Chapter Eight

Considerably later that morning, after a shower-bath with Ciara helping her get the last blood out from her eyelashes and around the roots of her hair and just a little less than three hours of very deep sleep, Luz’ eyes snapped open as she woke on her pillow.

“Snuggle!” Colleen’s treble piped.

“Morning!” Mary shouted.

“Snuggle! Snuggle, Mommies! Snuggle!” Patricia said.

Morning snuggle,” Luciana added with her customary precision; she was a born nitpicker. “You missed the night snuggle, Mommy Luz.”

¡Ay, Dios mio! Luz thought as wiggling forms landed on her.

She’d decided to get up at the usual hour and do a full day, but…


It had been the bouncing of eight small bare feet on the bed that woke her—even Ciara wouldn’t be sleeping soundly through that earthquake. Luz’ response was automatic, since this was the way she woke as often as not these days.

Though usually not after barely three hours of sleep, following a fight to the death, she thought after what was for her an unusually bleary moment. Time for the Kitten Hug.

That was a tactic she’d noticed adult cats intent on catnappery using with rambunctious offspring; make a swift grab, tug the obstreperous infants under a forelimb and hold them close with paw and chin while going resolutely back to sleep despite all squirming. Her children didn’t usually quite go back to sleep, but at least they usually didn’t start tickle-fights when she did that, either—though she couldn’t depend on that today, since they’d missed that standard evening occupation that marked the end of story-reading as often as not. Ciara was a lot more vulnerable that way, though, being ticklish to a fault.

Luz rolled over—she habitually slept spoon-fashion against Ciara’s back—and made the requisite space and arm-sweeps. She and Ciara had a running joke that only their children could come between them—two little girls took up about the same horizontal space as a grown woman.

I suppose taking lessons in motherhood from cats is questionable, but then I was an only child and Ciara nearly so. What with her mother dead in childbirth and her father sick more and more from her early teens, it’s to her Aunties’ credit she’s so good at parental things.

A grinning, freckled red-headed four-and-a-bit-year-old face landed next to hers on the pillow, then puckered up for a smooch on Luz’ forehead. That one was dressed in a soft flannel nightgown covered in images taken from Beatrice Potter’s illustrated Peter Rabbit, which meant Colleen; Mary’s had the Tin Woodsman, who was her current obsession, so she must be on Ciara’s other side. Patricia favored moons and stars and was on her other shoulder, back to back with Luciana who for some reason insisted on clocks.

Colleen gave her the slightly damp kiss and then settled in for all of thirty seconds on her right shoulder; Patricia was more content to just burrow under the covers and huddle close on the left. For a minute or two Luz was content herself, simply feeling happy—if exhausted—and reveling in the familiar comfort of the warmth and scent of clean well-washed little girl amid lavender-kissed sheets.

“Were you having ventures?” Colleen whispered in her ear with a wiggle.

That was how she pronounced adventures, mostly. Luz decided that having murderous strangers in black masks drop in on a foggy midnight meeting in a Chinatown alley followed by a fight to the death with knives, swords and guns qualified—when it happened to someone else, which from her daughter’s point of view it had, and nodded solemnly. She ignored the way the girl squealed and radiated desire for details, not being in a mood to think up a highly-colored and completely false story suitable for not giving her child nightmares.

They weren’t quite old enough yet to have a ghoulish fascination with the bloody and macabre—as far as she remembered, she hadn’t hit that until six or seven, and she’d achieved Maximum Ghoul between ten and twelve. By which time she couldn’t get enough detail in stories about pirates and Western gun-battles like the OK Corral, or the ones—she now realized they were rather edited versions—old Pedro had told her of his days as a baratero on the streets of Seville.

And she’d wanted to go to prizefights with her father, which her parents had swiftly quashed, though they had relented on rodeos and bullfights when in Mexico and points south.

The Morning Cuddle ended when a need of her own prompted a sigh.

“Let me up, mis princesas,” she said, moving from underneath a combined weight of seventy pounds or so. “Mommy has to go tinkle.”

“I’ll come hold your hand!” Patricia volunteered.

Toilet training had been successfully, finally, no-more-accidents-gracias a Dios completed about the time of Uncle Teddy’s fifth Inauguration—something for which Luz had been profoundly glad, even with three pairs of hands working at the task. Patricia was probably acting a little younger now because she’d caught some of Ciara’s worry last night, no matter how careful her other parent had been, and it frightened her.

