The conversation was subdued and civilized, as befitted the surroundings: a large, tastefully decorated library, surrounded on three sides by leather-bound books and a marble fireplace, and on the fourth by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, respectably covered by sheet curtains to allow light in but deflect the gaze of those on the street.
Out of the murmured conversation, a complaint lifted into the air. "We must have a motto."
"Oh, not again," his companion replied. "Who would we tell this motto to, Alan? Where would we place it? Over what mantel would it be carved?" He gestured around the rather plain room they met in, the high ceilings and wainscoting on the walls almost austere in their simplicity. "It seems somewhat counterindicated for a secret society, if it truly wishes to remain unnoticed. If we must formalize our identity I should think a statement of purpose before a motto."
The argument had been raging on-and-off for three months now, ever since they had gathered to bring in the New Year and officially inaugurate their new organization, and most of the assembled men—eleven in all—were heartily sick of it.
The first man stuck to his guns. "We all know why we are here, Maxwell. A motto will bind us together, remind us of our purpose. Give us light in the darkness."
"A lamp will work as well for that," Maxwell retorted.
There was some muted laughter among the other men gathered, which quickly turned to coughs and covered grins. All eleven were well past the first blush of youth, with graying hair and faces that showed lines of wear. Yet they were all full of energy and vigor; the perfect advertisement for a generation of leaders, the lifeblood of Manhattan society, both business and social. Only under the surface did a difference show, a stern determination inherited less from Society and more from their Puritan forebears.
"Gentlemen, please." Their leader, a relatively young man with a fashionably clean-shaven face and well-cut brown sack suit held up his hand. "Peace. Alan, I am certain that a motto will be chosen when the time is right. It is not a thing to be rushed, after all. Posterity would not thank us for an ill-chosen motto.
"For now, it is more important that we come to order with the day's business. If you would please join me?"
The eleven men gathered around the long, dark mahogany table. It would not have looked out of place in a formal dining room, but instead of china and linen it was set with a three-color map of the United States, a Holy Bible, and a sword of gleaming watered steel placed lengthwise along the center of the table, its tip resting on the Bible. The hilt was of an Indian style, placing the age of the weapon at anywhere from 300 to 600 AD.
"Lord, we ask your blessing upon this gathering. In silence we have seen the wreck of human nature. In silence we have borne the preditations of the old world, the creeping darkness coming upon us."
In New York, in America, they were safe. But these men looked beyond their walls, considered what might be looking at them with a hungry or jealous eye. And Europe was under more than one shadow, stretching out toward the New World. They knew it, even if the government did not, yet.
"In silence we have watched as the glory of your word was drowned under the work of evildoings. And so in silence we gather now, to protect those who would be true to their better natures, those who have no defense against the serpent of evil save your flaming sword and fierce justice, and those who, through lack of knowledge, have no salvation. We are the wall between the old world and the new, and we ask your blessing upon our hands, and our weapons, to guide them true."
"Amen," the others chorused. They all sat down, seemingly without thought of placement or precedence.
"All right. I hereby call this meeting to order, on this the 15th day of March, the year of our Lord 1910. Have we any special orders to be brought forward at this time?"
There was a short pause, while the members looked to each other. When no one stood up or indicated they wished to address the group, the Speaker went on.
"Very well then. Have we updates on old business? Yes, Mr. Carson?"
The member so indicated let down his hand and stood up. Now that the meeting had been called to order, their speech was more considered, their address more formal. "The money-lending situation down near Green Street has been resolved. The gentleman in question understands that we will be watching him, and his rates, quite closely for the foreseeable future. I expect that there will be no further unpleasantness."
A few grim nods at that: money-lending was not a crime, nor were the rates the man was charging—no one, after all, was forced to go to him for loans—but it was wrong nonetheless. Business was business, but there were seemly limits.
"Very good." He looked down the table as Mr. Carson sat down. "Mr. Van Stann?"
Van Stann was a short man with sallow skin and a zealot's eye. "The den of opium addicts near the fish market has been closed down. It required some cleansing to accomplish, but the owners will not attempt to reopen."
"Costs?" This had been debated sharply among the members before action was taken, on exactly that question.
Van Stann didn't hesitate. "Two residents were trapped inside, unable to move themselves enough to escape. They would not have lasted long on their own, anyway. I doubt even the kindest of homes would have kept them from the drug longer than a day or two. The building is a total loss."
"We should have it strewn with salt, to be certain," another man at the table suggested. "I know it is but superstition, but at times using their own fears against them is the only way to ensure success."
There was a low rumble of agreement to that. The chairman was within rights to call the meeting back to order, but he allowed the side discussion to go on.
"And yet," Mr. Goddard, a banker who brought a refreshingly practical viewpoint to the table, asked, "If we play into those fears, are we not encouraging them, rather than stamping them out? How can that be true to our charter, to protect them even from themselves?"
Van Stann was back on his feet. "If we can keep another place such as that from being rebuilt? Sometimes, the lesser evil—the much lesser evil in this case—must be embraced, to keep the ignorant from greater crimes!"
"And who are we to determine what the lesser evil is?" Goddard shot back. "I do not claim that level of wisdom for myself!"
"Gentlemen! Please!" The chairman knew his fellow members well enough to intercede at this point. It had never come to violence before in this chamber, and he prayed it never would, but every member of the Silence was full of conviction and fire, else they would not have been allowed entrance to the group.
Once he had them settled down and seated again, he continued, in a more sedate tone. "A suggestion has been raised, and not without merit—and risks. Does anyone second Mr. Van Stann's motion?"
Several hands went up, while other faces turned hard as granite.
"Very well. It has been moved and seconded. All who are agreed?"
Seven hands raised.
"Seven to three, one abstaining. The motion passes. Add the cost of the salt to the minutes, if you would, Mr. Donnelly?"
The secretary nodded, his hand flying over his notepad. They had offered to buy him a typewriter, but he preferred the old-fashioned way of doing things.
"Is that all for old business? Very well then, I open the floor to discussion of new business. Mr. Clare?"
Ashton Claire stood, taking his time. He was a slender man, not much over five feet ten inches tall, and not quite so immaculately turned out as his companions, but the empty sleeve in his coat made others give way before him, as befitted a man who served his country in the Indian campaigns with honor, and paid the penultimate price.
"It has been reported that the selkies are back in the harbor. Already, we have lost three sailors to their wiles, two off naval ships at liberty, one a merchantman. The Portmaster begs our aid in the matter."
There was a quiet murmur at that. Many of the men at the table had considerable investments tied up in shipping, and this struck close to home.
"We gave them fair warning, twice before," the Chairman said heavily. "Still they cannot leave our harbor alone."
Mr. Gilbert raised his hand, and was acknowledged. He stood, a tall, angular man, with deep hollows under his eyes. He was an importer, with direct and firsthand knowledge of the problem. "I do not underplay the significance of the damage selkies may do—they have long been a temptation to the sailing man long gone from his home."
Several of the men at the table crossed themselves, or looked horrified, but Gilbert ignored them. "However, we must acknowledge that selkies were once man's allies on the oceans. They may not understand why—to their eyes—we have turned against them."
"That partnership took effect when mankind was still mired in the age of superstition and folly," the Chairman said. "It is a weak relict of what humanity was once, not what it is becoming. Those partnerships are null and void in this modern age."
Gilbert bowed his head to indicate his acceptance of that. "I do not disagree. But they are, as you say, of a different age, and slow to change."
"We have given them warnings. We have told them to leave our men alone. Still, they persist. Is there a man here who would argue that we have not given fair notice?"
Gilbert waited a moment and then, finding himself alone, shook his head and sat down.
"So be it. Have their rocks slicked with oil and set afire. Any of the creatures who do not willingly leave after that, take care of with a single shot to the head or heart."
"We should destroy all of them," one of the men at the table muttered. "Filthy abominations!"
Gilbert would have reacted to that, but the Chairman was more swift.
"They are animals, Mr. Jackson. Of human mien, perhaps, but without the grace of God's touch, and so unable to understand the evil of what they do. Had it been harpies, then I would be the first to agree with you, but selkies… They were, as Mr. Gilbert reminds us, our helpmeets once, and it behooves us to remember that. They are of an older age, and Time and Science has passed them by. Destroy them for that? No. If we must, then let it be only when we ourselves are in dire threat, and only then with a heavy heart. The Lord created them, as he created all on this earth, and it is not our place to judge His works.
"Now. Is there further old business for us to discuss?"
There was none.
Wren Valere was getting dressed to go outside. It was a lovely spring morning, complete with birds cautiously twitting and an almost pleasant breeze coming off the Hudson River. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and she was trying to decide if she was going to need the hot-stick or not.
Some genius in the Cosa had come up with this over the winter, after the Battle of Burning Bridge. Passed through a security screening, it looked like an insulated tube, maybe part of a thermos, or for bike messengers to carry important papers in. Totally harmless. In the hands of a Talent, someone with the ability to channel current through their bodies, it was the magical equivalent of a howitzer.It didn't pay, these dangerous days, to go outside unarmed.She finally decided that she didn't need it, not for a job in broad daylight, and put it back into the drawer with relief. She hated carrying a weapon, even when she had to.To the ignorant eye, she looked the epitome of harmless and helpless: five feet and scant inches of nonentity. Brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, and a figure that was neither eye-catchingly curvy nor attractively slim: Wren Valere disappeared the moment you laid eyes on her. It was a skill she had been born with, and honed over the years until she was one of the most successful Retrievers on record.Now, it made her one of the most dangerous weapons the Cosa Nostradamus had. The more their enemies looked for her, the harder she was to find.Hard didn't mean impossible, though.It had been three and a half months since the Battle, when an attempt to draw out the leaders of the human opposition had ended in bloodshed and destruction on both sides. Since then, the generations-old understanding between the "normal" world and the CosaNostrada-mus—best summed up as "you don't see us and we won't bother you"—had been badly shaken, if not shattered entirely. That shaking was the direct result of a vicious campaign waged, professionally and relentlessly, by anti-magical forces, unknowingly aided by factions within the Cosa who had seen only the chance to grow their own power and influence.The intra-Cosa problems had been dealt with—or at least quieted for a while. The other…that force was still a real and present danger.
Excerpted from Free Fall by Laura Anne Gilman Copyright © 2010 by Laura Anne Gilman. Excerpted by permission.
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