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Friday before Mardi Gras, 1849
Galveston Island, Province of Texas, Viceroyalty of New Spain
“Bloody cold up here,” groused Robert.
“It’s sixty-eight degrees and idyllic,” Ashley Cooper retorted. A light breeze whispered from the southeast. The few clouds drifting above were so white and fluffy they looked as though the Almighty had hand painted them onto the bright blue background. “Get down from there, Wellington.”
He gave the fat old tom a nudge with his elbow. The cat, who according to BELIAL legend was long past his ninth life, fell lazily to the wooden floor, where he resettled himself atop Ashley’s freshly shined boots.
Robert stamped his feet and blew on his hands. Granted, people of Robert’s condition had low body temperatures, but this was ridiculous…
“Robert, just read the damned ships and then you can go walking to warm up.”
With a sigh of martyrdom and a roll of his eyes, Ashely’s long suffering younger brother braced his hands on the railing of the widow’s walk and stared intently at de Vaca Roads, some eighty feet below them and seven miles away.
One did not need a telescope when one had a brother of equivalent optical powers.
The only commercially navigable waterway from the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston Bay, de Vaca Roads flowed between the Island’s easternmost point and the Peninsula de Vaca. The aquatic gateway welcomed hundreds of merchant ships, both steam and sail, to the Puerto de Galveston every week.
Ashley smiled to himself as he imagined the much sparser traffic moving through the water hundreds of feet below. As the merchant ships completed the visible Quadrille—Port Royal to New Orleans to Galveston to Veracruz and back to Port Royal—a similar but unseen circuit was completed beneath the waves.
German engineers, who’d designed the mighty motors that squatted on the ocean floor turning water into the steam that powered modern life, had also designed stealthy, state-of-the-art nautiluses. Manned by intrepid British crews, these engines of subsurface commerce paid nighttime visits to the ports of New Spain, bringing with them luxury goods without the burden of Spanish tariffs and advanced machina in contravention of Spanish import bans.
Ashley believed the British Isles produced the world’s best smugglers. Galveston’s Alcalde agreed and made only cursory attempts to thwart them. Government officials craved cheap liquor and contraband mach just like anyone else.
But the next nautilus was due in two days’ time. This morning was for speculation, not trade.