Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tin Soldier - Book Two, Chapter Two

Donovan could see the military base from the mountain, but once they were on the valley floor, winding through the streets on the outskirts of town, he was less certain how to get there. This proved not much of a problem, though. Signage was good, and as they got nearer, military presence increased. Men in uniform trotted by on horses. Transport vehicles roared past in clouds of dust and diesel fumes. Ribbons fluttered from streetlamps. Placards with patriotic slogans were pasted on seemingly every available surface. From a street corner a boy waved newspapers for sale and shouted the major propaganda points. "Oil found in Chiapas! Major victory in Nacogdoches! Guangdong province secedes from China - sues for peace!"

Donovan turned to Carina to ask if she would like a copy of the paper, but saw her back stiffen. He followed her gaze and watched a military hearse go by, horses draped in black, coffin covered by a flag. Behind it came a cart with a war widow and her black-clad, solemn children. He searched Carina's face, looking for a clue as to what she was feeling, but after staring for a long moment at the procession, she turned away.

Finally they found what they were looking for — a motel just outside the military base. Judging from the number of people in black or in uniform, it would seem there was no one here who wasn’t on official business. The presence of so many military folk made Donovan nervous. He had been touching the pouch of papers through his shirt every few minutes since their arrival, but as they approached the motel that Alvi had recommended in his letter, he saw the red gypsy cart parked in a grassy campground nearby. Alvi's connections would keep them from harm.

They parked their wagon in a guest parking area where security guards swarmed over it, checking for munitions and contraband. They confiscated his shotgun, but gave him a chit and promised he could retrieve it when he left town. Donovan fought down his worries and accepted this gracefully. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention by making a fuss. Alvi would tell him if the guards were above-board.

They walked to the campground, Donovan moving stiffly because it had been so long since he had worn his leg brace. Carina hung back, twisting a fold of her skirt in her hands, as Donovan knocked at Alvi’s door.

"Yes, yes, a minute!" came a voice from inside, followed by clattering and banging. The wagon rocked from side to side as if a whole army of peddler-spies were inside, but finally the door opened and Alvi peeked out. "Friend Donovan! Good to see you. Did you come alone?" At the sight of the figure in black behind him, he frowned and hurried down the steps. Carina refused to meet his eyes and he had to cup her chin in his hand. "Can this pale little thing be my sweet Carina?"

For the first time in a week, she broke into tears.

"Come here, angel." He folded her in his arms and she sobbed against his chest. "Alvi will make it better for you. Everything is going to be okay, I promise." He rocked her in his arms, murmuring comforting words and kissing her hair, then he led her up the steps and into the gypsy wagon. Forgetting all about Donovan, he shut the door.

Donovan stood outside, nonplussed. The wagon was too small for three, but he hadn't brought Carina all this way to hand her off while he remained an afterthought. He was indebted to Alvi's kindness, but not by that much. He marched up the wooden steps and let himself in.

* * *

Their first order of business was to get Carina some decent clothes. On that point, Alvi was firm. “You are the wife of a war hero and the sister of a colonel. You cannot go around in this rag.”

Carina looked at her skirt sheepishly. “It’s all I had left after I burned everything else.”

Alvi clucked his tongue. “I should’ve brought you the news myself. I would never have allowed you to do such a foolish thing.”

Donovan raised an eyebrow. “We could hardly watch her every second of the day, with a harvest to be brought in."

“Of course not. That is why I should have come. You could have continued your important work without having to leave this lovely flower in the care of a child.”

With an effort of will, Donovan let the vaguely worded reproach pass. “Do you know if there are rooms available at the motel? They look pretty full and we’d like to get settled before we do anything else.”

Alvi’s face lit up, in his element at a chance to drive a bargain. “Even if they say they have no rooms, I will make sure one is available.” He bustled around the cart, throwing on a jacket and checking the contents of his pockets. He paused in his activities and touched Carina’s hair. “You should not have done this to yourself, but perhaps it makes you look more sympathetic, hm?” He opened a wicker chest and produced a length of black silk bordered in fine silver thread. “Wrap yourself in this when we talk to the innkeepers. I will not let you embarrass yourself in front of people with that dress.”

* * *

After nearly half an hour of negotiating which included name-dropping, lying, flattering, shaming, and finally outright bribery, Alvi talked the innkeeper into giving Carina and Donovan a two-room suite with a sunny balcony. Under Donovan’s direction, two boys with hand-trucks brought in the things they needed from the wagon while Alvi examined the room and Carina waited indifferently in the sitting room.

“You will offend your sister,” Donovan overheard him saying as he opened the door and motioned the boys inside. “The sofa is good enough for him.”

“We slept together all the way up here,” Carina said.

"If I could have arranged it, I would have gotten a separate room for you. People might talk."

"I don't care. I'll never see any of them again." She forced a smile as Donovan and the porters entered.

Donovan pretended not to have heard. He directed the boys to put their things in the single bedroom, tipped them more generously than he could afford, then looked around, assessing. It was a pleasant, airy place, a little threadbare, but furnished for modest comfort. The bedroom contained two small beds, a bathroom with a composting toilet, and a sink with a pitcher of water for hand-washing. The living room was decorated in yellow, with framed prints of flowers on the walls, cheap rag rugs on the tile floor, a plump striped sofa, two high-backed chairs and a low table with a vase of dried flowers. Light streamed in from a pair of French doors opening onto the balcony.

“Alvi says they have electricity from sundown until nine o’clock most nights,” Carina said.

“And in the mornings too, before the sun is up,” Alvi added. “In the closet you should find a small. . .what do you call it?” he looked at Carina. “A little electric grill where you can boil your morning coffee.”

“A hot plate?” Carina said. “I haven’t used one of those in a long time.”

“You must be careful then, not to hurt yourself.”

“I’m not afraid of electricity.” Carina picked up her silk wrap. “Let’s get this shopping over with. That way we can get the rest taken care of and go home.”

Alvi moved to help her with the wrap, but Donovan got there first and tucked the folds around her shoulders.

They hired a hack outside the motel where several different types of equipage, both human and horse-powered, were waiting. All of the drivers were boys below draft age. Alvi selected a closed carriage and as they got in, the driver looked at Carina and asked, “Base or town?”

“Town,” Alvi said. “Shopping district.”

The boy touched the horse with his whip and they set off at a trot. “I know a good shop for ladies’ mourning wear,” the boy offered, shouting into the cab through a door in the roof.

Carina and Donovan cringed at the insensitive assumption, but Alvi seemed unsurprised. “That will be fine.” In a low voice, he explained. “It’s a big business in this town. The boy probably gets a commission. I know a place we can go if this isn’t what we want.”

Carina leaned back against the padded leather seat and pretended to watch the scenery go by while the men made idle talk about the news of the day.

“We heard a paper boy saying they found oil in Chiapas,” Donovan said. “Is it true?”

“I doubt it. They’re looking for excuses to keep us meddling in Mexico’s affairs. We need to keep the Central American corridor open so our troops can get out of South America.”

“We’re bugging out?”

“It’s gotten too crazy.” Alvi leaned forward and dropped his voice so the driver wouldn’t hear. “The indigenous people are carving out new nations and killing anyone of European ancestry they find within their borders. There's little point in fighting them. I have it on good authority that the cost of getting oil and rubber out of there has become more than the products are worth. All this—” he made a vague motion in the direction of the motor vehicles and electric lights outside the hansom window, “Will be gone in another year or two if we can’t secure a real victory against the Chinese and get control of the Siberian pipeline.”

Donovan was startled. “What about the tar sands? And Iran? And all the coal in Pennsylvania?”

Alvi sniffed. “Alberta was a boondoggle. The cost of getting oil out of those sands is more than the end product is worth. Iran will be radioactive for centuries. As for Pennsylvania, we don’t have enough processing plants to make gasoline equivalent out of coal. Not in the quantities we need.”

“So we'll build more plants.”

“With the steel we cannot make and the fuel we have not yet refined because it is locked in anthracite deep under the ground?” Alvi smiled as if he enjoyed following thoughts to their logical conclusions, no matter how distressing. “It’s over, I’m telling you.” He glanced at Carina, who was still gazing out the window and didn't seem to have heard. “It is our little farms that are our future, if there will be any future at all.”

Carina turned on him. “Are you saying that this has all been for nothing? Miles, Alan, my father, our friends. . .dead over nothing at all?”

“Sweetheart, I’m just giving my own cynical opinion. I’m often wrong. I have no right to worry you at a time like this. Forgive me.”

“You’re lying.” Carina looked at him in wonderment. “It’s all been a lie, hasn’t it?”

“Of course not. The sacrifices have bought us valuable time.”

“Time for what? What have we done with this time that’s so valuable, if all it means is that everyone will end up living how Amalia and I have been living for the past fifteen years? How long have you known this?"

"I know nothing, my dear. I'm just a foolish man making idle guesses."

"No, you did know. That's why you would never tell us anything. That's why you only made jokes and told us silly stories. You didn't want us to know how bad it really was."

"I didn't want to worry you."

"Didn't want to. . .?" She looked about wildly.

Donovan grabbed her hand. "He meant well and nothing would've been any different." He looked at Alvi. "Isn't that true?"

"It is true." He tried to meet Carina's eyes. "Miss Carina. . ."

The hansom lurched to a stop and the driver pulled back the door on the roof. "Here you are. Fifty cents, federal. That's the special rate."

"Special rate?" Donovan asked as he handed Carina down from the cab.

Alvi handed the boy a federal dollar and waved him away. "They have a special price for families of the deceased. It's supposed to be cheaper, but everyone says it's really just the regular rate and they simply charge everyone else extra if they're not in black."

"Well, what's to prevent—" Donovan began.

"Anyone from wearing black and getting the special price, too?" Alvi shrugged. "Nothing at all. That's why the rumor that there is no special price and they just charge everyone else more."

Carina shook her head in disgust. "Everything's a racket here, isn't it?"

Alvi's tone was genuinely sorry. "Yes, my dear, I'm afraid it is." He looked at the store the cabdriver had deposited them in front of. “Including this place, most likely. But let's go in and take a look, shall we?"

Carina and Donovan took a good look at the store. It was an old-fashioned place, made during the twentieth century out of concrete and plate glass. The display window featured white paper doves hanging from wires, and plaster mannequins in stylish outfits of black, gray and lilac. All the plaster women held Bibles, little flags or often both. Running along the bottom of the big glass panes in fancy gold script were some lyrics from a ballad so popular it had become cliché. Carina read the words, "That your sacrifice may not have been in vain," and couldn't continue. Her lip curled in disgust. "I can't go in there. I'll be sick."

The men exchanged glances. "Just take a look, amorcita," Alvi said. "Perhaps it's not as bad on the inside."

"We'll go in for five minutes," Donovan added. "After that if you don't want to stay, we won't. But you need clothes."

* * *

At the jangling of the shop bells, a saleswoman looked up from a long counter of goods and scurried over, practicing her most sympathetic smile. "How do you do, madame?" Her gaze took in Carina's badly dyed dress and expensive silk wrap, then her eyes flickered to the hovering men. "What is madame interested in today?"

Carina gritted her teeth in annoyance, so Donovan attempted to answer for her. "Just about everything, I think."

"A nice dress for a homecoming ceremony and a funeral," Alvi elaborated. "A couple dresses for everyday, and a few sets of slacks, shirts and sweaters that will be sturdy enough for gardening and animal care. And all the accessories, of course."

"Take off that shawl, dear, and let me get an idea what size you wear." She pretended not to notice the sullen way Carina removed the silk wrap and handed it to Donovan, and she examined Carina with an expert's eye. "What a nice figure you have. We'll have no trouble getting you fitted for some very lovely things." She faked a frown of concern. "Now, tell me who you are wearing this for so I'll have an idea what style will be appropriate for the homecoming dress."

"It's for her husband," Alvi said.

"Oh, you're the widow of one of our courageous heroes." She put an arm around Carina's thin shoulders. "It's sacrifices like yours that help us keep our freedom. You must be so proud." While Carina struggled for a suitable remark, the saleswoman dragged her toward the back of the shop. "I have just the thing for you."

Alvi and Donovan found some chairs in the waiting area and sat down. "Carina's not going to put up with that for very long," Donovan said.

"Ten minutes at the most," Alvi agreed.

She didn't even last that long. Three minutes later she stormed up the aisle, snatched her wrap out of Donovan's hands and swept out the door. While Donovan ducked after her, Alvi pressed a coin into the perplexed saleswoman's hand. "I'm afraid she's still distraught. Thank you for your time."

He found Carina a few doors down, leaning against a sign post, gasping for air. Donovan had a hand on her back and leaned in close to murmur something to her. Alvi saw her shake her head, and he ran to catch up to them. "Carina, I am so sorry about that. It was a mistake to go in there." He tried to pull her to him, but she waved him off.

"There were two other women back there," she said. "They all started this 'brave war widow' bullshit. . ." Carina's hands trembled, she was so angry. "And then while one of them talked about how she was going to fix me up to look beautiful so people would pity me, the other prattled on about love and honor and sacrifice like she knew the first goddamn thing about it, and the other. . . oh, the other started hinting around about how much money could I spend, and then. . . dammit, I don't care if I have to wear this one ugly dress for the rest of my life, but I'm doing no more shopping in this town."

"Be reasonable," Alvi said. "I will take you to where I should've taken you from the beginning. A very nice, very dignified lady. She will treat you with the respect you deserve."

Carina shook her head. "I want to go back to the motel."

"Please darling, will you not trust your friend Alvi? You will like Margaret."

"Let's give it a try," Donovan said. "And if this doesn't work out. . ."

"If this doesn't work out I'm going back to the motel, with or without you."

* * *

Margaret was a private dressmaker and alterations specialist whose young daughters worked for her as errand-girls and personal shoppers. Her store was the bottom floor of a frame house on the edge of the shopping district where the line of stores met the grander homes of the city's historic Victorian neighborhood. Although the neatly lettered sign in her front window said "By Appointment Only," Alvi was unconcerned. "She owes me a favor."

They let themselves into a pleasant room of patterned rugs, upholstered furniture and tasteful antiques. It was a peaceful place, and plump, graying Margaret was mercifully kind. She took one of Carina's hands between her own and greeted her with genuine pleasure. She asked no personal questions, but merely wanted to know what items they needed. Then she took a few measurements, stood back and pondered. "I think we'll be able to do the dresses out of my stock, but I'll have to send out if you want work clothes."

"That will be fine," Alvi told her.

Margaret went to her desk and pulled twice on a velvet rope. Then she sat down and picked up the phone, but when she put the receiver against her ear, she sighed in annoyance. She pushed the phone away and began writing notes. After a few minutes, two girls, one in her early teens, the other still just a child pattered down the stairs. "Yes, Mother?" the older one asked.

The woman handed her an envelope. "Della, take this order to Tom and see if he can fill it right away. It'll be on account. Tell him if we like the goods we'll pay before he closes shop today."

She handed another envelope to the younger girl. "Joanne, this is for Miss Rachel over at Carter's. Be sure and wait for her to give you the things. Don't run off like last time."

"Is it a lot?" the girl asked. "Should I take my wagon?"

"You should be able to carry it all, but if it will make you happy to take the wagon, go ahead, but don’t use it as an excuse to take the puppy with you. The puppy stays here, understand?"

After the girls left, Margaret turned to Carina. "Would you like to look at some dresses now?"

Carina nodded and followed her from the room.

Alvi and Donovan settled into a pair of thickly upholstered chairs. Alvi picked up a newspaper from the coffee table and Donovan flipped through a book that was mostly color photographs of some country he had never heard of, but it looked like a nice place, full of green hills and stone towers. After awhile a woman came in, pushing an antique wooden cart. "Tea? Juice? Water? Scotch whiskey?"

The men gladly accepted the scotch, and Donovan was pleased to find it was the real thing and not cheap home brew. "Did she get this from you?" he asked Alvi.

"No, unfortunately, but we have the same supplier."

"Is that how you know her? A business connection?"

"We do a little business," he said vaguely. "But mostly she is just an old friend. I did her a favor once and we've thought kindly of each other ever since."

"What kind of favor? If that's not too personal a question."

"It's not personal to me, although it might be to her." Alvi sipped his whiskey. "I hid her oldest son on the night he escaped from base. They had picked him up off the street and drafted him, and they would have shot him for desertion if they had caught him, as you know only too well."

"Don't remind me."

"I didn't know who he was, of course. I was simply minding my own business when a boy who looked barely old enough to be allowed across the street came pounding on my door. I hid him in one of my wicker chests underneath some Indian blankets. When the soldiers came looking, I denied having ever seen him. Because of who I knew, they believed me and went away."

"Where is the boy now?"

"Who knows? I took him to a place where he said someone from the Underground would help him get away and that was the last I saw of him. I took a message from him to his mother, made her acquaintance and here we are."

"You know," Donovan said, "Your true stories are good enough that it makes a person wonder why you bother making anything up."

"An outlet for my natural creativity, of course," Alvi said with a self-mocking gesture. “Most of life is very dull. I buy things, I sell things. I eat and I sleep. . .”

“And you report to the feds on what you see.”

“And sometimes the reports are even true. But I only tell them about the things that don’t really matter. I would never tell tales that would hurt people. Not people I like, anyway.”

The door opened and Della came in, carrying a paper-wrapped bundle under one arm and a cloth tote over the other. She let the door slam shut behind her and went to the back room where Carina’s fitting was going on.

“This is going to be expensive,” Donovan remarked.

“You must allow me to help.”

“We can afford it.” Donovan did a few mental calculations. He wasn’t sure what all these things cost, but he knew that the kind of shop they were in, with its personal services, was far beyond their budget. Well, he had been meaning to scare up a poker game, anyway. He would have to make sure he won big.

Alvi watched him, grinning as if he could read the younger man’s thoughts, but all he said was, “I remain deeply indebted to Miss Carina, so I’m afraid I must insist.”

Donovan toyed with his empty glass, wondering if the maid would be back with more drinks. He hoped she would, and soon. “Does it worry you,” he asked, returning to the thread of their earlier discussion, “That you’re playing both sides of the game?”

“Not much. I think my unique situation puts me in a position where I can do a lot of good, don’t you?”

“It doesn't cause a conflict for you?”

“I’m never confused about my loyalties. I have few real friends, but there is nothing I would not do for them, even if it means I must die.” Alvi leaned back in his seat. “You look surprised, but yes, I’m very loyal. Aren’t you the same? Wouldn’t you gladly suffer torture, and even death, if it meant your dearest friends could live in peace and safety?”

Before Donovan could answer, the dressing room door opened and Carina came out, wearing her old dress. She sat on the sofa with a contented sigh.

“Did you find something you liked?” Alvi asked.

“Yes, thank you. Margaret is going to get one dress ready before we leave and will have the rest sent over to our room this evening.” She turned to Donovan and explained. “Everything back there is unfinished. She had me put things on, then she pinned the hems, seams and cuffs and now she’ll sew them to my measurements.”

“But you’re so thin,” Donovan pointed out. “If you ever start eating again, nothing will fit.”

“She says she always leaves room to let the seams out. And I wish you’d stop worrying about what I do and don’t eat.”

“He’s right to worry,” Alvi said. “The world is full of starving people and you starve yourself on purpose. That’s why I’m going to take you to a restaurant tonight. You’re going to have a nutritious meal and I’m going to watch you eat every bit of it.”

“Who put you two in charge?” Carina stretched out on the sofa and put her hands over her face. “I’m not a kid.”

“Then we will expect you to stop acting like one," Alvi said. “Besides, you’re a brave war widow and need to keep up your strength so you can inspire all the other ones.”

“Oh God, don’t remind me. And to think I've got to deal with that again tomorrow at the stupid homecoming ceremony.” She looked at Alvi. "You're sure there's no way around it?"

"I'm afraid not, amorcita. I spoke to all my connections and they were very clear on the matter. It's policy."

"It's propaganda." She was about to say something else when the kitchen door opened and the maid returned with her cart. “What is this?” Carina asked, sitting up.

“Tea, juice--” the maid began reciting.

“Give her some of the scotch,” Alvi said.

The maid appeared startled and looked to Carina for confirmation. “Would madame—“

“A cup of tea sounds nice,” she said.

The maid poured some tea into a china cup with a pink rosebud pattern. “Cream? Honey?”


The maid looked at the men and reached for the bottle of scotch. “Would you like some more?”

“Yes,” Donovan said.

“Two for me.”

The maid looked at Alvi skeptically but did as he asked.

After she had gone, Alvi set his extra glass in front of Carina. “Drink up, love.”

Carina protested but finally allowed herself to be talked into accepting the drink. Then Alvi embarrassed her by offering a toast to her health. By the time Joanne returned from her errands and Margaret called Carina to the fitting room, she had a serious case of the giggles.

Alvi stretched his legs in front of him and folded his hands behind his head. "Very inappropriate behavior for the bereaved widow of one of our heroes."

Carina had started to stand up but collapsed back onto the sofa, laughing, and Donovan had to help her to her feet. "Pull yourself together," he told her. "It shouldn't take long now. We'll go have dinner after."

"We'll order champagne," Alvi said.

"Order you a cup of coffee, more like," Donovan mumbled as he took Carina's arm and guided her toward the back. "Try to be serious for just a few minutes and then we'll get out of here, okay?"

She nodded, drew a deep breath and dabbed at her eyes. She had been laughing so hard she had cried. Or was the laughter just a cover for tears? She settled her features and gave Donovan a strange, serious look that answered his unspoken question. Then she lifted her chin and went into the back room to finish her business with Margaret.

* * *

They had dinner at an old hotel on the town plaza, a great overdone edifice of granite archways, heavy oak doors and diamond-shaped panes of glass in the windows. It was a place favored by town leaders, railway officials and a few well-off local ranchers. And military officers. It seemed everywhere Donovan looked he saw a man in brass and stripes. Had it not been that many of them knew Alvi and came over to shake hands and wish them a pleasant evening, he would've been so nervous he would've given himself away by fleeing. Instead, he followed Alvi and Carina to a pleasant corner table and accepted a menu. He frowned at the small print, trying to make out at least one familiar word.

"The steaks are very good here," Alvi said, covering for Donovan's difficulties. "There are several big ranches nearby. The boys on base are supposed to make sure all the best stock ends up on trains to the larger bases and cities, but somehow the good citizens of Jonasville get tender porterhouse steaks and our boys at the front get stringy remnants in dented tins."

"I think I remember having that for dinner a few times," Donovan said. He put the menu aside. "I'll have whatever you recommend, since you obviously know what's good."

When the waiter came by, Alvi ordered a bottle of champagne and steaks for all three of them. Afterward he noticed Carina pouting. "I’m sorry dear, but you had already read everything on the menu three times and still hadn't made up your mind."

"I don't know what I want," she said petulantly, playing with one of the cuffs of her new black dress. "I mean, it all sounds like it would be good, but then I think about having to eat it. . ."

"That's why I chose for you.”

Their champagne arrived and Carina surprised both men by the determination with which she attacked it. She had finished her first glass even before their appetizers arrived. Donovan frowned but didn't say a word as Alvi refilled her glass and turned a friendly smile on a paunchy, uniformed man who had wandered over to their table with his wife on his arm.

"Good to see you here tonight, Alvi."

Alvi jumped to his feet and pumped the man's hand enthusiastically. “Even more of a pleasure to see you, Major.” He beamed at the pretty brunette in pink spangles and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "What a lovely rose you are tonight, Claire. Keeping your man in line, I hope?"

"I'm trying." Her eyes darted toward Donovan and Carina, and Alvi made hasty introductions. Carina sucked in her breath when the woman made the common assumption that anyone in black was in mourning and gave her a stylized peck on the cheek, murmuring, "You have my utmost sympathy, dear."

Luckily their stay was short. "An acquaintance from base," Alvi apologized after the couple had gone to their table.

"How do you know them?" Carina asked. "They don't look like the type to buy huaraches."

"I have business dealings with them, nonetheless."

Carina was unconvinced, but before she could say anything, their appetizers of roasted nopalitos and local cheese and chiles arrived. She looked at her plate in dismay, but forced herself to take a bite.

"It's good, darling, isn't it? You must eat it all."

Donovan squeezed her hand under the table. "Eat as much as you can."

Carina frowned and was about to quiz Alvi again about his friends in high places when a mariachi trio appeared at their table. The leader blasted his trumpet and all hope of discussion was lost.

* * *

By the time they reached the dessert course, Carina was drunk. At first Alvi had cajoled her into laughter with his stories, but by the time she gave up picking at her steak and polenta, her mood had darkened dangerously. All around her were brightly dressed military wives, hanging on the arms of their officer husbands. It should've been her. Not that she had ever wanted Miles in the military to begin with, but since they had forced him to go and made him a captain in deference to his status as a doctor, it seemed unjust she had never had the opportunity to enjoy the perks before they shipped him off, never to return. How was it that these ladies got to wear pretty dresses, dine in restaurants and keep their far less worthy husbands at their sides while hers had been killed in some far-away place? It wasn't fair, and drink emboldened her to say so.

“All of life is unfair,” Alvi said. “These people will get what’s coming to them. Time is running out. Very soon they will envy you.”

Carina scoffed. “For what? For my intimate acquaintance with alfalfa, seed stock, and manure?”

“Quite likely, yes.”

She took another look at the room full of soft, well-fed townies, and shook her head. “No, I think a lot of these people would rather die than live any other way than this.”

“They probably will die.” Alvi motioned the waiter over. “Coffee and brandy, and something chocolate for all of us. Do you have mousse tonight?”

“No, sir, but we have pot du crème.”

“That will be fine.”

Carina remained immersed in sullen thoughts. “We left city life so long ago. My parents convinced us everything was falling apart and there was no time to lose. But there are places where things have carried on anyway.” She looked from Alvi to Donovan, challenging them for an explanation. "I could’ve been living like this all along.”

“This isn’t how most city people live these days,” Donovan said. “I was one, remember?”

“My family wasn’t poor."

Alvi shook his head. “Carina, this place is hardly typical. Do you know anything of the history of this town?” When he got only a vague answer in reply, he went on. “This place was nothing when there was oil, do you understand? How many highways come here? One, and it’s not even an interstate. This town was dead until the crash. It came back to life only because of the railroad and because droughts in better ranchlands made this valley profitable. This is all new wealth, and there's little enough of it, if you were to see the rest of the town. The success they've had here couldn’t have been predicted. And when the trains stop coming, as they will very soon, the people who have come to count on small luxuries like a night on the town once a week and electricity for a few hours each day, will suffer the same fate as the people of Catalunia, the people who died in the Macrina riots, and the people who Donovan grew up with.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do know that.”


“I have sources."

Carina raised an eyebrow. “You do seem to know an awful lot for just a peddler.”

Their dessert arrived before Alvi had to answer. Carina tasted hers as cautiously as she had everything else, but there the resemblance to the rest of her recent eating habits ended. Donovan smiled. “I think we know how to get you to eat.”

She pushed the little bowl away, stammering about chocolate and childhood memories, then buried herself in her brandy snifter.

Donovan looked at her askance. “We should probably think about getting back to the motel. We have to be up early.”

Carina, whose mood had lightened over dessert, became angry again. “Oh yes, the homecoming ceremony. They can’t just kill a man and let his wife collect what’s left, but they have to make it into some sort of pseudo-religious, patriotic bullshit thing with the corpse as a hostage for your good behavior.”

Alvi motioned for the waiter to bring the check. “It’s just their way of trying to honor the sacrifices you both made.”

Carina leaned toward him. “I don’t want to hear another fucking thing about my sacrifices. I’m not a brave war widow, Miles was not a hero and there is no honor in any of this shit.”

Both men stared in shocked silence. Donovan reacted first, jumping to his feet and adjusting Carina’s wrap around her shoulders. “Let’s get you back to the motel.”

“You think I’m drunk, don’t you?” She snatched the edge of her new velvet cloak out of his hand. “You know I'm speaking the truth.”

By now some people at the next table were looking at her. “It’s okay,” she told them. “I’m just the bereaved widow of one of our gallant heroes. Nothing to see here.”

Donovan grabbed her by the elbow and steered her toward the door. “Let’s go outside.”

“Why? Are you embarrassed by me?”

The words were offered rhetorically, but Donovan squeezed her arm so tightly he could feel her bones through the thick padding of the cloak. “Yes, you are embarrassing me. And Alvi. And yourself.”

Such a direct answer startled her long enough for him to get her out the door while Alvi remained behind to settle up with the waiter. Outside, the cool autumn air brought Carina back to her senses. There were a number of hacks waiting for fares, but Donovan guided her to the dim circle of light beneath a solar-charged streetlamp.

Carina took a deep breath of the cold air then buried her face against Donovan’s chest. “I should’ve stayed home. You and Amalia were right. I can’t handle this.”

Donovan wrapped his arms around her. “It’s okay. You don’t have to let these hypocrites get to you. You’re stronger than you think.”

“No I’m not.” Her voice was muffled by Donovan’s jacket. “I can’t. I just—“

He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head. Had she looked up at him for even a moment he would’ve kissed her lips and whispered all the words of love he wanted to say, but just at that moment Alvi came hurrying out of the restaurant. Donovan took a step back. “Alvi and I are going to take you back to the room, all right? You need to rest. That’s why you’re behaving like this. You’re exhausted.”

Carina nodded and dabbed her eyes with the edge of her cloak. Then she let herself be guided to a waiting cab, where she leaned back in the upholstered seat, turned her face away and closed her eyes. By the time the horse trotted up to the motel, she was asleep.

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