Chapter 2

Just after noon the next day the doorbell rang in a series of chimes, as they sat over the remains of a very late breakfast in the patio courtyard. Luz and Ciara started, froze, looked at each other, and burst into laughter at the same moment.

“Hold that thought,” Luz said as she rose from the big chair they’d been sharing while they fed each other spoonfuls of fresh berries and cream and started on from there.

As she walked through the arched door of the courtyard and into the entrance hall of the casa she felt her armor slipping into place, a cold catlike awareness that radiated out like an invisible psychic shell. It had grown stronger every day since her parents died while she hid in the wardrobe a few feet away. The good thing was that now she knew she could take it off. By the time she’d reached the front door, Ciara was back… with a billhook from a storage closet, a heavy curved blade on a long pole used for trimming shrubbery. Or inconvenient people, if you knew your medieval history.

Luz gave her a quick smile of approval; she’d seen firsthand that her partner didn’t lose her nerve in a tight place. Not that she expected a fight now, but you never knew; that was why she had the Browning automatic and the Andalusian navaja knife in her pockets. Which was something of a judgment on the life that fate or her own choices had handed her, but you couldn’t run things back and see how they might have turned out differently.

“Glad to have you with me, querida… but let’s not terrify an innocent deliveryman too much as he stands outside with a box of oysters on ice, si? People might talk.”

Ciara nodded and put the billhook behind a tall ornamental vase, where she could lunge for it if she had to. Then she stepped sideways and glanced through the edge of one of the big grillework-barred windows that flanked the entrance.

“It isn’t a delivery man, unless Diehl’s Grocery has gotten a canary-yellow Cadillac Type 53 Roadster with black trim to replace their Model T truck since last week. Very nice, the one with their high-compression seventy-seven-horsepower V-8 engine. It’s probably as fast as your lovely, lovely Cole 4-40!”

Luz put an eye to a fish-eye lens concealed in one of the door studs. The man outside was three years older than her twenty-five, and wore a lightweight sack suit and matching waistcoat of a pale fawn sharkskin silk-worsted mixture beautifully cut to conceal the shoulder holster under his armpit and the stiletto in a forearm sheath.

“It’s someone I know, another senior field operative,” she said, and slid her hand out of the pocket… without the gun.

“Though come to think of it, I outrank him now. Damn the man! But this is Black Chamber business.”

“Hello, James,” she added as she pulled the outer door open.

The Chamber’s discipline wasn’t as obvious as the Army’s, but it was stronger if anything.

James Cheine had six slim feet of height and a long bony face with the weathered tan of an Anglo-Saxon who spent much time in the open air; a thin three-inch-long vertical scar marked his right cheek, and there was something very cruel about his blue-gray eyes and rather curved lips. A comma of hair nearly as black as Luz’s own Polaire-style bob fell on his forehead.

“Do come in, briefly,” Luz told him. “Mi casa… no es su casa.”

He doffed his gray homburg politely, though he used the left hand that also held an attaché case, in a practiced reflex that kept his right free at all times. Document courier was far below his usual pay grade, which meant it was something of the highest priority…

“Good to see you, too, Luz,” he said.

The case wasn’t handcuffed to his wrist, but doing that just put up a flag reading: Something you really want to see here! Kill me and cut it off! The sort of thing you expected the Federal Bureau of Security or the Heinz 57 varieties of Military Intelligence to do.

But perhaps it’s better that way, because they’re mostly so dim it might just slip their mind that they put that pesky case full of Utterly Secret documents down on the seat in the streetcar and then walked off and left it…

“Or should I say Executive Field Operative Luz now?”

Like hers, his palm was hard, callused, and dry as they shook hands.

“That’s your exalted and most high mightiness emperatriz omnipotente Executive Field Operative O’Malley, ma’am, James,” Luz said dryly. “But don’t let your humble awe and the oppressive knowledge that you are as worms and dirt beneath my jeweled sandals make you overformal.”

“And this charming young lady, your Omnipotent Imperial Executive Highness?” he said, inclining his head and smiling.

“My friend Ciara Whelan, now a junior field operative herself,” Luz said.

She pronounced it properly as Keera, and with a slight sigh; the outside world was crashing back into weeks of golden dream.

“Ciara, this is Senior Field Operative…”

“Cheine,” he said, accepting her brief firm shake too. “James Cheine.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Cheine,” she said warily, unconsciously stepping closer to Luz for reassurance.

“Enchanted, Miss Whelan; I’m very glad you’re here, as my instructions from headquarters involve you too.”

“And what a lovely home!” he added.

He looked around at the high airy tile-and-plaster splendors of the hallway and the double stairs curling upward toward the landing; through the archway between them the dappled shade of the courtyard showed, and the glitter and tinkle of the fountain.

