My mother put her demitasse of espresso down on its saucer with a precise click. She was wearing Armani tonight, a slinky black jacquard jacket that gave the impression she had nothing on underneath, above dark red trousers. The sad thing was she had the youthful figure to pull it off, looking as usual as if she’d just stepped off a runway. The way I had it figured she beat me out in all respects; prettier, smarter, richer, and even more of an asshole.
We were sitting down at a corner table at the Michelin three-star Le Bernardin on 51st Street, our meal now a memory. The first course featured sautéed langoustine with a fennel-carrot mousseline, the second, poached skate in a brown butter sauce with capers and peppers over rice, and dessert was a mont blanc with chestnut cremeux and rum-chestnut ice cream. This restaurant was only a quarter mile from my apartment, but if I ate here every night my bank account (fatter than usual on account of a bonus for last year’s job in Japan) would be zeroed in three months. When not stuffing my face, I’d spent the meal studying my mother, trying to figure out where she was coming from. She seemed strangely uncomfortable and reticent, not saying much until the meal was cleared away.
Finally, over espresso with accompanying shot-glasses of near-frozen anisette, she spoke her first meaningful words of the evening. Not the reason she’d called me here, but a reminder of the debt I owed. Typical.
“I assume Martha soloed successfully,” she said.
“Yes. A perfect landing.”
The tone of my voice must have made it clear I was surprised she cared.
“Why Nora,” said my mother, “I have the highest regard for your ward. We had a nice chat during our one real meeting. And I was after all responsible for obtaining her papers. Birth certificate, social security, passport...you know these things aren’t easy to secure these days.”
They are if you’re an ultra-wealthy sorcerer in the Commission, I didn’t say. I wouldn’t have asked her for a favor for myself, but she was my last resort after running into a brick wall trying to establish a legal identity for Martha on my own. I’d been surprised at how readily my mother had acceded to the request, with hardly any snark at all. Of course I’d clenched my teeth when the papers arrived for Martha under the name Villiers, my mother’s last name, the name I’d rejected for myself. It was at the same time a surprising gesture for my mother to offer her name to someone she hardly knew and a blatant rebuke directed at me. But what the hell. If Martha ever got in trouble with the occult authorities, not inconceivable given her demonic origin, it wouldn’t hurt to have my mother’s name to fall back on.
“Is she still considering an application to the academy?” I’d been silent long enough my mother filled in the gap.
“I believe so.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about Martha wanting to join the Air Force. I mean, the US government wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of virtue. But we’d discussed the matter. Martha said that she’d refuse deployment and resign her commission if she was ever called on to do anything vile, and I believed her, too. She honestly wanted to pay back a debt to her assumed country, even though I thought the balance of obligation was skewed the other way. And, yeah, of course she didn’t have to say how much she wanted to fly a fighter. Flying was her thing, and I wanted her to have every bit of it she could get. Her very first week in our world, magically disguised as a dog of all things, she rode on board a jet across the Atlantic and decided she wanted to be a pilot.
Then what mother was asking sank in. “But she wouldn’t want you to sleaze her way in with either sorcery or bribery.”
“Oh, no,” she said in that unctuous way she had, “I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s just that a High School Equivalency diploma won’t make it easy, no matter how well she scores on her exams. But a vice-presidential nomination...that wouldn’t guarantee anything, it would just balance out the negatives, if you see what I mean.”
“Wait, what, the vice president? Of the United States? You can make her do what you want?”
I knew of course that the Commission had enormous influence over the government, but I didn’t realize they outright owned our top politicians.
“Nora, please! It’s part of the VP’s job. It’s not graft, it’s her duty. She has one or two nominations every year that she hands out to qualified applicants. Just...with the ordinary application process, it would be easy for someone like Martha to be overlooked. She has no obvious connections, and they care about such things at the academies. I’ll be evening the odds for her, is all.”
Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and a technologist. He has published over 25 short stories in such magazines as Nature, the New Haven Review, PodCastle, and Galaxy's Edge. His WWI-era historical fantasy novel Twilight Patrol was just released by Alban Lake. For more of his stories, visit https://laurencebrothers.com/bibliography, or follow him on twitter: @lbrothers.
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