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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Hotel Victoria, 7th floor
Amsterdam
Koninkrijk der Nederlanden
(Kingdom of the Netherlands)
September 5th, 1916(b)

 

“This is excellent, sweetie!” Luz said, savoring a forkful of the babi recap.

The delighted surprise was entirely in character since she’d simply transferred that aspect of herself to the constructed personality of her Elisa-cover, and true as well. Like Elisa Carmody, Luz had been through Amsterdam before, several times on her way to and from school in Bavaria or on trips from school to absorb culture, presumably on the theory that it was the visual equivalent of blancmange. She liked the city, mainly for the art museums and the history and the stolid sensible burger calm of the people, though she had been profoundly unimpressed with what she’d experienced of Dutch food.

Which was like German cuisine, except without the subtlety and grace, she thought. But I could have had something like this if the teachers shepherding us hadn’t been so stodgy. Who knew?

There was a covered bowl of steamed rice and six little side-plates: skewers of chicken or others of shrimp, marinated in a sweet-spicy peanut sauce and covered with more after grilling; slivers of pork belly braised in its own juices and a soy reduction; hard-boiled eggs in a chili-based sauce; and several types of vegetables steamed or fried with spices and sprinkled with desiccated grated cocoanut and flanked by little cups of a red-chili paste.

“And it was an good idea to have it sent up to the room, too.”

He beamed across the table at her as if he’d invented the rijsttafel that was scenting the air with anise and garlic and mace and lemongrass himself, rather than Dutchmen stealing the concept and most of the ingredients from the inhabitants of their Southeast-Asian empire. It had come to Amsterdam along with much else in the ample bellies of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie’s Indiamen, making their stately six-month passages from here around the Cape to Batavia in Java and back for century on century. Having the kitchens send it up here this late had probably cost a pretty penny, but as Horst said it was on the All-Highest’s account and enabled them to keep a closer eye on the Herr Professor, so why not?

“This is the abbreviated version,” Horst said, grinning at her and spooning up some sauce. “The full banquet can have forty dishes, besides six types of rice.”

The impassive staff had set it up in the parlor of their two-room suite. That had all the modern conveniences, electric lights and an attached bath and water-closet; it was done in pale yellow silk and had a rather ornate plaster ceiling, and the furniture was fussily over-decorated and carved in an old-fashioned way though the place was only about as old as she was and had been renovated as recently as ‘06. Luz and Horst had taken advantage of the bath after coupling like stoats in a rain of half-removed clothing—they both found prospective danger made them randy; she thought it a bit disturbing how much they had in common—and each standing a watch while the other caught a few hours’ sleep. They were young and fit enough that that made them refreshed rather than groggy, which was fortunate since nobody was fit enough not to lose their edge after enough time without rest.

“The Victoria gets a lot of Dutchmen going to and from their colonies,” Horst said, and added with a laugh: “And a lot of spies, these days; I’ve been here half a dozen times since the war began. They’re familiar with Herr Hans Krämer.”

They hadn’t asked for her papers when he checked her in as Frau Krämer, though she looked about as un-German as you could be unless you were a Zulu or Chinese, but...

“You do realize that nobody would think that’s your real name, Horst?” she said.

He stared at her, slightly offended. “I assure you the documents are perfect. And there was a Hans Krämer, who looked quite a bit like me—he was called up in 1914 as part of the 13th division—Westfälisches Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 7, in fact. He died on the Marne.”

“I’m sure there was just such a man, Horst, and that the documents are perfect. But nobody who knows anything at all about die Deutschen is ever going to mistake you for Hans-the-shopkeeper-reservist. You should really pretend to be some other German ur-Adel. It’s much easier to hide who you are than what you are. Or you might just manage to pass for a Swede—a Swedish nobleman, that is—if you spoke good enough Swedish. If you try to appear as what you aren’t unsuccessfully, you just draw attention to an obviously false identity.”

He looked at her quietly for a moment, then nodded. “That is a very perceptive remark,” he said quietly. “More rice? And some of the satay?”

“Thank you.”

It wouldn’t do to stuff themselves if they had serious work to do, but a rice-table consisted of a large number of small dishes and he’d picked a few, and they nibbled slowly. They had split a single mug of what even Horst admitted was an excellent local beer.

The food was an exquisite mixture of textures and tastes, in a way totally new to her. She’d dined often and marvelously in San Francisco’s Chinatown in several different regional styles; you just had to pick the places well-to-do local Chinese went to, rather than the ones making Americanized versions for the gwai-lo. And her family had often gone to dinner at the home of a Japanese business acquaintance of her father’s in Santa Barbara and been delighted at the subtle combinations and the beauty of the arrangements and colors, as delicate as the doll-like perfection of Mrs. Taguchi herself and her three daughters. But this was a tantalizing glimpse at yet another world. She strongly suspected the actual cook was from the East Indies himself.

Travel is broadening, even if that’s a cliché, she thought; truisms were often... true. How vast and varied the world is! You could spend lifetimes sampling just the food, and then there’s dance and music and art and stories.

“Ah, now I feel fit to fight tigers, much less Gabachos,” she said, patting her lips with a napkin. At his glance she explained: “Gabachos means Frenchmen... but it’s not complementary.”

“Perhaps you should dress for it?” Horst said. “Even if they are only Franzacke.”

Luz laughed, with a hard edge to it: “Bärchen, I am dressed for action.”

She was wearing her pajamas, one of several black silk outfits she had along of vaguely Chinese inspiration and fashionable as yesterday evening, slightly loose pants and collared jackets with black cable-work on the front. Luz extended an arm.

“Feel. This is tough silk, light but stronger than canvas, and there’s chamois leather on the knees and elbows. It’s street-wear in China... I’m told their... what did they call them, Boxers? They wore something like this as fighting gear, that was where I got the idea, that and Chinese pajamas being fashionable. Nobody can tell the difference between this and simple nightwear.”

“The Yihequan,” Horst said, surprising her a little by knowing the name. “It means Righteous Fists; we said Boxers. My elder brother was with the expeditionary force that marched to Peking to relieve the diplomats in 1900; I was in cadet school then. Yes, I remember he took some photographs of Chinamen in costumes very much like that.”

A grin. “Mainly dead Chinamen with 7.92mm holes in them, to be sure.”

Kaiser Wilhelm had given a speech to the German troops departing for that messy little conflict, urging them to make a name for themselves in China that would rival that of Attila’s Huns for a thousand years. It had been one more example of his chronic foot-in-mouth disease and had given the Germans their modern nickname of Hun, but it was just an exaggeration of a common national trait too. They’d issued a commemorative medal for the sinking of the Mauretania showing the ship going down on one side and passengers buying tickets from a skeletal figure of death on the other. That had had blood boiling and teeth grinding from New York to San Francisco, but Horst’s people had mostly never really understood why it had that effect, or why the British had made thousands of copies. It was an aspect of the same failings that made them such terrible spies, though some could overcome it by sheer application.

“And these slippers—“ she ran the toe of one down the inside of his calf under the table “—have buckled tops and woven cord soles. Excellent traction, much better than leather.”

“Useful, as long as it doesn’t’ attract attention,” Horst said. He cocked his head. “Which it would. Though the ensemble gives you a certain boyish charm.”

She grinned and arched her back against the chair a little; her bosom was moderately sized, but definitely there.

“Horst, if it’s one thing I’ve never desired to be taken for—except when I was doing it as a disguise once or twice—it’s a boy.”

His brows went up. “I thought you had rather advanced opinions on the rights of women?” he said. “Surely as a girl you chafed at seeing boys able to do things you could not?”

That was perfectly true, and so was his supposition about her opinions—and it also fitted her revolutionary cover identity. Ironically enough, the most conservative people in Mexico had backed the Intervention, and had ended up with new laws imposed at the point of American bayonets, including a close copy of the Equal Rights Amendment of 1912-1913, which was far more drastic than the most radical imaginable Mexican government would have passed anytime soon. Even in America it had gone through in that pure a form only because of a complex Congressional maneuver intended to derail it, and it had horrified the hacendados and Catholic clergy when the gringo armies brought it with them... though there wasn’t anything they could do about it since the revolucionarios were the only alternative they had. And they wanted to kill the upper classes wholesale and take all their property, and the wilder ones burned churches on general principle.

“Yes I did, but that doesn’t mean I ever wanted to be a boy, I just wanted to have the same opportunities,” she said, which seemed to baffle him a bit.

The telephone made its soft dinging; it was a very modern Siemens model with speaker and microphone in the same handset. Horst covered the distance in two strides.

“Ja,” he said after a moment, then gave her a grim nod as he hung up.

“A party of French gentlemen have arrived,” he said. “That little talk with the concierge was worth the money. The Frenchmen have paid extra to be on this floor.”

Flush times for the Victoria’s staff, Luz thought. They must be on half a dozen payrolls, not to mention tips.

“How many?” she said aloud, feeling a taut excitement.

“Four.” He grinned. “Ample to handle one old man.”

He crossed to the bedroom; she heard him thump his fist on the wall, and presumably pressed a wineglass to it to hear the reply. She hadn’t asked what he was doing earlier when he wrote a note and folded it and left the room for a minute; that would have been a gross breech of professional etiquette, though it was a virtual certainty he’d slipped it under the door of the Herr Professor next door. The pajama outfit she had on had a belt-loop for her pistol and a pocket for the navaja that left them both concealed by the jacket. She thoughtfully slipped an extra magazine into her other pocket, one of the special nine-round ones she’d had made up by the Chamber’s armorers, and her cosh.

Horst saw that as he came through. “Shoot if you must, but not unless you must,” he warned. “Our objective is to get out of here tomorrow unremarked, with the Professor alive. His life is the maximum priority if we must choose between those two.”

“Will they try to kill him, or take him?” she asked.

Her first priority was maintaining her cover, but it amounted to the same thing in practice.

Though I’m certainly not going to die for the Herr Doktor if I can help it. Aloud she added clinically:

“I’d say take from the way this is going, but you’d know better here in Europe.”

He shrugged. “Impossible to tell for certain, but I would wager any sum that they will try to take him—and kill him only if they cannot. He knows much that they would very much like to know.”

“Bad practice to send a man like that abroad,” she said absently, thinking very hard indeed about what the Germans were up to. “Don’t bet what you can’t afford to lose.”

He gave her a sharp glance; the remark was a little sophisticated for the agent of a domestic revolutionary group, rather than an international spy. Then he shrugged again.

“It was necessary.”

She mentally chided herself for the slip, then went to the outer door and knelt; the door locks were a rather old-fashioned French box style, which meant you could look directly through the keyhole—in America they would have been replaced with Yale types long ago in a major city, but this was convenient and for a seaport Amsterdam was extremely law-abiding. Horst made a motion to follow her, then sat in a chair facing the door—it would be much easier for her to maintain this posture without stiffening muscles she would need at maximum efficiency than it would be for a six-foot man.

The soft sound of the elevator bell sounded from down the corridor, and the rattle of the operator pulling back the folding brass screen of the door. Luz made a thumbs-up gesture. Then she drew her eye back a little from the hole, as four men came into view. They were all youngish and medium-sized, none of them past their mid-thirties from a quick estimate, and all in unexceptional middle-class gear including overcoats, with carpetbags in their hands. All but one had mustaches, cut rather close... which was a little bit sloppy. Though plenty of men other than young French military officers favored that style these days, it still made you mentally superimpose a kepi above it. Two of them turned casually and watched either way as the third opened the door, and then they all entered neatly.

Her teeth skinned back a little as a flush of heat warmed belly and chest. She’d felt like this before... and the earliest time had been hiding behind a pungent-smelling brush with her father, the Winchester in her hands, waiting for the jaguar to come down by the waterhole where they’d staked out the goat. She put a thumb over the hole just in case and turned her head; Horst was at her shoulder.

“Four of them,” she said softly. “Two were definitely the ones we saw at the airship dock. Just right for a snatch team.”

Horst nodded, his hard square face expressionless save for a narrowing of the eyes.

“There will be more outside, with an automobile ready to take him to a Deuxième Bureau safe-house for interrogation... though they might want to get him to France for that. And to put him on trial,” he added absently, as his eyes went opaque with thought.

¡Ay! her mind prompted.

Things Horst had said about trips on high-altitude Zeppelins coalesced with hints about the Professor.

The May raid? Is that what they want him for?

Ten German airships had raided Paris on May 5th, coming in at night and very high to avoid the fighting scouts guided by searchlights. They’d dropped gas, not explosives—hundred-pound sheet metal containers full of phosgene mixed with chlorine as a spreading agent and a small bursting charge set to explode at three hundred meters up. The carnage had been terrible, since on a short trip from the German bases in Belgium each airship had been able to carry tons of the noxious stuff. Thousands dead and many more blinded or crippled, mass panic and flight...

But if Horst and the Herr Doktor were both involved in that, and they were both in America just now... this has to be some sort of project aimed at us but... maybe related to that raid? Perhaps it was a trial run? Berlin knows we’re coming in to the war soon, they don’t have any more incentive to avoid angering us... but a transatlantic raid would be very difficult with any worthwhile payload. Oh, this really is big. It’s worth anything to get the intelligence on it back to Washington.

The thought flickered through her mind in an instant, and a cold prickle ran over her skin. Aloud she went on:

“We have to intercept them before they leave this floor with him,” she said. “But Horst... we’ll have to take them by surprise, unless you want a gun-fight right here. They could have anything up to machine-carbines in those bags, depending on how badly they want this man.”

He winced and barred his teeth. “They will want him very badly,” he admitted. “Assuming that they know who he really is, which is a good bet at this point. And from Amsterdam they could consult with Paris on secure lines easily to get orders.”

“If we try to play it safe and stop them flat before they reach him we’re actually increasing our risk and his; especially since you want to keep this quiet. We’re outnumbered, so we need tactical surprise, and it’s worth it if they’re not going to kill him. And to kill him they wouldn’t need four men—one man with a knife or a muffled pistol would do fine.”

Unwillingly, he nodded. That meant letting the French agents get into the Professor’s room, letting them think they had him secured and nothing to worry about except an inconspicuous extraction, and then hitting them from the rear. The slight extra risk that they’d simply kill him was worth it.

“How long to open one of these doors?” Horst said musingly, as if speaking to himself.

She answered straightforwardly: “Seconds if they have a passkey, and I think they probably do.”

“In this whore of a merchant city? Ja.”

“I could get through one of these locks in about twenty seconds with my picks,” she said, tapping her finger lightly on the box-lock. “Less, after I practice on this one a bit. And if they don’t leave their key in the other side of the lock—if they do we’d have to break in. Or they may not lock it behind them at all, if they’re set on speed; they could leave one man on guard in the corridor. That’s likely from the way they handled getting set up in their own room. In, snatch the Professor, get him back to their room and lock his door behind them.”

And if he’s behind the Paris attack, they’ll want him very, very badly... for which I don’t blame them in the least. Odd I’m going to have to kill them for the greater good defending thoroughly wicked enemies, but there you are. That’s espionage for you.

Aloud she went on: “I’d have a much better chance of taking out a guard quietly if they do, so I’d better go out first.”

He closed his eyes and thought again. “Ja, we will have to do it that way. I do not like it... but, yes.” A chuckle. “I am going into battle beside a woman, not something I had imagined, and yet I find your presence profoundly comforting, Elisa.”

“Not many I’d rather have on my side in a fight either, Horst,” she said.

Technically he was going into battle behind a woman, but it wouldn’t be tactful to mention that.

His eyes went to a clock on the mantle above the hearth. “Ten o’clock. They will not move for some time, at least four hours. Good, we will have time for dinner to settle.”

She nodded; the best time for that sort of operation in a large city was a few hours after midnight, which was as close to deep sleep as a metropolis got.

“You should get some more rest, if you can,” she said. “I’ll wake you in two hours or if they move.”

He went out and returned with a comforter and pillow for himself and another for her to kneel on; one of the things she respected in him was that he didn’t need to chatter. She settled in to wait, letting her mind drift without words and keeping her eyes a little out of focus as she looked through the keyhole. All she had to watch for was movement.

 

@@@

 

“Hisst,” Horst said softly; then plugging the keyhole with his thumb for an instant: “They’re moving.”

Luz came out of her half-doze instantly. Some inner sense told her it wasn’t long before dawn, and the air had a peculiar stale stillness. The clock said three-forty-five. She rolled to her feet and waited, still loose from her last set of stretches; they looked at each other as the half-minute mark went by, Horst showing his teeth in an unconscious snarl and Luz smiling slightly and letting the cosh slip into her right palm with its loop around her wrist while she undid the collar of her pajama-jacket.

He nodded and opened the door, standing behind it as she went out first—though she could see his repugnance at it in every inch of his taut body. There was no way any French agent was going to look at him and see anything but a very dangerous German, though, and gracias a Dios Horst was smart enough to see that.

Whereas I’m a good-looking young woman in the sort of pajamas a cinema siren would wear... or a very high-class courtesan, I suppose.

The doors on this floor were fairly far apart, since most of them led to multi-room suites. There was a Frenchman standing mock-casually outside the Herr Doktor Professor’s. He came alert as the door opened, and she thought she recognized the knee-forward stance of a savateur. Then he saw who she was and relaxed, taking his hand out from beneath his jacket. Luz smiled slightly, putting on a sleepy-sated pouting look and rolling her hips a little more, and saw his eyes drop to the hint of cleavage shown where the top two buttons of her jacket were undone.

Oh, you deserve this so much, François, she thought. ¡Que güey! Darwin never sleeps!

Still smiling, she pivoted smoothly on her right heel and drove the ball of her left foot up between his legs as hard as she could. That would have hurt even if he was wearing a cup... and he wasn’t. The thump of impact was followed less than a second later by another as she brought the cosh around and down on the back of his head, which was presented to her neatly as he bent over gasping with his mouth wide open and no sound but a breathy hiss coming out of it. The fine lead shot inside the leather transmitted all the force of the full-armed strike with her weight behind it as it flattened against the bone, and he fell as limp as a puppet with its strings cut.

He might well be dead. She hadn’t pulled the blow; it would have been insane to do so.

The first time Luz had killed had been on the night her parents died; it had been one of the revolucionarios; she’d cut his throat when he staggered drunkenly by her hiding place to piss out some of the looted pulque, and she’d taken his rifle and bandolier and clothes and horse to escape into the silent Sonoran desert. Pedro’s lessons had worked perfectly—hand over the mouth and nose, jerk back in the same motion, drag the cutting edge down diagonally from below the ear to past the adam’s-apple.

She’d had nightmares about it for a long time, the sudden smell like wet iron added to the rebel’s stale sweat and tobacco and liquor, and the hot flood over her hand, black in the darkness lit only by the last flames of the hacienda’s casa grande, and the body twitching beneath her until it went flaccid.

After that it got easier and easier. Sometimes she was a little troubled that it didn’t trouble her much any more.

Horst was beside her before the Frenchman had finished slumping into a puddle, moving like a big golden cat. He looked down at the body and pursed his lips admiringly, then put his big left hand on the doorknob. In his right was what they called a trench-knife these days, a cut-down bayonet with a set of brass knuckles added to the hilt and a lead knob on the pommel. It looked crude and ugly and effective, which was truth in advertising, and he had a Luger tucked into his belt.

Luz drew in a long breath, let it out, felt her pulse slow a little, and nodded.

He turned the knob—the door wasn’t locked—crouched and lunged through as it opened, going instantly from a standing start to a blur of speed like a charging tiger. The suite was a mirror-image of the one next door Horst had booked, and this was the large sitting-room. There were the remains of a meal on the table and four men; two of the Frenchmen were holding the Professor. He sagged between them in his old-fashioned nightshirt, blood streaming from a cut under his thick white hair, and his eyes rolled up as one of them pressed a damp cloth over his mouth and nose.

The third had a Star Model 14 automatic in his gloved hand—with blood on the barrel, so he’d pistol-whipped the elderly German to quiet him for the chloroform—probably a mixture of alcohol and chloroform and ether, since the pure stuff didn’t work as well as fiction would have it. He leveled the weapon as the other two dropped the half-conscious academic unceremoniously. Luz whirled the cosh around her head once by the strap and then threw it across the ten feet separating them; the man whipped up his right hand to protect his face, fired, and missed. Horst closed with him.

The first of the two Frenchman who’d been holding the old German came at her with a pivot like a dancer, his left foot flicking up and snapping around for her head—a fouetté figure, a high whip-kick. It was delivered with bone-cracking force and dangerously fast; she barely managed to go in beneath it, weight and momentum pushing her down as she let her knees go slack and threw out her left hand to stop the fall. The navaja snicked open in her right and she cut viciously at his groin as she rose. He tumbled backward just in time to avoid having the inside of his thigh sliced open and came upright with a knife in his own hand. It was a narrow double-edged blade and he held it point-down with his other hand covering it, apache-style.

Some distant part of her noticed that the Deuxième Bureau were apparently recruiting street-fighters from the gangs who haunted the drinking-kens of Ménilmontant, or at least using them as trainers.

Come to me and die, puto Gabacho,” she snarled in Spanish.

His dark eyes flared as he recognized the blade in her hand and the way she held it, and this time there was no nonsense about her sex—he probably wasn’t seeing anything but knife, hands and feet. Then his covering hand moved in an extravagant gesture designed to distract the eye while the point of the knife lanced forward—apache style again. They were already close enough to strike without footwork.

When you are ojo a ojo, someone is going to die very soon, old Pedro’s voice echoed in her mind. You are committed. Strike or die, there is nothing else.

Her blade moved in a smooth swift floretazo towards his midsection, point lowered and edge turned to the left. The Frenchman’s guarding hand flashed out to grab her wrist and immobilize it while he struck himself. The hand slapped down on her wrist... but the blade wasn’t there. He had just time enough to realize she’d flicked it into her rising left inside his guard before the point took him beneath the chin.

There was a crisp popping feel as the six-inch blade slammed up through his palate and into his brain, and she wrenched the knife free with desperate speed and skipped backward.

The third Frenchman might have been a bad problem, except that Horst had just gripped his chin and neck and turned his head until he was staring out from between his shoulder-blades. The German dropped the body and put a hand to his side.

“The pigdog kicked me,” he wheezed. “I don’t think any ribs are broken, though. Or if they are, just a little cracked.”

Luz shuddered and took a deep breath as her awareness flared out again into the harsh blood-and-feces scented aftermath of twenty seconds of combat. There was no time for reaction, or anything but dealing with the consequences. Probably nobody had heard the single shot, or dismissed it.

The first man Horst had gone for, the pistoleer, was lying on his back with the trench knife jammed up under his breastbone and apparently stuck fast.

Close in, knife beats pistol nine times in ten, she thought.

Horst was already returning with a handful of towels from the bathroom, and they wrapped them around various wounds; luckily the blood stopped pumping out like a hose when the heart ceased beating, but there had already been too much from the loser in the knife-duel, and she discovered that there was a tiny knick over her collarbone where his thrust had almost gone home into her jugular.

Mierda, she thought, sticking a little piece of clean paper over it. No time, no time...

She stepped to the outer door, checked both ways, and dragged the man she’d coshed over to the French agents’ room and through into their bathroom by his feet—it was convenient that this was a first-class hotel, with the luxury of private bathing facilities for most of the higher-priced rooms. She heaved him into it, and helped Horst with the others. The four of them made a mound even arranged spoon-fashion, but with a little effort they fitted well enough into the big claw-footed, cast-iron tub that body fluids and blood would leak down the drain and not drip through the floorboards.

It was astonishing how much blood a human being held, and as anyone who’d spilled a bottle could testify a little went a long way when it got out. The same bathroom furnished towels to replace the ones they’d taken from the Professor’s suite. Back there Horst took the half-empty bottle of red wine from the old man’s late meal and carefully poured it over the stains on the rug. With luck that would cover the blood and the smell long enough; they only needed enough time to cross the border and their train left about dawn.

While he did that she examined the Herr Doktor, reflecting that she’d need a name for him. The wound on his scalp was superficial, though it had bled copiously as injuries there always did, and she fixed it with sticking-plaster and iodine from Horst’s supplies. The bone beneath seemed unaffected, but though he seemed in reasonable shape the skinny old man was at least in his sixties, and he’d been drugged too, with the usual mixture. At least they’d smeared Vaseline on his face to avoid chemical burns.

He stirred as Horst lifted him effortlessly like a child; another thing that lurid fiction didn’t mention was that it took a solid three or four minutes of breathing through a pad to really put you out. A hypodermic was much better if you were in a hurry. His eyes fluttered open and he muttered:

Loki... Hauch des Loki... Americans...

That meant Breath of Loki; Loki, the trickster-God of the ancient Germanics, who ended chained to a rock beneath the drip of venom from a serpent. Her parents had read her those stories, with many others, though her father had preferred the Ulster Cycle and her mother the Song of the Cid. Luz carefully didn’t react, and the sound died away to mumbles.

“They used a knockout mixture,” she said; she’d sniffed at the cloth before dropping it on the bodies. “Risky, but I think he’ll wake up fairly soon.”

“Good,” Horst said; they tucked the old man into the bed in their suite, making sure he wasn’t drooling too much or in danger of choking on his tongue. “It’s only a few hours until we leave for the train. Luck that it’s right across the square!”

Luz nodded thoughtfully. “Horst, can you square the customs agents on the German side?”

He nodded. “Yes, if I must. We’ll be switching to a special train there direct to... where we’re going. Why?”

“Because if the French are this determined, I’d like some more firepower if they try again. And the Gabachos were all carrying carpet-bags.”

His eyes lit. “Ah! Just-in-case gear!”

They slipped across again to the room the French had so briefly occupied; it might be imagination, but she thought she could smell death under the sweet flowery odor of the bath-oil they’d spilled over the bodies. The four identical carpetbags were all resting on the parlor table.

Na, was haben wir denn hier?” Horst said as he opened one and his brows went up.

Which was roughly equivalent to What have we here? Or well, well, well, a phrase suitable for opening Christmas presents.

What they had here was an arsenal; two sawed-off shotguns, ammunition for them in the form of heavy buckshot and slugs, a half-dozen hand grenades shaped like miniature pineapples—

“English. Mills bombs, not as good as our Stielhandgranate, but a sound design,” Horst remarked.

“The gringos use a similar one lately, but what’s this rifle?”

Horst laid out the disassembled weapon, clicked it together and took it apart again after running his hands over the join. Luz was familiar with it from briefing papers, but she let the German explain; in her experience most men derived considerable pleasure from explaining things, particularly to women, and it wouldn’t be in character for Elisa Carmody to be completely familiar with European military exotica. Luz liked a well-designed weapon as she did any other tool, enjoyed hunting and was very competent with them for that or a fight, but she’d never derived that semi-sensual pleasure from guns that she’d seen often in others and of which Horst showed every sign.

“It’s a Meunier semi-auto rifle,” Horst said. “A specially made one for taking down and putting in a small case and assembling again rapidly.”

“Semi-automatic? Like the gringo Colt-Browning? Those have caused us hard problems.”

“Very much like, though it’s recoil operated rather than gas. A good weapon, much better than the Lebel, and a much better 7mm rimless cartridge too—which they stole from Mauser-werk—though the action is a little delicate for the trenches. The French started producing it just before the war, but they never had enough for general issue. They give it to elite units and marksmen and raiding parties. And ten clips of ammunition, fifty rounds. Can you use a rifle?”

“Yes,” she said flatly. “Quite well.”

He nodded, taking her at her word. “Well, let’s take our gifts. Ah, and a coil of rope, always useful.”

They put the brass Do Not Disturb signs on their little chains around the knobs of the French agents’ door, and the Professor’s, with a one-guilder coin bearing Queen Wilhemina’s rather plump face left in the helpfully provided slot in each for emphasis. The signs were recent inventions and the mark of a first-class hotel in a sophisticated city, but the thriller writers had already begun to note how they aided skullduggery.

When everything was packed they sat on the sofa together in their own suite to wait the remaining hours; Horst decided that they would ask for an invalid’s wheeled chair if the professor hadn’t fully recovered by then. Luz shivered a little and leaned against the man’s shoulder. He gave her a surprised look and put a gentle arm around her.

“I don’t like killing men who’ve never done me harm,” she said. “I will if I have to, but... I don’t like it. Better them than us, but there may be children who can’t understand why their fathers aren’t coming home.”

After a moment he said with clumsy goodwill: “They were men fighting for their country and people, as I do for mine and you for yours. This was honorable war, with equal chances for us and them, blow for blow and shot for shot.”

“Yes,” she said, and they waited in silence.

 

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