“The New Californian school, but built before that became so very fashionable, I should think, from the state of the gardens. Which are beautiful even by Californian standards.”

“Cuban style, actually, but that’s water from the same Spanish Colonial well,” Luz said; it could have been the casa grande of a hacienda in any land where Spain’s flag had once flown. “Papá wanted something that would make my mother feel at home.”

His voice had a Groton-School-and-Harvard-Yard patrician accent of an East Coast variety much like Uncle Teddy’s. The Black Chamber was infested with recent Ivy League graduates of the more adventurous sort, and of course the president had been a Harvard man himself. They included a scattering of Bryn Mawr alumni like Luz, and a few from Wellesley and Smith and Vassar and the others. She’d been accepted as a field operative back in the Chamber’s beginnings and the example had stuck; things had been fluid then, despite which it had taken all her powers of persuasion and moral blackmail at the presidential level and blunt just-shut-up-and-make-it-happen orders from Uncle Teddy thereafter.

“She laid out the gardens. The house had all the modern conveniences right from the start, though, and under the stucco it’s earthquake-proof.”

“Cast mass concrete with galvanized-steel reinforcing bars,” Ciara said impulsively. “One of the very earliest examples! With integral ducting for electrical lines and pipes.”

She blushed and subsided, but Luz smiled at her and added:

“That’s it. Papá was a progressive long before the Party; he knew the twentieth century was coming soon.”

“Unlike some of my relatives even now,” Cheine replied ruefully, hanging his hat on the mahogany rack. “For whom it’s always the blessed eternal noon of 1899, Queen Victoria’s still alive, J. P. Morgan and J. D. Rockefeller allow the president to cut ribbons and kiss babies while they run the country, and all’s well with the world.”

The older generation of the Upper Ten Thousand mostly thought Uncle Teddy a traitor to his class, a would-be Caesar Augustus, or both, and the whole New Nationalist movement a grubby upstart affair of wild-eyed middle-class radicals. But plenty of younger scions like James had embraced the Progressive Republican Party’s new order; the strenuous life was much less boring than old-style politics had been, or sitting and biting your thumb in grumpy isolation like your parents while the world went elsewhere.

“Do please step on through to the patio and join us, Mr. Cheine,” Ciara said carefully.

Watching her accent, too, Luz thought with a feeling of protective annoyance directed at the man as they walked through the hallway and around the ascending glazed shells of the fountain.

She knew it was irrational, since James was just talking in the way he did when he wasn’t putting on something else. The plummy tones nevertheless activated Ciara’s hardscrabble Boston Irish defensive hackles, and that made Luz bristle for her in turn.

Ciara hadn’t finished high school—few people did, and even fewer girls in not particularly affluent families who weren’t aiming to be schoolteachers—but she had an excellent vocabulary and her grammar was very good, since she’d grown up a voracious reader who lived above a bookstore. Her vowels did tend to be long and a bit nasal, though; she usually said Baahst’n when she referred to her native town, and beneath it ran a brogue as green as a shamrock and broad as her Dublin-born father’s that she could bring out when she wanted to or that crept out under stress.

Cheine’s blue-gray eyes flicked between them, and Luz saw him noting the identical robes they were wearing, Ciara’s instinctive half step closer to Luz’s side and then the pledge rings and mentally going: Aha, I might have known!

“No, James, that wasn’t the reason,” Luz said pleasantly, denying him the salve for his vanity. “It’s just that I never liked you that much.”

Ciara choked slightly as she realized that wasn’t the reason included an unspoken final phrase why I wouldn’t sleep with you, flushed pink as she realized what Cheine had picked up effortlessly about her, then coughed to cover it and the shocked giggle that might have followed.

Cheine held Ciara’s chair with gentlemanly politesse and waited for Luz to sit before taking another himself across the granite-slab table beneath an arbor overgrown by Queen’s Wreath and its long drooping panicles of purple blossom. The gentle plashing of the fountain sounded in the background, and hummingbirds buzzed by.

“Coffee, Mr. Cheine? Sugar? Cream?” Ciara asked.

“That’s very kind of you, Miss Whelan, and I would love a cup. Black will do nicely. So sorry to have interrupted your luncheon.”

Luz fought down a startled laugh of her own with a strong but practiced effort of will that left her slight polite smile intact.

Ten more minutes…

Ciara poured, though with a very slight twitch at the same thought, and he took an appreciative sniff and sipped.

“Ah, thank you! Jamaica Blue Mountain, I think?”

Ciara nodded. “Diehl’s Grocery in town stocks it, Mr. Cheine. They have a very wide selection of coffees… of everything, really.”

