Chapter Six

I wish Ciara was here, Luz thought.

She let the respectably maintained but nondescript rented Packard—it was a 1919 model, from just after civilian production restarted, the sort of car a successful doctor might drive—coast to a quiet stop ten yards behind the one that had briefly flashed its lights, as she’d arranged with the Yuens in a last telephone call around dinnertime. The beauty of the four-door was that while it looked conservative, the twin-six motor had lots of pep if you needed something aggressive, since the original had been an aircraft engine.

Luckily the telegram had arrived before dinner, so she hadn’t had to tell them to delay things again. Luz was behind the wheel, and flicked her lights in turn, throwing the rear of the merchant’s car into relief for a moment.

That signal was a convenience of electric headlamps becoming near-universal in the last few years, but weirdly diffused now by the thick fog. The Yuens’ family car was, unsurprisingly, an expensive recent import—a Rolls four-door Silver Ghost limousine, which the British were making again, though only to earn precious foreign currency as the Empire struggled to get back on its feet sans London and in a changed world.

I wish my darling was here, but I’m happy she’s not, too. Someone has to stay with the children, and while she’s as brave as you could want and she’s learned the tricks, this isn’t really her specialty.

Ciara wouldn’t waste the time, since their daughters were long asleep after playtime—the last day or two they’d decided they loved spelling simple words like cat and dog by shouting out the letters on (fortunately soft rubber) alphabet blocks in sequence while tossing them back and forth, or sometimes just at each other—before settling which stories they’d get from the Parent of the Night.

Ciara was finally getting time to fully study the detailed background papers on what the Chamber and just recently the Imperial Secret Service and Deuxième Bureau knew of what Mister X had been buying with the money he, she, it or they had gotten with the Song treasures; that included a lot of blueprints, and she’d ordered up a formidable stack of reference books, some of them with CLASSIFIED SECRET stamped on the covers.

Once she had all the information under that glorious red-gold mop, things would start churning… things she wasn’t always consciously aware of. Then with any luck it would click and fill in the missing bits… and they’d know more about what Mister X, or Mister X’s technical advisor, had in mind. Or, nearly as useful, what parts of the puzzle were still missing.

That is her specialty, which is why we make such a good team on jobs like this, Luz thought.

And over the last few years Ciara had added a lot of formal instruction to her self-education. Luz had been a little miffed about how much of her attention it took sometimes, but she had to admit it had its uses.

And she’ll concentrate the harder because she’s worried sick about me, Dios la bendiga. I’m a bit worried about me, too. Was this sort of thing easier before I had Ciara and the girls, or did I just not care all that much whether I lived or died? I always enjoyed life, mostly… but I don’t think I was ever really happy, not between the time Mima and Papá were killed and meeting Ciara. Happy isn’t the same as having fun. The last… Dios mio, it’s six years! They haven’t always been fun—children especially aren’t always undiluted joy and she and I have had some minor tiffs—but I am happy.

She took a breath, let everything extraneous flow out with it, opened the door and slid out from behind the wheel, into a quiet with only a distant blur of the noise that no large city ever completely lost, muffled by the moisture-thick air and punctuated by the sound of dripping condensation.

It was midnight-dark. Most of the city had excellent street-lighting, but this back alley in Chinatown wasn’t included, and the moon wouldn’t rise for a while—and was waning anyway. October wasn’t the foggiest month here in San Francisco, but that was like saying a Douglas fir two hundred feet in its stocking feet still wasn’t the tallest tree on the West Coast; it was foggy enough tonight, and to spare.

Dense drifting folds hid the tops of the buildings, mostly four-story here, the swooping lines of a pagoda roof like a few suggestive lines in charcoal on gray paper. The few lights showing in windows were yellow smears, and the one streetlight in the distance was a blurred blobby shape glowing in mist. At ground level it thickened and thinned unpredictably, so that one instant she could see barely six feet clearly, and the next several times that. It also gave the air a cold dank smell—though part of that might be what the day had put on the pavement giving up its ghosts—and left beads of moisture on every exposed surface, which incidentally made everything slightly less slippery than a coating of warm lard.

The others followed her out. Susan Zhou was dressed in a dark-brown outfit of tough cloth otherwise like that she’d worn to the Golden Chrysanthemum… less conspicuous than outright black at night and in these poorly-lit alleys, though tonight a bright-orange clown suit and a big red nose would be fairly effective camouflage.

Luz and Fumiko and Midori all wore dark pants too—very moderately flared jodhpurs of a type women often wore while riding these days, or just wanted to look jaunty, sporting, modern and country-club affluent—plus practical ankle-boots, shirts and jackets, and trench-coats of light suede to the knee, with their hair up under dark snap-brim fedoras.

It wasn’t exactly male garb. A decade or so ago fedoras had briefly been a suffragette fashion often seen in parades and demonstrations, which was where Luz had first worn one. It was close enough that in darkness that would be the impression, and a leather trench-coat could cover a multitude of sins… or the ‘near occasions of sin’, as a priest would say, in the form of weapons and other gear. Nobody would be surprised at people wearing overcoats in San Francisco on an October night.

It’s surprisingly easy to convince people that what their first impression says is true. Not as easy as it would have been a generation ago, when just imitating the silhouette would do, but not all that difficult. Most people don’t really see the world. They don’t look, they just get a hint and fill it in from the file-cabinet of photos in their heads.

Anyone who’d done questioning and interrogations learned that, unless they were densely stupid; it was why untrained eyewitness testimony was essentially worthless.

The other three passengers gathered around. “Remember we want to reassure this source,” she said quietly. “The elusive, apprehensive and hopefully information-stuffed Mr. Chen.”

Luz said it in Spanish, for a little extra security’s sake; it fit their cover, and even now with an open border to the Protectorate of Mexico a day’s travel by rail to the south it wasn’t a very common language in this city, and particularly not in this part of it. All of them spoke it, Susan passably, and the Taguchis were nearly as fluent as Luz, though they’d caught bouncy Cuban accents from her mother and Luz herself as children. She judged that Fumiko and Midori were tense but eager, and well-controlled and alert: she’d known them all her life, and they’d also gotten excellent reports from their trainers, and from Henrietta Colmer and Julie Durán over their year of internship in Zacatecas… and she knew and trusted both the Assistant Station Chief and Station Chief there and those two had seen them in action.

And Susan is the most unflappable person I’ve ever met. You can’t absolutely tell about someone until you have seen them in the moment, but I’m about as sure about her as you can be otherwise.

“He’s on the run—and probably from the people we’re trying to find, or at least from someone in contact with them. Bear in mind that we don’t have to charm him. We have to convince him we’re powerful enough to protect him. We’re at a disadvantage there because we’re women.”

One of the Taguchi sisters made a small spitting sound, like an offended cat.

“Yes, Fumiko, it’s irritating, but it’s something you’ll need to get used to working around, inside the Chamber and out. You’re not at Bryn Mawr anymore, or interning with Henrietta down in Julie’s bailiwick. And we’re at an advantage because he’s utterly terrified and wants to believe someone can protect him—and a will to believe something reassuring can accomplish miracles.”

Hence, religion, she thought dryly. Even if you’re tormented by the fear of damnation, at least it means you’re important enough for God to notice.

She finished:

“I’ve got what he wants to read in my pocket, too. I’ll deal with him; you keep an eye on the perimeter. He may be seeing leprechauns under the bed, or there may actually be little men with shillelaghs about to whack him on the knee. Now follow my lead, and let’s put our play on this stage. The show must go on!”

The two Yuens, father and son, were waiting by their car, with their bodyguard Daniu beside them; from his costume, he doubled as chauffeur.

The father was formidably impassive in his quilted jacket and plain robe. Yuen fils had a modern flashlight in the pocket of his wide-lapeled, double-breasted overcoat of beige camelhair; he took it out and clicked it on for a few seconds, courteously shining it down at the road instead of in their eyes. You could see well enough by the light reflected off the wet pavement, even his face under the narrow brim of his trilby, and Luz judged he was tense but well-controlled. You couldn’t be sure, but she’d learned that someone likely to give in to fear had a distinctive psychic smell, possibly a matter of clues too many and too subtle to sense consciously.

“You brought your Japanese maidservants?” his father said as shadows returned, after a shrewd second glance at the Taguchi sisters and despite the fedoras.

He sounded surprised, but was courteous enough, or at least his words were. He used Nihonjin to describe them, which was the Japanese term for their own people and quite neutral.

When they’re not going on about the Land of the Gods and how the divine blood of Amaterasu-ōmikami is destined to rule the world, which the people the Taguchi family so wisely left back in the Old Country do a lot these days. Mind you, there’s a good deal of that going on around the whole wide globe in this Year of Grace 1922.

Her lips quirked slightly. This wasn’t the only year of the world you could say that in, by any manner of means.

The actors change, but the play goes on, Luz thought.

In 1531, the year the first of her mother’s Aróstegui ancestors moved from Santander to Santiago de Cuba, Spaniards had thought they were destined to rule the world for the glory of Holy Mother Church, the power of the king in Madrid, and the profit of the conquistadores, and they’d had a fair bit of evidence for the belief at the time.

