Chapter 10

Even the world’s weather seemed to be conspiring to afflict the world, first with drenching rain at harvest time and then redoubled record cold just when fuel was in dire short supply everywhere. It was drier inside Warsaw’s Royal Castle than it was outside, but not much warmer, and it smelled cold and of damp walls.

Hochwohlgeboren Hauptmann Horst Julius Albrecht Freiherr von Dückler—High and Well-Born Captain Horst Julius Albrecht, Baron von Dückler—wasn’t happy as he looked at the Russian automatic rifle on its stand in the center of the table and listened to everyone else at the meeting argue, despite thinking highly of the weapon. He felt every one of his twenty-nine years, and about twice as many more besides.

At least we’ve got the electricity working reliably, he thought. I doubt the Russians ever did.

The chandelier overhead cast a puddle of brightness on the steel, leaving the eyes of the humans glinting through shadow and highlighting their faces like the brutal South Sea masks in some museum. It had been only two months or so since the murderous fiasco in Boston, but he was off the morphine now, and thanks be to Almighty Lord God and the mercy of His Mother there hadn’t been any serious infection in the ruined socket of his left eye even in a return journey in the filthy stinking crowded prison that a U-boat inevitably was.

But there was still a deep ache, and worse ones of the spirit. Having to chair a committee on whether a new weapon got production priority wasn’t helping at all.

“We must have it!” Hauptmann Röhm said from across the expanse of mahogany, not for the first time.

I suppose even rear echelon work keeps me from thinking too much, Horst mused.

Röhm pointed to the gunmetal gleam of the Fedorov Avtomat rifle with his left forefinger and slammed his right fist into the solid wood of the table.

“I have sixteen experienced Stoßtruppen here with me for the tests, and we all concur. We must have it!”

“It’s not as simple as that, Hauptmann Röhm,” said von Dorn, the pale thin man with the carmine collar tabs and stripe down his breeches that marked the General Staff.

The staff captain spoke impeccable aristocratic Hochdeutsch with a Holsteiner accent and he didn’t quite add: you ranting Bavarian peasant clown, though his face and tone made it clear.

Horst sighed and lit a cigarette as he listed to the stormtrooper and the General Staff officer argue, enjoying the mellow bite. At least reasonable Turkish and Bulgarian tobacco was finally getting through in quantity, which was almost as important for morale as food.

Particularly my morale. Perhaps I could take up one of these land grants they’re talking about after the war. Somewhere far away from everything… the Crimea, say.

All his father’s sons had the title of Freiherr, baron, but the rich Silesian lands not far from here would go to Horst’s eldest brother, Karl, and his children—he and Elke already had three healthy boys.

I’ve changed too much to be comfortable at home in the Schloss. There’s too much I can’t say. A thousand hectares for a captain… a very nice little chunk of the world, off somewhere quiet and warm, with a view of the ocean and plenty of sunshine. After that vermasseln in Boston…

He wasn’t sure if he wanted to get leave to go home for the holidays, either, despite the palpable and universal air of gloom as cold and hunger and disease stalked the occupied city. Though the Jews were still glad to be under civilized German control after the unspeakable Russians and their pogroms and death-march deportations.

“And we must have it now!” Röhm barked. “No more delays for further study! No more whining about logistical difficulties! We Frontschweine are sick of that pack of excuses!”

The ugly facial scars the man had picked up leading a company at Verdun in the spring went with his squat muscular build and dark coloring to make Ernst Röhm look exactly what he was: a murderous killer with the personality of a cannibal troll from the old sagas. The fact that he was also a fairy didn’t matter much to Horst, apart from a personal revulsion; Röhm was one of the hard mean type of arse-bandit, not a poof. You used what was at hand to work for the Fatherland.

The General Staff man sniffed disdainfully at the Bavarian officer’s coarse bluster.

Röhm was right about the weapon, but he was in danger of sabotaging his own argument by sheer bloody-mindedness. Nobody here was an Ettappenschwein, a rear-echelon pig, and even the lone civilian in the room had seen action earlier in the war. There was probably some resentment of the adelborn on the ugly scarfaced man’s part too.

Not that I’m so handsome anymore, Horst thought with detachment.

Before the loss of his eye he’d looked much like his distant relative Manfred von Richthofen, the newly famous fighting-scout pilot they had started to call the Red Baron.

But plenty of women like scars, and I can still get the job done. I’d rather command a company or battalion at the front; you don’t need looks for that, or both eyes either.

The civilian among the officers was a sleek sallow dark-eyed young man of Horst’s own age, in a natty dark suit and wing collar and a pair of beautifully made shoes that didn’t help with a bad limp. He was named Grunstein, and wore his astrakhan-collared overcoat buttoned up against the cold and his gloved hands thrust into his pockets.

“Herr Hauptmann?” he said, which was almost his first comment, and one made looking at Horst. “I would be interested in your opinion.”

Grunstein was a troubleshooter for the Abteilung für Kriegsrohstoffe und Industrielle Gleichschaltung, the War Raw Materials and Industrial Coordination Department, a huge new bureaucratic fiefdom of its own under that other clever Jew, Walther Rathenau.

“It’s a formidable weapon, that’s not in dispute,” Horst said, and everyone fell silent immediately, for a wonder, perhaps because he didn’t gabble as much as the others. “And reasonably serviceable. Not perfect in the way a time-tested model might be, since it is designed to fill an entirely new tactical concept. It will have weaknesses only combat service can reveal. But unlike some perfectweapons it is available now rather than an eternally receding date two years in the future.”

Röhm laughed aloud at that, and the General Staff man winced slightly.

The Fedorov Avtomat machine carbine before them was Russian, a chunky, ugly-looking piece of machinery, functional though without the high finish you expected from German industry, with a curved detachable twenty-five-round magazine and a wooden hand grip on the forestock just ahead of it. It could use single shots like a semiauto rifle, and for close-range work fire on full automatic.

“My men all agree it’s absolutely ideal for Stoßtruppen,” Röhm insisted. “More firepower than a bolt-action carbine, but more range and punch than a machine pistol and much lighter and handier than a light machine gun, even the Lewis.”

Which the Emperor insisted we adopt back in 1913 because he saw that cinema clip of President Roosevelt firing one from the hip and grinning like an enraged bull moose. The All-Highest was right that time… more or less by accident and motivated by his childish envy, but still.

The General Staff officer ticked off the negatives on his fingers: “This Russian thing overheats if you put several magazines through it one after another. That was why we developed the quick-change barrel for the Lewis.”

“This isn’t a machine gun and doesn’t need that sort of sustained-fire capacity!” Röhm snapped.

Von Dorn continued: “It’s mechanically complicated and requires careful maintenance in the field, and encourages waste of ammunition.”

Horst snorted slightly and intervened: “Hauptmann von Dorn, that’s what they said when we introduced magazine rifles to replace the single-shot models in my father’s time… and when we replaced muzzle-loaders with needle guns in my grandfather’s time. And before that the armorers for the Landsknechte probably complained that harquebus balls weren’t reusable like crossbow bolts.”

Even the General Staff man smiled at that, though he concealed it quickly.

“But the light Japanese cartridge doesn’t have the range or stopping power of the standard 7.92 Mauser,” von Dorn put in; he was probably really more worried about the logistical complications.

“If it were chambered in 7.92, Hauptmann von Dorn, you couldn’t control it on automatic fire,” Röhm said. “It’s not a rifle for hunting antelope in Africa or exterminating paper targets a thousand meters away. Those ranges are for machine guns and Minenwerfereanyway. This is… it’s… it’s…”

Horst smiled as a thought came to him: “An… assault rifle… perhaps, Hauptmann Röhm?” he suggested.

Röhm grinned like a happy hyena about to rip off a face and slapped the table.

“Sturmgewehr!” he repeated. “Assault rifle! A perfect name. Sturmgewehr for Sturmtruppen.”

Sturmtruppen was the alternative designation for Stoßtruppen, elite assault troops the German army had developed to deploy new tactics and gear. They were everywhere on propaganda posters this year too, the modern face of war, like fighting-scout pilots. Ludendorff doted on them, being a self-proclaimed military modernist, and a hard-charging assault-troop officer like Röhm could often get his ear.

“The question, meine Herren,” Grunstein said smoothly, “is whether the benefits of deploying this weapon are worth the additional costs of yet another model of small arms and yet another caliber of ammunition.”

“Cost!” Röhm said with a sneer of contempt; he might as well have said you cheap kike aloud.

Grunstein let it roll off him; he must have been used to it, but Horst wouldn’t have cared to be on the receiving end of the cold glance he shot Röhm for an instant. It was the sort of look that remembered.

“The war may be over in any case before we could tool up to produce the weapon and its ammunition in quantity,” the Jew added.

Horst von Dückler didn’t care much about Jews one way or another; for a generation now the man of business in Breslau who marketed the crops and livestock from the von Dückler family’s Silesian estate had been a smart Jew. There was no more point in despising a Jew for being a Jew than there was in despising a dog for being a dog, and like dogs they often had their uses. Röhm was evidently one of those who didn’t think that way.

“There my… superior… may be able to offer some help,” Horst said in turn… also smoothly.

That got everyone’s attention. Rathenau’s organization was a power in the land now, but Abteilung IIIb was a growing power too, and so was its chief Oberst Walter Nicolai. These days Nicolai was a political power as well, one of the hidden guiding hands behind the new völkisch-nationalist German Fatherland Party the High Command favored.

“We have been sending agents throughout Russia since the collapse to secure valuable assets, and one of them exercised initiative—”

Which whatever foreigners believed was a quality very highly thought of in the German military.

“—and secured the manufacturing plant for the… Sturmgewehr… in Kovrov.”

He waited a beat and raised his eyes slightly before adding in a flat tone:

“As authorized by the reparations provisions of the peace treaty.”

That got a set of predatory smiles from everyone present; the treaty pretty much authorized Germans to go wherever they wanted in Russia and take whatever they pleased, down to the monogrammed nightshirt of the puppet Regent Grand Duke Nicholas, and nobody objected. Nobody except the plentiful bandits and rebels, which was why Germans wandering in search of booty did it in heavily armed groups.

It will be best to drop the Fedorov designation if I want anyone to take it seriously. The reputation of Russian engineering… Though it doesn’t do to count on them being totally beschiessen, and the exceptions can kill you.

For example, the Fedorov.

The assault rifle, he reminded himself.

And shuddered to think of what might have happened if they’d been around in quantity in 1914. Despite the official propaganda painting the Russians as pale-skinned equivalents of the Hottentots and Hereros who’d been butchered en masse in African colonial campaigns.

Well, might-have-been doesn’t count, he thought. They’re beaten now and we just have to keep our boot on their throats so they can’t get up again.

“It was only necessary to kick in the door before the whole rotten Russian house came crashing down,” Röhm said. “Even the yellow monkeys of Japan could defeat them! They’re just meat to be carved.”

Horst coughed, reflecting that the stormtrooper was a good example of his thoughts about believing one’s own propaganda. Then he went on briskly:

“The equipment is packed, under guard, and ready for transport. My thought is, meine Herren, that we could establish the plant here in Warsaw, where it would be under the authority of OberOst, who would supply the factory space and workers.”

The Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten—OberOst for short, the supreme command in the East—was currently under Prince Leopold of Bavaria. But Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been its first masters, and they still backed it against its many bureaucratic rivals.

And Americans think that Germany is a single smoothly organized machine! How Bismarck would have laughed! Now they try to imitate a Germany that exists only in our propaganda and their dreams, Horst thought dryly as he continued:

“That would require the General Staff to organize the transport, of course.” He nodded to von Dorn. “But if anyone can cut through the chaos in Russia, it is the Great General Staff Railway Department.”

A little flattery never hurt, and they did do very good work. Whether anything or anyone at all short of der Herrgott descending in glory on a storm cloud could make the Russian railways in their current state give results superior to a train of oxcarts was another matter, but not his responsibility.

I would bet on the oxen, assuming plenty of peasants to push the oxcarts out of mudholes and someone to hit the moujiks with a whip.

Just converting the Russian rail system to the European standard gauge… He shuddered at the thought. But if someone had to starve, it was going to be the defeated, not the victors. That was the natural order of things.

“And the Ordnance Department would cooperate on the technical side, as consultants,” he went on and inclined his head to the Feuerwerker.

“Meanwhile,” he went on, “Abteilung IIIb has secured all the… Sturmgewehre… that the Russians had in their supply pipeline, and concentrated them and their ammunition here in Warsaw, more than enough to reequip an entire battalion of Sturmtruppen immediately. We gain operational testing in the field, and the factory would be turning out a thousand or more a week within… three to six months, perhaps?”

He looked at the Jew. Grunstein gave him a long look and a slow nod, his dark eyes conveying:

Clever, my good baron.

“That is agreeable to the Abteilung für Kriegsrohstoffe und Industrielle Gleichschaltung,” Grunstein said aloud. “A most efficient disposition of resources, Herr Hauptmann. We have gotten good use from other foreign weapons in this war: the Lewis light machine gun, the Thompson machine pistol, both of which we manufacture in Belgium… the former Belgium, that is.”

“In our loyal and independent ally the Grand Duchy of Wallonia,” Van Dorn said pedantically, with a serious expression on his face until everyone joined him in mocking laughter, or in Grunstein’s case a thin smile.

“Excellent, Hauptmann von Dückler!” Röhm said. “I know just the battalion to get the assault rifles first; namely, my own. We’ll be ready when we break the Loire front and drive south to chase the insolent Yankees and their squealing little French bitches into the Mediterranean. And then after that… who knows?”

The General Staff officer shrugged, and added his own less enthusiastic acceptance. Grunstein was quite right: it always made things more harmonious when you could hand out slices of someone else’s cake.

And as the saying goes, stolen goods are rarely sold at a loss, Horst thought with a sigh. Am I to be a military bureaucrat from now on? I never wanted a pink stripe on my trousers; I’d rather shovel out stables.

“And we shall call it the von Dückler Assault Rifle Project,” Grunstein said.

That brought another general laugh and nods. Horst shrugged, though he’d thought himself that some new designation was a good idea.

“All I did was come up with the name,” he said, waving a hand in dismissal.

“And plunder the weapons and machinery in good soldierly fashion,” Röhm pointed out, grinning and jovial now that he’d gotten his way.

“And names have power, Herr Hauptmann,” Grunstein said, and quoted from a Scripture not his own: “En archē ēn ho Lógos. In the beginning was the Word.”

“Carried by acclamation, meine Herren,” von Dorn said dryly.

The meeting broke up with promises to exchange memoranda of agreement and detailed plans and Grunstein volunteering to find an experienced project manager within the next week. Who would almost certainly be highly competent and would most certainly be indebted to Grunstein and hence to Grunstein’s patrons.

The corridor outside the meeting room was just as cold but slightly less gloomy, since it had tall windows looking out on the (triangular) Castle Square, though the light was a gray suitable to his mood, and cold rain mixed with sleet streaked the glass. It would turn to snow overnight and then freeze to ice that would turn the streets to skating rinks like the rivers that threaded Breslau, hindering the death carts that went around every morning to collect the bodies of those who’d died of cold or typhus.

His new orderly stuffed the book he’d been reading back into the pocket of his greatcoat and sprang to attention.

The tome was Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts by the renegade Englishman Chamberlain: The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Horst had read it himself despite the thickly turgid style, and it was very fashionable since it basically boiled down to a claim that everything good and noble in the entire history of the human race came from the blood of Germandom.

Horst von Dückler was a patriot fiercely proud of his people’s world-shaking deeds and their vast and growing power, but he took the book’s popularity as proof that Germans were…

Alas, no more immune to flattery than any other folk.

The orderly saluted smartly, and Horst returned it punctiliously. Routine helped you get through the days without drinking yourself insensible… and the man had earned the gesture of respect. A limp, two missing fingers on his left hand and three thick scars running down the left side of his face beneath the brimless red-banded field cap to the edge of his small black mustache showed how. As did the ribbon of the Iron Cross First Class through a buttonhole in his tunic. Horst had one too, but enlisted men almost never received that award, not unless they’d done something unsurvivable and done it while an officer was watching.

“Sir!” the man said in his Austrian-Bohemian yokel accent. “Did you get what you needed from the dirty Yid shirker, sir?”

“Yes, Corporal, I did,” Horst said quellingly.

The noncom had even less use for Jews than Röhm, if that was possible, but he was a first-class scrounger and pathetically grateful for being taken off boring border-guard duty with a third-line Landsturm formation of pimply myopic boys, doddering old men, and recovering cripples.

Experienced combat veteran and slightly insane were often much the same thing anyway.

“There is a message, sir,” he said, and produced it.

“Almighty Lord God in heaven!” Horst said when he’d read it, and turned on his heel; he’d have walked out of the meeting if he’d known, and been glad of the excuse.

