Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Revolution is live...

...but I'm not so sure about me. We've been in nonstop crisis mode since before the previous post. Nothing life-threatening, and the crisis mostly belongs to other family members so I'm not going into details, but it has been physically and emotionally exhausting. So in lieu of anything original, here's the first chapter of A Revolution of Rubies:

* * *

1. The Shaimak Rubies

It all started with Aunt Alesia and the dragon rubies, and that dance at the Austrian embassy in Paris.

Purists would go farther back, maybe as far back as the day a couple of years ago when I was concentrating really hard on the Axiom of Choice and accidentally selected several objects out of my kid brother’s miscellaneous collections of plastic junk. Without touching them. You could make a case that it all started there.

But I’d been applying topology, and researching further applications of topology, for nearly two and a half years since then without ever causing an international incident. So I blame this one entirely on Aunt Alesia.

When Lensky and I agreed that his career would take priority for a while, because I could do my research anywhere that he might be stationed, we’d both envisioned the usual CIA overseas posting. He’d be assigned to some interesting part of the world to collect information and recruit people to bring in more information, preferably not breaking too many laws of the host country too noticeably. We’d set up house wherever he was sent and I would settle down with my books and a stack of blank notepads for a long, quiet period of research.

What we hadn’t figured on was that after we successfully retrieved the hostages from East Africa, the entire Operations side of the CIA would become very, very interested in applied topology. And I certainly hadn’t figured on being expected to deal with diplomatic social life in Paris, of all places, as part of my service to the Company. All I had going for me was a decent French accent, a one-month crash course that the CIA called “charm school,” and a modestly fashionable wardrobe (also courtesy of the CIA.) That wasn’t a whole lot of equipment, linguistic or otherwise, with which to tackle a glittering social life in the fashion capital of the world.

“Cheer up,” Lensky said when I whined to him, “you’re vastly overestimating the sophistication of State Department social life. It’s more like an infinitely boring desert with not nearly enough oases.”

“Tell me again about the infinitely boring desert,” I suggested under my breath while surveying the ivory and gold ballroom that filled the entire second floor of the Austrian embassy. Men in sober black and white were surrounded by women in a rainbow array of formal gowns, many of them sparkling with enough jewels to rival the GDP of a small country.

This sort of thing had never been hinted at when the CIA funded a grant for me and the other topologists at the Center for Applied Topology. Silly us, we thought we were being supported to continue our research into topological ways to achieve paranormal effects. And for the first couple of years, that was mostly true. Apart from sending Brad Lensky to pass on occasional requests and to try to keep us out of trouble, they’d left us pretty much alone. In the weeks following the bombing and the hostage retrieval this summer, I realized that this was because most of the people in Operations didn’t really believe in our paranormal abilities. They’d been too afraid of looking like gullible fools to actually use us.

Now, though, the careful people at Langley had realized what an asset they had in the Center, and they were lining up around the block to use us. Their principal interest, to begin with, was in black bag jobs. Every field office in every capital city had a list of places they’d dearly like to bug. Other countries’ embassies were high on that list, together with ambassadors’ residences, military clubs, private political clubs, you name it. Up to now, they’d had to work with a series of difficult tradeoffs. How hard would it be to break into a given location, and what was the cost if they were caught sneaking around there? Everybody in this business spied on everybody else, but getting caught was not cool and sometimes resulted in embarrassing diplomatic conflicts. Putting your own ambassador on the spot could be a quick ticket out of field work and back home to a basement full of analysts.

Now they thought they could bug every place they’d ever dreamed of, for free – that is, at little or no risk. The theory was simple enough. We – the applied topologists at the Center – could teleport to any place we’d been previously, and we could take passengers. Let a topologist mingle with the legitimate embassy personnel, get invitations to parties at various embassies and other places of interest, then teleport back in the small hours with a technician who would place the bugs. Even if surprised, we could vanish before anybody believed what they were seeing.

There was just one catch. There weren’t anywhere near as many applied topologists as there were field offices begging for our services.

To be precise, there were exactly four of us: me, Ben Sutherland, Ingrid Thorn, and Colton Edwards.
We did have an infinite set of the magic-enhancing stars that Mr. M. had brought with him from ancient Babylon, but since they could only be deployed by topologists – or Mr. M. himself, of course – that didn’t solve the CIA’s problem. Too, most of them were not real clear on the whole concept of infinite sets, nor did they find it easy to believe in tiny sparkling points of light that were invisible to anybody but topologists – or Mr. M., of course. The stars didn’t really feature in most Company discussions of how to use us.

Lensky tells me there were some nasty scenes, and almost some blood spilled, in the initial discussions of how to divvy up the treasure that we represented. He was in most of those meetings to advise the department heads on how we could best be used, and he took the opportunity to advocate on our behalf before anybody got crazy or cruel notions.

We were going to start in European capitals, because those would be the easiest locales for our untraveled crew to begin with. Postings would consist of one topologist and one partner of the opposite sex, because there were always places a man could go that a woman couldn’t, and vice versa. This worked out nicely for us, as we all had non-topologist partners.