There are times when I wonder how anyone manages raising a kid on their own. Much less four, all the same age! Dios sabe it’s hard enough for the two of us, and that with Susan and the staff to help.

“That’s for little, little girls, not big ones,” Luz said, feeling cunning.

They are getting to the age when they want to be grown up and big, not little, she thought.

“But there is something you can do for Mommy Kay,” she said, as she slid out of bed and heard Ciara mutter even more drowsily than she usually did at this hour.

The red head and the white-blond one lifted, both looking intent, and then duplicates rose over the covers from Ciara’s shoulders. Ciara herself started a yawn; she had gone back to sleep, or nearly.

They’re good-hearted little things, Luz thought indulgently.

“Mommy Kay needs help to wake up, so you should all tickle her,” Luz went on solemnly, raising her voice very slightly.

She turned around then and walked quickly out restroom-wards amid the sounds of a fourfold pounce, to a cry of:

Traitor! Coward!” from her partner, followed by a screech.

When she returned Ciara was sitting on the edge of the hotel room’s double bed, yawning enormously.

“I should beat you to death with a pillow for that,” Ciara said with another yawn as Luz sat beside her and put an arm around her waist. “But sure, then I’d have to really wake up. And I’m all over goosebumps. Our girls have no mercy!”

They were alone in the room now; morning ablutions were part of Susan’s duties as nanny. Their daughters were accustomed to that, since she’d been part of the household as far back as their memories went, and like most small children they were almost as reverent towards routines as so many cats. Luz leaned against her partner, enjoying the familiar, slightly earthier scent of her, and the feeling beneath her hand and the nightgown and the arm around her own waist—she currently preferred a large, loose knee-length cotton shirt as nightwear herself, with a set of the newish small, tight cotton women’s knickers, but Ciara stuck to what she’d grown up with.

Ciara sighed and leaned her head on Luz’ shoulder. After a moment, she said:

“I’m so worried about them… No help for it, I suppose—I’d be worried even worse if we weren’t with them to keep an eye on them!”

“Susan turns out to be even more formidable than I thought, which is reassuring,” Luz said thoughtfully. “Though I doubt she’d be willing to stay behind with the girls if we were going to China, fond of them as she is. I’m not entirely sure of all her motives, but since it turns out the Green Gang in Shanghai killed her parents, her husband and her children…”

“She loves our girls.”

Si, absolutamente, and she’s grateful to us—she takes debts seriously. But I am also absolutely sure she wants to go back to Shanghai.”

Though she’d been so desperate to get out of China that she’d been willing to essentially sell herself into indentured servitude to do it in early 1918 despite growing up in well-to-do circumstances.

Luz had rescued her a week or so after her arriving in the port of Los Angeles when someone in the city’s police had mentioned that a Chinese woman was in custody for chopping several Tong members into pieces small enough for dogmeat, and was suspected of clandestine entry and slated for deportation. Though some of the policemen had done a whip-round to collect her a grubstake first, on the grounds that anyone who killed Qing Bang triad hatchetmen was a benefactor of humanity.

Luz had been intrigued, investigated, seen useful potential, and since she’d been resolved on finding someone who spoke Chinese anyway, and needed a nanny for the newborns…

Zhou had already spoken some English when she arrived in the US, though it had improved vastly since, and was literate in both languages with a fair general education. Those were rare accomplishments for a Chinese woman born like Luz in the 1890’s, and unknown below the upper-middle-class level.

Which goes with her family being involved with politics, and politics in China is even murkier than it is here…

“For revenge, to get in touch with her surviving kin… and the politics may come into it. Her family were Kuomintang; that’s why they were killed,” Luz clarified; the conversation with Susan had been one-on-one.

A lot of people assumed servants were somehow extensions of themselves. It was a habit she had sedulously avoided. For professional reasons…

And because it’s so stupid. Good and evil are a matter of viewpoint and opinion; smart and stupid, not so much… and self-inflicted stupid is unforgiveable.

“Perhaps we should have stayed on the administrative side!” Ciara said.

Luz nodded. “It’s a thought, and a lot of it was interesting. But my darling, mi corazon… I don’t want them growing up in a world where the comandante of whoever was in charge of those men we met last night has V-gas.”

