Black Chamber Station HQ
City of Zacatecas
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 15th, 1917 A.D., 1917(b)
“This is a lovely home, Station Chief Durán,” Ciara said politely.
And sincerely, Luz thought. Though she’s been very quiet. I hope this isn’t going to be a problem.
Ciara patted her lips with the linen napkin and put her fork down for a moment. She’d been making an occasional wordless sound of appreciation as she ate, though the assault on her delicate Irish taste-buds waged by the chilis warred with a healthy appetite to bring beads of sweat to her brow and frequent sips at the tall cool glass of Carta Blanca beer that accompanied the meal.
“And a lovely dinner.”
The Black Chamber headquarters in Zacatecas was also the Station Chief’s residence, common enough in a backwater like this, or what had been a backwater, and her extremely capable cook had laid on a late working meal here in her office. There were platters of gorditas—crisp fried corn pancakes stuffed full of onions and pulled chicken or the tangy soft local cheese or chicharrón pork cracklings; asado de boda, a slow-cooked pork stew with a long-simmered sauce made from dried guajillo chilies, almonds, peanuts, raisins, cumin, cinnamon, mashed garlic, dark chocolate and yellow onion; and pinto beans, red rice, and tortillas on the side, all scenting the air pleasantly.
“The layout reminds me of our home in Santa Barbara,” Ciara went on.
“The Casa de los Amantes? That’s flattery, Miss Whelan, albeit we’ve tried,” Julie Durán said.
Luz winced slightly, as Ciara’s eyes narrowed just a bit at the reminder that Julie had been to the Casa first.
Though we had separate rooms and nothing untoward happened apart from a few stolen kisses, not with my parents there, Luz thought. But I can scarcely say that in public. Damn you, Julie, you always did have a fine hand at needle-work.
The Station Chief was thirty, with pale blue eyes, a long regular windburned Anglo-Saxon face that would have been horsey if it weren’t for a strong-boned prettiness, dense pale flaxen hair done up in a practical bun and a trim athletic figure much like Luz’, though she was closer to Ciara’s five-four than Luz’ five-six.
“And do call me Julie. A friend of Luz is a friend of mine,” Durán went on to Ciara. “Luz has needed someone she could really rely on as a true… partner… for a while. I’m very glad you’re there for her now.”
The slight hesitation before partner, and the glance at the Claddagh pledge-rings Luz and Ciara wore on their left ring fingers, showed she understood the situation without being too blatant. What wasn’t openly named didn’t have to be officially denied.
Julie can be un-obnoxious. When she wants to be, and she believed me when I told her back in the spring that this was dead serious for me.
“It’s Ciara, then, um, Julie,” Ciara said, thawing a little.
She emphasized the K-sound, being a little sensitive about the proper pronunciation of the uncommon Irish name, which sounded like Keera, not Sy-ar-a. Erse-Gaelic spelling accomplished the difficult feat of being just as non-phonetic as English.
“And the way it’s built around a courtyard here is similar to our home,” Ciara said…
Laying the very slightest emphasis on home, as if to say and she ended up with me, so there, you vamp.
“The legacy of Greece, via Rome, via the Moors, via the Spaniards,” Luz said; architecture was a much safer topic.
This arrangement of rooms around a central arcade-court had been born and elaborated around the Mediterranean and points east; it made for a very private, easily defensible home that kept out heat, drafts, prying neighbors, thieves, unauthorized boyfriends, tax-collectors and other such vermin.
All the old colonial-era mansions on Zacatecas’ narrow, winding, hilly streets had been built to that pattern, with wealth wrung out of the sweat of Indio laborers in the silver mines. This one was two flat-roofed stories of reddish stone with grillwork over the outside windows and a stout door, now topped by a brass plaque reading Universal Imports, Inc. Since 1913 the Chamber had cut passageways through to the remodeled houses on either side that held more office space and staff accommodations, and doubtless there were the usual clandestine tunnels and deliberately sinister underground holding cells and other fruits of a long gradual sprucing-up process.
“It certainly has nicer atmospherics than the Black Palace,” Luz added with a grin.
El Palacio Negro de Lecumberri was an ill-omened pile on the outskirts of Mexico City, a prison of dark repute for political enemies of President Porfirio Diaz until 1911, and the southern HQ of the Black Chamber since August of 1913. Mexico hadn’t been the Chamber’s exclusive focus since the Great War started, but it was still crucially important.
“Lecumberri?” Durán said with a snort; they’d both worked out of the place and neither had enjoyed it. “Just going there makes me want to cackle like a wicked witch in a fairy story—”
She gave an unnervingly convincing laugh redolent of insane evil.
“—and commit atrocities on random passers-by. I should hope Bob and I could do better than that!”
Working spaces in the Black Palace were mostly repurposed cells, since the client list was still extensive but more select than in Diaz’ day. Julie’s office here was a high-ceilinged second-story room done in pale plaster, uncrowded even with the long oak table at which they were seated as well as a big desk with telephones, a smaller typist-secretary’s station with a massive Underwood, a Dictaphone machine and its wax cylinders, bookshelves and map-hangers and filing cabinets.
A brown tile floor was scattered with colorful Zapotec rugs from Teotitlán del Valle, and windows opened onto the interior arcaded walkway that ran around the courtyard at this level. Roses and wisteria and jasmine vines climbed trellises on the pillars and arches outside, scenting the damp air that came through the half-open windows now that the rain had stopped.
“You have done better, Julie,” Luz said. “Pass the tortillas, please, Miss Colmer?”
There were four of them at the table, since Durán had included her confidential secretary in the dinner-cum-meeting, someone Luz knew only from a quick run through her file. At the beginning she’d known everyone in the organization at least by sight and name, but that was years ago, years of constant expansion. Not to mention heavy casualties.
Henrietta Colmer was a striking young woman from Savannah, Georgia, with smooth dark-brown skin, softly curly black hair held back with a red ribbon, full handsome features and a quiet manner. Luz didn’t know if she’d picked up the personal dynamics at all… but she was willing to bet that was the case. Julie most emphatically did not tolerate dimwits, so she was undoubtedly sharp as well, given that she’d reached such a responsible position so quickly. Plus being around Julie sharpened whatever wits you started with; you had to run fast to keep up.
And that’s a haunted look in her eyes, Luz thought. Not surprising, with the load of sorrows she got handed by fate and the Germans.
Colmer’s dossier said she’d been away in Baltimore learning office skills and about to graduate from one of the new Department of Education’s even newer vocational scholarship schools when the U-boat launched its load of horror-gas at her home city. That was the only enemy submarine in an American harbor that hadn’t been captured or destroyed when Luz and Ciara brought the plans for the Breath of Loki back from Germany. There had still been some warning, but her parents and five younger sisters had been among the unlucky minority who couldn’t evacuate in time.
It was Party policy to help the relatives and survivors. Through some combination of chance, desire—Luz suspected a wholesome lust for revenge—and circumstance she’d ended up in the Black Chamber’s CSS—Clerical Support Section. And probably assigned here in Zacatecas by some woman-hater who thought he was playing a malicious joke on Julie by saddling her with a ‘charity Negress’ she’d be reluctant to refuse.
Though the joke’s on him, not her. It’s a sign of good strong character and a fundamental sense of duty that she’s dealing with her grief through action and service to the country, not going passive and sucking her thumb because her feelings hurt so bad. Action’s what I did, and Ciara did… and what Uncle Teddy did when his wife and mother died.
“The food’s better here than the refectory in the Palacio Negro, too,” Luz added.
The local dishes were very different from the Cuban style she’d learned from her mother, but she’d spent long stretches here in Mexico from childhood on, and shorter ones in Central America as her father built plantation-railways and sugar mills and coffee factories. Her parents had always tried the cuisines of the places they lived—as her father said, if he’d enjoyed boredom and long winters he’d have stayed in Boston.
“Not hard. They use Army cooks,” Julie said. “God have mercy, creamed chipped beef on toast in Mexico City! No wonder the prisoners all talk!”
Well, there’s the Water Treatment too, Luz thought as she chuckled; that was a more scientific and efficient version of the Water Cure used in the Philippine Insurrection.
Julie waved again to indicate the building. “Here it’s more a matter of living over the shop, but I do want to hand it on in good order to whoever my successor turns out to be.”
Her voice in English had a Philadelphia Main-Line sound, similar to but not quite the same as Uncle Teddy’s Hudson Valley patrician tones, with a crisp -oah sound at the end of words like four strained through slightly clenched teeth. They were speaking mostly in Spanish, though, and Luz noted…
“You’ve shed the last of that antique nuevomexicano accent you picked up from Bob and his family, Julie,” she said.
In Central Mexico the Spanish of people from Taos sounded very rustic and very old fashioned, roughly the way the rasping twang of hillbillies from…
Upper Godforsaken Lost Incestuous Blood-Feudist One-Gallus Scratch-yer-Butt Possum-Eating Holler, Luz thought.
… did in California or New York. She’d heard Appalachian English described as ‘Shakespearian’, which wasn’t even completely untrue… if Shakespeare had lived and died as an illiterate peasant from the hills of Northumberland or Galloway.
Luz added: “Now if only you could walk around with a bag over your head, mi amiga, you could go undercover here easily.”
You also had to learn to push back a bit at Julie, or she’d walk all over you without even trying.
“Or I could pretend to be a leper,” the Station Chief added. “Speaking of disguises, are you two wearing wigs?”
They were; close duplicates of their natural looks and chosen hairstyles, a raven-black, shoulder-length high-style bob for Luz, long and bright strawberry-blond for Ciara. She looked slightly alarmed, and Luz touched her shoulder.
“Nobody but a trained observer would notice, believe me, except at very close range,” she said.
Then to Durán: “Close crops for operational reasons, on our last field mission—about seven months ago. Damned inconvenient, but in the line of duty.”
That was an oversimplification. Luz had had her hair cut down to the stubble to fit in with a group of French forced laborers in Berlin. Ciara had dyed hers to be less conspicuous, and when they got back it had been simpler to cut the mouse-brown result off and let it grow out naturally, avoiding a spell of startling half-and-half. The specialists the Black Chamber kept on retainer made the best disguise wigs in the world, lace-based and hand-tied, with methods culled from everything from the theater to modern medical science.
Durán and her secretary were both in businesslike shirtwaist outfits with turn-down collars and man-style neckties that would have been perfectly normal for women working in offices in Washington or New York, and with the jackets off it showed their shoulder-holsters.
“I see they finally got around to designing a set of shoulder-rigs for us,” Luz said. “Bless the Technical Section!”
Conventional ones simply didn’t go with having breasts, even her own middling-sized bust, much less a deliciously full figure like Ciara’s.
