Chapter 7

“Na zdrowie!” the captain of the Manila Bay said, and raised his glass. “Cheers! Confusion to the Kaiser!”


Luz knocked the small glass of vodka back, a shot of cold fire down her throat and into her stomach, where it exploded into a welcome warmth, pushing back that odd distanced feeling you got after violence, or at least which she did.

It was good vodka, if you could say that about unflavored alcohol, and the bottle she glimpsed as he poured the four of them a glass and put it away had the famous Polmos Łańcut blazon, which she’d seen in Europe. The toast, the drink, and his name didn’t leave much doubt, but the man’s neutral Pennsylvanian variety of General American also had a very slight musical accent, a tendency to lengthen i-sounds and turn the r’s crisp and stress the second syllable of words, which would have told her the same things; he’d been born to Polish immigrants and at a guess in a Pennsylvania coal town.

“Captain Woźniak,” she said. “I appreciate your thanks—and this excellent White Lady vodka—but we must avoid all publicity.”

Ciara had tried sipping at the glass she held in a slightly unsteady hand, and now she was wheezing and turning a bit red as the eighty-proof liquid struck. Luz leaned a little closer and said quietly: “No, sweetie, you toss it into your mouth, the whole thing, throw it at the back of your throat. Get it down, you’ll feel much better.”

The captain’s ready room—it would have been his sea cabin in the Navy—on the Manila Bay was at the rear of the bridge, with the wireless room across from it. It was a windowless rectangle with room for a fold-down bunk and a desk and a few chairs, and reasonably private, but Luz wanted to get out of it and back into the anonymity of the passenger quarters as soon as possible—they’d be in Recife by evening. Ciara and Third Officer McCredie were there, by her request, but nobody else.

“Miss Robicheaux?” the captain asked, puzzled.

He was in his thirties and the eldest of the airship’s officers, a stocky, muscular man with gray eyes in a broad face, but his close-cropped dark-yellow beard made him seem older; very few men his age wore beards at all these days, except in the Navy.

“It’s a matter of State security, Captain,” she said. “You have a Naval Reserve commission, I believe?”

The man’s face was warily neutral; he hadn’t been told precisely who she worked for, but not being a fool he could probably make a good guess. A woman as a field agent was unlikely in the Black Chamber but vanishingly so in the Federal Bureau of Security. That was one of the many reasons she wished it weren’t necessary to have to have this talk.

“Yes, miss, I do; reserve commander. And I understand operational security. The reply we received to your wireless message was emphatic about your clearance.”

“Excellent, sir!” she said sincerely. “Then here’s what we’re all going to say when questions are asked by anyone but the security services. Hansen was a German agent, which is true; a passenger saw that he planted a bomb on your airship, which is true, and informed your Mr. McCredie, which is true. Hansen attempted to escape, shooting several crew members, which is also true, and was killed after plunging to his death trying to avoid pursuit… pursuit by passengers and crew—which is more or less true too. Your third officer—”

She nodded to young McCredie, who blushed.

“Disarmed the bomb, assisted by several—unnamed—passengers. Which is more or less partially true.”

“But… but all I did was hand Miss Duffy tools and keep everyone else back!” McCredie said. “I don’t know if I could have done it myself. Not before it went off.”

“You got the mechanics to pass the tools promptly,” Luz said; they wouldn’t have obeyed Ciara otherwise, or at least not in time. “You were operating on a tight margin there.”

Ciara spoke, her voice neutral: “Hansen probably planted it earlier and then activated it while he was with the tour… you don’t keep passengers strictly out of the hull, do you, sir?”

Captain Woźniak frowned. “Theoretically access is limited to authorized personnel, but that’s not strictly enforced because we’re shorthanded and never saw… well, I suppose we’ll have to, now.”

“Yes, sir, you will,” Luz said.

“It had a dual trigger; a timer that armed the pressure switch,” Ciara said.

The bomb, with all its connections severed and the blasting caps extracted, was resting on the captain’s desk. The base of it was a bundle of half a dozen standard eight-inch tubes of dynamite, the type routinely used for demolition and construction projects, each half a troy pound. That would have been enough to rip the Manila Bay apart quite thoroughly, with explosions and fire in the fuel and lift bags to finish things off.

You forget this thing is fragile, because it’s so big and feels so stable, Luz thought, with an inward shiver.

“Mr. McCredie was very helpful,” Ciara added; she was still pale, and sat with her hands clasped together in her lap, but the drink was helping.

She’s thinking the same burning-and-falling thoughts.

Luz put it out of her mind and nodded.

“He helped not least by keeping everyone else from seeing exactly what was going on by kneeling beside Miss Duffy. Probably Hansen was planning on getting one of the parachutes from the engineering stations farther down the hull and doing a header out of an engine nacelle.”

“If you hadn’t spotted him, Miss Robicheaux, he could have done that easy,” McCredie said, appalled. “We even demonstrate the drill for grabbing a parachute and bailing out at the end of the tour, back near the stern docking station!”

That’s what Hansen was counting on, Luz thought. If he’d been willing to detonate it himself we’d have been overdone toast. Fortunately that’s not very common, but it’s the devil to stop when you do run across it.

She turned her head to the airship’s commander: “Captain Woźniak, people usually believe they saw what they’re told they saw, especially by some person in authority,” she said confidently.

That was true too.

“Especially when what they’re told accords with what they expect better than what they really saw. Any lawyer—”

Or spy, she thought.

“—will tell you that. Their memories adjust to back up the story they believe; and they’ll believe Mr. McCredie disarming the bomb with Miss Duffy handing him tools far, far more readily than the reverse. It’s why untrained eyewitness testimony is often worthless, especially if you give the witnesses any time.”

“It is?” McCredie said; he was young.

The captain nodded in unison with Luz.

She went on: “The mind’s eye doesn’t record facts in its memories like a cinema camera, it writes stories like a novelist. And if people talk, the strongest version drives out the others—and people come to sincerely believe it. We must strike while the iron’s hot and get our story firmly in their minds.”

The young man nodded slowly in turn, obviously a little queasy and disoriented at suddenly being introduced to the spy’s-eye-view of reality.

“If you say it’s necessary, Miss Robicheaux,” Woźniak said. “Still, you and Miss Duffy did an astonishing thing. I wish you could get the credit for it.”

Luz chuckled. “We’re in this business to serve the State and the American people, not for medals. And it is astonishing what you can accomplish… if you don’t care who gets the credit,” she said; which made the two airship officers laugh in return, and added to the admiration in their eyes.

“But the secret services—”

She was carefully nonspecific again.

“—of the U.S. government are on the job, believe me.”

“Thank God for that, with this sort of deviltry creeping through the shadows!” Captain Woźniak said fervently, and his officer nodded emphatic agreement.

Which helps them get their mental equilibrium back, which is all to the good, she thought. And makes them more cooperative. People like the idea that they’re on the inside, privy to secrets others don’t know.

Woźniak frowned. “How can we tell if this was the only plot against ANA vessels?”

“It probably wasn’t,” Luz said, slitting her eyes in thought.

In fact, it certainly wasn’t—the return message from Black Chamber HQ had said the attack hadn’t been aimed at her specifically, which meant the mission could continue. But one disturbing incident was that a purported American citizen precisely matching Hansen’s description and going by the name Karl Anderson had bought passage from Recife to Tunis on the Gettysburg doing the Dakar-Tunis run, through the same Minneapolis office that Hansen had used to buy his ticket… and on the same day and with a check drawn on the same bank.

An alert investigator making a quick dip into the accounts at the ANA office had spotted the oddity… because the hypothetical Anderson’s ticket committed him to leave Recife too soon by far for him to reach Brazil any way except by air, which he couldn’t have done unless he used the Manila Bay… and there was nobody of that name on this vessel.

Apparently a Karl Anderson of Minneapolis had expected to reach Recife by astral travel through the spirit realm and then fly ANA to Europe via French West Africa; and Karl Anderson and Poul Hansen had meticulous but eerily similar backgrounds as blandly anonymous and loyal midwestern businessmen of Danish descent from several generations back. The message to Luz had given the bones of it and included the code group for investigation proceeding, but she suspected down in her bones that both would turn out to be well-documented fakes… and the same man, now deceased after an unpleasant minute or two watching the ground coming up faster and faster under a nonfunctional parachute.

Had Hansen planned on parachuting from the Manila Bay just before it blew up, making his way to Recife, catching the Gettysburg, and repeating his sabotage? Or just using it to get to Tunis, now the only easy point of entry to Europe since the North Sea ports were closed except through distant Scandinavia?

Fragile either way, she thought. Fiendish attention to detail, insolent overconfidence, and a plan that needs us to do what the Germans thought we would.

Which fitted the way German intelligence agencies tended to act perfectly, when they went in for clandestine operations. It was a pattern that had led to some spectacular successes, and rather more abject failures.

They really are the world’s worst spies. But not for want of trying, and if you keep trying sometimes you get lucky.

Captain Woźniak looked increasingly alarmed as she stayed lost in thought, and she continued:

“Measures to increase security on airships are in hand, Captain. You’ll be hearing more about that soon.”

She had little idea what the measures would be, but she was sure something was being done, and in jig time; even that monument to budding bureaucracy still wet from its eggshell called the Federal Bureau of Security would move fast when presented with something like this. At a guess there would be much more careful inspection of baggage and background checks on passengers, for starters, which would be annoying for travelers, and clandestine Bureau agents riding on every single airship flight to keep an eye on things. Which might help and would also probably be annoying for everyone except the Bureau agents who’d get prolonged holidays on a luxury vessel.

But not nearly as annoying as flaming death, and there will probably be competition in the FBS for that duty.

“And Captain… Mr. McCredie… please do your best to forget you ever saw us. This is extremely important and may be the difference between life and death for me and Miss Duffy. You’ll be receiving official instructions… but I’m adding a personal appeal. Don’t mention us to anyone; not your wives or fiancées, not your brothers, not the closest friend of your heart; and as far as possible don’t think about us yourselves either. Do you understand?”

They both nodded solemnly and came to their feet to shake hands as she and Ciara rose.

“And call in say, six or seven pairs of passengers and ask them some routine questions to give us more cover, if you would. Here are some suggestions.”

She handed them a page of notes. Luz judged that Woźniak probably would suppress his natural impulse to talk about the glamorous secret agents, and that McCredie might, as long as he was sober and avoided newspaper reporters. Fortunately, these days they could quietly use the War Emergency Powers or Subversion and Espionage Acts to quietly quash any press attempt to develop the story. It was amazing how resistant some people had been to the simple fact that your enemies could access massive amounts of crucial information simply by reading the press.

Or that it was a Bad Thing that they could. Bad! Very bad!

“Bless the Director,” she said to Ciara as they went down the long staircase and landings to the passenger deck and into their cabin.

Then: “Shhhh, shhhh, mi querida. It’s all right,” as Ciara flung herself into Luz’s arms and buried her face in the curve of the other’s neck.

Luz was blinking a little in surprise as she stroked the red-gold hair.

She was terrified, but she held it down by sheer raw willpower. Viva la magnificencia de mi querida!

“I was so frightened for you!” her partner said. “He had a gun…”

“It’s all right,” Luz said, sitting on the edge of the bed and rocking her gently. “It didn’t do him much good. And you saved my life—saved us all. You’re making a habit of that!”

When the quiet tears ended Luz found her a handkerchief.

“What did you mean about the Director?” Ciara asked.

After she’d blown her nose in a forthright manner; no finishing school had tried to make her do it in the ineffectually genteel style.

Luz smiled tenderly. “Well, Miss… Duffy… that the Chamber took the extra trouble to give us good cover for the first leg of this trip. If what happened on this airship does leak, the trail will head straight back north and it’ll look as if we were on some sort of countersabotage mission.”

She sighed. “I still don’t like it, though. The best missions are utterly boring. We’ll be getting off in Tunis and someone there will probably be expecting Hansen… Anderson… whoever… on the same flight.”


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling