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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Aboard ANA Airship San Juan Hill
New York City
September 1st, 1916(b)

 

Luz stepped through and looked around the pale elegance of the little cabin as the stewardess opened the door and followed with her bags. The walls were taut fabric over an aluminum frame like the outer covering, though in this case linen printed with a willow-leaf pattern, with cellular paper shaped like the newfangled egg cartons filling in behind it to soundproof the compartment. There was a well-upholstered sofa that would turn into a bed, a chair and a table discreetly bolted to the floor through the carpeting in case of storms, and a sink covered by a folding top that turned it into another table. From what she’d heard, the idea was that you’d spend the time you weren’t actually sleeping in the airship’s well-appointed public spaces.

Another bunk hinged on the wall struts folded into the space above the sofa, but the Chamber had secured the whole compartment for her by the simple expedient of buying two tickets and having the fictional other woman cancel at the last instant, forfeiting the price.

Transatlantic travel had nosedived because of the war in Europe, especially after the Mauretania met its torpedo and its sister the Lusitania got its close shave, but for the same reason many who did have to cross the ocean anyway wanted an airship passage if they could possibly get it. The risks of a means of travel only six months old looked good by comparison to running the iron gauntlet of the U-boat packs, and every commercial trip had seen the airships fully booked both ways three times a week. Fortunately for the company and for American prestige they’d all made it across even in the worst weather with nothing more than airsickness and the occasional stretch of hull fabric torn off.

“Thank you,” she said to the stewardess—there were three to attend the twelve female passengers—and slipped her an Indian Head quarter-eagle, which was a very generous but not outlandish tip. “Please turn down the bed while I’m in the dining compartment.”

“Shall I unpack your cabin case, Miss?” the woman said.

She was thirtyish, alertly competent-looking, and very black, much like a female Pullman redcap—which was something her father, brothers and uncles might well be.

“No, I’ll take care of that myself, thank you,” Luz said.

When the door had clicked home she locked it—you could shut out the staff with an unbeatable deadbolt while you were in the cabin yourself—and grinned for an instant as she put the brass-strapped leather suitcase on the folding stand. There were things inside that the stewardess would probably have been startled to see. Nothing strictly illegal, not in the US at least, but she might have talked. The O’Malleys had always had some servants once they settled down in a place for more than a few days. Luz knew how difficult it was to keep secrets from the people who handled the underwear, and how easy it was to forget the constant presence of those ears and eyes.

Germans were usually the world’s worst spies, but part of being a good one was not confusing usually with always and assuming they weren’t plugged into the staff grapevine.

One corner of the cabin held a set of drawers where she put her underthings, including lace-trimmed modern brassieres, chemises and fashionable tight short under-drawers and silk stockings, some rather daring Chinese-styled black pajamas instead of the conventional nightgown, and two sets of shoes as unfashionably flat-heeled as the ones she was wearing now. She hung up her outfits in the closet next to it; there were only three, selected for wrinkle-resistance, which was much less than she’d have had to take for an ocean voyage. A first-class passenger had to change her dresses at least twice a day on a ship and have a ball gown as well. That would have been difficult if she were on her own.

American National Airways tried to make their airships sound like ocean liners of the sky in their advertising copy. So far they were actually more like an airborne luxury train, say the 20th Century Limited; not surprising, given the numbers of passengers and crew—eighty and fifty-two, respectively—and the fact that ANA was a subsidiary of the new American National Railways. ANR was still working hard on unifying the chaotic mass of North America’s rail systems, though already you could travel from Boston to the Yucatan on one ticket and you didn’t have to switch in Chicago to get to the west coast anymore. They’d had a blank piece of paper to start with a few years ago as far as dirigibles went, but the influence of Pullman cars was evident.

The first part of the secret compartment at the bottom of the suitcase was actually just a very inconspicuous flap. When she lifted the concealing cover back there were six slim books custom-bound in soft leather lying within. One was the inevitable Kim by Kipling, which Teddy adored and which was the Chamber’s unofficial official novel—she’d had to play that revolting memory game the pinche escuincle Kim suffered through hundreds of times in training, but she admitted to herself that the book was a masterpiece. And so popular having it wasn’t likely to raise any alarms. K by Rinehart, Life and Gabriella by Glasgow, both trashy, guilty pleasures. The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs, even guiltier because to her it held fantasies of frolicking on the lost tropic isle with that fascinatingly herculean roughneck Billy Byrne and his deliciously refined Barbara in ways which would probably have sent Burroughs running screaming for the hills, poor man. The Hunt For Villa, by Richard Harding Davis and a runaway bestseller—she’d given the famous war correspondent a few tips on that one, sub-rosa; and a copy of the uncensored edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.

She’d included that because she liked it, to help keep her French up, and because the very, very naughty color illustrations by Schwabe would give a customs agent something to be indignant about if he got past the inconspicuous-flap part. Nothing soothed a petty bureaucrat’s suspicions like finding something, preferably something that made him feel morally superior to the wealthy people who sneered at him every day.

The books’ real use were as keys to several ciphers she’d memorized for this mission, and since she was undercover she’d been able to avoid lugging around her autographed copy of the paralyzingly dull and earnest Party bible, The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, (1914 edition), one of the most-bought and least-read books of modern times. Uncle Teddy had read both versions, but then he read two or three books a day and never forgot a word.

As a bonus the Baudelaire was an ongoing revenge on ‘Specs’ McGuire, the Codes Section manager in the growing New York station, who was always hinting that she’d only gotten into the Chamber because the President was a friend of her family or that she’d slept with Director Wilkie or both. He was an unbearable prig as well as a woman-hater and had to embarrass himself hideously and publically every time he took out this illustrated edition to decode a message, and she always tried as hard as possible to have the cipher hit something extremely juicy like Femmes Damnées. As an added joy everyone else laughed at him when his ears went red.

The books went by her nightstand, and then she painstakingly unscrewed the really secret cover below; the volumes also helped disguise the fact that the suitcase weighed more than you would expect if it held nothing but toiletries and frilly silk unmentionables. Built into the frame of the suitcase was a layer of hard rubber with shaped holders for a number of other things, including money of different nationalities, identity documents for several different identities, her lockpicks, a magnifying glass and a miniature monocular telescope, several sets of thin black leather gloves with unusual properties, a coil of slender but extremely strong silk cord, a chamois-covered sap filled with fine lead shot, and assorted chemicals in small thick vials.

Right now she removed two items. One was a six-inch navaja folding knife which she’d inherited from her mother’s coachman-cum-bodyguard, ancient one-eyed Pedro El Andaluz... along with years of the wicked old barratero’s clandestine instruction in the Sevillana style of pelea de navaja. She tucked it into a loop sewn into her skirt pocket on the right, which left the hooked handle in just the right spot to be whipped out with a single finger and slap into her palm as it opened and made that demoralizing little crick-crick-clack sound when the blade locked.

The other was a small compact Browning FN 1910 automatic, which went into a molded holder in the inside left front of her jacket under a thin silk pad that cunningly concealed the outline from the most discriminating eye; ordinary shoulder holsters didn’t go with a bosom. She smiled fondly as she balanced the little Belgian pistol in her palm for a moment before tucking it away. Uncle Teddy kept another just like it in the drawer beside his bed in the White House, and her father had given her this one on her nineteenth birthday. He’d insisted that she and her mother learn to use firearms, just as a precaution given the way his occupation took them to odd places, and Luz had been a crack rifle and pistol shot by her mid-teens, and a hunter who’d bagged deer and peccaries and jaguar.

Most Black Chamber field operatives used Colt .45 automatics when they carried a pistol, but while she wasn’t a small woman—she was a lithely fit five-six—she thought the .380 was easier to her hand and that a lighter bullet that actually hit was infinitely more effective than a .45 monster thrown off aim by mule-kick recoil to break windows and kill bystanders.

After all, when Princip shot the Archduke with one of these he started the Great War. In a way it’s killed more men than the Maxim gun!

Using a pistol was usually a rare desperation move anyway when you were undercover, though when you did need one you needed it...

Desperately, she mused.

Fortified by that thought she did a little discrete eyeliner and lipstick by Rimel and paid some attention to her hair.

“Ravishing, as always, mi corazón,” she said to her reflection. “I fall at your feet and plant kisses like flower-petals upon your so-delectable toes.”

Then she spent a final moment using a very little spirit gum and a few hairs from the brush to make sure she’d know if anyone searched the suitcase left temptingly on the stand. The door locks were a joke to anyone who knew what they were doing and the staff had keys anyway. Her handbag was harmless, except for the very compact little film camera that spent most of its time built into it, and a few experiments showed that the noise of the airship covered the soft click when she triggered it by pressing the concealed button in the handle.

The passenger cabins made up the top deck. The crew quarters and baggage were on the bottom; the lounges, kitchen and dining areas were in the middle. She walked along the corridor past the ladies’ toilet and shower-baths and down a spiral staircase of wrought aluminum in sinuous vine-shapes, into a subdued glow of light. Vast slanting windows stretched along nearly eighty feet to either side, and you could lean on the railing and look directly downward, or sit at your leisure on a chaise-longue or around tables set on the polished spruce veneer of the floor and glance out towards the horizon, though right now the view was of the interior of the hangar.

There was even a bandstand, and the brochure promised dancing to Morton’s Red-Hot Ragtime Band. Currently it held a single striking-looking young Negro musician—

As a good Progressive, Luz always used the respectful term Negro. Besides being polite it also stuck a thumb in the eye of the Dixie-dominated Democrats, who could barely bring themselves to say colored or the mildly insulting black.

—in a tuxedo and bow-tie who was tinkling out something quick and light that wasn’t quite rag-time on a surprisingly good aluminum-framed piano, and doing it very well.

Now that’s an interesting piece, and I don’t recognize it, she thought, pausing for a moment and cocking her head to the side to listen. I’d dance to that! I wonder if it’s his composition?

Unfortunately she couldn’t just go up and ask, since she was here on business and had to keep character.

There’s just a bit of tango style there too, sort of a smoky undertone. Much more complex than you’d think... four themes, sixteen bars each, four-bar bridges... AABBCCA, I think.

It gave a cheerful background to the big bright room. Weight was at a premium on dirigibles, and everything was of light strong construction, wicker and aluminum and cloth, but empty space for the designers to play with was plentiful. Dismountable eighteen-foot high fabric panels marked off the dining area, covered in colorful mural-like designs of tropical flowers and vines and parrots. The whole ensemble had a spare, cathedral-like modern elegance.

It’s well-designed and well-designed means pleasing, she thought.

Luz was the daughter of an engineer who delighted in an efficiently crafted spillway or the elegant transfer of forces in an arch. She took one of the last of the small round tables still available and set her handbag on it so that the lens concealed in a fake topaz covered most of the rest of the lounge. A waiter came by, and she ordered a glass of seltzer water with lime; it came at the same time as a trolley of pre-dinner canapés and another with magazines and newspapers.

Let’s see what light reading’s available, she thought, nibbling on a toast point dabbed with patriotic, nationally sourced but quite tasty Columbia River caviar amid a background hum of conversation. It wouldn’t do to just stare squint-eyed at people.

The usual periodicals were at hand, starting with the inevitable copies of The New Republic, which was Croly’s rag and more or less the Party’s house organ. She took a quick glance at the table of contents for the August issue and decided she didn’t need to know...

...how wonderful the New Nationalism is. What a surprise dear Croly thinks so, since he gave Uncle Teddy the idea for the name.

She also didn’t need to read another puff piece about Secretary Mather’s ever-expanding National Parks...

Or...

Her eyes flicked down the list.

Or new sewage plants in the Protectorate...

Or cooperative grain elevators...

Or universal labor arbitration boards for everyone down to the Amalgamated Chicken-Pluckers...

Or a debate on whether the Scouts should be compulsory as a preparation for National Service...

Which, what a surprise, Croly thinks is a wonderful idea.

Though Uncle Teddy would probably insist that Fred Burnham head up the program, and he’d do it splendidly. The deadly, soft-spoken little bantam adventurer was already running wilderness-scout training for the Ranger battalions and Black Chamber operatives from the camp near his Yaqui Valley hacienda, and Luz liked him a great deal. Besides being able to out-Apache real Apaches, when he did talk about the things he’d done in war and wild places he was among the few men who reduced Uncle Teddy to a listener.

Her eyes went to the last entry in the table of contents:

Or, finally and worst of all, Efficient Citizenship: How to Taylorize Your Life by ‘our editors’, which meant the man himself.

Someone had said once that when Croly really got going you could see the home-made lemonade boiling in his veins.

She took the New York Times instead and held it up to read while scanning faces around it without being obvious, and also occasionally struggling not to laugh. Reading newspapers was a bit surreal if you were behind the curtain and saw some of the machinery that cast the public shadows. One of the editorials actually seemed to think there was still doubt about the US declaring war on the Central Powers, for example. As if Uncle Teddy had told the Iron House—the War Department’s monumental new headquarters, shared with the Navy even though it wasn’t quite finished—to conscript three million men and federalize another million Guardsmen and reservists back in the spring as a just-in-case precaution.

The European news on the front page was, as usual since August of 1914, bad.

But there is bad and then there is something rather like a cinema film of an avalanche coming right at you, done with the projector turned to slow.

It started with the perennial French claim that they were going to retake Verdun really soon now, any day, honest we will! And Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm publicly laughing his Royal and Imperial buttocks off about it, which was fair enough since he’d commanded the army group that finally took it back in the spring after months of interminable massacre. The Russian offensive against Austria had gone well until the German General von Mackensen smashed it up; and the Rumanians were already saying how very, very sorry they were that they’d joined the Entente and tried to grab off Austro-Hungarian Transylvania just before the aforesaid smashing of General Brusilov. Which had been an act of monumentally short-sighted stupidity astonishing even by the standards of the Great War’s participants.

Luz smiled wryly. The Bible said it didn’t profit a man to lose his soul and gain the whole world; but getting your head kicked in for the privilege of a three-week stay in... Transylvania? Now they were begging for mercy from Germany, which was rather like pleading with a shark not to take a second bite.

And mutual slaughters continued on the Somme as both sides tried to turn Picardy into an artillery-sculpted replica of the Moon, or of the humid, leprous skin of some monstrous toad...

The domestic news was more cheerful, especially if you were a Party member. A lead headline was the Democrats’ attempt to filibuster the Dyer anti-lynching bill, doomed under the new Senate rules on closure, since they only had twenty-six seats now and were helplessly split between the southern Bourbons and the northern progressive wing, which was gradually dribbling away bit by bit to the PR or to Debs and his Socialists. Senator Bankhead of Alabama had invoked States’ Rights and the virtue of southern womanhood menaced by the lustful nigra and accused the President of waving the bloody shirt of the Civil War.

The President had formally said no comment, but had been heard to say off the record that the Senator could have a bloody nose to drip on his bloody shirt if he’d rather stand up in the ring and settle it that way man-to-man.

Luz grinned. She could just see him grinning as he let that comment about the Alabaman drop, while meaning every word of it. To add some mulato peppers to the mole she happened to know that in the coming session one of Uncle Teddy’s cronies was going to reintroduce a stronger version of the Federal Elections Bill that the southern Democrats had filibustered to death when Henry Cabot Lodge proposed it a generation ago. That would guarantee black suffrage in federal elections; they couldn’t block it this time and the Negroes would all vote Progressive Republican in lockstep until the Day of Judgment and instantly send the Party’s vote in the Deep South from nothing to at least a third and finally bring the New Nationalism to Dixie...

Which will have the Bourbons down on all fours snarling and foaming like rabid dogs, which is art imitating life. ¡Ay! ¡Pero que estupidos son esos pendejos!

That was Uncle Teddy to the inch; he was the canniest of all politicians, but he was also the man who’d once leapt off his horse and stabbed a cougar to death with his hunting knife because the dogs mobbing it blocked a shot. He enjoyed life more than anyone she’d ever known, at least anyone over the age of eight.

Luz sighed. She missed him and Aunt Edith and Ted and Ethel and the rest, but she hadn’t been to the White House or Sagamore Hill lately. Partly because it wasn’t easy to do that without being photographed these days, which wouldn’t be professional in her line of work, and partly because he was letting his eugenics bee buzz out of his bonnet lately and kept having Aunt Edith introduce Luz to stalwart young officers he thought would be good breeding stock while dropping hints about the joys of enormous litters. And because Uncle Teddy had been born before the Civil War and was—by her standards—a bit of a prude. She wouldn’t lie to someone who’d done so much for her, but she preferred not to hurt him with irrelevant details about her private life.

The official motto of the officially non-existent Black Chamber was: Ex umbris, acies. Which meant: From the Shadows, Steel.

The unofficial motto, coined in 1913 by a Harvard wit among the original recruits and used much more frequently, was: Non Theodorum parvis concitares ne perturbatus sit, often shortened to NTPC. Which translated freely as: Don’t bother Teddy with the details, it’ll just upset him. That was a good rule all ‘round.

The Times’ other main stories were Japan biting off chunks of China for what it swore was China’s own good (with Uncle Teddy giving them a warning glare they would be well-advised to heed) and whether the Philippines and Puerto Rico should be put on the road to statehood. Which was starting to look somewhat possible—someday, maybe—for Puerto Rico at least, given the way Hawaii had added a forty-ninth star just this year. You could be absolutely sure neither was going to vote for the Bourbon Democrats, which was a powerful antidote to whatever qualms the Party’s membership had about letting so many suspiciously swarthy people into their tent.

Speaking of voting...

There wasn’t much comment on November’s elections, since everyone knew that the Democrats weren’t going to carry any State that hadn’t been part of the Confederacy, and might well lose Texas too. Luz couldn’t even remember offhand who the Democrats had nominated, except that it was some judge from Connecticut. Teddy had been President for twelve of this century’s sixteen years, and he’d go right on being President as long as he wanted, or more likely until he died in office. Since he was still in his fifties, robustly healthy and showed no loss of interest in the game that might not be for decades; she’d heard him say the worst mistake he’d ever made was promising not to run for a third consecutive term back in 1904.

She glanced over the top of the paper occasionally while she sipped her soda water, apparently with casual boredom. Some curiosity was natural for a traveler, and the faces were more interesting than the news anyway.

Let’s do some analysis.

The passengers included quite a few assorted industrialists and bankers and their emissaries, as you’d expect when each ticket cost twice what a coal miner made in a year even in these times of rising prices and wages. They were from both sides of the Atlantic—she thought two were Japanese, come to that—and a dozen countries but might have come off Ford’s new assembly lines at Highland Park otherwise, plump men with cold cash-register eyes or thin wolfish ones with a hungry gaze, in neutral suits with the occasional pinkie ring for the more raffish. The neutrals... other neutrals, for now... and the Entente powers were both buying everything America could mine, pump out of the ground, grow or make. And doing it with money borrowed right here in New York; the City of London’s position was never going to be the same again.

There were a few Americans who she thought from their expressions of painful middle-class earnestness and dowdy clothes were members of Hoover’s Belgian Relief Commission, which was currently feeding millions in occupied Belgium and France and could afford the passage. Several of them were women who looked to be the type she’d seen so often at Bryn Mawr; ones who weren’t content unless they were doing someone good whether the someone liked it or not, at loose ends since the suffrage struggle ended with the bang of the Sixteenth Amendment and fanning out to find other causes. Now that Mexico was more or less safe for American civilians away from the real back-country you met a fair number down in the Protectorate running schools or sanitary childbirth classes or in doomed attempts to convince the locals that bland crème of celery soup was better for you than tripe menudo with red chilies.

The Chamber had also found the Commission useful as a cover for getting agents into Europe, but if any of these were she didn’t even try to pick them out because she didn’t need to know.

There was a clutch of so-called gentlemen of the Press, most of whom had perked up at the sight of her as they would have for any pretty unaccompanied young woman. She knew that seedy breed, and would probably have to administer a few crushing set-downs to those who thought it was flattering to be treated like a piece of steak dangled over a kennel. Journalism was also a useful cover, but thankfully not one she’d ever had to use.

It would be like impersonating a leper.

Then there was an obvious Englishman who was also obviously a soldier despite his slightly threadbare Savile Row suit, a rangy auburn-haired man with a military mustache and face burned brick-red by years of tropical suns and expressionless blue eyes.

Marksman’s eyes, she thought; the name on the passenger list was Arbuthnot.

His companion might have been a twin brother except for his coloring, turban and beard; undoubtedly Indian and probably a princeling of some sort, named Singh on the manifest, which was the Indian equivalent of “Smith”. You saw more turbans these days where the British were involved, since Indian troops were all that had kept the Channel ports from falling after the Germans broke the front at Ypres wide open with their massive surprise gas attack early last year.

Here to talk with the War Department in Washington, she thought. And going home with encouraging news.

There had already been clashes between US Navy airship and destroyer squadrons escorting American merchantmen and the U-boats of the Kaiserliche Marine all over the western Atlantic. At a second guess they were probably also both attached to the British secret service, either from London or more likely the Raj’s older and rather more professional version operating out of Delhi and Simla. Luz had admired the neat way they’d scooped up the German-backed Ghadar conspiracy in ’14, having infiltrated it to a fare-thee-well, and she had been involved in helping collar the California branch of that movement for what the Federal Bureau of Security called reform through corrective labor. Something that did indeed involve a lot of labor, bad food, barbed wire, and profoundly unsympathetic guards.

And as for the players from the Central Powers... the Chamber had known there would be at least one agent on the airship, but it was standard practice to have one operative buy the ticket and another show up with it at the last minute just as she’d done, so she was going in blind on his appearance. She’d have to spot him on her own, and so...

Surely it can’t be that easy?

All she knew definitely was the code-name the real Elisa Carmody had been given: Reichsschwert, Imperial Sword. There were a dozen Germans among the passengers, most trying to get home before the eventual declaration of war trapped them behind the wire of an enemy-alien camp. Only three couldn’t be positively judged harmless from regular background checks. An obvious white-haired Herr Doktor Professor type with a goatee and pince-nez, deep in a book, Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift, and probably misunderstanding it.

In her experience Germans usually did misunderstand Nietzsche, often willfully, starting with his sister-editor’s grotesque redactions.

The next was an obvious businessman, a squat bulging mound of bad manners in an expensively ill-fitting suit, sweating and shoveling vol-au-vent from the canapés trolley into his mouth and washing it down by guzzling beer like the Westphalian hog whose cured ham his flushed red face resembled.

According to reports the British blockade has Germany eating turnips by now, she thought Not this German, though,¡por Dios! Not when he’s back in Essen or Dusseldorf, either.

Her guess was that his background looked suspicious because he was doing something deeply shady, but commercially shady.

The third was the one she instantly suspected; for starters, you could imagine him answering to ‘Imperial Sword’ without your brain undergoing spontaneous combustion and then exploding. He was about six feet tall, hard and fit and sitting with a leopard’s long-limbed ease that held a military erectness as well. Bristle-cropped ash-blond hair, broad shoulders, narrow waist, shapely but large hands and a square sculpted cleft-chin face that looked very like Manfred von Richthofen’s, or possibly the daring Red Baron’s slightly older brother. He didn’t have a monocle and wasn’t brandishing a riding crop, but...

¡Qué delicioso! That’s a dueling scar on his left cheekbone, a sip from the soup-plate of honor! Yes, Colonel Nicolai, you have sent us a pantomime Prussian Junker as a spy!

The man’s name on the passenger manifest was Herr Hans Krämer, commercial agent, which was not only false but transparently so. Krämer literally meant shopkeeper, and apart from the fact that a fit young German would be in field-gray now rather than peddling samples a thousand clues of posture and expression shouted nobleman and soldier. If this man didn’t have a von tucked away somewhere, and probably a Freiherr or better, she’d give up chocolate and all carnal pleasures and become a Carmelite nun.

Why not a spiked helmet? Or one of those new coalscuttle steel ones? Unless he’s supposed to distract me from someone else? But no. Germans like to think of themselves as cold and rational, but that’s only true when they’re designing engines. In human matters they’re often childlike and romantic... childlike and romantic and brutal, but even so.

Click-click, the camera went as she rearranged the handbag and raised the glass of soda-water to bring a steward with a refill. The Junker’s eyes met hers for a moment, pale as Baltic ice, and he surprised her a little by smiling and suddenly looking like someone with a sense of humor.

Well, he is a man as well as a spy.

Men smiled at her quite often, which could be amusing or annoying depending on the circumstances, and they didn’t need ulterior motives to do so. Beyond the obvious one.

Quite a handsome man too, if you like the blond beast look, which is very nice now and then. Now, what sort of approach from a beautiful lady spy would appeal to a childlike sense of romanticism and convince him she’s the friendly anti-American Mexican revolutionary spy he was warned to expect and not a wicked ringer slipped in by the sinister cunning of diabolical Black Chamber masterminds?

She let her features soften just a bit, not quite a smile of her own, then ostentatiously looked away, as if interested only in what was going on outside. Luz was perfectly willing to use seduction as a professional technique, provided it was someone she’d at least have considered seducing on her own time.

Even as a spy, one must have some standards.

The light through the windows brightened as the huge clamshell doors of the hanger finished opening, revealing the blue sky and drifting white clouds of a summer’s afternoon. The great floating building had already been turned so that the blunt bow of the San Juan Hill pointed into the wind. The engines—ten big Curtis-Martin radials, mounted five to a side in a row of pods along hull corridors well above the passenger section—were already turning over. Now they growled louder and a slight subliminal vibration went through the airship’s fabric. There was a bobbing jolt as the tugboats gently took up the slack and pulled it free of the building, and then a rumble as water ballast poured from the keel tanks, and a double chunk as the towing cables released.

She closed her eyes for a moment to pay closest attention to her own sensations. And then...

“¡Que maravilloso!” she murmured to herself with delight, in the language of her mother, the tongue of strong feeling and unguarded truth. “We’re floating!”

Floating upward, so gently that she could barely detect the elevator motion. The engines were there, but no louder than a motor-car, perhaps even a little less. Behind their throbbing was a profound stillness, like a slow-moving breeze on a spring day. And a creaking and flexing sound, like but utterly unlike that of a wooden ship under sail.

She opened her eyes, looking out eagerly. The airship was rising in a smooth clockwise circle miles in circumference, the chair beneath her feeling as solid as if it had been her study at university. That path was ANA policy, to give their new craft the maximum possible exposure to the public. It also put the tip of Manhattan below as they swept by at sixty-five miles an hour and rose to their cruising altitude of twelve hundred feet.

The great city spread out below her, with the green rectangle of Central Park surrounded by towering apartment blocks, and people and automobiles and carriages doll-tiny on the streets below. New Yorkers were jaded enough, or prickly enough about their reputation for being elaborately unimpressed, that few could be seen to stop and look at the seventy-first flight. The skyscrapers slid by; the Woolworth Building looked like a model in colored terracotta, despite being nearly eight hundred feet high and the tallest solid structure in the world.

Luz felt herself laugh in sheer pleasure. It was a marvelous age to be alive, and young, and a woman and an American.

They turned northeast, and the city fell behind them with startling speed, and the land turned to a distant line of blue. The waters below were thick with shipping. That ranged from fishing smacks to windjammers with sails like poems written in geometry to the usual dingy smoke-belching tramp steamers, the elegant grayhound shapes of liners and the hulking-sleek menace of a squadron of New Mexico-class battleships bristling with fourteen-inch guns and anti-air batteries. A murmur and pointing brought her eyes around; a wing of aero-planes was passing the San Juan Hill in two loose gaggles of four.

They started as dots and then flashed by the airship with a combined speed well over a hundred miles an hour, banking into a curve; twin-engine biplane Curtis Falcons with their sharkish look brought out by the fanged mouth painted below the sharp noses. Two Browning machine guns pointed forward before the pilot, and there was another on a ring-mount for the observer in his rear-facing seat. A pilot waved, close enough for his teeth to show in a smile beneath the goggles and leather helmet, trailed by a fluttering red scarf.

She glanced aside. The Westphalian Hog was among the passengers who studiously avoided looking out the windows; in fact, he’d turned his broad back on them and was clutching the table, looking as if he regretted the vol-au-vents. The Herr Doktor glanced up from his book and returned to wrestling with the conflict between master and slave morality, writing in a notebook now and then. Handsome not-really-Hans, on the other hand, was leaning over and following the fighting scouts with keenly intent eyes.

And knowledgeable ones, por Dios. So, he’s one of Colonel Nicolai’s boys; but is he the one expecting to make contact with Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez, that belle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood-Partido Nacional Revolucionario alliance, now looking for the Kaiser’s help to resuscitate their respective lost causes?

Elisa had talked; everyone did, in the end. But the eternal question with what Room 101—named after a chamber in Lecumberri—pulled out of resisting subjects was how reliable the information was, and how complete and whether it was out of date. Parts had been corroborated from other sources, parts had not, some had contradicted other things they thought they knew and put those in doubt.

About par for the course, Luz thought.

A really hostile subject wasn’t going to tell you anything at all without severe pressure, and they’d lie truth out of creation as long as they could whatever you did. Anyone still active underground in the Protectorate was probably very tough and determined. On yet another hand...

Room 101 works. But you can never be sure how well it works.

Some of what they’d gotten had enabled them to roll up most of what remained of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in central Mexico in a flurry of surprise shoot-outs, midnight arrests, interrogations which led to more arrests and so on, but you never got absolutely everyone. They had no idea if the remnants of those rolled-up networks had managed to pass on the information that Elisa and her luggage had simply disappeared from her rooming-house one dark night, with the rent-money slipped under the landlady’s door. Or if they’d linked her disappearance to the bad things that started a few days later; enough bad things were happening to them anyway that they might not have, and simply thought she’d gotten tired of it all and done a bunk for parts unknown.

She and Luz looked alike in a general sort of way, enough to fool anyone who didn’t actually know the revolutionary and was expecting to see her, and Luz knew everything the Chamber had managed to find out about her, which was a fair bit. But if any of a dozen things had slipped up Luz would be walking into a trap the minute she tried to convince someone on the other side that she was Elisa. That made memories of strolling down Anacapa Street to the ocean and sitting and watching the sunset over the Pacific rather more alluring. Of course, after a while doing that she was terminally bored...

Not-Really-Hans walked casually nearer and leaned on the railing, looking after the aero-planes.

“Formidable machines,” he said in good but accented English, not exactly presuming to talk to her without an introduction. “They as formidable as anything on the Western Front are.”

“President Roosevelt is determined that his Air Corps should be second to none, regardless of expense,” Luz said.

She was also not quite talking to him; etiquette could be awkward in an age of transition. And she used her perfect German. Elisa had spoken the language too; ironically that was because she’d attended the same finishing school near München that Luz had, though their time there hadn’t overlapped.

“But warriors are the true sword of an empire,” she said.

He started slightly at the words, and the very faint emphasis she’d laid on them. Then she turned and walked into the dining area, as a steward came through the lounge tapping a rubber hammer on a xylophone-style device he held in the crook of one arm, giving off a pleasant little tune that signaled the beginning of dinner service.

A waiter bowed and escorted Luz to her table; they were assigned by cabin. She scanned the menu; another thing that had gone away unmourned with the last century was women pretending they didn’t get hungry or need to eat, and she was sharp-set after a hasty boiled-egg breakfast and nothing but a big pretzel from a pushcart for lunch.

Most of the dishes were a Harvey House version of the sort of sub-French cuisine you got at Delmonico’s or the better hotels, with American specialties like terrapin or Virginia ham for patriotism’s sake; only to be expected, since the Harvey company now had the contract to supervise dining for the whole of American National Railways and its airborne offshoot. She saw some south-of-the-border items—or at least ones with Spanish names—in a special section of the menu. They were fashionable, and a good many veterans of the Intervention had acquired a taste for the real thing as an escape from that oxymoronic vileness known as ‘Army food’, which was even blander that what Anglos normally ate. There were a fair number of war brides, too, bringing their skills and tastes north with them into their new families.

Invasions go in both directions, sometimes.

She looked up at the waiter, who was standing with deferential calm. He was a stocky man in early middle age with a pepper-and-salt mustache, the white jacket of the service staff emphasizing his dark-olive skin, high cheekbones, rather narrow black eyes and square—almost roundish—face. She wasn’t surprised. The long struggle in Mexico and the long boom in the US had also pushed and pulled a great many workers north of the now fairly theoretical border, the more so as the flood of immigrants from Europe had been cut off in nineteen fourteen. The Poles and Rumanians, Magyars and Jews who’d once come in endless shiploads to shovel coal and work the looms were busy slaughtering each other in Flanders and Galicia and the Pripet Marshes, millions of native-born farmboys and laborers were being swept into uniform, and in the meantime the construction gangs, mines, factories and harvest crews needed willing hands. So did jobs like this.

"¡Bien, Maestro Tomas!” she said, reading the name embroidered on his breast pocket.

She pulled on her upper-class Mexico City accent like a familiar pair of gloves, fruit of years spent there as a girl while her father designed dams and bridges and tramways, and then for the Chamber after the Intervention. Languages fascinated Luz and had always come easily to her, and so had the little subtle tricks of their varieties, even before she’d needed them for professional reasons or studied them formally. The unfortunate Elisa had lived most of her life in the Mexican capital and nearby Puebla, being the granddaughter of an Irish deserter in the war of 1848 who’d prospered greatly in its aftermath. Luz continued:

“¿Alguno de estos platillos valen la pena, o mejor pido de los platillos norteños?”

The steward hid a delighted smile as she asked whether the Mexican dishes were worth ordering or whether she’d better stick to steak and pommes frites, and gave her a quick but respectful second look. She obviously had a great deal less indio in her background than he did, but she could easily be criollo of a high-born raza pura variety. Which was exactly what her mother had been, of course, just from a different part of the old Spanish dominions.

“No, Señorita Carmody,” he said; he’d probably studied the passenger list too.

Her mind’s ear instantly tagged him as from northwest of the capital; the Bajío, and at a guess probably Querétaro. And born in a village about the time Porfirio Díaz took power.

“Carmody de Soto-Dominguez,” she corrected with her eyes on the menu, as if absently.

An unmarried woman used both parent’s surnames in the Iberian world; the Irish-Spanish mixture implied was precisely the fact of the matter, which made it an ideal cover. He nodded and continued, with a little scorn for the tender tastebuds of the northerners under the professional courtesy of a waiter:

Estos gringos, les damos una salsita y gritan por agua... el humo les sale por las orejas.

She smiled and nodded with a conspirator’s chuckle. Acting a role aside, it was rather funny. She’d heard that anguished howl for water quite literally, though bread was actually more effective, since the heat of the peppers cooked out into the oils. And metaphorically she’d seen that smoke pouring out of shell-like pink ears more than once.

He leaned forward a little and murmured conspiratorially himself: “Pero le puedo traer de nuestros frijoles con chorizo y salsa chipotle; con una carne asada y guacamole y crema acida. Nos dan bien de comer en la cocina, Señorita.”

Saliva ran into her mouth at the thought of the authentic carne asada he was offering her, and the cook would be working for love rather than duty. You could eat well in New York in any number of styles since most of the population were immigrants from everywhere on Earth or their children, but for weeks she’d been dining with people of deepest Anglo-Saxon dye, colleagues and good friends but ones who thought béchamel sauce was hot stuff and a hint of garlic on a steak was a daring transgression risking stomach problems. And the whole exchange would help establish her cover—it was never too soon to get into character. If her opponent-target was tapped into the grapevine, so much the better.

“Yes, please, and I am most grateful, Maestro Tomas,” she said, continuing in Spanish.

“It shall be done, Doña Elisa,” he said, promoting her respectfully; that was how he’d have addressed the daughter of his patrón back in the old country.

Not-really-Hans, she noticed, had ordered Lobster Newburg at a table not too far away and his ears were virtually pricking up like a wolf listening for a threat or prey.

I’d have thought he was a red-meat man, she thought. Just shows that you shouldn’t make too many assumptions.

 

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“Come back to bed, meine Süsse,” Hans, or rather Hauptmann Horst von Dückler said two days later.

She’d been right, and even the Hans was fictitious; he was the third son of a baron with an ancestral Schloss near Breslau, too.

“Sweetie yourself,” Luz chuckled, also in German, feeling pleasantly relaxed as she fished the bottle out of her cabin suitcase.

She was trying to drop just a tinge of what an Irish-Mexican accent would sound like into her aristocratic but slightly Bavarian-flavored German; his own upper-class standard Hochdeutsch had a distinct eastern tinge now and then, with hard r-sounds.

Then she raised a brow as he flipped back the sheet to indicate quite specifically what he had in mind.

“It’s true what they say about you Prussian Junkers, then.”

“I’m Catholic, and Silesian niederer Adel, actually, but what do they say?”

“That you’re men of iron,” she said, glancing back over her shoulder out of the corners of her eyes and standing hipshot as she turned to pour two small glasses of tequila.

Men liked this view of double curves, especially when you didn’t have any clothes on, which was understandable—she did herself. And it was pleasant to be admired so by someone you also found attractive once you’d gotten over being shy. She’d lost the last of that when her parents died and her prayers went unanswered into an empty universe. Though she was ready enough to pretend for appearance’ sake, since you had to be careful of the world even when the world was being an imbecile. Oddly enough, on a mission pretending to be someone else she could sometimes be less governed by pretense than she was as herself.

Which means we’re always playing a role; being a spy’s just made me more conscious of that.

She certainly wouldn’t have adopted this strategy for putting him off-guard if it had been the Westphalian Hog or the Herr Doktor. Horst had a body like a Norse god, all lean clear muscle and ridged belly and tight backside and long shapely legs, shoulders broad and strong without being bull-massive, and almost translucently pale skin smooth except for a moderate dusting of golden hair and a few scars, from bullets and what was probably shrapnel on his left flank. He even smelled nice, a hard clean musk. And he had all the stamina in the world. Men were dismayingly prone to what she privately thought of as Bumblebee Disease, stinging once and dying, or at least falling limply asleep and snoring, but Horst was among the exceptions.

Of course, he is a mortal enemy and I may well have to kill him... but that’s work, not personal. Not for me, at least.

She sighed inaudibly as he preened a little under her regard and turned her eyes back to the bottle of honey-colored liquid; the drawback was that he was vain about it, and like most males inclined to attribute magical powers to certain organs rather than what he did with them. In fact on balance she was rather sorry for his eventual wife. All that potential, and after the play of feint and gradual revelation... and then he was actually rather boring, carnally speaking. He seemed to have taken his conception of the bedroom arts from an infantry drill manual, and assumed that a female would naturally fall into worship of his own awesomeness. He’d been surprised and a little disconcerted at a woman who wanted to do more than...

Throw back her knees and think of Germany while he plunges ahead, Luz thought. Which was great fun for a while, those scratches on his back are perfectly genuine, but I doubt it’s ever occurred to him to do anything else!

“The iron is better demonstrated than talked about,” he hinted.

“Patience, Süsser,” she said.

And it would require the patience of a saint to keep tiptoeing around his fragile self-regard for years, and that’s depressingly typical of his half of the human race. Why is it that men seem to think that if you’re intimate with them you should be a cross between a worshiping acolyte and a doting mother who’s constantly shoring up their feelings? And marriage gives them a license from the government to expect you to do all the emotional work for the rest of your life; it’s exhausting just to contemplate! Maybe after the war—which hasn’t officially started yet, and which I probably won’t survive—I should just find some nice like-minded California girl...

Bryn Mawr had been educational in that respect, too: gnōthi seauton, the old Greeks had said, and it meant to know yourself. She had a vague mental image of someone willowy and blonde; more importantly, someone quick-witted, with a ready laugh and fond of long walks beside the sea, books and music and gardening and cuddling on hilltops on warm starry nights, or in front of a fire on chilly rainy ones.

... and settle down to a Boston marriage with whoever-she-turns-out-to-be.

There was her parents’ place in Santa Barbara, which she could love again now that the memories had stopped hurting so much, and that land north of town she’d inherited as well, near Los Olivos. Very pretty amid the golden hills and live-oaks, and her parents had long intended it for their retirement; and these days with an automobile you could be in town quickly, and catch a fast electric train to LA or San Francisco...

She’d qualify for a veteran’s settlement loan, officer grade. Even better, Black Chamber veterans got it off the books, without paperwork or questions.

Aloud she continued:

“Sure, and it’s flattering that the sight of me has you rising to the occasion once more, so to speak, but another drink won’t be amiss. We’ve a little while before we reach Amsterdam and have to get back to work for the Cause... well, our respective causes and countries.”

“What is that stuff?” he asked. “It makes schnapps seem like milk.”

“Tequila. It’s made from agave juice,” she said.

He made a face. “Pulque? Isn’t that a drink for peasants?”

“Tequila is made by roasting the heart of the agave azul, and it’s like any drink—quality varies from liquid sandpaper to liquid gold! This is the genuine article, añejo in the barrel, from Don Eladio Sauza’s hacienda, which is where my comrades stole it. We sold most of it for the Cause, but a few bottles went astray.”

In fact Don Eladio gratefully sent her and four other Black Chamber operatives each a crate of his best every Christmas, since they’d saved his family’s life and property from a revolucionario plot. That had been three years ago and a bit, when open guerilla raids were still common even near American garrisons—not all the big landowners had favored the Intervention but most had, and you needed to protect your supporters if you wanted to keep any. Some bits of his stock-in-trade had disappeared in the fighting before the jaws of the counter-trap snapped shut with the gratifying finality of pistols to the backs of necks, which made it plausible for her cover identity to have some of the expensive liquor.

“Now, treat it with respect this time,” she said, turning back to him and smiling, letting her glass touch her lips and enjoying the sharp agave bite mellowed with hints of citrus and walnut. “Don’t toss it back like schnapps, you only do that with white tequila. Sip!”

He grinned back at her and reached for it. “A beautiful naked woman comes to me with fine drink in both hands! The gates of Valhalla have opened for Wotan’s warrior!”

“But this time the Valkyrie is doing the riding—”

Their laughter covered the click of the lock, but she was already turning when the door opened. Then she froze, and let a long breath flow from between her lips, controlling the sudden leap of heart and flush of blood and the impulse to gasp. The red-haired English soldier came through with a revolver in his hand, a man-killing brute of a .445 Webley, with the turbaned Indian close behind. He had a rumāl in one big brown hand, a cotton bandana done up Thugee-style with a coin knotted into one corner. And held between thumb and forefinger ready to toss, which meant he knew how to use it.

“Deal with the Fenian slut, Narayan,” the Englishman snapped, jerking his head towards her without unlocking his eyes from Horst’s. “We need the Hun alive. Quickly, don’t let her scream.”

The Indian came towards her smoothly, brown eyes like pebbles in his impassive face; she recognized the look, a cold killer who knew his business. She’d been inside that face, often enough. This Narayan outweighed her by fifty pounds and the look of his shoulders and neck said he’d be much stronger, and almost certainly he’d been to the dance before and knew all about dirty fighting. With guns that wouldn’t matter at all, with knives only a bit, but she was literally naked and in her bare feet with no weapon available but two glasses of liquor. Quick thought flowed into decision, and that into words; she needed to make him see her as someone to be punished, not an opponent to be fought or target to be killed as emotionlessly as a farmwife snapped a chicken’s neck.

“Haan, aao, kadamaboj banchhut!

That about exhausted her Hindi, but she knew from the episode with the Ghadar conspirators that for his people sister-fucker was very, very provocative. Especially from a woman, and an angry man reverted to his reflexes... and men operating on reflex always underestimated women, since most had never in their lives faced physical risk from one after their last spanking from their mothers. With her that had been the last mistake several men ever made, and it was working again. The dark eyes flared with anger, and his mouth tightened; he grabbed for her with his left hand, obviously intending to hold her still while he hit. His instinct now was to hurt rather than simply kill.

A snap of her wrists sent both shot-glasses of eighty-proof tequila into his eyes. He snarled a curse, but with commendable spirit ignored the stinging pain. No amount of willpower could stop it from blurring his vision to a smear, though, or throwing his concentration off for an instant as his attack turned into a blundering lurch. She spun aside and grabbed for his reaching left arm with both hands, striking for the wrist.

Uncle Teddy had been fascinated by certain aspects of Japanese culture for many years, especially their martial arts; he’d had an instructor in them at the White House in his first administration, shaking the floors with the throws and falls. He’d brought more over later for the American armed forces, and the Black Chamber had gotten some of the best. It had certainly been more practical for her than boxing, though not more than the savate she’d picked up in Paris.

Kote mawashi simply meant clamping your fingers into the inside of the wrist, pressing on the back of the hand with both thumbs and using the leverage to twist the arm sharply against the natural direction of the joints; you couldn’t use raw power to pull out of that lock, not without tearing your own tendons loose. You could just whip your right fist back and punch in the face of the man—or woman—holding your arm locked, which Narayan tried.

Luz wasn’t there, or rather her face wasn’t where the Indian’s knuckles headed. She was already throwing herself back, pivoting on her right heel and drawing the man forward. Her own head just missed the sink as she leaned—this was crowded—and her left leg came up, curled back to her chest. Then she drove the heel up at almost ninety degrees, directly into the Hindu’s armpit with all the strength of the long muscles of thigh and hip—ballet practice helped with this, too.

The meaty thud of impact shocked back through her pelvis and into the leg, driving her down a bit into a one-legged crouch. Narayan came up on tiptoe, breath wheezing out of the wide O of his mouth in a squeal of agony.

Luz twisted at his arm, which didn’t resist much now that it was dislocated. That let her land with both feet planted wide in a kiba-dachi, a horse-stance. Her right fist touched her left ear, and she twisted her body as she slammed the elbow around into the spot behind his ear. That hurt her elbow and made her hand tingle, and the turban blocked it slightly, but the big Indian abruptly lost all interest in the fight and collapsed to the floor.

The narrow intense focus of absolute effort flared wider, and she was suddenly conscious that she was panting and running with sweat. And that the other fight was coming to a conclusion. Evidently the Englishman had been distracted—probably frozen by disbelief—for just the necessary fraction of a second.

Her first glance at Horst had been enough to make her think that he was a very dangerous man, quick and enormously strong and with a streak of savagery underneath. Close contact had made her sure of it.

I was right, she thought.

He had the other man’s throat in one hand and was about to club him to death with his own revolver, looking small in his right fist. From the purple shade of his enemy’s face, that might not be necessary.

Nein, Horst!” Luz said sharply.

Then she took another risk, grabbing for the Englishman’s arm and twisting it into a lock with all her strength; that put her face close to the German’s snarling mask of killing fury.

“No, Horst! We can’t explain the bodies! Think! We’d have to get them down three levels to the keel compartments before we could drop them off the ship and into the water.”

That brought humanity back to the wide, ice-pale eyes; he’d looked very much the Norse berserker he’d invoked in jest. When he actually looked at her she shoved the English agent against the cabin wall and spoke rapidly:

“The Dutch police would be all over us in Amsterdam—a Dutch prison would means death.”

Horst grunted. “True, the city’s got more Entente agents than it has canals.”

“And even if we could get them into the water without being spotted, there’s the wireless once they’re missed—the crew would report a disappearance and the English would have people waiting for us. If we hold them until just before docking, we’ll be able to disappear and they will be the ones explaining things to the police.”

She could see him thinking, and looking at her with narrowed eyes. “You are a woman of unexpected depths, Elisa.”

Luz shrugged. Then he blinked and smiled. “And their compartment will be unguarded now.”

He made a swift decision. “You are right, or at least we have no need to do anything irrevocable just yet.”

Together they swiftly bound and gagged both men, sitting them side-by-side on her bed. Horst agreed that it was a good idea to pop the Indian’s shoulder back before he started screaming uncontrollably, and they took a minute to do that—it needed two pairs of experienced hands to do quickly, but they were both used to this sort of field expedient.

“Scarcely the use I had in mind for my bed this night,” she said.

Horst barked laughter as he finished pulling on dark blue silk pajamas and a belted smoking-jacket. It was perfectly credible for him to be abroad in that on the passenger deck, since the cabins didn’t include toilet facilities, and she’d gotten him into this section officially unnoticed by the simple expedient of a massive bribe to the stewardess, probably not the first time someone had paid her to turn a blind eye. He put the Webley in one pocket of the robe, and assorted interesting blades and devices into the other.

“Will you...” he began.

She fished her navaja out of the loops in the pocket of her skirt, which had been tossed aside over the table amid a scattering of underclothes. Then she snapped the blade open with a flick of thumb and wrist and rolled the weapon across her knuckles before throwing it spinning from right hand to left and back. Snake-quick, literally faster than the eye could follow, a showy Gitano-style maneuver called el cambio. The subdued light of the electric lamp glittered on the honed edge of the Toledo steel and the mother-of-pearl inlays in the bone scales and brass of the hilt. The eyes of all three men followed it.

“Well, yes, you will be able to handle them,” Horst said, following the knife with his eyes. “Keep them quiet; I want to do a thorough search of their quarters.”

When he’d left she stood glaring at the two British agents, counting to a hundred and then cracking the door enough to scan carefully, while they looked back at her—mostly at the knife. The corridor was dim, with only a single hooded blue electric light, and quiet beneath the muffled throb of the engines. She locked the door and turned back to the two captives. The Indian was still a bit dazed, but recovering enough to turn gray and sweat at the pain of his dislocated shoulder; popping it back didn’t magically heal the damage to tendons and muscle, or make it possible to use it naturally. His Anglo-Saxon partner was fully alert, and watching her with lynx-eyed hatred.

“You idiots,” she hissed. “¡Estupidos!

Then she laid the knife down for a moment, held up her left palm, touched the fingers of the other to it, clenched that right hand into a fist, and bent the other to enfold it.

“Manifest,” she said, making two fists and tapping the knuckles together. “Jackson. Rocket.”

The English agent made muffled sounds through the gag, and Luz loosened it with the point of her navaja, keeping it ready for other action. He knew death when it was cold on his skin and stayed still until she moved back to the chair. His eyes were slitted thoughtfully now.

“Keep it quiet, or I will hurt you,” she added.

He nodded, wisely and obviously believing her about that at least.

“You expect me to believe Elisa Carmody is a Black Chamber agent?” he said.

“No,” Luz snapped in a deadly hiss. “I expect you to believe Elisa Carmody is in Lecumberri wishing she still had toenails—”

That was rhetorical exaggeration; except for emergency field expedients like fists, boots and pistol-butts, for Room 101 interrogations the Chamber generally used a less drastic and more scientific version of the Water Treatment that had been common during the Philippine Insurrection back around the turn of the century, which could be repeated indefinitely. The old saying had it that cowards died a thousand deaths, but modern scientific progress meant you could put the brave through the same thing.

“—and that I am impersonating her to get next to the man who is our only clue to what the Germans, and their new best friends the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, are conspiring to do in the United States now that we’re going to declare war on the Central Powers. What it is they plan we don’t know, except that it’s very big. Bigger than Dublin.”

The Englishman winced. That revolt had been very embarrassing for his Empire and far too close to its heart, among people who were in theory at least voting citizens of its homeland. Personally she thought their handling of it had been a ham-handed disaster mitigated only by the commuting of the death sentences to life imprisonment on Uncle Teddy’s urging, but that didn’t count in the larger scheme of things.

Luz’ own father Patrick O’Malley had said more than once there was something in the air or water of Ireland that made men demented, and that was one reason he’d never once wanted to set foot on it. He remembered his ancestors and honored them, but his homeland was the place where his only child was born.

“And you just endangered our only chance at it with this piece of blundering amateurism! You decided to do this on the spur of the moment, didn’t you?”

The Englishman probably wasn’t convinced, just open to the thought that she was telling the truth; the code she’d used had been set up some time ago as a failsafe, but too many people knew it to be really safe.

“I’m not interested in any secrets you think you have,” she went on, which made him relax a little. “And Horst couldn’t break you in the time we have left—not without making too much noise and leaving marks that would be as bad as having your dead bodies found. Rest assured this idiocy will be in my next document drop. You’re Indian Secret Service, you two, aren’t you?”

Neither of them answered, and their tells weren’t obvious, but she could see them—it was very hard to control the expansion and contraction of your pupils.

“Back in ‘fourteen after we helped you with the Ghadar business you agreed not to operate on American soil without prior notification. Don’t insult my intelligence by claiming this airship doesn’t count as American soil!”

He started to answer, and she realized she’d been gesturing freely, enough to make certain things bounce and jiggle, distracting his attention. When she was upset the way she spoke with her hands was very Latin, unless she consciously suppressed it, and while her figure was fashionably slender it wasn’t meager, either. The Indian was fully conscious again, but hurting too badly to notice, or perhaps just feeling too humiliated.

“Men!” she exclaimed. “Get your mind on business and your eyes off ¡mis chichis!

She took a moment to get into her own pajamas. She did it slightly reluctantly; she hated dressing or sleeping after intercourse without an opportunity to wash or remove the precautions. It was still advisable, since she might have to go out into the corridor herself. The Englishman averted his eyes, which was a good sign.

“Ah... well, this will make your cover more convincing to the Hun,” he said, flushing.

“No,” she said. “It would have made it absolutely convincing if I’d helped him kill you and hide the bodies. Now he’ll be wondering at least a little if I was saving your lives because I’m not what I claim. Now shut up, I have to do this before Horst gets back.”

She turned to the little table, took out the copy of Kim—there was no time to be humorous with Baudelaire—and wrote quickly, referencing the necessary words from a mental image of the key. Then she folded the paper and tucked it into the Indian’s turban; even if Horst did another search, there was no way he could tell that it wasn’t a British code and coded messages were entirely natural for spies to have on their persons.

“Turn that over to your superiors when you get to Amsterdam,” she said. “They can forward it.”

Then she smiled. “And we do have to explain why I removed your gag. Ah! ¡Eso es! It was to stop you choking to death on the blood from your nose!”

“But my nose isn’t—“ he began.

Her fist whipped forward and he gave a choked grunt. “There! A bleeding nose!”

 

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