When she was a little girl in the dying years of the last century her father had gone with the Rough Riders to show the Spanish that nowadays they couldn’t even rule Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Back in the fifteen-hundreds the Chinese had been convinced they already did rule the world, or all of it except a few inconsequential islands far away inhabited by ignorant, smelly, hairy savages with poor personal hygiene and disgusting eating habits. The Japanese had been in the middle of two centuries of bloody civil war to settle who was going to be Shōgun—Barbarian-Subduing Generalissimo—and in exquisitely polite terms tell the Emperor and everyone else what to do. And the United States wasn’t even a gleam in an English imperialist’s eye, with Henry VIII battering away at the Scots and Irish and trying to find a princess he didn’t want to decapitate as soon as he’d married and bedded her.

The elder Yuen might be polite in his surprise, but there wasn’t the slightest friendliness in his voice, and his son suppressed a glare at the Taguchis by looking away. They’d been happy enough with the two young women as deferential domestic servants in the background, but another role brought surprise and discomfort.

“Mexico had its own time of troubles not so long ago,” Luz said.

The Yuens nodded wary acknowledgement of what anyone alive and literate in the United States knew well; nearly two years of bloody civil war after Diaz fell in 1911, then a massive American invasion that had taken about the same length of time to get things quiet… mostly quiet.

And the Yuens would know that the rebels wanted to kill my cover identity and her kin and take their property from the beginning, even before the Americans came.

She let a little of the she-wolf into her voice and smile:

“My family survived the bloody years and prospered, and one way was a careful choice of retainers.”

She held up her right hand as a black-gloved fist and then extended three fingers.

Fumiko smiled thinly and opened her trenchcoat for a second, revealing the Thompson gun slung from hooks within it so that it hung down by her side; it was a modified version, with a collapsible stock and a thirty-round box magazine instead of the bulky drum, both making it much easier to conceal. The Technical Section had cunningly made it look more improvised and less polished than it really was.

Midori reached expressionlessly into the sleeve of her identical garment and produced a tanto-knife with a blade nearly as long as her forearm, turning it slightly so the honed edge caught the light, then returned it to the concealed sheath with a quick sure gesture and opened her coat. That revealed a Remington pump-action shotgun with a shortened barrel and the butt cut down into a pistol grip in the same sort of sling as her sister’s Thompson.

Susan Zhao simply raised her attaché case for a moment without altering her expression in the slightest.

“Ah,” Yuen said, and his son nodded.

They’re not going to doubt that I’m Smith of Smith & Smith, since their own telephone calls to Mexico City have backed my story, according to the Chamber station down there. For businessmen, even ones in a fairly louche line like antiquities, that would do. So…

Luz smiled again, and made a quick sideways flick of her hand, her right index finger crooked. Her own knife appeared and opened with a snick-crrrrrakkkk of steel on steel as the ratchets locked.

It was a Spanish navaja, six inches of Toledo steel blade with a curved waisted cutting edge and long clipped point that folded into a hilt of brass and mother-of-pearl. It hadn’t been so long since something like this was ubiquitous in southern Spain, usually tucked into a sash. Women whose lives didn’t involve being cloistered and protected by their menfolk often wore a smaller version in a garter.

Luz had learned pelea de navaja semi-clandestinely as a girl, from an old and disreputable retainer of her mother’s, a bodyguard-coachman who’d been a Spanish soldier in Cuba but started his long career as a baratero in the back-alleys of Seville, a gambler and strongarm man.

He’d taught her how to use the blade in the semi-formal Sevillano manner, smoothness and strategy; in the baratero’s street-fighter fashion, driving power and speed; and also gitano-style. The Rom of Andalusia said their dance of the knife had el duende—the demon—in it, and it was all fire and flash and cunning deception. That included el cambio, a blurring-fast toss from hand to hand in mid-fight… sometimes very useful, and almost always very intimidating.

Luz flickered the weapon back and forth several times too quickly to really see, especially in this foggy dimness, as if it appeared in one black-gloved hand and then the other by magic. Then she let it stay in her left while her right drew her .40 automatic for an instant and then returned it to the shoulder-holster. She didn’t close the knife, just reversed it so that her gloved hand and the sleeve of her coat hid it from a casual eye.

“I was born to a sheltered life… but life takes odd pathways,” she added. “When it doesn’t end in an early grave. Mine didn’t, obviously, though it was close several times.”

And that, mis amigos, is even true, in a bizarre sort of way.

The younger Yuen’s lips quirked. “I thought you were being reckless or ignorant when we mentioned possible risk and you did not hesitate, Mrs. Smith!”

You’re not the first man who underestimated me, Luz thought, and shrugged.

“If I hesitated in seeking advantage, I would be dead… or poor, Mr. Yuen. I am alive, and rich, and intend to die old and surrounded by grandchildren who will then receive an inheritance that leaves them all rich. Let us proceed… if Mr. Chen comes to this rendezvous.”

“Chen should be here any—ah, this is him!” his father said.

Luz had already heard the rapid steps and felt her weight shift just a little more onto the balls of her feet, taking a long deep breath. She pointed briefly and Fumiko darted over to the other side of the street, half-vanishing in the fog as she ducked into a doorway; with any luck, she would vanish to anyone who didn’t know she was there, while having a view up and down the alley. A clack sound indicated she was pulling out the collapsing stock of her Thompson gun, and another meant the bolt was drawn back. Nothing on the Parkerized weapon would catch the light—even the little radium dot on the flip-up night-sight, which was the very latest thing, was only visible to the shooter.

Tómalo con calma, Luz told herself.

She made her breathing regular and let emotion flow through her without sticking in her consciousness; the sort of emotions produced by graphic memories of seeing mutilation and painful death at close quarters, for instance, and feeling what bullets and knives and blows did to her own flesh.

Keep calm. Fear is just another physical sensation, like heat or cold. It doesn’t mean anything and you don’t have to pay any attention to it.

Midori simply went to one knee and vanished in turn almost as completely as her sister, if you weren’t right on top of her in this foggy dimness; she drew the long tanto again, but held it with the blade reversed and lying along her right forearm with that arm held back and nearly behind her.

In visibility this bad if anything went wrong it would be at close quarters, where blades had all the advantage—though she was glad of Fumiko’s back-up if something with a little distance involved happened.

The latches of Susan Zhou’s attaché case clicked, which meant that she was taking out her hook-swords and moving a little further away, holding them with her arms crossed and the short blades resting on her shoulders. She was facing away from the approaching man’s footsteps, guarding their backs… and if not invisible to the hypothetical Mr. Chen, then very inconspicuous.

That’s just one man, and he’s walking fast, not running. This may go off smoothly… but better to take precautions and not need them, than need and not do.

He was also looking over his shoulder when he appeared out of the fog. When he turned around and grew close enough to really see her Luz could have told even without Yuen’s warning that his promise of help from the influential American merchant Smith had been very nonspecific.

Anger and panic washed across Chen’s chubby sixtyish face when he saw who Smith was—her being the only more-or-less white face here. His carried some grizzled stubble, and would have had more except that his beard was quite sparse, which was common but not universal in South Chinese. His business suit had seen better days too, and he wore no tie and was hatless; when he got close enough to register her gender he was also in smelling distance, stale sweat and cheap tobacco and unchanged underclothes, which went with the wrinkles and stains on the once-expensive suit.

It was light-colored and of fine linen, and had probably been bought on the other side of the Pacific. One fist was in his jacket pocket, and from the outline was undoubtedly clutching a pistol. That was bad, because having a frightened amateur with a gun around in a tense situation, or even worse in a fight, was like juggling a hand-grenade with a loose pin. A bullet didn’t care by who, or how or why it was launched your way. Being shot by accident added humiliation to injury or death.

“For you, from your grandson,” she said, preempting whatever panic-stricken outburst was brewing at finding out his best prospect of protection was a woman named Smith.

She held out the blue form of a Bell-Western telegraph between the first two fingers of her left hand. Chen seized it eagerly, forgetting the gun, and David Yuen shone the flashlight on it for a few moments, cupping a hand around the light to make it less conspicuous. The message was in English, followed with a brief set of nonsense syllables that her training had instantly recognized as some sort of code that was probably private to the Chen family. That would make it hard to crack—a well-designed code with a private key and only a small sample to work from was the hardest nut of all—but the Chamber’s Codes Section were beavering away at a copy of it, just on the general principle that they wanted to be able to eavesdrop on everybody.

The English portion of the telegram went:


“And you can join him as soon as we make a deal, Mr. Chen,” Luz said, keeping her voice level but firm. “I will put you up until tomorrow morning, and you can follow them immediately. Provided you have what we want.”

Chen gasped and relaxed, closing his eyes and shuddering with relief, his lips moving in silent prayers—Christian ones, she thought.

He really was terrified they’d find and kill his family, she thought.

That included three great-grandchildren, two boys and a newborn girl.

And I don’t think he’s stupid, though fear can have that effect. Whoever they are, they are very good at frightening people. And of course we don’t know how much he knows about them.

The Black Chamber was quite good at evoking terror when it wanted to, and she had a professional appreciation of the way the man was obviously afraid of invisible enemies lurking beneath his very feet—that was exactly how you wanted the other side to feel. She also felt a certain sympathy for him, in the abstract, as the mother of young children herself.