These were like the back half of a skeletonized sleeveless bolero jacket fastened with an elastic strap across the sternum; they had the pistol on the left, presented nearly horizontally and butt-foremost just under the bosom.
“I had two made up to your and Miss Whelan’s measurements when I heard you were coming; you can adjust it to be snug with the buckles,” Julie said.
“Thanks! And those aren’t 1911’s you’re carrying,” Luz said, naming Browning’s famous Colt .45 and the Chamber’s field pistol of choice. “ But there’s a family resemblance? Like a little sister.”
“It’s designed by Browning, pretty much the same mechanism except for a double tilting link instead of single. And a four-inch barrel. Made for concealment and clandestine work, not as a soldier’s pistol. They’re calling it the Browning Amazon.”
“¡Ay! So that’s where the rumors of a new standard issue came from.”
“Right you are. The round’s new as well, a .40, or 10mm if you want to be European about it. Hundred and forty-five grain hollowpoint bullets at eleven hundred feet-per-second, which gives nearly as much wounding power as the .45.”
She nodded to Henrietta, who fetched two wooden cases of blank polished ebony about the size of a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and put them by the plates of the visitors. Luz slid hers open; one of the pistols rested in a molded recess in the lining of black velvet, along with three magazines, thirty-six rounds resting point-down in shaped holes, a small flask of lubricating oil, a multi-tool, pull-throughs and other oddments. Luz picked the weapon up, reflexively worked the action and eye-checked the chamber with the muzzle elevated—she had been well-taught, starting considerably before her father gave her the cherished Belgian FN automatic in its special pocket.
Then she extended the new pistol. “Nice,” she said, judging and relishing the balance and heft; guns didn’t delight her aesthetically the way blades did, but she had a professional’s solid respect for her tools. “Light compared to a .45!”
“Framed in a new airship-grade aluminum alloy,” Julie said, and Ciara’s eyes lit with interest at the metallurgical note. “Which is corrosion-resistant, too.”
“How’s the kick?”
The 1911’s .45 ACP round was a brutal knock-down man-smasher, but it had always felt a little too heavy for her. A light bullet that hit was infinitely more effective than a heavy one that missed, and she was usually very accurate.
But this might be a useful compromise.
“My wrist reads the recoil at about three-quarters of a .45’s,” Julie said. “Unscientific, but there you are.”
“Hmmm, I like the finger-grooves but the butt’s a bit wider than I’d have expected…”
“Staggered-row clip, twelve rounds, the very latest thing,” Julie said, rather as if it was a new hat—she’d always been a bit of a fashion-plate.
“¡Ay! That could be useful! And the .380 isn’t very much bullet. There’s no margin for error with the light cartridges designed for straight-blowback guns. Thanks very much, Julie. I’ll shoot this in as soon as I can.”
You don’t need a pistol all that often in this line of work, but when you do, you need it very badly and you need the target to stay down. And there may be more than one target.
“Thank you very much, Station Chief Durán!” Ciara said in turn. “This pistol is a beautiful piece of work!”
Julie and her secretary both blinked a little as they realized that while Luz spoke Ciara had unfolded the cloth tucked into the inside of the lid, spread it out, disassembled the automatic, laid the parts out neatly with mathematical exactitude, examined each closely, and was now putting it back together with cheerful interest and no hesitation at all, despite it being the first time she’d touched the pistol.
“Mr. Browning is so talented!” she said. “His designs are so… are so… so crisp! Elegant. But not fancy at all. No extra weight! No unnecessary parts or complications!”
She shook her head and made a disapproving clucking sound. “I had to disassemble a damaged Lewis gun last winter and replace a broken return spring and put it back together, and in a terrible hurry with my fingers cold—”
In a burnt-out French farmhouse with Stoßtruppen about to attack us with machine-rifles, Luz thought fondly. And it was the first time you’d touched one of those, too.
“—and it’s much too complex. It’s… fussy. Fiddly. And too many of the operating forces are redirected instead of keeping them in-line, lateral stresses that weaken metal parts and make them liable to crack… that circular return spring below the action, just like a clock’s…” she said.
Her eyes rolled in disdain.
“All you’d need to do is put a coil-spring and hydraulic buffer in the butt instead and you’d cut a pound of weight and make it more reliable and reduce the felt recoil even with less weight.”
Luz smiled to herself with a glow of pride. Ciara wasn’t particularly interested in weapons or fighting skills in themselves, though she practiced assigned lessons dutifully and diligently, despite a tendency to murmur oh, sorry! when she hit a sparring partner.
Machines interested her, though, very much, and she had an uncanny ability to put a working model into her mind very quickly indeed, as if its parts and the way they moved together were the notes of a piece of music she could play and watch and halt or put into reverse.
She did it even better with electromagnetic fields, which Luz knew were real but couldn’t mentally visualize at all.
“You’re very welcome,” Julie said, taken a little aback by the casual display of technical virtuosity.
Then she dismissed her surroundings with another wave and a charming smile for Ciara:
“But this place isn’t really a home, of course. Bob and I have bought a ranch down near Jerez… that’s—”
“A country town about thirty miles west of here and a little south,” Ciara said absently, showing she’d done her homework.
“I was surprised when you told me, Julie,” Luz observed.
Though I wasn’t at all surprised you didn’t want to rusticate for long on the Durán estancia north of Taos dancing attendance on the abuela and four widowed great-aunts, Luz thought. The older part of Bob’s family didn’t really think you were at all the sort of blushing virgin bride their gallant boy deserved, though I’ll bet the great-grandchildren thawed them a bit.
Aloud she continued: “And even more when you started talking about barns and sheep-dip and seed-selection and the family trees of bulls in your letters. You being the most completely urbanized human being I’ve ever known.
“Urbanized or not, I’ve always liked Hesiod and Virgil and an occasional picnic in the country,” Julie said, in a slightly defensive tone.
“Those are Classical poets who wrote about rural life,” Luz said to Ciara. “Though I doubt either of them did much of the pitchfork-and-shovel work themselves.”
“Well, I’ve never wanted to go that far either; μηδὲν ἄγαν—nothing in excess.” Julie said. “The Casa Grande there was a bit battered and scorched, which made it affordable—a little tiff between the Huertistas and the rebels.”
“Which rebels?” Luz asked with interest.
There had been about five major armed factions in the field in 1913 when the Americans crashed over the border and ashore in Vera Cruz and Tampico, and all the self-proclaimed saviors of Mexico had been living off the land and what they could levy as loans and contributions and with a shifting set of alliances and betrayals and splits and mergers. Plus the minor players, ranging from over-ambitious would-be caudillos with a few hundred thugs to plain old-fashioned bandits taking advantage of the chaos and yelling vivas in the name of whichever leader was most convenient while they robbed, killed, raped and burned. Doing said leader’s popularity no good at all, especially when someone hired the gangs on officially… which had happened fairly often.
In two years of slaughter and destruction they’d made a fair start on wiping out the painfully-achieved progress of the thirty-two year reign of Porfirio Diaz.
“Huerta’s men versus Villistas, basically—this was just a few weeks before the Intervention, and… well, all the stock had been looted and the workers dead or fled and the fields were growing up in weeds by the time we bought it.”
“That was back in January of ’14, wasn’t it? Quite a declaration of faith!” Luz said, remembering vividly what that month and year had been like.
“Who has faith in the future, makes the future; who makes the future takes the future,” Julie said piously, quoting yet another Party slogan. “And it paid off handsomely; the previous owners being men of little faith, so we got it for a song and they took the dollars and ran for it. It being Laredo, Texas, and living there is just the punishment the cowards deserved. Now it’s worth five or ten times as much as we paid, even without counting improvements.”
“How much land?” Luz said.
Luz had been very busy personally and professionally for the last year, not to mention out of the country for long periods, and the two friends’ abbreviated dealings had been heavily focused on the Chamber’s work or on Julie’s children. She’d been vaguely aware the Duráns had bought property but not the details. Though from the letters she hadn’t thought it was a small vacation place acquired just for the countryside quiet and space for little Alice’s pets, but she still blinked when Julie said:
“Twenty thousand acres to start with. Fourteen after we deeded six thousand to the Protectorate.”
Serious acreage! Luz thought.
“You gave away a third of it, Mrs… ah, Julie?” Ciara asked in surprise.
“Not precisely gave. It’s called the one-third ranchero program,” Julie replied: “The Protectorate gives big landowners a really generous line of credit at low interest to modernize their operations provided they donate a third or so of their land, and then divides that into good-sized family farms, which are… were… thin on the ground here. Twenty to thirty farms eventually from what we gave them, for example. Mexican hacendados are, um, strongly encouraged to participate…”
“If they ever want to get contracts from the government or credit from any bank that wants to stay on the government’s good side ever again,” Luz said, defining encouragement. “Plus the revolution scared a lot of them into seeing that giving up something is better than losing everything, not to mention avoiding getting killed, and the smart ones lean on the dinosaurs so they don’t get the benefits without paying the costs.”
“But it’s pretty much compulsory for Americans with large properties here,” Julie added.
“Very Progressive!” Ciara said with a smile of approval.
She had a typically Irish dislike of landlordism, and was obviously imagining sturdy independent farmsteads with neat kitchen gardens and healthy children around well-stocked dinner-tables and cats drowsing on the windowsill… though being four generations away from the land herself via Dublin and South Boston, probably not the sodden sweat and calluses and ground-in barnyard stinks that went with the lives of working countryfolk, even ones who owned their own land and made a decent living.
Luz was also imagining twenty to thirty more families each with a rifle over the mantle and a deep, visceral reason to be ready to fight for the new order, which a strong policy point.
Henrietta nodded vigorously too—her father had been a customs clerk, but probably a fair number of her relatives were sharecroppers and no better off than the peones here.
“And the line of credit was very helpful,” Julie said. “We can use every penny of it, and what our families sent us, and we’re working on getting more loans from the bank; we’re just starting to get some real returns out of the place this year. They reap wheat with sickles here! Oxen! Oxcarts with two solid wheels! Oxen pulling wooden plows and turning norias to lift water! It’s… it isn’t even medieval… it’s Biblical and Old Testament at that; I keep expecting to meet the Prophet Ezekiel, or Judge Deborah. We took one look and ordered a dozen tractors and a dozen Ford motor-trucks and a well-drilling rig and a bunch of wind-pumps, just for starters.”
“Works-and-days, back-to-the-land, Julie?” Luz said, amused.
Roberto Durán had been raised as the third son of a genuine if very affluent working rancher, but his wife seemed to have a convert’s enthusiasm.
“It’s catching, particularly when you have children, and we think we can make a very good thing of it, using modern, efficient Progressive methods.”
Luz chuckled. “A client of my father’s near Santa Barbara once told him—he’d just commissioned an irrigation system—that it was very simple to make a small fortune as a gentleman-farmer.”
“How?” Ciara said, interested.
“You start with a large fortune, buy land, and shovel the rest of the money into a farm-shaped hole in the ground.”
Julie made a rude gesture involving thumb, nose and waggling fingers and continued:
“The Casa Grande has good bones, eighteenth-century, and I’ve been overseeing the renovations while Bob’s away. They have plenty of fine stonemasons and carpenters here. You two must come and visit when you have time.”
“And perhaps some interesting people could be there at the same time,” Luz said, and added to herself:
That our cover identities need an excuse to meet.
“Hmmm… yes,” Julie said, glancing upward slightly.
She’d had the same thought, of course. They’d always been able to fill in the blanks with each other.
The Station Chief went on: “Jerez is worth a look for the architecture and it’s pretty country, very much like northern New Mexico but not as dry or rocky, lots of interesting rides and we have good horses. There are orchards, and we’re putting in a vineyard; the area has produced wine for a long time. Not very good wine, but Bob thinks we can do better, and we’ve gotten a French vintner. And the hunting’s good up in the mountains just west of there.”
“Too good, ma’am,” her secretary said.
Luz cocked an eyebrow, and the younger woman—she was still short of twenty-two, within a month of Ciara’s age—went on:
“We had a report of a contact with bandits in those mountains today.”
It was official policy to refer to all guerillas, rebels and other opponents of the Progressive project down here as bandits; the context made it clear they weren’t talking about ordinary rural thieves.
Julie Durán frowned, and then shrugged. “A flight of four Falcons flying… try saying that really fast ten times… out of the air base near there spotted movement in the interdicted area… a pack-mule… and shot it up. Then someone on the ground shot at them, they did a bombing run and many someones shot swiftly… try saying that…“
“Naughty! Papá Noel doesn’t bring sweets for los niños traviesos!” Luz said.
Falcons were bombers or two-seat fighting scouts depending on the mission, fast and heavily armed. Shooting at a Mk. V Falcon with a rifle while it did an attack run was rather like a field-mouse making an obscene gesture with the middle digit at the very last owl it ever saw; it might relieve the luckless rodent’s feelings a little in the painful, violent concluding moments of its life, but wouldn’t accomplish much else.
“Oh, Santa brought the naughty children presents—Green Cross and Yellow Cross bombs, fire bombs, high explosive and then machine-gun fire… that sort of present,” Julie said.
“Even better than coal in the stocking,” Luz said approvingly. “As el Jefe says, if you’re going to hit at all, hit hard, not soft. Follow-up?”
Air surveillance and air-power were wonderful things, fruits of the new Progressive age, but there was still no substitute for close-range work on the ground.
“We have some of the 2nd Philippine Rangers in Jerez just now—their A Company. They’re Bugkalot.”
The Ranger regiments, American and Filipino, were the military partners of choice that the Black Chamber called on when it needed muscle beyond what its own operatives could furnish. The Federal Bureau of Security had its own in-house Intervention Battalions, which Luz considered wasteful and inefficient… and which the US Army viewed the same way a bad-tempered bull mastiff did a stranger dog it found peeing on its fence-line. Not entirely by coincidence, the Army liked the Black Chamber much better than it did the FBS.
“They sent a platoon to do a ground check,” Julie said, and explained to Ciara:
“The Phillipine Rangers are recruited from mountaineer clans like the Bugkalot back in the Philippines, pagans, from remote areas the Spanish never really got in hand. The Army is the only way they can earn much cash, and they like to travel, so we have regiments of them here in the Protectorate. Worth their weight in gold for small-scale work in rough country.”
“Luz has mentioned that they’re very hardy and brave,” Ciara said. “And good trackers.”
Luz chuckled reminiscently. “Also, head-hunting is their national sport, and they find life boring now that we insist on them not waging blood-feuds with their neighbors or raiding the lowlands. Collecting heads was how their young bucks impressed the girls. And paid their bride-price, too. They weren’t slave-raiders like the Moros, they just wanted household decorations as tokens of social worth… rather like lace curtains and a piano in the parlor, only with them it’s human heads hanging in nets from the thatch over the fire-pit, instead.”
“Does that give many problems, Julie?” Ciara asked the Station Chief. “That headhunting business?”
“Not as long as we let them pack the heads in salt here and send them home parcel-post for free to impress the neighbors,” Julie said cheerfully. “That really helps with recruitment back in the islands, the Army get a new rush of volunteers every time there’s a mail delivery.”
Ciara started to laugh, and then stopped when she realized none of the others were treating it as a joke except Julie; Henrietta was quietly rolling her eyes, with the air of someone well used to the Station Chief’s sense of humor. Luz sighed and gave a small nod of confirmation; that description was essentially the truth, though Julie was being a bit more blunt and showing a lot more levity than was usually considered politic when talking about it.
“Well, our ancestors were headhunters once too, querida,” Luz said. “In the Táin, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Cú Chulainn is always whacking off heads and tying them to the rail of his chariot by their hair or nailing them over the door or leaving them at river crossings for the heads’ friends and relatives to find and be peeved at.”
Ciara nodded, since that was true enough—and her Fenian household had been brought up on the old Irish hero-cycles. She was looking very slightly green at having the Iron Age epic poetry translated into modern life, though.
