More than a hundred years after the McClellan-Davis Accords ended the Civil War, tensions are still high between the Union and the Confederacy. After her recent adventures, Delilah Thorn is stuck in Atlanta and has had no word from her fellow agents for weeks—and now a prominent Confederate family wants her to find their missing daughter.
Getting away from the farm is all Hollis Fairfield can think about. But when the only job she can find is doing laundry at Camp Pinewood, she becomes a witness to horrific events she never dreamed could be real. Powerless to change anything, she despairs until her attention is snared by a young girl whom she vows to help. But what can one woman do when so much stands against her?
Delilah Thorn is stuck in Atlanta engaged in diplomatic work and is desperate to get back into the field. She’s had no word from her fellow agents for weeks and there’s nothing she can do for them from afar. Now a prominent Confederate family is looking for assistance, and wants her to find their missing daughter. Thorn will have to go against orders to sneak back into enemy territory on a mission of mercy, unsanctioned by superiors and worth a court martial, even if she succeeds.
Both women will have to face their deepest fears and come together in an act that will help forge the fate of nations.
The smell of death hit her before she even came in sight of the camp. She’d been warned, but somehow, she hadn’t really understood what Captain Scott had meant by you’ll smell it before you see it.
Well, he’d sure been right.
Hollis did her best to ignore the stench, which was even now, in the early spring, nearly unbearable. She couldn’t imagine what this would be like by high summer.
Maybe she’d have another job by then. It wasn’t like she was really interested in working at Camp Pinewood. But jobs were scarce. The port of Mobile was almost completely inactive now, and that meant people who’d previously been employed as sailors or dockhands or any of a hundred other port jobs were out of work and looking. An eighteen-year-old farm girl from Tensaw wasn’t going to be able to compete with someone who had a good working background and lots of experience.
Except no one really wanted to work at the camp. Heck, no one even wanted to talk about the camp. It was the sort of thing everyone knew about, but no one could quite recall how they’d found out it was there. Like a blight, the presence of the camp squatted on the surrounding landscapel it was impossible to be ignorant of it, but no one wanted to discuss it except in whispers.
All that Aunt Vinita had been willing to say was that the camp was taking care of a problem that no one wanted to deal with. The camp was cleansing the Confederacy; when the cleansing was done, the Confederacy would be strong again. It was like pulling a tooth: something wretchedly painful, agonizing even, and yet necessary. After it was over, you’d be glad it had been done, even if you’d cussed out the person extracting your tooth while it was happening.
Hollis could see that. The Confederacy had been too soft on the coloreds for far too long, as her father and grandfather liked to say. Her father liked to pontificate that they couldn’t be trusted, bred like rabbits, and would plot the deaths of every white person in the state if you didn’t keep them in their place. Pastor Acuff often said the same, with the added fact that coloreds were the cursed descendants of Ham. God himself had declared them sub-human way back in the days of the Flood, and had destined Ham’s wretched descendants to be under the control of the white man. And what God had decided, no man might oppose.
Everyone Hollis knew was clear: the camp was the Lord’s work, and it was good in His eyes.
The stench coming from it indicated otherwise.
Hollis steeled herself. She’d never been near an odor this vile, but if the guards at the camp could stand it, so could she. This was her one chance to get off the farm. Her one shot of seeing something of the world besides Tensaw, even if it was just Mobile or Montgomery. Even Birmingham seemed too exotic and far away to dream of, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other places, closer to Tensaw, she might go, if she could just save a bit of money.
If she remained on the farm, she’d either stay forever and be a spinster like Aunt Vinita, spending her life obsessed with canning, chickens, and farming peanuts, or she’d marry Everett Dobson, who’d been asking for her hand since they were both ten, and live on a farm no more than three miles from the farm where she’d grown up.
Everett was handsome enough, but his ambition was to stay on his family’s farm, marry a woman of Tensaw, breed a passel of kids, and die on the land on which he’d been born, never having even been as far as Mobile. The world outside the farm, outside Tensaw, did not interest him in the slightest. Even the tales of the camp Hollis could now smell, didn’t mean a thing to Everett. It was miles away, and had nothing to do with decent people like his family.
Hollis knew that, if she left, Charity Lange would be more than willing to take Hollis’ place in Everett’s heart. Charity wanted exactly what Everett wanted, which was, in Hollis’ mind, nothing at all. What good was staying on the same tiny farm holding for the entirety of one’s life? Cooking, taking care of children, canning the vegetables, feeding the chickens . . . nothing was wrong with those things in and of themselves. But doing nothing else for life? Hollis’ soul balked at the thought. The world was huge; even the Confederacy, tucked away on a tiny bit of the North American continent, was still much larger than any of her relatives could imagine. The world itself was beyond them entirely.
But not Hollis. She’d found some maps in a disused schoolroom and had spent hours poring over them until Mrs. Gammon had caught her and made her write I will not go where I am not supposed to be three hundred times on the chalkboard after school.
The next time Hollis had sneaked into that room, the maps were gone. But she still remembered the smell of the brittle paper, and the enticing lines that showed entire continents, and country borders, and rivers, and mountain ranges, and even Alabama. Which had been no bigger than the end of her thumb on the large curled-up sheet of yellowed paper.
Alabama, it turned out, was tiny. The world was huge. And Hollis had to see it somehow, or at least some piece of it. Which meant leaving the farm.
Which meant getting a job. Thus, the camp.
Hollis did her best to ignore the pungent scraping at the insides of her sinuses and trudged down the gravel lane. The morning was chilly and she could see her breath, but the day would be pleasantly warm by noon. She’d worn her good sweater, the one Granny Fairfield had knitted her the last winter of her life, but now she regretted that. The sweater would no doubt reek of the camp by nightfall. Hollis should have been prepared to be cold for a few hours. But she hadn’t considered the power of the odor Captain Scott had referred to in his interview with her.
Hollis soldiered on and wondered how long it would take to get the odor out of her sweater after today. Maybe Aunt Vinita would have a solution to the problem.
In the meantime, Hollis had to be sharp for her first day of work. She was to be at the camp by nine a.m. and would be on shift until six. Captain Scott had warned her that her hours might be expanded if they got a fresh influx of guests.
The way he’d said guests made Hollis very uncomfortable, as if cold water had infiltrated her bones. A shiver had gone down her spine, the way it did every harvest when father brought out his best ghost stories to tell by the fire. As if the dark, which, in her father’s stories, was full of vengeful spirits and demons, was in Captain Scott’s very voice, even on a bright sunny day in late March.
Hollis had ignored the gooseflesh and the shiver. She needed a job, and Captain Scott was the only one interested in hiring a farm girl with no work experience outside the family home. He’d wanted to know if she could wash, scrub, and cook. She could certainly do all those things, and now, she’d be paid to do them. That was one step up from chores at home.
She shouldn’t have to worry about extra hours at work for now, though. Captain Scott seemed to think that there wouldn’t be more people brought to the camp any time soon. Which was good; if she had to work extra hours, Hollis wouldn’t have time to walk between work and home before it got dark.
She rounded a slight curve in the gravel road and stopped as she got her first glimpse of the camp.
Weathered lumber formed the framework of a fence, set in the soggy soil several feet apart and strung together with barbed wire. Ahead of her was the gate, which was, like the rest of the fencing, just a framework of warped lumber supporting rusty metal wire. The entire contraption looked as though it could be pushed over with a decent shove. Yet behind it were gray-clad guards and a solid guard tower squatting over the shorter buildings like some kind of mutant hen overseeing her clutch.
What grabbed her attention after the first moment was something she’d never thought to see in her life. At first, her brain refused to take it in. Captain Scott’s vague warnings about it looks more alarming than it is, and it can be upsetting when you first see it, but it’s necessary slid away in the face a scaffold and a gallows, from which dangled a body, for goodness sake. The head was covered in a black cloth, the feet still twitched. The execution must have just happened recently. Public executions had been outlawed in her grandparents’ time, back when hanging coloreds from trees and having a picnic beneath their slowly strangling bodies had been a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment. Hollis had never known such a thing in her own life but she’d heard the stories. Her grandmother had decried the lack of proper picnics and opined that making them illegal had made the coloreds “too big for their britches.” Her father had snorted in derision. “If you can’t hang ‘em, how you gonna keep ‘em in line?”
Hollis had never had a reason to doubt her family and pastor in the matter, but now, watching the twitching body at the end of the rope, she wondered how anyone had ever deemed this a good thing to watch while eating. To make a spectacle of.
Hollis swallowed back the bile that threatened to rise in her throat and she thought she might vomit her breakfast right here in the road. She swayed slightly and wrenched her eyes away from the sight.
Now that she had stopped looking at the camp, Hollis noticed the cleared field around the fence was full of low mounds of earth. The one nearest her sported yellowed bones sticking out at odd angles around the base. Most of them seem to have been gnawed on by forest creatures.
Hollis felt faint. For an instant, she wondered how her father and grandfather and Aunt Vinita and Pastor Acuff could be wrong about the camp. How could anyone support the deaths of enough people, even if they were the Sons of Ham, that it would take to fill all these mounds? Even if the person at the end of the rope hadn’t, technically, been executed in public, wasn’t executing them at all still illegal? And then tossing the dead in graves without any kind of marker or care?
Common sense reasserted itself and her knees stopped shaking, at least somewhat. The sight of the camp and the graves was shocking, certainly, but if everyone said this was necessary, then it was necessary. The Confederacy had put up with too many coloreds for too long. Something had to be done. Everyone agreed, from her father to the sheriff to the pastor to the governor to the president. Who was she to doubt any of these God-fearing men?
She opened her eyes and continued walking. The guards at the fence spotted her and one of them gestured her forward. Hollis kept her eyes from the dangling body. She could do this. She could walk forward, go through the gate, and simply not look at the body or the graves, or . . . and now she could see other guests of the camp sitting dispiritedly on the ground, covered in sores and dried blood. She could remember Pastor Acuff’s last sermon about the sin of Sodom and remember that God had a purpose for everything. Eventually, someone would show her the job she was to do, and she would do it, and go home. And at the end of the week, she’d have her first paycheck.
The ugly timber-and-wire gate swung open. It was stained with the yellow-red of the Alabama soil and stuck through with dried needles from the surrounding pines. Hollis’ heart raced as she neared it. The threshold of this place was closer to the entrance of hell than anything she’d ever imagined, even after Pastor Acuff’s most fiery sermon.