The beat of the heel plates on his polished pair of officer’s Marschstiefel was steady, but by the time he’d reached the third-floor office billet he kept his hand off his side by an effort of will. In the X-rays the bone looked a bit frayed where the bullet had glanced across it, and there was the earlier damage near there from the French shrapnel he’d taken on the Marne when the war was young.

Two guards he didn’t recognize were standing outside the office door, in gray-painted Stahlhelms and field uniforms without rank or unit insignia, their drum-fed machine pistols—copies of the American Thompson in nine-millimeter parabellum—across their waists in assault slings, another invention of the modern age.

“Sir,” one of them said to Horst, and opened the door. “The colonel will see you now.”

Then through the door: “Herr Oberst, Hauptmann von Dückler.”


Colonel Walter Nicolai was sitting at Horst’s own desk reading through a report; a man in his early fifties with a neat mustache and graying brown hair cropped close at the sides and a little longer on top, an unremarkable German officer’s face except for the eyes. He laid a cheroot in a short ivory holder down in an ashtray made from the base of a French seventy-five-millimeter round and nodded in return to Horst’s salute.

“Be seated, Captain von Dückler,” he said calmly, with a slight Braunschweiger accent that stretched out the a-sounds in a Lower Saxon fashion.

Horst hoped he looked calm enough himself. He’d recognized the report; it was his own, on the debacle that had encompassed the attempted Project Loki strikes on the United States. It was unsparing, too. There had been an element of self-punishment in it, and of course the pain of the wounds and the effects of the drugs had been stronger then.

“Sir, I take full responsibility—”

“No, you don’t, Captain von Dückler,” Nicolai said with a slight wintry smile. “First, the Carmody woman—the woman we thought was Elisa Carmody, the Mexican revolutionary—had her identity confirmed in my office by a source I thought credible; we were both there, and we both know I am at least equally culpable. And all else in this Schweinerei—”

He tapped the report with a forefinger.

“—followed from that. Second, the Black Chamber operative impersonating Carmody secured the details of Project Loki’s American strikes from my heavily guarded and inaccessible office in Castle Rauenstein. How she did it, the Almighty Lord God alone knows; that is still under investigation. I am inclined to credit satanic witchcraft, invisibility, and a talent for walking through walls.”

He gave another of those cold smiles. “If I thought she had… charmed… any of that information from you, Herr Hauptmann, believe me, you would have convalesced in a far less pleasant place than the Royal Palace in Warsaw.”

In an unmarked grave, Horst thought, nodding. Without any excessive time-wasting formalities.

“But you did not even know the complete details of the attacks yourself, only those for Boston. The others were available only from my files and at 70 Königgrätzer Strasse.”

He shrugged; that was the Imperial Navy’s headquarters in Berlin, and Naval Intelligence cooperated with Abteilung IIIb only grudgingly.

“We played a game with the Americans, and we lost that roll of the iron dice,” Colonel Nicolai said.

Then he sat silent, taking a draw on his cheroot and contemplating something with hooded eyes, before continuing in a meditative tone amid the curls of smoke:

“As the old saying goes, All marksmanship is in vain when a little angel pisses in the touchhole of your musket. But two-thirds of Operation Loki… which we in Abteilung IIIb were heavily involved in planning and which the Luftstreitkräfte, which is part of the Army, carried out… succeeded brilliantly. The American portion was always a high-risk gamble… and carried out by naval personnel, for the most part. I am not in the habit of shifting blame to subordinates. The Fatherland will not win the empire of the Earth at a single stroke, or in a single war, or without failures and setbacks along the way. We learn from our mistakes, close ranks after losses, and continue.”

“Thank you, Herr Oberst,” Horst said, ducking his head in gratitude; something thawed a little inside him.

He is not a likeable man, or even a gentleman—

Nicolai’s family had been minor civil servants and clergymen. He’d never aped Junker manners either as so many bourgeois officers did, which was to his credit.

—but he is a man, by God. And a chief worth following. There are plenty who would have used me as the sacrificial goat rather than sheltering me. Speaking of old sayings, failure runs downhill and credit flows up; and victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

“Are you now fit for more active duty than this?” Nicolai said. “Not field service, but counterintelligence work in Berlin?”

Jawohl, Herr Oberst!” Horst said enthusiastically. “The medics say I will make a full recovery. Except for the eye, of course. I have been practicing diligently at the assigned exercises.”

Also as self-punishment, but no more!

“Good,” Nicolai said. “Now, here are the relevant developments. We attempted sabotage of the American commercial airship Manila Bay some little time ago; those craft are an asset that it would be most convenient to deny to the Yankees. The attempt was foiled, as far as we can tell by misfortune or incompetence on the part of the saboteur, who paid for it with his life. The official releases are bland and uninformative—the Americans are finally learning not to publish quite so many important secrets in their newspapers, which makes our work harder.”

Horst waited in silence when Nicolai paused, recognizing that he was debating with himself how much to tell. Briefing subordinates was a tricky business in intelligence work. You had to give enough in the way of facts but not one iota more, while remembering that the occupational disease of the field was obsessive hoarding of information instead of using it in timely fashion.

“But we have an agent in Tunis who managed to secure confidences from unwary members of the crew of the airship Gettysburg. Here.”

Horst took the paper and scanned through the brief report; it was redacted, with passages that would let him identify the agent or containing irrelevant material blacked out.

“Elisa Carmody,” he breathed, reading the description of a woman dashing up a hundred-foot ladder in pursuit of a man with a Luger and then knifing him… or fatally knifing his parachute, at least. “No, the bitch who impersonated her, in fact.”

“Possibly. Carmody herself, the real Mexican revolutionary, was almost certainly interrogated and then executed at the Black Chamber’s headquarters at Lecumberri in Mexico City,” Nicolai said with a shrug. “That is their standard and very sensible procedure in such cases. The agent impersonating her traveled north under her name to provide a back-trail.”

He shook his head in grudging respect. “A very skillful operation and it hurt us badly.”

“Definitely the pseudo-Carmody,” Horst said.

The blood was pounding in his temples and his mouth was dry. He controlled the beginning of a tremor in his hands, but his simple Frühstück of terrible ersatz coffee and rolls with some soft quark cheese that his mother had sent from home suddenly sat sour and leaden in his stomach.

Nicolai raised an admonishing finger. “Very probably, not certainly. Also, the official news release and interviews with passengers indicated that an unnamed but female civilian assisted the Manila Bay’s third officer in defusing the bomb… and one of the passengers mentions striking titian blond hair. Significantly, that part of the story was suppressed after a single appearance in a minor provincial newspaper… the Kansas City Star.”

“Whelan!” Horst said, making the name a curse.

“Yes. I have my own score to settle with the so-scientific young miss, but she has undeniable technical talents.”

Nicolai stubbed out his cheroot and lit another. “Now, the Manila Bay completed its trip to Buenos Aires, and returned.”

He unrolled a map of the Americas. Horst leaned forward as the intelligence chief’s finger traced the routes of American National Airways’ long-distance routes, one from New York to Manila, one from Recife in Brazil to Dakar and then Tunis, and a north-south route connecting the two running from San Francisco to Buenos Aires.

“They no longer use the North Atlantic route from New York to Europe; that is too risky now,” the spymaster said. “But there is this—”

Nicolai’s finger moved from San Francisco through Los Angeles, on to Mexico City, then down through South America to Recife, Rio, and the Argentine capital. Then he ran it back up to Recife and eastward across the Atlantic.

“Two female passengers—traveling as Madeleine Robicheaux and Mary Duffy… disembarked from the Manila Bay in Recife. The next vessel on the transatlantic route was the Gettysburg, and no persons of those names boarded it. Mary Duffy and Madeleine Robicheaux stayed on in Recife… apparently… and reembarked on the Shiloh, the next flight northbound, checked into an expensive tourist hotel in Mexico City for several days of sightseeing, and were last seen traveling north on the Aztec Chief, a luxury express of American National Railways that operates between Mexico City and Chicago.”

“Why would anyone traveling for pleasure stop in Recife and return to the United States?” Horst said, suppressing a twinge of nationalist envy at what America had been able to do with a technology Germans had developed. “Rio de Janeiro is a major tourist destination and Buenos Aires is an important business one, but Recife…”

Nicolai smiled, the satisfied smile of a mentor at a promising student.

“I am glad to see that you are still capable of seeing the discordant element in a pattern, Captain. Recife is a backwater only important because of its location close to West Africa, which is why the Americans are developing it as an air and naval base. There is nothing to see in Recife but the sea, scruffy half-breed Negroes doing lascivious dances, jungle, sugarcane, and decaying Portuguese buildings. All infested with many very large blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects.”

He went on. “But the next eastbound flight across the Atlantic, the Gettysburg, did embark two Chilean nationals named Consuelo de la Barrera y Meza and Maria O’Doul. Whose documents and itinerary show them crossing from Santiago to Argentina by rail, securing visas to enter French territory, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany from the appropriate embassies in Buenos Aires, and then taking the airship to Recife with a transfer to the transatlantic flight. Purportedly on some sort of educational tour.”

Horst could feel his mind make a leap as he considered the overlapping dates.

“The Robicheaux and the Duffy who went north again were doubles,” he said. “They started as the Chileans in Buenos Aires and switched identities in Recife, delaying there so that they would be on a northbound airship where nobody had seen the faces of the firstRobicheaux and Duffy. Easy enough to find two operatives with roughly similar appearances to confuse matters… though we are lucky they did not attempt to secure genuine visas from our embassy. Would there be any reason to deny them?”

“No, Hauptmann von Dückler, they are lucky they were not quite so insolent as to try that—their descriptions were circulated to all our embassies some time ago, with instructions to issue visas and quietly alert us…”

Horst ducked his head to acknowledge he should have thought of that.

“And our agent records that the day after the Gettysburg docked in Tunis, the two women traveling as Chileans—one dark of complexion who spoke comprehensible Italian with a strong Spanish accent—booked tickets from Tunis to Naples. The official of the Italian Società Nazionale Servizi Marittimi he spoke with remembered it because young women doing so by themselves are so unusual—even more so in that part of the world—and because they paid in gold francs. Perfectly legal, but gold has disappeared into socks buried under hearthstones in what remains of the French Empire as their paper currency loses value.”

Nicolai spread out another folder. “Now here is a report from the customs and border service. Two persons—young women—with apparently valid passports and entry visas as Chilean nationals entered from Switzerland on the overnight Lucerne-Berlin express on the twenty-ninth of November and were recorded as arriving at the Anhalter Bahnhof the next morning. But the latest records from Buenos Aires routed through Stockholm show no such persons receiving visas; this was spotted by our routine correlation check. How I wish we had photographs of them, or that the Bildtelegrafie facsimile transmission between here and the New World had not been interrupted by the war! Or that the Foreign Office did not work by prewar habits of aristocratic languor… But pay careful attention to the attached descriptions.”

Horst did, and felt his hands begin to tremble in earnest, and his mouth go papery with a terrible longing, as if he were a wolf thirsting to feel blood dripping from his fangs. He’d known what he would read, but having it in front of him hit at a level below the intellect.

“That is… the one impersonating Carmody… and the Irish girl from Boston, Whelan. Beyond any doubt.”

“Control yourself, Captain!” Nicolai said sharply.

Horst became aware that the bestial snarling had been coming from him and cleared his throat in embarrassment; the fantasies running through his mind shocked him a little too. He knew he was a ruthless man and killing had never bothered him when it was necessary, but he’d never considered himself a bloody-minded one before. Nicolai took another draw on his cheroot and gave him a long, considering glance.

“I require that you be honest with me and yourself, Captain. Have you sufficient self-control to conduct this operation? Hatred is like fire, a fine servant but a bad master. Fire in the belly is good. Between the ears, no. There you must be cold as ice.”

Horst took a deep breath and forced an iron control. “Yes, sir. Jawohl, Herr Oberst.”

“Good enough. You will personally interview the customs inspector, who has been brought north—and who seems to be an honest dullard—and then pursue the matter in Berlin.”

Nicolai raised a hand. “I am aware that letting us think Berlin is their goal may have been deception on their part. We have no real notion of their true intentions… but Berlin has our greatest concentration of valuable intelligence targets, and we know that these are capable agents, cunning, ruthless, and resourceful.”

“Or they may have been using the prospect of Berlin being a deception as a way to hide that it is in fact the true object,” Horst said; intelligence work was like a hall of mirrors in a circus sideshow, image within image within image, all unpredictably distorted.

“A double bluff,” he added, using the English phrase.

He’d learned to play poker while working in the United States. It was an oddly difficult game, requiring mental gymnastics and psychological insight rather than just the ability to calculate odds, and excellent training for intelligence work.

“Just so,” the intelligence chief said.

Then another thought struck Horst. “Project Heimdal is being run out of Berlin—from the Siemens works, as far as research and production are concerned, under the supervision of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft’s War Projects division. And Whelan, despite her youth, knows the technologies.”

A memory prompted him to pound his fist down on the arm of the chair, once.

“And she saw the preparatory work on the battleships and battle cruisers at Wilhelmshaven! And asked me about them!”

Nicolai made a tcha sound of annoyance. “That code name is absurdly overinformative, as well. Our naval colleagues have been to Bayreuth too often and imbibed overmuch at the spring of Wagner. But yes, and that is our single most important secret project now that Loki has been implemented. Its success is the difference between partial victory and immediate, complete triumph in Europe and Africa and western Asia.”

“And it’s at the riskiest possible stage, just when the equipment is being widely distributed.”

“Just so, and with Naval Intelligence in charge,” Nicolai repeated. “Other agents will pursue the alternatives… which may or may not be a diversion of resources from the Schwerpunkt, the decisive point, but which is unavoidable.”

Horst shrugged. “Numbers are less important in this type of operation. Too many agents can be a handicap if they trip over each other.”

Which was true; but he didn’t lie to himself. I want her blood myself.

Nicolai nodded. “You will keep me updated at reasonable intervals and will in turn be informed of any relevant developments, and you will receive documentation that secures the full cooperation of the Berlin police and the Preußische Geheimpolizei. And any other resources you need, within reason and at your discretion. Understood?”

“Fully understood, Herr Oberst!”

“Then you are dismissed. I will be leaving within the hour.”

Horst stood, saluted and clicked his heels, and left the office. Four paces outside it, he halted almost in midstep, so abruptly that only catlike reflexes kept his orderly from stepping on his heels.

“Corporal,” he said, writing quickly on an order pad he kept in a tunic pocket.

“Herr Hauptmann?”

“You are to take this to Captain Röhm in the transient officer’s quarters, and inform him that I will have need of a special force for an important mission… about half a Zug’s worth. They’ve already been seconded for special duty.”

Zug was a unit of forty or fifty men, what they called in English a platoon, though by this stage of the war few were at full strength. By no coincidence whatsoever, Röhm had sixteen men with him, there to participate in the testing of the new rifle. As long as he didn’t keep them too long and arouse the wrath of their battalion commander at the front, getting suitable movement orders cut wouldn’t be a problem.

Not when Colonel Nicolai has just given me the power to bind and loose, he thought. And as far as I know we have no serious offensives planned on the Loire for the next few months at least.

Then he went on aloud: “Picked men, with an experienced officer… and equipped with the new Sturmgewehr.”

The orderly’s eyes lit with martial curiosity at the mention of that unfamiliar name.

“If this Hauptmann Röhm questions me further, sir?”

The orderly’s eyes slid backward for a moment toward Horst’s office and its illustrious current occupant.

“No names, Corporal. My… superior prefers to operate from the shadows. But you may let the good captain assume whatever he pleases.”

The other man grinned like a wolf, and Horst went on:

“Oh, and an extra pair of the new rifles for you and me, Corporal, and a few hundred rounds and some magazines for each.”

“Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann! Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptmann!” the corporal barked.

They were words that might have been sarcastic in another tone, one of the few ways a subordinate had of letting a superior know his feelings while being formally blameless, but now simply indicated wholehearted enthusiasm.

Röhm owed Horst von Dückler a nice fresh new favor, and it was time to collect before it went stale. It was probably dropping an anvil on a cockroach… but that worked. Giving the nasty pests a little tap often didn’t. At worst he’d have wasted some of Röhm’s time, which would be Röhm’s problem, not his.

And the problem with relying on the police for backup was that they had police reflexes. German police reflexes, at that; the Reichwasn’t the Yankee Wild West where their cowboy president had blazed away with six-shooters and chased bandits down frozen rivers, like something Old Shatterhand would do in a Karl May novel. German police were trained to be careful not to endanger bystanders on the rare occasions they had to use the weapons they carried as symbols of authority.

A half platoon of veteran Stoßtruppen with automatic weapons could be expected to show an entirely different set of responses.

Especially under the command of Hauptmann Ernst Röhm, if I have read him correctly.


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling