Chapter Three

Espionage luncheon—let’s see how well we can all keep our multiple cover stories straight!

Luz thought it with amusement as she looked at the array of faces around the big oval table in the wide-windowed splendor of the dining room. The children had been fed, kissed, hugged, and sent off for their nap with Susan… whose father’s younger brother (going by the name of Eric Zhou when he dealt with Westerners) was sitting four places to her left, slim and grave and quiet in an extremely handsome grey suit in a style that might have come out of dead and fallen London, as befitted a prosperous dealer in real-estate.

He, Luz was fairly confident, knew her as Mrs. Smith too. Susan didn’t like deceiving her relatives, but owed Luz a debt she felt keenly… and the deception was in their interests, and hers, and had brought Susan revenge for her dead husband and parents and children, and to them success in rivalries they felt were extremely important. That was merely one of the complexities she’d have to juggle today.

Luz felt relaxed but alert, ready for the work of the day and the play of wits.

The maids—Chinese, and in impeccable black dresses and white aprons—had just removed the bowls that had held a delicate broth with shrimp and vegetables. They replaced them with platters heaped with a broad sampling of small Chinese dishes, from dumplings with exotically varied stuffings to roundels of flash-fried squid. About half the participants were using chopsticks. The cook they’d found was a wizard with a comprehensive range of local or Western cuisines, but Luz thought this multiple-assortment local style of midday meal ideal for a working lunch, and very tasty indeed to boot.

Stands held teapots, mostly a variety of local brews, though Ciara stuck stolidly to the British-style one with milk and sugar that her Dublin-born father had raised her on after he absconded to Boston with Special Branch detectives on his heels. Tea was one of the few things a Fenian rebel and the Queen of England were likely to agree on.

“Ah, I haven’t had food like this in over a year!” Roy Chapman Andrews (M.A. Sc.D.) said enthusiastically.

He was the main guest, and the only one who as far as she knew didn’t have a cover story… except the sort everyone made up for themselves and lived in, which in his case was more exotic than most of the fictions in which spies wrapped themselves.

Luz shrugged, and spoke with the slight Mexican accent Mrs. Smith retained:

“What point to travel, if you do so always een a bubble of home?”

Then she shifted into Mandarin, with just a hint of the same accent and the intonation of an educated Shanghainese native. To whom it would be a second language too: Guānhuà, the Language of the Officials, as opposed to the local Wu-dialect. That was related to Mandarin, but at least as different from it as Swedish was from German. Even the multiple varieties of demotic Mandarin, up north, were often very distinct from each other. Chinese was notionally a language, Hànyǔ, but in fact a whole galaxy of related tongues with the uniformity of the written form disguising the variety on the ground. Rather as if people at the other end of Eurasia spoke French and Spanish and Italian and Romanian day-to-day, but still called it ‘Latin’ and wrote in hieroglyphs.

“Besides which, Chinese cuisine is extremely tasty if well done, fully equivalent to French,” Luz added, an opinion her cover identity as a dealer in and enthusiast for Oriental art and antiquities shared with her.

Andrews was in his late thirties, famous for his expeditions in wild East Asian places for the American Museum of Natural History; a fame due not least to the books he’d written about those travels, which Uncle Teddy loved and the public devoured. He was leanly handsome, with a narrow square-chinned jaw and receding line of brown hair and very intelligent blue eyes that didn’t always reflect his smile. She’d noticed a few things about him, starting with the flat corded muscle in his forearms and the calluses she’d marked when they shook hands, that indicated his reputation as a scholar-adventurer wasn’t just good publicity.

“It is indeed, and as varied with the regions as the dialects,” he said… in the same language, but a variety closer to Peking’s, and not as fluent as Mrs. Smith.

Luz could speak it still better than her cover persona when she wanted to. In that mode and listening with their eyes closed, nobody could say she wasn’t Susan’s cousin.

Roy reminds me of Papá, a little, Luz thought.

Her own father had likewise been the first in his line to go to a university—in his case, as the descendant of County Mayo refugees from the Famine made modestly good in Boston—and had also spent much of his life in wild remote places. Though his degree had been from MIT in engineering in the early 1880’s and he’d built dams and mines and bridges and irrigation systems and the like rather than collecting specimens and digging up fossils.

“It’s… intriguingly different from the northern style of cooking,” Yvette said, also in Mandarin. “Milder, but subtle.”