“Hollis Fairfield?” asked the guard.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice broke in fear; she hoped the guard hadn’t noticed. But the smirk he gave her assured her he was well aware of the effect of the camp on visitors and that he relished it. Hollis’ heart wilted at his leering gaze.
The guard pointed toward a squat white building opposite the gallows. “Captain Scott’s waiting. His office is in there.”
Hollis nodded and hurried on her way. Now that she was inside the gate, she noticed eyes watching her from slits in the walls of the multitude of barracks that marched down each side of the camp like soldiers in formation. Hollis could see four rows of barracks, each at least ten or twelve buildings deep. So . . . probably forty barracks. Was she to do laundry for all of them? How many others like her worked in the camp? And where were the buildings where the washing tubs and drying lines were? They had to be somewhere.
Maybe, possibly, such facilities were outside the camp gates. Hollis desperately hoped so. She crossed the bare dirt of the compound as quickly as she could without looking to either side
Hollis climbed the three shallow steps to the wide veranda that wrapped around the administrative building. The door, which was warped out of shape so that she doubted it could even be fully closed, was ajar, but Hollis knocked, anyway.
“Miss Fairfield?” asked the deep voice of Captain Scott.
Hollis pushed the door open slowly and stepped inside. The interior of the building was neat but dark stains on the floor attracted her attention. They were reddish and looked suspiciously as though blood had pooled and soaked into the wood on multiple occasions.
Maybe it wasn’t really blood. But the thought of the gallows outside made Hollis doubt the stains were anything benign.
“Yes, sir?” she said as confidently as she could.
“I’m glad to see you came and didn’t walk away as soon as you smelled the place.” Captain Scott sat at a large desk on the left side of the room. Two chairs sat in front of his desk but he did not gesture for her to take one, so she remained standing near the door. “Sometimes, we hire girls from town, and they turn around before they get to the gate. It’s hard to stay fully staffed here.”
Hollis could believe that.
Captain Scott regarded her evenly. Hollis stood still under the gaze of his dim blue eyes. The Captain appeared to be a man who had seen too much, and had done his best to forget most of it. Though his sandy hair was only touched with frost, his face was deeply lined, and his hands, which he had on the desk in front of him, shook slightly.
A stab of pity struck at Hollis. She could work here as long as she wanted, or turn around and walk out right now, but the Captain had to stay. Whatever horrors were in this camp, he was bound to them by his orders. If the vision of bodies swinging from the gallows by their ropes got to be too much, or the bloodstains too upsetting, a civilian could just quit. Captain Scott would take those visions home with him day after day without recourse.
“Am I to do the laundry today, sir?” she asked. “I didn’t see any lines put up.”
“You won’t work in the camp itself,” said Captain Scott. “The water’s too far away to be convenient, and the stench here seeps into everything. If we want anything even halfway clean, it can’t be hung on a line here.”
Hollis nearly wilted in relief. She wouldn’t actually have to be in the camp to do laundry? She hoped the washing house was far enough away that she wouldn’t have to smell the camp, but even if it weren’t, as long as it was far enough away that she couldn’t see the gallows and know she was being watched through the cracks in the barracks walls, that would be enough.
Captain Scott gestured toward the door. “Go back to the gate and tell them you need to see Miss Maisie. Someone will take you to her and she can show you what you need to know.”
Hollis said, “Yes, sir.” She turned to go back out the door.
Hollis froze at the coldness in the voice. Any pity she’d had for the Captain had disappeared.
“Don’t talk to the guests. Don’t even look at them if you can help it. They’re liars and traitors, the scum of our society that we’re weeding out. You mind your business and leave the rest to us.”
Hollis’ hands trembled and she hoped the Captain didn’t see. “Yes . . . yes, sir,” she said with a catch in her voice. Did he think she wanted to see what went on here?
“Trouble is, sometimes, people think they know how to fix things when really, they don’t know what the true situation is,” he said evenly. “I don’t have to tell you what that is, now, do I? You’ll do your job, go home, and won’t mess around with things here. My men will keep you safe, and Miss Maisie will let me know how well you mind your duties. Do your job, don’t stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong, and you’ll get on here just fine. Are we clear?”
Hollis didn’t trust herself to speak. She nodded sharply, then walked out the open doorway. She pulled the door behind her, but it didn’t close all the way. As soon as the door jammed in its warped frame, she let it go and quickly walked back to the gate, looking neither to the left nor the right.
Looking down wasn’t much better. That kept her eyes on the pine needles that had blown in overnight, but it didn’t keep her from hearing moans from the barracks, or the creak of the rope as it supported its dead weight.
Hollis hurried her steps until she was almost running, as if the goblins of her father’s ghost stories were at her heels. At the gate, she glanced up into the dark eyes of a brown-haired man who barely looked old enough to shave. His eyes weren’t haunted like the Captain’s; in them, Hollis saw nothing at all. No joy, no hate, no satisfaction, not even the lechery of the other guard. The emptiness was even more frightening than the leer, as if this place had drained the guard’s soul away, to be replaced with an abyss Hollis was not interested in looking into. But she had to speak to him. She steeled herself to address those dead eyes.
“I’m to see Miss Maisie,” said Hollis. “Captain said I’ll learn my job from her.”
The man snorted, but even that evidence of derisive humor did not reach his eyes. “Guess you will.” He gestured for someone to open the gate.
Hollis stepped outside as soon as it was open wide enough to admit her back into the outside world. “Are you coming?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “You take that trail to your right, go into the woods, and walk a couple hundred yards. You’ll see it next to the creek.”
By herself? Hollis normally had no fear of walking alone, but the proximity of hundreds of prisoners living and dying in this haunted place made her suddenly aware of the shadows of the trees, the curve in the path that kept her from seeing very far ahead. Every snap of twigs under her feet made her skin jump slightly, and her heart beat hard in her chest.
She shook herself slightly. Nothing had changed from ten minutes ago, after she’d spent an hour walking here from the farm. She’d been alone then, and hadn’t thought a thing about it.
But that was different now. Hollis took a deep breath and plunged into the pine forest. The wind in the branches above her sighed as if bowed down with despair.
Miss Maisie turned out to be colored, and, most distressing of all, did not seem inclined to give Hollis the deference she expected. Miss Maisie simply pointed out the buckets Hollis needed to fetch the water, and then sent her to the stream to start hauling the water back to the large laundry kettles. Miss Maisie had already started the fires underneath them.
“Why am I the one fetching the water?” asked Hollis with some indignation.
“Cause you the one whose job it is,” said Miss Maisie with a note of steel in her voice. Her eyes were steely as well, their black pupils surrounded by a ring of yellow. “I got the fires going and some of the water fetched, but I also gotta take down yesterday’s washing and get it folded and back to the camp. You want to go back to the camp this morning?”
“No,” said Hollis softly. She picked up the buckets and went down the trail to the stream. No, she certainly did not want to see the camp again. Hollis kept an eye out for water moccasins, but she didn’t even see the tracks of deer or raccoons by the creek, as if this area were blighted even to the wildlife.
Hollis had always maintained a cordial relationship with the coloreds on the farm. Most had been in the fields, anyway, not in the house, but sometimes, her mother hired Miss Clementine or Miss Tansy to help with the household or take care of a sick child. Those women were mostly silent and respectful, and their presence in the house was soft, like a blanket of fog or a coating of down. They were comforting, kept their eyes on the floor when addressing Hollis’ parents, collected their wages at the end of the day, and were no bother to anyone. They were easily employed, and just as easily dismissed and forgotten once their usefulness was through.
Over the course of her first two days, Hollis hauled more water, and used a large paddle to stir stained laundry in the cauldrons of boiling water mixed with caustic soap, than she ever had at home. Her skin became red from the heat of the laundry coming out of the kettles and irritation from the powdered soap. Her feet hurt at the end of the day, making her walk home take far longer than her walk to work. She ate dinner without tasting it, and dropped into bed the moment she was finished. Her mother didn’t even mention household chores to her and just let her sleep. She was up before dawn to eat breakfast and begin the long walk back to the camp.
The third morning she spent at the camp was foggy, and Hollis had no confidence in the laundry drying before tomorrow at the earliest. The air was heavy with moisture; at this time of year, that wasn’t unusual. Hollis finished hanging the laundry and looked back at the ramshackle hut that passed for the laundry house. She didn’t really want to go back inside to face Miss Maisie. She’d never felt so uncomfortable around someone else before.
She’d almost mentioned it to her father last night before she’d gone to bed, but hadn’t wanted to give him any excuse to instruct her to quit this job. As far as he was concerned, she was already treading on dangerous ground just by wanting to get away. The farm life had been enough for his wife, for his mother, his aunts, and his grandmothers. Why would Hollis want anything different?
Hollis took a deep breath. She couldn’t avoid Miss Maisie for long, and anyway, it was better than being in the camp itself. As it was, she could take the trail to the shed and bypass the camp entirely, and as long as she didn’t look past the gate, she didn’t have to see anything that went on there.
Hollis started back toward the shack, but a strange sound stopped her. She listened more closely. It was almost the sigh of the wind in the pines, but lower, more guttural.
Someone was in the shack with Miss Maisie. Hollis almost called out to scare them off, but the voices didn’t sound disturbed or frightened. If Miss Maisie had a visitor, it would seem to be one she welcomed.
Hollis shifted her weight from foot to foot and wondered what she should do. She didn’t want to confront Miss Maisie if a friend had stopped by, and face stares from two unfriendly women rather than just one. The laundry crew was now just herself and Miss Maisie; that someone else had joined them, for however short a time, was something Hollis suspected Captain Scott wouldn’t like.
If Miss Tansy or Miss Clementine had ever done something untoward near Hollis, she would simply have gone to her father and told him what she had heard or seen. Here, going to the Captain hardly seemed a viable option. Perhaps the Captain would fire Miss Maisie, but more likely, he would simply reprimand her, and that would leave Hollis still in the laundry shack with her day after day. If she made an enemy of Miss Maisie now, the rest of her tenure here at the camp was going to be even more unendurable.
Why should she care if Miss Maisie had friends, and that sometimes, they came to visit?
She took a step backward and stepped on a twig. The resulting snap was loud enough that Hollis knew the people in the shack should have heard. Indeed, the whispering stopped immediately.