“They should, in this sybaritic nest of plutocrats at play. Blue Mountain is my favorite; the very nectar of the gods, compared to the weak burned Harvey House muck from Brazil on the trains, though I admit they serve a decent steak. If you stand over the cook with a pistol to his head to make sure it’s done really rare, but that applies to restaurants all too often. Certainly to the one where I stopped for lunch.”

“You had steak for lunch?” Luz said. “You’re looking a little peaked, James, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

He’d always been leanly strong and moved with the fluency that told an expert observer that he could be very fast indeed, but now he was slightly gaunt in the way you got if you were putting out everything you had and not eating all that well.

“I’ve been away from the land of the free and home of the sirloin; the steak helps, and the bacon-wrapped grilled oysters. I’m having steak three times a day for a while. Steak and eggs for breakfast today, steak and potato au gratin for lunch at the Claremont here, and I’m planning on steak au poivre with frites for dinner with a nice zinfandel and a green salad, and peach Melba to follow at the Potter tonight. Besides, I hear Food Director Hoover is going to be decreeing meatless days for the war effort and I’m doing my best before the dreaded nut cutlet arrives, smothered in scientifically enriched puréed green-bean burgoo.”

He went on with a wry smile:

“And here I see the inside of your beautiful home for the first time and then you wound my sensitive, delicate feelings on the very doorstep, Luz. And I always thought we worked together so well! We saved each other’s lives that time the Zapatistas inconsiderately overran the safe house at three in the morning.”

“Of course we did, James,” she said.

A flash of memory went through her, her skin prickling a little at the visceral impact of it, though her face retained its calm.

The darkened house in Cuautla, waking at a draft from the door opening, air across skin wet with the tropical heat of the tierra caliente. The smell alerting her as much as anything, tobacco and marijuana and rank sweat soaked into coarse cotton rarely washed. The distinctive body odor of men who worked in the hot sun of the cane fields and lived on corn tortillas and frijoles refritos and chilies and cheap flavored spirits, overlain with the musky harshness of anger and fear. And beyond that, fresh blood—not very close, but somewhere in the house, and a lot of it.

A board creaked under a huarache sandal.

Sliding out a hand and picking up the little FN automatic from the side table, nothing else moving, doing it smooth, fast but without the jerk or gasp that might draw attention. She kept the pistol cocked at night and relied on the grip safety, and the door was only twelve feet away. Her black Chinese-style silk pajamas made the motion invisible in the dark and they were perfect for action, which was why she didn’t sleep naked or in a nightie anywhere she didn’t consider very, very safe.

Aiming was like pointing a finger but the angle was awkward…

Ptak! Ptak! Ptak! Ptak! Ptak!

The light .380 cartridges made a sharp sound more like a little dog’s shrill yapping than a bang, and the small rounded weapon bucked in her hand. Five shots at the half-seen black silhouette of a man outlined against the low dim glimmer like a target at a range; the corridor outside was open to the inner patio of the building on that side. Brief flashes showing red and giving grotesque strobing images, a bushy black mustache in a round brown face, eyes wide with shock and black dots punched into the breastbone of his dingy off-white shirt.

The second one tripping over the falling body as he tried to rush in behind the first, a hand thrown out for balance gripping the hilt of a Morelos-style machete like a broad point-heavy sword, and stumbling frantically forward trying to recover his footing so that the muzzle of the automatic was almost pressed to the bridge of his nose as their eyes met.

Ptak! Ptak! Ptak!

No time to reload, though she snatched up the spare magazine and stuffed it into a pocket while she flipped the gun into her left hand.

A near-shriek from the corridor: “¡Carlos! ¡Miguel! ¿’tan bien?”

Strip the navaja out from under the pillow, snap it open in the same motion. Out into the corridor, out from darkness into dimness, ducking smoothly down into a low crouch as she stepped toward the one who’d conveniently pinpointed himself by yelling. And who couldn’t see a thing…

You can look from darkness into light; but not from light into darkness. Darkness is my old friend.

The third man’s machete flashed over her head, a whisk of motion close enough to leave a tiny cooling draft on the back of her neck as she uncoiled forward and it banged into the plaster wall. Legs like springs pushing her up as she spun in a blur with the blade sweeping rightward, knowing in her gut and muscle where the neck had to be from glimpses and motions.

Then an instant’s tug as the sharp steel ripped hard across taut skin and sliced deep, with the unmistakable crisp shearing feeling of striking the cartilage of a windpipe, like cutting through a cardboard tube. An incredulous choked gurgling grunt followed it, and salty drops landing across her face.

“Carlos y Miguel están jodidos, igual que tú, cabrón,” she snarled under her breath in belated answer to his question as relief washed over her skin like stepping into a warm bath.