Yvette Andrews was almost exactly Luz’ own thirty years, and accompanied her husband on his expeditions as official photographer; she was listed as co-author of his Camps and Trails in China. Their honeymoon had included a three-thousand-mile desert trek, come to that. She looked as athletic as he, with a rather square wide-mouthed face that was deeply tanned, and Luz judged she’d had no difficulty keeping up camel-ing through Central Asian deserts. She didn’t talk as much, but in Luz’ opinion wasn’t missing much either.

The couple had been, she thought, a little nonplussed by how varied the others at the luncheon were, although they hadn’t shown it much.

You don’t, when you’re talking to donors whose money and pull you desperately need.

Luz picked up a little envelope of translucent pastry with her chopsticks—minced pork with chopped scallions and cabbage, fried on one side and steamed on the others. She carefully did not smile as she bit into it.

For instance, both the Andrews had started visibly… just visibly, if you were naturally acute and had a lot of experience reading people… when Henrietta Colmer had been introduced as the local Shanghai manager for Universal Imports. For at least two reasons, she judged.

One was that Universal Imports was a cover so shopworn by now that to anyone who followed events it was equivalent to painting BLACK CHAMBER on your forehead. Only censorship by the Department of Public Information kept the pulp magazines and writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Francis Stevens, or Hollywood for that matter, from using it, and they did use things like ‘World Trading Inc’, and ‘the Darkened Room’ or ‘the Black Dungeon’.

Given the mixture of awe and fear the Black Chamber usually evoked since its existence had become general knowledge in 1916, that wariness at meeting the local Station Chief was to be expected.

The other reason for their surprise reflected what Henrietta was. Female for starters, a woman no older than Ciara; and that her bluntly handsome features were of the dark-brown color that came with mostly West African ancestors. Nowadays the inch-long short cut of her dense wiry hair actually conformed to fashion, if you liked what was called a Flapper Crop this year.

People of her color in positions of authority…

Aren’t absolutely exceptional anymore. There are Negro Congressmen… and a woman… and two Senators and that Governor in Mississippi, Luz thought. And the generals commanding the buffalo-soldier divisions are nearly all Negro too these days—which means every eleventh or twelth major-general is.

It was called the Second Reconstruction, provoked when the Black Chamber (in the persons of Luz and Ciara) had revealed that a fringe of the reborn KKK was helping the Germans in the V-gas attacks on America in 1916.

That bit of idiotic treachery had provoked exactly the reaction from the new regime in Washington that its perpetrators had feared from the centralizing zeal of the Progressive Republicans in the first place, accompanied and sustained by a nation-wide wave of popular fury.

The US government—via the Army, the Federal Bureau of Security, and the Black Chamber—had landed on them in Dixie with both feet, complete with martial law, plenty of summary executions after nice fair fifteen-minute executive court hearings, and tens of thousands of deportations to the corrective-labor colonies. Where the Klan members joined the former militants of the International Workers of the World and the bosses and ward-heelers of the old corrupt urban political machines in repentance, or at least in drawn-out suffering.

Everyone outside the South and a good many within it had cheered. With the ghastly examples of Paris and Bordeaux and London before their eyes, and given how narrow America’s escape had been, it wasn’t any wonder.

Though it was also excruciatingly politically convenient for the Party, since the abolition of the Jim Crow voting restrictions and the land reform program accompanying it, aimed at breaking the planters and rural merchants who were the backbone of the Southern Democrats, had created legions of loyal PRP voters in otherwise hostile Democratic territory. As a bonus from the point of view of most of the PRP’s ordinary members in the North, it had also made the Negroes much happier at home and very much less likely to move to Cleveland or Los Angeles.

But it’s very recent and people are still adjusting to the changes.

Henrietta’s grammar and vocabulary were an educated woman’s, but her accent was the soft drawl of the Deep South—she came from Savannah, Georgia—with just a tinge of the Gullah-Geeche sea-island dialect that her grandparents had spoken. She was slim and trim, wearing a modern, stylishly sporty-looking day outfit of knee-length box-pleated silk skirt in old gold, with a jacket of the same color and a knit sweater-tunic under in flame-orange and a set of dark amber earrings.

On her, it all looks wonderful. On me…

Luz was wearing a day-dress in turquoise with white trim and a low-slung sash belt. She wasn’t as straight up and down as the Taguchis, but modern fashion did suit the leopardess-look that resulted from her germ plasm combined with a ferociously active life.

I don’t think I could carry that shade of gold. Ciara definitely couldn’t, and she’s smart not to try. Being around Julie for years has improved Henrietta’s fashion sense; and other things too.

What really drew the eye was the jet S overlaid with the number 16 in blood-red on the pin on the lapel of Henrietta’s jacket. That was a new award, one limited to people who’d been in Savannah when the U-boat launched its rocket-mortars loaded with V-gas, or had lost close family members on that memorable October 6th nearly seven years ago.

Alone of dozens, the German submarine assigned to destroy Savannah had managed to fire—mainly because it had displaced from the predetermined launch-point on its captain’s own initiative, and so the data Luz and Ciara had smuggled out of Germany didn’t cover it. There had been warning time, but a thousand civilians had still died at the tail-end of the rushed, chaotic evacuation…

Including Henrietta’s mother and father and her five younger sisters. She’d been in Baltimore, at one of the new two-year higher technical schools the Party had started as part of the expansion of education. She’d joined the Black Chamber the following week, the result of her own savage hatred and grief, and the Chamber’s decision to recruit people in her position for just that reason.

“I’m very grateful for your generous assistance, Mrs. Smith,” Roy Andrews said, reverting to English; he had the rather flat, neutral accent of his birthplace in rural Wisconsin. “I was beginning to despair of ever getting a follow-up to our reconnaissance expedition to the Gobi right after the Armistice. It would get to a certain point and then everything would collapse again, between funding and bureaucracy and politics—never the three would meet. Tantalizing!”

He nodded to Henrietta. “And to you too, Miss Colmer—”

“That’s Mrs. Colmer, Mr. Andrews,” she said politely. “My husband died in the war, only a few days before the Armistice. I kept my maiden name.”

Which was legal now, under the Equal Rights Amendment of 1913, though not at all common. It was also a right the President had argued for in his graduate thesis at Harvard back in 1880.

“My apologies, Mrs. Colmer,” he said. “And my thanks for getting the diplomatic bunfights cleared up in record time. In Peking, and even more in Urga!”

“We have an embassy in Aldart Baatryn now, Mr. Andrews,” she said, gently correcting his use of the older name. “And, ah, Universal Imports has considerable influence with the authorities in the US.”

Her full lips smiled thinly. “Mrs. Smith and her late husband… and her relatives… piled up considerable credit with the authorities too, for their efficient cooperation during the Intervention in Mexico.”

That translated as ‘helped the Americans put down the rebels after we invaded Mexico and annexed it’.

And efficient meant virtue or goodness in the Party’s lexicon, more or less.

Many real hacendados like the fictional Cayetana Smith y de Villafuerte of Colima and her kin had done so, and each patrón brought a trail of followers and clients with him. It wasn’t surprising given that the two years of Mexican civil war between the fall of Diaz in 1911 and the Intervention in 1913 had shown what the alternative was if the rebels won, or at least their Zapatista and Villista and anarchist factions.

The American Protectorate had made the aristo clans disgorge a big chunk of their lands since 1913, paid for to be sure but compulsory none the less, for division into fair-sized family farms. And the Protectorate still was making sure they spent nearly all the compensation money, more besides, and much personal effort modernizing the rest of their holdings if they wanted to keep them. It was all part of the policies aimed at making Mexico’s integration into the American sphere irreversible; the Progressive Republican Party’s plans for North America didn’t include millions of illiterate peasants living off their own tiny patches of corn and beans, selling little and buying nothing much.

Those policies weren’t very popular with the Mexican elite; but the revolucionarios would simply have killed the landowners and taken everything they had. Choices like that sharpened people’s minds.

“And as for the Peking situation, since we let the Japanese send students and scientists to America, they can’t really object. Well, they could, but they didn’t after a few hints on possible retaliation,” Henrietta said. “Besides which, it’s a good idea. Restricting scientific expeditions to Oceanian Alliance territory may be safer, but it’s… limiting.”

The explorer nodded vigorously. “Limiting? Very true! Asia is a dispersal center for so many living and extinct taxa of animals. And, I’m convinced, a nexus for the development of early humans. There are things that can only be learned here.”

And somewhere in the Gobi is the source of the art treasures the Bloody Baron is peddling to support his V-gas ambitions, Luz thought. Someone a long, long time ago buried them there. Or put them in nice cold dry caves, in nice sealed boxes, in nice thick wrappings and a coat of grease for the metals, judging by the state of preservation. So it’s worthwhile to let the Japanese send scientists to our territory to get this chance, even if the Kenpeitai uses that as cover… which they will undoubtedly do. The V-gas factory is probably there, too.

Ciara chimed in. “Now, are you planning on using motor transport in the Gobi as you did in ’19, Dr. Andrews?”

“Yes, Miss O’Shea,” he said, also cautiously.

Josephine O’Shea was supposedly Mrs. Smith’s American companion-secretary, a graduate of yet another of the two-year technical schools; unofficially and quasi-clandestinely Mrs. Smith’s mistress as well. That helped considerably with keeping their deep cover personas consistent in a long-term mission like this. Both of them had found it privately hilarious as well, and used it as a basis for entertaining bedroom play-acting… also strictly in private.

“We were thinking the Dodge cars we’ve used before, but a little modified in ways any good repair-shop could handle, bigger gas tanks and stronger springs,” Andrews went on. “Much more efficient and flexible than camel caravans in the desert. You can cover a hundred miles a day in a Dodge across open country, which is ten times what Bactrian camels can do in summertime, they’re really cold-season animals. That lets you set up a central camp and then make flying visits to a very large area without having to move everything every time. And cars don’t die as often as camels. The Dodge cars were excellent the last time; with the modifications—”

Ciara shook her head. “The concept is very sound, you proved that, Dr. Andrews, but I would recommend six Mark-IV Guvvies instead. They have even better performance, and you can use them to pull a two-wheel trailer.”

The Army nickname Guvvie came from General Utility Vehicle, originally a four-wheel-drive version of the Model T developed in 1913, and a workhorse of the Intervention and the Great War. It had been considerably improved in the decade since, and on occasion its slang name nowadays with the troops was Goat-ie, a pun for its climbing abilities, and they were popular with the more affluent civilian countryfolk too, especially in remote areas.

“True, but they’re hard to get here,” Roy Andrews said.

“Not for Universal Imports,” Henrietta replied, sipping at her tea.

“I have four of them on my family’s hacienda near Colima,” Luz said. “That ees not much like the Gobi, but quite rugged… hills, do you see… and they get about very well. Almost as well as mules, much faster and with heavier loads. The latest are even better, I am told by Josephine.”

She was cribbing shamelessly from her friend and fellow Bryn Mawr alumnus Julie Durán, who was Station Chief in Zacatecas, and Henrietta’s former boss and mentor; she and Roberto Durán had bought an estate near there, and did use the Guvvies, as Julie’s husband’s family also did on their ranches in northern New Mexico. Julie swore they were almost as helpful as Fordson tractors, of which she now had a round twenty with as many more on order.

“And besides that, ten of the new White Company Landmasters, the ’21 model,” Ciara said. “Three axles, all wheels driven, and two double-wide foam-filled tires on each of the rear wheel stations, eight in all, with single double-wides on the front axle. The foam-filled tires restrict top road speed to about thirty-five mph for any length of time, but that’s irrelevant in this context and they don’t get punctures or go flat. Landmasters can take a ton and a half load on reasonable unroaded terrain, or eleven men, and they have a seventy-five horsepower inline-six engine. Over two hundred miles range. The Army has been buying them as the standard transport for the Motor Rifle Divisions for nearly two years now, and they’re just coming on the civilian market too. Very rugged, with built-in powered winches in the front bumper.”

Andrews frowned. “We found heavier vehicles tended to break through the crusts on the dunes and get bogged,” he said.

Ciara smiled happily—she was rarely more content than when she was explaining something technical to someone who didn’t know the details. Luz found that extremely useful, often endearing and only occasionally annoying.

“It’s not the total weight that matters, Dr. Andrews, it’s the ground pressure per square inch. The broader wheels distribute the load very well. And for really difficult stretches, there’s an endless loop belt of rubber cleats linked and reinforced with alloy-steel wire that can be rigged over the rear wheel stations; they’re carried on brackets on the sides of the truck otherwise.”

“Ah,” Yvette said. “Sort of like a tank?”

“Very much,” Ciara said. “But lighter… hardly more pressure per square inch than a big man’s boot. They can be rigged and unrigged in about fifteen or twenty minutes, with some practice. The Army’s found them very helpful in desert exercises.”

“Like a camel’s pads spreading its weight,” Roy said thoughtfully.

“Just so!” Ciara said happily.

“Still, that would mean much more gasoline that we had to use before,” he said. “That was one of the weak points.”

“You’ll need around eight thousand gallons, and a reserve would be good,” Ciara confirmed.

He nodded. “We had bad problems with leakage when the fuel tins were brought in on the camels. And Landmasters are expensive.”

“We can provide the motor-trucks and gear as part of Smith and Smith’s contribution to t’ee expedition,” Luz said, careful to maintain the very slight Mexican accent her persona called for.

Her fictional deceased American husband had married the wealthy young heiress to a coffee plantation, then branched out into dealing in Far Eastern art antiquities, an interest he’d acquired growing up as the son of missionaries here in the Yangtze Delta. It accounted for many things—her being able to speak Mandarin and Shanghainese dialect, for example, or having Susan in her household.

And for her being in Shanghai, rather than peacocking in Mexico City’s social round, or back in the casa grande near Colima, looking out from a hammock on a balcony to watch the peones pick coffee beans.

“Thank you, Mrs. Smith—very generous. But the problem of the fuel remains. From what I’ve heard, camels are at a premium in Mongolia now, so many new projects, all the Russian settlers needing transport…”

“We’ve thought about that,” Ciara went on briskly, “On your first Gobi expedition, you used camel caravans to bring up the motor fuel and other supplies, didn’t you? And brought your motor-cars to meet them at the usual caravan stops, so they could take it all into the deep desert.”

“Yes,” Andrews said warily.

I wonder how mulish he’s going to be? Luz thought; men tended to be, when women told them what to do. He can’t be too stubborn; who pays the piper, calls the tune, and he wants this expedition very, very badly.

“It was the most efficient way of combining the mobility of motor transport with the supply situation,” he said a little defensively.

Ciara nodded. “But that made you divert your cars from where you needed them while you stocked up.”

“And northern China is… rather unsettled right now, as y’all will know,” Henrietta put in.

Northern China outside the Japanese zone was swarming with warlord armies and bandits, seasoned by raiding sky-pirates… often in name the warlord’s air-arm. Which was often a purely theoretical and academic distinction to anyone who came within range of their guns.

“That seems to be a chance we’ll have to take,” Andrews said.

“Not necessarily,” Tommy Scelham said, joining the conversation for the first time.

Luz smiled benevolently.

As far as the Scelhams knew, Mrs. Smith was supposedly a respectable dealer in Oriental art antiquities… but clandestinely one perfectly willing to deal with bandits and tomb-robbers, and not averse to using the talents and retainers she’d acquired in the years of war in Mexico when strongarm work was necessary.

Which it often was she tried to backtrack the flood of ancient Oriental art she’d discovered pouring into the world’s markets. Antiquities were a rather louche business, particularly Oriental ones, and strongarm tactics were perfectly credible, since in much of China these days the only law was the Law of Superior Firepower.

Scelham & Co., Limited, was supposedly a family firm of respectable British businessmen who’d relocated to Shanghai as part of the great British exodus after the destruction of London… and they were, partially, here and now, in the above-board half of their investments. They’d been a backstreet razor gang, bookies and loan-sharks in Birmingham before the war, along with ‘protection’, smuggling and unlicensed liquor and (wholesale) robberies, and had arrived here in Shanghai around the time of the Armistice.

The other half of their local business was utterly illegal, highly immoral, or both.

They and Mrs. Smith had cooperated in a bloody but almost ludicrously profitable hijacking of the ancient art and young girls the Yekhe Khan’s men had brought south by clandestine airboat to broker with the Qing Bang, the Green Gang, near here at a meeting-place in Shanghai’s much-extended boundaries. The girls had been destined for the brothel trade, and were now working in a Scelham & Co clothing factory instead… except for the two youngsters who’d latched on to Susan when they saw her use her hook-swords on one of their abusers.

And she latched on them vice versa, Luz thought benevolently.

Suzan Zhou hadn’t had a very happy life, including the violent death of her own children, and Luz was glad of something that had brought her a lasting joy.

Several dozen men had died in that encounter, with proximate causes ranging from sniper-shots by Mrs. Smith to bullets and bayonets and knives from her and her squad of gardeners, to those plus Lewis guns and flame-throwers from Tommy Scelham’s retainers. The Green Gang had acquired new leadership friendly to the Smiths and Scelhams, and the local Kuomintang—Chinese Nationalists headed by surviving relatives of Susan—had been involved too. Smith & Smith had fenced the loot in an impeccably honest… so to speak… manner that had left everyone better off by amounts edging into seven figures in total.

Even the Black Chamber had accountants, and they’d been very pleased with Senior Executive Field Agent Luz O’Malley Arostegui; she’d managed to make her elaborate undercover mission self-financing.

The Scelhams had bought the carefully-crafted false identity Luz was using. That Henrietta was involved now hadn’t shaken their faith, since they had contacts with the British Imperial Secret Service themselves, and had done hatchet-work well paid both in money and pull for Lord Protector Milner in South Africa at the end of the Great War before decamping here to evade grudges, unnoticed in the millions-strong stream out of Britain. Courtesy of work like that and the swarms from Blighty, the Boers didn’t run the vastly enlarged Union of South Africa any more. Milner no doubt found that exceedingly sweet revenge for the way things had gone sour for him as proconsul there back around the turn of the century.

“Mr. Thomas Scelham, DCM, head of Scelham & Company, and the corporate Treasurer, his aunt, Holly Scelham,” Luz said in introduction. “Mr. Scelham ees formerly a Sergeant-Major in the Warwickshire Rifles.”

Tommy was Luz’ age, and strikingly handsome in a very masculine way, elegantly be-suited in a manner that suited his broad-shouldered, narrow-wasted and long-limbed build, and enigmatically close-mouthed; his right hand was in a thin chamois leather glove, covering some sort of red rash that was probably a product of the war.

His aunt was about a decade older, and smoking a thin black cheroot that went with her briskly modern businesswoman’s outfit of pleated dark skirt, jacket and man-style turnover collar and tie. They had a strong family resemblance of pale eyes, black hair, regular features, full lips, and complexions that were pale too but not quite Anglo-Saxon or Celtic pink.

“In the course of the last six months, Scelham & Company have… branched out,” Tommy said.

Andrews was paying him closest attention. That was probably partly because of the Distinguished Conduct Medal—just one step down from the Victoria Cross in British military parlance.

“We have diversified interests,” the Englishman continued. “Including air transport now.”

He had educated diction in the manner of a self-educated man who read widely, but a broad working-class Midland accent, with hard a sounds and broad long o‘s and a voiced k at the end of words like ‘including’, making it sound like inclooding’k. In fact he’d been born on a canal narrowboat, and was what the English would consider a Gypsy.

His elder brother Arthur was a much rougher diamond and couldn’t string three sentences together without references to fornication, feces or sodomy, which was one reason he wasn’t here, the other being that Tommy was the brains of the family with his aunt a close second.

“We’ve acquired three airboats,” Holly said smoothly, with the same regional tinge.

Both the Andrews came fully alert. “What type?” Roy asked.

Big airboats,” Tommy said.

He tapped his spring-loaded silver cigarette case and offered it around before lighting one himself.

Airboat was what you called the smaller variety that didn’t have a full internal skeleton, as opposed to mammoth airships like the Leviathan. Though soon metalclads might remove that distinction, since they scaled down more easily than Count Zeppelin’s style. The American military were already experimenting with smaller models for anti-U-boat patrols.

“High capacity carriers,” Holly qualified. “Ex-Royal Naval Flying Corps, just sold out of service but renovated first for civil work. Part of Lord Protector Milner’s modernize the Empire program, see? Copies of the ones you Yanks made for carrying airborne Telemobiloscopes. Three hundred fifty feet, ninety foot diameter, just over a million cubic feet of lift gas. Range… two hundred hours at sixty miles an hour, top speed seventy but that cuts the range summat.”

“What sort of lift?”

Tommy took over: “Double-story gondola ninety feet long, crew of twenty-five in Naval service and six tons of telemobiloscope… which is gone now, there’s a cargo hold where it was, and we won’t need more than ten or twelve hands. We can rig tanks for transporting motor fuel—and the ballast can be potable water going out, sand back. And they’re built for roughing it from improvised landing havens. No need for more than a portable mooring tower.”

“Which one of those White trucks you mentioned could easily carry,” Andrews said, and he let a slight edge of enthusiasm into his voice. “Which means we could be resupplied anywhere… if we had a two-way radio-telephone to arrange the rendezvous?”

“Done,” Tommy Scelham said, pronouncing it doon.

“T’ee airboats could shuttle in fuel and supplies from here, and take your zoological specimens and fossils out,” Luz agreed. “Then straight to Peking, without the risks of overland travel.”

“It’s why we bought ’em,” Tommy said. “It’s bloody chaos in most of China now on the ground, but people still want to travel and move high-value cargo and they can pay for it, see? Safer to do it through the air, and faster, and they’ll pay well for both. We’ll supply the airboats and crews for this summer’s expedition; Mrs. Smith suggested it. The publicity will make us profit enough getting our transport business started, so we’ll charge only costs.”

