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Every antiaircraft gun in Richmond seemed to thunder at once. The sky above the capital of the Confederate States filled with black puffs of smoke. Jake Featherston, the President of the CSA, had heard that his aviators called those bursts nigger-baby flak. They did look something like black dolls—and they were as dangerous as blacks in the Confederacy, too.
U.S. airplanes didn’t usually come over Richmond by daylight, any more than Confederate aircraft usually raided Washington or Philadelphia or New York City when the sun was in the sky. Antiaircraft fire and aggressive fighter patrols had quickly made daylight bombing more expensive than it was worth. The night was the time when bombers droned overhead.
Today, the United States were making an exception. That they were, surprised Jake very little. Two nights before, Confederate bombers had killed U.S. President Al Smith. They hadn’t done it on purpose. Trying to hit one particular man or one particular building in a city like Philadelphia, especially at night, was like going after a needle in a haystack with your eyes closed. Try or not, though, they’d flattened Powel House, the President of the USA’s Philadelphia residence, and smashed the bomb shelter beneath it. Vice President La Follette was Vice President no more.
Featherston wasn’t sure he would have deliberately killed Al Smith if he’d had the chance. After all, he’d hornswoggled a plebiscite on Kentucky and the part of west Texas the USA had called Houston and Sequoyah out of Smith, and triumphantly welcomed the first two back into the Confederacy. But he’d expected Smith to go right on yielding to him, and the son of a bitch hadn’t done it. Smith hadn’t taken the peace proposal Featherston offered him after Confederate armor sliced through Ohio to Lake Erie, either. Even though the USA remained cut in two, the country also remained very much in the war. The struggle wasn’t as sharp and short and easy as Jake had hoped.
So maybe Al Smith was better off dead. Maybe. How could you tell? Like any Vice President, Charlie La Follette was the very definition of an unknown quantity.
But it was only natural for the United States to try to take revenge. Kill our President, will you? We’ll kill yours!
U.S. Wright-27 fighters, no doubt diverted from shooting up Confederate positions near the Rappahannock, escorted the bombers and danced a dance of death with C.S. Hound Dogs. Level bombers, two- and four-engined, rained explosives down on Richmond.
With them, though, came a squadron of dive bombers, airplanes not usually seen in attacks on cities. To Jake’s admittedly biased way of thinking, the CSA had the best dive bomber in the world in the Mule, otherwise known on both sides of the front as the Asskicker. But its U.S. counterparts were also up to the job they had to do.
That job, here, was to pound the crap out of the Confederate Presidential residence up on Shockoe Hill. The building was often called the Gray House, after the U.S. White House. If the flak over Richmond as a whole was heavy, that over the Gray House was heavier still. Half a dozen guns stood on the Gray House grounds alone. If an airplane was hit, it seemed as if a pilot could walk on shell bursts all the way to the ground. He couldn’t, of course, but it seemed that way.
A dive bomber took a direct hit and exploded in midair, adding a huge smear of flame and smoke to the already crowded sky. Another, trailing fire from the engine cowling back toward the cockpit, smashed into the ground a few blocks away from the mansion. A greasy pillar of thick black smoke marked the pilot’s pyre.
Another bomber was hit, and another. The rest bored in on their target. Back before the Great War started in 1914, lots of Confederates believed the Yankees were not only enemies but cowardly enemies. They’d learned better, to their cost. The pilots in these U.S. machines were as brave and as skilled as the men the CSA put in the air.
Yet another dive bomber blew up, this one only a few hundred feet above the Gray House. Flaming wreckage fell all around, and even on, the Presidential residence. The survivors did what they were supposed to do. One after another, they released their bombs, pulled out of their dives, and scurried back towards U.S.-held territory as fast as they could go.
No antiaircraft defenses could block that kind of attack. The Gray House flew to pieces like an anthill kicked by a giant’s boot. Some of the wreckage flew up, not out. The damnyankees must have loaded armor-piercing bombs into some of their bombers. If Jake Featherston took refuge in the shelter under the museum, they aimed to blow him to hell and gone anyway.
But Jake wasn’t in the Gray House or in the shelter under it.
Jake wasn’t within a mile of the Gray House, in fact. As soon as he heard Al Smith was dead, Jake had ordered the Presidential residence evacuated. He’d done it quietly; making a fuss about it would have tipped off the damnyankees that he wasn’t where they wanted him to be. At the moment, he was holed up in a none too fancy hotel about a mile west of Capitol Square. His bodyguards kept screaming at him to get his ass down to the basement, but he wanted to watch the show. It beat the hell out of Fourth of July fireworks.
Saul Goldman didn’t scream. The C.S. Director of Communications was both more restrained and smarter than that. He said, “Mr. President, please take cover. If a bomb falls on you here, the United States win, just the same as if you’d stayed up on Shockoe Hill. The country needs you. Stay safe.”
Jake eyed the pudgy, gray-haired little Jew with something that was for a moment not far from hatred. He ran the Confederate States, ran them more nearly absolutely than any previous North American ruler had run his country—and that included all the goddamn useless Maximilians in the Empire of Mexico. Nobody could tell him what to do, nobody at all. Saul hadn’t tried, unlike the Freedom Party guards who’d bellowed at him. No, Saul had done far worse than that. He’d talked sense.
“All right, dammit,” Featherston said peevishly, and withdrew. He affected not to hear the sighs of relief from everyone around him.
Sitting down in the basement was as bad as he’d known it would be. He despised doing nothing. He despised having to do nothing. He wanted to be up there hitting back at his enemies, or else hitting them first and hitting them so hard, they couldn’t hit back at him. He’d tried to do that to the United States. The first blow hadn’t quite knocked them out. The next one . . . He vowed the next one would.
Catching his foul mood, Goldman said, “Don’t worry about it, Mr. President. When you go on the wireless and let the United States know you’re still here, that will hurt them worse than losing a big city.”
Again, the Director of Communications made sense. Jake found himself nodding, whether he wanted to or not. “Well, you’re right,” he said. “They can’t afford to come after me like that all the time. They won’t have any airplanes or pilots left if they do, on account of we’ll blow ’em all to hell and gone.” He pointed to Goldman. “Make sure there’s a studio waiting for me just as soon as these Yankee bastards let up, Saul.”
“I’ll see to it, sir,” Goldman promised.
He was as good as his word, too. He always was. That by itself made him somebody to cherish. Most people did what they could and gave excuses for the rest. Saul Goldman did what he said he’d do. So did Jake himself. People hadn’t believed him. He’d taken more than sixteen years, a lot of them lean and hungry, to get to the top. Now that he’d arrived, he was doing just what he’d told folks he would. Some people had the nerve to act surprised. Hadn’t they been listening, dammit?
An armored limousine took him to a studio. Nothing short of a direct hit by a bomb would make this baby blink. Jake had already survived two assassination attempts, not counting this latest one from the USA. Except when his blood was up, the way it had been during the air raid, he didn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances.
By now, sitting down in front of a microphone was second nature to him. He’d been a jump ahead of the Whigs and Radical Liberals in figuring out what wireless could do for a politician, and he still used it better than anybody else in the CSA or the USA. Having Saul Goldman on his side helped. He knew that. But he had himself on his side, too, and he was his own best advertisement.
In the room next door, the engineer held up one finger—one minute till airtime. Jake waved back at the glass square set into the wall between the rooms to show he’d got the message. He always acknowledged the competence of people like engineers. They did their jobs so he could do his. He took one last look around. There wasn’t much to see. Except for that glass square, the walls and ceiling of the studio were covered in what looked like cardboard egg cartons that helped deaden unwanted noise and echoes.
The engineer pointed to him. The red light above the square of glass came on. He leaned toward the microphone. “I’m Jake Featherston,” he said, “and I’m here to tell you the truth.” His voice was a harsh rasp. It wasn’t the usual broadcaster’s voice, any more than his rawboned, craggy face was conventionally handsome. But it grabbed attention and it held attention, and who could ask for more than that? Nobody, not in the wireless business.
“Truth is, I’m still here,” he went on after his trademark greeting. “The Yankees dropped bombs on the Gray House, but I’m still here. They threw away God only knows how many airplanes, but I’m still here. They wasted God only knows how much money, but I’m still here. They murdered God only knows how many innocent women and children, but I’m still here. They’ve thrown God only knows how many soldiers at Richmond, but I’m still here—and they’re not. They’ve had God only knows how many fine young men, who could’ve gone on and done other things, shot and gassed and blown to pieces, but I’m still here. They’ve had God only knows how many barrels smashed to scrap metal, but I’m still here. They’ve given guns to our niggers and taught ’em to rise up against the white man, but I’m still here. And let them try whatever else they want to try. I’ve taken it all, and I’ll take some more, on account of I’m—still—here.”
The red light went out. Behind the glass, the engineer applauded. Jake grinned at him. He didn’t think he’d ever seen that before. He raised his hands over his head, fingers interlaced, like a victorious prizefighter. The engineer applauded harder.
When Jake came out of the studio, Saul Goldman stood in the hall with eyes shining behind his glasses. “That . . . that was outstanding, Mr. President,” he said. “Outstanding.”
“Yeah, I thought it went pretty well,” Featherston said. Around most people, he bragged and swaggered. Goldman, by contrast, could make him modest.
“No one in the United States will have any doubts,” Goldman said. “No one in the Confederate States will, either.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” Jake said. “I don’t want anybody to have any doubts about what I’ve got in mind. I aim to make the Confederate States the grandest country on this continent. I aim to do that, and by God I’m going to do that.” Even Saul Goldman, who’d heard it all before, and heard it times uncounted, nodded as if it were fresh and new.