Luz flicked a quick glance to maintain awareness of the overall situation. The rest of her party were looking outward, not at the subject… which was exactly what she wanted. So, she noted, was Daniu, though he was also making sure Chen didn’t get too close to his employers—he’d almost certainly spotted the revolver in the pocket too.

“And the money?” Chen said, his voice firming.

Interesting. He was much more concerned for his grandson than he was for himself—and he’s very frightened for himself; his eyes are still trying to see four ways at once. I’m glad I have backup I can rely on not to turn around and focus on him, because I’m much more worried about uninvited guests dropping in.

Yuen fils brought up the attaché case he was carrying. He opened it briefly, enough to show the neat bundles of cash: they were some of those that Ciara had handed over in the Golden Chrysanthemum ten days ago. This portion was twenty thousand dollars’ worth, which was ten years pay for an average skilled workman as of the census of 1920.

I’d be surprised if Chen didn’t have several hundred thousand stashed somewhere but his problem is that he can’t get at it easily or quickly without surfacing, Luz decided.

Yuen the younger didn’t hand it over when Chen began to reach for it. He said:

“It also has airship and railway tickets to… the same destination that your grandson and family are heading for. Now, Mr. Chen, your part of this bargain.”

The fugitive nodded and licked his lips, aware that he would have to sing for his supper.

“The sales were made in Shanghai to a syndicate of buyers at private auction—including myself,” he said.

“Were? Dealt?” Luz said sharply, holding up a finger. “No longer?”

They were speaking Mandarin, and unlike European languages it didn’t inflect the verb to show an event’s location in time; there was no equivalent to sell-sold or deal-dealt. Instead it used a suffix to an invariant verb-form: what she actually said, echoing him, was ‘sales made’ and then a modifier that meant completed, done, over with plus an interrogative ma at the end.

She had to concede it made the language extremely compact at conveying meaning quickly, once you were used to it.

Chen bobbed his head. “Yes, yes. We were told last month there would be no more. And then I noticed one of the others who bought—we wore masks at the auctions, but I knew him and he me, though we never spoke of it—had died. Was found drowned on the bund of the Yangtze east of the old Settlement, but inside the new boundary. He was not a careless man. And some of the rest were just… gone. Then I knew that they were killing the ones who had had contact with them as soon as the final payments were made. I ran immediately, using prepared means—but I could not run quickly without tipping my hand. That was when I telegraphed my grandson that there was danger and to be ready to leave Boston.”

Three bits of valuable information there, Luz thought. Definitely sales in Shanghai; definitely the sales are over; and they’re definitely trying to wind up any loose ends—emphatically so! Though Shanghai may be just the channel we know about; that doesn’t mean it’s the only one, or that they aren’t still moving things through others. Don’t be like the drunk who kept looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light was.

“I do not know who the original sellers were,” Chen said; there were beads of sweat on his brow despite the damp chill. “I never saw their faces uncovered, not the men in charge. Some Europeans, some Chinese, others I could not place at all, from their voices. But I know some of the buyers; the one who died, three others. And where the auctions took place in Shanghai. I have a list—”

He started to reach inside his coat. Before he could complete the motion, Fumiko’s voice rang out from the doorway across the narrow street:

Heads up! Company coming! From the north!

Their heads all swung that way, looking up the street.

Midori yelled too—wordlessly, just starting to dodge herself as a dark-clad figure dropped from the balcony over their heads and struck her with both feet between the shoulders, making a hard thud. She landed flat and skidded forward, then rolled away with a grunt and came to her feet. The edge of the tanto glittered in the dim indirect light, but she shook her head as if the impact had rattled her brain a bit, and blood ran from her nose and lips and a skinned cheek.

The man who’d struck her landed rolling and bounced back to his feet too, moving like a cat, a knife in his hand but only the edge of a darkened blade glinting; he was black-clad, and wearing a knitted hood-mask with only a slit for the eyes. That made him a black shadow against a dark-grey world.

Luz flicked the navaja back into her right hand as he landed and struck in the same motion, throwing herself forward in a pasada baja, a full lunge with the left knee almost touching the ground and left hand palm-down on the pavement.

It just barely failed, the point touching the cloth of a pants-leg over the back of a knee, because the man had thrown himself at Chen—literally thrown himself, in an all-out leap from his crouch, rather than responding to either of the enemies coming at him with blades.

Chen shrieked and stumbled backwards, fumbling with a numb hand for the pistol in his pocket and then folding around himself with a grunt as the knife struck in the fractional second before Luz arrived. Fumiko fired her Thompson at the same time, a neat short four-round burst.


Luz felt her attention split, a familiar sensation—all of it focused on the man in front of her, but somehow enough left over to keep track of everything around. She recovered from the pasada back into a crouch and moved in with a swift light foot-and-foot shuffle; he was up and ready and you couldn’t run straight at someone who knew what to do with a knife, not unless you wanted to die. She and Midori could catch him between them in a second…

The muzzle-flash showed three figures running towards them down the narrow street in the direction Chen had come moments before. Men running silently, light-footed, with steel naked in their hands—evidently they were concerned about not making noise and attracting attention, which fortunately she didn’t have to worry about. Luz knew the Chinatown squad of the SFPD had a leisurely attitude towards investigating Chinatown residents using knives and hatchets on each other, but responded much more quickly to gunfire.

Unfortunately the spear of flame from the Thompson’s muzzle also showed that the burst didn’t hit any of them. That was the last clear shot she was going to get before they were too close to Luz and the others in bad light and fog, which made spraying bursts from an automatic weapon deeply problematic.

Luz dismissed the trio running towards them; they weren’t the immediate threat.

Daniu had shoved the elder Mr. Yuen back against the rear fender of his car at the first sign of trouble and stood in front of him, hands out—one with fingers crooked and the right held back and clenched into a fist—and trying to look in every direction at once and doing it rather well. Yuen’s son stood beside him, and he had a pistol out too, a small revolver of the sort someone who sold valuable goods might keep.

Luz heard the sound of running feet coming towards her from the back too but ignored it for now. Because…

Wǒ yǒu zhège,” Susan said in a conversational tone.

An instant later a man’s shriek of pain demonstrated why I’ve got this was an appropriate remark for her to use, and also why knives had been a backup to swords in the old days.

The first daggerman had turned as he struck at Chen, spinning away from the falling man to meet her attack. Both their motions would have looked synchronized to an observer, as choreographed as a dance routine.

The point of endless practice was that things became automatic: you didn’t need to think about them any more than you did of breathing or blinking. She’d started practicing to become a navajera when she was eight, often until she cried from the pain and frustration of it, and with only old Pedro’s single threat—to stop the instruction permanently—keeping her going.

He’s good, she thought distantly, the rest of her focused to an edge and a point.

The man who’d knifed Chen showed instant sound judgement by not trying to back up or start a knife-duel with Midori closing in on him from the side. Instead he came at Luz himself in his own running attack, because that let him combine a strike at her with delivering a backhand cut at Midori as he dodged by. His point was held low, barely seen in the murk, as much glimpsed as seen in a composite of how he held himself and moved the rest of him and the way he panted and the glint of pale eyes in the slit of the mask-hood. It came up at her just as she’d expected…

They passed each other and swayed aside from the oncoming points in the same instant with a hip movement like matadors dodging a bull’s savage hook with a horn-tip. The dark-clad man started to turn again, which would at least put both his opponents in front of him.

Luz didn’t. The navaja spun into her left hand once more in a cambio as soon as she knew-sensed that neither first attack was going to find flesh, as old Pedro had put it. She stabbed backward behind herself at their closest approach with a snapping motion aimed by positioning and feel, a desjarratazo to the small of the back between hip and spine.

There was a soft heavy resistance that her hand knew of old. She wrenched it free with a twist and spun it into her right again, snatching the fedora off her head with her left as she pivoted back into a crouch.

In pelea de navaja you used something in your left for sweeping blocks, anything that was available—a coat, a cloak, a barstool, a found object… or a hat. You could parry naked steel with your naked left hand, but it didn’t leave much of your hand after a while.

The fluid speed of the man’s first attack was gone, and he was hunched over; that thrust had gone up under the short ribs, though it hadn’t hit a kidney—he’d be down on the ground and immobile with shock if it had. Metal moved in darkness as he came in, but she swept the tough felt of the homburg against the edge of his blade as she stamped her foot forward and to her left. She used a left-to-right rising slash, a jabeque to the face behind that knit mask that connected with the power of her uncoiling twist from the waist behind it.

She ripped the blade against a soft slicing feeling like dressing meat in a kitchen, and something hot and salty splashed across her face and into her open mouth. An instant later the slanted-chisel point of Midori’s tanto and several inches of the blade punched out through his chest, just to the right of the breastbone. That style of knife had originally been designed to fight men in dō armor of lacquered leather and silk cord at close quarters, and it didn’t make much of ribs with a strong thrust behind it.

His head went down to look at it and then he collapsed limply forward; Midori let the body take the blade with it and stood panting with her right hand clasped to her upper left arm. Thrusting that hard with a wound had required diamond-point focus; now the pain was hitting.

Luz didn’t take time to spit out the blood as she spun again.

The three men the first burst from Fumiko’s machine-pistol had missed kept charging towards the two autos and her party: Luz realized with a slight shock that only about thirty seconds had passed since the first man dropped out of the night. She flicked her knife-hand rightward, and Midori curved in that direction, covering the space between the Yuen’s Rolls and the wall of the building with her shotgun across the crook of her left elbow, where it wouldn’t endanger any of the friendlies. Luz waited for the attackers to come around one side of the auto or split up before she committed herself… Daniu was doing likewise, but obviously intended to wait right where he was so they’d have to go through him to get to the Yuens.

But they didn’t go left or right or split up either. They disappeared as they ran straight at the front bumper of the Rolls and then jumped—onto the hood of the Yuens’ Silver Ghost, over the roof and showed every sign of diving straight onto the men huddled against the rear bumper without a pause in their flat-out sprint.

Crack-crack-crack—a series of shots, fast but not a burst.

That was Fumiko in her doorway, on semi-auto.

Smart girl! A lot less likely to hit someone on her own side than cutting loose on automatic! And the other side seem to be made of very bouncy rubber—

Luz lunged forward towards the Yuens and Daniu—leaving no space for Midori, but that couldn’t be helped.

This is going to get crowded. Crowded with knives… sharp knives.

The strobing light of the muzzle flashes showed the rearmost attacker pitching backward as the heavy .45 bullets from Fumiko’s Thompson punched him in midair, turning a tiger’s leap into a graceless sprawl that ended with him thudding onto the hood of the car and lying spread-eagled across it, impaled on the winged hood ornament and twitching spasmodically as his dying face stared upward into the fog. Fumiko’s choice had been good tactics: make sure of one attacker. Trying for all three risked not being able to cut the odds at all.

¡Otra vez la misma historia! Luz thought as she came in with reckless speed. Back in business at the same old stand! So much for a mission that’s all peaceful undercover work!

The other two were going to land right beside the Yuens and she had to assume they’d strike with the certainty of rattlesnakes and less warning, the way the first had.

Daniu realized his mistake in the same instant Luz did, and it was the same as hers. He’d thought he was putting himself between his masters and danger, and instead he was on the wrong side of the action. He turned, crouched and leapt himself—straight up half his considerable height, hands outstretched towards the leading assailant and ignoring the knife, an astonishing feat for a man his size.

The big hands closed on the dark clothing, and the two men crashed to the pavement. Daniu had the attacker’s left arm, and it broke with a snap; then they were rolling away, both panting and snarling and striking with fists and knees and feet; the daggerman’s knife had vanished somewhere.

Luz was two swift paces from the third dark-clad daggerman when he struck at the elder Yuen. Another stride—

David Yuen shouted in incoherent horror and grabbed at the man, trying to pull him away and aim the pistol in his right hand at the same time. Which was very brave, and…

¡Absolutamente tonto!” Luz snarled, pulling her lunge with a wrenching effort as the younger Yuen put his own back between her and the daggerman.

It was absolutely stupid, after all.

The only type of fool more absolute than a brave amateur was a cowardly one… and at least they didn’t put themselves in reach of an assassin’s knife of their own free will. The new opponent’s knife struck twice with a speed that would have been blurring even if it wasn’t dark and thick with fog. He couldn’t guard himself and do that at the same time, though; then she was in arm’s reach, able to do a perfect tajo arrebato swipe across the throat below the chin. This time the soft resistance turned crisp as a windpipe got in the navaja’s way as well—and another gout of blood hit her in the face as the enemy fell, as suddenly if he were a puppet and she’d cut his strings.

Luz pivoted in place with her back to the car. Susan Zhou was much closer, running backwards with controlled grace in a way that kept her just out of reach of the shorter blades, her two hook-swords moving ceaselessly in smooth glittering arcs in the foggy dimness.

The three men trying for her were too close for Fumiko to shoot safely given her angle of observation. That ended with the hook-sword in Susan’s right backslashing in an arc that left one man’s knife flying free… with his hand and wrist still attached to the hilt for an instant. He shrieked, gaped at it, then sat down to die as blood spurted a good foot from the stump; his heart was beating hard with effort—though not for long.

An instant later the point of the other hook-sword rammed into a second knife-man’s right shoulder; that one was already wounded, limping on a ripped leg. Susan wrenched it backwards with a heave of her whole body, pulling him between her and the third man.

It also dragged him forward and turned him half-way around rather than slicing out and free, so the hook must have caught on his collarbone. The curved point of the Chinese woman’s other sword slammed down into the small of his back, right over the kidney. Then she wrenched both of them loose in a shower of blood and spread them wide, standing like a steel-winged falcon in the foggy darkness as the daggerman fell to die beside the still form of his handless comrade.

The third man had been slightly behind his comrades. He made what was probably his first sensible decision that evening, whipping around and running away full-tilt.

Fumiko! Mine!” Luz shouted, as she tossed the knife into her left hand again.

The .40 came out smooth and quick.


Let recoil push it up, fire as it came back into position…

Two rounds sparked off the pavement around the fleeing man’s feet. The third hit—from the way his foot scooted up and landed him up flat on his back with a yell. That was exactly what she was trying for, and worth the risk of his vanishing into night and fog. There weren’t many places a heavy pistol round could be relied on not to kill, but an ankle or foot was one of them—not an absolute certainty, but he probably wouldn’t bleed out in the time it took to settle things.

A quick glance showed her that Dainu was lying limp across the body of an equally dead daggerman; the blade between his ribs showed why, but the attacker’s head was pointing in entirely the wrong direction.

He died true to his salt, she thought. There isn’t much better you can say about someone in our line of work. Except: She won and lived happily ever after, of course.

The elder Yuen was equally dead, which was a pity; even on brief acquaintance under false circumstances she’d respected and liked him. But his son was gasping, with blood on his lips, and his eyes were wandering.

“Fumiko! Midori! Here!” she said. “Susan, guard the prisoner!”

Which filled in the don’t kill him part, so they could make him talk later. Luz knelt—ignoring the spreading puddle of blood from three men—and slashed with the knife to free a pad of cloth. She held the knife in her teeth for a moment as she clamped the wad down on David Yuen’s side under the left armpit; that was the most serious wound, though not the only one. It must have hurt, because his gaze sharpened a bit as he looked up at her.

“Stay still, you’ve got internal bleeding,” she said, after she’d dropped the hilt of the knife into her right hand. “We’ll get you to help as fast as we can.”

The Taguchi sisters knelt too. Fumiko had her tommy-gun back under her coat; she leaned in and pressed on the pad. It was wet but not absolutely sopping, which was a good sign.


“How bad’s that cut?” Luz said as she leaned back; the younger woman had her shotgun hanging on its over-shoulder sling and was holding a hand to her upper left arm again.

“Not too bad,” she said through tight-held teeth. “Hurts, but the bleeding’s limited, and I can move all my fingers.”

To prove that she clenched her left hand into a fist—all but the elevated middle finger.

Luz snorted a little. “You’re healthy enough to search Chen’s body—get on it. We’ve got to get out of here quickly.”

She rose and walked over to where Susan stood near the man Luz had shot in the ankle, her head cocked as she slowed her breathing and watched him with the expression of a grackle contemplating a worm at breakfast-time. Not too near, because she could see he still held one of the long double-edged knives and because he wasn’t ignoring everything else to scream with pain and clutch at the smashed ankle-bone, which meant he still had to be taken seriously.

Luz was considering shooting him in the hand or lower arm; that was another fairly safe immobilizing wound if you wanted to interrogate someone, but riskier than a foot.

The man must have realized escape was impossible then too. She was close enough to see his knit mask flutter with his panting breath even in the dimness, but it didn’t muffle his voice as he barked:

Ikh khaany tölöö!

… and drove the knife up under his own breastbone with a single convulsive movement, kicked twice, and died.

Luz pursed her lips and wasted breath on several muttered Spanish phrases involving blasphemy, obscenity and scatology: English profanity had just never seemed very satisfying to her in situations like this.

You could break anyone with modern methods of interrogation. It wasn’t a matter of courage, just skill and time. Killing yourself to avoid questioning was a matter of courage, and this man had just shown an absolutely irritating abundance of it.

On the other hand, sometimes dead men do tell tales, she thought, carefully memorizing the sounds of the unfamiliar phrase the man had used. I don’t recognize that language, but maybe someone else will.

Susan Zhou used the hooked tip of her sword to pull off the knit mask.

“Not Chinese, I think,” she said, after a moment of studying the face beneath, carefully cleaning her twin weapons with a cloth from the attaché case.

It was an East Asian face, high-cheeked and broad and small-nosed and rather flat, but a darker, ruddier brown than most Chinese and even narrower-eyed. His head was mostly shaved, except for a tuft over the forehead and two plaits at the rear. At least one of the men had been pale-eyed… but that proved nothing much, since people with European features turned up now and then in places around China’s fringes—among the Uighurs and Tadjiks of Turkestan, for instance.

“Susan, I think we need to have a conversation about certain things,” Luz said.

“Yes, madam,” Susan said. “We do. But not just now, I think.”

“First things first,” Luz agreed, as Fumiko scooped up the attaché case David Yuen had been carrying. “Let’s get Yuen to a hospital.”

A sigh. “It’s going to be a long night.”


Copyright © 2020-2021 by S.M. Stirling