He had what Americans would call an excellent poker face. The flick of the eyes he gave Luz spoke volumes, though. They’d captured a couple of the Yekhe Khan’s officers in the affray last year and interrogated them before untraceably disposing of the bodies. Neither had known where the treasure-trove could be found, but they had known it was somewhere in the Gobi.

The problem was that the Gobi was a very large place, particularly if you were starting far from Mongolia and any local clues on where to look. The airboats would be able to examine a lot of that emptiness in jig time.

The potential profits to the Scelhams were very large indeed; and apart from a few specialists the crews he provided would be his, mostly ones who’d served with him on the Western Front and learned skills that included mining under enemy positions and conducting trench-raids. They were perfectly willing to use those techniques in his service, as Luz had seen… in the attack on the Green Gang conference, which had included grenades, Lewis guns, Thompsons, and rather to her bogglement at the time, two flame-throwers.

Those were the product of the firm’s links to the Imperial Secret Service.

And we can possibly find out where the Bloody Baron is building his V-gas factory, Luz thought; Henrietta had brought in three experienced aerial reconnaissance personnel who’d work as ‘navigators’.

Though they are navigtors too. And we can deny von Ungern-Sternberg the money he needs to finish his V-gas plant by absconding with what’s left of the treasures ourselves, which would be almost as good as blowing the factory to kingdom come. Or possibly we can do both. Hopefully both.

“We’ll need drivers, mechanics and camp servants, too, and it’s late to start looking if we go this year,” Roy Andrews said thoughtfully, puffing meditatively on the cigarette he’d accepted from the head of Scelham & Co. “I can get the Mongols we’ll need through my local contacts, and we have locals trained in cleaning fossils in Peking, but—”

Luz sighed inwardly at the scent of the expensive Turkish tobacco Tommy preferred. Smoking had spread to wider circles during and after the war—soldiers smoked like chimneys, and a lot of them kept it up once they got home and a lot of women had taken it up. Men didn’t go off to do it by themselves after dinner anymore either, which was good in one way since women didn’t have to miss the serious business—but she just disliked the smell.

“Mr. Zhou here will have somet’ing to say on that,” Luz said.

Susan’s uncle nodded. “Indeed. I can supply experienced men,” he said… in pellucidly clear English with an American accent. “Including an experienced doctor—a graduate of your John Hopkins Medical School, Mr. Andrews.”

The couple nodded. Asian students had been studying at American universities for decades now, and relatively more of them were Chinese these days as Japan’s higher education system successfully geared up to meet its modern needs. Having an actual medico along would add to the safety margin.

“And the mechanics and drivers, and general workers—cooks and so forth. Several of the men can speak workable English and can translate for the rest. Mrs. Smith and I have dealt with each other on several business matters here, and she can testify that my sources are good.”

“Very,” Luz said cheerfully—and truthfully. “My domestic staff here were acquired through Mr. Zhou’s good offices.”

He’d also provided a strong-arm squad for the Green Gang matter; like him they were political enthusiasts hot for the Chinese Republic, but useful for all that and would be just as much so for this. Not least because they would hate the Yekhe Khan and all his works like poison; he’d absconded with large chunks of what they considered Chinese territory. As well as slaughtering Chinese people with a berserk abandon that made his claim to be the reincarnation of Genghis a bit more credible.

Luz also intended to involve her local employees, who had rather different motivations.

Zhou wanted the same thing as Scelham—more of the lucrative art treasures, albeit the profits would go to the Kuomintang. Politics were expensive. And to Zhou, denying the money to von Ungern-Sternberg would be a good thing in itself, if for somewhat different reasons than those the Black Chamber had.

The conversation continued until the luncheon was cleared away, and then adjourned to her office, where ledgers and documents and account-books came out for detailed costings and lists of gear and personnel. The Andrews’ would be bringing in the scientists from the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions, and their specialist equipment and taxidermists from Peking they’d trained, plus about a half-ton of photographic gear for Yvette including a moving-picture camera, sound-recording gear and a portable dark-room, but the rest was to be found.

Andrews himself grew more and more enthusiastic as the afternoon wore on and it became clear what better funding and faster, more capacious transport made possible.

Good, that incipient pouting is gone, Luz thought.

Ciara handled the accounts effortlessly; money bored her on a personal level, but put it in terms of costing a project and she could be fluent as you pleased, treating it like voltages and stress-factors. Yvette gave her a considering look at her casual expertise with the details of cameras, shutter-speeds and photographic chemicals.

By the end of it, Roy and Yvette Andrews were virtually burbling; or rather he was, and she was quietly giving the impression the cat did after the canary met a sticky end. They had the scientific end of the expedition all mapped out, but they’d been beginning to despair they’d ever get the money and diplomatic clout to make it happen. And while Mongolia wasn’t exactly safe, compared to the rest of China or Central Asia it was like a cookout on the beach in Malibu.

After dinner—French-inspired this time, and six courses, though with Californian wines—they retired to the study and more general conversation. Roy Andrews lifted a snifter of irreplaceable French brandy in salute, the flickering light of the fireplace turning the fluid within it a darker red.

“Mrs. Smith, this will be a scientific triumph for the ages!”

She swirled the brandy in her own warmed snifter herself; it was a Larressingle Bas Armagnac laid down by her father at the Casa de los Amantes outside Santa Barbara. By coincidence, the vintage was from year she was born—1891. A scent like caramel and sherry; then a sip, and dark chocolate, raw cocoa and honey slid across her tongue with hints of spice and nuts. Luz sighed. Gascony was part of the Großherzogtum—Grand Duchy—of Westgotenland now, and she doubted the new settlers there would be making anything like this in her lifetime. The living brains that contained that generational accumulation of skill and experience had died or fled to the hotter lands of North Africa where it would have to be relearned by experiment.

“May it be so, Mr. Andrews!” she replied.

Roy Andrews noted something else; her Sharpshooter in its brackets on the wall, rising to give it a closer look. Springfields with cut-down stocks were commonly used as hunting rifles, and lots of them had been dumped on the market when the American armed forces converted to the Colt-Browning semiauto in 1913. The things that made hers more than a redone infantry rifle didn’t show on the outside, though you could tell expert work on the stock and the metalwork if you knew what to look for.

She’d left the earlier model she’d used in Mexico during the Intervention at home. That one had seventeen silver-filled notches in the stock, which would raise eyebrows.

Her parents had been killed by Pancho Villa’s men in Mexico in 1911 in the sack of the hacienda where they’d been guests; she’d barely escaped herself by crawling out past their bodies under a thickening pall of smoke… and through congealing pools of their blood. That was before Uncle Teddy’s triumphant return to office in 1912, before the Progressive Republican Party and the Intervention.

But she’d been in the Chamber from the beginning, not least because she had shamelessly used every iota of influence… not to mention moral blackmail… to get the President-elect’s backing.

Those notches from the years 1912-1916 included everyone she’d personally blamed for their deaths, including Villa, who’d been captured when she shot his horse out from under him and whose subsequent fate had been much more unpleasant than a .30-06 spitzer round through the chest as the revolucionario leader was systematically wrung dry over months before the firing-squad finale. That rifle was one reason her nickname in the Chamber was Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte—Our Lady of Holy Death. Her habit of leaving little sugar-paste skulls on the bodies had been another.

“You hunt, Mrs. Smith?” Roy Andrews asked.

Si,” she said. “I was an only child, and mi papá taught me to ride and hunt and shoot and took me on hunting trips in many places. I’ve kept it up.”

Every word of which was true; she smiled a little into the glass between her palms. She enjoyed being a spy—possibly it meant she could have gone on the stage—and it gave a certain piquancy to things when absolute accuracy helped you deceive someone.

He raised his snifter again. “If you intend to pay the sites any personal visits, we can show you some real sport—there’s nothing like Mongolian antelope! They run like the wind, fifty miles an hour or better!”

“I’ve shot a few myself,” Yvette said. “And the liver tastes very good indeed, grilled on an open fire in the Gobi.”

“I most certainly weel take up your so-kind offer, Mr. Andrews, Mrs. Andrews,” Luz replied.

Ciara hid a snigger, not quite well enough to escape a glance from the explorer-pair. Luz gave her a slight raised eyebrow; she wasn’t drunk by any manner of means, and she’d paced herself carefully with two glasses of wine with dinner and one snifter of the brandy. But she also had a glass jaw for alcohol and was definitely slightly elevated. Or pixilated.

“My… Mrs. Smith is a very good shot, faith and she is,” she said, a little of her father’s Dublin accent leaking into her voice.

Aduladora,” Luz said, though that wasn’t flattery at all, and finished her brandy.

Everyone here would be staying for the night at least; the house had ample rooms.

“And with that I weel bid you goodnight,” she said. “We who help you will also have much labor, much travel, to make all ready in a month.”


Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling