Everyone who has been waiting for this book (the sequel to “The Warlock’s Curse“) has been waiting a heck of a long time, and I truly apologize.

And while I’m afraid I can’t report that “The Unsteady Earth” is ready (or even will be in the very near future,) I do have a little piece of progress to report, and a little tiny douceur for those who have been waiting so patiently. Below, I’ve posted the first draft of the prologue, which I just ran through my incredibly awesome and insightful writer’s group this past weekend. They gave me a lot of great feedback (pointing out blocking issues, repetitiveness, overwriting, POV problems, and the fact that there are far too many em-dashes) which I have not yet been able to incorporate. So what I’ve posted below is a true first draft, warts and all.

I will be running the next chunk through them within the next few weeks, and I will try to post those chapters as they become available as well.

Thanks everyone for your patience. I’m really sorry to be so slow.

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The Unsteady Earth

Prologue

Tuesday, January 3, 1911

Dreadnought Stanton was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.

For a full quarter-hour, S.O. Hart, President of Sanitas Pharmaceutics, had been peering with intense concentration at the morning edition of The New York Times  spread out on the desk before him. Above the fold, on the all-important right hand side, just below the price (“5 cents”) and The Weather (“Snow to-day; clearing on the coast to-morrow; high east winds”) was printed a single word:

Murdered!

Stark, black, enormous, and completely sufficient–the notoriety of the famous warlock was such that no noun or adjective was required. The copy below the exclamation was similarly spare, detailing with customary precision the factual specifics of Dreadnought Stanton’s demise: the nation’s most prominent credomancer had perished three days before the New Year, in a sorcerous conflagration of suspicious origin that had leveled the Stanton Institute—the geographic and emotional center of his substantial power—as well as a vast swath of New York City’s Upper West Side.

“Murdered,” S.O. Hart drew the word out sweetly, contemplatively, gently stroking the word with his forefinger as if to calm it. This bit of theater was for the benefit of the subordinate whom he had kept standing before his desk for the past quarter-hour—a small, elegant black man named Clayton Thibodaux. The gesture was so extravagantly tender that it left no room for doubt: S.O. Hart was displeased. Severely displeased.

He was not displeased because Dreadnought Stanton was dead. In fact, he himself–acting in his capacity as leader of a Consortium of business and religious interests—had ordered the warlock’s death. And in all fairness, the man who had been charged with organizing the execution—the very man who he’d kept standing before his desk for the past quarter hour—had, without question, delivered a great deal more than had been asked of him. So much more, in fact, that Clayton Thibodaux might have been forgiven if he’d expected his efforts to be celebrated with an honorary dinner at a large downtown hotel, complete with applauding colleagues, vases full of hothouse flowers, and fillets of turbot served in cream. Instead, Clayton Thibodaux had received a curt, imperious telegram commanding him to make his way from the Santias Pharmaceutics headquarters in downtown Detroit, through the severest snowstorm in recent memory, out to S.O. Hart’s mansion in Grosse Pointe, so that he might be called, most definitely, onto his boss’ expensive Persian carpet.

The carpet was spread before an enormous mahogany desk in the subterranean vastness of the Hart mansion’s games room. The storm had precluded the great capitalist’s customary sojourn to his offices downtown, so he was, instead, conducting business before a ten-foot-high fireplace of carved Venetian marble–about the only place where he could stay warm, for even with the mansion’s modern steam heating system running at full blast, the cold of the boreal blast outside knifed through the walls like an assassin’s stiletto.

While S.O. Hart had a more formal and magnificent library and office upstairs, such grandeur was hardly appropriate to receive a disgraced subordinate–and certainly not a disgraced Negro subordinate. While S.O. Hart considered himself quite progressive in the matter of race-relations (the lofty position Thibodaux held within Sanitas Pharmaceutics certainly attested to that!) it was, after all, somehow more fitting to receive the man informally, casually, au coeur de la famille.

Never mind, by the way, that every individual who could conceivably be termed famille were grouped at the game room’s opposite end, over a hundred feet distant, as far from the lord of the manor as was physically practicable. S.O.’s wife Gracie (quietly embroidering something decorative and useless) and his son Atherton (puffing his way through an overly-enthusiastic game of table-tennis with a lovely young houseguest) were both exquisitely tuned to the moods of the domestic Zeus, and knew exactly when to absent themselves to avoid bolts from on high.

Lifting his eyes finally from The New York Times, S.O. let his mournful gaze rest on Thibodaux’s dark, impassive face for a long while. Then, pounding the desk with his fist so hard there was a sound of cracking wood, he thundered, “Murdered!”

The word rang against the dark walnut paneling with a dreadful volume and intensity. Gracie’s fingers trembled. Atherton, lowering his paddle, allowed the ping-pong ball to dribble to a disconsolate halt. Only Atherton’s lovely young houseguest—her name was Jenny Hansen—lifted her eyes to stare across the clutter that filled the cold vast void, past the objects collected on travels to Florence and Milan: gloomy paintings and dark, heavy, worn tapestries and altarpieces glowing with gold and plaster—at the senior Mr. Hart. Then, shifting aside a white arm-sling that dangled unused around her neck, she seized the ball.

“Come on,” she muttered irritably, serving it back to Atherton. “It’s just your father yelling again.”

“Well?” S.O. demanded of Thibodaux, more quietly this time, but in a voice no less intense. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

This demand for an accounting, coming as it did from one of the richest men in Michigan (if not the United States); the man who owned the patent for Panchrest, the wonder-drug that had beaten back the Black Flu pandemic; the man who helmed a company that employed over five thousand professional men and boasted revenues of over a hundred-and-fifteen millions annually—would have made anyone else tremble and stammer. But the supreme self-possession of Clayton Thibodaux was such that he did not respond immediately. Rather, he continued to stand motionless and silent, hands clasped neatly behind his back, eyes directed mildly forward, until S.O. deigned finally to gesture to a chair with an ill-tempered grunt. And only after Thibodaux had arranged himself on the 12th-century Belgian tapestry with the finicky neatness of a cat did he state, quite simply:

“Murder was always the intent, sir, if you will recall the plans that you approved.”

“The plans I approved!” S.O. roared incredulously, stabbing The New York Times with his forefinger. “What does any of this have to do with the plans I approved? There was nothing in the plans I approved about burning down half of the Upper West Side! There was nothing in the plans I approved about Brother Phleger—a man I intended to put into the White House—erupting into babbling insanity in front of his whole congregation, not to mention a Teslaphone audience of hundreds of thousands! And there was nothing, Mister Thibodaux, in the plans I approved, about him.”

The “him” to which S.O. referred was an individual captured in the photograph that accompanied the stark, single-word headline on the front cover of the Times. The photograph was captioned “The Man Who Murdered Dreadnought Stanton,” though the desperate individual depicted really looked little more than a boy. His image had been captured outside the Belasco Theater in New York, at the premiere of a moving-picture; how the gray lady had come to the conclusion that this young man was Dreadnought Stanton’s murderer was not explained. “Did you hire him?” S.O demanded. “Is he one of ours? Who exactly is he, anyway?”

“I did not hire him.” Thibodaux replied. “He is not one of ours. And I have no idea who he is.”

The calm precision and brazen simplicity with which Thibodaux delivered these shockingly unsatisfactory answers took S.O. aback. He sometimes appreciated bluntness from his subordinates, but not when he was yelling; when he was yelling, groveling was the only appropriate response. He opened his mouth, then closed it abruptly. Drawing in a deep breath through his nose he rubbed his hands together briskly, his breath congealing white as he blew on his fingers to warm them.

“My god it is cold in here!” he muttered. Then he roared, his voice echoing against the high coffered ceilings, “Thomas! Can’t you see the fire’s almost out? Get your lazy ass in here! Do I have to think of everything for you people?”

It took a few moments for the elderly black houseman—white haired, white coated, white gloved—to appear at the door in response to S.O.’s summons. He labored under the weight of two enormous oak logs, one balanced on each shoulder. As he made his way across the length of the room. S.O. watched him, lips twisted with scorn, his index finger tapping the desk impatiently.

“Come on, come on!” he said finally, leaping to his feet. “I could freeze to death waiting for you!”

Thibodaux, knowing better than to bristle at such crude bait, did not spare the servitor a glance.

“Mr. Hart, you are technically correct,” he said. “All did not go according to plan. The death of Dreadnought Stanton was supposed to appear in the eyes of the public as a magical misadventure, the result of a holy judgment visited upon him at the consecration of Brother Phleger’s New Faith Seat of Praise. That did not happen. Unexpected factors rendered Brother Phleger unable to perform that function.”

“Unexpected factors,” S.O. snorted, as he as he watched old Thomas shift the large logs onto the bed of glowing embers. When the fire was to his liking, he snapped his fingers at the elderly servitor. The action apparently did not need to be accompanied by words; climbing to his feet, Thomas went to the liquor cabinet and began arranging items on a silver tray—two crystal tumblers and a bottle of old Scotch.

The instant Thomas set the tray on the desk before him, S.O. seized the bottle and sloshed one of the tumblers full. He had no idea if the sun was past the yardarm—a series of small arched windows were the subterranean hall’s only source of natural light, and they all had several feet of snow banked up against them—but he didn’t care. “And so you improvised.” He sneered the word, then took a large swallow of liquor, as if to wash away the bad taste. “I despise improvisation.”

Thibodaux shook his head.

“No, sir,” he said. “While we had every reason to expect that Dreadnought Stanton would appear at the New Faith Seat of Praise, lured there in the hopes of capturing a powerful and malign magical artifact that Brother Phleger had in his possession, Dreadnought Stanton never appeared. Therefore, even if all had gone according to the plans you approved, Brother Phleger would not have had the opportunity to kill him.”

“Then how is it, precisely, that Dreadnought Stanton is dead?” S.O. punctuated the question by slamming down the crystal tumbler on the mantlepiece with a solid clonk. He stretched his hands toward the newly-replenished flames. “How is it that the most powerful warlock in the United States evaded our attempts to murder him—efforts which required tens of thousands of dollars in budget and man-hours—only to fall victim to a magical conflagration at his own Institute, set by some mysterious boy-arsonist? How exactly did that come to pass?”

The ferociousness of the interrogation was tempered by a faintly plaintive quality—the whine of an honest yokel who’d been cheated by a big-city card sharp. Clearly, what bothered S.O. Hart was not that the Consortium’s plan had failed—but rather that the Consortium’s very expensive and detailed plan had failed, whereas an apparently random and (presumably) inexpensive combination of actions–apparently carried out by a lone insane boy—had succeeded.

“I really don’t know.” Thibodaux spoke with dainty, respectful blandness, like a thug hiding a lead-weighted sap in a crocheted tea-cozy. “Does it matter? You wanted Dreadnought Stanton dead. And now he is.”

“As the result of someone else’s murderous designs!” S.O. barked. “Who? And why?”

“Surely any number of individuals, entities, or organizations must have had murderous designs on the Sophos of the Stanton Institute,” Thibodaux suggested dryly. “It was the central narrative of his entire existence. Miscreants and malefactors were always trying to kill him, and he always escaped. This time, for whatever reason, he did not.” Thibodaux paused, drawing a deep breath. “Sir, forgive my bluntness, but how Dreadnought Stanton’s death was accomplished is really of no importance whatsoever.”

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” S.O. snarled, reclaiming his tumbler and draining it. “You have no idea how this impacts the bigger picture. You were hired to do one thing—execute the plans I approved. To the letter. Dreadnought Stanton being dead is not is all there is to it. There are wheels within wheels, Mr. Thibodaux. Secrets. Deep, dark secrets.”

S.O. thought he made the words sound sufficiently impressive. He was usually good at making things sound impressive. Thus, when Thibodaux’s response was to scoff—to actually blow an amused, derisive snort through his mouth and nose—S.O. pulled himself up, enraged.

“Why … you!” He was so angry he could barely choke out the words. “You uppity smarty-pantshow dare you! Who exactly do you think you are?”

“Mister Samuel Orville Hart,” Thibodaux interrupted in a slow, clear—and strangely loud—voice. “Please calm yourself.”

Even as the words left Thibodaux’s mouth, a strange feeling of calm did seize S.O. Hart—a feeling sudden and powerful enough that it made him plop down in the carved chair. It was as if the Scotch had caught up to him all at once.

“Now,” Thibodaux said, staring steadily at him. “Are you calm, sir?”

“Yes,” S.O. said.

“Very calm?”

“Exceedingly,” S.O. confirmed. He noticed, as he sat still and quiescent, that the fire behind him seemed to have grown uncomfortably hot.

“Good,” Thibodaux said. “Then let’s start from the beginning. First of all, let’s agree that we are both intelligent men, working toward similar goals. There is no need for posturing or insult. Is there?”

“Apparently not,” S.O. muttered. Whatever dizziness had made him sit down so suddenly had now eased slightly, and he felt able to reach once again for the bottle of Scotch. He felt sullen, like a chastened schoolboy. And he wasn’t exactly sure why he felt that way. Or why Thomas was still standing at silent attention by the fire. Usually the old man would have retreated by now.

“Next, let’s examine precisely why you wanted Dreadnought Stanton dead. It is commonly known that Sanitas Pharmaceutics is one of the primary political backers of the Portman-Yates Bill.  A mandate to immunize every citizen of the United States with Panchrest—a medication for which you, Mr. Hart, personally hold sole patent rights.”

S.O. lifted his glass, likely in a salute to the spirit of capitalism. But if this was an attempt at humor, Thibodaux did not smile.

“You–and the Consortium of business interests you represent, and the elected officials they own–have pushed the Bill through the Senate. But you haven’t quite been able to get it through the House, have you? In particular, the House Committee on Magical Affairs, chaired by Congressman Lachey Whiterose–a politician whose opposition to the bill is passionate, personal–and paid for by the Stanton Institute.”

“Can’t find an honest politician these days,” S.O. sighed, looking into his glass. “And yes, I see where you’re going with all this, Thibodaux. All our problems with the House go straight back to the Stanton Institute. I thought that with Dreadnought Stanton dead, we could put pressure on Congressman Whiterose to change his position, get the bill through the House, and get that fat fool Taft to finally sign it before he’s out of office next year.”

“Not to mention putting a halt to all the Institute-planted newspaper cartoons depicting you as a fat pig with the word ‘profiteer’ written on its side.” Thibodaux seemed compelled to add.

“All right, so you’ve sussed the scheme. What are you expecting, a raise? Anyone with half a brain could have put that much together!”

“Since you don’t seem to be quite ready to dispense with insults, sir, I will agree that the plan, as I have just recounted it, does seem to be have been cooked up by someone with half a brain.” Thibodaux spoke with jovial malice. “Because even if everything had gone exactly the way you’d hoped, it would never have worked.”

S.O. frowned at him.

“Exactly how do you arrive at that conclusion?”

“Do you really think Congressman Whiterose is being obstructionist simply because of pressure from the Stanton Institute?” Thibodaux made the objectionable scoffing noise again. “No, Mr. Hart. Congressman Whiterose truly believes–as many do–that an immunization mandate would be disastrous for the country, and for the world. And he has very intelligent and important reasons for believing that, doesn’t he?”

Now, S.O. Hart really did feel a chill creep up his spine. For Thibodaux was alluding to information that he believed no one, other than himself and a handful of advisers and scientists, knew. He peered at Thibodaux cannily, warily.

“Well, now you’re just indulging in theory and speculation,” he said. “Crackpot conspiracist nonsense ….”

Thibodaux eyed him indulgently.

“You’re fishing to find out exactly how much I know,” he said. “I can tell you, sir, that I know–as does Congressman Whiterose—what the true effect of the immunization mandate will ultimately be,” Clay said. “The impact it will have on nations who do not mandate the proactive immunization for their own citizens.” He paused. “Knowing that, do you really believe that Congressman Whiterose will abandon his opposition simply because Dreadnought Stanton is dead, and the Institute is no longer able to bankroll the champagne and flowers he stocks his townhouse with? Is it not more likely, in fact, that Congressman Whiterose, seeing that the organization he has relied upon to help him fight this battle—his most powerful political ally—is now utterly debilitated?” He paused again. “Really, killing Dreadnought Stanton was the most penny-wise pound-foolish thing you could have done.”

S.O. thought all this through, staring into his glass. The fire behind him was really uncomfortably hot now. He leapt to his feet to get away from the heat, crossed to the front of the desk to where Thibodaux still sat, motionless. He leaned against the desk, crossed his arms thoughtfully.

“Well!” He said finally. “You might have mentioned this to me before we killed Dreadnought Stanton!”

“We didn’t kill Dreadnought Stanton,” Thibodaux frowned. “And we wouldn’t have in any case. It was a foolish, unnecessary action and I wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. But now he is dead, and we must proceed as best we can.”

At that moment, a cry resounded through the cold room: “Out!”

Despite the fact that the voice was female, it was so harsh and strident it made S.O. wince. It had come from the far end of the room, from the ping-pong table where Atherton and his lovely young houseguest were still playing. Atherton had served the ball too hard. It had overshot the table and was rolling across the rug toward where S.O. and Thibodaux were standing.

“All right,” S.O. said. When the ball reached him, S.O. Hart lifted his polished wingtip and stopped it. He rolled the ball gently beneath his foot, ignoring Jenny’s calls for him to kick it back.  “I’m listening. What do you propose? And what do you want?”

Instead of responding, Thibodaux looked back to where Thomas stood. The old servitor cleared his throat.

“Shall I send the nurse in, Mr. Thibodaux?” Thomas asked.

“Why are you asking him?” S.O. barked helplessly. Then he looked back at Thibodaux. “Nurse?”

“Yes, please, Thomas,” Thibodaux said, ignoring S.O. Hart entirely. “Thank you.”

As Thomas withdrew, Jenny Hansen stalked across the room toward them. Finally she came to stand before S.O. Hart, hands planted on her hips, eyes fierce and demanding. One gleaming mahogany curl had escaped its pins and curled down in front of her face, and she was breathing hard, fairly snorting with annoyance.

But S.O. was resolved not to give her the satisfaction of his notice. He’d put up with more than enough disrespect for one day. And this girl was quite the limit for disrespect. She’d come to his attention through Hetty Green–a female financier in New York City who had corresponded with the girl and said she was promising. If she was, S.O. certainly didn’t see it. He thought her sullen, proud, and arrogant–and not to mention a thief! She’d embezzled a hundred thousand dollars from her timber baron father back in San Francisco, and had come to Detroit to have Atherton invest it on behalf of the Consortium. Along the way she’d gotten married to some brute of a man—God only knew where he was–and there had been some kind of assault … and then, as if all that weren’t enough, for some reason or another (S.O. had never really gotten a clear answer on why) the girl had even been in attendance at the disastrous Consecration. In the melee that followed, she’d been stabbed—hence, the white sling that hung around her neck. The sling which she very rarely actually wore, despite the doctor’s strict orders.

If there was one thing S.O. knew, it was trouble. And this girl was trouble.

Worst of all, Atherton—his only son, heir to a fortune S.O. fully intended to make exponentially larger before he was finished–was clearly in love with the little vexation. And not just in love, but head-over-heels stupid in love.

So, for all these reasons (and because he very much enjoyed the feeling of putting her in her place) S.O. Hart pointedly ignored her, crossing his arms casually.

“I believe I asked you what you proposed, Thibodaux,” S.O. said.

Thibodaux gave Jenny an uncomfortable glance before continuing.

“What I propose, sir, is simply this. If you want the mandate on President Taft’s desk before he leaves office, you will have to disarm Congressman Whiterose. And disarming Congressman Whiterose will take more than simply debilitating the Stanton Institute. Other weapons must be brought to bear.”

“Weapons?” S.O. said.

“Mr. Hart!” Jenny barked, her voice harsh as a rifle-shot. Only then did S.O. turn his gaze on her.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jenny,” he said, innocently. “Did you want something?”

“The ball, dad,” Atherton called across the room.

“I can’t imagine where it’s gotten,” S.O. said.

“It is under your foot,” said Jenny, her voice low.

“It can’t be!”

“It is.” The girl forced the words through clenched teeth.

“Dad!” Atherton shouted. There was a note of exasperated pleading in his voice that made S.O. feel exceptionally cruel. He lifted his wingtip slowly, eyes wide.

“Why,” he said, “So it is!”

But he made no move to bend down to retrieve it for her, or even to lift his foot. Instead, with a malicious grin, he rolled it under his foot a few more times.

Jenny was having none of it. With a cry, she kicked his foot aside, then bent over and reached for the ball. The mahogany curl gleamed in the firelight.

As her fingers touched the ball, she gasped in pain, hand going to her chest, to the wound beneath her left collarbone. Even though it had been a glancing attack, deflected by a piece of jewelry she wore, the knife had still sunk deep into the muscle of her shoulder. Her face paled with pain as she froze, hunched, her fingers tightly curled around the little white ball.

She stayed that way for a moment, breathing heavily, waiting for the pain to pass. Then she straightened and stood. She was turning to go back to the ping-pong table when something caught her eye. It didn’t seem possible that her color-drained face could go paler, but it did. She stood looking down at the copy of The New York Times that was spread out on the desk. Her fingers brushed the large photo on the cover. She muttered something under her breath.

“Did you say something, Jenny?” S.O. snapped.

Jenny did not answer. Then, with a soft groan, she sank into the desk chair.

“I need to sit for a moment,” she said.

“Oh, by all means,” S.O. said sourly. “It’s not like I’m trying to conduct business here.”

“Jenny, are you alright?” This, from Atherton. Not only had he hotfooted it over like a whistled-for dog, he’d even brought Jenny’s shawl with him, and was tucking it tenderly around the girl’s shoulders. Next he’d probably fetch her some cocoa. What a spectacle.

Jenny didn’t even do Atherton the honor of answering him. She just stared down at the cover of The New York Times, with a puzzled, angry look on her face.

At that moment, Thomas returned, escorting the nurse that Thibodaux had mentioned. She was a grim-looking woman of indeterminate middle-age dressed in a pristine white starched uniform. But S.O. quickly realized that it wasn’t the nurse that Thibodaux meant to present to him. It was, instead, the child being escorted by the nurse–a little girl about seven years old, with white-blond ringlets, fish-belly pale skin, and pink eyes fringed with frost-thin tendrils.

Little Sanctity Snow, “God’s Special Snowflake.” She had been a prominent member of Brother Phleger’s doomed entourage—some kind of musical prodigy on the electric organ—another bit of shrapnel thrown off by the famous preacher’s implosion. But more importantly (and really, very importantly, S.O. realized, with sudden appreciation for Thibodaux’s insight) she was the public face of the pro-immunization movement. Her sweet innocent face had, over the past year, graced thousands of posters across the United States—the visual embodiment of everything Americans sought to protect.

On those posters, she looked so sweet and dainty and loveable, all ringlets and bows and tiny white teeth like little polished seashells. But standing here now, in the shadow of her imposing nurse, she seemed much less promising. She was sullen and frowning, her white gloves dirty and her snowboots heavily caked with mud.

“Snowflake!” Jenny said, masking surprise beneath a kind sisterly tone. “Don’t tell me they’ve brought you here, too?”

When the girl heard Jenny’s voice, her face lightened slightly.  She looked like she might want to hug Jenny, but that she was against hugging on principle, so she didn’t move, and just stood, clenching her fists. And there was something about the way that Jenny held herself that suggested that a hug, even from a small child, would not be reciprocated.

Jenny leaned back in the desk chair, and cast a challenging look at Thibodaux.

“Well? Why have you brought her here?”

“For God’s sake why are you asking him?” S.O. bellowed. “And how is it any of your business anyway? Maybe we just wanted to make sure you had a little play-friend for around the house.”

“Brother Phleger is dead,” Sanctity Snow interrupted sharply, spitting out the words with relish. “He hanged himself, Jenny.”

Jenny’s brow contracted, but she did not comment on this.

“Not a nice topic of conversation for little girls,” S.O. said, letting the descriptor encompass them both.

“He hanged himself from the highest rafter of the new church,” Sanctity Snow continued, as if S.O. had not spoken. She made her voice conspiratorial. “No one knows how he got up there. It was God, probably.”

“Probably,” Jenny replied, equally softly.

“Is there an organ here, Jenny?” the girl then blurted, in an anguished tone. The nurse put her hand on the girl’s shoulder and even S.O. saw how hard the woman pinched. The girl, however, didn’t flinch. Either she was used to getting pinched, or was so interested in getting an answer about the organ that it didn’t matter.

“There isn’t an organ, but there is a piano upstairs.” Jenny voice was matter-of-fact. She stood carefully, steadying herself against the edge of the desk before reaching for the little girl’s hand. “Come on, I’ll take you.”

S.O. Hart opened his mouth to protest, but Jenny gave him a glare of withering contempt.

“You did say that I could have her to play with, didn’t you?” she said. Then, with pleasant ascerbity: “Or is she another thing of mine that isn’t really mine?”

S.O. felt his face turning red. He was on the verge of spluttering. She was, of course, referring to the money that she had embezzled from her father—money which had been invested on behalf of the Consortium. Money which she now wanted back.

Now, to be fair, S.O. was willing to admit that promises had been made. Jenny had been under the impression that the substantial earnings her investments had made would go toward developing a cure for her sister, currently languishing in a California asylum for crippled survivors of the Black Flu. But what Jenny didn’t understand was that it wasn’t S.O. Hart who had made those promises. Brother Phleger had made them. And Brother Phleger was dead. And that meant that all bets were off.

Clearly, however, Jenny didn’t agree. But for the moment she seemed satisfied with having gotten in a parting shot. Holding Sanctity Snow’s hand firmly in hers, they strode together from the games room. The stalwart nurse gave Thibodaux a brief, perplexed glance, then hurried after them.

S.O. Hart, having refrained from spluttering, now found himself short of breath. He threw himself into the desk chair and shook his head with astonishment.

“Do you see!” He lifted his hand to Atherton in amazement. “Thibodaux, surely you see! The girl is a lunatic!”

Thibodaux did not respond to S.O.’s statement, seemingly finding something in the air above his boss’ left shoulder worthy of intense scrutiny. Atherton, however, was spoiling for a fight.

“How could you treat Jenny like that!” Atherton shouted. “A guest! In your own house!”

“I can’t see as I’m treating her any particular way,” S.O. replied calmly. “She’s just awfully sensitive. Traumatized. Hysterical. Not in full control of herself. Perhaps in need of some kind of psychological analysis. Don’t agree, Thibodaux?”

Atherton flared silently at the indignity of having such a question put to one of his father’s subordinates.

“I would not venture to form an opinion on such a personal matter, sir,” Thibodaux said, through pursed lips.

“Well, I have an opinion,” S.O. continued. “And my opinion is that she’s very sensitive. As a matter of fact, I don’t treat her like a houseguest because I don’t think she should be a houseguest. I think she should be in a goddamn insane asylum!”

“Baloney!” Atherton snapped. “Jenny’s the smartest, sanest girl I know!”

“Well, then clearly you belong in the nuthouse right along with her,” S.O. sneered. “For God’s sake, boy, she’s just about leading you around this place like a spaniel on a little gold chain! I won’t stand my own son being made a fool of under my own roof!”

With a strangled cry and a dismissive gesture, Atherton turned on his heel. S.O. watched him go. When the room was finally silent again, he shook his head.

“So,” he said to Thibodaux,  who was still critically scrutinizing the middle distance. “You’ve brought me little Miss Snow. And I’m assuming it’s not just because you think I’ll enjoy having another mouth to feed.”

“Miss Snow can help us reclaim the faithful who have been cast adrift by Brother Phleger’s downfall and death,”  Thibodaux said.

“I imagine they always did like her more than him, anyway,” S.O. said. “So, it’s your thought that she will help us retain those supporters, who will in turn pressure their representatives in Congress to do the right thing once we do whatever it is we’re going to do to Congressman Whiterose. Correct?”

Thibodaux opened his mouth to say something, but then seemed to think better of it. He merely shrugged. “Close enough,” he said.

“Good. Fine.” S.O. said, mopping his face with his hand. He was exhausted. Three Scotches in, the fire was too damn hot, and even though he generally liked yelling there had been far too much of it.

He was about to dismiss Thibodaux when he was surprised to see someone walking back across the room toward them. It was hard to see in the gloom, but he thought it might be Thomas, or perhaps his wife Gracie (the rock-ribbed old harridan hadn’t gotten her dig in on the conversation yet) but while it was a female form, it wasn’t Gracie.

“Oh for God’s sake,” S.O. barked, as Jenny came to stand before the desk. “Back for another ball? Another fainting spell? Another look at the newspaper? I told you, I’m trying to conduct business here, Miss Hansen!”

“I know,” she said. “So am I.” She paused. “I want my money back.”

“And I’ve told you, the money can’t be gotten,” S.O. said. “Clearly, you have no idea how expensive building a megachurch is. And now, with Brother Phleger dead, it’s a sunk cost. There are cash flow problems.”

“Cash flow problems?” Jenny snorted. “Creditors calling in their notes on the new building, I bet. With Phleger dead, I’d call mine in too.” She looked at Thibodaux, then extended her hand. “Jenny Hansen, by the way. We haven’t been introduced, Mr—”

“Thibodaux, Miss,” he said, not taking her hand, but rather executing a European-style bow over it.

“Thibodaux arranges the company’s charitable giving,” S.O. said.

“That’s not all you arrange,” Jenny said.

S.O. bristled, sitting bolt upright in the chair. “Just what has Atherton been telling you?” He knew the boy was stupid in love, but was he really that stupid?

“Atherton hasn’t told me anything,” Jenny’s lips curled in a humorless grin. “But you just did, Mr. Hart.” She looked back at Thibodaux. “You see, Mr. Thibodaux, I have made a point of closely observing Mr. Hart. The volume at which he conducts his affairs makes it hard not to. While his company likes to posture that it is progressive in matters of racial advancement, I doubt very much he is any particular friend of your race. In fact, I doubt very much he would have you in his company, much less out to his home in a snowstorm, if you did not offer some exceptionally valuable service to him—a service, certainly, beyond that of Secretary of Philanthropic Affairs. So what exactly is your sideline then, Mr. Thibodaux? Murder? Magic?”

“I studied law at college, Miss Hansen.” Thibodaux spoke with extravagant helpfulness, as if trying to help a child guess at a puzzle.

“Mr. Hart has plenty of lawyers,” Jenny said. “The last thing he needs is another one. And you seem too refined to be a killer, Mr. Thibodaux. So that only leaves magic.” (She said “magic” as if the word itself were bitter.) “You’re old enough to have been born before the Great Change. So you must be a warlock.”

“I am flattered by the sentiment, Miss,” Thibodaux said. It was unclear exactly which sentiment he was referring to.

“You brought Snowflake here. I assume you’re going to use her to gather back up all the churchgoers who are without a leader now that Phleger is dead. I also  heard you talking about Whiterose, so clearly your primary ends are political … but you can use her to kill two birds with one stone. If she can hold the faithful together, and keep their charitable donations flowing in, the creditors will settle down, and that’ll take care of your cash flow problems.”

“Well, yeah,” S.O. bluffed bravely (though he certainly hadn’t thought of that.) “I mean, obviously. That is if, unlike some other females around here, the willful little brat will cooperate.”

“I can see to it that she does,” Jenny said. “There’s a lot of help I can give you. If you’re willing to see that I get my money back.”

S.O. clenched his teeth. This girl was the limit!

“I hate to remind you, Jenny, but strictly speaking that money isn’t even yours,” he said. “You stole it from your father.”

“I borrowed it from my father without asking,” she said, emphasizing the difference. She leaned forward. “And certainly, if that’s the way you want to play it, Mr. Hart, if you’ll allow me to telegraph my father we could discuss it with him together. I would be just as happy if you gave it back to him as to me.”

S.O. cursed under his breath. He should have known that gambit wouldn’t work. He didn’t fear D.L. Hansen; by all accounts the timber baron was pretty unsophisticated (and certainly, he’d have to be, to let his 17-year-old daughter embezzle a hundred thousand dollars in gold certificates!) But unsophisticated or not, he was still rich, and could still hire plenty of  lawyers. And the last thing S.O. needed at the moment was any more yelling.

“I think you need to rest,” S.O. averred. “You’re sounding hysterical again. I’ll have Thomas phone the doctor back.”

“I don’t need the doctor back,” Jenny growled. “I need my money back. I want you to give me my money back. If it’s gone, I want you to replace it. You can afford it. You’re a rich man.”

“Yes, Jenny. I am a rich man. But I certainly did not become so by reimbursing generous charitable contributions when silly girls have second thoughts about having made them!” S.O. was so fed up he did not even attempt to keep his voice down. “And just you give me one good reason why on earth should I even consider giving you a single plugged nickel, you vexatious little—“

“Because I heard you talking about a weapon,” Jenny interrupted. “A weapon needs a target. You need someone for Snowflake to go after. Forget Whiterose. There’s someone better. Someone much better.”

“Better? What are you talking about?” S.O. looked at Thibodaux, and saw that Thibodaux was looking at Jenny curiously. She did not speak, but met his look with a cool level stare.

“A man who has just been elected,” Thibodaux said finally. “A young firebrand from California. He’ll be on his way to Washington soon to be sworn in.”

Jenny smiled queerly, as if both pleased and sad. “So. You do know about Congressman Argus Edwards. Clearly, Mr. Thibodaux, you are one of those two-steps-ahead kind of people.”

“Who the hell is Congressman Argus Edwards?” S.O. waved an exasperated hand. He was getting tired of all these knowing glances passing between people.

“He has a reputation for making excellent speeches,” Thibodaux said.

Jenny snorted.

“That’s not all he has a reputation for.” Jenny frowned in S.O.’s direction. “I know him from San Francisco. There’s plenty you can use to go after him.”

“And why exactly do I want to go after him?”

“Because you need to push your Panchrest legislation through the House,” Jenny said, sounding almost bored. “The new Congressman is a rising star on the anti-immunization side. I know he spent plenty of time in Washington while he was campaigning, and he got close to Whiterose. Very close. Close enough to destroy him. Make him do whatever you want.” She narrowed her eyes at Thibodaux, and her voice became strangely mean. “And you wouldn’t even have to stick pins into any little dolls, Mr. Thibodaux.”

“Why should I believe you?” S.O. said.

Jenny shrugged imperceptibly. The cool, level stare was back. It was clear she was waiting for an offer. S.O was beginning to see what Hetty Green had seen in the girl.

“What kind of information do you have, Miss?” This question came from Thibodaux, soft and subtly intended. She did not answer, but simply shifted that level gaze onto him, sizing him up.

“I wonder why you really care,” she said finally. “I mean, I’ve decided you’re in the magical line. I think that’s pretty obvious. So even if you want Mr. Hart to think you’re interested in helping him get the Panchrest legislation passed, I kind of doubt you are. Because not only will his legislation hurt warlocks like you, it will hurt people like you. Magic is a great leveller, isn’t it?” She paused, then continued, despite the fact that a certain tenseness around Thibodaux’s eyes indicated clearly that he wished she would not. “Honestly, I think you probably care more about what happened at the Consecration. There was a man there. Professor Coeus. He ran away with something. I don’t know what it was, some little box …” She fell silent for a moment, her gaze drifting to the floor as the events seemed to kindle in her memory. When she spoke again, her voice was distant. “There was some kind of magic happening during that consecration, and it wasn’t just Godly faith. It wasn’t any kind of miracle … unless it was a miracle worked by the devil.” Lifting her eyes, her voice became strong again. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what you’re really looking for.”

For the first time ever, S.O. saw a look of complete astonishment pass over the face of his Secretary of Philanthropic Affairs. The astonishment was so complete that S.O. felt obliged to clear his throat politely. Thibodaux dropped his eyes to the floor, took a few steps back.

“An impressive exercise, Miss,” he muttered, but did not speak again.

Having dispensed with Thibodaux, Jenny turned her gaze to S.O. Hart.

“He asked me what information I had,” Jenny said. “I’ve got a lot. But really, there’s only one piece that you need. It’s enough to make the new Congressman Argus Edwards do whatever it is you want him to do. Turn on whoever you want him to turn on. Betray whoever you want him to betray.”

“And what exactly is that?”

“Congressman Argus Edwards is my brother-in-law,” Jenny said. “My husband’s brother.”

S.O.’s brows lifted with surprise. “Really? Well, that’s … shocking. Utterly surprising, really. Fascinatingly coincidental. But … and I say this with all respect that you are due, Miss Hansen … so what? The fact that you’re married to his brother gives us power over Congressman Argus Edwards because …?” S.O. Hart let the question hang.

Jenny’s fingertips drifted to gently touch the photo on the cover of  The New York Times.

“Because,” she said, “my husband is The Man Who Killed Dreadnought Stanton.”

finis

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