Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.
Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything—not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives—dictate his life.
Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.
Cyril peeled himself out of bed hideously early the next morning and briefly considered the merits of vomiting. Perhaps on Aristide. The other man stretched like a sensual fresco across more than his share of the mattress, lustrous tangles of hair fanned out against the linens. He looked peaceful, sated, and not at all like he’d been up in the night searching through Cyril’s things. Drunk, Cyril was a fitful sleeper, and he hadn’t missed Aristide’s nocturnal reconnaissance.
Swiping his billfold from the nightstand—Ilse must be back in, and already pressing his abandoned trousers—Cyril staggered to the washroom. He looked like a tragic melodrama: shadowed, bloodshot eyes, his neck and chest mottled with bruises… One particularly livid splotch colored his jaw. He desperately needed a shave.
What he got instead was a face full of cold water, and his briefcase. It was exactly as he had left it, untroubled by Aristide’s nosiness. The leather was beaded with moisture on one side, but the lock was dry. He held out hope for the contents.
Wrapped in one of Ari’s ridiculous robes—poisonous green velvet that did nothing for his complexion—Cyril hauled himself to the parlor and collapsed into the wing back chair by the bookcase. Ilse came when he rang, her cheeks still rosy from a cold commute.
“Get me a pot of coffee,” Cyril said. His stomach lurched. “And maybe a wastebasket.”
She nodded and dis appeared, returning a few moments later with the basket. “Coffee in a minute or two, Mr. DePaul.”
She was true to her word. He was still contemplating the clean bottom of the wastebasket when he heard the faint whistle of a kettle somewhere in the flat. The smell of brewing coffee sent rich tendrils through the stillness of the parlor. Cyril released his grip on the basket and put it on the floor, within easy reach.
Ilse returned bearing a tray and a folding table, which she set up at Cyril’s right elbow. In addition to coffee, she’d brought him a tumbler of… something.
“Ilse,” he said, tipping the brownish orange concoction to catch the light from the table lamp. “What is this?”
“Mr. Makricosta’s proven hangover remedy,” she said. “An egg with tomato juice, a healthy dash of fish sauce, and three spoonfuls of hot chili paste. Oh, and a little bit of black pepper bounce. The liquor takes the edge off.”
He closed his eyes and breathed shallowly through his mouth against the briny, bitter smell of the potion. “Thank you,” he said, trying to sound like he meant it.
She snorted and made herself scarce.
Taken all at once, it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared, though he was briefly blinded by the spice. He poured a cup of coffee against his exhaustion and splitting headache. With the key from his billfold, he unlocked his briefcase.
It was stupid to read this here. But Ari wouldn’t be up for another hour or so—the sky outside the arching parlor windows remained deep purple in the west, the barest flush of gray light creeping over the gabled roofs and chimney pots across the river.
He flipped the cover of the file. Focusing on the words made his eyes ache, but he was a professional, for queen’s sake, and a hangover was not going to dull his edge.
As if to chastise him for his confidence, his stomach contracted unexpectedly. He lurched for the wastebasket, but nothing came up. Setting the basket aside, he picked up the file and straightened the ruffled papers.
According to a one-page biography of the fictitious Sebastian Landseer, Cyril’s new working identity was an obscenely wealthy landowner in the Hellican Islands who had contacted the owner of a Nuesklend textile mill some five years back with a proposition: He could source wool from farmers on the islands and facilitate shipping to the Nuesklend mills. Taxes on international shipping were only nominally higher than interstate, and the quality was better. Nobody bought wool from Farbourgh anymore. Landseerhad hit the timing perfectly: His offer coincided with the worst year of ovine skin blight Farbourgere farmers had seen in a decade.
The typeset on Landseer’s out going letters matched Central’s standard-issue typewriters, copies of the originals. The replies were of varied appearance, from different people typing and writing on different paper, with different ink. Cyril paged through and took note of the names: Rotherhite, Keeler, Berhooven, Pollerdam… Mill owners, Landseer’s colleagues in the textile industry, all prominent Ospies. Because Landseer’s occupation and lifestyle kept him far from Gedda, and a stranger to his peers, it was possible now for Cyril to take over and leave these people none the wiser.
The letters revealed that Landseer’s interest in Geddan textiles had been piqued by the upcoming election. Mills and dealers would reap higher profits if domestic tariffs were abolished. Landseer’s one compunction with unionist ideology was sourcing from within Gedda’s borders. His friends and contacts made veiled allusions to a black market, promised his wool would still sell to Geddan mills. After all, fabric couldn’t be made without raw materials, and a change in regime wouldn’t cure Farbourgh’s sheep. Money made hypocrites of most people, in the end. It was how Aristide earned a living.
Landseer’s last letters, postmarked from Ibet in northern Tatié, where he was enjoying heaps of fresh powder on the slopes, showed he was still holding out, still hesitating. But he promised his correspondents he would be in town during campaign season, “just to keep an eye on you,” he said, to Berhooven. “Rumor has it you’re a rager when there’s free champagne.”
“Lady’s name,” said Aristide, “what a hideous hour to be awake.”
Cyril was too well-trained and too hung over to snap the file shut with any speed. Anyway, Ari’s voice came from somewhere behind him, probably the hallway. Cyril could picture him, half-wrapped in his dressing gown, leaning forward on his toes at the edge of the fringed runner.
Carefully, Cyril folded up his research and switched it out for a set of innocuous memos.
“Do you realize what t-t-time it is?” asked Aristide. Cyril heard, just barely, footsteps on the plush carpeting. Cool, bony hands slipped over his shoulders, settling on the planes of his chest.
“I can’t lie in when I’m hungover.” Cyril shuffled the memos into a tidy stack and set his briefcase aside, unsteady enough that he didn’t have to worry about looking casual.
“Poor, p-p-pitiful Cyril.” Aristide settled on the arm of the chair, his robe falling away from a lean thigh, waxed smooth. He picked up the yellow-filmed tumbler from Cyril’s coffee tray. “Did Ilse bring you an egg tonic?”
“If you mean that vile mix-up you call a remedy, she did.” Cyril set a hand on Ari’s leg, stroked it. His skin was golden-brown, smooth but delicate with the first faint signs of age—Cyril placedAri in his early forties, but would never dream of asking. He let his head fall into the curve of Aristide’s ribs and stomach, still warm from bed, and listened to his heartbeat and the waking growls of his hungry stomach.
“Ilse was going to do herring rollmops,” said Ari, finger-combing Cyril’s pomade-sticky bed head, “but you look like you mightn’t want any.”
Cyril swallowed against a rush of bile. “How is it,” he demanded, “that you’re awake and in good health while you drank at least as much as I did—”
“P-P-Practice—” started Aristide, but Cyril ran over him.
“—and spent half the night going through my things? I heard you rummaging around. Did you find anything interesting?”
The sly good humor vanished from Aristide’s expression. “Cyril.”
Cyril sighed and straightened. “No. Never mind. Let’s not get into it.” But he’d crossed a line. Their conflict of interest was not something they discussed. Ari stood from the arm of the chair and straightened his dressing gown.
“I’ll go see about some breakfast, shall I.” It was not a question. He stalked off in search of Ilse, leaving Cyril scowling over a third cup of coffee, his stomach not entirely convinced of the wisdom of a decent meal.
His hangover had passed into new and undreamt-of agonies by the time he arrived at the Foxhole, briefcase clutched in one white-knuckled hand and an unread copy of the Clarion wedged into his armpit. He’d been too sick on the trolley to do much but sip the cold, wet air and pray.
Foyles, whose powers of observation matched those of Central’s brightest, smiled with one side of his mouth. “Feeling woozy, sir?” he asked. “You won’t like what’s happening upstairs. I ain’t supposed to know it, but the Gentleman’s in with Culpepper and they’re both waiting for you.”
If Culpepper was “the Skull,” to the Foxhole, “the Gentleman”was Josiah Hebrides, Amberlough’s primary representative to the upper assembly of Gedda’s parliament. Cyril’s stomach sank further into turmoil.
On the fifth floor, Memmediv gave Cyril a sour look over the tops of his reading spectacles.
“Morning, Memmediv.” Cyril had discovered on the ride over that he’d lost his cigarette case during last night’s activities. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a straight?”
The secretary made a small noise through his impressive nose. “Honestly.” But he pulled a black leather case from his pocket and flipped it open. His hooded glare followed Cyril, who took time picking. The row of crisp white tubes had a tendency to blur together, and the smell of tobacco made him dizzy with craving and sickness in equal measure.
Memmediv was saved from giving up his cigarettes by Culpepper, who chose that moment to stick her head out the door.
“DePaul,” she said, and nothing else. But it was enough that Cyril groaned and straightened up. “Vaz,” Culpepper went on, and she must have been distracted, because usually she was scrupulously professional with Memmediv. “Be a swan and fetch us some coffee?”
“Yes, Vasily,” said Cyril. “Do.”
Culpepper leveled a thin finger at Cyril. “You. In here.” The finger curled.
Gathering himself, Cyril sighed and followed her.
“Don’t embarrass me in front of Hebrides,” she said, close to his ear. “If you hurl on the carpet, you’re cleaning it up.”
“Ada.” He put his hand between her mouth and his ear. “After coffee. Please. “
She was about to snap at him—he could feel the sharp intake of her breath against his cheek—but she didn’t get the words out.
“Mr. Hebrides.” Cyril let his hand be drawn into a vigorous shake. Hebrides’s grip was dry and warm, his palm meaty. He was shorter than Cyril, but probably weighed half again as much: a solid man with flushed features and black, receding hair. Gray gleamed under the dye.
“How are you keeping?” He stopped pumping Cyril’s arm, but kept his hand and drew him close to slap his back. In mint condition, Cyril would’ve borne this jovial greeting with better spirits. But while his liver worked to exorcise half a bottle of the city’s best absinthe, all he could do was nod and try, wanly, to smile.
“A little worse for wear, eh?” Hebrides pulled out Culpepper’s plush leather chair. “Have a seat. Need a straight?”
Cyril settled into the soft, creaking cushions. “Gasping for one.”
“I’m glad a few of Ada’s foxes still know how to have fun.” Hebrides flipped open his cigarette case and slipped out two gold-banded straights. “She’s come down hard on her pups. When oldAurelio was in charge of the ’hole… well. There were more than a few of his agents who stumbled in late reeking of gin. Always got their jobs done, though.” Hebrides spoke with a thick urban drone, the hallmark of a city-born Amberlinian.
“DePaul’s methods have become… unorthodox in the last year.” Culpepper set her stack of files down and favored Cyril with a sneer. “But I’m confident he’ll clean up well.”
“And quickly too, I hope.” Hebrides lit his cigarette, then tossed the matchbook to Cyril. “Your ticket’s booked for next week.”
“Efficient.” Culpepper drew up the guest chair and sat across from Cyril. “You’ve read the letters. Do you have any questions?”
“A few. Landseer’s wormed his way into this cohort very smoothly. But what for? I mean, it looks like they want his money, but why?To buy votes? What’s the point of sending me?”
“Not buying votes, no,” said Culpepper. “The Ospies need financial support. Their constituency is made up of people hurt by shipping tariffs; money’s tight by default.”
“So I’m tempting them to…”
“Tell us all their dirty secrets.” Hebrides rubbed his hands together. “Make them convince you. Landseer won’t get a return on his investment unless the Ospies win the election. So make them tell you how they’ll do it. The reports coming out of Nuesklend say the Ospies have the results sewn up. But no one’s talking; we don’t have proof enough to scuttle Acherby’s plans.”
“Ah,” said Cyril. “So I’m bait. A honeypot.”
“A moneypot, more like.” Hebrides laughed at his own joke.“Hold out, DePaul, like a blush boy playing for his rent. Holdout.”
“And Staetler. She’s given the all-clear?” Tatié had been unofficial. White work, they called it, for the paper between the lines. Unconstitutional, and dangerous. But with the permission of Staetler, Nuesklend’s governing primary…
“She’s promised to endorse our action during the endgame.” From the look on Culpepper’s face, she knew it wasn’t what Cyril wanted to hear. “But you understand, she can’t issue any official permissions. We aren’t sure who in her office or the Nuesklend Foxhole is on the Ospie payroll.”
The door swung inward and Memmediv entered, hip first, bearing a tray of cups, sugar, and a salver of cream. He set it down in the midst of a stiff silence, under the weight of a secret conversation obviously suspended. But working in Central, Cyril supposed, he must be used to that sort of thing. He managed it with grace.
“Thank you, Memmediv,” said Culpepper, her professional manner reassembled.
“No trouble.” He retreated and shut the heavy door behind him.
Hebrides settled onto a corner of Culpepper’s desk and dashed cream into one of the cups. “Doctor says to take it black,” he confided. “But when half the nation stands against you, I say take it however you damn well please.”
Cyril curled his hands around his own cup, breathing the dark scent deep down into his queasy center. “So,” he said. “I dangle a blank check in front of their noses and make them convince me. And you’re hoping to shut it down before things come to a head?”
“Ideally. You get the evidence; we bring an accusation. The regionalists mount a fraud suit against Acherby, destroy his political career, and get him thrown in the trap.”
“And what if I can’t get you anything until after the election?”
“Same story. Just riskier. Possession is nine-tenths, et cetera.”Culpepper hitched an ankle over her knee. Her trouser leg pulled up, showing a length of muted argyle sock.
“Can’t you just get Nuesklend’s Master of the Hounds on this? It sounds like a police matter to me. Or maybe ask parliament for election monitors?”
“Election monitors are out,” said Hebrides. “Tensions too high with the Ospie states.”
“Shake with the right, shoot with the left.” Cyril massaged his forehead, pressing on his tender sinuses. “And the police?”
“We strongly suspect the unionists have bought Nuesklend’s force,” Culpepper said. “It’s part of why they’re hurting for money. And party members aren’t afraid to wield a cudgel in service of the cause. They have intimidation down to an art form. Finding witnesses to testify will be a problem.”
“But I’m not allowed to be intimidated, am I?”
“Why?” asked Culpepper. “Are you?”
Cyril set down his coffee cup and took a deep drag on Josiah’s very fine cigarette. The smooth tobacco tasted of malt sugar. Closing his eyes, he pretended to savor it.
Fieldwork. The scar that split his belly itched. He fought to calm his heart rate, to put the terror of his last action out of his mind. Th is was a simple job, set up by someone else, already half-done. An easy entrée, for an experienced agent stepping back into harness. He’d been very good at this sort of thing, once. He realized he was still holding his breath, and forced himself to let it go slowly.
Mid-exhale, he opened his eyes, and met Culpepper’s gaze through the smoke. “Who’s my case officer?”
She finally smiled, barely, and there was an edge to it. “You’ll report to me. It’s a little bit beneath my purview, but I thought you’d appreciate the familiarity.”
“For old times’ sake?” Cyril ground out his straight. “You’re a treasure.”
It got him one of her rare smiles. He tried to match it and knew he hadn’t. Shaking hands with Hebrides, he excused himself, then retreated to the washroom. As soon as the door was closed and bolted, he stripped his jacket and loosened his tie, then collapsed against the toilet bowl and vomited.
Culpepper gave him samples of Landseer’s handwriting to copy, and he spent a few hours covering pages and pages with the back-slanting script. His eyes hurt and his wrist was cramped, and he wasn’t getting any better at it. Besides, the sun was out at last, shining on the spires and naked treetops of the university. He didn’t want his back to the window. He wanted the sun and clear air.
The lift shuddered to a halt at the third floor. That redheaded boy—Finn Lourdes, wasn’t it?—got on with hat in hand, shapeless greatcoat unbuttoned at the front to reveal his shabby suit, worn to a shine. He nodded at Cyril, politely, but seemed to catch halfway through the gesture, like a faulty piece of clockwork.
“Here, now.” He leaned forward in concern, and his forelock flopped into his eyes. They were slate gray, generously ringed in blue. “Are you all right? You look bashed.”
Sacred arches, Cyril must look dire, if the accountants were catching him out. “Late night,” he said. “And a little too much of the green witch.”
“Ah, that explains it.” He pushed his hair back. It was unstyled and wanted a cut, though its copper brilliance distracted from its disarray. “You look like you’re about to drop.”
“I am,” said Cyril, and Finn laughed.
