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Steady Girl

Eric Flint

 


Noelle Stull's kitchen
Grantville, capital of the State of Thuringia-Franconia
June 12, 1635

"I'm telling you, Noelle, something's wrong with Eddie," Denise Beasley insisted. She stared into the coffee cup in front of her with all the intensity of a fortune teller reading tea leaves. "He's been acting weird for weeks, now. He hardly talks to me at all any more, he's so damn obsessed with making money."


In point of fact, there were tea leaves at the bottom of the cup and Denise had drained it dry enough that they could be read. Assuming she was a fortune teller, that is, which she wasn't. Indeed, she would have heaped derision on the suggestion with all the enthusiastic energy of which her sixteen-year-old self was capable.


That was a lot of enthusiasm and energy, which made her current mood all the odder. "Glum" and "Denise Beasley" were terms that normally couldn't be found in the same room. For that matter, the same football field.


Standing at the stove where she was bringing a kettle of water to a boil, Noelle Stull looked over her shoulder at Denise. A close observer might have spotted something unusual in that look. A hint of scrutiny. A trace of amusement. Perhaps also some concern and trepidation.


Denise, however, missed all that. She was too intent on staring at the tea leaves in her cup. "I don't like it," she concluded. "One damn bit."


Seeing that the water had come to a boil, Noelle used a folded up towel to lift the kettle off the stove and start another pot of tea brewing.


"I've had enough," Denise said. "I don't much like tea, anyway."


"I do," said her best friend, Minnie Hugelmair, who was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table. "Even if coffee weren't so expensive, tea is better."


"And since when is tea 'cheap'?" jeered Denise. "If you want 'cheap,' drink broth. The only reason Noelle can afford tea or coffee is because she's a government bureaucrat, living off the fat of the land—fat of the taxpayer, I should say—while she makes life miserable for the hardworking folk who produce all the real wealth by making them fill out useless forms for sixteen hours a day." She took a deep breath. "Thereby draining the nation's treasury, impoverishing its spirit and threatening its very soul, because nobody has time to do any real work."


Noelle started refilling her cup and Minnie's. "Been spending time with Tino Nobili lately, I see. How in the world did that happen?"


Denise made a face. "I had to go to the pharmacy to get some medicine for Mom and I got trapped."


"Exactly how does a sixty-five-year-old reactionary pharmacist with a potbelly and a bad knee trap a sixteen-year-old in very good health who is every truant officer's personal nightmare?"


"How do you think? He musta spent half a goddam hour mixing up Mom's stuff. The over-the-counter ibuprofen's long gone, you know. I would've left except her cramps are really bad this time. By the end, though, I was figuring I might die of starvation before Tino finished, on account of how I now understood that nobody actually makes anything any longer including farmers, who are idle in their fields. And it's all on account of you."


"Well, yes, that's true," said Noelle. "If anybody did any actual work instead of filling out my useless paperwork—which, oddly enough, consists of specialized forms filled out by less than one percent of the population, but never mind, a good Tino Nobili rant is a thing of wonder—then my stratospheric salary might get cut down to merely ionospheric proportions. And if that happened, I might have to settle for a town mansion instead of a country estate for my retirement home."


"You've got it all wrong," Minnie said firmly. "The ionosphere is higher than the stratosphere." She began gesticulating, as if she were stacking invisible books. "At the bottom, there is the troposphere. That's where we live. It goes up about ten miles and has more than three-fourths of all the air, measured by weight. Okay, then there is the stratosphere. It goes from about ten miles up to about thirty miles high. After that comes the mesosphere, the thermosphere and the exosphere. The ionosphere is part of the thermosphere. Way higher than the stratosphere."


Denise stared at her friend as if she'd suddenly discovered that an alien moved among them. Minnie shrugged. "I pay attention in class, even if you don't. Especially science class, because it's really interesting."


"And good for you," Noelle said. "Unlike Denise, you won't wind up with a brain like Tino Nobili's."


Minnie giggled. "All shriveled up. Hard as a walnut and just about as big."


Denise gave her a disgusted look. "Fat chance." She then transferred the look of disgust onto Noelle. "It's your fault. If you didn't overwork Eddie the way you do, he'd have some time to relax."


"As it happens," Noelle said mildly, "I'm barely working him at all, these days. He asked for as much time off as I could give him, and he got it. It's to the point now where I'm skirting the edge of fraud, the way I mark him down for working full days when he's not even close. Some days he barely shows up at the office at all."


Denise frowned. "Then what's he—"


"All kinds of odd jobs he picks up," said Noelle. "Mostly from his father's connections. Down-timers with money will pay a lot to get solid advice from another down-timer who understands up-time legal practices and the way to maneuver through the bureaucracy."


"See?" said Denise triumphantly. "You just admitted it yourself. It's a bureaucracy!"


"Well, of course it is. What else would government agencies be? A sports league?"


Minni giggled again. Noelle took a sip of her tea. "Back up-time, I'd have to rein him in. Government officials are allowed to give advice to people who use their agency's services, of course, but they're not supposed to get paid for it. Down-time, though . . ."


Minnie grinned, being a down-timer herself. "Oh, come on. By today's standards, Eddie Junker is the soul of probity. He won't give anybody privy information and he won't take bribes to finagle contracts or juggle results."


"Yes, I know. That's why I look the other way."


"But why?" demanded Denise. "Since when did Eddie care that much about money?"


There was silence in the room. Noelle and Minnie glanced at each other.


Denise, naturally, spotted the glance. Despite the gibe, and leaving aside Denise's cavalier attitude toward formal education, there wasn't the slightest resemblance between her brain and a shriveled up walnut.


"Okay!" she said. "You guys know something! So give."


Noelle sighed, then drained her cup and rose from the table to return it to the sink. "He wants to learn how to fly. And he figures flying lessons are going to cost him an arm and a leg."


"Bound to," said Minnie. "The air force won't teach him unless he signs up, which he's not about to do. Eddie hasn't got a military bone in his body, even if he does shoot a gun real well. That means he's got to pay the Kellys to teach him."


Denise frowned. "How much do they charge?"


"Who knows?" said Noelle, coming back to the table and sitting down. "There are no established rules or regulations, much less standard pricing, for flying lessons. They range all the way from a half-baked 'simulation' on somebody's computer to the sort of training pilots get in the air force. And you know what Eddie's like. He's not about to do something like this half-assed. He'll want to be trained by real pros like the Kellys."


"That means Kay Kelly will call the shots," Minnie added, "and you know what she's like. Eddie figures she'll want the equivalent in money of the pound of flesh nearest to his heart."


Denise's expression had been growing darker by the second. "You mean to tell me that Eddie Junker's been working like a dog in order to pay the Kellys for flying lessons?"


"That's the gist of it," said Noelle.


"We'll see about that!" Denise exploded. And off she went, up from the table and out the back door to Noelle's apartment like the proverbial flash. A few seconds later, they heard Denise firing up her motorcycle and racing off. Doing a wheelie, by the sound of it.


She'd been in too much of a hurry to even close the door. Noelle got up and shut it, then sat down again.


"You should have told her," Minnie said accusingly.


"Told her what?"


"You know. Why Eddie's doing it. As if he just decided to start flying for no reason!"


Noelle's lips tightened. "I don't approve in the first place, Minnie. You know that perfectly well."


"So what? I probably don't approve either. Not that I don't like Eddie a lot myself, but the whole thing's just silly. In a few weeks, we won't even be living here any more. We'll be in Magdeburg. A few months after that, we'll be in Prague."


Noelle's lips tightened still further. She knew the basic parameters of the plans Minnie and Denise had made with Francisco Nasi. Now that Mike Stearns had lost the election and wasn't the prime minister any more, his intelligence chief had decided to go into private practice—in Prague, because Nasi also had some long-overdue personal matters to deal with, and Prague had the largest and most sophisticated Jewish community in Europe.


Personally, Noelle thought the man must be insane. Why in the world would he want to saddle himself with looking after two teenage girls? Especially those two. Either one of them was a handful and a half. Put them both together . . . 


Noelle thought the wisecrack of one of the high school teachers about Denise and Minnie—in tandem, they're the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse—was overstating the case.


Probably.


"Who knows when we'll see Eddie again, after we move?" said Minnie. She shook her head. "That's going to be really hard on Denise. Since her father got killed, she leans a lot on Eddie even if she pretends she doesn't."


Noelle didn't say anything. Right there, she thought, was the heart of the problem. For all that there was no surface resemblance between stolid and level-headed Eddie Junker and Denise's ex-biker father, there were a lot more similarities than the average person might realize. However flamboyant Buster Beasley's reputation had been—and his death had been every bit as flamboyant—when it came to his daughter Denise, the man had been rock solid for the girl. As dependable as the tides.


There wasn't anything flamboyant about Eddie Junker. But he'd been Noelle's partner for some time now, and she knew him very well. They'd gone through the Ram Rebellion together, along with their adventure with the defectors and Janos Drugeth. If anyone had asked her to sum the man up, the first terms she would have used were "solid as a rock" and "dependable as the tides."


"Denise'll be okay, Noelle," Minnie said. "She's really smart, even if most people don't realize it because she gets bored in school and cusses like a soldier. Well, it doesn't help, probably, that she's beaten up a few boys, too. But only when they kept hitting on her after she told them to stop."


There was a lot of truth to that assessment, Noelle knew. But it still hadn't stopped Denise from . . . 


Oh, let's see. Recently? Just in the last few months?


Picked a fight with an army officer. No verbal joust, either. A down home fist fight—well, Denise had gone to bar stools and salt shakers real quick—in a tavern.


Stolen an airplane.


Crashed said airplane. Well, fine, she hadn't been the pilot. Had participated in the crash of a stolen airplane.


What else of note? Noelle wasn't positive, but she was pretty sure from odd bits and pieces of data that had come her way—despite her innocuous-sounding formal title, she amounted to a secret agent for the government of the State of Thuringia-Franconia—that Denise had been centrally involved in the still mysterious episode involving Bryant Holloway's killing. The man had been "shot into doll rags," as one person who'd seen the body reported to Noelle afterward.


Could Denise Beasley shoot a man into doll rags? By all accounts, quite unlike Noelle herself, the girl was adept with firearms. So . . . yes. No doubt about it.


Would she do it, though? Knowing Denise as well as Noelle did . . . 


Oh, yes, given the right situation. Noelle didn't have any doubt about that, either.


But all she said was, "I hope you're right."


The offices of Kelly Aviation
An airfield just outside of Grantville
June 12, 1635

"That's the most preposterous thing I've ever heard!" exclaimed Kay Kelly. "Ridiculous!"


She stopped striding back and forth and came to stand next to Denise, who was sitting in a chair in front of Bob Kelly's desk. Kay was a tall woman, and she loomed over the girl in a manner . . . 


That might have intimidated another sixteen-year-old but affected Denise Beasley about as much as a light drizzle affects a duck.


"Oh, yeah?" sneered Denise. "You guys bombed him, remember? As in 'war crime.' The word 'atrocity' comes to mind, too. I know—I was there."


"You certainly were!" screeched Kay. She was starting to gesticulate a bit wildly. She had no way of knowing it, but the gestures would have seemed quite familiar to a number of high school teachers. Who had also, in the fullness of time, had cause to be exasperated by Denise Beasley.


"You certainly were!" she repeated. "That's because you were in that airplane! Because you'd stolen it! In fact, you were the bombardier!"


"Oh, that's pure horseshit. Lannie Yost and Keenan Wynn stole the plane. I had no idea. I thought they'd borrowed it legitimately until we were already in the air and then it was too late. What was I supposed to do? Get out and walk? As for who was the bombardier, that was Keenan. I was just the navigator."


Had Denise been committed to an anal-retentive definition of truth-telling, she would have added that, well, yes, she'd actually been the one to give the command to drop the bomb. Seeing as how Lannie and Keenan were doofuses who couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with any sort of weapon. But Denise labored under no such silly notion. Truth was an expansive sort of thing, with lots of room around the edges.


Kay had resumed pacing back and forth, and was about to start screeching again. Fortunately, her husband Bob finally spoke up.


"Oh, calm down, Kay! Let's see if we can't work out something reasonable. Truth is, Eddie Junker was bombed by one of our planes, even if we hadn't given anybody permission to use it. We're all just lucky he didn't get hurt worse than a broken arm when his horse threw him."


Denise seized the moment. "Yeah, that was blind luck—as accurately as that plane of yours drops bombs, Mr. Kelly. It's no wonder the air force ordered a bunch of them."


She and Kelly exchanged big smiles. Bob was inordinately proud of his company's "Dauntless" line of aircraft—and, push come to shove, Denise had been one of the people who gave the plane its first real field test.


His wife Kay did not share in the momentary burst of good feeling. In fact, she hadn't even noticed it, as preoccupied as she'd been with her vigorous striding and gesticulating. "We're not—"


"Calm down, I said! We're not what? Liable?" Bob made a face. "If Eddie decides to sue us, it'll be a jury or a judge who makes that decision. You want to trust a judge or a jury? I sure don't. In fact, I'd just as soon keep the damn lawyers out of this altogether."


Kay pointed an accusing finger at Denise. "Let him sue! If he does, we'll sue her!"


"Oh, swell. We recoup our losses by stripping a sixteen-year-old clean of her possessions."


"Her mother—"


"Her mother? Would that be the Widder Beasley? Lemme see if I got this straight, Kay. You want us to fight it out in court with the widow and daughter of the hero Buster Beasley?" Bob shook his head. "Like I said. 'Oh, swell.' No, I don't think so."


His wife glared down at him, but the looming tactic was obviously just as useless with Bob as it had been with Denise. Kay Kelly was a rather formidable woman. But she and Bob had been married for a long time.


So Bob just ignored her and leaned forward in his chair, propping his arms on the desk and peering at Denise.


"You're sure about this? Eddie would be satisfied if we just provided him with flying lessons?"


"Yeah."


"How do you know?"


"I'm one of his best friends. Trust me. I know."


Kay hadn't quite given up. "Best friends! He's in his mid-twenties and you're way underage."


Denise looked bored. "He's twenty-three. That counts as 'early twenties,' not 'mid-twenties.' And there's no age of consent laws in the here and now and even if the seventeenth century had gotten around to that particularly stupid piece of so-called 'modern legislation,' it wouldn't matter anyway because we'd be under West Virginia law and the age of consent was sixteen. My sixteenth birthday was way, way back. Over seven months ago, now. And it's all beside the point, because Eddie and I aren't screwing each other. We're just real good friends."


Bob cleared his throat. "Kay, will you please let me handle this?"


His wife's lips tightened. But, after a moment, she went over to her own desk in the office and sat down. "Fine. Have at it."


Bob looked back at Denise. "I'm willing to bet you're doing this for Eddie, rather than him having sent you here." He held up his hand, forestalling any response on her part. "I'm not asking. Just don't think I'm a dummy, that's all."


"I never thought you were a dummy, Mr. Kelly," Denise said. That was quite true. Bob Kelly could sometimes be a walking definition of "absent minded" and he had plenty of other personal quirks and foibles. But nobody ever thought he wasn't smart. Dumb people don't design and build airplanes.


"What I'm getting at is this. If you and me reach a deal, I can assume that'll be okay with Eddie. Am I right?"


Denise nodded. "Yeah. Uh . . .  Yeah. It will."


She had no doubt she was right. Given that Eddie didn't exactly know that she was doing this in the first place.


Well. Had no idea at all, if you wanted to get fussy about it.


"All right, then. I'll undertake to train Eddie Junker to be a pilot. And we'll understand that to mean that I'll train him until he's qualified for solo flight on a Dauntless." A bit stiffly: "I can't qualify him on one of Hal's aircraft, y'unnerstand?"


"Not a problem." So far as she knew, it wasn't. She had no idea why Eddie had gotten fixated on learning how to fly, but she was sure that as long as he could fly one type of plane he'd be satisfied.


And if he wasn't, well, dammit, then he could waste his own money on lessons.


She stuck out her hand. "It's a deal."


Kay spoke up again. "Junker pays for the fuel! Dammit, Bob, show a little backbone."


Denise did a quick calculation. Eddie could afford the cost of the fuel easily enough, she figured. And if she didn't leave him something to pay for, he was likely to go all stupid-male on her.


"Yeah, fine. Not a problem. Eddie pays for the fuel. Mr. Kelly, you drive a tough bargain. Surprised they don't call you Razorback Bob."


Rebecca Abrabanel's kitchen
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe
July 2, 1635

"Does he not look splendid?" said Rebecca. The question was purely rhetorical, judging from the way her eyes were admiring her husband. Who, for his part, was standing in the middle of the large kitchen and looking uncomfortable. "Michael, stop fidgeting."


"Damn thing itches," Mike Stearns complained.


"Of course it itches," was his wife's unsympathetic reply. "It is made of wool. You will be glad of it, once you are on campaign. It will keep you warm in the winter and it will handle water well."


Rhetorical or not, Francisco Nasi thought it would be wise to provide a suitable answer. Hell might or might not have no fury like a woman scorned, but woe unto whichever fool neglected to praise a wife's abilities as a seamstress—or, in this case, ability to select a good seamstress.


"Oh, yes," he assured the wife in question, in tones loud enough to be heard by all occupants in the room. "Splendid, indeed."


He didn't even have to lie. Mike Stearns did look good in his new uniform. True, the austere design of the uniform was a bit startling to someone raised according to seventeenth-century notions of proper male costume. All the more so for Nasi, who'd been reared in the Ottoman court. But Stearns was a well-built man, and taller than average. He was still muscular and not gone to fat despite being close to forty years of age and having spent most of the last three years seated behind a desk. The severity of the uniform simply emphasized that physique.


Rebecca looked pleased, but Mike was still in a grumbling mood. "I'm starting to feel like a traitor. First, we've got a flag that from a distance looks just like a damn Confederate flag—and now this."


After a moment, Nasi deduced that by "this" Mike was referring to the color of the uniform. It was solid gray, shading slightly toward green. If Francisco remembered correctly, the uniform worn by the soldiers of the Confederacy in the American civil war had been that color.


But perhaps not. Nasi could hardly be expected to remember every detail of books he had read about the history of another world's future.


"Oh, hogwash, Mike," said his friend and now fellow army officer Frank Jackson. "Those uniforms were butternut."


Mike's sneer was magnificent. "Izzat so? Ever hear of 'the blue and the gray'? The 'gray,' you'll note, not 'the blue and the butternut,' which sounds downright silly."


Jackson leaned back in his chair and shrugged. "Those were just officers' uniforms. The uniforms of the grunts were butternut."


The sneer remained in place. Indeed, it expanded, as Mike pointed at a cap perched on a peg near the kitchen entrance. "See the stars there on the front of the cap? Two of 'em, no less." The accusing finger now jabbed at the insignia on his left shoulder. "Same two we've got right here. They stand for 'major general,' old buddy. Since you're apparently going senile, a major general qualifies as an officer."


Frank grinned. "Aren't we testy? Will it make you feel any better if I tell you that I happen to know just how and why the army's quartermasters settled on gray uniforms? Had absolutely nothing to do with our little American fracas, back when a couple of centuries from now. Seems they got their hands on some German history books and got swept up in a wave of future nostalgia." He pointed at Mike's tunic. "That color is officially 'feldgrau,' fella. That means—"


"I know what it means," growled Mike. "My German is quite fluent by now, thank you. 'Field gray.' Swell. So now I find out that instead of being a damn Confederate, it seems I'm a damn storm trooper."


"Actually, feldgrau uniforms were common in the German Army way before the Nazis," Frank said. "But is there anything else you want to complain about? If so, better get it out quick, since Francisco needs a decision."


"No, I guess I'm done." Then, demonstrating that he had not lost all his senses, Mike bestowed a winning smile on his wife. "It's a nice uniform, Becky. Thank you."


He turned toward Nasi, and the smile faded a bit. "Francisco, I don't see any way you could buy one of Hal and Jesse's planes without the whole thing causing a stink."


"Hal's planes," Jesse Wood said mildly. "I got out of the business"—he looked at Nasi—"for pretty much the same reason Mike doesn't think you can buy one of the planes. Looks bad. Conflict of interest, that sort of thing."


"I am quite wealthy," said Nasi. "I assure you that I can pay the full price for one of the planes—and I am quite willing to have the figures made public. Indeed, for my purposes, the more public, the better."


Mike shook his head. "It doesn't matter, Francisco. We're just too closely associated, all of us. Me, you, Frank"—he jabbed a thumb at Jesse—"even him, though I don't know if he voted for me in the election."


"In point of fact, I didn't," said the commander in chief of the USE's little air force. "I decided I'd follow General George Marshall's practice and not vote at all. I'm pretty sure Admiral Simpson did the same thing. But getting back to the issue at hand, Francisco, all of Hal's planes are spoken for by the air force, anyway, for at least another year's worth of production."


Francisco didn't argue the matter any further. He'd expected that answer. He'd only pushed the issue at all because he was reluctant to entrust his safety to any airplane that wasn't made by Jesse's one-time partner Hal Smith.


The alternatives were either Kelly Aircraft or Markgraf and Smith Aviation. Of those alternatives, Francisco had already decided he'd approach the Kellys, assuming Mike advised him that buying one of Hal Smith's planes was not a suitable choice. For his purposes, the new Dauntless aircraft was far more suitable than the slow and heavy cargo planes made by Markgraf and Smith.


That left the problem of finding a pilot. That wouldn't have been too hard if he'd been buying one of Smith's planes. Since the Gustavs were the standard models for the air force, quite a few people by now had learned to fly them. The same was not true for aircraft produced by the Kellys. Their test pilot was a man named Lannie Yost, about whom Francisco had heard many tales from his new assistant Denise Beasley. First and foremost among them, half-amused and half-awed accounts of Yost's alcohol consumption.


No, that wouldn't do.


* * *


"Piece of cake!" said Denise immediately. Her friend Minnie was vigorously nodding her head.


"You know someone?" asked Francisco.


"Eddie Junker," came the simultaneous reply from both girls.


"He's been learning how to fly from the Kellys," Denise explained. "By now, I betcha he's an expert on the Dauntless."


"He's been training for three whole weeks," concurred Minnie.


Francisco was dubious that "three whole weeks" constituted sufficient training for an aircraft pilot. He'd have to check with Jesse.


In the meantime . . . 


He gave both girls a stern look. "And now, back to your lessons. I promised your mother"—that to Denise—"and Benny that I wouldn't let you slack off just because you were no longer formally enrolled in school."


Minnie was too polite to yawn, but she might as well have. Francisco had only added the name of her adoptive parent Benny Pierce in the interests of maintaining formal evenhandedness. Minnie was quite good about doing her homework. Not so Denise, to whom the comment had really been directed.


But the girl just grinned at him. Francisco, a renowned spymaster with a continental reputation, managed to keep a straight face.


Barely.


In point of fact, since moving with him to Magdeburg, Denise had been quite attentive to her studies. It seemed that being an assistant to a renowned spymaster with a continental reputation made it fascinating to study exactly the same books she had previously scorned when they were assigned to a mere student. Such is the power of status change.


 


"It mostly depends on the student, Francisco," said Jesse. "If they've got a knack for it, and assuming they pay attention to their instructor, a person can learn to fly a plane a lot faster than you might think. The standard training for pilots in World War II was four and half weeks. Of course, that was continuous training, which I assume Eddie Junker hasn't been able to do since he has a job. The military wanted a pilot to have two hundred hours of experience flying a specific plane before they sent him into combat. Most civilian training courses are less demanding. They'll want a student to fly for ten to fifteen hours before they solo, and at least forty hours before they try to get a license."


That was much faster than Nasi had assumed. True, he still didn't know whether or not Eddie Junker had "the knack" for flying. But he did know that the Junker fellow was very reliable. For Francisco's purposes, a steady and reliable pilot was quite sufficient. He did not intend to fly a private plane into combat, after all.


So. Off to Grantville.


 


"Can we come?"


"No. You have your studies—which I promised your mother and Benny Pierce that you'd have completed before we move to Prague."


Minnie seemed unperturbed by the response. Denise scowled at him.


Noelle Stull's kitchen
Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia
July 9, 1635

"You bum," said Noelle Stull. For a moment, she looked as if she might snatch back the cup of tea she had placed before Francisco. "You dirty rotten bum," she qualified.


Nasi's tone was placid. "Oh, come now, Noelle. Surely you didn't expect Eddie Junker to work for you indefinitely."


"He doesn't work for me," Noelle snapped. "He's employed by the State of Thuringia-Franconia, same as I am. Technically, he's—excuse me, he was—my subordinate, but I always considered him my partner."


As heavily as possible for someone of her slender build, Noelle took a seat at the kitchen table across from Nasi. Her dark expression had not faded in the least. She still looked as if she were on the verge of snatching back the cup of tea she'd given Francisco. Even, possibly, throwing it in his face. For all the young woman's pleasant appearance—pretty, in an understated sort of way—she had a fearsome reputation.


True, her bad marksmanship was legendary. Still, she'd once managed to slay a torturer by shoving a gun under his jaw where she couldn't possibly miss—and there was always the chance that her aim with a teacup might be better than her aim with a pistol.


So, a bit hurriedly, Francisco added: "Surely you didn't think I came here simply to inform you that I'd hired Eddie Junker. He could have done that much himself, thereby saving me"—here, he gave Noelle his most winning smile—"some possible, however unlikely, unpleasantness."


" 'However unlikely,' " she jeered. "I oughta—"


She broke off the sentence and frowned at him. "Then why did you come here?"


"I would think it obvious. Surely you didn't think I was hiring Eddie simply to be my pilot? That occupation would leave him idle most of the time, after all. No, I did some research, and by all accounts he is very good at the work he's been doing—which, when you come right down to it, is not so different from the sort of work I'd have him doing."


" 'Did some research,' " Noelle jeered. " 'By all accounts,' " she jeered again. "Translated into realspeak, that means you asked Denise Beasley and she praised Eddie to the skies. Based on her sixteen—count 'em, sixteen—years of life's experience."


Francisco thought it best to make no direct response. True, he had asked Denise and, true again, she had praised Eddie Junker to the skies. But the praise had been salted by quite a few astute observations, as well. Sixteen or not—sixteen and a half, Denise herself would have insisted, being of an age where half-years loom large—the girl was generally shrewd when it came to people, and exceedingly shrewd when it came to people in whom she had a particular interest.


But there was no need to get into that. "However—again, by all accounts—it seems also true that Eddie's skills at his usual work are greatly amplified when he works with you. A true partnership, indeed. My research leads me to the conclusion that the two of you, working together, are quite formidable."


He cleared his throat. "Therefore, my visit."


Judging from Noelle's change of expression, Francisco judged it was now safe to drink his tea.


It was quite good, actually.


Office of the Director of the Department of Economic Resources
Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia
July 10, 1635

"You bum," said Tony Adducci. For a moment, he looked as if he might throw his chair at Francisco instead of leaning back in it. "You dirty rotten bum," he qualified.


Nasi's tone was placid. "Oh, come now, Tony. Surely you didn't expect Noelle to work for you indefinitely."


"There oughta be a law," complained the director of the Department of Economic Resources.


"Against what?" Francisco asked. "Wealthy private employers who pay generously?"


Adducci glared at him. "Conspicuous consumption."


"Ah. Sumptuary laws. Indeed, many realms in Europe have such in place." He could have added, commonly aimed at Jews like me, in fact, but that would have been quite unfair. There was legally no discrimination against Jews in the United States of Europe, and, at least in the State of Thuringia-Franconia if not all the USE's provinces, the law was enforced. Nor did Francisco have any reason to believe that Tony Adducci was himself a bigot.


Madder than the proverbial wet hen, yes, and the target of his ire was indeed a rich Jew. But that hardly constituted anti-Semitism, to any fair-minded person.


So all he said was: "Unfortunately for you, such laws are directed at the excessive acquisition of valuable clothing, jewelry, furniture, and such like material goods. Not," he cleared his throat, "valuable spies."


Office of the President, State of Thuringia-Franconia
Grantville
July 10, 1635

"That bum," said Tony Adducci. "That dirty rotten bum."


Ed Piazza, the president of the State of Thuringia-Franconia, leaned back in the chair in his office. He seemed quite relaxed and unflustered.


"Oh, calm down, Tony. People get hired away from government jobs into better-paying private employment all the time. Why did you think Noelle Stull and Eddie Junker would be exempt?"


"They're my best investigative team," Adducci whined.


"Were your best team," Piazza said. "Get over it, Tony. Your department will manage, well enough. And if you can tear yourself away for a moment from parochial concerns, you might want to contemplate the possibility that all this will work out pretty well for us in the future. Defining 'us' in admittedly factional terms."


Adducci stared at him. "Huh?"


"We're in a parliamentary system now, Tony. You have heard the phrase 'shadow cabinet,' haven't you?"


"Yeah, sure. The party in opposition keeps a cabinet going—in place, anyway—in case it has to step into power on short notice. What's that got to do with this headache?"


Piazza smiled. "Hasn't it dawned on you yet that what Francisco Nasi is setting up in Prague could be construed as Mike Stearns' shadow intelligence service? On the off chance, you know, that Willem Wettin's administration goes into the crapper on short notice."


"Oh."


A moment later, Adducci's sour expression cleared. Tony was another UMWA man, a former member of the mineworkers local union of which Mike had been the president before the Ring of Fire. Like most such, he was a fierce Stearns partisan.


"Well. I guess it's okay, then."


Boarding house kitchen
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe
July 20, 1635

"How utterly cool is this?" Denise Beasley said happily. "Both Eddie and Noelle will be working for Francisco too! We'll see them all the time now."


Minnie Hugelmair nodded. "What's even better is that we'll probably wind up with Noelle as our boss. How cool is that?"


Denise's cheerful expression faded a bit. "Well . . .  She'll be tough on us about homework."


"Tough on you," Minnie qualified. "I don't have a problem with homework."


" 'Cause you're a suck-ass."


"Vulgar, vulgar, vulgar. You better watch out, or Noelle will wash your mouth with soap."


That was water off a duck's back. Denise Beasley's attitude toward threats of punishment could best be described as sanguine.


She jumped up from the table. "Let's go! Eddie and them should be landing soon."


Minnie looked at the clock perched on the wall of the kitchen. The landlady was inordinately proud of the thing. Personally, with tastes now heavily influenced by the Americans who had adopted her, Minnie thought it was also excessively ornate. "Baroque," the Americans often called such things, after an historical era that technically hadn't even started yet.


However, whatever she thought of the design, the clock worked perfectly well. Which meant they'd be spending at least an hour with nothing to do at the airport except look at the wind sock, as early as Denise would get them there.


But Minnie didn't argue the matter. She knew how much Denise had missed Eddie's company since they'd moved to Magdeburg this summer.


Magdeburg airfield

"That landing was pretty decent, Eddie," Denise pronounced, as soon as the pilot had clambered down to the ground. "All things considered."


Eddie Junker peeled off a flying cap, exposing a thatch of sandy-colored hair. His hazel eyes gazed down at her curiously. "All things . . . as in what?"


His tone was neither defensive nor hostile. One of the many things Denise liked about Eddie was that he was not easily flustered. His response to almost everything was careful, calm, deliberate, relaxed—in short, just about the exact opposite of her own reaction to things.


She beamed up at him. Eddie wasn't really that much taller than Denise—four inches, perhaps—but he was so wide-shouldered and stocky that he always seemed a little bigger than he really was.


"Oh, you know. Things that need to be considered. Like, Item One, you're still a tyro. Like, Item Two, you have a distaste for flamboyance—and what sort of top notch pilot isn't flamboyant?" She did an exaggerated search for some item of clothing on his person. "Like, Item Three, where's the requisite white scarf?"


Eddie shook his head. "It is quite false to say that I have a distaste for flamboyance. Far more appropriate words would be: horror, contempt and loathing. As for the scarf . . ."


He dug into the pockets of his jacket and drew forth a gray scarf. "Here it is. In case it gets too cold. Which it didn't, on this flight. It's mid-summer and I never exceeded eight thousand feet of altitude. I didn't even have to turn on the cabin's little heater."


Standing next to him, Francisco Nasi nodded. "Indeed, it was a most pleasant flight. And as for flamboyance—" He shuddered, a bit theatrically. "Imagine, if you will, my own horror, contempt and loathing for the trait. In my personal pilot, at least. I will admit that I found the quality sometimes quite charming in our former prime minister."


He shook his head. "Sometimes. But, speaking of which, I need to consult with Mike as soon as possible. Eddie, I don't think we'll be here longer than one day. Two, at the most."


Junker nodded. "I'll make sure the plane's ready to go on short notice. Where are we staying?"


"The boarding house!" piped up Minnie.


"We had the landlady hold rooms for you," Denise said proudly.


That was a slender claim to fame. Francisco had rented the rooms weeks earlier, and told the landlady he'd want them available at any time throughout the summer, whether he was present or not. But he saw no reason to correct the girl.


He looked around. "What? No fancy transportation?"


His two young female assistants showed a distressing lack of respect for their employer.


"Jeez, Mr. Nasi," said Denise, "this ain't Grantville with fancy bus lines and stuff. Besides, it's only a short ride."


She normally called him "Don Francisco." She spoke the term "Mr. Nasi" in the same manner one might speak of "the old geezer."


"They're good horses," added Minnie reassuringly. "Real mild-mannered. They probably won't throw you."


Francisco couldn't help but laugh. In point of fact, he was a better horseman than either of the two girls—if not, admittedly, in their league when it came to motorcycles.


"Lead me to these decrepit nags, then."


Boarding house kitchen
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe

"So how soon are you coming back, Eddie?" Denise asked.


"More tea?" chimed in Minnie, holding up the pot.


Eddie extended his cup and Minnie refilled it. "Whenever Don Francisco wants me to bring him. Hard to say."


Denise frowned. "You're not his fucking slave, you know. Just ask him if you've got a week or two when he's not going to be needing you to fly him around. Then come up and visit us. Hell, he might even let you use the plane for that."


Junker shook his head. "Won't work, I'm afraid. I'm going to be tied up all summer."


"Huh? With what?"


"Painting lessons."


"What?" Denise was staring at him the way she might stare at a penguin which had suddenly appeared at the table.


"You heard me. Painting lessons." He starting making gestures with his hand. "Painting as in fine art. Not painting as in painting a house."


"What?" Denise's jaw was now sagging.


He peered at her closely. "That's odd. I don't remember you being particularly slow-witted."


Denise's jaw snapped shut. "Very funny, asswipe. There's nothing at all wrong with my wits. Unlike yours. Why the fuck do you need to take painting lessons, anyway?"


As always, Eddie was unfazed by Denise's coarse language. "In order to paint something, of course. Why else would I do it?"


Denise was practically speechless—for her, a highly unusual condition. "But—but—" The next words were almost wailed. "How many hours can you possibly spend in stupid painting classes?"


"Not very many," Eddie allowed. "No more than ten hours a week. But I need to work very hard and long hours to pay for the lessons."


Minnie had a puzzled face. "Since when does the school charge money for art classes?"


"I assume they don't. But I wanted private lessons from the best instructor I could find. And those do not come cheaply."


Denise's face looked like a pickle. As close a resemblance, at least, as was possible for such a very good-looking teenage girl. "Jesus H. Fucking Christ, Eddie! Do you have to do everything first class?"


Junker took another sip of tea. "I am usually rather frugal—as you know perfectly well, since your more common complaint is that I'm a tightwad and—what's that other colorful if grotesque American expression? 'Party-pooper,' I think."


"Damn right you're a party-pooper," said Denise. "You're ruining the whole summer!"


 


Junker and Nasi left early the next morning, flying back to Grantville. No sooner had the two girls seen them to the airfield and waved them goodbye, than Denise announced a new mission in life.


"How much does it cost to learn how to paint from a real pro, anyway?"


"How should I know?" said Minnie. "It probably depends what he wants to paint—and, in case you didn't notice, Eddie did his very best I'm-a-clam routine whenever you tried to pry it out of him."


"Well, fuck a duck. How can I find out?"


"I think Artemisia Gentileschi's in town," said Minnie. "Mrs. Simpson asked her to come up. Probably planning to parade her around the hoity-toities and maybe set up a showing. Or whatever they call it when they put up a lot of paintings on the walls and let people walk around and look at them. At least, people who are able to buy them."


Pointedly, she added: "Which excludes us."


Denise was chewing on her lower lip. "How well do you get along with the Simpson Grand Dame? I think she might still be pissed with me on account of that time I almost ran her down in Grantville because it's not my fault some people don't pay attention to traffic."


Denise Beasley's notion of "paying attention to traffic" was just as sanguine as her attitude toward threats. She was going about her necessary business whenever she was out on her motorcycle. It followed, as night from day, that it was therefore everyone else's business to stay out of her way.


"Not too well," replied Minnie. "I think I grossed her out that one time I took out my glass eye in front of her."


Denise frowned. "So how else can we get into Gentileschi's presence?"


"Knock on the door?"


 


Amazingly, that worked. Mrs. Simpson wasn't home to say yea or nay, and the servant ushered them right into the artist's presence. Who, for her part, was quite pleasant and suggested a cup of tea.


Mary Simpson's kitchen
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe

"Oh, I hadn't realized Eddie was a friend of yours."


Denise and Minnie stared at Artemisia Gentileschi. "You know him, too?" asked Denise.


"Well, of course. He's one of my private students."


On the street outside Mary Simpson's residence
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe

"Well, that didn't go so well, did it?" said Denise, almost snarling.