Julie chuckled. “Our ancestors?” she said. “Speak for your Cubana-Celtic self, Luz. My ancestors were much more reserved and dignified and pious: they sacrificed their enemies to Wotan by hanging them… from ash-trees, mostly… and then spearing them. Or drowned them in a sacred lake for the Goddess Nerthus.”
“Mine built the pyramids and invented medicine and astronomy,” Henrietta said, and they all laughed.
“Funny, you don’t look Nubian,” Julie added.
Ciara’s eyes widened, and Luz gave the young Negro woman a quick glance, but Henrietta was laughing harder still. She and the Station Chief were evidently on joking-teasing terms…
And that is one very attractive young lady, person and personality both…
Luz caught her old friend’s eye and then flicked hers sideways at the secretary, raising a brow. Julie replied with a narrowing of her eyes and a brush of her left thumb over her wedding ring, conveying:
No! Emphatically, no!
Luz shrugged slightly: just asking, and touched her pledge ring with the same gesture, to say she shared that opinion of the virtues of monogamy. The whole exchange took around one and a half seconds and passed unnoticed by the others.
Julie has changed. Well, we all do with age and responsibilities, I suppose.
The Station Chief went on smoothly aloud: “The Rangers counted either ten, eleven or twelve bodies… Hundred-pound bombs, well…”
Luz nodded; if one of those burst right next to a human being the liquefied results got sprayed over half an acre along with bone chips and sticky bits of sinew and connective tissue and the odd booted foot. You ended up having to count toes or teeth if you wanted forensic detail.
“And about a dozen dead mules… that was the gas and machine-guns, mostly… and the loads from the pack-saddles, evidently mostly corn and beans and chilies and dried fruit and jerky and salt.”
“Weapons?” Luz asked. “Ammunition?”
Guerillas always tried as hard as they could to salvage those from their dead. How much they left behind was a good marker for how fast they’d run away, which was an excellent proxy for how badly you’d hurt them and how frightened they were. Depending of course on how determined they’d been to begin with, but the few Mexicans still in the field against the Protectorate in the summer of 1917 were likely to be genuine chicos rudos, the local idiom for tough guys. Or to have burned their bridges behind them beyond possibility of forgiveness by anyone whatsoever, or both.
“Four Winchesters, six old Mexican Army 7mm Mausers, and a Colt .45 single-action revolver, model ’73. That one was probably used by Wild Bill Hickok before he got shot in the back in Deadwood—somebody had filed off the foresight and cut away the trigger-guard. Around twenty rounds per weapon counting spent brass, plus enough assorted cutlery to start a pawnshop. No ground contact yet, so no live prisoners, and the spent cartridges all fit the weapons captured. Except for one variety we haven’t identified yet—we only got them this afternoon. Plenty of them, though, about as many as the others together.”
She inclined her head; Henrietta fetched a small brown-paper bag, folded and held with a rubber band, spread out a clean handkerchief from a stack kept in her desk and carefully shook out over a dozen spent brass cartridge-cases.
“We’re going to forward these to Mexico City… Lecumberri… for the Technical Section detail there to look at,” the secretary said. “The closest match I could find in the catalogue was Japanese, of all things. Arisaka 6.5×50 mm semi-rimmed. But surely that can’t be right? They’re not semi-rimmed, fo’… for one thing. And the book says Japan doesn’t do headstamps on their cartridge bases and these have them, see?”
She flicked one of the cases around with a pencil and pointed with the tip; on the brass disk surrounding the dimpled primer was stamped: S/L/01/E17.
“Japanese? That’s almost right,” Luz said. “If you’re consulting last year’s catalogue.”
Luz took a pencil herself from the holder on the table, inserted it into the empty mouth of the cartridge and lifted the shell. Bringing it to her nose brought the sharp scent of nitro powder, and a strong smell like mustard and horseradish as well, one that made her move it away sharply.
“Mustard gas,” she said, and got her hankie out just in time as she sneezed.
“Perdóneme. Not enough to be dangerous, but I wouldn’t lick this if I were you, Miss Colmer, and I’d wash my hands if I touched it. Which shows why nobody was going to linger to police it up. It is the Arisaka round you mentioned, but made in Germany and modified to be rimless as of January. They use it in their new machine-rifle… the Sturmgewehr, they call it,” Luz said.
“Assault rifle,” Julie said; she was almost as fluent in German as Luz. “I suspect that’s the usage that will catch on.”
“Ah!” Henrietta said, and Ciara made a similar sound.
Luz nodded, remembering the peening hammer of rounds on the ragged stone of the ruined farmhouse above her head, pinning her down like a whole battery of Maxims. Everyone who’d been following the war news in detail had heard about the Sturmgewehr; one more nasty surprise in the first major war of the modern industrial-scientific era.
And the Great War has had as many nasty surprises as there were pieces of roasted peanut in Mima’s turrónes de maní at Christmas, Luz thought.
Many of the surprises were almost as lurid as the ones writers like Wells and Burroughs dreamed up—in fact, some of them were the same surprises, translated from wild fiction to reality, like Wells’ The Land Ironclads which had prefigured the tank. Though it should be past tense for Wells—he had almost certainly died in the horror-gas attack on London, which was ironic, because he’d predicted that too, with his The War in the Air.
“The stamp would be L for Lindener Zündhütchen-und Thonwarenfabrik, they’re in Hanover,” Luz went on, with Ciara nodding beside her; this was an area where their talents overlapped. “S for Spitzgeschoss, pointed bullet, 01/E17 is the date—made this January.”
“Yes, now that you point it out,” Julie said, with a resigned sigh; she could do at least half of that herself if she tried, and perhaps all of it. “Oh… that’s… really unfortunate. Because now we know that Germans were involved, but we don’t know how many, or if they’re still alive. The bodies not being very recognizable, and I doubt they were in Feldgrau to start with.”
“It’s amazing how similar people of different nationalities are when they’ve been blown to bits,” Luz said, which produced startled laughs from Ciara and Henrietta and a rather different one from Julie.
“Not the usual argument for the Brotherhood of Mankind, but cogent,” the Station Chief said.
“We didn’t get one of these assault rifles, or even identifiable bits of it, just the cases, ma’am,” Henrietta pointed out. “I think we better assume that if there were Germans there, and not just weapons they’re supplyin’ to the bandits, one of them got away, carrying it.”
Julie sighed again. “Or it could be a Mexican with an assault rifle carrying it away, but you’re right, Henrietta, we should assume the worst. We do know they land agents and weapons, occasionally. Too much coast to prevent calls from U-boats if they only surface after dark, and some of their new cargo-resupply models can carry quite a lot, multiple tons.”
“We… may have a handle on that soon,” Ciara said. She glanced at Luz, and went on after a slight sideways flick of her index finger: “A method of detecting ships at night and at great distances. It hasn’t been widely deployed yet, but it will be soon.”
A quick nod convinced Luz that Julie had been briefed about the American version of the Telemobiloscope, but that wasn’t directly relevant.
“The survivors ran and ran fast,” Luz judged.
“Right. Whoever it was were probably moving through; we haven’t had any actual attacks near there for over a year,” Julie said.
“That’s what we hope,” Henrietta said stubbornly. “The Rangers say that-there was just too rocky to be sure but they think there were some who lived. And there were the mules and supplies, that means a lot of mouths, I’d say. Twice the count of bodies, the stepped-on count, maybe more.”
She had an educated woman’s vocabulary and grammar in both languages and a moderately strong low-country Southern accent, which was something Luz had always found rather pleasing. But from hints on her vowels and diphthongs Luz thought that she’d grown up around someone… perhaps a grandmother… who spoke Gullah dialect. In Spanish she was slow and careful, and the accent was stronger, but it was very creditable and showed a quick learner. She switched back to English for:
“Wishin’ don’t make it so, Lord knows. Not with that, ma’am, not with anythin’.”
Julie sighed. “You have a point, Henrietta. And evidently someone was feeding them, whether they are actual Germans or just the recipients of their damned U-boat-born largesse. We can’t have that.”
To Luz she went on: “The Rangers are looking for tracks, though it’s nightmare country, all up and down, not much surface water and a lot of cliffs and bare rock. And I’m pushing my sources in the area. I turned a couple of PNR types early this year, a warehouse manager and a barber in Jerez…”
“Ah, good,” Luz said.
A barbershop was a perfect cover for clandestine work, as good as a cantina or pulqueria; people came and went, and hung around to gossip. Ordinary shops weren’t quite as good, but a warehouse did give you the chance to move goods around and make deliveries and have people working and visiting at all hours.
“Right, I’m using them as ant-lion traps, but very carefully to stretch out the time before they’re detected. I don’t think either has been blown on yet. I’ll drop in on our ranch—lay on a dinner-party for the new divisional commander, say, I was going to do that eventually anyway—and on the way make contact and in a just sort of mildly, more-in-sorrow-than-anger way ask why they didn’t tell me about someone smuggling food to holdouts in the Sierra. That’ll sweat them into finding out even if they don’t know, because they really, really don’t want to be identified as working for us.”
“That’s good craft,” Luz said approvingly.
When you were running hostile informants controlled by threats—blackmail, for instance—appearing to already know everything was demoralizingly effective. And Julie’s sources would be suspended between the entirely realistic horror of what their former friends would do to them if they found out they’d been turned and an equally rational terror of the Chamber, so they’d be doubly zealous to keep Julie’s protection. She’d probably promised them and their families comfortable new identities somewhere up north eventually, which they would really get… eventually… if they survived long enough. The Black Chamber always honored that sort of promise, just as they always carried out their threats; it was policy to be as remorseless as a machine about both.
“I’d send a surveillance airship to work with the Rangers if I could pry one loose from the Navy, and the Ranger battalion commander concurs,” Julie added a little wistfully. “Strongly concurs. Two would be ideal. Fat chance, as they say. Antisubmarine work has priority over internal security, since we already had things well in hand here before the declaration of war. We only have the Falcons because they’re not useful for anything but shooting down other aeroplanes or attacking ground targets.”
“Are there airship support facilities at the Jerez Air Corps base?” Luz said, drawing maps in her head.
“Just the basics, a docking tower and an electrolysis setup for lifting gas, and patches for the cells. Fuel and engine maintenance and general repair are the same as for heavier-than-air. No sheds closer than the American National Airways fields in Mexico City, though.”
Airship sheds were enormous, and would be costly enough even for the smaller semirigids that Air Corps bases wouldn’t have them without regular need.
“The basics are good enough. I’ve got a code you can send to the Director and he’ll get two of the latest Constitution-class patrol semirigids sent up from Tampico and you’ll get them muy pronto.”
Both Henrietta and Julie reacted to the promise; the Negro woman’s eyes went a little wider, while the more experienced Station Chief merely blinked. Luz had just revealed that her tasking’s priority was high enough to let her simply skip all the usual channels, forms, requests and inter-service bun-fighting. Authority like that came only from the very top.
The very top; even Director Wilkie couldn’t override the admirals just on his say-so, not that fast.
Luz went on: “You’d better see that the Army puts observer teams from the Rangers on the airboats. The Constitutions can stay up a hundred hours at a time, longer if they drift occasionally with their engines off.”
The local Chamber operatives looked puzzled, and Ciara explained:
“They have onboard pneumatic starters so they don’t need to be spun up by ground crews.”
“Ah! Silence is golden,” Julie said with a broadly delighted predatory smile, immediately picking up on the implications.
Heavier-than-air craft had to loudly advertise their coming and guerillas all knew to dive for cover at the first sound of engines. If an airship could restart its engines at will it could get upwind of the area it wanted to cover and then go free-ballooning across it without letting anyone know it was around, like an aircraft gliding… except that it stayed up by inherent lift, not aerodynamics. A quiet approach would be much more likely to catch targets on the ground unawares.
Luz nodded. “And they’re steady enough to use high-powered telescopes. But the crews are used to looking for periscopes and snort-tubes from submerged U-boats, not naughty little boys leaping and gamboling through the woods where they shouldn’t. And check the communications. I wouldn’t put it past the Navy to have different wireless frequencies just so they don’t have to lower themselves socially by actually talking to grubby uncouth nouveau-riche soldiers standing on dry dirty dirt.”
“What about muddy dirt?” Henrietta asked, and Ciara chortled.
“Mud? That’s why they have Marines,” Luz said… dryly. “Have you ever seen those Public Information posters that show fish crawling out on land, gradually turning into amphibians and then reptiles and mammals and then apes and then cave men, ending with someone like General Wood or el Jefe? Only not wearing eyeglasses.”
Everyone nodded, since it was a rhetorical question and those posters were all over, nearly as common as the ones of brawny workingmen and toiling farmers and heroic soldiers and mothers and nurses and scientists, if not quite as frequent as ones of Uncle Teddy. The Party was very keen on evolution; it was the key metaphor of the New Nationalism and used for a great many things, starting with America itself being a single living organism in which individuals were cells, and which was itself evolving towards a future perfection.
“In the Navy, they think soldiers on dry land evolve into Marines wading in mud, and Marines evolve into fully aquatic sailors… which is to say, into human beings. It’s the Annapolis version of Darwinism,” Luz said.
The two younger Chamber members laughed, but Julie only smiled wryly.
“You’d be surprised how close that is to reality, youngsters!” she said.
Luz went on: “You won’t need me to put the brute on the captains of the semirigids, they’ll be fully briefed on priorities before they get here.”
Julie’s eyebrows went up. “Many thanks, Luz! The Navy hates risking them where there might be a combination of thunderstorms and sharp pointy mountains, especially in high country like this.”
“War is risky,” Luz said. “Things wear out and break and people die.”
Henrietta was making notes on a pad. Luz added: “And Miss Colmer, add that we’ve positively identified recent German equipment in conjunction with a bandit incident here; give the date on that just to be specific. It’ll be in the situation reports at HQ and the usual incident reports circulated down here, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure the right eyes back home run over it.”
Julie leaned over to check what her secretary had written, made an approving cluck, and pushed it over to Luz to have the appropriate one-day code appended from the list in her head. A trained memory was indispensable for spies and, to the limited extent there was a difference, to the secret police.
“I’ll get this encrypted for the 1100 return to HQ,” Colmer said; she’d do that and burn the original before she left the room, that went without saying. “If the orders are cut fast, we should have the airships within… oh, two days if we’re lucky, three if we’re not, dependin’ on their readiness rate and how long it takes the Navy to reschedule things. I’ll alert the Air Corps to expect them too, of course.”
I thought she was bright, Luz thought. And bold, not afraid to argue with Julie. That’s a very good estimate, both on distance and the time it’ll take the wheels to grind, considering how new to all this she is; not many secretaries would have picked up the background this quickly. Julie should see about getting her transferred to the Operations Section if she wants it—there are circumstances where someone with her looks could be very useful, though she’d need a mentor to look after her. Really good clerical work is valuable too, but it might be a bit selfish to keep her just for that.
“That ought to make life an ordeal for some deserving candidates,” Julie said with satisfaction, blotting up the last of her asado de boda with a tortilla. “I can feel their pain… and that feels so very, very good.”
“The airships and the Rangers between them should take care of this incident in the mountains,” Luz agreed. “I’d like to go over and do some interviews in a few days when they’ve had a chance to comb the Sierra and possibly make more contact. Interviews with the Ranger officer, and with the pilots, for starters.”
“We can combine it with introducing you to the new garrison commander and his Intelligence chief at my little soiree. Plausible cover all ‘round. And nobody local is going to spot you at the airbase, probably.”
Luz nodded. “Good thought, thanks. I’ll hunt around to get more of a feel for the situation here in the interim. A prisoner we could sweat would be ideal, of course, but…”
The reputation of the Bugkalot and their cousins was usually a considerable asset to the Protectorate government, but it did make people very reluctant to surrender to them. Though the rumors about ripping out the livers of prisoners and eating them before their eyes were, as far as she knew, grossly exaggerated.
Or at least somewhat exaggerated.
“The security for the Dakota Project is supposed to be impenetrable, but—”
“… but the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable and we all remember how that went,” Julie said to complete the sentence.
Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling