I Can’t Believe the Way I Pussyfoot Around People These Days

Excerpt from the novel Infiltrator icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by S.M. Stirling icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

S.M. Stirling's "Infiltrator" book cover. [Formatted]

     Suzanne Krieger… née Sarah Connor, she thought. In my previous, pre-Terminators, pre-change-the-future existence… finished signing the contract with a flourish and tipped her chair back, taking a quick look out into the garage through the grimy, streaked glass of the office window.
     One of her company’s trucks had its hood up and its guts laid out, but nobody seemed to be around. She slid open the second drawer of her desk, and slipped out a flask of caña. Sarah/Suzanne unscrewed the cap and added a healthy dollop of the cane alcohol to her tereré, an iced maté drink she’d grown fond of. It went down even smoother with a little help. It also made her sweat a little, but everyone did that in the Chaco—summers here ran over a hundred every day, and it wasn’t a dry heat, either.
     “Señora,” a weary voice said. There was a hint of censure in it.
     Sarah’s mouth twisted in exasperation and she looked over at Ernesto Jaramillo, her chief mechanic. His broad, mustachioed face was set, his dark eyes sad.
     “Where the heck did you come from?” she asked defensively. “A second ago there wasn’t anybody around.” She stubbed out her cigarette impatiently.
     “It’s not even eleven o’clock in the morning, señora,” Ernesto pointed out.
     “What’s an hour or so among friends?” she asked, turning to her work. “Did you want something?”
     “That stuff will rot your liver,” he said.
     “Mmmm. Rotten liver, that sounds like a happy condition.” Sarah adjusted her ashtray, then turned over a paper and signed the one beneath it. “Did you want something, Ernesto?” She gave him a sidelong glance.
     He shrugged, frowning.
     “I just want you to be healthy, señora,” he grumbled.
     She turned and looked squarely at him. “Thank you, Ernesto. I know you mean well, but I’m not doing anything wrong, here. The business isn’t going to fail because I like flavoring my tea with caña.” She smiled at him.
     He smiled back, shaking his head. Then he shrugged. “I just came to tell you the Meylinda is going to take her break in about five minutes.”
     “Thanks,” Sarah said. “I’ll be there in a second.”
     He lifted his hand in a sort of salute and wandered off. Sara/Suzanne watched him go, then took another sip. I can’t believe the way I pussyfoot around people these days, she thought. Not so very long ago she’d have told Ernesto what he could do with his fatherly concern. But there was no help for it if she was to blend in. Paraguayan culture required women to be mild and somewhat subservient. She was cutting-edge here just for being the boss. Milquetoast that I am.
     Sarah stood and smoothed down her narrow dark skirt then checked her hair in the mirror. Even now her appearance sometimes surprised her. The short, dark brown hair cut close around her face and the big, heavy frames of her fake glasses made her look more fragile somehow. But the darkness of her hair brought out the blue of her eyes with surprising intensity. She was feminine enough still to like that. It made up a little for the ugly glasses. A necessary disguise that kept people at a distance.
     Outside of work she wore sunglasses, always. Except at night, of course. But since she never went anywhere at night it didn’t matter.
     Sometimes her lack of a social life bothered her. With John away in school, it was lonely out on her little estancia. But as a single mother, a businesswoman, and a foreigner… people around here genuinely didn’t know what to make of her. They avoided any discomfort by avoiding her. Not that that stopped them talking, of course. This place had the small-town vices in spades.
     Sometimes she thought it was just as well, sometimes she worried that she should be more involved. With something feminine like a bake sale for charity or something. After all, her trucking company sponsored a local baseball team, which was a very popular move, but somehow the locals had persuaded themselves that it was her workers who sponsored the team rather than herself. It came down to gender again. If she had been born male she would have been absorbed into this town years ago.
     She also handled more than a little of the local smuggling market. Sarah had expected people to suck up to her a bit because of that. But it turned out that was also a strike against her. Smuggling was man’s work. As were trucks. Her story of inheriting the business from her husband was the only thing that had made it possible for her to get along at all here.
     The local women were very nice to her but kept their distance. Even Meylinda was no more than politely friendly. Sarah had once been checked out by a local widower who was essentially looking for an unpaid housekeeper/nanny that he could boink without censure. But she’d run him off as quickly as she could. She knew she’d have killed the man in a week, leaving seven little big-eyed orphans behind. Then I’d have felt obligated to raise the little monsters.
     Once in a while she considered selling up and moving to Asunción to become a secretary or even a waitress. But then she’d remember the peace and quiet of her estancia and Linda, her mare, and she’d put it out of her mind. Changing locations wouldn’t change who she was anyway. It wasn’t just that she was a foreigner and a woman that kept people away. Sometimes, when she was tired or not thinking and sometimes deliberately… she radiated danger and distrust.
     With a half smile Sarah put down her brush and fluffed her bangs. Funny, that’s just what makes the smugglers trust me. She added a touch of lipstick. Her mouth was the same, still the full lower lip, but now it was bracketed with what she chose to refer to as smile lines. Not that anyone would want to see the smile that could produce such marks.
     Sarah walked into the front office with her drink and her cigarettes to find Meylinda browsing a magazine instead of filing the massive stack of invoices at her elbow. Sarah suppressed a sigh. She’d fire the girl in a New York minute except that Meylinda was a vast improvement over the previous two. Being a known smuggler kept many families from allowing their daughters to work for her. Including the families of smugglers. She was lucky to have anyone.
     Tapping out a cigarette, she smiled at her employee.
     “Oh! Thank you for coming, señora. See you in fifteen minutes,” Meylinda said cheerfully. She picked up her pocketbook and magazine and flitted out the front door.
     Fifteen minutes. Riiiight. Sarah lit up and took a drag of her cigarette. Picking up the stack of invoices, she took them over to the filing cabinet. I’ll be lucky if she makes it back in time to go to lunch.
     Ernesto had told her that there was an apparently serious flirtation going on between Meylinda and a boy who worked at the confitería down the street. And serious flirting took time. I wonder if she’ll be getting married soon. If so Sarah would soon be in the market for another receptionist. She dreaded the prospect.
     There was someone behind her. Sarah continued to place invoices in their files and she tried to sense something about the mysterious presence. It didn’t smell like one of the mechanics or drivers, no sharp scent of gas or oil. She heard the whisper of fabric, of slacks or jeans, making probable the intruder was a male. He moved young. And then she knew.
     “Hi, John,” she said, smiling.
     “How do you do that?” he demanded. “I could have sworn I didn’t make a sound.”
     She turned, still smiling, and opened her arms to him. When he stepped into her hug she blinked to find her chin resting on his shoulder. “Whoa!” she said, holding him off. “You’ve grown!”
     “I’m sixteen, Mom. It happens.” He looked smug as he said it.
     Sarah looked him over, shaking her head. There was a lighter mark on the cuffs of his school uniform jacket where the sleeves had been taken down, but even so his wristbones were visible. The trousers showed the same problem.
     “Did they send you home early for being a disgrace to your uniform?” she asked.
     “They sent me home be-cause.” He held up an envelope containing his report card.
     Sarah took it with a raised eyebrow and opened it. There was a note inside from the principal/commandant of the very expensive military academy she was sending him to.
     It told her that her son was an extraordinary student who had saved the life of one of his fellows while they were out on field maneuvers. The boy had been bitten by a snake. John had applied a tourniquet, and had organized his squad to make a stretcher from their rifles and blankets, and then he had led them back to the academy. For his presence of mind, for his exceptional leadership qualities, and for getting straight A’s, he was being rewarded by being sent on summer break early.
     “Congratulations,” she said. Quiet pride shone from her eyes.
     He waggled his eyebrows and grinned.
     “Hey, I had a good teacher. I’m supposed to be, like, this great military leader, remember?”
     She hugged him again, knowing he didn’t mean the teachers at the academy. “Exceptional leadership qualities, the commandant says,” Sarah reminded him. “Nobody can teach you that.”
     “Yeah, but you knew that before I was hatched,” he said. “No problemo. It’s just my nature.”
     Sarah snorted. “Don’t get cocky, kid. It’s when you’re taking bows that the world most likes to kick your butt. Listen, I’m kinda stuck here.” She looked over her shoulder at the messy desk. “Meylinda’s on break and in love.”
     John laughed. “You want me to hunt her down?”
     “Mmmm. No, I’ve still got a couple of things to finish up. But if you can entertain yourself until one, I’ll call it quits for the day and let Ernesto lock up.”
     “Great,” he said. “God, I’m dying of thirst.” John went to the desk and picked up the glass of tereré. “This yours, Mom?” He took a gulp before she could stop him. “Hoo-waah!” he said, tears in his eyes. “What did you put in this,” he rasped, “battery acid?” He waved a hand in front of his face. “Whoo!”
     “That’s what you get for not asking permission,” she said, coming over to the desk. Sarah took another drag of her cigarette and rolled her eyes at his disapproving glare. “What?” she snapped.
     “I thought you’d given up smoking,” he said. He looked disappointed.
     This is not my day, she thought. Every man I see is disappointed or disapproving. Then she felt a little brighter inside. She’d actually thought of her son as a man.
     “I mean after what you went through quitting last summer, I can’t believe you took it up again.” He shifted his stance awkwardly, then put down the tereré. “C’mon, Mom, you’re tougher than that.”
     Sarah rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay.” She tamped out the cigarette. “But can we talk about this later, hmm?”
     “Sure. Um, I’ll go get a soda, or something. Maybe keep an eye on Meylinda.”
     Sarah laughed. “She’ll probably use you to make this new guy jealous. Do you need money?”
     “Nah, I’ve got some.” He looked at her for a moment, and then he reached over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “See you in a couple of hours.”
     “Bye.” She watched him go, noting the new maturity in his walk, and sighed. Funny he mentioned the cigarettes but not the caña in her tea. He would, though. She could rely on that.

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