“Finn Lourdes,” said the younger man, holding out a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve ever met, not properly. You were pretty far gone with the morphine, last time.” He had the soft, rolling accent of an urban Farbourgere. Pleasant to listen to.
Cyril shifted greatcoat and briefcase. Finn’s handshake was good. Cyril held it a moment longer than necessary. Finn had soft palms, but for a scrivener’s callous on his pointer finger, black with an ink stain. As their shake lengthened, a flush started across the bridge of Finn’s nose, rising up his cheeks.
“Cyril DePaul.” He broke the handshake and eye contact and took his card case from his breast pocket.
“A pleasure.” Finn took a card, scanned the front, then slid it into the battered leather folio he held under one arm. Spiraling a finger to indicate the building around them, he asked, “Making a break from this tomb?”
“Hah.” Cyril let himself half-smile. “I suppose you could say that. You?”
“Actually…” Finn looked over his shoulder, as if he suspected eavesdroppers. “Yes. I’ve told them I’ve got a doctor’s appointment. Don’t let on. It’s just, it’s been raining for ages, and the sun’s finally out…” He cocked his head, watching Cyril from beneath strong brows like gulls’ wings. “I was thinking I might go down to the harbor for lunch, watch the boats come in. Say, you wouldn’t join me, would you?”
Cyril must not have kept the dubious expression from his face, because Finn blanched and stammered and said, “Only, if you’ve got somewhere else to be, or if you’re too tired, I understand—”
Finn seemed sweet, but Cyril didn’t do sweet. “Is this a pickup?”he asked, more sharply than he meant to. Exhaustion made him blunt.
Finn went from sick white to burning redhead blush in less than a space of a breath. “Oh! Oh, no, I— it’s just it’s nice out, and you seem so… well.” He checked himself. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t pay me any mind.”
The hectic color in Finn’s cheeks shamed Cyril, and suddenly he felt small and mean. The lift doors opened onto the ground floor. Before Finn could rush off in embarrassment, Cyril stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Where to?”
Finn started, then smiled. “Nowhere special. There’s a little place I like near the spillway. Cheap oysters, but they won’t kill you.”
It wasn’t quite a dive, but it wasn’t what Cyril was accustomed to, either. Finn advised against the establishment’s liquor, so Cyril had beer, which was surprisingly good.
Finn’s shabby suit and shiny elbows fit snugly into the ambiance, and when Cyril caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar, he admitted they probably wouldn’t have let him through the door at Sola’s. Bags under his eyes, patchy stubble, rumpled suit. No wonder Finn had worried about him on the lift.
“You’re fifth floor, right?” Finn spooned horseradish into another fan-shaped shell. These were big, earthy Amberlough Phrynes—cheap local oysters, not the sweet, small, dearly expensive west coasters.
Cyril nodded. “A paper pusher. Rather like you, I expect. A lot of budgets.”
“I thought fifth floor was supposed to be thrilling,” said Finn. “Espionage and cloak-and-dagger and things like that. Like in the novels.”
Cyril laughed into his beer, tried not to think about the packet of Landseer’s false papers locked in his desk. Exhaustion sank its claws into his back, pushed his shoulders forward. “I hate to disappoint you.”
“No glamour at all, then?”
“Well. I wouldn’t say that.” Cyril spread butter across a slice of brown bread, but saw white greasepaint shining on the angles of Aristide’s face, light through the rising effervescence of champagne. Damnation. What was he going to tell Aristide?
“Anything would be more exciting than the old adding machine,”said Finn. “Believe me, I’m good at what I do, but mercy! It’s unbelievably dull.”
“Even with all the Foxhole’s little secrets passing under your nose?”
“Secrets turn tiresome faster than you’d think.”
“Pithy,” said Cyril.
“I didn’t mean it as an epigram.” Finn tipped the last oyster down his throat, then wiped his fingers and face with a cheap brown paper napkin. He signaled the bartender, and Cyril reached for his billfold.
“Oh, my treat,” said Finn.
“No,” said Cyril, “really.”
Finn shook his head, once, decisively. “I said the oysters were cheap. I made the invitation, and I’m paying. You make an invitation, you can pay.”
Cyril raised the last of his beer. “Until the next time, then.”
Finn smiled, and tipped his empty pint glass in acknowledgment of the toast.