“Mister Cook. Right on time.”
Once more I stood on the threshold of the lion’s den. Pin Stripes regarded me with hooded eyes for a moment, then nodded to the same chair I’d used weeks, or lifetimes, ago. I closed the door on my way to the seat, and even after lowering myself onto it, said nothing. She in turn sat back on her throne. Only then did I realize her desktop was utterly pristine, not a single jacket cluttering it, in sharp contrast to my last visit.
I had no idea why I had been summoned. The recall order had been bald and terse, offering no clue to its purpose or reason or even duration, just the barest minimum of time and place to report. Finally I drew a breath to speak, burning with questions, but was waved silent by a pair of fingers. Perforce, then, I held my tongue; the gray eminence before me did likewise. Her chair swiveled in small, steady arcs and her gaze moved from me to the door and back again. Unease stirred at the hint, however slight, of nerves in a figure legendary for her composure and assurance.
A seeming eternity went by—how long I wasn’t sure, since I wasn’t about to make any move toward checking a timepiece. It felt like a half-hour or more, but it might have been only a few minutes before the door opened again to admit a third individual. By reflex I turned toward the sound, then, startled, shot to my feet. “Mister Secretary!”
Framed in the doorway was a man, of middling build and height, fighting a rearguard action against the march of age with its advancing belt line and retreating hairline. The slight flush of his cerulean complexion matched the choleric expression of his face, but neither seemed significantly greater than the norm based on my admittedly limited experience of him. His suit was expensive but a bit more rumpled and creased than the cognoscenti would approve. Still, he was my, and Pin Stripes’, penultimate boss, though seeing him here made me more, not less, confused.
“You must be Cookie Pusher.” His response was unpromisingly cool and abrupt.
“Yes sir.” I stood straight, heels together, and clasped my hands behind my back.
He stepped in and shut the door behind him, then stood, back to it, and looked me up and down with a disapproving air. “I’ve been keeping up with Eloptic Machine . . . and your reports, young man.”
I was at a loss. “Sir?”
His scowl intensified. “Your job was to keep an eye on that girl and her friends. Instead, you barely saw any of them at all—well, there was that joyride around the city in a government vehicle—and what happens? Trouble. Lots of it. That scene at the mall was the last straw.”
By now my stance had become not simply straight but rigid. “Sir, Ms. Montage herself stated the enchantment of the mirror seemed to occur spontaneously and without warning. According to Ms. Shimmer, the incident that followed couldn’t be predicted or prevented, not even by her or her friends, much less anyone else.”
“Making excuses?” Before I could respond he went on, “If you’d been doing your job keeping a closer eye on those girls and getting more information from them, we might not have to clean up messes like that. A phone call or text message whenever you feel like it just doesn’t cut the mustard.”
My jaw clenched. In fairness, my protest could be interpreted as an attempt to cover my back, though I was perfectly honest in pointing out how wild and erratic ambient magic seemed to be on this side of the portal. I certainly had heard an earful from Sunset about it, after all, and had passed along that concern. Granted, she was a student, not a scholar with a degree—a wizard, in the parlance of her homeland—but she was the only person available even remotely resembling an expert on the subject, especially since her pre-portal curriculum strongly emphasized it.
Doggedly I replied, “Sir, I check on them frequently, not just occasionally, and I’ve met with them in person several times. My interpretation of my orders indicated that was sufficient, and constant surveillance was unnecessary. If it were—” Covertly shadowing seven young woman through their active lives would require an appalling amount of manpower, not to mention being completely outside an FSO’s purview.
“This isn’t a matter of interpretation,” he broke in. “You were assigned to watch them, and that’s what you should have been doing—not quizzing them about their activities and movements, ‘frequently’ or not, and taking their word for it.”
“My reports included my evaluations of all seven, sir, built not only on personal observation but on the testimony of other adults who’ve known them much longer than I have. If you’ll recall, I concurred with the unanimous verdict every one of them is reliable and trustworthy. That includes the statements of experienced educators with considerable professional credentials,” I reminded him in a stiff tone. “Based on that evidence, I felt the best approach was to go lightly, not to treat a bunch of high-school students like criminals or spies.”
“Don’t get snippy with me,” he growled. “So you think just because everyone claimed they’re good girls everything’s peaches and cream? You said yourself, in some of those reports, people were covering for them!”
I drew a breath for patience. “Yes sir, their classmates and those adults who understood the situation did, and do, their best to keep it quiet out of a desire to safeguard their friends or charges. That is not the same as lying to me in response to direct questions. I made clear I was there only to inquire into the matter, and was neither required nor permitted to take action against any of the Rainbooms, even Ms. Shimmer, without a clear and lawful basis for it. Once the people I was speaking with were assured I was not a threat to them or to the young women they were protecting, most were reasonably forthcoming.” If not always happy about it—but I kept that proviso to myself; it didn’t seem helpful.
He shook a finger at me. “You’re dodging.” After a beat he asked with some puzzlement, “What did you call them?”
“Ah—the Rainbooms.” I bit my lip on a silent curse. “It’s the name of their pop band, and it works as a label of convenience. Surely I mentioned it?” I thought I had in at least one of my reports, but I was beginning to wonder. And sweat. Not just metaphorically.
The glare I got in return didn’t answer my question, but did indicate he took it amiss. “This isn’t the time or place to be flip, son. I’m still not convinced they’re the angels you make them out to be after swallowing all that hearsay.”
“Sir, I have to start somewhere. I performed summary background checks, and sent off any doubtful indicators for additional investigation. Nobody found anything untoward that I’m aware of.” I cleared my throat of the desperate tone starting to creep in. “The correspondence file Ms. Celestia showed me corroborated—”
“Oh yes, those movie props you mentioned.” His interruption dripped with sarcasm. “And I suppose you found a chunk of green cheese from the moon, too.”
I could feel my cheeks heating. “Sir, I’ll grant the few royal courts left still use calligraphy and watermarked stationery for personal letters, but I’d never seen those particular watermarks before, and nobody uses letterpress printing and fountain pen for bureaucratic forms any more. That seemed to be adequate authentication.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fountain pens are still on the market, and printing presses in museums are a dime a dozen. It’d be easy enough to fake something like that. Besides, anyone can order up custom watermarked paper or dry seals.”
“Yes sir, but why? Why bother going to that much trouble? Assuming someone could talk a curator into letting them mess with an exhibit like that in the first place.” My hands tightened behind my back. “The simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. There are much easier—and cheaper—ways to cobble up a cover story and create documentary evidence for it, especially considering how fantastic the story is in this case!” I realized suddenly my argument, in effect, was ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. At the time that seemed reasonable; in retrospect maybe not so much.
“The point is, you didn’t submit the documents to any kind of analysis, now did you?” A raised hand waved. “Sunset Shimmer could be a fugitive criminal, or a fairy-tale princess, or an eldritch horror, or exactly what she claims, but we. Don’t. Know. She spins a tale, and those papers back it up, but if we can’t get any kind of independent forensic report on them, we can’t even make a guess at a reliability score, can we?”
“Sir, Ms. Celestia flatly refused to let them out of the building, and there was no legal justification to seize them. I had no authority or means to bring in a team or even a single document examiner, at least not immediately, and some of their equipment isn’t portable anyway.” I reined in my rising voice. “I had no other choice but to proceed on my own judgment and discretion, so that’s what I did.”
A doleful shake of his head dismissed my rebuttal. “You’re dead set on this, aren’t you, boy? Well, I suppose the only way out after such a screw-up like that is to defend it all the way down and hope it’ll work.” His lips pursed and his eyes narrowed. “Or maybe there’s another reason.”
I blinked, feeling a bit of mental whiplash, and my mouth opened, but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with any way to respond to the kangaroo court I’d been thrust into.
“I’m beginning to think you might be covering for them too.” The accusing finger shook at me again.
“My reports have been as full and complete as I could make them, sir. I don’t see how—”
He flung up a hand to stop me. “I do. It’s clear to me now you’ve got a bad case of clientitis, Mister Cookie Pusher.”
If he said anything more, I didn’t hear it; my pulse thundered in my ears. My fists came out from behind my back and I leaned forward, on the verge of stepping toward him. He broke off and gaped at me with an odd expression for a split second before a sharp crack broke through the red haze blanketing my senses.
“Cook!” Pin Stripes’ voice held hardly less snap than the rap on her desk. I glanced over my shoulder to see her sitting bolt upright, magnifying paperweight still held like a gavel in one hand. Her eyes met mine for a moment before flicking to the side. Obeying the implicit command, I straightened, took a deep, lung-filling breath, then stepped aside and turned to put both of them in view.
With an expression of mingled triumph and disdain, the secretary spoke past me. “You know, I told you then he wasn’t the man for the job. How I let you talk me into signing off on the recommendation—”
The look she turned on him burned somehow despite appearing almost deadpan. “Questioning my judgment, Mister Secretary?”
His face tightened. “You’ve done well for the country, Pin, but everyone makes a mistake once in a while.”
“Fine.” Without looking away she opened a side drawer on her desk and reached in to extract an envelope, then laid it square in the middle of her blotter. “If you think I’m losing my edge, I have no business running the show.” Her words were crisp, without the clipped quality she normally affected.
Both of us goggled at the innocuous envelope as if it were a bomb—which, after a fashion, it was. A long, still moment, taut as a wire, held all three of us en tableau. At last the secretary shook his head in seeming disbelief. “You’re willing to take this to the mat, Pin?”
She didn’t deign to answer, instead sitting back in her chair, lacing her fingers on her ample midsection, and returning his stare measure for measure.
He glared at her. He glared at me. Lacking anything else to glare at, he snorted and, without another word, pivoted on his heel and left. The door slammed behind him.
I couldn’t stop myself from falling back onto my chair like a string-cut puppet, all but hyperventilating. Pin Stripes waited me out patiently, once again swiveling her chair a few inches left and right, until I asked in a weak voice, “What was that all about, anyway?”
“Doesn’t leave this room, Cook.” After I nodded acquiescence, she continued, “Just what it sounded like. Part of the old-boys’ network, had in mind one of the Seniors.” A member of the Senior Foreign Service effectively was equal to a general or admiral, and while that seemed like overkill, I could see how someone might consider my assignment oddball enough to warrant such a seasoned veteran.
I rubbed my face. “Agh. So he had it in for me from the start, didn’t he?”
“Told him the job needed someone those seven girls would like—and trust. Called for a big brother or uncle type, not some old relic who’d remind ’em of teachers or parents.” She shrugged massively. “Didn’t believe me.”
“He still doesn’t, I think.” I tipped my head back and ruminated on the possible consequences.
“‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’,” she quoted.
Still looking at the ceiling, I mused, “I suppose he was angling for a formal hearing to get me yanked—maybe even fired.”
“Got it in one.”
I lowered my eyes to glance at the metaphorically radioactive packet resting on her blotter. “So he can’t move ahead with that now unless he’s willing to . . . Is that real? Or were you bluffing?”
For the first time a ghost of a smile touched her lips. She swept up the unmarked envelope and dropped it back in its drawer. “Does it matter?”
After a moment’s thought I conceded, “I guess not.” I let out a relieved sigh. “What now?”
“Now? You go back. Still have a job to do. And friends to do it with.”
I gave her a sharp look. Her bland expression made me blink—and consider. “I guess they are, aren’t they? Is that the reason he accused me of clientitis?”
“Probably. Difference is, I can tell ’em apart. Okay to be their friend, s’long as you don’t forget your duty. Haven’t yet and don’t think you will. Got a good head on your shoulders, Cook. Long as you keep doing a good job, you’re covered.”
I basked in the praise, faint as it might seem to an outsider. Coming from Pin Stripes, it was better than a medal.
Despite her breezy assurance, several days of maneuverings and machinations went by before I was able to escape and return . . . home. I wasn’t sure just when I started thinking of it as such; the realization came as a bit of a shock, but certainly illustrated the truth of the old homily about where the heart is. Even my generic studio with its generic furnishings seemed a welcome refuge and respite when I returned, jet-lagged and bleary. After tossing suit jacket and luggage on the queen-size bed, I flopped on the couch with a sigh of relief and tipped back my head for a few minutes of rest.
Once I gathered a little energy—and nerve—I pulled out my smartphone and toggled off the privacy blocks I’d activated the moment I received the recall. I hadn’t been allowed to tell anyone of my impending sojourn in durance vile, so to everyone else it must have seemed as if I simply vanished. I watched as badges blossomed on phone, SMS, and e-mail icons and started counting up with blurring speed.
Once the numbers settled into their intimidating final totals, I skimmed through originators, headers, and time stamps. A few casual queries quickly became a torrent of concerned, then worried, entreaties for replies. After a few days the spate subsided; I winced, imagining the moods behind that trailing off. Exhausted as I was, conscience and duty prickled. I bit my lip and tapped the screen for my first call.
Seven very important young women were very likely to be very upset with me. To soothe their ire would require every scrap of charm and diplomatic training I could dredge up.