Chapter Seven

The Metropolitan San Francisco General Hospital was at Potrero Avenue and 22nd Street, a set of newish red-brick buildings—completed during the Great War—in a vaguely Renaissance style with terracotta moldings, covering four city blocks. The location put it south and west of Chinatown, and Luz drove there with exaggerated caution, keeping strictly within the posted twenty mph speed limit despite the light traffic at this hour—there were simply too many things that would take too long to explain to some inquisitive traffic cop.

That gave the blood a little time to congeal on her face and neck and gloved hands; it still smelled of salt and rust, without that added fishy-spoiled-meat scent that came quickly in warmer weather. From the way he looked to her occasional glances David Yuen wasn’t going into shock, but any puncture wound that hit a lung at all was deadly serious.

“Midori, shed all your weapons. Fumiko, give her a hand; when we’re out, take the car back to the hotel and wait for orders—fill Ciara in. Susan, you go too,” Luz said—in Spanish, to exclude Yuen from the conversation. “The fewer strange sights here, the better. I’ll lay on transport and handle the rest via the local Station.”

When she drove up under the porte-cochère labelled Emergency and jumped out from behind the wheel several white-coated attendants jumped towards her with looks of alarm on their faces. At least they recognized blood when they saw it in a place like this…

“It’s not my blood,” she barked at them. “I’ve got a seriously hurt man here—knife-stab to the body, upper left torso below the armpit, possibly nicked a lung, and a stab to the upper abdomen that isn’t as deep. And a woman with a cut to the upper left arm, but she’s ambulatory. Get that trolley-stretcher over here, now.”

The familiar terminology and the sharp but steady tone short-circuited their control-the-hysterical-female reflex and got them moving: late-night injuries from knife-fights were a staple of most big-city emergency rooms. And certainly of this city, where a heavy Mediterranean element had long meant that the absurd Anglo-Saxon obsession with the virtuous manliness of fists wasn’t widely shared. Nobody noticed the car slide away.

San Francisco General’s emergency room had all the very latest conveniences, including stretchers on extensible wheeled legs, and one of those came rattling over. David Yuen was quickly lifted onto it, and Luz and Midori followed him into the antiseptic smell and white tile of the examining room; relatives usually did, though some frowned on the practice now. He was conscious, quiet but pale and sweating. Midori was pale too around the lips—the arm was probably hurting badly, because cuts just did—but fully alert. The hospital staff probably thought she was some sort of relative of Yuen’s, though to Luz’ eye they looked as different as a Swede did from a Turk.

The leather sleeve probably saved her arm, Luz thought. That was a sharp knife with a ten-inch blade and a lot of muscle behind the cut. Even a glancing strike would have gone to the bone without the trenchcoat.

The night-shift doctor was two or three years younger than Luz; interns usually got that duty. He had sandy hair cut close, and a small mustache trimmed likewise, was slim enough to look almost cadaverous in his white coat under the bright lights, and had a scar on his face that looked like the product of a meeting with shrapnel to an experienced eye—technical and higher education was heavily subsidized nowadays, and for veterans even more so.

After his team cut away Yuen’s clothing he swabbed and put pads over the two wounds with deft long-fingered hands, listening to his chest with a stethoscope, checking the eyes and taking the pulse. He might be just out of medical school, but he knew traumatic injury; his voice was matter-of-fact as he said:

“Bluish tinge to the skin, pain, accelerated pulse. Blood loss isn’t too massive and the lung’s not fully collapsed but someone’s going to have to go in, debride, disinfect and do some suturing and remove the air in the pleural space. The abdominal wound didn’t… probably didn’t… pierce the peritoneum or the intestine from the angle and the smell. The point may have hit a button on the way in. Oxygen here, please, nurse! And morphine—light dose.”

He left the nurse to finish and looked at Midori’s wound.

“This may need three or four stitches and the arm should be immobilized for three days to a week and no stress for some time after that. Nurse, 6cc of tropacocaine, please.”

He made the injection; a moment later the way her shoulders untensed showed the local taking effect.

“We can transfer them both to the Chinatown clinic immediately in one of our vehicles,” he said briskly. “Really, that must have been closer to begin with, ma’am—and we’ll need to report this all to the police, it might be some Tong business—”

Luz sighed, stepped closer, and put her hand on his left arm about three inches below the elbow. It looked like a social gesture, but she was actually clamping the arm and digging two fingers like slender steel rods into the ulnar nerve cluster in an exquisitely and achingly painful fashion. That was a very effective jujitsu come-along hold, and the most inconspicuous of its type.

“Let’s talk for a second, doctor,” Luz said, moving him aside as his eyes bulged.

Pain was most effective and disabling when completely unexpected. He hissed and started to bend towards the grip and reach for her hand in an instinctive response which showed he’d had at least some grounding in combatives—like most men his age probably in basic training’s brief and basic but intensive dirty-fighting course, which accorded with the scar. That posture let her speak two words quietly into his ear:

Black Chamber.”

Which froze him much more completely than the pain-hold, and she released it. He might be an annoying idiot whose tribal reflexes were endangering her work, but he wasn’t technically stupid: she could see things going click behind his eyes, including what she was wearing, the blood across her face, neck, chest, hands and arms, the strange circumstances in general, and most of all the simple fact that she’d dared to use the name of America’s most admired-and-feared secret-service group.

Very bad things happened to people who took the Chamber’s name in vain. Permanent disappearance, just for a start. And anyone who did it in the circumstances she was in right now would get caught.

She opened her trenchcoat and the jacket beneath for an instant, which let him—but by no accident at all nobody else in the room—see her shoulder-holster.

“If you stop to check my bona fides now and cause delays, you’ll regret it—that man is an important source and we want him alive and we want him happy. Fix him up and put him in a private room. A guard for the door will arrive.”

San Francisco General had two private rooms per ward.

“Oh, and if you mention the name of… my organization… to anyone whatsoever, you will also regret it, and believe me, we will know if you do.”

He nodded quickly, probably without being aware that he did. In point of fact that would be rather difficult and a waste of resources, but the Chamber’s reputation for omniscience could be very helpful at times like this. People watched themselves much more efficiently than any number of spies under the bed could do, once they were convinced that there were spies under the bed. People had had time to get used to that idea. After October 6th, 1916, even those who didn’t like the Chamber or the Party or Teddy were reconciled to it. With the gruesome examples of London and Paris in front of everyone’s eyes, and the knowledge that everything from Boston to Galveston might have gone the same way, it was difficult to argue with success.

“This is a national-security matter. You’ll be contacted later and all expenses will be covered. However, if you lose a national security asset, various people will be very unhappy with you. And you will be very unhappy indeed shortly after that.”

“But the man has a serious injury—two! With serious injuries I can’t absolutely guarantee—and how am I going to explain why he’s being treated here instead of—”

“Is there a written policy to the contrary?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Then that is your problem, doctor. Because you made me flash my union card and I’m… annoyed. Now go be a good boy, and get me results. And have someone see to my colleague with the arm injured in America’s service.”

You twit, she added silently but obviously, and patted his cheek three slow times.

It was an emphatic pat, not quite a slap but with malice aforethought as he winced at the realization that he’d proposed sending a Black Chamber operative off with only a bandage on a duplicate trip across town, not just what he’d think of as a nameless Oriental female.

Luz left the print of blood-sticky gloved fingers on the suddenly very pale cheek. Very Bad Things could also happen to people who got in the way of the Black Chamber’s mission… as defined by the Black Chamber.

“He’s type O+, by the way,” she finished; which had been in David Yuen’s file, and saving the time might be important.

Transfusions had become common during the Great War in wound treatment; blood-types had been discovered in the decade or so before it began, and military medicine had forced the pace of adoption into super-high gear. Most good hospitals had a blood bank now.

“And take this money,” she said, passing him some bills in a way that some of the bystanders—including David Yuen—could see, though nobody would have heard the conversation.

“It’s for show, but it’s necessary. Someone will pick it up later.”

She would have just given him the bills if he hadn’t been difficult. Now he was going to face assumptions of bribery… and to add spice to the jest, he wouldn’t be able to use the perfectly genuine excuse that a Black Chamber operative had told him to take the money, or get to keep it.

am peeved.

The doctor gave a brief nod, turned around and began giving crisp orders. Luz went to the side of David Yuen’s stretcher just before he was rushed out, to surgery judging from the technical jargon that was flying back and forth.

“I’ll let Joan know,” she said. “And I’ll see to your father’s body. Sorry this got so… messy.”

He nodded, aware of what she was saying but already drifting off with the shot of morphine a nurse had just administered.

Luz saw that Midori was getting the arm attended to and that the tropacocaine was making the stitches at least relatively painless, then went telephone-hunting. A sympathetic attendant at the receiving-room desk let her use one in an office, assuming she had bad news to report to someone from the way she looked; Luz stripped off her gloves first, dropping them in a waste-basket, and reminded herself to do a preliminary wash as soon as she could get to a Ladies. This wasn’t a place where a pair of gloves caked in dried blood was going to attract a lot of attention.

She also knew of old that once blood thoroughly dried it was like glue, especially in your hair and under the nails and around your cuticles.

You don’t want that taste when you absent-mindedly bite a hangnail.

A short list of calls ran through her head: Joan Yuen would be last, because it was less time-sensitive. The doctors—a surgeon had been called in—were getting ready for an operation, and Joan’s husband would be under anesthetic by the time she could get here anyway.

“This is Universal Imports,” a voice said at the other end.

A cover so transparent that these days it had become something of a joke and only censorship prevented its use in newspapers and made Edgar Rice Burroughs and the pulp magazines use monickers like General Trading instead.

“Jack?” she said, recognizing the voice of the current night-officer at the San Francisco Station.

She knew Jack Tesson personally from their common service, in Mexico during the Intervention and in the Great War and the tense pseudo-peace since, and he’d probably volunteered for what most people thought of as a boring chore to be done in rotation. He’d been a night-owl back then too and doubtless regarded it as a chance to catch up on his paperwork with nobody bothering him. San Francisco was a major nexus now, HQ for the western third of the continent and operations across the Pacific, but even minor Stations always had someone ready to answer, though usually not someone so senior.

“Luz?” he said in return. “It’s been months!”

Si, we’ve been unmentionably busy.”

Which meant, don’t ask. She continued with:

“My one-time code—”

They went through the ritual designed to ensure that they were who they said they were, and that Luz wasn’t talking with a gun to her head.

“Down to business: I need a car and driver at San Francisco General, fast.”

She heard him talking to someone else, transmitting the order.

“And a reliable guard to watch an injured source, also fast.”

There were several reasons she’d come here, apart from it being the best-equipped hospital in reach that didn’t involve the military. One was that it wasn’t the first place anyone seeking to finish the job of tidying up loose ends would look for Yuen, assuming they knew he’d survived the fight in the alley.

The other side would probably leave him alone now—Chen had obviously been their primary target. A kill him and anyone with him order would be her bet on the daggermen’s instructions, given their general air of demented fanaticism.

Going after Yuen further would risk leaving a detectable trail in itself.

But why take chances?

“A guard whose appearance doesn’t shout Black Chamber to the world,” she qualified. “Or even FBS. And not a uniform from the SFPD. Nothing to draw the eye.”

“I’ll have someone sent over from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ve used them before for jobs where we didn’t want to tie up our people, and they’re competent and know how to keep their mouths shut. One of their men here has been very useful when we needed to operate through cut-outs.”

“Perfect. Use my Smith & Smith cover—“

She gave the necessary details.

“—for the hire, and have this Continental Op give that as the employer when the hospital or the asset asks. And we’re going to need a clean-up squad and meat-wagon at this address in Chinatown, de lo mas inmediato.

She gave it, and specified:

“Nine bodies. Two of them are deceased friendlies who need to be handed over to the remaining asset’s family—”

She named it, and Tesson whistled softly, apparently recognizing the Yuen name.

“—and it should be done discreetly. An elderly man in a Chinese robe and his bodyguard—also Chinese but very big. And a third Chinese man in a rumpled tropical linen suit who was lethally interrupted while telling me things; that was my informant, and we’re taking care of his family. He’s a wealthy merchant named Chen and affiliated with a Chinatown Christian church—”

She pulled the name and address out of her mental files and gave it:

“So send the body to them. I don’t want the families asking questions about my cover, so we’ll need to get the SFPD and coroner involved there and keep them to the front.”

“The other seven?”

“Mystery men in black masks working for people who are the objective of my mission. Two were shot, but mostly they’re knifed or… disassembled. Just disappear their corpses and put them in the cooler for future study. I’ve got an attaché case here full of cash and documents that needs to be put in the box for a bit, too.”

“The driver who meets you at the hospital can bring that in after he drops you off at the Palace. And then the dead will tell their tales.”

“Just so. Have another driver go to the Palace Hotel parking and switch out my cover’s rental car for a fresh one after the rest of my team get there with it—the old one is sort of… messy inside, so you’ll want to clean it up before returning it, and they’ll have a sack of bloodstained clothing to be inconspicuously disposed of. And pick up the friendlies’ Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost at that Chinatown address; one of the enemy corpses is impaled on the hood ornament, staring at the moon with three .45 slugs in him.”

That startled a chuckle out of him as she heard him giving instructions with his hand over the phone—she supposed it was a bit funny. There were situations where graveyard humor was the only type available, and it was precisely then that you needed a laugh most.

“Get right on it before the SFPD muddy the waters with their big flat feet—muy pronto. The friendlies get classified as victims of a robbery gone wrong for the police records.”

Local police forces knew better than to object when the Chamber stepped in to specify what version of reality went into the paperwork.

“Any casualties of ours?”

“Junior Field Operative Midori Taguchi has been injured—shouldn’t be serious. I’m getting it treated here at San Francisco General, but she’ll be coming out with me. I’m covered in blood but none of it’s mine,” she said, sighing and wondering if she could squeeze a shower in before the preliminary debriefing.

“It’s good to have you back in the field, but God-damn, Luz, you are living up to your reputation! Are you still leaving those little sugar-paste skulls on the bodies?”

Luz sighed again. “Am I never going to live that down? It was a joke, really.”

And I was still feeling vengeful for Mima and Papá.

“Live it down? Our very own beauteous, deadly Santa Muerte, the Chamber’s Angel of Death? Nope, never.”

That had been the opposition’s nickname for her, earned in the early stages of the Intervention when several bombings and assassinations behind enemy lines helped scramble their leadership and ease the way for the invasion forces. Her comrades in the Chamber had taken it up and meant it as a complement; she’d also been called Mictēcacihuātl after the Aztec death-and-hell goddess, but that hadn’t been as popular, mainly because it was too hard to pronounce for people who didn’t speak Nahuatl.

There was a grin in his voice as he went on:

“Our Lady of Holy Death arrives in San Francisco, and suddenly it’s raining corpses in Chinatown!”


Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling