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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Staatsspoorwegen
(Netherlands State Railways)
Eastern Gelderland Province
Koninkrijk der Nederlanden
(Kingdom of the Netherlands)
September 7th, 1916(b)

 

It was supposed to be six hours from Amsterdam’s Centraal to Cologne in Germany. Judging by where they were, across the Rhine and past Arnhem, just beginning to head south, it was going to be at least two hours more; in fact, they’d be lucky to make the customs house at Emmerich-am-Rhein by two o’clock. Horst grumbled, his tidy Teutonic soul offended by the irregularity; Luz thought he’d probably have gone mad if he had to live in Mexico or Guatemala or any of a number of places her father had built things.

But he allowed that it was probably the result of the war and the shortages of good coal in the Netherlands, which had to import every lump from combatants who needed it themselves. The engine up ahead was wheezing and making asthmatic noises now and then; even at the peaks between stations they were doing distinctly less than the fifty miles an hour a passenger express should, which meant there was probably duff and shale in every shovelful going into the firebox. The locomotive had looked like a toy to her anyway. European engines always did, compared to the massive brutes that roamed American railways.

At least the first-class passenger compartments were joined along the side by an interior corridor, what Europeans for some mysterious reason called the American Plan, despite it not being all that common in the US. A lot of trains here still used the other, older type that had nothing but the exits on the side, showing the design’s descent from a string of stagecoaches stuck on a flatbed, which meant you could end up dying to pee while the train crawled between stations and no place to do it but the floor.

She’d left for the ladies’ toilet an hour out of Amsterdam at a hint from Horst, and when she came back the Professor—technically, he was Privatdozent Ernst von Bülow—was still chilly and aloof but at least minimally polite, mostly ignoring her. Luz assumed that Horst had explained to the older man how she’d helped save his wrinkled backside from the French, though he’d still been surprised, or seemed to be, when she spoke excellent upper-class German.

She assumed from the slight but detectable edge of a rough Brandenberger accent that he was a genuine Prussian and not one by historical accident and Frederick the Great’s ambition like Horst the Silesian. But then, nearly all Germans had some sort of regional tinge even when speaking the standard tongue, which had been more or less made up in the Reformation era and wasn’t something anyone sang lullabies in or shouted in play as a child. From the combination of an academic title and the nobleman’s von he was probably also the non-inheriting younger scion of a family with a minor entailed estate out among the pinewoods... an estate which in America would qualify as a biggish farm. In England only the eldest son of a noble had a title and the rest were commoners, but in Germany all the children were of the edel caste, and they bred like rabbits.

His head probably feels like it’s going to explode, between being pistol-whipped and drugged, she thought with an attempt at charity by the young and healthy. It takes longer to spring back at his age.

They were into the eastern part of Gelderland now and had turned south, closer and closer to the German frontier, and the land passing by outside their windows was no longer pancake-flat. By Dutch standards it was mountainous and thinly populated, meaning there were occasional wooded ridges or even low hills, one towering as much as two hundred feet into the sky. Wooden fences surrounded the fields, reaped and yellow and some with sheaves of grain still in pyramidal stooks, or bushy with root crops or green pasture thronged with fat-looking brown cattle with odd white bands from top to bottom in the middle of their bodies, like broad belts. Scattered farms stood with brick noggin between their half-timbers under steep red roofs, and now and then a small castle or stately manor-house dreamed amid formal gardens. The occasional, inevitable windmill clacked away, probably grinding the newly-harvested grain, and the air through the half-open window smelled warm and sleepy-green and somehow had a hint of first frost soon, under the coal-smoke. You could imagine a cotillion in one of those manors, and Mozart lilting softly out the French windows, or a mother in a lace cap spooning cheese soup out of a tureen for eager tow-headed children in a farmhouse kitchen of scrubbed wood and shining tile.

Hard to imagine it’s the edge of a continent tearing at itself like a mad wolf eating out its own guts, Luz thought.

Horst seemed to catch the thought. “There has been war here often enough,” he said. “This is where my ancestors broke the Roman frontier fifteen hundred years ago, and Charlemagne fought his long campaigns against the heathen Saxons and Frisians. Viking ships came far up these rivers with their dragon heads to burn and plunder and carry off captives. War in the Middle Ages, war in the Eighty Years struggle against the Spanish, war against the French of Louis XIV. And against Napoleon, in the time of our own grandparents and their parents.”

Luz smiled rueful agreement. “There is war where there are human beings,” she said.

“War is the locomotive of history,” von Bülow said a bit sententiously.

Luz was tempted to argue the point simply because she didn’t like him, though in fact the statement was pretty much true as far as she could see and a rather striking phrase. Instead she looked at the book beside him, Also sprach Zarathustra, and said:

“That bit with the old woman talking to Zarathustra is metaphorical, you know, Herr Privatdozent.”

Privatdozent meant an independent scholar with at least a doctorate who wasn’t formally appointed to a university post. It was often somewhat more prestigious than a regular academic position.

“And often misinterpreted,” she added.

“Which part? You have read Nietzsche?”

He sounded slightly indignant, as if she’d checked the book out of a library and kept it beyond the return date. She smiled sweetly and fluttered her eyelids.

“Well, of course. Hasn’t anyone who actually reads read the most influential philosopher of our time? I mean the part where the old woman says to Zarathustra: du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiss die Peitsche Nicht!

Literally that meant: Thou goest to the women? Forget not the whip! If it wasn’t his favorite pair of sentences in the book she’d stick jalapeno peppers up her nose.

“Metaphorical in what sense?” von Bülow said, his eyes lighting up despite himself; like most of his breed he simply couldn’t resist word-chopping, or textual exegesis if you were feeling charitable. “There are many levels of interpretation possible, of course; this I grant.”

“Well,” Luz said, opening the Hotel Victoria’s lunch-basket and handing around the sausage-and-cheese sandwiches, pickles and apples and bottles of flavored seltzer-water. “Notice that the old woman has just given a wise reply to Zarathustra’s first statements about women in general. And that she addresses him with the familiar du as if he were her child, and the word she... which is to say, Nietzsche... uses for women is Frauen, not Weiber.”

Frauen and Weiber were more or less precisely equivalent to the English distinction between Ladies and females... or between Ladies and women-in-general. With malice aforethought she added:

“Possibly it helps not to have been born a native German speaker to appreciate exactly what he’s trying to do there.”

Luz continued as the professor sputtered:

“With Nietzsche precise word choice always matters crucially; he’s a poet as well as a philosopher, a philosopher who speaks in poetry—he says things that can’t be summed up in a simple declarative sentence, the way you can the price of apples. Hinting at truths whose meaning can only be approached allusively, recursively, because language itself creaks beneath the weight. Each word is surrounded by a penumbra of possible meanings which must be considered together rather than one being chosen and the others dismissed.”

Horst was leaning back, with a straightened expression on his face, as if he was fighting down a delighted grin.

Yes, there are times when it’s a bit of a struggle not to like him too much, she thought.

Luz spread a napkin across her knees. Von Bülow did likewise and took a bite of his sandwich and chased it with the fizzy water, frowning. Luz bit into hers; inside the crusty roll was ossenworst, a raw-beef sausage made with pepper, cloves, mace and nutmeg and then slow-smoked at low temperature.

That, I have to admit, the Dutch do very well. And this Gouda is excellent.

Von Bülow looked past the wall of the carriage: “Granting the general principle of the allusiveness of Nietzsche’s prose for the sake of argument, particularly with respect to this work, what is your specific interpretation?” the academic said challengingly. “Can there be a new one of so seminal a work?”

“My interpretation would be twofold. First, the old woman is reminding Zarathustra of the whip the woman holds—her role as the maker-into-human of the wild-beast boy-man who she mothers—and how more generally she uses the whip of restraint, of culture, to tame the male; so Zarathustra should take care when he goes to the ladies, lest they tame him with their whips. Him in this case, of course, being not merely Zarathustra in this passage but that screaming child he carries, the child of his mind surely, his truth that he fears is too loud.”

“Outrageous sophism!” von Bülow said. “Why so contradict the first reading... oh.”

“Oh indeed; and note that she does not say forget not your whip, she says forget not the whip. It’s a complete reversal of meanings, which is the theme of the work, isn’t it?”

“The inversion of morals is the theme! Well, that and eternal recurrence.”

“So shouldn’t we examine each statement in it in light of that? A reversal of both morals and meanings? And secondly of course the ‘whip’ is an expression of distance, of the Pathos der Distanz to which Nietzsche so often refers. With the whip, the woman requires that Zarathustra—the male Prophet—maintain a wary distance...”

“Superficially striking, but surely—”

Bless you, Miss Lucy Ganz, Luz thought, recalling her philosophy teacher kindly as von Bülow began his indignant refutation.

Twenty minutes later they were crunching the last of the apples and going at it hammer-and-tongs about the meaning of ‘over’ in relation to the concept of the Übermensch and Luz was pointing out the fact that Über could as easily mean transcendent as superior, and that mensch was used rather than man, conveying the more general sense of human being rather than specifically a male. Von Bülow wasn’t a professional philosopher any more than Luz was; she gathered from some casual remarks that he was a scientist, probably a chemist, and they were contending on nearly equal ground.

Horst was silent except for a little helpless wheezing, and had a hand clamped firmly over his mouth. She thought she saw a tear trembling at the corner of one pale gray eye.

Then his head came up, the amusement vanishing. “Quiet!” he barked in his officer’s voice. “Something’s wrong!”

Von Bülow did fall silent, for a wonder, with his index finger in mid-poke towards her in the air. Luz listened too, and heard the scream of steel on steel and felt the swift hard lurch as the train’s emergency brakes locked. She stuck her head out of the compartment window in time to see rooster-tails of sparks from the six driving wheels going into full reverse as the engine turned into a curve before a small bridge. She didn’t have time to check that that the dark gap in the rails her first glance saw was really there...

But the locomotive driver certainly thought so, and he had a much closer view; she’d just seen him and the fireman jump for it.

“Sabotage!” she shouted, grabbing the leather straps above the seat and slamming her feet against the seat opposite her. “The train’s going to derail, brace for it!”

The engine started to take the curve, and then there weren’t any rails beneath the foretruck and then the driving wheels were biting uselessly into gravel and dirt. The sixty-ton weight of the locomotive plowed down the embankment and into the water of the little river, and there was a deafening roaring bang when the cold water struck the boiler and firebox and the riveted seams yielded, then ripped open as the flaying steam within escaped in a huge whistle. Screams echoed in their wake as passengers were thrown across cabins, breaking bones and faces, and rivets and fragments flew like shrapnel.

Luz gave a shivering grunt as the impact wrenched at her, but the springs she made of knees and thighs and back held, despite the savage wrench of the forces trying to turn her into a tumbling mass of organs wrapped around fragile ceramic sticks and the strap that felt like it was cutting through her wrist. Horst managed too, and he had one iron arm braced across the professor’s chest. The carriage they were in was the fourth back from the coal and water cars, and it came off the rails and almost immediately rammed into the one before, twisting until it lay three-quarters over with the outer door of the compartment pointing down towards the damp ditch beside the track. The screams of humans seemed slight after the shriek of tortured metal.

“Out!” Horst snapped. “They’ll be here any moment, this is an ambush.”

He tried the door that led from the compartment to the outside, but the frame was jammed. Then he went down with his back on the canted floor, drawing his long legs up and slamming his bootheels downward and out into the door over and over again. The doors held for five impacts hard enough to rock the carriage and then screeched open with a sound of tearing metal.

He really is Siegfried Fafnir’s-bane come again, Luz thought. Only not stupid and not hip-deep in a sea of aunts.

While Horst’s boot-heels hammered Luz was moving quickly; she slung her suitcase over her back by its strap, opened the Frenchman’s Gladstone bag, extracted the rifle and fitted it together as Horst had demonstrated. It made a satisfying snick as the joints clicked together, and then she had four feet of automatic weapon, very much like the Colt-Brownings she’d used before. A moment and she pulled the operating knob on the side to the rear and pushed five rounds from a stripper-clip into the magazine with her thumb and let the bolt drive the first into the chamber. The rest of the ammunition went into the pockets of her skirt, and two of the grenades into those of her jacket.

By then Horst was helping von Bülow down the five-foot gap to the torn damp earth, making nothing of his weight.

“Come along, Herr Privatdozent,” he said cheerfully. “The French are very determined to make your acquaintance, but this time I think they’ll settle for killing you rather than kidnapping you for the Sorbonne.”

“Putting my stuffed and mounted corpse on display at the Sorbonne, perhaps,” von Bülow surprised her by saying. “Like that lunatic Bentham at London University.”

Bright sun, Luz thought as she dropped through into a crouch with the rifle at port-arms across her body and squinted around; it was bright for northern Europe at least. You forgot how much further north Europe was than the parts of America with similar climates—without the Gulf Stream this would be like Hudson’s Bay.

Just the time for the local climate not to be sodden and wet and misty and easy to hide in!

There was a dirt road to the west, then a wooden fence enclosing a broad field of something bushy—potatoes—and then woods of oak and beech with a few hints of color in the leaves about three hundred yards from the tracks.

A flicker of movement between the car and the one to its rear—more nearly upright—showed a man in rough laborer’s clothing climbing through with a shotgun in his hands, not more than thirty feet away. There wasn’t time for anything but reaction; Luz swung the muzzle of the rifle around squeezed off three shots from the hip, the hard bam-bam-bam cutting through the chorus of screams and moans of pain as it bucked in her hands, shouts and the crackling crunch of metal contracting and buckling... and the growing crackle of fire from the coal-truck and the crumpled lead wagon.

The first round kicked up gravel from the trackbed by the man’s feet, the second sparked off the frame of the crumpled rail car behind him with a wicked pinnng, and the third took him in the shoulder. He fell backward with a scream—she thought she heard merde! in it—and both barrels of the shotgun went off, with buckshot whining uncomfortably close.

A few people noticed, several of them idiotic enough to point and exclaim rather than hit the dirt, but several others were running... and they’d inform the authorities fairly soon. There was a village named Stokkum southward of them, just in sight across flat open country.

Horst had slung the professor over his broad shoulder, but was hesitating. Luz tossed the carpetbag with the rest of the grenades and the shotgun and its ammunition to him and snapped:

“Horst! I can’t carry him!”

Or at least not at any speed, she didn’t need to say. He nodded, the momentary irresolution leaving his face.

“To the woods.”

“I’ll cover you and then fall back.”

He sprinted to the fence, hit it running and vaulted over, with one board creaking dangerously as the combined weight of the two men went on it. Then he was running across the field of potatoes, which was easier said than done—they were in hills parallel to his westward run, which meant there were little furrows and ridges just right to catch the foot, concealed by the knee-high plants. He bounded across the field at a dead sprint anyway despite the carpet bag and a hundred and thirty-odd pounds of scientist, jinking irregularly from side to side as he went to keep from presenting a zero-deflection shot with what looked like an experienced infantryman’s reflex.

Horst said I was one of a kind. I certainly hope he is, or Germany really will rule the world!

Luz followed through the grass of the verge between the railroad right-of-way and the road and then over more grass to the fence; with European tidiness and reluctance to waste an inch of ground everything green had been grazed, probably by tethered sheep, which was good. The American equivalent would be a wild tangle of waist-high weeds only hacked back a couple of times a year at best. Her skirts were cut with hidden pleats that allowed a full range of movement to her legs, but they were still more likely to catch on things than trousers.

There were situations where a woman could wear trousers without attracting too much attention these days—on a wilderness hunting trip, or in advanced circles when riding astride—but traveling on a respectable first-class train was not one of them. The only alternative was to dress and pass as a male, which she’d done when necessary; it was amazing what people didn’t see. That would probably have stressed Horst too much, though.

She reached the fence—which was board-and-post and about chest high on her—hopped up and did a roll over using it as a fulcrum and let herself drop to the ground, cushioning it a little by leading with the butt of the rifle.

“Ooof!” she said, as things in her pockets gouged her.

The things included two grenades and rough handling might dislodge a pin, but there was no point in thinking about that...

There was a ridge of soil beneath the fence, thrown there over the years by plowing around the edge of the field, and it gave her a little cover. The dirt smelled damp, with the sharp dusty smell of mature potato vines over it, and the scent of things burning that shouldn’t from the train as wafts of smoke drifted by—the coal in the tender had all caught, for starters, and that would burn hot enough to make metal slump. She squirmed around to lie facing the train, licked her thumb and wet the foresight of the rifle, which had a simple adjustable leaf backsight; she was about a hundred and fifty feet away now, and with a fast-shooting round like the 7mm that meant a flat trajectory or near as no matter. Assuming the weapon was properly zeroed in with the sights in the lowest battle setting... which she just had to assume.

And die if it isn’t. Here I am, risking my life to defend a mass-murderer from justice at the hands of people who’ll be American allies in a few weeks, she thought whimsically. And using their own rifle to do it.

Though the Deuxième Bureau hadn’t hesitated to wreck a train full of neutral civilians. Still, compared to dropping poison gas on Paris... well, war was war. The train was still swarming with people, pulling the injured or trapped out of compartments, helping others away to lie still or groaning on the ground, or standing and talking to each other. A few pointed to Horst running across the potato field with an elderly chemist slung over his shoulder...

Ignore details. Look at everything. Purposeful movement will catch the eye, or weapons. There!

A man’s head and shoulders appeared over the edge of the roof of the rail-carriage she’d been in. The way it was canted made it awkward for him, since he couldn’t lie on the top without sliding down; he was probably being boosted from below, and he braced his elbows on the roof and leveled a rifle like the one she was carrying at Horst’s fleeing figure. Still less than two hundred yards away, easy for a good shot firing from a brace. She came up just enough to rest the forestock of the rifle on the lowest board of the fence, let the sight fall down on the triangle of head and shoulders, breathed out, held it, squeezed...

Crack. Crack.

Two more brass shells spun off to her right and the bolt locked back. The black silhouette—the man—jerked and toppled backward, probably with the ones below him trying to catch him; the rifle fell from his hands and slithered across the slanted top of the carriage and fell to the ground.

Crack, and it fired as it landed, the bullet going who-knows-where; hopefully not into someone’s six-year-old Anneke off to visit her grandma, but things were as they were.

Luz was already on her feet, sprinting west and trading safety for speed by doing it in a straight line. She managed to reload as she went, shoving the charger-clip in and pushing down to strip the rounds out and into the magazine, but the bolt nearly mashed her thumb as it ran forward and the potato-bushes caught at her skirts.

Meunier, you hijo de puta, why didn’t you use a detachable magazine like Browning when you designed this thing? Colt-Brownings have twenty rounds and you can just slap a new one in when you’re in a hurry!

For thirty seconds there was only her own panting breath and footfalls and the rustle and catch of vegetation against the hem of her skirt, and Horst dwindling in front of her... was he powered by steam? Then a crack-crack from behind her, and a sound like ptow to her left and a ripping echo following it like silk parting, ptow again to her right.

That was rifle bullets going by, and far too close. She’d been bracketed, which meant the next one—

Luz threw up her arms and collapsed forward, letting her body bounce flat with the rifle still loosely clasped in her left, and there was another ptow and the ripping sound right above her just as she fell.

No scream, no thrashing, don’t overdo...

More often than not a couple of hits to the center of mass just made someone drop down limp as the body cavity flooded and blood-pressure dropped. Hidden by the potato vines, her right hand went into her skirt pocket; the suit she was wearing today was a russet tweed for the jacket and skirt, and it should fade into the background of slightly wilted potato vines and brown dirt well, disguising details. She let her bobbed black hair flop over her face and controlled her breathing by an effort of main will, the urge to gasp in air almost overwhelming—but that would make her move, and with the loose sandy dirt of the field so close it would mean breathing it in and then coughing and the weedy scent of the crushed potato vines tickled her nose...

¡Madre de Dios! To die because I sneezed!

She lay and pushed it out of her mind. Pushed out everything but sounds. The slow thick wind of this country through the rustling vines, the distant noises of the wreck...

“Marcel! We’re getting in range of the woods, we should spread out. The rest will come in from the other side in a few minutes if we signal,” a sharp voice said, speaking with a nasal Picard accent, full of k-sounds at the beginnings of words where most French-speakers put sh.

“Ta gueule, Pierre! I want to make sure of the Boche bastard I shot, the one who killed Etienne. And get that other Meunier rifle back, the shotguns are useless in open country.”

Cinco, she thought. Cuatro... tres... dos...

¡Uno!” Luz spat aloud.

She pulled the grenade out of her pocket, bought her left hand across and jerked the pin free with her thumb through the ring, came up to her knee and threw and let the motion spin her flat again, shoving her face down into the dirt between two rows of potatoes.

Pierre was right, she thought. They should have spread out. And Marcel is an idiot, he should have remembered we’d captured grenades with the rest of the snatch team’s gear.

The three Frenchmen were standing about ten feet from each other, the one in the center with a rifle like the one she carried, the other two with shotguns, all of them in coarse workman’s clothes and flat cloth caps. The little clump was a hundred feet from her and she was fairly sure the grenade would land right where Pierre was standing with his rifle. Luz was good at throwing things—her father had been a baseball enthusiast since he’d grown up in the game’s New England home and had played catch with her as a girl, and she’d trained with grenades specifically since joining the Chamber and since the Great War had shown they were necessary. A Field Operative wasn’t an infantry soldier, but you needed some of the same skills sometimes... as in situations like this.

The problem was that the Mills Bomb was a defensive fragmentation grenade, meant to be thrown from places where you could duck down behind cover after you sent it towards the enemy; jagged shards of the cast-iron shell would almost certainly hit anyone standing within fifty feet of the point of impact and could go as far as two hundred. These miserable six-inch ridges of loose earth were a very poor substitute for a sandbagged trench and she very much did not want a piece of cast iron pinwheeling into her skull.

Someone started to shout grenade in French, getting as far as grena-.

There was a loud but unspectacular flat bumpf sound, followed by a pattering as dirt fell back to earth. In the same instant a man began to scream, a high wailing sound that didn’t end. Luz winced inwardly a little as she snatched up the rifle and dashed across the field; a single backward glance had told her she didn’t need to worry about those three Frenchmen again, though some of them might live.

This is beginning to get ridiculous, she thought. I’m decimating the Deuxième Bureau’s operations in the Netherlands! And if I don’t get the information out of Germany, whatever it is, I’m helping whatever German plan this is succeed!

Intelligence work was full of paradoxes and could astonish you with flights of what was supposed to be logic and wheels within wheels, but this...

She didn’t stop when she came to the edge of the woods; they were open in the European style, tended like a garden, with none of the litter of deadfalls and outer screen of saplings and underbrush she was used to in the American equivalents. Instead she ran another twenty yards and plastered herself to the other side of a beech tree four feet thick. Luz was just trying to work up enough spit to whistle when Horst’s voice called from above her:

“Very well done! You are welcome on any trench-raid I lead! That was extremely impressive, meine Süsse!”

“So was the speed you ran at, sweetie,” Luz replied.

Luz felt a rush of relief mixed with paradoxical pride; he was an enemy, more or less, even if fate had put them on the same side in this fight, but he was also someone whose praise was worth having.

“If they revive the Olympics after the war, you should enter the Pentathlon,” she finished sardonically.

Horst and von Bülow were on a broad branch more than forty feet up. The younger German pointed westward.

“There’s a country road that way pointed towards the border, I can just see a bit of it,” he said. “This is the southernmost neck of these woods and it’s narrow.”

“Probably a country road with Gabachos on it,” she said. “I overheard them before I threw the grenade and they were expecting help from that side.”

“Ach, so!” Horst said, an all-purpose remark in his language.

He had the coil of rope from the snatch team’s bag over one shoulder like a bandolier; now he undid it, put a loop he’d already tied under the academic’s arms, and lowered him effortlessly hand-over-hand to the ground, which must have been the way he got him up there. Luz steadied him, feeling the bird-fragile lightness of the elderly man, and sat him down so that he could lean against the trunk. Meanwhile Horst slung the carpetbag over his shoulder, dropped the rope, then dropped himself from branch to branch, agile as an ape. The last one was ten feet up and he caught it casually in one hand, slowing himself so that he could drop into a crouch, smiling and breathing deeply with a light sheen of sweat on his face and his neck where he’d torn off the tie.

Suppress that impulse to rip his clothes off and throw him to the ground! she told herself; it was good to smile again amid the deadly tension.

“I’ll scout the road and return,” he said. “When I do—”

He whistled a tune; it was the opening bars of Ride of the Valkyries, which he’d also done in an intimate moment back at the Victoria, and an appropriate one. She had laughed so hard then that she’d almost done herself an injury in media res since things had just gotten to the point of no return for both of them.

His jacket pockets bulged with the grenades. She handed him the rifle and the ammunition for that as well, and took the shotgun in exchange. Luz had no doubt Horst would do the scouting at least as well as she could, particularly in something close to his home environment; these probably weren’t exactly like the woods of Silesia, but they were closer to that than to California or Jalisco. With a nod he padded off westward, and Luz sank down into a crouch.

On a thought she looked in the carpetbag, and found one of the Codd-necked bottles of soda water still intact. She opened it, took a sip—her mouth and throat were paper-dry with reaction to the surge of action in her blood—and offered it to von Bülow before she went to one knee and braced the shotgun across it, trying to watch in every direction at once. That was mostly a matter of not looking anywhere in particular; you were trying to see and hear and feel things that didn’t fit the background and letting everything else flow through you. Patterns and gaps, gaps and patterns.

The principle was the same as hunting, except that you were the stalker and the prey at once. Insects hopped and buzzed, but more quietly than in the autumn woods she was used to; squirrels were that spectacular fire-red you got on this side of the Atlantic, blurring in streaks up and down the trunks and occasionally pausing to curse at her; a fox went trotting by, intent on getting away from the noise and trouble and doing a double-take and sideways jump when it saw her. Birds fluted or squawked.

Von Bülow took the bottle, lifted it in salute, and surprised her again when he spoke softly:

Vielen, vielen Dank, gnädiges Fräulein.”

Which was not only thank you, but a very formal thank you indeed, and he’d called her gracious miss, as well. His voice had been a bit of a croak until he moistened it.

Gern geschehen,” she said; you’re welcome. Though if there was some way to keep you alive and kill you... “Quietly please, if you speak.”

Ja.” After a moment: “You are of mixed nationalities, are you not, miss?”

She spoke—quietly but not in a whisper. Whispers carried. “Yes. Irish and Criollo... Creole Spanish-American.”

She didn’t mention that there were almost certainly Arawak girls in there many generations back, and it being Cuba the odd much-diluted and officially-denied African too, though the Aróstegui family would have rather have been racked and burned alive than admit it.

Von Bülow muttered under his breath; Luz thought she caught Vandal and Visigoth in it, and suppressed a grin at the mention of Germanic tribes who’d settled in Iberia back in the Völkerwanderung after the Roman Empire fell. The good professor was looking for reasons to account for her in the mental categories he was accustomed to, like his monarch’s genealogical research project to prove Uncle Teddy was really a German Uradel. Which was sort of sad and funny for Queen Victoria’s grandson, especially when you considered that his idol Frederick the Great had thought German an uncouth language where you had to read a whole page to get to a single verb, mainly suitable for speaking to servants and livestock. In Frederick’s day much of Berlin’s population had been French, Protestant refugees he’d welcomed to give the dowdy provincial city some culture.

If you go back to the Visigoths... or even just medieval times... everyone is descended from everyone, including Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, she thought but did not say. You can prove that with some simple mathematics. I prefer to think of myself as a purebred American mongrel. As Uncle Teddy says, if you subscribe to the Constitution and speak the language and call yourself American, you’re an American. And if you say I have a man’s spirit I will clout you, Ernst von Bülow, or at least wish I could.

Something prickled at her, a sudden silence in the wood. She went flat and leopard-crawled through the soft moist duff of the forest floor for a few yards until a big knotted root gave her cover, then leveled the shotgun over it.

Wer da?” von Bülow called... which made him a useful decoy.

The Ride of the Valkyries answered. Horst came through very quietly indeed and went to one knee as she rose to hers. He was all business despite the puckish choice of recognition signal.

“They’re on the road,” he said, clearing the duff and drawing a quick sketch-map in the dirt with a stick. “Two automobiles, large touring cars, but only three men guarding them. About two thousand meters from here.”

“Only two vehicles?”

“Only two in sight,” he shrugged; they had limited time to scout around.

Which might kill them, but delay certainly would.

“How far can you throw a grenade, Horst?” she asked.

“A little less than fifty meters accurately with these egg types,” he said, which was impressive. “But the autos would burn.”

One of them would burn, hopefully,” she said.

“... and the other could be very useful, ja,” he replied thoughtfully; she’d relied on his being quick on the uptake. “Risky, but much must be risked in war. The frontier is only six kilometers away, very little time by motor.”

“And more than a lifetime by foot,” she said, which prompted a grim smile.

“I lead, you cover,” he said, as they exchanged rifle for shotgun again. “Start shooting when I throw the first grenade. I prefer it this way.”

“So do I, Horst, so do I,” she said with feeling—and truthfully.

Not being concerned with proving my manhood, ¡gracias a Dios!.

Not for the first time, Horst disconcerted her a little by saying before he turned away:

“And perhaps your courage is more pure than mine, eh, Süsse?

 

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“Stay here,” Luz whispered. “Come as fast as you can when we finish the Frenchmen.”

Von Bülow sank down behind a tree, looking tightly calm. “God go with you,” he said.

Closer to the edge of the wood the beeches grew shorter, squatter, thicker and branched more. One with a divided trunk would give a good view at about the right distance; she pushed the rifle ahead of her, jumped, gripped knobs through the smooth gray bark and climbed, as agile as the girl who’d played chase with a pet raccoon through the live-oaks of their Santa Barbara home until her mother called her down. Fifteen feet up the trunk-branch split again, and she edged up to that; there were leafy branches right behind it, so her head wouldn’t be outlined when she raised it into view. The road was just ahead, stretching north-south in two rutted sandy strips with scruffy grass between them, from the look of it made by nothing more elaborate than forester’s carts and farm wagons, cows and sheep and generations of blond peasants in wooden shoes whacking out anything that tried to grow enough to block it.

The two dark-green automobiles with black trim were there, both parked heading south; Renault 40CV touring cars, big open-topped brutes that could carry seven passengers, with massive V-6 engines that could push them very fast indeed, better than sixty miles an hour on a good flat road. They’d been expensive before the war and unobtainable since with the Renault factories making other things, but she supposed the French secret service would have first call on what was available. At a guess, the French agents had parked them there and then crossed the woods she’d just traversed to remove the rails before the train arrived. It would have been a rushed, improvised operation, which was all the better—people were always more likely to make mistakes when they raced the clock. They might have gotten all the gear necessary and all the men she’d seen here in those two, if they’d started out around the same time the train did... and by then it would have been obvious they’d lost their snatch team.

Less than a hundred yards from her. The three Frenchmen were waiting, one in each car—those would be the drivers, it wasn’t a common skill anywhere, and less so here in Europe than back home—and one man taking a knee between them, with a rifle in the crook of his arm. Luz lowered her head and looked down; Horst was behind a tree and looking up at her. She held up three fingers—remembering to use her thumb and the first two in the German fashion and then folded a fist with the thumb inside and tapped it against the tree in the gesture for ‘good luck’—the American thumb and forefinger OK symbol meant something entirely different and very rude here.

Horst took a grenade in his right hand, pulled the pin and dodged forward, moving in smooth darts from tree to tree with the shotgun held at the balance in his left. Luz edged back up to just below the fork in the tree, making herself breathe deeply and slowly—the Japanese combat instructors Uncle Teddy had imported for the Black Chamber emphasized the benefits of that, and it did help.

I am getting very tired of this, occurred to her; then she suppressed it. Millions of soldiers all over the world are probably a lot more tired of it than you!

And they were doing it knee-deep in mud saturated with bits of corpse, trying to breathe in the claustrophobic closeness of a gas mask and watching obscenely fat rats run by, not dining in the Hotel Victoria or taking first-class trains. A moment of waiting, controlling her breathing, not looking at anything in particular. Then a loud but muffled bumpf!

Luz surged back up to the fork in the trunk of the beech-tree and leveled the rifle. The northernmost car had been thrown a little to one side and there was a trickle of smoke—the grenade must have gone off right under the body. The driver was out, but staggering with his hands to his head. She ignored him for now. The kneeling rifleman had gone prone and had his weapon leveled, waiting for Horst to expose himself to throw again. Fortunately she was twenty feet up, which gave her an excellent field of fire.

Crack.

Crack.

He shot and she did in almost the same instant. Her round kicked dirt out of the roadway beside the Frenchman, and he rolled frantically backward. Luz dismissed self-blame—it was a clout shot and she should have made it—and squeezed off the rest of the magazine at the moving target. By the time the bolt locked back and she reloaded he’d gotten into the ditch on the other side of the road. When she put the rifle back through the crook he was shooting at her, and his third round gouged right through the two-foot-thick beech a foot above her head in a shower of splinters that stung the left side of her face. Her belly tensed where it was pressed against the slightly—very slightly—thicker main stem. Amateurs tended to underestimate what rifle rounds could penetrate...

Just then the Frenchman seemed to levitate out of the ditch and roll frantically away. The bumpf of a grenade came less than a second later, and dirt shot upward from the ditch near where he’d lain. He sprang up and aimed for the woods Horst was throwing from, apparently more worried about another grenade than a bullet.

Crack.

This time she hit; low in the pelvis or thigh, and he started to crumple. There were no second prizes when people shot at each other.

Crack. Crack.

The French rifleman went still, and Luz was freed from the peculiar focus of a marksman’s duel. Two more grenades went off at almost the same time under the first Renault, and this time there was bright fire and then a big soft whump of expanding flame. Enough gasoline had spilled and vaporized to really go up. And to splash when the tank ruptured; the dazed driver caught a gout of it, and rolled on the ground screaming and beating at himself.

The driver of the intact car was standing, firing a Star automatic at the woods, presumably at Horst; which was futile, unless he was one of the rare really good pistol shots. Then he jumped down and ran for it across the road, the long yellow chauffeur’s duster he wore flapping around his ankles, a cap on his head and goggles pushed up. She swung the rifle’s muzzle towards him, but he staggered and gouts of dust burst out of the back of his coat as she watched. Then his knees buckled and he fell flat, hitting the ground with his face full-force and not moving. Horst walked into view breaking open the shotgun and sliding two more shells into the breach and snapping it closed. He walked over to the other Frenchman and fired both barrels into his struggling, smoking body, which was an act of soldier’s mercy.

Luz slid backward in a controlled fall and landed on the ground crouched, her skirt flaring up for a second. Von Bülow was already hurrying towards her.

“I knew you had disposed of the enemy when the firing stopped,” he said.

“Or they had disposed of us,” she said, jerking her chin towards the road.

He fell in beside her as she walked quickly, seeming spry enough, and gave a pinched smile.

“In that case, I would not be losing much. I am... it has been a very long time since I was a young Fähnrich serving my King and Fatherland against the Danes.”

At her well-hidden surprise, he chuckled a little. “Yes, gracious miss, I was not born such a dry old stick as I am now. Though even in my youth in the Wars of Unification I was never such a Siegfried as the good Hauptmann von Dückler, nor so fortunate as to fall in with a beautiful and fearless shield-maiden.”

They came out onto the road, and the unpleasant stink of burning gasoline and the worse one of burning flesh. Von Bülow’s nose twitched and he finished softly:

“And there are some things one never forgets. There was a barn full of injured men... we could do nothing...”

Well, that’s the fuel for the locomotive of history, Luz thought. And plenty of bad dreams.

“Are you injured?” Horst said sharply, turning as they came up.

Surprised, she brushed at her cheek and saw a little blood on the wrist. “No, just scratches—splinters from a near-miss in the tree I was using. He was too good, I should have gotten him with the first shot.”

“Many shots, few hits,” he said, shrugging, and sliding in behind the wheel of the remaining Renault. “You’re alive and he is not and that’s what counts. Let’s go. That burning car is marking us for all to see.”

The black smoke was already fairly high in the sky; the larger pyre of the train was to their east. She helped von Bülow in, feeling a bit less inclined to throw him in than she would have been yesterday, and rolled into the back seat herself, kneeling and facing to the rear. Acceleration threw her breasts and stomach against the cushions instantly, and nearly blew the hat off her head. She removed it and tossed it to the floor; that reminded her to unstrap the suitcase she’d been carrying like a soldier’s pack since they left the train and let it fall too.

“You are attached to your underwear,” Horst cast over his shoulder as he manipulated clutch and shift.

The big engine roared smoothly, well-kept and still warm from its drive from Amsterdam. It probably didn’t have all that much fuel, but they didn’t need to go far.

“Only to the parts next to my skin right now,” Luz shot back without turning. “But I have deathless works of literature in there,” she went on.

“Trashy popular fiction,” he called back, and they both laughed.

Then...

“No, no, no! ¡Mierda!” she swore. “We keep killing these Gabacho pigs and they keep coming!”

Three motorcycles came through the smoke of the burning auto, crowding the eastern edge of the road to avoid the flames and swaying back upright as they followed. Sand spurted from under their rear wheels as they accelerated. Luz loved driving autos and motorcycles herself, work aside, and recognized the model—Alcyon’s dispatch-rider type. Not faster than the Renault car on a good hard road... but with much better acceleration and much better at any sort of rough country. Perfectly logical to bring along on a mission like this, an ambush in the countryside; you could take those anywhere a horse could go, and most places that a man on foot could, and much faster.

She hadn’t even realized what language she’d mostly been yelling in until both the Germans laughed.

“Now you know how we feel all the time, Süsse,” Horst called over his shoulder.

“You don’t have any more grenades?”

“No,” Horst said; she hadn’t thought so from the count, but it was easy to miss things when you were fighting.

She thought, juggling times and distances as the driver concentrated on making the best speed he could. It wasn’t necessary to tell Horst to slow down; the cycles were going to catch them anyway, and too soon. Luz leveled the rifle and emptied the magazine at them, not expecting to hit moving targets from the bouncing, lurching platform of the car, just to keep them away for a moment. She used it to pull a ribbon from the band of her hat and tie it around her brow to keep the wind from behind her putting hair in her eyes, something that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if it was longer and up.

But the Frenchmen were brave men and rode well, and they’d be desperate now. All three of them wore leather jackets and leather helmets and goggles. As she watched they all drew pistols... which was something of a relief, she’d been worried that one of them would have grenades too, and get close enough to toss one into the car.

“Five second delay on the Mills grenade?”

“Four to six,” Horst said, then added pedantically: “English quality control is not up to our standards.”

Oh, wonderful, she thought, shooting again, the rifle hammering at her shoulder; it was impossible to keep a proper cheek-weld with the car doing better than forty on this surface, and the muzzle wavered no matter what she did.

What I need for this is a Thompson gun, something I could spray like a hose. ¡Por Dios! They’d turn up their toes at that.

The Frenchmen were counting her shots. At the fifth they all gunned their cycles, the one in the center firing his pistol, the other two spreading out to come up on either hand. She reloaded with the rifle down and out of their sight, probably faster than they thought she would, but then pulled the second grenade out of her jacket just as they broke out of the shadow of the woods into bright sunlight.

“¡Estoy hasta la madre de harta, aqui! ¡Toma esto, Gabachos estupidos!”

She’d grown up speaking English and Spanish interchangeably, sometimes from sentence to sentence, and often didn’t even notice which one she was thinking in. But for some things Spanish was just more satisfying, particularly some words and phrases she’d learned from the staff and in the markets rather than from her mother.

Luz pulled the pin on the second grenade, hoping that between aiming their pistols and keeping their motorcycles upright one-handed they wouldn’t worry what she was doing, or would just think she was still reloading. Making her hand relax enough for the spring-loaded lever to fly off and set the grenade’s fuse going was hard, but flipping it out was much easier, as if hidden hands were guiding hers. The one coming up on the left had just enough time to show a gape of surprise beneath the goggles before she lobbed the grenade at him and instantly ducked.

Bampf!

The explosion came so fast that she was very, very glad of that quick flip and could feel sweat running down her flanks. Right on the heels of it there was a sharp metallic tink-tink sound, and Horst cursed mildly.

Der Teufel!” Then he shouted on the heels of the oath: “That hit something! The brakes are not working!”

Luz was back with the rifle leveled as she called out with a wild laugh: “So what? We want to go fast!”

The man she’d tossed the grenade at was alive; his motorcycle had gone over in a long slide, and he was lying clutching at one leg, just a glimpse through the dust-plume the car was kicking up. The other two came charging forward again as soon as they saw she didn’t have another grenade, but it was taking them longer now that the heavier vehicle had had time to build speed. They fired their pistols and she replied and nobody hit anything. Then they abruptly pulled up, slewing their machines sideways in rooster-tails of sandy dirt. One of them sprang down and went to one knee, firing with his automatic braced over his left forearm; the other tore off his leather helmet when he dismounted, dancing on it in a frenzy of rage, which was about as effective. They’d both have to leave, and quickly, if they didn’t want the Dutch police to add them to the mysterious strangers who’d sabotaged their train and killed their citizens. The man firing got up and started trudging, pushing his motorcycle back towards his injured comrade while his companion still jigged and screamed oaths.

“Heads down!” Horst shouted—almost screamed—himself.

Luz looked around just in time to duck frantically as the big touring machine struck the leveled pole of the customs barrier at more than forty miles an hour. There was a massive crack as the striped ashwood shaft splintered and went by in a shower of fragments, then a blurred glimpse of figures in field-grey leaping aside. And a scream of tortured metal as Horst stopped the car the only way he could, downshifting brutally as he cut the throttle. Luz yelped as she was thrown backward into the middle seat and then tumbled as the car pinhweeled four times in complete circles before coming to rest with smoke leaking out from under the hood and cooling metal tinging and clicking. The silence was enormous for a moment, before thudding boots and panting breath surrounded them.

A dozen bayonetted rifles were leveled at them amid glares and curses. Old-fashioned rifles, Gewehr ‘88’s, in the hands of men in their middle years or mid-teens, gray beards or beardless chins under outdated spiked helmets. Luz carefully raised her hands, and was glad she had before the noncom in charge of the Landsturm squad limped up and barked:

Hände hoch, Schweinehunde!

The limp, and the missing two fingers on his left hand and the three thick scars that ran down the left side of his face beneath the brimless field cap to the edge of his small black mustache showed why a veteran Obergefreiter in his twenties with the ribbon of the Iron Cross First Class through a tunic button was commanding a bunch of fourth-grade reservists on a minor border-crossing with a neutral country; though he also had a curious accent, more upcountry-village Austrian than German. The way he held his Luger and the flat, expressionless look in his blue eyes, like glass marbles, told Luz that three more deaths would be nothing to this man. Less than the bother of telling his men to bury the bodies... or filling out a report.

Horst and von Bülow stood and carefully raised their hands as well. “All can be explained, corporal,” the young nobleman said genially, in his officer’s command-tone.

Then, grinning, to Luz: “Welcome to the Reich, Süsse! We’re safe!”

Luz smiled back, as the noncom’s face showed doubt and the beginning of a brace that would end with something on the order of Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann! Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptmann!

And thought behind her answering grin:

No, you’re safe, Horst. I’m in the belly of the beast.

 

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