“I wish they weren’t growing up in a world with V-gas at all!” Ciara said.

“I wish so too, mi amor,” Luz said sincerely.

Sentiment aside, that was one reason she had kept their home base firmly planted in tiny, quasi-rural, militarily insignificant Santa Barbara.

She added: “I wish Herr Privatdozent von Bülow had never discovered what his insecticide was really good for.”

They’d both met the inventor of Annihilation Gas, back in ’16; he’d died while they were in Berlin on their second mission later that year, killed by Black Chamber sabotage in the V-gas plant in Staaken, though that had been James Cheine’s tasking rather than theirs.

Ciara had a horror of the elderly scientist’s very memory. Luz thought he hadn’t been a bad old duffer of an academic fossil at all… when he wasn’t being a mass-murdering fanatic. Some killers she’d met really enjoyed their work, and they tended to be mad, bad and dangerous to know, for their putative friends not least. For others, it was just… work, which was her own attitude unless she had a personal grudge against someone the way she’d had against Pancho Villa for her parents’ murder.

Von Bülow had done what he did regretfully, because the holy destiny of the Fatherland required it.

We had that interesting conversation about Nietzche’s views of women, Luz thought. And I don’t doubt he loved his grandchildren as much as I love the girls. Pity about so many others!

“Amen, and bad cess to him! Now that he’s accounting to God for it,” Ciara said.

Luz nodded, though she didn’t really believe in an afterlife anymore. She wasn’t sure if Ciara did or not, though they’d both been raised Catholic, of course, and it stuck in many respects. Their children were baptized in that faith, and they took them to services sometimes. Being with each other meant they couldn’t actually receive communion at Mass—you had to be confessed and absolved first for that, and you didn’t get absolution unless you repented, which neither of them ever would.

“Amen indeed,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about that. He did discover it. Germany did use it and Japan does have it now.”

“Nasty lots, the both of them… their rulers, at least… though for that matter, I wish we didn’t have to have it.”

Luz nodded. “Bastardos malvados, but they’re rational evil bastards. As long as we can retaliate in kind, they’ll rest content with using theirs as a threat, to protect their grip on what they’ve taken.”

“Just the threat with us,” Ciara noted. “Because America can threaten the same, and for our allies.”

Luz nodded soberly. Both the other power-blocs had used it on their own subjects, ones unwise enough to rebel against their hegemony above the harassment level. On people who couldn’t fight back you could just spray it from the air and cover immense areas, wait a little while for the chemicals to decay, and then move burial details and settlers into an echoing vacancy ready-equipped with roads and houses and cleared fields. That made it much less labor-intensive than the methods Genghis Khan… or Joshua ben Nun… had used. She went on:

“This new player… I think they want to upset the applecart, and that may mean actually using it, consequences be damned. The way they acted last night reminds me of that old Russian saying.”

Which went: When people cause you a problem, remember—no people, no problem. Because death solves all problems.

That was overly simple. Death certainly solved some problems, but even if all you had was a hammer, not everything was a nail.

Ciara nodded and blew out her lips with a disgusted sound. She listened to her heart more than Luz did, but she listened to her head just as much—and there was nothing wrong with her wits in the least.

“And there’s nothing we can do about Germany or Japan, but we… you and I… may actually be able to stop… whoever it is… from getting the awful stuff,” Ciara said, sounding unhappy about it, but resolute.

Saving the country… at least twice… it does wonders for your self-confidence, Luz thought wryly.

Her partner sighed again. “Let’s go have breakfast with the girls.”


“How are you, mi amiga?” Luz asked Midori.

The younger operative raised her battered face and pointed at it with her good hand; the skin was just beginning to go from fresh-bruise red to dark purple all over the right side. She was in pajamas with her left arm in a sling, and she would be eating very carefully. Her strong young teeth were still all there, but there were loose ones that had to be spared and were very tender. Her back probably hurt like blazes where the daggerman had landed on her too, though no actual ribs had been sprung, probably because she’d begun to dodge just a fraction of a second before the impact and wasn’t solidly planted.

“I feel like I had my arm cut by a homicidal maniac after he landed on my back with both feet and slammed my face into the pavement, hard,” she said tartly… but slowly and carefully… as she sat herself down at the table in their suite’s dining room.

“You killed him for it,” Luz pointed out. “That has to be some consolation. I’ve always found it… soothing, when someone’s given me reason to be… peeved.”

“That I stabbed the bastard in the back with a large knife helps in the abstract, but it isn’t exactly morphine. Aspirin aren’t either. Both better than nothing,” Midori said.

Luz thought she could detect a slight queasiness there, probably at a flash of visceral memory of the sensations of ramming ten inches of sharp metal through someone’s body back-to-front. That was only to be expected; you got used to it, but that muscle-memory and smell-memory had come back on her unpleasantly for months after her first experience knifing a Villista sentry to escape the burning hacienda where her parents had been murdered. It had been…

Messy. Like butchering a chicken, only more so.

“Moving will help the back loosen up faster—that’s experience talking too,” Luz said. “If you stay in bed it seizes up tight.”

Then Midori yelped in genuine fright as the youngsters poured in, followed by Susan, who was either herding them in or just chasing after them as they realized they wanted breakfast. Luz and Ciara swooped in to help the nanny-bodyguard and Fumiko rescue the injured Taguchi from the effects of being affectionately climbed over while badly bruised.

Their daughters quickly grasped that Midori had been hurt—had a hurtie was the way Luciana put it—and trooped over solemn-faced to give her gentle pats and kisses and an earnest chorus of feel all better now, Obachan. It was what they’d have done for one of their sisters with a skinned knee, and oddly enough did seem to help. The four able-bodied women settled the children in their special chairs as the white-coated hotel steward wheeled in the breakfast cart.

It’s been a while, but I still sleep like the dead after a fight, Luz thought. I just wish, wish, wish I’d had another eight hours of it. And all this makes me appreciate again how much I wish that this was a quiet family breakfast back home.

The girls—all of whom had lobbied hard to graduate from the bibs of babyhood, and were carefully tucking napkins into the necks of their nightshirts—chatted as they spooned down small bowls of oatmeal and cream and raisins and sliced banana and raspberries and drank their milk and cocoa and fresh orange juice with happy unconcern. Each having three siblings of the same age meant they were rarely really alone even with a big family home, which made Luz feel odd at times—as an only child she’d spent considerable time by herself growing up, and Ciara nearly as much since her only brother had been six years older and hence a protector and hero to imitate more than a playmate.

Fumiko and Midori were the closest thing I had to sisters, and friends are not quite the same, not even very good ones.

Listening to her children gave her a slightly surreal feeling…

They talk… talk more and more… but sometimes they just… talk, not necessarily to anyone in particular, like birds singing. More a matter of occasionally verbally bouncing off someone else. Small children have minds and they think, but very strange minds. No wonder you can’t remember much about that stage when you’re adult!

Colleen described a dream of flying, talking cats probably inspired by the Puma fighters at the parade crossed with memories of the Peter Rabbit stories, which she loved and loved to embroider on her own, and Patricia went on about how much she missed their cat Safira, and if Safira was sad, which Luz doubted given the last tail-pulling-and-retaliatory-scratching episode.

But Mary, who was an affectionate creature, agreed it was likely.

“She’ll be sad ‘cause she loves us!”

“We’re her sisters,” Patricia agreed.

“So sad she’ll cry!” Mary added, blinking herself and cuddling her teddy.

“Don’t you be sad, Mr. President!” she added to it, and kissed it on the nose—unlike most, she’d actually done that to the President of the United States, and gotten a hug out of it.

“Cats don’t cry, Mary,” Luciana said in lofty tones, breaking one of her typical long thoughtful silences.

“They do so, Lucy! Mew-mew-mew!”

“But the kitties were flying! And growling!” Colleen said and growled to illustrate through a mouthful of oatmeal.

Ciara swooped in with a napkin, her usual morning torpor overridden by parental concern: “Don’t talk with your mouth full, darling heart,” she said. “Only little babies do that.”

“Not a baby!” Colleen said… with her mouth full… waving her spoon for emphasis. “I’m big now. I’m gonna be a… a pi-lot and fly! Fly with cats! Big, big cats with wings! Ruuuum-ruuuummmm!”

We’ve got a budding Edgar Rice Burroughs there, Luz thought, with a sudden wave of tenderness.

“Cats can’t fly, Colleen,” Luciana said. “Birds fly. Bugs fly. Cats can’t fly.”

“Our mommies can fly,” Patricia pointed out; they’d all very much enjoyed watching as Luz and Ciara did their solo flights for their pilots’ licenses.

“We’re girls and we flew here!” Colleen said.

“People-girls,” Patricia added. “Not bug-girls or bird-girls. If we had Safira with us, she’d fly too, and she’s a cat-girl.”

“Pat, that’s sil—”

Luciana stopped with her mouth open, frowning as she tried to work out the weakness in the logic, her eyes scanning back and forth as if she were tracking something mentally while she tried to find proof that what she thought… knew… was silly actually was.

Colleen went on happily:

Big cats with wings can so fly. When I’m grown up I’m gonna have a big cat that loves me to bits and she’ll have ven… ven… adventures with me! Like a pony. Only flying. With fuzzy ears! We’ll fly to Oz.”

Mary perked up and hugged Teddy harder. “Can I come? And see Dorothy and the Tin Woodsman? The Woodsman can chop up monsters! Chop-chop-chop! I had a bad dream with monsters and I was scared and he chopped them up and it made me feel all better.”

“Ohhh, me too! I’ll come too!” Patricia said. “The Yellow Brick Road!”

They’d gotten as far as the beginning of Glinda of Oz in the nightly story-reading she and Ciara took turns at. Baum was dead and she didn’t consider the continuations by other hands nearly as good, but Luz had considerable hopes of restarting the entire series after that, the earlier ones having faded from her children’s memory.

Colleen beamed, obviously seeing herself leading a squadron of four sisters on giant winged kitties over the Munchkin villages towards the gleaming green towers… a prospect which weakened even Luciana’s commitment to not being silly.

Luz was lifting her first forkful of breakfast when the telephone rang.

“Are you going to answer the telephone, Mommy Luz?” Luciana asked. Then, brightly: “Can I? Can I?”

Luz sighed, swallowed hastily and rose. The dish she’d ordered was excellent—a house specialty at the Palace, done with ground beef sautéed in olive oil with garlic, onions, and mushrooms until the onion softened and then stirred with nutmeg, oregano, salt, pepper and chopped fresh spinach; eggs were broken into indentations made in the top of the mixture and cooked to taste—which in her case was the whites firm but the yolks just a little liquid.

It went very well with sourdough toast… and she was hungry as well as still sleepy. And it was much better hot.

And thirty isn’t twenty. I can still do the same things… but it hurts just a little more and I don’t bounce quite as quickly.

“Yes?” she said when she’d stepped over and picked up the receiver from the sideboard—a modern one-piece handset with sleek lines in ivory and gilt bronze.

“Mrs. Smith, this is Clifford Sefton at the front desk. I’m sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but there’s a Chinese woman here who says she has to speak with you in person on a business matter. Shall I tell her you’re not here, ma’am?”

“If that’s Mrs. Joan Yuen, send the lady up—and extend every courtesy, please. Eeet is—

Maintaining a convincing slight accent was actually more of an effort than a thicker one. Patricia cocked an ear. She was showing signs of inheriting her birth-mother’s talent for the nuances of words—she and Luciana had said their first words a month earlier than Colleen and Mary, and they both also had instinctive perfect pitch like Luz. Now she was visibly thinking:

Mommy is talking funny again.

“—an important beesneess matter.”

Luz sighed again, and said to the air after she hung up:

“Lucky I’m dressed.”

She looked at the others. Ciara had gotten a bit more sleep but not enough, and unlike Luz she woke up slowly even when she had.

Plus worrying about us without saying or doing anything that would worry the girls was probably a mental strain about as bad as the fight.

She was tousled and in a dressing-robe over her old-fashioned nightgown and concentrating as much on her coffee as keeping one eye on the children allowed. The next stage was ravenous hunger; only after that did full consciousness begin.

Fumiko was helping her sister with her food—Midori was having oatmeal and fruit rather than Fumiko’s bacon and eggs and sausages and fried tomatoes—and they were both very quiet. Last night had been their first real brush with sudden death at first-hand, if not with violence in general.

Susan Zhou was helping to oversee the girls as necessary, and was apparently her usual serene self. She was eating a pair of pancakes which she topped with fried eggs and bacon and folded over—evidently as close as a Western kitchen could get to something called Jianbing that was popular for the day’s first meal in her home city.

Not her first dance at that particular party, or her second, Luz thought, and went on aloud:

“I’ll meet her in the sitting room.”

Joan Yuen looked grim in both senses of the word when she arrived, though impeccably groomed and well-dressed in a dark shirtwaist and jacket ensemble. Luz put two cups of coffee on the table between them:

“You look as if you could use this and it’s a pity that it’s early for brandy. I’d invite you to breakfast, but I don’t want t’eh chil’ren overhearing oous.”

Joan gestured agreement and sipped, considering Luz carefully.

“You’re not hurt? I’m glad… but David said you were all over blood. Like a dripping red mask all the way to the hospital, he said, every time you looked over your shoulder at him.”

“It wasn’t mine,” Luz replied. “It was from the people who attacked us.”

And from your husband, but that wouldn’t be tactful to mention.

“And none of them got away,” she added. “One tried, and I shot him.”

After which he committed suicide, but let’s not complicate the picture.

“They are all dead,” she added instead.

“Good!” Joan said with a flash of savagery.

Luz went on:

“Midori was cut a little and badly battered, but apart from that it’s all minor among my people. David’s conscious? That’s good news!”

“Yes. He’s weak, and in some pain, so I didn’t want to tire him, but he could talk a little. The operation was a success; they say that if there’s no serious infection, he could be sent home fairly soon—they need to keep him very quiet and under observation for a while first. But they’re using this new bactericidal drug made from a mold developed in England during the war, and it’s supposed to work wonders, even with a bad stomach wound. In a few months he’ll make a full recovery as long as he’s careful… and I will see that he is.”

Luz crossed herself and spoke sincerely: “¡Gracias a dios! That is very good news.”

A quiet pause, and Joan continued:

“David told me how you fought to protect him and Grandfather, you and your people, risking your own life without hesitation when you could have escaped. He said you were like a tigress. And how you bandaged him, got him to the best hospital in the city, bribed them to make them treat him immediately, and hired a guard for his door.”

Luz sighed. “I only wish we could have done more.”

Which is true.

She continued: “This is partly my fault; I expected there might be some trouble, as did your grandfather—he and David warned me about possible risk, as a matter of fact.”

“That was why you and your people were all armed to the teeth? Swords… knives… pistols… shotguns… a submachine gun? Are those even legal?”

“They are if you’re an influential Party member in good standing from an area still under martial law. I was just… taking precautions out of habit. Mexico was quite violent for some time, when I was a young woman. It’s quiet now, for the most part, but that’s because the forces of order… and their supporters, like my family and our retainers… are always vigilant.”

Which is all more or less true, literally if not in the penumbra of implications I just piled on. I contributed my fair share to la violencia, too. How did that German sociologist put it? Violence is always the ultimately decisive means of political action? Very true.

Joan went on: “It’s the fault of those murderous—”

She spat something in Cantonese which Luz assumed was not complementary.

“—who attacked David and Grandfather, not you!”

Joan took a deep breath and went on calmly: “I’m running the business while David is… is recovering, so I thought I’d get a few things settled.”

She reached into the briefcase she’d brought and pushed a manila business envelope across the table.

“This is everything we know about Chen and his dealings. And a complete list of our contacts in Shanghai, and a letter of introduction. It’ll be useful if you… plan to go ahead with things.”

“I do, and thank you. This will be useful. I just wish the partnership could continue.”

“We cannot do that. With grandfather… gone… and David badly hurt, we have to concentrate on safeguarding what we have, for our children’s sake,” Joan said.

Luz patted her hand. “I understand completely.”

Joan pushed another large envelope towards her. “This is the fifty thousand, your earnest money, minus the twenty thousand David had with him to pay Chen, which I presume you have.”

“I’m sending that amount on to the younger Mr. Chen,” Luz said, again more-or-less truthfully. “His grandfather did give us the information we wanted, or at least some of it. And we didn’t deliver the protection that was part of the payment. Which makes it a debt of honor to see that his grandson and family get it, and that they’re safe.”

Actually, the Black Chamber would be doing a wire-transfer to an account in Mexico in the name of Chen’s grandson, who would then get a letter from Mrs. Smith informing him of the arrangements; the cash would go back into the operating fund for this operation. You had to keep the accountants happy, even in the Black Chamber.

The payment was on Luz’ recommendation but would probably have been done anyway. Chen had given them the information, after all. The Chamber tried very hard to keep its promises.

And they would help him access the family funds if necessary, much of which had probably been converted to something liquid and stashed somewhere before Chen the elder made his panic-stricken dash out of Shanghai—forensic accountants were working on that now, a specialty surprisingly useful in espionage. She’d pointed out that having a family with Chinese connections feeling grateful and indebted would be an asset someday, especially one with a talented near-graduate of Harvard at its head.

We might even recruit him, or give him further help to become a person of influence on sub rosa retainer to us. He’ll want payback for his grandfather, as I did for my parents.

The Black Chamber knew the uses of both gratitude and vengeance, and it thought in the long term.

“That is good of you. But the remainder is here.”

Luz put a hand on it and pushed it back towards her. “I was prepared to spend the entire amount and more to get the information and the connections in Shanghai,” she said. “Now I have it.”

“But we… our family… cannot continue with the agreement you made with David and Grandfather! I will be satisfied if the business is in good order when David is on his feet again.”

“You’ve suffered terrible loss, personal loss, because of that agreement,” Luz said, and raised a hand. “And it could easily have been worse. I know that money won’t assuage grief—but the lack of it doesn’t help either, mi amiga. Use it for your children’s education, or donate it to the Kuomintang, or anything you please. It’s yours, not mine, as far as I’m concerned. A sunk cost.”

Joan took a deep breath and nodded, a quick grave gesture that recognized what Luz had said and acknowledged an obligation, which confirmed Luz’ thought that she was too sensible to go through more of the no-no-after-you-I-couldn’t-possibly dance now that honor had been satisfied by a genuine offer to return the surplus. That kept alive the possibility of future dealings, as well.

“Thank you. When the news of this spreads, there will be heavy calls on the business as some of our creditors panic. Prompt cash payments will reassure them, and our bankers will be reassured when we deposit it.”

Luz paused a moment for thought, then decided to continue. The Yuens would find out fairly soon anyway.

“Have you seen your accountant, Stanley Li, since yesterday?”

Joan started. “No,” she said. “He has not come to the office, or answered his telephone.”

Then her eyes narrowed. “You think he betrayed us?”

“Did anyone else besides the three of you and him know about the meeting with Chen?”

“No… I don’t think anyone did. We discussed it only in strict privacy.”

“I’ve been in contact with the San Francisco police,” Luz said. “I asked them from the hospital—since the incident had to be reported to the police in any case—to notify me of anything concerning your business. They contacted me late last night—”

In fact, a Black Chamber team had told her, just before she got that very brief bit of sleep, but they’d turned the information… or some of it, anyway… over to the city police. They’d also told them to deal with it as they would have if they’d found the body themselves, which apparently meant the Chinatown squad would handle it. And they were focused on keeping crime there off the front pages to avoid scaring tourists, and otherwise letting it stay within the neighborhood boundaries, in informal partnership with the Six Companies.

And with the Tongs, who weren’t bound by tedious legal formalities when it came to maintaining order and suppressing competition with their own quasi-racketeering.

“—the police told me that Li was found dead in his apartment a few hours ago. Stabbed. He was apparently packing for a trip when it happened.”

Meaning we can’t interrogate him either. ¡Demonios! I’m getting very tired of being one step behind someone else’s clean-up squad. It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs behind a flock of demonic sparrows.

“They bribed him, these mysterious purveyors of treasure, and then killed him so he couldn’t talk when they didn’t need him anymore,” Joan said. “Just as they did business with Chen… and then killed him.”

Proving that my appraisal of her wits was sound, Luz thought. And that whoever’s on the other end of this is cunning and powerful, but rather… mad. Not just ruthless—I’m ruthless. But éste es un loco with it.

The Chinese woman’s lips went thin. She looked up and met Luz’ eyes.

“You intend to go ahead with your search for the source of the… the items?”

“I do,” Luz said.

Suddenly Joan Yuen looked remarkably tigress-like herself, and her voice rose:

“Then when you find these… these…”

She spat something that sounded like gau si gwan.

“… then rob them blind! And if you can, kill them! Kill them all!

Luz’ smile was an exceedingly cruel expression.

“Yes, Joan, that eees very much what I had in mind. But I will remember your words when the time comes, rest assured, and I will come and tell you about it if I can.”

She crossed herself again and said: “Con Dios mi testigo… as God is my witness.”


Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling