been raised with forbade her from saying anything more negative than that.

Thorn laughed. “I didn’t mean to put you in a spot. I used to think New York was the most impressive place in the whole world. I’d look down the Avenue of the Americas and feel so proud of what the Union had accomplished. Now I look at it and realize how far behind the rest of the world we are, and how much catching up we need to do. There’s plenty of bright and shiny buildings, but we need more than that.”

Hollis smiled but she looked a bit wan.

“Are you all right?” asked Thorn. “You look a bit pale.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Hollis. “I don’t seem to sleep well when I travel. I’m afraid I’ll get sick and I’ll have to fight exhaustion and a virus while some kind of unofficial Confederate ambassador.”

“Traveling somewhere you’ve never been before can make it easy to get sick. You don’t have any immunity to the strains of the endemic diseases. Stress doesn’t help, and I’m sure this has been stressful.” Thorn remembered too well her first winter in Atlanta. The weather had been cool, rather than cold, at least from a New York point of view, but the flu that had spread among the representatives and ambassadors she spent hours a day with, knocked her down for nearly two weeks while the native Atlantans had been up and about after four or five days at most. The doctor had said the flu strain hitting Atlanta that winter was similar to several in the past decade, and therefore the Atlantans wouldn’t suffer as badly as Thorn.

“Definitely,” said Hollis. “My preacher back home would tell me I was surely bound for hell just for stepping foot into the Union, and I would have believed him, too. My mother would simply faint if she knew I’d stepped foot in this city of demon Yankees!”

Thorn realized there was a commotion across the room.

“Someone get a doctor!” shouted a familiar voice that sounded like Rook.

“Morris!” That had to be Lynne.

“Oh, no,” said Hollis.

Alarmed, heart pounding, Thorn headed for the other side of the room as quickly as she could. She elbowed her way through the gawkers without caring who they might be. She didn’t care if she elbowed the president herself. She needed to get to Rook, Lynne, and Morris. Dimly, she was aware of Hollis right behind her, the girl’s ragged breathing testimony to her own illness.

When she got to the scene, Thorn saw Morris on the floor, shaking and covered in sweat. Lynne knelt by him and held his hand.

Rook pushed the curious away. He met Thorn’s eyes. She nodded and began to do the same on the other side of Morris.

“Get back, people,” she said. “Give the emergency services room to work.” She hadn’t seen the EMTs yet, but she knew there’d be a contingent of them in the building, and indeed, only a few seconds later, a blue-uniformed team burst through the doors, each with a bag. The last one pulled a gurney behind him.

“Oh,” said Hollis. “What’s going on?”

“We need help over here!” shouted someone from across the room.

What was going on? Thorn glanced around and noticed several other people had sunk down onto the floor or were sitting rather limply in chairs. Those who were still on their feet had started to back away from the sick people.

“No one leave the room,” said an authoritative voice.

“You can’t keep us here,” said someone with an Atlantan accent.

“Everyone stay where they are,” said another person with the distinctive Georgian drawl.

“These people are ill,” said someone. “I don’t want to get sick.”

“No one is leaving.” A tall man with a shock of white hair strode to the center of the room. If his Rhode Island accent hadn’t given him away, his distinctively combed and pomaded hairstyle did. It was Howard Billings, Vice President of the United States.

No one dissented now that the Vice President had issued an order. Well, no one in the Union would dare buck such an authority. Thorn felt even Rook would do as Billings said, without question, at least until the initial excitement was over.

The EMTs loaded Morris onto the stretcher. Lynne followed them out of the room.

Billings looked around the room in a calm, confident manner.

“More help is on the way,” said Billings. “Everyone, stay calm. We have the situation under control.”

She glanced at Rook and saw doubt on his face as well. Control? That hardly seemed the word to use. Since when did several people get sick at the same time, in the same room?

“I don’t like this,” said Thorn. “Several people sick at the same time?”

“Maybe it’s the flu, travel, and the stress of having to attend meetings and parties. You know what that’s like,” said Rook.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, at any party even in the midst of flu season,” said Thorn. She looked around the room. “I don’t know what’s going on, but something’s not right. Something besides the illness itself.”

“I guess we’ll need to figure out just what that is,” said Rook. He winked, but the concern lines around his mouth and eyes belied the lighthearted gesture.

Chapter 3

ROOK

Rook hadn’t liked the way Billings had announced everything was under control. Saying something like that out loud, without any explanation only caused panic. If something were “under control,” it implied that it could easily become “out of control.” Now people would be desperate to leave the room and would start trying to sneak out, whereas if they’d been allowed to assume the sick people had eaten something that disagreed with them, they might have been calm.

At least, for a little while. People could be panicky creatures at their worst. Expecting them to behave rationally often asked too much, at least as far as Rook was concerned.

He made his way across the room toward Billings, who was surrounded by a crowd that appeared to demand answers Billings clearly did not have.

A commotion back at the main entrance grabbed Rook’s attention. He turned to see several more contingents of EMTs enter and start to move about the room. They assessed the people who had retreated to chairs or the floor, too weak to stand.

A woman in a long silver dress tried to leave, but now Rook saw red badges outside the room. They politely, but firmly, escorted the woman back into the room. She looked teary-eyed but said nothing. Why had red badges been dispatched? It made him uneasy. Somebody knew more about this situation and was handling it remotely, without telling those in the room the truth.

Rook knew that wouldn’t last, especially if more people fell ill. Irrational people had charged red badges before. The situation could get ugly without more information.

Thorn made her way to him. Her face was grave, though she smiled a little. “Hollis is comforting some of the others, which is such a Hollis thing to do. What is going on? Could this be an attack?”

Rook shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I want to see if I can find someone who does.”

Thorn nodded. “I’ll stay with Hollis. She hasn’t got anyone else here. Let me know if you find out anything.”

“I will.”

Thorn moved back to Hollis, who had an arm wrapped around an older woman’s shoulders. Rook knew the girl from Thorn’s stories about her time in southern Alabama. He hadn’t known she would be here. From Thorn’s stories, she was a remarkable young woman, not least because she had turned away from the life she could have had, the same life her ancestors had for hundreds of years, to walk into an unknown future she couldn’t have imagined. Rook had seen conditions in the Confederacy and knew Hollis would have grown up in a small town, surrounded by people who belonged to the same religion, spoke the same language, had the same outlook on racial matters, who lived without modern conveniences, and whose lives were not only hard, but seemingly without the opportunity for change. Not that many, if any, wanted change. The way it had been for their forefathers was good enough for them. It just hadn’t been good enough for Hollis. It had taken a lot of courage for her to leave everything she knew and jump into the modern world without a good idea of what it might be.

Rook glanced around, ignored the crowd around Billings for now. He wasn’t going to be able to force his way through, and Billings didn’t know him, anyway. Even if he could stand right next to the Vice President, Billings would see no reason to speak with him or impart any real information. Billings was a politician from an old political family. Saying a lot of words without imparting information was the kind of speech he’d given since infancy.

Near the door to the kitchen area stood a rather dour-looking gentleman with large jowls and shaggy white eyebrows., the sort of elder statesman one brought out to give speeches to enthusiastic constituents or to make serious public service announcements when needed. He gave off a grandfatherly feel, both stern and trustworthy.

A younger aide stood next to him, her understated dress and severe hairstyle lending the duo a double air of competence. She scratched at her wrist and hid a yawn. Despite the fact she was part of the elder statesman’s coterie, she seemed bored by the party, even with the additional drama of people falling ill.

Rook nodded to himself. If anybody had anything useful to say, it would be these two.

He walked up and nodded to the pair, who seemed to have no objection to his presence.

“Evening,” he said. “I’m Dane Rook.”

“Josie Phelan,” said the young woman in a drawl Rook knew Thorn could have identified. He just knew it wasn’t a Union accent. “This is Ambassador Stephens.”

Rook offered his hand and Stephens shook it. Stephens didn’t object to being given a title he didn’t, technically, have.

“Ambassador,” said Rook, deciding to go with it.

“Hmm,” said Stephens with a small smile. “Most Citadel staff have been calling me Secretary since it’s the agreed-upon title. It’s only my staff who have been upset by that.” His voice was deep and unhurried, as if he chewed on his words.

Rook couldn’t tell if that were the man’s natural speaking voice or an affectation, but it was reassuring, nonetheless.

“I can’t honestly say I’m upset. I simply don’t care enough to worry about it,” said Rook. “If your staff wants you to be addressed as Ambassador, that’s good enough for me. I assume you’ll be made an official ambassador within a few months, anyway, as soon as everyone sees the world didn’t end when Free States citizens stepped foot on sacred Citadel soil.”

Stephens grunted and smiled. “True, and it’s happening more quickly than I ever would have imagined. It was that Thorn woman’s doing. She managed to befriend enough powerful people that accepting an official ambassador seemed a good idea.”

That was nothing like the way Thorn told the story about her time in Atlanta. She chafed under the restrictions she’d been under and had hated every party and meeting she’d been required to attend. Rook wasn’t surprised she had performed well but he was amused that, in her own opinion, she hadn’t done such a good job. Clearly, the people she’d worked with had a much higher opinion of her than she had of herself. That was Thorn. She was harder on herself than anyone else, harder than she had a right to be.

“I thought I saw her earlier,” said Phelan. “Talking with Hollis Fairfield. There was quite a boost in Union popularity among the members of Congress once Thorn made it back to Atlanta with Lucy Monroe and Hollis in tow.”

“Delilah Thorn is quite impressive,” said Rook. “And, yes, she’s here. She was over there . . .” he glanced back toward the door, but the small knot of EMTs who there had been was gone, as were Hollis and Thorn. “It looks like she’s gone to the hospital with the sick.”

“Sounds like something she would do,” said Phelan.

“Can we help you, Agent Rook?” asked Stephens.

Rook was startled to be given the title. “Agent?”

“We know who you are,” said Stephens. “And we know why you wear your hair over that ragged ear of yours. Your adventures in the Confederacy make quite the tale.”

“Ah.” Rook was taken aback, though he supposed he shouldn’t have been. As far as he knew, he was the only Union agent who’d been sent to a death camp. In fact, he was one of the few of any nationality who had been imprisoned and was still alive. The raggedness of his ear was due to a cattle tag being placed in it. Rook’s had been white, used to signify a race traitor, a term which only had meaning in the Confederacy. He’d tried several times to explain it to Chrissy, and still wasn’t sure she grasped the concept. “Well, I wondered if I could find someone who could tell me why Billings showed up to try to keep people calm? I mean, it’s unusual for several people to fall ill at the same time, but couldn’t it be food poisoning? Why would cases of food poisoning require the Vice President’s presence?”

“I doubt his presence is actually required,” said Stephens with a sly smile. “But he will look good on the news later, don’t you think?”

Rook had to agree. Billings was an expert at taking advantage of photo ops and getting himself positive press.

“The people who became ill looked to be Free States people,” said Rook. “Perhaps your people picked up some bad food, or even a virus, before they arrived in New York.”

Phelan frowned. “Everyone was healthy when we left Atlanta.”

“It does take some time to show evidence of infection,” said Rook. “I’m not a doctor, but I do know that much.”

“We should probably go check,” said Phelan. “We don’t know where they’ve been taken.”

“Strong Vincent Memorial is the closest large hospital,” said Rook. “It’s where Citadel employees are taken, if they become ill at work. That facility has the most up-to-date security measures and the best doctors.”

Phelan looked confused. “I thought St. Margaret’s was the closest.”

Rook had to think to remember the name. “Oh, yes, it’s in the neighborhood, but I don’t think they have a lot of beds and may not have the best emergency department. Strong Vincent is where your people will have been taken, I’m sure.”

“I would like to confirm that,” said Phelan. She stepped back and pulled out her mobile phone. Rook was still fascinated by the devices. Thorn had the use of one while in Atlanta, but not in New York.

“Oh, I forget,” said Phelan. “You don’t have coverage inside the building.”

“Maybe not even outside,” said Rook. “I’m not sure the president has managed to get a lot of the, what, towers, installed in Manhattan yet.” That had been one of the campaign promises President Garfield had tried to keep since she was sworn in, to introduce the United States to the mobile phone networks so familiar in Europe, Asia, and now, the Free States. Her predecessors had been concerned the networks would diminish security, and stalwart supporters of the previous president had been trying hard to slow down the rollout under the guise of national security issues.

Rook had faith in President Garfield. He was sure he’d see mobile phones in the streets of New York by next year at the latest. He was also sure she’d find a way to address the security concerns her opponents kept throwing in her face. The woman seemed indefatigable and hard-headed enough. It would take more strength and bullheadedness on the part of her opposition to keep her from her goals. Rook had seen no evidence the opposition had those qualities in abundance.

“I’ll have to find a landline,” said Phelan. She stalked off, discomfited to be without the technology she was used to at home.

“I have absolute confidence the Union’s hospitals are up to the task,” said Stephens. “A few sick people shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Your aide seems to think it is.”

Stephens shrugged. “The young are easily alarmed. I have lived long enough to know most situations can be contained if you trust the experts and follow their advice. Once your doctors have seen our people, we will know more. If necessary, we will send the sick home to recover.”

The stolid nature of the man reassured Rook more than he liked. This man was not necessarily a friend to the Union. He wouldn’t have been sent as a possible ambassador if he weren’t politically savvy, canny, and well-connected to many powerful people in Atlanta. It didn’t mean he was an enemy, either. Good people could be found everywhere, and that included those who went into politics.

It even included Yankees like Thorn and Chrissy, whatever Rook’s family would have to say about them.

“Excuse me, everyone,” said an authoritative voice. Billings.

Rook turned to look at the vice president.

“Security says we may all leave now,” said Billings. “I think we will all understand if the rest of this evening’s festivities are canceled. We will hope and pray for the swift recovery of those who fell ill this evening.”

A collective sigh went around the room, which amused Rook. Being trapped in a banquet hall for a short while was hardly something rated higher than mildly irritating, as far as he was concerned. Try being loaded onto a metal train car in the middle of an Arkansas summer and hauled to a death camp. After that, nothing much could make one unsettled without being a direct threat to one’s life and the lives of one’s loved ones.

“Well, it was a pleasure, Agent Rook,” said Stephens. He nodded and left the room.

Rook waited until the room was almost deserted before he surveyed the scene. The side tables where appetizers had been a half hour before were now empty. Rook had no doubt the moment someone breathed the words “food poisoning,” the catering staff collected every morsel of food, and the drinks as well, and the Citadel was already processing samples to see if any pathogens could be found.

Whatever was wrong, the Citadel could handle it.

Someone else had stayed behind. Rook didn’t recognize the short blond woman who wore a Free States flag design as dangling earrings. She looked frightened.

“Are you all right?” asked Rook.

The woman didn’t look at him, but she shook her head. A sheen on her face meant either she, too, had a fever, or she was so frightened, she was in a cold sweat. “This is bad,” she said. “You don’t know how bad. This is no accident. This was an attack.”

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