Miss Maisie stepped outside a few moments later. Her habitual hangdog expression was fouler than usual. “You finish hanging’ the sheets?”
“Yes, Miss Maisie, though I don’t suppose they’ll get dry today. Weather won’t allow it.”
The other woman just shrugged. Her dark skin was stretched over her thin, bird-like frame as if the skin were three sizes too small, except under her chin and her upper arms, where her skin sagged the way it had on Grandma Fairfield in the years before her death.
“We need more powder,” said Miss Maisie. “Go to the gate and tell them; they’ll make sure we get it by tomorrow.”
Hollis nodded and set off toward the gate. As she turned, she realized Miss Maisie was headed back inside the shack, no doubt to finish her conversation or usher the other person off into the woods.
Hollis didn’t turn back, but she felt eyes watching her every move as she walked to the gate on the wide path that would have been muddy except for the thick blanket of pine needles that kept most of the mud trapped underneath.
The guard at the gate this morning was the same one who had been there when she arrived. He nodded to her. “Ma’am.”
“Miss Maisie reports that we need more washing powder,” said Hollis. At home, they used lye soap that Aunt Vinita made, but the powder they were using here in the camp was from Birmingham. Besides turning Hollis’ hands red, it smelled strangely chemical and made the laundry dry stiff. When she’d asked Miss Maisie about it, the woman had just shrugged.
Hollis had heard tales that the East and the Union had more advanced things for their citizens, like better soaps and fabrics and kitchen utensils. Things the Fairfield farm could certainly use. But of course, those items would never be available in the West. Everyone knew that the East and the Union were fighting each other for the chance to take over the West and assert foreign control over Birmingham. The West—the real Confederacy, as her father said—would stand alone, and strong, no matter what the Union and the East said or did.
After all, the Yankees have proved how traitorous they were when they’d taken Tennessee after the Great War. That state had been part of the Western Confederacy for fifty years and now had been in Yankee hands for over a hundred.
Nothing good came out of the north. But even the East had apparently been corrupted, which was how Pastor Acuff had explained the nice roads, large well-stocked stores, and appliances that graced the households of places like Florida, which was just a few miles away from Tensaw. Sure, the people of the East had things, but those things had cost them their souls. Better to exist by the work of one’s hands than to become idle and corrupt.
If lack of work made one corrupt, Hollis need not fear such a thing. The drudgery of laundry for Camp Pinewood would make her as holy as a person could be.
The guard at the gate gestured for another man to open it. “Ma’am,” he said, “the Captain said he’d like to see you next time you came by.”
Hollis nodded and shuddered, hoping the young man didn’t notice her discomfiture. She still had no idea how anyone could work inside this camp and sound so calm, as if this were an ordinary day.
It was even more frightening to contemplate that this was just an ordinary day for the soldier at the gate. Which made Hollis wonder what he would consider a terrible day. For her, just getting near this camp was awful enough.
She kept her eyes down but couldn’t unsee two corpses hanging from the gallows this morning. Did they execute people here every day? What was the point of that? Why bring people here just to hang them? Was this a prison? If so, why didn’t everyone speak about it like they did Five Mile Prison down in Mobile? That wasn’t a secret; Charity Lange’s cousin had spent a year there after robbing a store as a teenager. Charity didn’t like to mention it, but it wasn’t like the prison itself was something hidden.
Camp Pinewood was different. Except for the strange whispers from Aunt Vinita, no one discussed it, even though everyone had to know it was here. You couldn’t chop down acres of forest, bring in groups of soldiers, and send trains of prisoners to the Mobile station without everyone knowing something was going on.
Hollis made her way up the few steps to the door of Captain Scott’s office, which was ajar. Hollis reached out to knock, but she heard voices. One sounded like Captain Scott.
“This here’s a crazy plan,” he was saying.
“It ain’t what I wanted, but it’s what we got to do after the mess in Birmingham last week.”
Mess in Birmingham? Hollis hungered for more news. Did he mean more rationing was coming?
“She still don’t belong here with the coloreds and the unnaturals and the race traitors. You know we’ll never be able to let her go. Keep her under house arrest in Mobile; don’t leave her here.”
“Too many people might find out. We need to keep this quiet, and no place is quieter than here. We can decide what to do with her later, depending on what the East does.”
Hollis bit her lip at the unemotional tone in the other’s voice.
“Please, let me go,” said a young girl’s voice. “I won’t tell anyone. I swear!” The accent was unfamiliar but the girl didn’t sound colored.
Hollis’ gut clenched so hard she thought she might vomit right here on the porch. Captain Scott and another man had a young white girl prisoner, and they were going to put her here in the camp, and then kill her on the gallows? What crime could the girl have committed to have earned such a fate?
“Shut up,” said Captain Scott. “I don’t have a choice here. The Colonel brought you here, so you’re here.”
“Please, let me go,” said the girl again, more quietly.
Hollis stood awkwardly on the veranda, wondering what she should do. The guards at the gate were surely watching. She was going to have to pretend she hadn’t heard.
She knocked on the door. It swung open slightly but Hollis stayed where she was.
“We’re not to be disturbed,” said Captain Scott.
“Yes, sir,” said Hollis. “Only the guard at the gate said you wanted to see me the next time I came to the camp.”
“Oh, yes. Well, the money for your pay has been delayed. Problems in Birmingham. You’ll be paid next week. Go back to your laundry, Miss Fairfield.”
Hollis said “yes, sir,” ashamed her voice was weak and trembled. She hoped the men inside didn’t notice. She walked back to the gate and slipped through as quickly as she could.
She hurried down the path back toward the laundry shed. But she stopped as soon as she was well in the trees and put her back to a large pine. What was going on here? Her heart pounded and her knees wouldn’t stop shaking.
Slowly, she looked around the bole of the tree. She couldn’t see the camp from here. She crept forward, tree to tree, until she found a spot where she could see the administration building through the branches and undergrowth.
Early mosquitoes buzzed around her, but she ignored them. Soon, her patience was rewarded. A tall man in a black suit came out of the building and waited on the veranda. His entire stance was one of extreme self-assurance, like the way her father swaggered when he went out in the fields to talk to the hands.
From behind the building, the loud roar of an automobile engine broke the stillness of the foggy morning. A black car, sleeker than anything Hollis had ever seen, though admittedly she’d seen few automobiles in her life, came from the back of the building. The man in the suit got into the back seat.
After a moment, Captain Scott came out of the building, dragging someone along with him. The girl. She was dressed in an odd asymmetrical style with pants of different colors on each leg, shiny boots, one coming up a couple inches higher on the calf than the other, and a shirt with sparkling beads raining down from the collar, which was wide on one side and narrow on the other. Her red hair flung itself out from her head like a wreath of flame. Hollis couldn’t see her face very well, but it was clear the girl was pale, even lighter-complected than Hollis.
The Captain dragged the girl away from the administration building and Hollis lost sight of him and his captive.
Hollis sank to the ground on her knees, incapable of standing any longer when she was trembling so badly. What would some man in a suit want with a captive teenage white girl? Why would this be the place to keep her, and what was the “mess” in Birmingham?
Hollis burned to know. Her skin felt too small, then too large, as if it were contracting and expanding with her every breath. She had never felt so afraid, nor so full or rage, in her life. That these men would dare lay their hands on a girl like this! And then dump her in this pit? No reason could be good enough.
Hollis was tempted to run home and tell her father, but what would he do? He hadn’t seen the girl, and even if he believed her, he wouldn’t do anything. The local sheriff wouldn’t take action against the army, either.
If anyone was going to help that girl, it was Hollis. But what could she do, all by herself?
For one thing, she had to pick herself off the ground and start learning what she could about the camp. The thought made her soul quail in terror, but her heart calmed slightly. As frightening as it was, helping this girl would be the right thing to do. Pastor Acuff always talked about doing the right thing, though Hollis felt he probably meant staying on the farm and bearing children. Only men needed to do things like join the army or leave home to find work in cities when times were bad.
But she couldn’t worry about that. She only knew she had to help. But first, she had to get back to the laundry. Miss Maisie would be missing her soon.
Hollis fled back down the trail to the shack, her secret, and her convictions, trapped in her throat. The vision of the girl’s hair, so wild, and so brightly colored, stayed in her mind all the way back to the shack.
Delilah Thorn was thoroughly sick of Atlanta. Not that anyone had treated her poorly or that she faced any hardship at all. It was just that she had discovered she missed the action of being in the field, and standing around all day in a suit either talking to politicians or waiting to talk to more politicians was not her idea of a job worth having.
She walked across the courtyard to the main Congressional meeting hall, which was a low-slung building in a park setting filled with benches and small fountains. Thorn, raised to revere the tall glass-and-steel needles that dotted the Manhattan skyline, which were surrounded by concrete plazas and asphalt streets, still didn’t feel entirely comfortable in a place where government buildings sat in the middle of green space.
It didn’t help that she couldn’t see any obvious signs of security, either. At home, Aegis checkpoints were in every subway station, surrounded every government building, and were even temporarily set up in random spots on a daily basis. Security was ever-present and always in view.
The Free States, which were composed of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, did have security, it was true. It was simply not as pervasive, or as obvious, as it was in the Union. Thorn had spent a week scouting every security station within several blocks of her quarters and the congressional building itself, and had found security to be lacking, at least by her standards. Her hosts had found her behavior amusing and had assured her security was as tight as it needed to be.
“Agent Thorn!” shouted a familiar voice from across the plaza. Thorn turned to greet her main contact in Atlanta, Representative Fowler. She was a slim blond woman who always managed to look cool and refreshed, even in the scorching Atlanta heat. Today, she had a single small bit of hair tucked behind her left ear while the rest was secure in her standard bun. Thorn assumed the loose tress was a fashion choice because she trusted Aileen Fowler to have made sure every hair was in place before she left her house this morning, and to have kept those hairs in place ever since by force of will if necessary.
Thorn stopped and held out her hand, which Aileen took in a firm handshake that Thorn appreciated. Free States men often seemed worried they would crush Thorn’s hand when they shook it and their limp grasps, so different from the solid grips Union men preferred, were something Thorn had not yet come to appreciate. Like security, some things were simply done better in the Union.
The Free States definitely had their charms, and the fact that the Free States had a congress that was currently 54% women was one of them. The Union had not yet reached that percentage of women in Congress.
“Good morning, Aileen,” said Thorn with genuine warm wishes. Aileen was more straight-forward than other politicians Thorn had to deal with, and she was grateful for that.
“Good morning. I’m glad I caught you. Have you been accosted by Monroe or Johnson yet? They were on a tear last week about the upcoming vote.”
Thorn shook her head. “Haven’t seen either of them.” The upcoming vote was all anyone could talk about in Atlanta these days. Despite having given up slavery shortly after the War, the Free States had forced minorities to live in their own neighborhoods, had not allowed them into universities, and had not permitted them to run for office. In the past few years, several pro-minority suffrage groups had risen to power and had been tearing down the old ways wherever they could.
So far, that had meant blacks now had the right to live outside their traditional communities, though in the real world, that meant very little. If a community became mixed-race, the white people tended to leave. It had also meant blacks had been allowed to vote in local elections, for school boards and town mayors. But state and federal elections were still off-limits.
That might change next week. Or it might not. The votes in the Free States’ Congress were too close to call right now, with several legislators refusing to indicate how they might cast their ballot just yet. Ostensibly, they were still examining the issues at hand. Thorn thought they were merely waiting until the last minute so that they could properly assess which vote would assure their next election victory. Did their constituents care enough about blacks voting to make them vote no? Or did their constituents care more about other issues, like corporate pollution of the oceans, the threat to Miami and other coastal cities due to rising sea levels, or the current squabbles between the British and German Empires that threatened the smooth trading with both?
Nadine Monroe and Laymont Johnson were pro-suffrage leaders who had been lobbying the undecided Congress members daily. They had even been bothering Thorn, though she thought that was a waste of their time. She was only a guest here, but they seemed to think that the fact that blacks had been able to vote in the Union for over a century should make her a strident voice on their side.
Truth be told, Thorn did agree with them. But her position was too delicate for her to take sides in the Free States’ internal issues. Also, Laymont Johnson was a pig, and that was an insult to pigs.
“I’m a bit surprised, but then, I haven’t seen Nadine in a couple of days,” said Aileen. “That’s unusual, especially this close to the vote.”
“Maybe they’re busy. I can’t vote, so I don’t know why they want to talk to me so much.”
“You haven’t figured out yet that by being the lone Union voice here, you’re somewhat of a minor celebrity. They’d love to have an endorsement from you,” said Aileen. “They mentioned you yesterday to someone else; I was passing them in the hallway and overheard them speaking.”
“Huh,” said Thorn. She followed Aileen to a bench and sat down next to her. “I’ve told them multiple times I can’t get involved.”
Aileen shrugged. “It’s hard to put them off, even if your reasons are legitimate. Believe me, everyone else appreciates the situation you’re in and I, for one, am glad you’ve been able to handle it so gracefully. That last year and a half hasn’t been easy for anyone.”
Thorn nodded. “Thanks. It’s been a rough ride, but well worth it.” She wasn’t entirely sure that was true; being stuck in Atlanta for long stretches of time had been a severe test of her relationship with Mayfield Porter, the agent she’d met and grown attached to during her first field experience. They’d even set up a small apartment together, but Porter was often assigned elsewhere, and they rarely saw each other these days. Thorn missed him, but her schedule kept her from having too much time to dwell on it.
“Any word from New York on an actual, official ambassador being assigned here?” asked Thorn.
Aileen laughed. “I’d tell you if I knew; it seems they’d let you know first, anyway. But don’t worry, you’re doing a great job.”
Thorn plastered a thin smile on her face. She was glad she had lived up to the job for the most part—her interracial relationship with Porter had been politely ignored by the Free Staters, perhaps because neither of them had an official title and Porter was out of town more often than not—but basically being a social butterfly to smooth the way for the eventual arrival of an actual Union ambassador was wearing.
Attending parties and committee meetings in Atlanta just wasn’t the same as being with the people you were helping, being on the ground and seeing up close what was really going on.
“I’m co-hosting a party with the governor’s wife this weekend. I’m sure you’ll get an official invitation, if you haven’t already, but I’d just like to say, while I have you here, that I’d love to see you there,” said Aileen. “The new ambassador from the Japanese Empire will be attending, and everyone will want to get a look at him. I think he’ll be interested in you; he’s apparently related to the ambassador to the Union so he’s more familiar with your customs than you might think. And the German ambassador will be there as well.”
“Of course I’ll be there,” said Thorn, though her heart sank at the thought. Another party. More ambassadors to tiptoe around. More protocol minefields to unravel. At least she’d met Helmut Bauer before and wouldn’t mind seeing him again. He had a sense of humor she could appreciate. Besides, the German Empire had a long history with the Union. Ambassador Bauer was as much, if not more, of an ally to the Union as anyone else in Atlanta.
Still, it was another party that would be full of uncomfortable meetings and coded talk that was polite on the surface, and full of subtext. She hated it all.
If only she could get back to the field.
“Well, I’ll see you this weekend,” said Aileen. “If not before, in the halls.”
Aileen got up and went into the building, which was named for Joseph E. Brown, the governor of Georgia when the War had begun. That it was faced with brick and painted the color of chocolate was apparently a coincidence that had tickled Thorn the first time she realized that what she had innocently referred to as “the brown building” was indeed, “the Brown building.” Aileen had once told her that the paint color had been chosen to go with the gold carpet that lined the hallways, and that had been chosen because it had been the only color available in the quantities needed during the last series of renovations.
Whatever. Thorn didn’t care about the building color or carpet color, amusing as Aileen’s comment had been at the time. Why did she even know why that particular carpet had been chosen? But then, Aileen was a font of information on many fronts, and thus was someone Thorn had come to rely on when her own education on who was who, or what protocol was proper, had been useless.
Her phone rang. Thorn wasn’t used to this new technology yet; the Free States had imported personal phones from Europe; they were expensive but Thorn was willing to put out the money to have a phone in her pocket at all times.
It was Mayfield Porter calling. Thorn’s heart jumped a bit; Porter and she shared an apartment, but between his stints acquiring more training at the Citadel and working undercover in the West, they only saw each other every few months.
“Hi,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Not too bad,” he said. “Though it’s the rainiest March anybody can remember. I think I’m spending more time rescuing people from rising flood waters than doing my real job. You?”
“Oh, it’s great,” she said. “There’s a party being given by the governor’s wife this weekend. Too bad you can’t go with me.”
He laughed, well aware of how much she hated diplomatic soirees. “Sounds fantastic; sorry to miss it.”
“How about I pull people out of floods and you go to the party?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll stick with what I’ve got,” he said. There was some commotion on the line that Thorn couldn’t quite make out; other people around Porter were clearly alarmed by something. “Oh, crap,” he said after a few moments, “there’s another levee about to go. See you soon. Love you.”
“Don’t get washed away,” she said. “Love you, too.”
He hung up. Thorn looked at her phone with some sadness, wishing they’d had a chance to talk just a little longer. She’d never had a serious relationship before, and now she’d jumped into one where she barely got to see her lover. Porter was an excellent undercover operative, which meant he was brave and resourceful and didn’t take himself too seriously. He was gorgeous, had a great sense of humor, and liked to try anything new. Thorn had never known how much fun it would be to just be with another person day after day, but she’d spent more time laughing when she was with Porter than she had in the entirety of her previous life.
Thorn tried not to miss him too much when he was gone, but it was hard. Life somehow simply had more color when he was around, more joy. She’d discussed it with her sister once, but her sister had warned her such relationships would never work, and to find someone else who was more readily available on Thorn’s schedule.
Then again, her sister had never managed to date anyone for more than three months before kicking the guy to the curb. So perhaps she wasn’t the best person to be handing out relationship advice.
“Excuse me, Agent Thorn?”
Thorn looked up, not surprised, considering Aileen’s comment, and not particularly pleased to see both Nadine Monroe and Laymont Johnson coming her way. What was that saying about speaking of the devil?
She decided not to add how can I help you? which she often did for the Free States’ Congress members. She was not sure how she could help Monroe and Johnson in their pro-suffrage efforts, as much as she might like to, and didn’t feel like spending time with them, in any case.
“There’s a matter of some urgency we need to discuss with you,” said Monroe, with a quick sideways glance at Johnson. She was clearly well aware of his unpopularity and lack of people skills and wanted to circumvent Thorn simply telling them to go away.
“There’s a gallery opening I’m supposed to be at soon,” said Thorn, which was technically true. The only reason Thorn had even considered going was that she had nothing else to do today, and looking at some art might stave off boredom.
Now there was nowhere she’d rather be.
“Yes, some others are going to be there as well,” said Monroe. Her frizzy red hair was even more out-of-control than usual in the humid spring air. She wore a tweed jacket and skirt that was clearly more expensive than anything Thorn had ever worn, or even contemplated wearing.
Tweed was the fashion this cool spring season due to Atlanta’s ties with the British Empire, and the Southern belles who wanted to show off their support for the British. Thorn only knew that because she’d been on the receiving end of a few “poor dear” type comments from congressional spouses who’d been too happy to pity her about her wardrobe in her vicinity.
Thorn didn’t care about fashion; a year ago, she’d allowed herself to be swept into a few stores by well-meaning women like Aileen, who wanted to make sure Thorn did not embarrass herself in committee meetings. Even so, she missed the simple black-on-black Citadel uniform that she had worn in her job for the Union government in New York.
In those days, she’d sat in a cubicle all day, watching video feeds. Eighteen months later, she was a pseudo-ambassador, sometime field agent, based in the Free States of America. Home was a thousand miles away, a gleaming city of glass and metal spires with flags lining every major boulevard.
Thorn was sometimes surprised to find how much she did not miss the city, even as she detested Atlanta. Sometimes she wondered where she was ever going to feel at home again. And when.
She realized the other two were waiting in silence. Thorn stared at Monroe, unsure of what the other woman wanted.
Johnson shifted his weight from foot to foot. That was unlike his usual overconfident self. “Problem?” Thorn asked at last.
“Yes,” said Monroe quickly at the opening. “We need you to go undercover.”
Thorn almost laughed. These two weren’t Free State officials. They could hardly need her to go anywhere. The long faces of her companions stopped her. They were serious.
“Undercover?” she asked. “In the West, I suppose? What’s so important there?”
Monroe clamped her hands in her lap until her knuckles were white. “My daughter.”