I, of course, was married to Lensky. Just before the diplomatic initiative got started, Ingrid had married our computer expert, Jimmy DiGrazio. Colton had a thing going with Meadow Melendez, the robotics engineer who maintained Mr. M.’s prosthetic body and built the enhancements for it. And Ben was living with his rich girlfriend Annelise, who also worked for the Center as our resident liar. She was an expert at spinning stories to convince people who stumbled across our paranormal work that they hadn’t seen what they’d seen, and she looked forward to doing the same, or better, to foreign diplomats.

For our first assignments, they tried to match us with cities that would be relatively easy for us. The Swedish embassy didn’t actually have a long list of places they desperately wanted bugged, but Stockholm would be a good place for Ingrid, with her parents’ Swedish background, to start work. Colton was assigned to Spain because Meadow was fluent in Spanish. Ben got London, and he swore that Annelise’s rich father hadn’t influenced anybody to give him the easy English-language assignment. “And besides, Thalia, you got the best posting of all!”

“Paris,” Ingrid sighed. “While I’m freezing in Stockholm…”

“Paris,” Annelise echoed. “Do you realize Paris Fashion Week is just starting? Balmain, Balenciaga, Lanvin…”

“Barcelona is pretty interesting too,” Colton said cheerfully. He and Meadow were being sent to the consulate in Barcelona, rather than to Madrid, because the Catalan independence movement was heating up to boiling again after several months at a slow simmer. “I’ve always wanted to see Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell.”

I’ve always wanted to see Notre Dame,” Ingrid grumbled. “The Louvre. The Louis Vuitton Museum: they’re doing a temporary exhibit of that Icelandic artist’s light installations this month.”

“Well, you can go look at the Little Mermaid instead,” I suggested.

“Really, Thalia. That’s in Copenhagen, not Stockholm. Why they’re sending a cultural illiterate like you abroad at all escapes me.”

“I’m a State Department intern taking advantage of this new program to give me a smattering of overseas experience before I settle in to a permanent post,” I said, repeating the line we’d all been told to use as an explanation for our joining the various embassies. In most cases the American ambassador didn’t know any more than that. Officially, at least. Lensky’s agency is very big on plausible deniability.

In fact, I wasn’t that thrilled about being sent to Paris. Ingrid could have had it with my best wishes. I’m not exactly the person you would think of in connection with elegant Parisians; ever since graduation I’d managed to use the same little black dress for almost every occasion that demanded something more than T-shirts and jeans. Mom had forced me into ivory satin for the wedding, but apart from that my little-black-dress record was perfect.

The CIA makeover budget did not include jewelry. Fortunately, as a mere intern, I wasn’t really expected to compete in that league. My topaz-colored silk sheath with a frill of lighter gold chiffon bursting out from knees to floor was more than adequate for my official position. All the same, I could have used a modest spray of citrines, or something of the sort, to build up my morale. Too bad I couldn’t wear my infinite set of stars – well, I could have, but since they were invisible to everybody else they wouldn’t have much of an effect.

“How am I supposed to compete with that?” I groused as a tall brunette wearing a fountain of rubies and diamonds whirled past. “Holy shit,” I gasped as her profile came into view. “I don’t believe it.”

“That kind of language will certainly make you stand out,” said Lensky. I ignored him. Men have it so easy; one good dark suit and they could fit in everywhere. I started after the brunette and Lensky grabbed my arm.

“Hey, when they said mingle, they didn’t mean charge out on the dance floor and trip over people,” he said.

“Didn’t you recognize her?”

“Who?”

I jerked my chin towards the ruby-bedecked brunette. “Considering she was Koumbara at our wedding, I’d think you would remember her. That. Is. My. Aunt. Alesia.” She was thirty years older than me and I was willing to swear she didn’t own any rubies. What was she doing at the Austrian embassy’s ball of the year? For that matter, what was she doing in Paris at all? I’d last seen her sitting at Mom’s kitchen table, peeling carrots.

“Let’s catch up with her and find out,” Lensky suggested, swinging me out onto the dance floor with surprising competence. The man could waltz like a Viennese, something I had not previously discovered during the year and a half we’d known each other. He was even good enough to make up for my awkward steps; the month of makeover-and-training provided before the CIA threw us in at the deep end hadn’t been nearly enough to turn me into an expert dancer, but it didn’t matter with Lensky taking the lead.

Staying upright through a Viennese waltz was enough of a challenge without trying to look for Alesia. I concentrated on my steps. We turned, dipped, swooped and suddenly backtracked. The music ended with us standing beside Alesia and her partner, a short man with thinning blond hair whom I’d never seen before.
“Thalia, ma petite!” Alesia exclaimed. “What brings you here?”

“Funny, I was just about to ask the same question.” Up close, I got the full impact of the rubies. The necklace was shaped like two dragon figures, the heads meeting just above the cleavage of Alesia’s dress. The eyes were huge rubies surrounded by tiny diamonds, and each of the overlapping scales was set with a smaller ruby. The wings were solid gold accented by wires, with another ruby dangling from each point. The scaled shapes changed subtly with her breathing, suggesting that the scales were attached to something flexible.

“Oh, Daryush and I are old friends,” she said. “He was the Cultural Attaché for the Taklanistan embassy in Rome when my dear Georges was posted there, you know. And now he’s an ambassador! We were just remembering those happy, happy days.”

“Not so happy for all of us,” said Daryush in a heavily accented voice, “since you, ma chére Alesia, were so devoted to that Georges of yours!” He turned to me. “All of us young men in Rome wished him at the devil, that lucky Georges, monopolizing the loveliest lady in diplomatic circles!”

“Daryush, you will shock my niece,” Alesia laughed, “she doesn’t know that old people like us ever loved and laughed. This is my little niece Thalia, Daryush.”

He clicked his heels, bowed over my hand and just brushed his lips across the knuckles.

“And she is newly married,” Alesia went on, “so you mustn’t flirt with her, Daryush. Her nice American husband would not understand!”

“But Alesia, ma belle, you know my heart is entirely yours!” Daryush protested.

“Do my parents know where you are, Aunt Alesia?”

She shrugged. “I may have said something about going to Paris with my old friend Solange. Or I may not… I believe, actually, I had intended to return to Austin after meeting Solange in New York. But when she was so kind as to invite me back to Paris, how could I refuse?”

The music started again. Daryush, taking my aunt in his arms, whirled back out onto the dance floor. I stayed where I was, frowning.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Lensky asked.

“Oh. No, I don’t think so. You never mentioned where you work to Aunt Alesia, did you?”

“Thalia, even your parents don’t know who I work for.”

“Oh. Right.” I have occasionally made fun of the Company’s passion for secrecy, but just now it struck me as a very good thing. I wouldn’t get many invitations to parties on other embassies’ turf if I were identified as a CIA field officer rather than a State Department intern.

Lensky’s waltzing style had attracted some attention among the diplomatic wives, so I found that mingling was relatively easy now. The wives wanted to dance with my husband, and offered me up to their escorts in exchange. It worked out reasonably well. The husbands didn’t want to dance and neither did I. They fetched me flutes of champagne and little plates of snacks and we chatted amicably enough; they were so grateful that I didn’t pine for the dance floor that it was easy to keep them happy. By the end of the evening I had scored invitations for cocktail parties at the Ukrainian and Polish embassies, a reception in honor of Central Asian artists at the Guimet – the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – and a dinner party at the home of the Egyptian cultural attaché. Not to mention figs wrapped in paper-thin Parma ham, asparagus spears in puff pastry, and Sachertorte under whipped cream. Lensky hadn’t done too badly himself: two more dinner parties, a concert and a museum opening.

Aunt Alesia and her date the ambassador were nowhere to be seen. Oh, well. It wasn’t like Taklanistan, wherever that might be, was a country of burning interest to the CIA. I could safely leave that to my wayward aunt and concentrate on the Ukrainians, Poles, Egyptians, and whoever Lensky had scooped up.

We decided that we could skip the reception for Central Asian artists, as nobody at the embassy had any desire to bug the Musée Guimet – and if they did, they could walk in there any time; it was a public place. The concert and the museum opening also didn’t offer much of interest. We’d be busy enough for the next week dealing with all the other invites.

I fell into bed with a gratifying sense of duty well done. For somebody who doesn’t mingle, I thought I had filled out my dance card pretty well on this first excursion. Paris wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

I thought that right up until the Friday of the following week, when we returned from our dinner party at the Israeli political officer’s home to find Aunt Alesia pacing up and down the marble hall outside our temporary apartment. “Thalia, you have to help me,” she burst out as soon as we were inside. “The most terrible thing has happened. The Shaimak Rubies are gone!”

I blinked. “What, that…” I quickly ruled out insane, extravagant and flamboyant… “that lovely necklace you were wearing at the Austrian embassy ball? How did you lose your rubies, Aunt Alesia?”

“That’s just it,” she said. “They weren’t my rubies. They were a loan from dear Daryush.”

“Okay, how did you lose his rubies?”

“And they aren’t his either. They come from the Shaimak ruby mines in Taklanistan. The mines were closed over a century ago, which makes the rubies even more valuable because of their rarity. They are the property of the nation. And those – those canaille who took them are blackmailing me!”

When I was so ungenteel as to mutter Oh shit at the embassy ball, who knew I was prescient? Because this was a genuine oh shit moment if I’d ever seen one.

4 comments:

  1. Curse you, Margaret. This excerpt makes me have to buy the book now. And I've been overloaded with writing my own book.
    It really does look enticing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, good! Thanks for the encouragement. It really helps now, when I'm trying to shift modes from alligator fighting back to putting words in a row.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thumbs up. Leaving me all smiles at the end. Like Linda, I'm feeling the urge to add it to my reading list. ;-) Wishing you a quick settling down of personal affairs.

    ReplyDelete
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