Minnie frowned. "We were reasonably polite. And I don't think Ms. Gentileschi was mad at us. Even though we tried to pry what she called privy information out of her for probably longer than we should have. Um. Probably a lot longer."


"That's not what I meant!" That sentence was snarled. "I can't believe that inconsiderate fucking bum is paying Artemisia Gentileschi for private painting lessons."


Teenage fury gave way, in an instant, to sixteen-and-half-year-old despair. "She's world famous, Minnie! They even got articles about her in encyclopedias that were written hundreds of years from now. It'll take him years to pay her off!"


Minnie nodded. "Probably. One or two years, for sure."


"You're no help at all!"


The door to the Simpson residence opened. Hearing the sound, the two girls turned and looked up the short flight of stairs leading to the front entrance.


Artemisia Gentileschi was standing there, smiling. "It occurred to me after you charged off, young ladies, that there might be a solution to your problem."


"Rob a bank?" said Denise, perhaps a tad sarcastically.


Gentileschi chuckled. "Oh, nothing that energetic. But I always have need of models. It's especially difficult to find suitable girls, because they're either street urchins—that won't do at all—or their families insist on chaperones, and that costs still more money."


She gazed down upon them. "In your case, however, I do not think chaperones will be necessary."


"Ha!" That came from Denise.


Minnie response was more measured. "Assuming you could find any in the first place. Here in Magdeburg . . . maybe. Back in Grantville, the Babysitters Guild had Denise blacklisted by the time she was six."


"Splendid, then. I can simply deduct what I would pay you from the fee I charge young Junker. Will that suit you?"


Denise looked simultaneously ecstatic and suspicious. "Well, sure. But . . . what do we have to do? Exactly?"


"Just sit still."


Minnie shrugged. "Easy for me. I might have to hit Denise once in a while."


For her part, Denise was back to scowling. "I can't believe what I put myself through for that guy."


Prague airfield
Bohemia
August 26, 1635

"It's in much better shape than I expected," said Nasi, as Eddie Junker taxied the plane toward Prague airfield's one and only hangar. Francisco stuck his head out of the window and gazed down at the runway passing below. "It's been macadamized, I think."


"I'm sure you're right," said Eddie. He nodded toward a heavy piece of cast iron equipment parked near the hangar. "There's the roller they would have used."


Nasi looked over. "Water-bound macadam only. But knowing Wallenstein and his mania for all things modern, I won't be surprised if they make it a tarmac soon, one way or another. There must be a source of bitumen somewhere in Bohemia."


They had almost reached the hangar. There was a large welcoming party standing nearby. Morris and Judith Roth were there, along with a ferocious-looking officer whom Nasi presumed to be General Pappenheim.


Wallenstein himself had not come, of course. But Francisco didn't doubt that he'd be ushered into the king of Bohemia's presence soon enough.


Ushered again, to be precise—although, this time, the audience would be public rather than private, as had been his three previous meetings with Wallenstein. The airfield he'd just landed on had been the product of one of those meetings. Bohemia's new ruler, not surprisingly, had a keen interest in developing an aviation industry and his own air force as soon as possible. In the meantime, he and Nasi had reached a quiet mutual understanding that Nasi's ostensibly private airplane would retain all the equipment needed to make it a warplane on short notice, in the event Bohemia needed such to avert a threat.


That wouldn't be hard to do. After all, the Dauntless had been designed to be a warplane in the first place.


Most of the people gathered at the airfield to greet Nasi were Jews, naturally. From the looks of the throng, half the ghetto had turned out.


"Did you expect such an enormous crowd, Don Francisco?"


"Yes," he said smugly.


Eddie brought the plane to a stop. "How soon—"


"Two days. That should be enough time for you to get settled into your new quarters." Nasi smiled, a bit wickedly. "But if you wait any longer, the girl will probably strangle you. Had I realized your capacity for ruthlessness, young man, I would have hired you much sooner."


Eddie looked modest. "I've only done what was necessary, Don Francisco."


"Yes, I know. What was necessary—all that was necessary—and nothing more. That is the very definition of ruthlessness, you know."


It was time to climb out of the plane and greet the enthusiasts. Morris Roth was already waiting, grinning very widely.


As well he might. Were Morris a egotistical man, Francisco Nasi's arrival in Prague might have been cause for friction. Until this moment, Roth had been the preeminent Jew in the city, almost since the day he arrived. Henceforth, he would have to share much of that prestige.


But it was no matter. Francisco and Morris had had quite a few more than three private sessions, over the past few months. Theirs would be a relationship of partners, not rivals. Even friends, Francisco thought.


Eddie cleared his throat. "Uh, Don Francisco. Just to be sure—"


Nasi waved his hand. "I already said it was fine, Eddie. Indeed, I suspect it will simply add to the luster of the thing." As he started to open the door, he looked back and smiled again. "Given that the girl is a shiksha. Were she a Jewess . . .  Oh, the scandal!"


An airfield just outside of Grantville
August 28, 1635

"Stop fidgeting, Eddie," said Artemisia Gentileschi. "I assure you I will have it done in time for your flight to Magdeburg tomorrow. Even with such a peculiar canvas."


Eddie flushed a little. "Sorry, I didn't mean . . . It's just . . ."


"Yes, I know. The girl can sometimes be the very definition of impatience. Once or twice I almost did order Minnie to hit her on the head to keep her still."


The artist contemplated the surface to be painted for a moment longer, and then began busying herself with her brushes and paints. "Be off, now. Shoo! Shoo!"


Eddie was back to fidgeting. "Maybe . . . I mean . . ."


"Shoo, I said! Come back just before sundown. I will show you where to place a few of the last strokes. That way, your claim to being the artist will not be entirely fabricated."


She gave him the sort of sly smile that a middle-aged woman of great experience bestows upon a young man with very little. "Not that she will ever ask."


Magdeburg airfield
August 29, 1635

"Prague is supposed to be a really pretty city," Minnie said. "I can't wait to get there."


Denise nodded, a bit absently. Most of her attention was on the airplane coming in for a landing. The same airplane that would—finally! this had to have been the longest summer on record—take them to their new home in Prague.


She glanced down at her suitcase. She and Minnie had done their best to follow the instructions Eddie had sent them concerning weight and dimensions. She thought they were well within the parameters, but . . . 


With Eddie, you never knew. He could be such a damned perfectionist, sometimes.


The plane landed. Very smoothly, it looked like.


"I'll bet he's a really good pilot, even already," Minnie opined.


Denise wouldn't have taken that bet on any odds. She'd never known Eddie not to be good at something, if he really put his mind to it.


The plane taxied toward them. Then, as it neared the hangar, swerved to the side.


Denise's jaw dropped.


"Oh, wow," said Minnie.


There was silence, for a few seconds, until the plane came to a stop not more than ten yards away. At that distance . . . 


"It's you," said Minnie, in what Denise judged to be the most needless statement in human history.


It sure was. Denise Beasley, in the flesh—or as close to it, anyway, as a painting on a plane's nose could possibly be.


Yeah, sure, Denise had never worn an outfit like that and never would. Not that she minded the décolletage or the amount of leg showing. What the hell, she did have great legs. And if her bust wasn't exactly in Playboy bunny territory, nobody had ever mistaken her for anything but a mammal since she was twelve years old.


The problem was simply that the fancy dress looked completely impractical. Denise Beasley didn't mind being scandalous but she drew the line at tripping over herself.


Still. Under the circumstances. She was not about to complain.


"Oh, wow," said Minnie. "Do you look great or what?"


Eddie was gazing down at her, now. Denise stared back up at him, not knowing what to say.


Minnie let out a whoop and clambered into the cockpit. A moment later, she reemerged, with a flyer's cap on her head and a big smile on her face and an upthrust thumb.


"There's a cap for you too!" she hollered.


Denise finally managed to speak. "Eddie, is—ah—this why you spent the whole summer . . .  Not paying any attention to me. You know, if you wanted to impress me, you didn't have to do this."


"Sadly, that statement is quite false. Besides, I wasn't trying to 'impress' you, Denise. What good is that? I simply needed to make very clear that my intentions were . . . ah. What's the word?"


"Lustful," suggested Minnie. Again, she stuck up her thumb.


Eddie shook his head. "In part, yes. Absurd to deny it"—he leaned over and pointed down at the painting—"as I believe the illustration makes clear. But I assure you the principal thrust of my intentions are entirely what you would call 'honorable.' "


Denise stared at the painting. "Ah . . . Eddie. Is this . . . ah . . ."


"A German girl, I would simply have gotten a very nice pair of shoes to indicate my desires. Given that it was you . . ."


Again, he shook his head. "The quandary I faced. Even worse than the one Thorsten Engler faced, I think. At least Caroline Platzer considered herself an adult."


"So do I!" said Denise fiercely.


"Sadly, that statement is also false. Must be qualified, at least. Normally, it is true enough, you consider the age of sixteen—"


"Sixteen and a half!"


"I stand corrected for my grievous error. Sixteen and a half, to be well-nigh a synonym for 'maturity.' But there are other issues which cause you to flee into that tender age like a rabbit into a hole."


"Name one!"


"Me."


Denise opened her mouth, then . . . 


Closed it.


What was she to say? Damn it, Eddie was twenty-three years old. Practically twice her age!


Well. Once and a half times, anyway. Still a cradle robber, no matter how you sliced it.


Not that she had any attachment to cradles, of course. But . . . 


She realized, finally, just how high and rigid she'd made that wall. Eddie Junker, her best male buddy. Eddie Junker, whose company she enjoyed as much as Minnie's. Eddie Junker, whom she relied upon for . . . oh, so many things.


But not—but never—he was way older—


"Okay!" she said. "I'll admit you probably did have to do something like this."


She searched her mind and soul. Sure enough. She still had no attachment to cradles.


"Eddie, I'm sorry. I'm just not ready to get betrothed yet." She swallowed, then added, in a small voice: "If I was, it'd be you, for sure. But I'm just . . . not ready. I'm only sixteen. Well, okay. And a half. But still."


As usual, Eddie's reaction was imperturbable. He simply nodded and said, "I figured as much. Not a problem. I am a patient man. I simply wanted to eliminate any misconceptions."


He hopped down from the plane. Very gracefully and lightly, for such a thick-looking man. Once on the ground, he grinned at her. "Such as any notions that I simply wish to be your good friend. And have no lustful designs on your body."


Denise grinned back. Lustful designs on her body, she could handle. In fact, now that she really thought about it, she figured lust and Eddie Junker would go together about as well as bacon and eggs. As long as there were no cradles involved. Yet, anyway.


"Well, in that case. Let me explain an American custom."


 


After she was done with the explanation, Eddie looked back up at Minnie, who was still in the cockpit. "You will find some paints and brushes in the back. Hand them down to me, if you would."


The implements in hand, Eddie advanced upon the illustration.


"What are you doing?" asked Denise, a little alarmed. The more she looked at it, the more she really really liked that painting on the nose of the plane.


"It needs a caption."


"Oh. Yeah. Like Memphis Belle, you mean. Or the one on the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Nose Gay, or something like that."


"I am not actually planning to destroy entire cities to demonstrate my affections, Denise. But I think this will do nicely." He went about his work.


When the caption was finished, Denise and Minnie studied it carefully.


My Steady Girl.


"Oh, wow," said Minnie. "That is just so cool."


Denise didn't say anything. Her mind was already at work, figuring the problem. Going steady, after all, had certain traditional obligations—if you insisted on using such a silly term for it.


"Can we postpone the trip to Prague? I need another day."


"I suppose," Eddie said. "Don Francisco will probably be curious, but he's a good boss. He'll accept any reasonable explanation."


He cocked his head, apparently expecting her to provide said reasonable explanation.


Which she certainly had—about as reasonable as reasonable ever gets—but she wasn't about to explain it to Eddie.


Artemisia Gentileschi, she figured. An up-timer would know more modern methods, sure. But, first, those methods were likely to be invalid before too long. And, second, they'd probably blabber. Denise and her reputation, yackety-yak-yak.


Denise thought Artemisia would keep her mouth shut. And she was sure that the artist knew what Denise needed to know. If ever a woman looked like she really had a reputation, it was Artemisia Gentileschi. But only had two kids to show for it. And she must be . . . what? At least forty years old, or some such astronomical age.


"Never you mind," she said. "If Don Francisco asks, I just needed to get some advice. And, uh, steady girl supplies."


She studied the illustration again. Amazing, really, how much leg he'd shown. Poor Eddie. He must have been thinking about it for months and months.


She smiled, sixteen-and-a-half going on forty. "A lot of steady girl supplies, I'm thinking."


 


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