Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

CONQUISTADOR

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER THREE:

Sacramento, California

June, 2009

FirstSide

 

Tom Christiansen finished the series and lifted the bar into the rest, sitting up on the bench and picking up his towel. Bad form to do it without someone spotting for him, but he wasn't pushing it -- only two seventy-five on the weights, well below his maximum. He breathed deeply and easily as he wiped down his face and neck and the parts of his torso exposed by the muscle shirt, considering what he'd do next.

Some laps in the pool, he thought, rolling his neck as he glanced around the mirror-walled expanse of the gym's weight room. Important to keep the aerobic side up.

He'd always rather despised people who pumped iron just for cosmetic purposes without building endurance and heart-health, and he always made time for a balanced program, including keeping his hand in at unarmed combat. He did it all because he liked having a well-conditioned body, because it had become a habit, because it was useful in his work, a lot of which was outdoors, and because he couldn't spend enough time canoeing and hiking and climbing to keep fit for the times he could get away. If you pushed yourself in the wilderness as hard as he liked to, you could end up dead or very, very miserable if the strength and endurance and flexibility weren't there to match the experience and skill.

And, he thought with wry honesty, looking at himself in the mirror you do it because of what you'd look like if you didn't.

His elder brother Lars was still strong as an ox at forty -- machinery or no, farming took a lot of hard-sweat work -- but he had a belly on him like a fifty-gallon keg, and hams like a boar-hog. That was the way the Christiansen men went once they were past thirty, if they let themselves, the hard muscle turning marbled with fat like a stall-fed bullock, the chest sagging down to the stomach and staying there, bull-neck and jowls...

'Thin' wasn't an option with his genes and bones.

Plus it was a good way to get the tensions and fatigue-poisons of the office out of his system. That sort of work tricked the body into pumping fight-flight hormones into your bloodstream, without giving you a chance to purge them and sweat them out.

The big brightly-lit room had a strong odor of sweat; nothing rank, because Grayson's Gym and Health Club was respectable if not fancy, but pretty strong. One reason he came here, besides the modest monthly fee, was that it wasn't tarted up with superefficient air scrubbers, acres of polished metal, or, God forbid, hanging plants and an on-site coffee bar. He had nothing much against gay people, but being hit on by guys got old fairly quickly even if it was polite, and a disconcerting proportion of the men who worked out at the fancier establishments were gay. The usual selection here was more eclectic, and included the members of an Okinawan-style karate club who time-shared part of the premises; Tom filled in as a substitute teacher occasionally for Sensi Hidoshi, in return for free sparring to keep his edge sharp.

The weight-room was fairly busy, despite it being a Sunday afternoon -- downtown Sacramento went fairly comatose on weekends, but the spillover from the weekend karate session just finished kept it full of grunts and whuffles and sharp exhalations, and there were a few people like him in after working irregular hours. He'd been subliminally conscious of a woman in one corner hanging head-down with her feet hooked through a set of padded bars while she did sit-ups with her hands linked behind her head, twisting to touch left elbow to right knee and vice versa. She'd finished a set of fifty, then dropped on her hands, stayed that way for a moment, and lowered her feet slowly to the floor. That was impressive, if a little showy, and gave him a chance to look at the legs and butt, which were extremely nice even through a loose set of sweatpants, which she was wearing over a body-stocking. As she came erect, he got a look at the rest of her, and blinked.

Va-voom, he thought. Thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six.

A nice face too, if in a rather sculpted way -- not quite model or actress-beautiful, a little too harsh -- and unusual bright leaf-green eyes; her bronze-gold hair was drawn back in a bun, and she wore a headband as well as fingerless leather exercise gloves that had seen enough use to be a little ragged.

And in years, about twenty-six, maybe a bit older. Hard to tell, with that tan. Not exactly slender, not with those measurements, but long-limbed and moving very well.

Altogether too polished for this place, usually -- that total-health sheen wasn't uncommon in California, but usually in circles much higher than the secretaries, State government employees and dental hygienists who frequented Gray's.

"Hi," she said, coming over to him. "You using this bench?"

"Just finished," he said, thinking mock-mournfully: Ah, she only wanted me for my bench-space.

He looked at her left hand anyway as he replied. It was encouragingly ringless, and the mark of his own wedding band had had years to fade. There was a ring on her thumb, a distinctive circle of braided gold and platinum.

"Thanks!" she said pleasantly.

She had an accent, though not the flat Californian one with the perky rising inflection on the end of sentences, which he'd always found rather grating. This was more like a very faint Southern tinge underlying General American, a pleasant softening; there was something else too, a lilt and roll he couldn't place at all. Possibly European of some sort. At a guess, she was Bay Area, or possibly points a bit north. The long-fingered hand in his as they shook was pleasantly solid and strong; she looked like a human being, not a Dresden figurine. Petite women made him nervous, which was a handicap even when it wasn't mutual. His wife had been a cheerleader when he met her; football was where he got the slight kink in his nose, although the wedding had been long after high school.

"I'm Adrienne Rolfe," she went on, holding out a hand. "Just got into town to do some lobbying."

Oh-ho! he thought. The game commences, Watson! Her eyes narrowed. Damn! My poker face isn't quite as good as I thought.

"Yes," she said. "I'm one of those Rolfes -- and I did hear about that embarrassing little episode in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I was investigating it myself -- for the family."

He nodded, noncommittally. Although it was hard to be entirely detached...

"Tom Christiansen," he replied. "Department of Fish and Game. Warden." That was reflex, in the State capitol; you established your tribe. She probably knew already.

"Ah!" she said, her eyes widening in an interest that looked sincere. That was unusual. "I love the outdoors. I fish and hunt myself, whenever I get the time."

Better and better, he thought.

To a lot of people here in California, hunting anything but the wild tofu-lope was equivalent to sacrificing babies to Satan. It was amazing how little contact with real nature a lot of people who thought of themselves as environmentalists had; if there was one thing that was completely natural, it was killing your food.

"Me too," he said. "Though not so much recently."

She nodded and went on: "I don't know anyone here. Would you mind spotting for me, if you have the time?"

"Sure," he said, grinning; she matched the expression. "What weight?"

"One-sixty," she said. "Three sets of twelve reps; just a maintenance program while I'm away from home."

He blinked as they rearranged the weights, the cast-iron disks of his program clanking as they unclipped them from the bar and dropped them onto the appropriate pegs and replaced them with hers. One-sixty was awfully heavy; it must be a good twenty over her own body weight, maybe more. She didn't look like a bodybuilder, though she wasn't skinny and the definition on the long straplike muscles of her arms and shoulders was excellent.

More likely dance training, maybe acrobatics, or just a fitness freak like me, he thought.

They both looked like human beings, not anatomical diagrams; the 'ripped' look required special diets and programs to get rid of the normal thin coating of subcutaneous fat; it was also violently bad for you, not to mention the hormones those idiots stuffed into themselves. Not to also mention that when a woman drove her body-fat content down that far her breasts disappeared, which with Ms. Rolfe was obviously not the case.

She lay on the bench, breathed in and out sharply three times, and put her gloved hands on the checked grip section of the bar. Tom stood at her head and kept his hands between hers, palm-up but not quite touching the metal rod, ready to grab it if she lost control. She didn't; instead she lifted the weight smoothly out of the rests, paused for a moment, then lowered it slowly until the bar almost touched her chest. A quicker lift, and then again the slow descent as the breath went out. Tom admired the technique, and admired what the effort did to the woman's flat stomach, and extremely unflat bosom as the pectoral muscles pushed her breasts against the thin sweat-wet fabric. He was careful to keep his face to a neutral alertness; that was polite, which he'd been raised to be, and besides which you didn't take any chances when people were using free-weights. Far too easy to break a bone or rip a tendon if something went wrong.

When she was finished they went outside, walking around the brick patio-garden behind that linked the buildings to the outdoor handball courts. It was late afternoon, bright and dry and hot, but only in the mid-eighties, not bad for a Sacramento summer, and the breathing was a lot better than it had been in LA.

"I'm going to run for a few miles," she said. "Care to join me? Good to have someone around who knows the place."

"Delighted," he said. The pool can wait; and we can have our little talk. Damn, but I'll be disappointed if this turns out to be all business. "I'd suggest heading for the State Capitol.

"I like the park there," she agreed.

They turned onto the street in front of Gray's, crossed H Street, and went down 9th past his HQ at the Fish and Game department headquarters. Traffic was light, and there weren't many pedestrians to annoy, or too much in the way of detectable pollution to suck into their lungs; one of the most startling things he remembered about his trips to LA was driving in from the airport and seeing someone jogging beside the freeway. With the air dense enough to mine for building blocks, if you had a ripsaw handy.

He let her set the pace, which was as fast as he'd have chosen, and must be a little more intense for her -- she was around five-nine, six inches shorter than he, and while they were both long-legged in proportion to their torsos, there was a good deal more of him to be in proportion to. She ran well, too: lightly, with the weight coming down on the ball of the foot and pushing smoothly off bent knees in a way that made no jarring thuds and put minimal stress on the joints. After a few minutes he found himself breathing a little harder than he'd intended. That, and dodging people, limited the conversation until they reached the capitol; he learned that she 'lived in Berkeley, or the family place up near Calistoga', that her grandfather had come from a small town near Williamsburg, Virginia, that she'd gone to Stanford and that she'd never been married. That gave him a moment's worry, until he recalled the unmistakable glance he'd gotten in the gym; he wasn't what they used to call a lady-killer, but he knew what the female version of the oh-that's-nice once-over look felt like on the receiving end.

It didn't always come to much, women being less enslaved to their eyeballs than men, but you couldn't mistake it.

They halted for a moment to catch their breath before the huge wedding-cake pile of the State ca pitol, gleaming with white stone. The arched entranceways supported an upper platform fronted by six great Corinthian columns; the architrave above was decorated with a central Athena, flanked by allegorical figures of Justice, Agriculture, Industry and Education. One level up to either side were mounted Indians fighting a grizzly bear on the left and a wild bull on the right; to his eye, the Indians always looked as if they were about to lose. A drum-shaped segment rose above that, with more columns all around, and then a circular wall pierced by tall arched windows and engaged false columns supporting a golden dome. He liked it; it looked just the way a State Capitol building erected in the exuberantly self-confident 1870's should.

"If that had been built anytime recently, it would be a glass shoebox," she said.

"Ah, a fellow provincial reactionary with no taste," he chuckled. "Of course, it could have looked like a collection of frozen intestines or a chemical plant instead, in this progressive age."

They turned left; the park around the capitol building covered forty acres. It was more crowded than the streets had been, with inline skaters, brown-bag picnics, children chasing dogs and the odd derelict; but there was also a grateful shade from an assortment of trees brought from all over the world, and green lawns. They stretched themselves a little more, and he lost himself in the simple enjoyment of breath and muscle, feeling his body like an engine of living springs and rubber. They stopped halfway round to buy bottled water from a vendor. Tom was surprised to see her grimace a little at the first drink; it was perfectly ordinary plastic-bottle stuff, probably exactly the same as the variety that came out of taps, but not bad. He drank down his half in five long swallows. They stood under a tree whose foliage involved long tendrils hanging down with seedpods on the end, and now they were really sweating. He could feel his skin shedding heat as the dry air sucked at the wetness running on it, and was acutely conscious of the clean female smell of hers.

"So, who are you lobbying for, Ms. Rolfe?" he asked. "And how does it tie into what happened in LA?"

"Adrienne, or Adri. The Pacific Open Landscapes League," she said.

"Call me Tom, Adri..." Pacific Open Landscapes League? "Ah" he said, snapping his fingers as it rang a bell. "Agricultural land easements?"

Some conservation groups bought up development easements on open land or farmland threatened by urban sprawl; the owner sold the right to subdivide the land, while keeping title and possession. Subsequent heirs or buyers were under the same restrictions. It had become quite popular lately, mainly because it was completely voluntary and more effective than zoning or land-use controls. A few thousand well-placed acres of easements could stop a tendril of sprawl cold, protecting far larger areas beyond.

"We do a lot of that," she said. "God knows, with nearly fifty million people in California, it's needed."

He winced inwardly at that, the way he did whenever the figure came up. Ouch. That was the basic fact that made so much of his work like trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom. The number of people got bigger every year; the state didn't.

"And we're pushing for more habitat protection, and trying for some stricter laws on trafficking in endangered species," she said.

"God speed your work," he said. "But LA?"

She leaned back against a concrete planter and crossed her arms, which did interesting things to her cleavage. "Well, if you've been investigating what happened there, Mr... Tom... you'll know there was some possibility of a link to one of our subsidiaries."

"Our?" he said, lifting a brow.

"The League is the outfit I work for," she said. "But it's pretty well one of the Rolfe family's good works. We're all, mmmm, not exactly Greens... conservationists. Have been for a long, long while, since my grandfather's time. He joined the Sierra Club in the 1940's; he was a country boy, and a hunter. The suggestion that some of our companies have been used to smuggle endangered animal products... well, it has my father and grandfather both absolutely livid, let me tell you. But it's also unfortunately possible, since we do so much import-export work; a big organization, thousands of employees. They have the usual corporate security at work on it, but they asked me to look into it as well, as someone they can trust absolutely. I've done investigative work before -- a lobbyist is uniquely well placed to find out who's leaning on who to get environmental set-asides and exemptions."

Tom nodded again. "Looks like we're on the same side," he said cautiously. Or you're trying to scam me; but it fits better than a megacorp risking bad PR on penny-ante smuggling.

"When did you get into town?" he went on.

"Late yesterday," she said. Then she smiled at him, the green eyes narrowing. "And by the way, no, I didn't have any plans for dinner tonight. Which is what you were about to ask, right?"

"Right." He felt his face flush even more, but laughed good-naturedly. "Mind-reader. Ahem. Adrienne, would you like to have dinner tonight?"

"I'd love to, Tom. Say about seven-thirty?"

"Right."

Now was the awkward question of where. She was undoubtedly the sort who simply went where they liked and didn't have to worry about prices. Wardens at his level made a decent middle-class income, but he did have to think about where he went and how often. Otherwise he could come up empty at the end of the month.

"How about something Oriental?" Adrienne said, looking around and tossing the empty water container into a trash basket. "I always... that is, I really like that."

Tom nodded. Inwardly he was blinking in bemusement; coming from the Bay Area to Sacramento and going out to eat Chinese or Japanese or Thai was like... well, as his grandmother had been fond of saying, that was like taking herring to Bergen, only in reverse. Even now Sacramento was basically a glorified Valley cow-town.

Still, I'd cheerfully eat gray toadburgers at McDonalds with you, Ms. Rolfe. "Let's see... Does that include Indian?"

"East Indian, you mean? Love it."

Hmm, he thought. Doesn't everyone mean East Indian nowadays? You could get a serious rebuke at his job for not using "Native American" for what people used to call Indians, and what Tully privately referred to as 'Premature Siberian-Americans'. Probably you don't have to be as cautious when your family owns the business.

"How about the Maharani, then?" he said aloud.

Her smile went wider. "I bow to the superior experience of my native guide," she said. "And now... back to Gray's."

Tom found his second wind remarkably easily. He whistled in the shower, and felt even better when Adrienne was waiting to exchange addresses and phone numbers. She was staying at a B&B spot, Amber House; the sort of place that had about twelve rooms, each with a name, a private two-person-size Jacuzzi and an Italian marble bathroom. That was only eight blocks east of the Capitol, within walking distance of downtown, and it explained what she'd been doing at a private health club -- unlike similarly priced hotels, it wouldn't include exercise facilities.

Down, boy, he thought. Just because you've met a beautiful woman who shares your hobbies, seems to think like you, and seems to be interested in you, doesn't mean the Millenium has arrived. For one thing, she's seriously rich. That can create problems. For another, there's something slightly funny about her. I can't put my finger on it, but it's there. Maybe RM&M is legitimate. On the other hand, maybe not, and she's their Mata Hari.

That nagged him all the way back to his modest apartment. He could have afforded a house, but he thought of the one-bedroom as his contribution to slowing down the paving of California, and besides that he was saving for a small place up in the Sierras. The comfortable bachelor shabbiness suddenly looked a little different as he walked in, although it had contented him since the divorce.

The 'shabby' suddenly overwhelms the 'comfortable', he thought

He phoned in the reservations, then flipped on the computer. He had indulged in a good optical cable-modem connection; it saved a lot of time. Whistling between his teeth, he leaned forward with his strong fingers moving over the keyboard and mousepad.

Yes, the Pacific Open Landscapes League was a legit operation; headquartered in Berkeley, which was no surprise -- the People's Republic was exactly the place for this sort of endeavor. Donors were listed, and included the usual assortment of individuals and companies who wanted to show concern, a desire to buy respectability, a lust for good PR, or all of the above. Amounts weren't specified, but a Google search had turned up evidence that this was a seriously well-heeled outfit, with annual expenditures well up into seven figures, although they didn't have a mass membership like the Sierra Club et. al. And Adrienne Rolfe was right there on their website, under Investigation and Appraisals Division.

So she was a troubleshooter and fixer; awfully young for it, and he would have expected someone with a law degree. Hers was in history, with some wildlife-centered biology courses.

Aha! he thought; Charles Rolfe was there on the board of directors. Nepotism raising its -- in this case -- very attractive head. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. It looked as if the Rolfes had been spending a lot of money on a cause he thoroughly approved of, for generations.

Hmmm. Let's see: small permanent staff, about twenty; headquarters in a converted Victorian; doesn't go for headlines. Genteel as hell, all very well-bred. OK, looks good... let's try crosschecking.

The founder of the League was still alive and on the board but retired; he must be pushing ninety by now; that would be the grandfather she mentioned.

Tom winced slightly. He'd be delighted if the evening ended in Ms. Rolfe's bed, but...

But, dammit, I really like her. She seems... real. And if she's that rich, it could be a serious, serious barrier to anything serious. I'm tired of one-month girlfriends and relationships that go nowhere. A man wasn't meant to live alone.

He shook himself, noted the time and scrambled to dress. The first rule of a first date was simply to relax, enjoy yourself, and not think too much about what might happen down the road -- that was the surest way to start giving off 'needy' vibrations, which women detected and shunned the way submarines did the sound of a destroyer's propellers.

Time to go.

@@@

"You're indecently cheerful today," a voice said as Tom Christiansen hung up his jacket and flipped on the computer in his cubicle. "You get lucky, or what?"

Tom laughed. Roy Tully was a good sort, even if he had a fair bit of little-guy complex. He might feel a need to prove himself, but as far as Tom was concerned he already had. The short man in the high-waisted pants stood in the entrance of the cubicle, his tie a particularly vile yellow-and-green checked number, grinning and holding a Styrofoam cup of the usual execrable coffee in each hand.

The office was coming to its usual institutional-bland life, a structured world where status was marked by the size of your cubicle or -- for the very successful, a corner office with a view and a real desk. Tom had never wanted one of those; the money was nice, but if you got to that level, you had to stay in the office most of the time. He sipped at the coffee, made a face at it and said:

"No, actually, I didn't get lucky. But I don't give a damn. I did have a very nice evening with a very pleasant young woman I met at the gym."

His mind went back to the parking lot of Maharani's. Adrienne had been stunning in gym clothes; the effect in a short black dress gathered with a gold-link belt, a little simple makeup and a silver-and-turquoise pin holding one fall of her bronze-colored hair over the left ear had reduced him to stuttering idiocy for an instant. Luckily it had passed...

"So, what's the broad like?"

"Broad? Roy, nobody says 'broad' any more. You spend too many nights watching old movies on your DVD player."

"Okay, what's the young woman like?"

Tom gave a brief description. Roy groaned theatrically.

"What I wouldn't give to be built like a Greek god chick magnet, and get all the goddamned action --"

"Like a norski god, not one of those Greek swishes; Baldur, I think -- Asa-Thor was a redhead, and Tyr had a hand missing. When I get back to Aasgard, you can be one of the dwarf thralls. And get your mind out of the gutter, lest I smite thee with a lawsuit alleging the creation of a hostile work environment."

Tully leered. Tom went on: "And her name is Adrienne... Adrienne Rolfe."

With perfect timing, he'd caught his partner in the middle of a sip. Tully choked, staggering about the cubicle; Tom thumped him helpfully on the back.

"You're not serious!" Tully managed at last.

"Eminently serious," Tom said. "Yes, she knew who I was -- it's not really a secret, after the way the fire got into the papers. She's working for the Pacific Open Landscapes League --

"I know the outfit," Tully said, his voice serious and eyes level. "Didn't know they were tied in with the Rolfes."

"I looked that up myself, just before we had dinner. They're Good Guys."

"The League is, yeah," Tully conceded. "That doesn't mean the Rolfes are, necessarily."

"Not necessarily," Tom said. "But it's the way to bet. You were going to tell me about their setup in Oakland?"

"Yeah," Tully replied. "Let me call up my notes on your screen, and a skyview... OK, it's here." His finger traced an area of several blocks. "Used to be a run-down residential neighborhood in West Oakland not too far from the docks. A lot of what's around it still is -- they say crime's down, but Kemosabe, I felt plenty nervous around there! Anyway, it was rezoned after 1946, and now it's a big warehouse complex -- they've got their own sidings to their own docks. Pretty massive, and their rent-a-cops are on the job, let me tell you. No in or out without clearance; but there's a lot of traffic. Cargo containers, mostly, but trucks with lose cargo too. Anything could get lost in that shuffle."

"There you are," Tom said. "You said it could be an inside job -- some ring or group inside using the company for smuggling. That's what Adrienne thinks, too, and she wants the perps as bad as we do. God knows that sort of thing happens all the time with drugs... which incidentally, we should check on too, you betcha."

"I did," Tully said. "Guy I know on the Oakland PD -- don't worry, strictly unofficial."

"What did he say?" Tom asked.

"That RM&M is so clean it squeaks," Tully said. "Pays all its city taxes, even ones it could get out of. Contributes to all the right charities, and has since the late 1940's. Gives the city libraries and fire engines. Does everything but help little old ladies across the street. Makes big donations to local politicians, but spreads them around so it doesn't look funny if they get favors; mostly they insist on being left strictly alone."

Tom remembered an elegant drawing-room on Nob Hill, and a bewildered bitterness hiding behind good breeding. He pushed it aside, summoned logic, and went on:

"That fits with Adrienne being on the side of the angels," he said. "Granted, she probably wants information from us, too, but that's natural."

Tully nodded, seeming oddly reluctant. "We don't want a civilian getting under our feet," he said. "Far be it from me to ruin your pickup line, Kemosabe --"

Tom snorted. "We do want access," he pointed out. "We do not want RM&M pulling strings here in Sacramento to get us told to do something else. We --"

"Ok, Ok," Tully said, grinning. "Guess it's been a long time, huh?"

"I had a nice dinner with a nice young lady. Not impossibly younger. We talked about our families and our lives..."

@@@

"... and I do envy you that," she'd said at one point in the evening, after he'd described a winter hunting trip he'd taken with his father and brother just before he joined the Army back in the 90's.

"Envy me what?" Tom replied. "Growing up on our farm, or getting away to the Upper Peninsula?"

"Neither. I spent a lot of my childhood in the country too. And I'm California born and bred, I don't like snow unless it stays on ski slopes where it belongs -- my ancestors were all either Southerners or Italians. What I envy you is being so close to your father."

"You weren't?"

Adrienne propped her chin on a palm and looked past him. "I'm afraid not. My family was... is... sort of conservative. And I was a tomboy to start with, then a wild handful as a teenager, always in and out of trouble, and all my brothers and sisters --

"How many?" Tom asked curiously.

"I'm the youngest of six: John, Robert, Lamar, Charles, Cynthia, and me. John -- John Rolfe VII -- is forty-three."

Tom nodded, hiding his surprise; with a brother and a sister, he'd had more siblings than most even in a deep-rural part of the northern plains.

She must have been born in the eighties, he thought. She's definitely younger than me, and I'd say at least four, five years younger, Gen-Y. Well, statistically there have to have been some upper-crust Bay Area WASPs who had families that size in the post-baby-boom era, but it's certainly unusual.

It wasn't as if they were some variety of weird fundamentalist; she'd also mentioned that her family were Episcopalians. She went on:

"As I said, I was the youngest, and the rest were always much more... dutiful. My father's no fool, but he's, mmmmm, shockable, let's say; and I just couldn't resist shocking him and Mother, and everyone else who looked so smug -- nobody's more judgmental than a fifteen-year-old full of herself. Things went from bad to worse."

"I know what you mean," he said. "I was lucky, Lars and I had the usual head-butting you do with your father, but it was mostly good-natured. I've seen how things can get out of hand."

"And mother was worse than Dad, if anything; she kept trying to be so understanding, when she was obviously yearning to throttle me. If it weren't for Grandmother -- my mother's mother -- and Great-Aunt Chloe, I think I'd have gone nuts."

"What's your grandmother like?" he asked.

"Was, I'm afraid. She was Italian; a Contessa, no less, a war bride -- although she always insisted on being called a Tuscan and claimed that everything south of Sienna was 'baptized Arabs'. Her family lived up in the hills east of Florence, because they'd lost their palazzo in town and pretty well everything else but a couple of olive groves and heirlooms; she met Rob Fitzmorton -- he was my paternal grandfather's cousin -- when Uncle Rob drove a tank-destroyer into their courtyard."

"That's romantic enough," Tom said.

"Well, Uncle Rob always thought so. I suspect the K-rations may have had something to do with it. They were probably literally starving then, what with the war. Living on olives and bread and what rabbits they could shoot, at least; and serving them on Renaissance silverware."

Tom chuckled. "Sounds like an interesting old lady."

She smiled fondly. "She was absolutely dreadful, a monster; a snob to the core, and callous as a cat to anyone she didn't like. She could flay the skin off you with an arched eyebrow and four words. And the way she treated anyone who worked for her was a scandal. People were even more frightened of her than of the Old Man, because he was hard but fair. The Contessa Francesca Cammachia di Montevarchi; she usually didn't bother adding the "Fitzmorton" unless she was signing a check. Everyone called her Contessa Perdita, or the Diamond Contessa." His brows rose. "You liked her, though?"

"I adored her; she made me feel like a fairy changeling. She told me once that all my brothers and sisters were tainted by bourgeois respectability, but that she saw from an early age that I had inherited something of her soul and could be productively corrupted by spoiling and indulgence. Even when she was old -- in my first memories of her she must have been about sixty -- she always wore these lovely clothes, appropriate but so chic and soigné, drove Italian sportscars on our dirt roads... I remember her perfume, and those stunning diamonds came out at the slightest excuse. She saw it as her mission to civilize a bunch of Saxon barbarians -- meaning the Fitzmortons, her husband's family, and us Rolfes -- who had all sorts of boring virtues like industry and determination but lacked the aristocratic ones like savoir faire, style and ruthless selfishness."

"So she accepted you the way you were? That must have been a relief."

"Lord, no! But she didn't disapprove of the same things my parents did. Looking back, a few people did accept me as I was -- Ralph, for example...

"Ralph?" he asked. A boyfriend? He tried to keep a quick flush of hostile interest out of his voice, and by the slight quirk of one elegant blond eyebrow, didn't quite manage it.

"Ralph was one of Aunt Chloe's odd friends; he ran -- runs -- a burger joint near, ah, near Martinez." That was a town west of the Delta, on the Carquinez Strait. "Sort of a 60's type, you might say."

"I wouldn't think your grandmother would approve of him, then," Tom said with a grin.

"And you'd be soooo right," Adrienne said. "A sweaty, shaggy peasant, and I quote."

"Your grandmother had a rough edge to her tongue," Tom observed.

"More like an edge lined with razors. She told me I had no dress sense and was far too fond of things like riding horses; a little was good for the posture, but too much was rustic, and shooting animals was just too, too boring. But she'd sweep me off when things got too impossible at home, off through... off to San Francisco, which she reluctantly granted was a real city, if provincial compared to Florence."

"Took you to the zoo and suchlike?" Tom prompted. She can't have been all bad, if she took that much trouble for a grandchild.

"Usually she'd take me to the ballet and the galleries and the best theatre and restaurants, and sit up talking with me to all hours while we ate these amazing chocolates, and let me sleep 'till noon, and then take me to have my hair and nails done. Mind you, I knew from the time I was eight that she'd drop me in an instant if I started being more boring than amusing. She found my mother terminally dull -- overshadowed her completely from infancy, it must have been like growing up as a minor moon attendant on a star -- and she detested my father as a prig... well, Dad is a prig, I grant, or at least very stuffy."

"And your Great-Aunt Chloe?" Tom said, watching the play of emotion on the sculpted face, trying to imagine her as a sullen rebellious teenager.

It was hard, but the warm affection that showed when she spoke of her grandmother made her face more human; there was a slight edge of coldness to her expression, something that you didn't notice until it melted away. His own grandmother had been as different from this exotic Contessa creature as it was possible to imagine, a Norski farm-wife as tough as an old root, short-spoken and direct. He could remember her birch syrup, though...

"Oh, Aunt Chloe was completely different. Everybody loved her, and she took in strays of the oddest sorts. She took me in, and put up with me when I was a perfect little beast. And she was the best listener I ever met -- although you're not bad in that respect yourself, Tom."

He blushed. "Well, I try not to do the stereotypical thing; you know, the man who natters on about himself whenever he meets a woman, as if his life was necessarily interesting just because it's his."

"I think yours is interesting," she said. "Not to mention your work."

"Nine-tenths paperwork, I'm afraid," he said. "Wait a minute -- your aunt took you in, you said?"

"Great-aunt. Took me in informally; I more or less ran away from home, for a while. Things got extremely messy. My parents wanted me put in therapy; committed and tranked out, in other words. Chloe wouldn't hear of it, and the Old Man -- her brother, my father's father -- backed her up, and of course what he said went. Looking back on it, I blush with shame at the way I treated her and everyone else at Seven Oaks -- that was her place in the country -- but I was monstrously preoccupied with my own grievances real and imagined. At that point my parents pretty well washed their hands of me; the consensus was that I was either a psychopath, a dangerous juvenile delinquent -- I got caught smoking weed at a wild party with people making out in the darker corners -- or a lesbian degenerate -- possibly all three, though not necessarily at the same time. I am crazy, of course, and you can outgrow juvenile delinquency like spots..."

"Two out of three isn't bad," Tom grinned. "Tried to get me worrying there for a moment, didn't you?

Her gaze came back to his, and a mischievous twinkle lit the green eyes. She ate a forkful of the curried lamb, made an appreciative noise, took a sip of her red zinfandel, then chuckled and went on:

"And alas, I turned out to be incorrigibly straight. I mean, have you ever tried to have a romantic relationship with a girl?"

This time his shout of laughter turned heads. He turned it down, and saw that she was chuckling helplessly too; it was a husky, whole-hearted sound, with nothing of a giggle in it, and he liked that. His ex-wife had had an unfortunately tendency to giggle, and what could be charming at eighteen turned into a fingernails-on-slate torment later.

"Well, yah, you betcha, I have tried that, repeatedly," Tom said. "Not always successfully, but I keep at it. A dirty job that somebody has to do."

"Ms. Malaprop strikes again; but seriously, from my viewpoint it was like attempting a nice hot shower in lukewarm chicken soup. While trying to live on nothing but chocolate éclairs. God have mercy." She sighed. "It would have been so convenient, though. Women don't always think you've invited them to run your life just because you sleep with them."

"Neither do all men, not these days," Tom said, a little defensively. Silently:

I guess I don't know the Bay Area as well as I thought. Sensitive Guys In Touch With Their Feelings Who Understand Her Need For Personal Space are a dime a dozen there, aren't they? And the family in a tizzy in the 90's because she smoked a joint, or there were kids necking at a party? This whole saga -- the big sprawling intermarried families and crazy rich grandmothers and country houses with names and fathers obsessed with proper behavior and such... sounds sort of Southern Gothic, or even European, and Old European at that, Faulkner or Chekov with a few Californian touches. Maybe things get really different up beyond the last thin layers of the middle classes? Because I'd swear she's telling the truth.

Perhaps Adrienne saw something in his face. "Let's say the, ah, families in our crowd, were sort of behind the times," she said. "Still are...

This wasn't a conversation he could imagine having in, say, Ironwood, the small town where his high school had been located; too much Lutheran primness lingered there. Nothing out of the ordinary for California, though, and it was enjoyable to be doing the mutual-exploration thing again. Particularly when you liked the personality revealed, and thought it was true in reverse too.

"Sorry about you and your parents, though," he said, sincerely. You appreciate having a solid family in childhood more when you get to know people who hadn't.

"Oh, we get along well enough now. When Aunt Chloe died --

"I am sorry," he said, and meant it. Impulsively, he put his hand on hers.

She returned the grip for an instant; he felt the touch of her fingers for minutes after their hands parted.

"-she died, and she left me Seven Oaks, asking me to take care of the estate. That shocked me silly. I'd taken her for granted, and assumed that she'd just go on and on like the mountains and the seasons and the Old Man. You know how it is, the first time you realize death is real; that someone you loved is gone, you'll never get the chance to say the things you were planning on... and you realize that you're going to die someday too?"

"Yes," he said somberly. "I remember it, when my mother died. As if you're hatching from an egg, and you don't much like what you've found outside."

"Exactly. There I was, eighteen -- it was nine years ago next May 21stth -- and I suddenly realized that the people I'd spent all my adolescence rebelling against would be gone someday. So I decided to buckle down and make some use of the circumstances I'd been handed."

"Like your work with the Pacific Open Landscapes League?" he said.

She smiled. "Yes, that and other things to do with the family business. Here I had an opportunity not one in a hundred million of the human race had, to do something significant for my family and my... country, my people, and why was I wasting time -- time that I suddenly realized I'd never get back? Aunt Chloe thought I was competent to look after her things, and the Contessa had told me someone of good blood shouldn't care what the smelly peasants thought. I decided to go out and do something with the talents and the chances I'd been handed."

"Bravo," Tom said softly.

"I even manage to get on well with my parents now, except that they keep nagging me to get married and produce grandchildren; at least, Mother does."

"Don't your brothers and sisters have any?"

"Every one, three or more each," Adrienne said. "But evidently there's never enough."

Tom shook his head. "My family sounds a lot duller than yours," he said.

She cocked her head to one side. "Restful, not dull. Incidentally, fair warning: what I've told you is all true, but it's incomplete. But as we native-born Californios say, enough about me. Let's talk about you. How do you feel about me?"

She laughed at his sudden alarm, and went on: "No, really, what I'd like to know is why you went into the Fish and Game department after you left the army."

"Well, I'd gotten to like California while I was stationed here. Yes, it's been mucked up beyond belief, but even what's left of it is the most beautiful place I've ever seen. So --"

@@@

And the whole rest of the evening we talked about my family and my work, he realized, coming back to himself and the present with a slight wince. She'd been very interested in the details of this bizarre poaching-smuggling case and the disaster in LA.; he hadn't mentioned anything about the SOU's sources, or the Bureau's, of course. RM&M wouldn't need that to do their own internal housekeeping.

He hoped he hadn't been the stereotypical male after all.

Roy was grinning sardonically, and Tom realized that he'd drifted off into a reminiscent daydream for a good minute by the clock.

"So, you talked family?" Roy asked. "That gave you the dazed look and the sappy grin? Or the sheer careerist joy of finding a good source for this little investigation of ours?"

Well, the fact that the evening ended with one short kiss, one long passionate kiss, and a murmured I like you a lot, but we should get to know each other better, and a date to go running together may have something to do with that.

"And we talked about things we've done or would like to do," he went on aloud. "She says she makes a good venison ragout -- and she actually likes hunting."

"Bambi? She shot Bambi?" Roy said. "And ate the poor little fucker?"

"I didn't notice you turning down those venison chops last Christmas."

"It doesn't count if it comes in boxes. Everyone born in civilized urban surroundings knows that there are magical warehouses where neatly wrapped steaks and chops and roasts appear, probably through some miracle of super-science. Better watch it; remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

Tom shrugged. "Maybe I need to work on my divorce technique. I haven't had as much practice at them as you," he said, with malice aforethought.

Roy winced. He was currently in the middle of his very messy second.

"Anyway, we're scarcely engaged yet. A date to go running is not part of the wedding ceremony. She's on the side of the angels. RM&M has put a lot of money into conservation. She's just a nice, smart --" very rich, very sophisticated, very beautiful "-- girl, Roy."

Hmmm. Although she seemed entranced with the food at the Maharani's. I wonder why? If there's one place in the world you can get good East Indian food, it's Berkeley -- probably better there than in Bombay. Maharani's is nice, but it isn't world-class.

"OK, I'll leave your love-life out of things... for now. Anything on the LA bust from the city cops or Fart, Barf & Itch? I want to hear how the forensics turned out."

"I'm expecting something from the San Diego Zoo --"

The phone rang, and Roy left for his own cubicle with a wave. Whistling quietly under his breath, Tom reached for the telephone.

"Yes, this is Mr. Christiansen... Hi, Manuel? Anything yet on the bird?"

There was a long silence, which wasn't like Manuel Carminez; he loved explaining things about his specialty. With a lurch of fear, Tom went on:

"Look, it didn't die or anything, did it? Not smoke inhalation, or stress-shock?"

"No," the voice on the other end said; it belonged to a biologist at the San Diego Zoo's captive-breeding program. "The problem is that bird is too healthy. Among other things."

"How so?" Tom said, pulling a pad towards him and poising a pen.

"To begin with, it isn't a condor from California."

The pen hung fire. "I could have sworn --"

"Oh, it's a gymnogyps californianus, all right -- young adult male. The thing is, Tom... you know how you find a California condor in the wild?"

"I'll bite."

"It's the bird with the four orthinologists standing around it in a circle. We captured the last wild one for the breeding program back in '87, at which point there were exactly twenty-seven in the entire world. There are barely two hundred twenty total today, with eighty in the wild. Not only is every single one accounted for, but we have tissue samples and DNA of every single one alive and every single one that's died in the last thirty years."

"So, how did the poachers get one without the four orthinologists noticing?" Tom asked. "It's not as if they were ripping off abalone -- the seabed is a lot less closely watched."

"They didn't get one of ours. They're all accounted for -- I checked. And that's where things get really interesting. All the California condors alive today are descended from the same twenty-seven individuals. That makes them all pretty closely related; it's what we call a 'near-extinction event' or a 'genetic bottleneck'-

"Manuel, you do remember who I work for, don't you?" Tom said gently.

"Oh, sorry. Anyway, they're all pretty closely related. We can trace their relationships easily. So we did; took a sample, put it through one of those handy-dandy new gene-fingerprint machines, the one with the nanoscale gold electrodes, to see which pair of wild birds had a chick we somehow didn't notice."

"Wait a minute," Tom whispered. "You mean it's not related to the known condors?"

"Not even remotely. It's as unrelated to them as it can be and still be a member of the same species. There's more genetic variation between that bird's DNA and the others than there is among all the other condors left. Which will make it tremendously useful to the breeding program, amigo. But it still leaves the question of where the son of a whore came from."

"You mean it's as if it came from an entirely different population?"

"Right in one. And there is one, repeat one, breeding population of Californian condors."

Now I wish I'd gotten more samples from that Chamber of Horrors at the warehouse, Tom thought. Oh, how I wish I'd gotten more samples!

"Anything else?"

"Yes. We also did every other test we could on the damn overgrown vulture. You know the main cause of death for wild condors?"

"Lead poisoning, from shot."

"Right in one again. Hunter shoots something, something runs away and dies, condor eats thing, condor also eats buckshot, and then it's go walk with God, condor. Well, this condor never met a lead buckshot pellet. There's no lead in its feathers or tissues at all, much less dangerous amounts. But wait, there's more. This condor never ingested any pesticides, or herbicides -- none, not even trace amounts -- or any of a dozen other things that a bird in the modern world eats... per dios, things that we all breathe every day."

Manuel paused. "If you can find out the valley this condor lived in, I would like to move there! Because that place, it is like nowhere on earth for this hundred years and more."

"Where could it have come from, then?"

"Well... possibly... a very isolated group somewhere up in the Sierras? I don't see how the hell we could have not found them, given their flying range, but it's the only thing that occurs to me, frankly. And it's a pretty lame explanation; there aren't any places in California that pristine, and condors scavenge open lowland areas by choice. It would take a whole series of fantastically unlikely coincidences for the past hundred years. Or some mad scientist has been cloning them, using frozen tissue that's been around for sixty, seventy years, to get any possibility of an unrelated bird... take your pick."

"Thanks, Manuel."

"Thank you, amigo. This bird improves our chances of succeeding with this program by more than a bit. I just can't figure out where in the name of todos santos it comes from. But if you find any more -- send them along!"

"Yah, you betcha I will," Tom said.

He paused and looked thoughtfully down at his notes. Well, here's a pretty how-de-doo, he mused. Apparently we not only have poachers who are ruthless enough to trade in a species on the brink of extinction, but smart enough to find members of it where the California DFG and all the biologists in the state can't.

"Thanks, and -- wait a minute," Tom said. He didn't know precisely why he asked, but extra information never hurt. "To change the subject, do you know anything about the Pacific Open Landscapes League?"

Manuel was silent for a moment. "That rings a faint bell... could you hold?"

Tom made affirmative noises, and waited while a faint clicking of keys came over the line.

God, but computers make it hard to hide anything, he thought. Nothing ever goes away, if you know where to look.

"I'd heard of them vaguely myself," Manuel said a moment later, in the peculiar half-strangled tones of a man who is holding a telephone between his jaw and shoulder while working at a computer.

"Si, got it. They're a contributor to the Zoo's fund; an annual hundred and fifty thousand. But they've been dealing with us for quite a while; since the late 1940's -- only then they had a different name. Let's see... Zoological Studies and Research. They had an arrangement with us, on captured animals -- they'd fund the expedition, and we'd split the beasts with them. They wanted the animals for experimentation, I'd guess, from the name. Mostly standard African animals; rhino, giraffe, lions, cheetahs; some Asian varieties as well -- tigers, Siberians and Bengals. That sort of thing was more common then; we had exchange operations with zoos and even circuses all over the world -- we got our first stock from a circus, you know, back a century ago. The arrangement seems to run for about six years, 1949-1955, then they shifted over to a straight donation and doing research through us and people we recommended, a lot of projects on historical ecology -- how the early colonization affected California by bringing in new grasses and so forth -- and then in 1970 they changed the name. Odd, eh? Why do you ask?"

"Just a feeling I should," Tom said, uncertain himself. "Talk to you later."

He hung up the phone and stared down at his notes again. They were clearly organized; the only problem was that they were nonsense. His father had once told him that if you couldn't solve a problem at one end, the trick was to start at the other.

"All right, let's move on," he murmured, and reached for the telephone again; the number he wanted was on the frequently-used list. "One ring-ey ding-ey... two ring-ey ding-ey... This is Warden Thomas Christiansen from the DFG... that's the Department of Fish and Game... Special Agent Perkins, please. Hi, Sarah. Any news for me?"

"Hi, Tom. We have gotten some new leads." His pen poised again. She went on: "It turns out the buyers for that stuff were... upset... when it all got burned up. They'd already paid for a good bit of it. They think --"

"They being?"

"A Vietnamese group, we're pretty sure. Not as good citizens as most of their community, to put it mildly. They'd have the Asian connections for marketing."

Tom nodded, then remembered to produce an audible uh-huh. "Yes, DFG has been having plenty of problems with that. Now that the war's over and the Asian part of the Pacific Rim is booming harder than ever, the market for animal parts has heated up again. Bear paws, rhino horn, tiger glands, exotic furs, ivory, you name it, and the prices make cocaine look like bottled water."

And that would fit in with RM&M's Pacific Rim operations, if it's a rogue group within the company the way Adrienne suspects, he added silently to himself, before going on:

"Who were the ones selling it in the first place?"

"A group of Russian 'entrepreneurs'. Based out of the Balkans or possibly Turkey, we think; things aren't quite so wild and hairy in Russia proper these days, not like it was in the 90's, and the 'Stans are getting downright respectable."

"Amazing how much respect GPS-guided weapons can instill," Tom said. "Not to mention the nasty example of what happened to Iraq. How did you find out?"

"Well, the Vietnamese gentlemen seemed to be under the impression that the Russians were having some sort of internal power struggle, which resulted in their customers getting ripped off. We got an anonymous-concerned-citizen tip by a very excited young man, fingering them. Voice-analysis pegged him as born here but brought up in a Vietnamese-speaking household and we're working that angle."

"Wonderful!" Tom enthused. "And the Russians?"

"Them we can move on faster; we know where they live. You doing anything later this week? Like to take a trip to beautiful San Francisco?"

He felt a sudden twinge. Adrienne will probably be leaving town next week. Duty was going to get in the way of his social life again; that had been the proximate cause of his divorce, too.

"Can do," he said. "You've got my cell-phone number."

And as compensation, he might well be on the track of the people responsible for the condor, along with a good deal else.

And I want to meet them, he thought, as he scooped up the file and set out for his supervisor's office. I want that very much indeed.

@@@

Colletta Hall

June, 2009

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

Giovanni Colletta turned the swivel chair and looked up at his father's picture, where it hung behind his desk. It showed him in this very chair and room, seated with chin propped on thumb and forefinger.

The portrait had been painted in late middle age, which was how he himself best remembered Salvatore Colletta; streaks of gray through the sleek slicked-back raven hair, lines grooved from the hooded eyes to the corners of an unsmiling mouth, the somber elegance of dark suit and cream-silk tie, ruby stickpin, discreetly gleaming gold cufflinks, snowy linen, on a body that stayed slender and tough into his sixties. Until the cancer racked him to a shadow and he lost his last battle, murmuring a final confession to a priest who turned pasty-pale as he bent his ear to the wrinkled mouth.

Hard to believe that I'm getting to be that old myself, the Prime of the Collettas -- the Colletta -- thought. He'd been the third child but the first son, born in the Commonwealth in the 1950's. Minchia! I'm a grandfather and fifty-nine this September.

The painter had been very good, and fearless. The eyes of Salvatore Colletta reminded his son of Byzantine mosaics he'd seen on trips FirstSide, in the ancient churches of Ravenna -- the eyes of the empress Theodora the Great. Dark, fathomless, knowing, somber with unacknowledged sins -- although he could hear the wolf-yelp of laughter the first Colletta would have given, and the playful-serious cuff across the side of the head.

Hey, I got eyes on me like a Greek buttana, eh? Show your father some respect, kid!

Giovanni's mouth quirked. Salvatore Colletta had insisted that his son study the arts and graces and learning of a galantuomo, a gentleman, a real civile -- despite the fact that he'd been the scion of a long line of laborers and sardine fishermen in a grim little village near Messina, and had himself grown up catch-as-catch-can on the shrill crowded streets of Manhattan's Little Italy in the 20's and 30's. That education had given Giovanni Colletta a vocabulary and perspective his father could never have imagined, but he'd never been absolutely sure that he'd kept the razor-keen aggression and cold realism that had made the Collettas second only to the Rolfes here in this new land. He could only hope he had, for on that the survival of his blood depended.

"But I certainly inherited the ambition," he murmured to the terrible old man who he'd loved and feared and hated every day of his life, long after he became a man himself. "And everything we do is for the Family, poppa."

As if to underscore the fact, his youngest daughter burst into the office, throwing a laughing word over her shoulder to the friends who giggled and chattered without. His smile grew broader; from delight at seeing her, free-striding and tanned and beautiful in her tennis whites, sky-colored eyes sparkling as she twirled her racket, hair the color of dark amber honey held back by a silken headband. The other half of the amusement...

Well, poppa, you wanted me to be a civile, and you wanted a tall slim blond wife who was a 'real lady'.

The woman Salvatore Colletta married had been a Junker's daughter from east of the Elbe, whose surviving family had had very good reasons for jumping at a one-way passage through the Gate in 1946 -- reasons beyond the Russians overrunning their ancestral estates, and having to do with certain political decisions they'd made in the 1930's. The von Traupitz family soon discovered equally good reasons for a matrimonial alliance with one of the founders and overlords of New Virginia.

Between your social ambitions and your taste in women, Poppa, you certainly made something different out of the legitimate line of the Collettas! Of course, Giovanni had helped the process along. Marianne's mother had been a yellow-haired daughter of the Fitzmortons.

"Daddy!" she said, giving him an enthusiastic hug as he came around the broad desk to greet her.

"Mi picciridda," he replied fondly.

"Oh, Daddy, I'm too old to be called 'little one' any more," she said, holding him at arm's length, and tactfully not mentioning that she was his height to an inch. "I'm a grown-up young lady now. Which you'd know if you would only get out of this office more, instead of sitting here all the time playing spider-in-the-web. I hardly see you at all, even when I'm at home!"

"I'd just cast a damper on that great drooling tribe of well-born young men who follow you around," he said, smiling at her fondly. "You should pick one to be your prince, little heart-breaker, and give me more grandchildren."

"I would, if only I could find one like you, Daddy," she said, smiling at him.

His heart melted with love -- and not a little with admiration for the skill she used to manipulate him.

"And what is it you want to wheedle out of your father this time?" he said.

At nineteen, Marianne Colletta had the family's diamond-hard concentration on getting what she wanted, but was still working on the subtlety that often went with it, and the knowledge of what she wanted above all. She wrinkled her small straight nose at him.

"Well, can't I come to see my own father just for the fun of it? There's nothing right now... it's not important, I suppose... but I could use another maid..."

He sighed and shook a finger. "Young lady, you've got a perfectly good maid, what's her name, Toto, and a secretary, not to mention all the staff running 'round to your whim here, or at the townhouse when you're living in Rolfeston --"

"Well, yes, but it's a lot of work, and Totochin's going back to that horrible place with all the X's in the name when her contract's up next year, I just couldn't persuade her to stay. I really need one who can learn enough to be useful before Totochin goes home, and it looks so silly to have only one to run errands and carry things and everything when I'm in town, and a Settler maid is just horribly unfashionable. I'm going to be working at the Gate computer center after the spring semester, too, so I'll be so busy with that and then there's all the parties and --"

He sighed. More of the damned Rolfes. It was their policies which made it at least a little difficult for him to get a new nahua maid for his favorite daughter -- he, Prime of the whole Colletta Family, its Collaterals and its Affiliation! And it was their law which required every young member of the Thirty Families to contribute time to the Commission's needs. Although to be fair, he could see a good deal of sense in that.

"I'll see what I can do," he grumbled, and accepted her hug and kiss on the forehead.

He looked at his watch when she left: eleven-fifteen, which gave him a few minutes before Anthony arrived, and an hour before the business lunch with Dimitri Batyushkov. That was going to be embarrassing. Anthony was at least partly responsible, for all that his claim of bad luck and foul-ups by the FirstSider element had some merit. He'd been in charge. Excuses didn't matter. Results did.

He had the report on his desk memorized; he picked it up and threw it in the discreet disposal slot. Equipment hummed, and then there was nothing left but powdered paper with traces of ink, sitting in the hidden waste receptacle and waiting for the cleaning woman to dump into her bin. Giovanni Colletta looked around the big office; it was a square room mostly lined in polished light-gold beewood paneling, and bookcases filled with volumes bound in tooled leather. There was space here and there for a painting or a vase. The porcelain was his own selection, Selang-Arsi ware in subtly mottled eggshell colors, brought from New Virginia's version of China. He'd led a trading-and-exploration expedition there, as a young man.

The paintings were his father's, some excellent Old Masters, some garish as only a Sicilian peasant's idea of beauty could be, but both were reminders of the founder -- good and bad the old man's own choices, not bought taste. The floor was marble squares separated by thin strips of lapis, with glowing Eastern rugs beneath the leather-upholstered chairs and settees and tables of rare tropical woods.

Behind the desk was a solid section of wall bearing Salvatore Colletta's portrait, flanked on either side by tall glass doors. Outside was a broad terrace, with a balustrade at its outer rim and man-high stone vases spaced along the inner, tumbling sprays of blossom in hot gold and white and purple down their pale sides; hummingbirds like living jewels of malachite and crimson hovered around them in a blur of wings. He went past the sweet-scented glory and leaned his palms against the stone of the balustrade to look northeastward; he often used this sight to hearten himself.

It was a prideful thing, the view down from where Colletta Hall stood in the first upthrust of the Santa Cruz Range's eastern foothills, over the broad lands that acknowledged him lord.

"Vallo du Beddu Cuore," he said softly. It was a fitting name for the Colletta Domain. Valley of Heart's Delight.

They had called it so on FirstSide, until urban sprawl had eaten the orchards with microchip factories sheathed in black glass and hideously priced little houses, with shopping malls and freeways -- he'd seen that on his last trip, and still had nightmares about it.

Here the lower Santa Clara valley stretched off northeastwards to San Francisco Bay; the Hall's gardens with their tall trees and green lawns, pools and fountains and the cool fire of flowers falling from terrace to terrace; the red roofs of the little town that served Colletta Hall below and the farmsteads of the Settler families beyond. Blocks of plum and almond and apricot trees stood green and regular; in springtime they became a riot of pink and white blossom that scented the air for miles. Vineyards had turned to rows of shaggy green; grain bowed to the breeze in rippling sheets of gold cut by the dark-green of trees planted in lines as windbreaks, ready for next week's harvest; corn stood tall and beginning to tassel; ant-tiny cattle and sheep moved through pastures dotted with wide-spreading oaks; tractors crawled, leaving swaths of rich dark soil upturned, followed by the wheeling flocks of gulls.

The distant ticking of their engines, or the occasional car or truck drawing a white plume along a dirt road, were the only mechanical noises that intruded among the slow sough of the warm June wind through tall trees. Other sounds melted into that music; an axe splitting wood, human voices in speech or song, the buzzing whirr of hummingbird wings from flower to flower. Behind him were the steep low mountains, rolling towards the Pacific and turning green with redwood groves.

"And it's all part of old John Rolfe's fantasy of a Virginia that never really was," he murmured. "A pretty fiction of fox-hunting squires and sturdy yeomen. A pleasant dream, and a good place to start. But not to stop."

The true power of the Collettas was in their share of the New Virginia gold and silver and mercury mines, the oil wells and factories and power stations, the Settlers who were affiliates of the Colletta family, the weight he and his allies could pull on the Central Committee... and above all, the Colletta share of the Gate revenues and the vast corporate holdings FirstSide. But the Rolfes and their allies dominated the Committee and the Commission through it, and imposed a policy of caution that carked him more with every passing year, playing at rustic lordship and keeping the Commonwealth of New Virginia inside its kernel. His hand clenched into a fist on the volcanic stone.

"We must learn to dream more grandly. There is a world awaiting us -- two!"

A discrete cough brought him round. His personal executive assistant stood there; Jane McAdams, a plain middle-aged woman of formidable efficiency, whose family had been Colletta affiliates since the 1950's. He was easy enough with her that it didn't embarrass him to be caught talking to himself -- making a political speech to himself, in fact.

Probably because it's one I want to make before the Committee, but don't quite dare, he thought, as he nodded to her.

"Mr. Anthony Bosco is here for his appointment, sir."

"Thank you, Angelica. Hold any incoming calls."

Anthony Bosco was third-generation; the Boscos were members of the Thirty Families but only as collaterals, relatives Salvatore Colletta had brought in a few years after the opening of the Gate; and Anthony's mother had been of the Filmer Family. He was an unremarkable young man in his late twenties in a neat brown-silk suit, with carefully combed dark-russet hair, a faint trace of acne scars across his cheekbones and currently a hang-dog air.

That broke into a painful smile as he advanced to bow deeply and kiss the Colletta Prime's hand with a murmur of bacciamo le mani; that was a custom of the Collettas that had spread widely among the Families, like the Rolfes' riding to hounds or the von Traupitz' student saber-duels or the Fitzmorton boar-hunts with spears.

"Sir --" he began.

Crack.

"Idiota!" Giovanni snapped, as his hand slapped the young man's face to one side. "'ricchiune scimunito!"

Anthony's face paled, save where the fingers had left red prints. Normally Giovanni Colletta spoke English, like everyone else except recent immigrants. It was a sign of extreme danger when he started cursing in the Sicilian dialect picked up from his father in infancy. From outside the charmed circle, being a member of the Families looked more important than being one of a collateral line. From the inside, particularly if you were a Colletta collateral, getting the Prime this angry with you could make life intolerable. And when the business you managed for the Prime was a capital crime by Commonwealth law...

"Sir, we delivered the materials exactly as per the plans. It's --

"You should have overseen the final distribution, so that news of it did not leak to the American police, and from them to Gate Security. As it was, we have only Gate Security to thank that the American authorities didn't find the goods intact! And only blind luck to thank that Gate Security did not grab you."

"Sir, those people don't appreciate having a seller look over their shoulders while they make their own deals. If you want me to oversee them more closely, then you must assign me more shooters. Otherwise they will kill me, and you will have to assign someone else to deal with the matter."

Good, the Colletta thought. He is no coward. And he dares to remind me that I cannot give him more gunmen.

The Commission controlled Gate transit too closely; only adults of the Thirty Families could travel freely back and forth between the worlds, and even their travel was carefully watched. There were only a limited number of Family members with Gate access he could bring into this...

Call it by its right name, he told himself. It is a conspiracy.

"That was the last large shipment, in any case," the Colletta said gracefully. "Perhaps the next meetings will be more carefully managed. You may stay; it is possible you may contribute. Say nothing unless I tell you."

Giovanni seated himself behind his desk, pressing a discrete control. A screen slid upwards, and he pulled out a drawer and tapped at the controls as it lit. A surveillance camera at the main eastward gate of the Hall's gardens showed a convoy of vehicles approaching from the south, the long plume of their dust behind them. The Batyushkov home estate was much further south, over the Santa Cruz Mountains and down into the northern edge of Monterrey Bay. The earlier distributions nearer the Gate had gone to the American majority among the Thirty or to the English, German-Balt, Franco-Algerian and British-African creations. There had been quite a gap between the last of those and the time the Russian Batyushkovs and Afrikaner Versfelds were granted Committee status in the 1990's. That meant that they were the further out, in the Parajo valley and the Los Angeles basin respectively. That seemed to bother the Batyushkov more than it did the Versfeld; they were also the only two Families whose Primes were still FirstSide born.

Except for the Old Man, of course. Even he had been handing over more and more of his duties to his son Charles in the last two decades, although he seemed determined to make the century mark.

Dimitri Batyushkov came in a small convoy, his own hard-topped six-wheeled Land Rover preceded and followed by open Hummers mounting machine-guns. All of them had the double-headed eagle on their doors; the New Virginia Russians had adopted Czarist symbolism, Orthodox piety and Cossack customs with ostentatious zeal, for all that many of them had been KGB and presumably at least nominal Marxists before they met Commission recruiters looking for desperate men. There was a black-robed bearded priest in the Batyushkov's car, for that matter.

Perhaps there is something in the air of the Commonwealth of New Virginia which inclines us to pageantry, Giovanni Colletta thought, and smiled slightly as he spoke to the air.

"Angelica, the refreshments."

It wouldn't do to go down to the door and greet the Batyushkov; he wasn't ready to imply that much equality of status, not quite yet. Nor would it do to insult him by showing himself less than prompt in offering hospitality.

Besides, Russians don't consider any business serious unless it's accompanied by a drink, he thought.

He watched his eldest son walk out the tall carved doors of the Hall to greet the Batyushkov; Salvatore Colletta II was not in his father's inner circle on this matter; the third-generation scion of the Collettas was too cautious to endorse a plan such as that his father had devised, preferring a quiet life. Giovanni was confident he'd go along when confronted with a fait accompli, and in the meantime greeting a distinguished guest with proper protocol was part of his duties as heir-apparent.

The cars came to a halt at the foot of the long stairway, and a servant sprang to open the main car's door. A squad of troopers in sharp-pressed gray Commission Militia uniforms -- their Family affiliation marked by Colletta shoulder-flashes -- brought rifles to present-arms. The Batyushkov reviewed them gravely; when he had passed, their commander saluted his opposite number from the Russian's escort and led them and the drivers off to appropriate entertainment. Father Sarducci greeted his Orthodox opposite number with the strained politeness of a cat forced to put up with a strange feline on its territory; doubtless they'd either exchange limping chitchat or end up pulling each other's hair over the filioque clause to the Creed, the one Catholics and Orothodox had split on in 1054 amid a flurry of mutual anathemas and excommunications.

Giovanni's smile grew to a shark's grin for an instant at that. His son conducted the Batyushkov and his immediate retainers -- two bodyguards in black-leather jackets and a technician with a briefcase -- to the elevators.

Meanwhile the Hall staff had bustled in, spreading linen tablecloths and laying out a buffet lunch around the long rosewood meeting table. There was thin-sliced cured wild-boar ham wrapped around ripe figs and melon, caviar in glistening mounds surrounded by artfully-arranged sprays of crisp rye toast, prawns grilled with garlic and chili beside equally dainty skewers of spring lamb, colorful salads, oysters fresh in the shells or wrapped in strips of bacon and fried, sliced roast loin of pork stuffed with figs, almonds and olives, breads and cheeses and glistening pastries of kiwi and cream, fruits in glowing piles, wine bottles resting in silver coolers on gleaming shaved ice. It was a meal that could be eaten without servants present; his retired discreetly before the guests arrived.

Another surveillance camera showed them walking up the curving staircase and into the long carpeted hallway outside the master's office, with the Russian's bodyguards and his like stiff-legged dogs circling each other. They settled down to mutual watchfulness, and the Batyushkov and his attendant came through the doors of ebony and silver.

"Dimitri Ivanovitch!" Giovanni cried, springing to his feet and walking forward with outstretched hand. "Welcome to my home, my friend. It has been far too long since we met."

The Batyushkov's firm stride missed a half-step as he raised his eyes and met those of the portrait behind Giovanni's desk. Behind his affable mask, the Colletta bared his teeth again; even near three decades in his grave, Salvatore Colletta was still fighting for his blood. The two Family Primes shook hands, and kissed each other on the cheek.

The Russian was a thickset man, a few inches shorter than Giovanni but broader, with a wide snub-nosed face and pale blue eyes and an air of straightforward bluntness that was a lie in itself.

"Giovanni Salvatorovitch, it has indeed been too long," he said; his English was excellent, though thickly accented. "May I present my nephew, my brother's son, Sergei Ilyanovitch? He has met your young collateral, I believe, here and FirstSide."

Not just a technician, then. A tall slender sharp-featured man in his early thirties, dark of hair and eye. I've heard the name. Sergei was a real scientist, a rarity in the Commonwealth, orphaned when his father was killed fighting in Afghanistan, and raised by Dimitri and his wife.

The younger Russian bowed deeply and kissed the Colletta's hand; Anthony Busco followed suit with the Batyushkov, and then the juniors shook in the gesture of equals.

"But come," Giovanni said, indicating the table. "Drink; eat; honor my house by using it as your own."

The men seated themselves. Giovanni lifted the small frosted glass of chilled vodka, looked the Batyushkov straight in the eye and said:

"Za nas!"

He breathed out through his mouth and tossed the cold spirits back, a streak of chill fire down his gullet. The Russian drank his in the same manner and replied:

"Za nas -- to us, indeed!" Then, with an unfeigned smile: "Khorosha chertovka. Damned good drink!"

"From FirstSide," Giovanni said. "Stolichnaya -- Dovgan."

"You were well advised; an excellent brand."

The two men smiled at each other; neither under any illusions that they were bosom friends, but more relaxed; young Sergei opened his leather-covered instrument case and did a quick, discrete check of the office while the Primes conferred.

All in the game, Giovanni thought, putting down the vodka glass and using chased-silver tongs to transfer some of the ham to his plate while the Russian scooped caviar onto rye toast.

Batyushkov showed deference by coming to Colletta Hall and Giovanni's office; Giovanni showed respect by closeting himself with the Batyushkov on equal terms, and taking the effort to learn Russian drinking rituals.

Who knows, they may spread! If there is one thing in which Russians excel, it is drinking, after all.

For that matter, making the Batyushkovs one of the Thirty Families, with a seat on the Committee and a share in the Commission's revenues, was itself a gesture by the established Family lines. Batyushkov had been helpful in recruitment, and in establishing contacts with post-Soviet Russia's burgeoning commercial demimonde; that eased the perennial problem of laundering the Commonwealth's minerals and gems on FirstSide. It had enabled the Commission to step up shipments quite substantially, more than compensating for one more minimum Family share of the take.

Still, there had been no absolute necessity to put him on the Committee.

Yet there were several thousand Russians in the Commonwealth now, and they had been very useful in this land-rich, labor-starved economy. Inevitably they were still mostly at the bottom of the occupational pyramid, working in factories, mines, fishing boats, farms. Knowing that one of their own had been raised to the highest circles of power was likely to ease their adjustment to New Virginia's unfamiliar society; and a Russian member in the Thirty Families could jumpstart several hundred of his compatriots up the ladder of preferment and patronage.

Or so the Rolfes and their allies thought, Giovanni mused. It had worked, all the other times the method was used. But this time, they have elevated a Prime with wider ambitions.

Batyushkov glanced at his nephew; the young man nodded. That meant the Colletta's office was clear of bugs planted by the Commission's police, or any of the other Families, as far as he could tell.

"So, Giovanni Salvatorovitch, I find that I must apologize," Dimitri said.

He knocked back another glass of the icy vodka; strictly speaking, Giovanni should have matched him drink for drink, but he knew his capacity and the Russian's, and contented himself with a sip of white wine instead. A minor breech of Slavic drinking etiquette and loss of face was preferable to losing his wits.

"A blunder occurred," Giovanni agreed tactfully. "There is blame enough to go around. As we grow closer to the time of action, the risks increase; they are proportionate to the stakes for which we play."

Dimitri nodded. "You understand, these people we deal with FirstSide may be my compatriots -- my former countrymen -- but they are not my subordinates. I -- we -- must persuade and convince them." He sighed, and chewed meditatively for a moment. "That is not merely a matter of money. Money is very persuasive, but for hard-headed, realistic men -"

Translation: a bunch of paranoid a' pinna, Giovanni added to himself.

"-- to be persuaded of the reality of a Gate to another world, this is difficult." A rumbling chuckle. "I did not believe it myself, until I stepped through. I thought that the wealthy Amis were, how do you say, putting one over on me."

The Russian spread his hands in a deprecatory gesture: "And we cannot, of course, show them directly -- anyone who sees the Gate is stuck here in the Commonwealth. It is a system with a built-in failsafe; Sergei here has been instrumental in convincing them. As of course have your animal specimens, even more than the pictures and videos. Videos can be faked; living animals which are extinct cannot. And, after all, they have sent us those personnel we requested. That is the key to our plan."

"If there are no more desertions from the Strike Force," the Colletta said dryly. "If any of those, and their weapons, are discovered..."

The Russian winced slightly. "Yes, well, the speznatz discipline is hard for primitives. It will be better after Operation Downfall is complete and we need no longer rely upon them."

"If we get that far," Giovanni Colletta said.

If we can assemble a force strong enough to take the Gate by surprise. And if we can make it stick afterwards... then we will be the rulers of the Commonwealth. Then there will be changes.

He went on with a smile: "Which of course we will. The time to strike is near. We have only to get through these few months, and it will all be over."

Sergei leaned forward. "With your permission, Uncle Dimitri." The Batyushkov nodded, and the young man went on: "Our... associates on FirstSide do, however, have one request. One additional request."

Giovanni smiled behind gritted teeth. If they wanted more money, he would simply tell them that that well was dry.

"They wish to send through several scientists, suitably disguised. To study the Gate."

At that, the Colletta laughed and waved a hand. "By all means," he said. "Let them study to their heart's content."

The Gate was incomprehensible. That was well established.

@@@

 

INTERLUDE:

July 15th, 1971

Rolfeston

The Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

"I think you know my associates," John Rolfe said, his voice smooth and friendly. He raised a hand to right and left, towards the men who sat on either side of him behind the long polished table. "Solomon Pearlmutter and Salvatore Colletta."

Think of them as my good and bad angels, he didn't say aloud; his mind threw up a vision of a miniature Sol in a white robe and a tiny red-suited Salvo with a pitchfork, standing on his shoulders and whispering into his ears.

"Yes," said Ralph Barnes, sometime professor of physics. "I think I met your kid at Stanford." He nodded to Pearlmutter, and then turned to Colletta: "And your goons doped my drink and dragged me here."

He was a burly man in a tie-dyed shirt, jeans and moccasins, with long brown hair falling to his shoulders and a trimmed beard. Rolfe thought the whole ensemble looked ridiculous -- something like a flaming pansy crossed with a Viking warrior -- but apparently it was the fashion among the younger set back on FirstSide these days, and Barnes was in his mid-twenties.

Young to be on the verge of fame, he thought. In any profession but physics. From what Sol had told him, most great physicists did their best ground-breaking work between twenty and thirty. And I suppose it doesn't look much more ridiculous than what some of my Cavalier ancestors affected at court. The haircut was about what Charles I's courtiers had worn, beard ditto, and at least Barnes wasn't sporting high heels, lace, and beauty-patches.

"Yes, I think I could come up with something to explain the phenomenon," Barnes went on. "Now that I've had some time and equipment to study the Gate. Outtasight."

He closed his eyes, obviously deep in thought. Then he opened them again, staring across the room at John Rolfe. The master of the Commonwealth forced himself to relax.

By God, to control the Gate! To know what it is, and how to make more! Vistas of fire and glory opened beyond the eyes of his mind, worlds for the taking --

"Nice place you've got here," the scientist went on. "Too bad I won't see much of it."

Rolfe's eyes narrowed, and he felt a stirring of unease; he hadn't commanded men for thirty years without learning how to read them. The beard and hair emphasized the man's massive foursquare build, the thick forearms, and the hands like a builder or farmer's, spade-like and calloused. Not at all what he'd thought of when the phrase professor came to mind, but Sol's agents had been extremely careful. It wasn't easy to find a young, brilliant researcher who wouldn't be too badly missed, but Barnes had a reputation for eccentricity, as well as genius. For it wouldn't be utterly out of character for him to... what was the phrase FirstSide? Drop out?

"Real nice," Barnes went on, nodding to the tall windows that let in a scent of sea and flowers on the warm summer air. "Pity I'm not going to see much of it. It'd be interesting."

"And why aren't you going to be seeing more of it, Dr. Barnes?" Rolfe said in a soft chill tone, leaning forward with hand over hand and his elbows braced on the polished rosewood of his desk.

Without false modesty he knew that he was a strong-willed man, and a frightening one when he chose to be. He'd daunted brave men before this. Now his eyes found the younger man's brown gaze, and saw no fear there at all, and a stubbornness to match his own. Pearlmutter sighed and put a hand to his forehead, muttering something like gevalt under his breath.

"Because I'm not going to give a fascist bastard like you that sort of power, which means you'll probably kill me," Barnes said cheerfully. "Maybe I can't do anything about you getting this world in your clutches, but I'm not going to give you an infinite series of them to play with."

"Infinite?" Rolfe said, raising a brow.

"Of course. Now that I've seen the Gate, the only thing that makes sense is that the Big Bang was really a quantum fluctuation, the beginning of a universe in a series; in fact that explains the dark matter problem. A standing wave-form drawing on zero energy to -- oh, you're a tricky fascist bastard, aren't you? Nearly got me going there."

Rolfe smiled thinly. "More tricky than you know, Dr. Barnes. I know you feel an understandable resentment at being, ah, shanghaied here -"

A blaze of pure rage confronted him, all the stronger for being wordless. He'd counted on the man's curiosity overcoming anything else, combined with promises of rewards. Now he'd have to fall back on threats, and he didn't think those would work very well. He went on, voice suave:

"-and normally, we don't do that, unless someone stumbles across the secret of the Gate and it's the only alternative to killing him. But we've never been able to get many first-rate scientists here. You'll understand we're anxious to develop some control, some knowledge, of the Gate. After all, our lives and fortunes depend on its functioning." He turned the smile charming. "And I assure you I know better than to deny an able man his share."

Barnes snorted and crossed his arms. "No dice. Hey, asshole, a question for you; did you ever take lessons from Nixon?"

Rolfe blinked his eyes closed for a second, controlling his temper. "No, in fact, Dr. Barnes, I did not. For one thing I'm not a Quaker, and neither were any of my ancestors. And I wasn't in the Navy."

"Naw, your folks were slave-traders, right?" Barnes said. "I said it once; no dice." After a moment that stretched. "And yeah, you can call in those goons outside to kill me, or work me over. That won't get you much physics done, man. And beating me up won't, either. It ain't like digging a ditch or picking cotton on your fucking plantation."

"Tobacco," Rolfe corrected absently. "My family grew tobacco and raised horses. Well, that raises the question of why I should bother to keep you around, Dr. Barnes... if you're not useful as a physicist. Or perhaps you could be useful in another career... gold mining, perhaps?"

"Yeah, send me to the mines. Lot of good that will do you."

A quiet chuckle came from the corner. "I think I better get involved here, Cap'n."

Barnes' eyes swiveled around to the small dark graying man sitting in the corner. He still didn't look frightened, but he did look wary -- the way a man might, confronted with a small swift poisonous snake.

"Thing is, professor," Salvatore Colletta said, "the Cap'n, he's a civile -- a gentleman; and Sol here, he's the kind who'll pick a bug up and throw it out the window insteada swattin' it. I ain't, you know? That's got its drawbacks, which surprised me when I found out, but it sort of gives me advantages too. Like, maybe yeah, a working-over with the rubber hoses wouldn't get you doing this physics stuff right; you could go through the motions and say nothin' was working. On the other hand... maybe there's organs you're fond of? Or people? Your mother still alive, doctore?"

Barnes began to come out of the chair and froze as Colletta's hand moved with the speed of a striking mantis. An automatic pistol appeared in it, the muzzle gaping like a cavern and pitted with use; the rest of his short, slight body stayed relaxed, lounging at ease. Rolfe gave a small quiet snort. Sometimes in the midst of the inter-Family maneuvering, you forgot just how deadly the little man could be in person. That would be a mistake.

"He's no use to us dead, Salvo," Rolfe said. To Pearlmutter, in a soothing tone: "Don't worry, Sol. Relax."

Rolfe sighed, resting his chin on his thumbs and thinking. Let's see... "The problem is, I think the good doctor here would call my bluff," he said at last.

Colletta shot him a resentful black-eyed glance. "I ain't bluffin', Cap'n."

"Yes, but I would be," Rolfe replied.

Salvatore Colletta gave a sour grunt, holstered the gun and stood, adjusting his suit jacket and brushing lint off one sleeve, and taking a cigarette out of a gold case. He shrugged and lit it, puffing and going on:

"Then I've got things to do. Se ya, Cap'n. That soft heart of yours is gonna kill you someday."

Colletta left; Pearlmutter followed, shrugging and spreading his hands as he passed in a well-I-did-my-best gesture. Rolfe turned to Barnes, mouth quirking slightly.

"I'm a ruthless man, Doctor Barnes," he said. "And if I thought it expedient, I would have you killed without hesitation; by the time I was your age, I'd seen and inflicted enough death that it became fairly trivial to me. There are, however, limits... at least for me. I've never found Salvo to have any."

"I can believe it," Barnes said. He cocked his head. "Why didn't you try bluffing me?"

Rolfe made a single spare, elegant gesture. "Respect."

"Respect?"

"I knew that you wouldn't cave in to a simple threat, and there would be no point in it if I wasn't prepared to follow through." He cocked his head and examined Barnes again, openly this time. "Experience does confer some benefits -- the ability to tell the difference between bluster and the real thing among them."

Barnes looked at him for a moment, then nodded grudgingly. "Well, you're a fascist bastard, but I suppose you draw the line at torture."

Rolfe smiled, and Barnes blinked in startled alarm. "Oh, not at all. I've had men tortured -- during the war, for example. If it was a choice between my men's lives and the Geneva Convention... well, there's a time an officer should walk around the hill and let someone like Salvo handle things. But I don't inflict pain for amusement, or to settle a grudge. Or just to get something I'd like, but can do without."

"You are a bastard," Barnes said.

"Yes, Doctor Barnes, I am. But you'd better hope that I'm a long-lived one. Salvo doesn't like being balked, and unlike me he does hold grudges."

He chuckled a little at the brief look of alarm that passed over the young physicist's face. And good-cop bad-cop may be a cliché, but it works. "And what will you do here, if I let you live? Please abandon any thoughts of teaching at our university, if you won't cooperate over the Gate."

"Oh," Barnes said. "I think I might like to open a burger joint. I figure you owe me the seed money."

@@@

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