She continued the spin until she was facing back toward the stairwell at the end of the corridor, and the graceful spray of blood from the Toledo blade was liquid geometry for an instant on the pale stucco of the wall where it had followed the curve of the arrebatocut to the jugular. The body thumping to the tiles behind her, amid that hot salt iodine stink that was like seawater and meat. A rustle through the leaves of the banana trees in the courtyard, and the scent of night jasmine under the blood and powder-gas.

And slurred peasant voices on the stair ahead of her shrieking: “¡Viva Zapata! ¡Muerte a la Cámara Negra! ¡Viva Mexic—”

Cheine burst out of his own room, mother-naked and barefoot. Two steps and he was at the head of the stairs in the classic edge-on stance with his left hand down by his side holding two spare magazines and the big Colt automatic in his outstretched right.

CRACK! and a half-second pause as he brought it back down to firing position.

Then six more at the same metronome intervals: CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!

Stunning-loud as he emptied the weapon, using the crimson stab of each muzzle flash to aim the next shot; the attackers were trying to do this quietly to get in and out before a reaction force from the garrison arrived, but for the Americans the more noise the better. Flashes of light on the white eyes and teeth and the honed edges of the machetes as the campesino guerillas stormed upward to kill the hated gringo spies…

He’d started with the man in the rear and then moved his aim forward in a ripple of death, so that the leaders would think he was missing and not stop or take time to think about shooting instead of chopping. Seven shots for eight men, seven massive 230-grain chunks of lead moving a thousand feet a second as the shooter grinned like a death’s-head. The second-to-last had fallen backward from six feet away as the .45 slug put a blue hole in the top of his forehead and exited in a gout of bone fragments and gluey pink brain and blood that was red-black in the dimness.

That left the one in the lead, raising his machete with a shriek of rage. Luz had snaked her left hand around James’s body.


A flutter of cloth as she fired close enough that the muzzle blast singed the machetero’s long cotton shirt. He started to fold as the bullet hit in the pit of his stomach, and then he flipped backward in a crackling tumble all the way to the bottom of the stone staircase as Cheine kicked him in the face with his heel.

Then they’d leapt down from stair to stair, which meant body to body, some still sprattling like pithed frogs from the headshots. They reloaded on the move. She’d had the knife in her teeth as she did, and the blood had tasted as metallic as the steel…

Luz shook her head as she returned across years and miles to the house her parents had built. When she spoke her voice was light:

“And we picked leeches off each other’s backs in that pinche selva in Quintana Roo, James. I have the highest professional regard for you, mi camarada.”

Professional, because there’s also the fact that you’re a bit of a bully sometimes when you get the chance, Luz thought behind her smile.

Secret-agent work tended to attract the type, for some reason. There were women who found that attractive, though not as many as men thought, but it wasn’t a fantasy she’d ever had the slightest interest in accommodating.

I actually do quite like you, James, just not as much or in the way you think is your due.

“No accounting for tastes,” he said. “I understand from catching up on the Chamber rumor mill that professional congratulations are in order for your promotion and to both you ladies for a job well done… whatever the job was. Getting the corona obsidionaliswithout dying… Not many have managed that.”

“Precisely two,” Luz corrected. “Us.”

“True. And without even being crippled for life first! No details, I don’t need to know! But add my envious congratulations to the pile, for what they’re worth.”

“Thank you. Yes, the mission did go rather well,” she said, and gave Ciara a fond glance and half wink. “Though Miss Whelan and I ended up saving each other’s lives any number of times.”

Cheine had almost certainly figured out that they’d been involved in foiling the horror-gas plot somehow, since nobody had ever said he was a fool and there weren’t many alternative explanations. But what wasn’t explicitly said didn’t have to be acknowledged ordenied. Silence could be a wonderful thing, both tool and weapon.

“And you’ve been… where, James?”

“Congratulating myself, of late, on being among the nondecomposing minority of humankind,” he said nonspecifically.

There was a newish purple scar on the back of his right hand; it looked very much like the Cyrillic letter Ш, cut in with a knife, which would stand for the initial s in шпион, the Russian word Shpion… spy.

“You had a bad time in Russia?” she said, and added: “If that’s not a redundant adjective these days.”

The Czar’s inept Ruritanian autocracy had started its circling swirl around the porcelain bowl at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in August 1914, when the Great War was young and where Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had made their names while obliterating two invading Russian armies. Then last year more armies millions strong had vanished into the iron jaws of the German Kesselschlachten one after another, at obscure hamlets whose names were now written on history in letters of fire and blood—Gorlice-Tarnow and Grodno, Białystok and Brest-Litovsk. This summer and fall had seen the final gurgling flush of collapse, abdication, and abject surrender to the status of German puppet, with the ex-Czar’s first cousin once removed Grand Duke Nicolai as theoretical regent for the sickly Czarevitch and actual glove on Ludendorff’s iron Prussian fist.

“Right in one, Luz,” Cheine said, and rubbed ruefully at the healing wound.

“It must have been strenuous.”

“It’s… even worse there now than the papers say,” he said, and added: “You never did miss much.”

“Russian is one of your languages, and with that scar… not much doubt about which particular pot of boiling sewage the Director dropped you in.”

“Yes, I’m going to have to have some cosmetic work done on this,” he said, touching the back of his hand.

Luz nodded with cheerful ruthlessness. “The Chamber should get something out of the surgeons we keep on retainer.”

Cheine snorted. “When I… finished what I was doing…”

She would have been shocked if he’d been more specific.

“… I made it out of Moscow just before Colonel Nikolai’s men—”

Ciara stiffened for a moment at the mention of the name of the head of Abteilung IIIb, then relaxed as Luz touched her on the shoulder briefly and gently. There was nothing like that knife-edge threat of death and torture to make memory stand out with cut-crystal clarity afterward, and the feelings came back with the images.

That can be bad, Luz thought. It’s worse when they come back in your dreams.

“—arrived to extract my name from the Okhrana and then extract my toenails to make me talkative. I jumped onto the very last through train on the Trans-Siberian before they stopped even trying to run them. Which was a relief.”

He rubbed the scar again. “Only then Baron von Ungern-Sternberg’s cavalry hijacked the train east of Lake Baikal in the name of the new Yekhe Khagan of Greater Mongolia and gave me this when they realized I wasn’t Russian.”

“Ungern-Sternberg? Is that a Russian name, Mr. Cheine?” Ciara asked; she sounded a little more sympathetic now, probably because of the reminder of their common enemy. “It sounds more German.”

“It was German, a very long time ago, Miss Whelan, in the Crusades against the Baltic heathen; a lot of officers in the Russian army are from the Baltic-German nobility. Von Ungern-Sternberg was, until he decided he’d rather be a bloody-handed Mongolian warlord. A fair number of troops followed him when the Russian army collapsed, and he decided to take over Mongolia with them, chase out the Chinese, and declare himself Kha Khan. And he’s become a very odd variety of Buddhist.”

“Odd?” Luz said.

She knew a little about Sōtō-Zen but not much of the faith in general, except that it had even more distinct flavors than Christianity did, which was saying something.

“As in reincarnation of Genghis Khan and avatar of the war goddess Jamsaran. And he’s quite sincere, too.”

“He must be crazy!” Ciara blurted.

“Mad as a hatter, Miss Whelan, and looks it—a demented stare with one bulging eye bigger than the other, and his face twitches and this damned great scar on his forehead flushes purple just before he starts the random killing. Well, usually there’s burning and flaying and impaling first.”

Luz’s brows went up at something she caught beneath his casual tone of ironic amusement. She’d learned by personal experience that Cheine had strong nerves even by the Chamber’s exacting standards, but if you knew him well he sounded a little…

Disturbed. This bloody baron must be very bloody indeed.

“He has a whole carnival freak show of desperados and lunatics and assorted maniacal butchering horrors in his train complete with heads on spears and necklaces of ears and teeth and drinking fermented mare’s milk out of cups made from human skulls lined with gold. I suspected they had more of the ever-popular game of Carve the Yankee in mind—”

“Or possibly a new skull goblet… what’s fermented mare’s milk like?” Luz said.

“Vile, as you’d expect, but not quite as vile as you would expect. So I abjured their hospitality, stole a string of Mongol ponies, and made my way east. Then I got out of Vladivostok on a Peruvian-flagged freighter bound for the U.S. just moments before our new and dearly beloved Japanese allies in the struggle against the evils of Prussian militarism arrived with their Tokko-Kempeitai.”

“Special secret section of the Japanese military police,” Luz translated for Ciara. “They do what we do, more or less. A very unpleasant lot.”

She turned to Cheine: “Under our great and good new friend General Akashi Motojiro?”

“I heard rumors to the effect it was to be that very same nasty and far too clever piece of work, with Sado Araki and the Black Dragon Society in tow,” Cheine said.

Luz nodded; the Black Dragons were a secret society of fanatics who believed Japan destined to rule all East Asia, and operated through propaganda, subversion, and assassination. Araki was one of Japan’s best secret agents and had a network of spies and sympathizers that stretched all the way to Central Asia.

Cheine went on: “Since what’s left of Russia is a German puppet these days, we can’t even really object to the Japanese taking it over… and they’ll keep going until they and the Germans meet up somewhere around Lake Baikal in Siberia, is my guess.”

“Akashi is their best Russian specialist,” Luz clarified for Ciara. “He’s half the reason Russia had a revolution in 1905, while they were fighting Japan.”

Ciara frowned. “I thought that was because the Japanese sank their navy and beat the stuffing out of their army?”

“That was the other half, Miss Whelan,” Cheine said with a raised eyebrow at the naïve but acute analysis. “I was sure Rikugun-Shōshō Akashi would be just as glad as Herr Oberst Nicolai to have a long friendly chat with me, but luckily my humble, rusty, wheezing, guano-scented but beautiful Santa Rosa de Lima escaped attention as we sailed out past a gigantic convoy of Japanese troop transports and warships impressively inbound and headed by Fusō and Yamashiro.”

“Their latest big battleships,” Ciara said, with an absentminded look that Luz knew marked her consulting the reference library in her head. “Just under thirty thousand tons displacement. Brown-Curtis direct-drive steam turbines, water-tube boilers, mixed oil-coal firing, forty thousand shaft horsepower, twenty-three knots. They must have hurried Yamashiro through her sea-trials.”

“Yes, Miss Whelan,” Cheine said, with a well-hidden look of surprise.

Luz didn’t bother to hide a smile, or her pride. Ciara wasn’t particularly interested in warships as such. Big complex modern machines with turbines, on the other hand…

“That sounds like the sort of close call that’s much more fun in retrospect,” Luz said. “Because then you know how it turned out.”

Cheine nodded. “There was already panic in Vladivostok; not to mention drunken despair, arson, looting and rioting, and stampedes trying to get on departing ships… a bit of the strenuous life and no mistake. Not that I blame the locals for being a trifle put out at the change of management. They know the Nips well in that part of the world, and the Russki love the little yellow devils not, a feeling which is very much mutual.”

“It all sounds very… exciting, Mr. Cheine,” Ciara said.

Luz glanced at Cheine and pursed her mouth slightly. In their line of work exciting also meant something had gone spectacularly wrong, since ideally the enemy never knew what you’d found out until what they didn’t know about what you did know about them hurt them very badly.

Which ideal Ciara and I just about brought off, except for the very last bit in Boston and that was too late to do the Germans any good. Though James does seem to have recovered with style.

It also sounded very much as if relations between the United States and the Dai Nippon Teikoku were going into the toilet too, rounding out the round world’s agonies as the Great War spread like cancer, or filaments of mold in bread. If you knew how to look between the lines…

Our very nominal new allies in Tokyo are going to grab with both hands while the grabbing is good and the Western powers are wrecked or fighting for bare survival, she thought; they’d already taken over the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina, theoretically… very theoretically… to keep the Germans out. And now we can’t stop them putting the knuckle on China either, the way we did when they tried with their Twenty-One Demands last year, either.

It didn’t surprise her, and this certainly wasn’t one of the very rare occasions she felt moral outrage either: Empires were empires and people were people and they both did what they did. Getting your knickers in a twist about it put you on the wrong side of the way she did usually divide the world, apart from the obvious, eternal and elemental one of Us and Them, and cutting across it: not into good or bad, but into smart people on the one hand, and on the other…

Fools. But on a personal level I really must get the whole Taguchi family on the protected-contact list without delay just in case. It could get unpleasant here for people with Japanese names if things go badly toes-up. Even with that cabrón William Also-Ran-dolph Hearst, the Wizard of Ooze, retired to his ranch.

In 1907 the Boss had called Hearst the most potent influence for evil in American life, and their longstanding mutual loathing had gone even further downhill from there. The last straw driving el jefe into one of his rare but impressive rages had been an editorial comparing the American troops in Mexico to the Germans in Belgium and hoping the revolucionario guerillas would drive them out. The subsequent visit to Mr. Hearst by the Chamber had included James Cheine to do the talking, and one Luz O’Malley Aróstegui being persuasive by standing in the background smiling a sinister Latin smile and rolling her open navaja across her knuckles. When he’d blustered about whether the president had authorized this outrage, she’d smiled again and said softly, glancing down at the moving glitter on the edge of the Toledo steel:

“Not in so many words, Mr. Hearst. But… there was something that with enough deliberate ill will might have been interpreted as: Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?

At which Hearst looked as if he’d bitten into a lemon, not fancying Thomas Becket’s martyr’s crown one little bit. James had raised a patrician eyebrow, and quoted the Chamber’s unofficial moto:

“Non Theodorum parvis concitares ne perturbatus sit.”

Then he’d smiled with genial, cruel contempt and added: “You are a detail, sir. And one way or another, you will cease to bother.”

That had finally pierced the narcissist’s armor with the realization that the rules had well and truly changed; whereupon Hearst had decided to lead a quiet rural life on his enormous coastal ranch near Paso Robles, and sold his papers at quite fair prices to designated buyers to finance a mansion and art collection there. These days those rags weren’t indulging in their former specialty of trying to whip up feeling against Japanese immigrants and “Orientals” in general… or against the Party and Uncle Teddy… or the Intervention policy in Mexico… or in favor of Germany… or spreading atrocity stories recycled from the Philippine Insurrection days either.

“Better you than me when it comes to last-minute escapes, James,” she said aloud, and wrote a brief note on a pad. “Hand this on to Station Chief Reiter when you get back to San Francisco, would you? And tell him I need a minor favor from him, sub rosa; I want those people put on the shelter list, just in case.”

Reiter would normally do any valued operative a small favor like this as a matter of courtesy as long as it wasn’t counter-mission or financially smelly; and still more so for her, now that she was in the Director’s extremely good graces.

And he’d be able to call on her for some equally moderate return in the future. Luz prided herself on never forgetting a debt, for good or ill. As a bonus, Ciara smiled with delight when she realized what Luz meant.

“Certainly,” Cheine said, glancing at the note before putting it into one of his waistcoat’s slash pockets. “Friends of yours?”

“Yes. Personally, and old family friends too; there are debts of honor involved.”

“I don’t think the Boss or the rest of the Party leadership will let the State government go too far, unless there’s actual war with Japan… and that won’t happen soon if ever. Teddy admires the Nips because they’re hard workers and tough fighters. And clever little devils too, and because they’re disciplined enough to make Prussians look like anarchists.”

“He thinks the ones we have here are national assets,” Luz agreed. “But not everybody’s as sensible as el jefe. And the elder Taguchis are still Japanese subjects, which might matter—though their children are American citizens, of course. You easterners don’t appreciate how strong that feeling is on this coast.”

“I do remember how el jefe had to take the mayor of San Francisco to the White House woodshed in ’07 and give him a sound spanking over trying to force Japanese children out of the local schools.”

“That whole idiotic episode cost us goodwill with Japan we’ll have to pay for with blood someday,” Luz said grimly. “I can’t stop the California state legislature from being hysterical buffoons, but I can hold out an umbrella for a few people if it starts to rain stupid.”

“I’ll ask Reiter to get right on it.”

Gracias, James.”

“Think nothing of it.”

“We’ll pay you back with a Hangtown fry dinner and a bottle of Inglenook at the Tadich Grill next time we’re all in Fogtown at once, while you entertain us with the grisly Gothic details of your trabajos patrióticos in Outer Mongolia.”

“It was all epically hellish and bloody cold even a few weeks ago, and my getting out was an epic too, of dash and grit and good old Yankee ingenuity. What a pity the report will languish in the Class A Secret files! Unless Teddy reads it for a little light entertainment.”

Luz chuckled. “He does do that, you know he does—says it has Richard Harding Davis’s adventure stories beat all hollow, or even this new English author he’s so fond of, Buchan—you know, Prester John and The Thirty-Nine Steps.”

“John Buchan?” Cheine said, and surprised her a little by laying a finger beside his nose. “Just between me and thee, Buchan actually is in British Intelligence now… military intelligence. If he’s still alive, that is. He was on Haig’s staff in France when I met him for a little quiet liaison work back in the spring, when we were still neutral… officially… and before everything went to hell. Haig isdead, by the way.”

“The horror-gas got him when they shelled his HQ?” Luz asked, and Cheine nodded.

“Plumer has his job now, poor chap. Talk about inheriting a poisoned chalice!”

“You’d never know Buchan’s really in the trade from his books,” Luz said. “Outrageous coincidences como pulgas sobre un perro.”

“I wouldn’t know about either the fleas on the dog or the coincidences in the books,” Cheine said loftily; speaking Spanish well was a common accomplishment in the Chamber. “I never read that pulp trash myself.”

“Liar,” Luz said amiably.

“Spy,” Cheine replied with a shrug.

“Glad you agree with my analysis of your character, James. And I think Uncle Teddy likes to imagine himself a dashing secret agent, Dios lo bendiga. But then as Alice put it, he’d like to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

Cheine barked a startled laugh. “Did she? Tongue like a viper, that girl.”

“You can get away with it if you’re the president’s eldest.”

“And if it’s true enough to cut.”

Luz nodded agreement. “Speaking of weddings… did I ever tell you my parents and I were at his niece Eleanor’s wedding to her cousin Franklin… fifth cousin, wasn’t it? You were at Groton School with him, I think?”

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Hyde Park Roosevelts? Yes, though only as lowly first-year dirt beneath his exalted senior-year feet. I missed the wedding, but the papers were all over it because of Teddy—they hardly mentioned the bride, and Franklin only in passing. I think he’s doing something administrative in the Navy Department now, and he and Eleanor have a swarm of little Roosevelts, which must put that prig Davenport in seventh heaven.”

Dr. Charles Benedict Davenport, secretary of the new Department of Public Health and Eugenics, was indeed a frigid, ruthless, fanatic prig of a man. Not too different from his long line of Calvinistic Puritan ancestors, if you substituted genetic defectives for sinners and witches.

“What was the wedding like?” Cheine added with interest.

“Apart from the Ancient Order of Inebriated Hibernians—”

Ciara chuckled, though she might not have if Luz hadn’t been Catholic and surnamed O’Malley.

“—bellowing ‘The Wearing of the Green’ outside because it was St. Patrick’s eve? The wedding was… a very genteel political rally. Teddy gave her away, slapped the groom on the back after the kiss-the-bride, boomed out a hearty ‘Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family!’ with every tooth showing in that grin of his, and made a beeline for the dining room and the buffet with Aunt Edith sighing and rolling her eyes in his wake.”

Cheine grinned. “And all the guests followed him?”

“Like ducklings waddling after their mamacita, leaving Franklin and Eleanor standing there alone listening to the crowd laughing at his stories in the other room.”

“Oh, poor Franklin!” Cheine said, with an unsympathetic chuckle.

El jefe didn’t mean any harm by it… but I stayed with them for a bit anyway.”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ciara giving her a nod and a slow smile for the minor kindness. Luz felt a slight stab of guilt at taking the credit. She’d done it out of vicarious embarrassment for Teddy and Edith, whom she adored, as much as anything. Your elders embarrassed you so easily when you were fourteen, and her father had just said that if he’d followed the colonel up San Juan Hill he wasn’t going to object to following him to the punch bowl.

Cheine slapped a hand on the table in delight. “That’s the Boss, all right! He’d be a complete blowhard and jackass, if it weren’t that every bit of it is the real thing, in spades and all the way down. And he’ll enjoy my report—full of manly, masterly understatement about my exploits. Though I was sorely tempted to throw in a knife fight with a snow leopard in a Mongolian forest, just for him.”

Luz and Cheine both laughed aloud at that; on a hunt in 1901 Roosevelt had famously leapt on a cougar and stabbed it to death.

“So you can see the temptation to throw a huge evil cat into my report, Miss Whelan,” he said. “And then, alas sans hand-to-hand battle with a leopard in a snowbank…”

“Cliff, James,” Luz interrupted. “You could have rolled off a cliff into a snowbank, locked in a death grapple with the beast.”

“And torn its throat out with my teeth?”

“Broken its neck with a full nelson, the way Burroughs’s wild man does to African lions.”

And then, in prose rather than poetry, I debriefed at the San Francisco station and Reiter gave me this paperwork from HQ for you, Luz. He added a verbal message from the Director: that he’s sorry to interrupt the vacation, but it’s time you two got the standard reward for good work.”

Luz laughed again, without much humor this time, and added to Ciara: “The reward for good work is more work, of course.”

Cheine nodded. “I expect to go right back into the soup myself, with a bandage on my hand. We’re stretched a bit thin and San Francisco was a madhouse, everyone running around waving handfuls of paper in the air and talking on the telephone at the same time. You and the fair Miss Whelan must have really shone to get this much of a holiday.”

“Like diamonds in the noonday sun, James,” she said, and winked at Ciara. “Like onyx and gold.”

He put the attaché case on the table, where it thunked on the stone surface with an authority that revealed the lining of armor-grade alloy-steel plate, and worked the little inset combination lock before snapping the catches. Inside was a shortened Colt .45 automatic pistol in a concealed integral holster that made it very convenient for drawing and shooting someone who was forcing you to open the case and thought you’d been disarmed, and a thick set of heavy legal-sized envelopes sealed with cord and wax and nothing on their outside except letter-number combinations.

Cheine handed Luz one of two identical lists, and they ceremoniously checked them and exchanged signatures that the envelopes had been delivered, listing their numbers and attesting that they were fully sealed at the time of transfer. Most of them felt as if they held briefing files, false passports, and similar tools of the trade, but one… she felt her brows rise as Ciara solemnly signed for one of the lighter ones herself.

“This is for you, Ciara,” she said, and handed it to her.

Ciara opened it, and her rather broad mouth turned into an O of surprise as she read the letter inside.

“Oh, my goodness!” she said excitedly, in what was almost a breathy squeal. “Tesla agrees with me! The thing I saw on the big ships in—”

“No! No!”

The words blurred as Cheine’s voice overlapped with Luz’s saying the same thing.

“I don’t need to know, Miss Whelan,” he said, smiling to take the sting out of it. “And therefore I shouldn’t. Particularly if the Mad God of the Technical Section is involved. Believe me, that’s best all ’round.”

He always did have good manners… most of the time, Luz thought, as he clicked the attaché case shut and gave a half bow to them both.

“Good afternoon, Luz, Miss Whelan. I’ll see myself out,” he said.

Ciara waited until she heard the door close. “Luz…” she said. “Leeches? On your back?”


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling