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THE COUNCIL OF SHADOWS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

"You!"

The man who called himself Jose Figuerez froze in the corridor, with a spray of files against his chest. Harvey Ledbetter raised his hands in a soothing gesture.

"Hey, Dhul Fiqar—"

"You know my name?"

"Obviously."

"How did you get in here?"

The man's eyes darted to the stairwell, wondering how Harvey had gotten up here unnoticed; there was an inconspicuously-armed guard on the front door and at the vehicle entrance, and the rear was locked, with steel reinforcement on the inside. Nothing out of the ordinary here in Veracruz, though the concealed stash of automatic weapons would raise eyebrows if anyone knew about them.

"I walked," Harvey said. "Let's talk, shall we?"

The man waved him through the door of the office. There were only two chairs in the little third-floor room, the office model on castors that Dhul Fiqar went to behind his desk, and a plain molded-plywood-and-wire type near the louvered window that cast bars of savage light and ink-black shade on the plain polished concrete floor. The air that came in past it was hot and rank-heavy with rancid smells, traffic stink and petrochemical plant effluent and the smell of a warm sea not far away and far too full of rotting garbage and raw sewage and the odd dead pig, dog or inconvenient human.

Veracruz was big. Not quite the thirty-million-plus monster that Mexico City was, but bigger than New York or Tokyo, with a lot less in the way of frivolous infrastructural luxuries like sanitation than a First World city.

The Arab seated himself behind the desk, keeping his hands on the edge. His left thumb was pushing an alarm trigger that would alert some of his followers, or at least would have if Harvey hadn't bent the path of some electrons, just so. The other was twitching with readiness. Which meant...

Yeah, gun in the upper right drawer. And that's making him feel safer, Harvey thought. He probably thinks he's got me trapped. Silly bastard.

"How did you find us?" the man behind the desk said tightly.

"Well, Dhul ol' buddy, consider that we got seventeen kilos of weapons-grade plutonium out of Seversk—"

"Seventeen kilos?"

"Y'all weren't the only destination. Sorry, fourteen kilos for you."

I used the rest to kill Brâncuşi. Well, kill his postcorporeal energy matrix. Sorta debatable whether that was the same him that was a bouncing baby boy 'round about 1911.

He went on aloud: "We brought it all the way to Port-au-Prince with every security service in the world lookin' for it, and handed it over to you intact... are you really surprised we can find out what we need to?"

Dhul Fiqar—the name meant Sword of the Prophet and Ledbetter assumed it was a nom-de-guerre—was quite believable as a Mexican here in Veracruz even apart from his accentless command of the local Spanish dialect; he was olive-skinned and had a few gray hairs in his bushy black mustache.

In fact he was from Lebanon, originally, and Harvey suspected he'd been placed here as a sleeper agent by an organization which no longer existed to any great extent. He was extremely fit, even a little gaunt, with the face of someone whose compulsions were eating him slowly from the inside. Right now he was obviously thinking hard.

"Perhaps it is not so surprising," he said after a moment. "You knew to whom you were selling the material?"

"Is that a surprise either?"

Contempt glinted in the dark eyes; he might as well have sneered mercenary aloud. Then a hint of caution. But a capable one.

"You were well paid," Dhul said. "Ten million Euros is a great deal, even in these times."

"Yep. And you did get the material, and it's the real goods. That's a first."

Light kindled in the man's face, an exultation that nothing could suppress for long.

"Always, always before something has blocked us. The most accursed strokes of bad luck! But by the Lovingkind, the Compassionate, this time victory will be ours!"

"You reckon?" Harvey asked, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.

"Perdone usted?"

"You think so?"

"It is fated!" An effort at control, and Dhul went on. "But sit, sit, my friend," he said; the affability sat very poorly on him, if you could sense emotions directly.

"Thanks, but I won't be here long," Harvey replied.

He's certainly been a busy little bee and he's built up quite a little operation on his own. They're like cancer cells—usually there's a few left to grow back.

"How'd you manage to machine the plutonium?" Harvey said.

This was an older section, near rundown docks but not very close to the modern container facilities. Most of the buildings were from the same period, built during the booming days of the Porfiriato from blocks of piedra muca, coral stone. Some were pocked with bullet holes under the cracked stucco, from the Revolution and the brief American occupation that had followed or the drug wars of recent years. Nowadays they held a tangle of struggling small businesses or cheap rooming-houses with the odd spot of renovation. The metal desk and antique ASUS-s6 computer would fit right in.

"When you love death more than life, these things are not difficult," Dhul Fiqar said.

Ah. A suicide machinist. Wonders never cease.

Plutonium was toxic chemically, violently dangerous as a radioactive substance, and a stone bitch to handle—for one thing, if you exposed it to moist air it was liable to more than double in volume as it turned into a flaky paste of hydrides that would then spontaneously burst into flame at room temperature. The job wouldn't be impossible, with computer-controlled machine tools as common as they were these days. You could set up an improvised clean room for it, though you'd be well advised to use a cellar and pump it full of concrete afterwards.

It would all be much easier if you didn't mind the operator dying a couple of weeks later. And this bunch had the advantage of being completely obscure—that was why he'd picked them, rather than hire some unemployed Russians or whatever. They had the best possible reasons not to talk, too.

"Besides, it was already formed," Dhul Fiqar acknowledged. "You saved us much time with that, since we only had to alter the angles on the wedges. I would like to know how you gained access to those components!"

Well, you make a deal under the table with these werewolf-vampire-sorceror-psychopath types, then—Harvey thought ironically.

Dhul went on: "You will receive the last payment as agreed."

"Well, that's what I'm here about. We'd like to discus the possibility of delivering it for you. With an additional fee, of course. After all, we got the material to you in the first place, right?

A wave of savage suspicion and utter refusal roiled through the man's mind. Harvey sighed, though he wasn't surprised. When Dhul spoke, his voice was smooth.

"I will consider your offer to transport to the target it for us."

Dhul Fiqar was lying; the Texan had enough of the Power to tell that easily, from someone without protections or shields. Harvey smiled wryly; he'd expected the man to try and kill him to provide a cut-out for anyone on the trail of that missing metal. But it would have been so convenient if he had agreed, of course. Always better to have someone hand the goods over to you rather than take them by brute force.

"You really should have taken me up on that," he said regretfully. "Or at least been willin' to consider it. But I suppose if you was reasonable, you wouldn't be in this exact line of work."

He ignored the trickles of sweat running down his face and flanks. He'd spent a lot of his life in hot, humid, smelly places, starting with Texas. The Brotherhood had been obligingly incurious as to how much plutonium he'd smuggled out of Seversk; the organization had always been decentralized. Part of the hell-metal had gone into the coffin-bed of a postcorporeal Shadowspawn lord, which was his official mission. The rest had come here, and there was more than enough for a critical mass.

"Didn't I get you the finest ex-Russian bomb components? And after all, we got the stuff to you without a problem. That shows we can handle transit security."

"I said I would consider it!" Dhul Fiqar snapped.

It surely does alter your interactions with people when you can sense whether or not they're fibbing, Harvey thought. Could that be the reason I keep getting divorced?

"Where are y'all keeping the bomb?" he asked with a guileless smile.

"Far from here."

Another lie, and his mind had jumped sideways at the word bomb, a feeling of anxiety-reassurance.

"And it is not yet assembled."

Bingo, lie number three. I thought he'd work it this way and it turned out right. The bomb's ready and it's in this building. He wouldn't want it out of reach.

"OK, time to cut the comedy," Harvey said.

His hand went under his embroidered, khaki-colored linen guayabera; he was wearing it three-quarters unbuttoned over a black t-shirt printed across the chest in very small white letters:

Yes, I am carrying a concealed handgun. (Pursuant to CH 411.172, Texas Government Code.)

The hand came out with a Colt Commander .45, a customized model with a Caspian Arms titanium frame and an integral laser sight that came on when you took up the trigger slack. The little dot came to rest on Dhul Fiqar's chest, and the man froze with his hand halfway to an open drawer. There was nothing quite so intimidating as knowing exactly where the bullet would hit; in this case in the cluster of big blood vessels just above the heart.

Harvey knew he wasn't nearly as fast as he'd been thirty years ago, but he was still pretty good, he had the priceless advantage of moving first, and the Arab wasn't a pistol expert anyway. If he had been he'd have carried at all times rather than leaving his gun uselessly in a desk, and Harvey would have made a different plan to begin with. A firearm where you couldn't reach it was about as useful as one on the cold side of the moon; you might not need it often, but when you did you needed it very badly.

"Now kick back from the desk, friend," he said. "That's right, lean back in the chair. Relax, and we'll have us a talk."

There might be some position that made it more difficult to move quickly than sitting back in a swivel chair with your feet off the ground, but he couldn't think of one offhand. Dhul Fiqar was sweating, but his eyes were steady and burning with hate. The fear in them was well under control, and Harvey could see him note how the gunman's back was to the open door. A shout would bring armed help.

"You know, it's a relief sometimes to deal with folks who can't hex firearms," he said.

The important thing now was to keep hitting his opponent faster than he could respond until his mental balance went completely to hell. He grinned.

"Sure, yell for help if'n you want to; that alarm you pressed had a little malfunction. The more, the merrier."

"You are mad," the plutonium buyer whispered, though he obeyed and kept his hands visible. "You will die for this! Die slowly."

Then, louder: "Rashid! Jasim! Come quickly! Alert the others; the Jews and Crusaders are here!"

There was a brief burst of fire from below.

MP-5, Harvey thought. 'bout half a clip.

It was racking-loud inside, but through the thick coral-block walls a casual ear would miss it, or mistake it for a piece of machinery stripping a gear.

Harvey shook his head with a tsk sound. If you could Wreak, even the little he and the other two could manage, you shouldn’t need to shoot.

"Guha, bring Jasim in, would you?" he said, speaking normally. "It ain't polite to keep friends apart."

To the man in the chair: "I took the liberty of havin' some company of my own along on our little visit. Sorta forgot to mention it, on the offhand chance you'd be unreasonable."

The pickup mike was in a little skin-colored patch on his throat. The bud in his ear was similarly tiny and inconspicuous. The Brotherhood might make its operatives fly coach, but they didn't stint on gear.

A woman's voice with a sing-song accent spoke: "Jasim's in bad shape, oh yes indeed. Will this much of him do?"

He could hear her voice twice, through the radio and from the door behind him as she walked through and tossed something through the air. It landed on the desk with a wet, meaty thump.

"It's very big," she went on.

Which was what Jasim meant; big, or huge or strong. The man had probably taken the name because he was a six-four slab of muscled beef. Dhul Fiqar scrabbled backward a little in his seat; the head of his follower was wrapped in a piece of burlap sacking, but that fell away to show the blank-eyed contorted face. A spray of blood whipped across his cheeks and mouth, and he scrabbled a hand at it in involuntary reflex. The metallic-coppery scent was suddenly heavy in the damp hot air, and flies buzzed downward.

That's more Farmer's style, really, Harvey thought. But I suspect Guha is a bit prejudiced about these folks. You can take the girl out of Hindustan, but you can't take the Hindu out of the girl. Come to think about it, her family were Kashmiri Pandits back a ways, if I recall correctly.

Theoretically once you knew about the Shadowspawn-Brotherhood war and the reality behind the false-front of history, human tribes and nations and religions shouldn't matter any more. The ancient enemy was more important, and besides that you learned how they used human rivalries to keep the prey-species down. In practice it didn't always work that way, not for humans, sometimes not even for Shadowspawn.

And I can't fault a severed head for techique. It's classic. Now we have to keep our friend Dhul Fiqar psychologically off-balance well and truly.

"There was a machete," she said half-apologetically. "I think he was using it to open coconuts and then tried to open me."

The front of her cotton blouse was soaked and dripping with sticky red. It clung to her body so closely that it was transparent, and he could see her navel and the outlines of her sports bra.

"It seemed bloody appropriate to use it on him," she finished.

She chuckled, and Dhul Fiqar flinched a little. It probably didn't help that she was a woman.

"Rashid! Rashid!" he shouted.

Farmer came in with Rashid stumbling before him; Rashid was thin and dark and probably quite quick. He was bleeding freely too, from a pressure-cut above the eyes that more than half blinded him with the stinging, sticky fluid. The sort of injury you got when you turned around at a sound behind you and got pistol-whipped in the same motion; his hands were secured with a one-way loop, a variety that could be yanked tight with a tag but couldn't be removed without cutting it.

"The others?" Harvey said.

"Dead," Farmer said. "A little Wreaking and they didn't suspect a thing until too late."

"Evidence?"

"Nothing that'll show from the street until they start to smell. The truck they've got will do fine to get us to Lopez' boat with the package. It looks like a piece of crap but the engine's in good shape, the cargo compartment is well-shielded and they've got a knock-down lifting tackle inside."

"Looks like they were planning on using it for exactly what we'll do. Secure friend Dhul Fiqar here. We wouldn't want him to get reckless in his disappointment and we do need a mite of information from him."

Guha had her knife in one hand, ten inches of slightly curved steel with a dimpled-bone hilt. The man's eyes tracked it as she approached, being careful to keep well out of Harvey's line of fire and looking like an image of Kali with the front of her body splashed red. She produced a larger loop of the type around Rashid's wrists and dropped it neatly over his shoulders, working it down to his elbows. When she jerked it tight it sent the swivel chair spinning; she stopped that with a flicking kick to the man's ankle. Then she stepped close and put the point of the knife against the bristle of five o'clock shadow under his chin, undid his belt with her other hand, made that into a loop and used it to strap his knees together. Duct tape finished the job.

"Now," Harvey said, kicking the other chair over, straddling it and leaning on the back. "At this point, you've probably realized we are not the CIA or the Mossad."

Dhul Fiqar jerked slightly; the American had switched into perfect, colloquial Arabic, the dialect an educated man from Damascus would have spoken.

"You speak Arabic... but..."

Harvey shook his head.

"That trick of saying things like you bastard son of a sow and an ape and calling my mother and sister nasty names to test whether I could understand you is played out, my friend. Where did you get it, an old Kamal al Sheik film? I really had trouble not laughing out loud in Haiti."

He dropped into verse, rolling the throaty sounds:

 

"The happiness of children

When embraced by parents is like

The happiness of a thirsty man

When drinking water

And the happiness

Of suckering an asshole like you."

 

He switched back to English: "That last bit don't scan 'cause it ain't in the poem, but you get the idea."

Dhul Fiqar gathered himself a little. "You are not the Jews or the Americans?"

"'course not. The Army of Northern Virginia would have been more formal. You know what I mean—guys in black body armor rapellin' down on your roof in the night, drones, android surveillance chipmunks in the plumbing. The Mossad would just've killed you, if they didn't retroactively kill your granddaddy before you were born. And neither would ever have let you near real plutonium. You know that."

That struck Dhul Fiqar hard enough to draw a grunt. "What do you want with me, then?"

"We don't care a bucket of warm piss about you. We just want a functionin' bomb in the twenty-five kiloton range. That's what all this was about; we sold you that plutonium so's you'd build it for us. Give me the control codes and your specs now, and I'll even let you and your fellah Rashid here live. We'll just take the gear and head on out. Last offer. If Jasim there could talk, he'd advise you to say yes."

"Who are you?" Dhul Fiqar whispered.

"I don't have time or inclination to tell," Harvey said.

While he spoke he reached under his guayabara with his left hand; the X-harness held two clips of ammunition under his right armpit, and a cylinder-shaped pouch the size of a very large cigar. He took the suppressor out of it and screwed it into the threaded recess around the muzzle of the Colt while he went on:

"Let's just say we're the anti-djinn squad. Now, the information, please, or things will get unpleasant."

"Never! I am not afraid of death! I will pass the gates of Paradise while—"

Harvey sighed. "Y'know, Dhul Fiqar ol' buddy, this ain't to the death. I believe you when you say you're not afraid to die. This is to the pain."

"You cannot make me talk."

"Oh, bullshit. There's times when torture don't work so good. Then again, as I suspect you know from experience, there's times when it does; like, when all you need is specific information, quick. Particularly since I can tell when you're lyin' so you can't fool me none. And seein' as you were planning on blowing up London or New York or Tel Aviv or something of that order, I really don't have much sympathy to spare for the way you're about to suffer."

"What are you planning on using it for?" Dhul said a little wildly. "A fireworks display?"

"Oh, we'll use it for the greater good of humanity," Harvey answered.

Bit hard on the bystanders in Tbilisi, but omelettes and eggs and all, seein' as the Shadowspawn are planning to kill off at least half the human race in the immediate future.

Harvey nodded, and Farmer stepped away from Rashid. The Texan extended his arm, sighting in the old-fashioned single-armed grip. Then he fired one shot, letting the recoil ride up.

PHUT!

Suppressors didn't silence a gun. They did knock the sound down a fair way from the hearing-damage level of a shot in a confined space, to something like a door slamming or a heavy book being whacked down on a tabletop. The big .45 hollowpoint slug ripped the thin Arab's kneecap away and he toppled like a cut tree, clutching at it. After a moment he began to shriek, high-pitched and astonishingly loud. Farmer stepped forward and put his foot on the man's throat, pressing just enough to cut the sound down to bearable levels.

Sweat was pouring off Dhul Fiqar's face, but he remained silent except for the heavy sound of breath whistling in and out through flared nostrils.

"Oh, hell," Harvey said wearily; the adrenaline of danger was fading. "Jack, take over. Break him, and do it fast."

"Sure thing!"

Farmer drew back his foot and kicked Rashid in the temple, hard. The body jerked a few times and went still; Harvey could feel the life fading out of the brainstem, entropy randomizing the signals for a moment until they faded away. Then he stepped over to the desk and swung his light nylon backpack onto its surface and began to unpack it.

Dhul Fiqar's eyes were fixed on the hypodermics and ampules, the surgical instruments, and the tools. Farmer whistled between his teeth as he worked, and then drew on a pair of thin-film gloves, stripped off a piece from the roll of duct tape and slapped it across the prisoner's mouth. Guha sighed and went to stand by the window, looking outwards.

"They've got a bathroom here," she said. "All right if I go and shower?"

"Good idea. Make it quick," Harvey said. "I want you driving, and it'd be a nuisance coverin' up the way you look."

"And the smell."

Harvey kept his eyes on the man in the chair as she left—if he could order it, looking away would be cowardice—but he let a Mhabrogast phrase fall through his mind. A slight burring sensation flickered behind his forehead for an instant, and his consciousness of the other's emotions faded.

He hadn't done it to isolate himself from Dhul Fiqar's pain; it was Jack Farmer's pleasure in what he was about to do that he really didn't want inside his head.

Give Jack his due, he don't torture people for fun. He doesn't even let himself do it in the line of duty unless a superior orders him to. But it does sorta make you queasy to share the jolt it gives him when he's got an excuse to cut loose. Halfway between digusting and... tempting, which is worse.

Farmer cut the arm of Dhul Fiqar's shirt away and injected him twice in one of the swollen veins near his elbow, where he'd been straining against his bonds. The dark eyes went wide, and then the pupils expanded until the iris was a thread-thin rim around them.

"Anytime you feel like talkin', Dhul Fiqar, just nod vigorous-like," Harvey said heavily.

Farmer smiled as he raised the battery-powered electric drill and held it before the captive's face, letting the motor whirr with a touch on the trigger.

 

@@@

 

The vehicle was a Chinese-made Foton Aumark with a lot of miles and hard use on it, the two-thousand-ten model, a cab-over-engine type with a van body and a five-ton capacity. Someone had worked over the Cummins diesel until it burbled happily, though, despite the heavy load. Dhul Fiqar's suicide machinists had made something that would work, and at least it wasn't leaking radiation, but it wasn't exactly a suitcase bomb either.

"So, we've got the bomb," Guha said, driving carefully down the narrow street.

She could pass for a mostly-Indio Mexican if you didn't look too closely. Farmer was in the back with the long crate. This wasn't a tourist area, and blond German-American Midwesterners were conspicuous by their absence around here. Harvey was slumped in the passenger seat himself with a billed cap drawn down over his face, for the same reason in its Scots-Irish Texan hill-country incarnation.

"The question is, my big boss, how do we get it to the target? Cannot you feel the threads of destiny on it? And this we will plant among thousands of Shadowspawn adepts? Perhaps we should carry it in on our shoulders, wearing red noses and big floppy shoes?"

"The adepts'll cancel each other out, a bit."

Guha snorted. She was right; the overlapping abilities with the Power would help, but not that much when the wielders were all threatened with the same onrushing death casting its shadow backward through time.

Harvey went on: "Adrian's workin' on that."

Though he don't quite know what he's working on hiding. Come to think of it, the world bein’ what it is, there’s a lot of people who don’t know the truth of what they’re dealing with. And God help the ones who stumble across the truth, or part of it.

 

@@@

 

"OK," Cesar said. "Guess what? Something funny on the Brézé case."

"Tell me something funny. I could use it."

Salvador sipped at a cup of sour coffee and looked out the window at a struggling pinion pine with sap dripping from its limbs; they were having another beetle infestation, they happened every decade or two. Firewood would be cheap soon; he could take his pickup out on weekends and get a load for the labor of cutting it up and hauling it away.

The prospect of an afternoon spent with a chainsaw was a lot more fun than the case he was working on now.

Man beats up woman, woman calls cops, woman presses charges, woman changes mind, couple sue cops to show how they're together again. Tell me again why I'm not selling insurance.

"The funny thing is the analysis on the DNA from the puke I found in the dumpster behind Whole Foods," Caesar said.

"Ain't a policeman's life fun? Digging in dumpsters for puke?"

"Si, jefe. Nice clean white-collar job, just what my mother had in mind for her prospective kid when she waded across the river to get me born on US soil. Anyway, there's blood in the puke."

"I remember you telling me that. The attendant says it was Adrian Brézé's puke, right?"

"Right, he saw him puking out the rear of that van, thought he was drunk. I'm pretty sure that Brézé paid him something to forget about it—he sweated pretty hard before he talked, and I had to do the kidnapping-and-arson dance. He saw the blood in it, too."

"So he's got an ulcer. Even rich people get them. How does this help us?"

Cesar scratched his mustache, and Salvador consciously stopped himself from doing likewise.

"I'm not sure it does," he said. "But it's funny. Because the DNA from the puke is not the same as the DNA from the blood. In fact, the DNA from the blood is on the Red Cross list. One of their donors, a Shirley Whitworth, donated it at that place just off Rodeo and Camino Carlos Rey. It seems to have gone missing from their system. They clammed up about it pretty tight. We'll have to work on that."

Salvador grunted. "Let's get this straight. The puke is Brézé—"

"Presumably. Male chromosomes in the body fluids. But there's no Brézé in the DNA database."

"That's not so surprising; they only started it a couple of years ago, and it just means he's not a donor and hasn't been arrested or gone to a hospital or whatever. But the blood is definitely some Red Cross donor's?"

"Si. So, funny, eh?"

"Funny as in fucking weird, not funny as in ha-ha. Because it had to be in his stomach, right?"

They both laughed. "Good thing we know he comes out in daylight, eh?" Cesar said.

"Yeah, and he doesn't sparkle. I'd feel fucking silly chasing a perp who looked like a walking disco ball... but he did drink it... maybe some sort of kink cult thing?"

"So I'm not surprised he puked," Cesar said, still chuckling. "It'd be like drinking salt water, you know? Blood is salt water, seawater. My mother used salt water and mustard to make me heave if I'd eaten myself into a stomachache."

Salvador could feel his brain starting to move, things connecting under the fatigue of a half-dozen cases that were never going to go anywhere. Then his phone rang. When he tapped it off, he was frowning.

"What's the news, jefe?"

"The boss wants to see us, now."

The chief's office wasn't much bigger than his; Santa Fe was a small town, still well under a hundred thousand people. The office was on a corner, second-story, and had bigger windows. The Chief also had three stars on the collar of his uniform; he still didn't make nearly as much as, say, Giselle Demarcio. On the other hand, his money didn't come from San Francisco and LA and New York, either.

Cesar's breath hissed a little, and Salvador felt his eyes narrow. There were two suits waiting for them as well as the Chief. Literally suits, natty, one woman and one man, one black and one some variety of Anglo. Both definitely from out of state; he'd have put the black woman down as FBI if he had to guess, and the younger man as some sort of spook, but not a desk man. Ex-military of some type, but not in the least retired.

She's Fart, Barf and Itch. Him... the Waffen-CIA, but ex-Ranger, maybe?

"Sit down," the Chief said.

He was as local as Salvador and more so than Cesar, and might have been Salvador's older cousin—in fact, they were distantly related. Right now he was giving a good impression of someone who'd never met either of the detectives, his face like something carved out of wood on Canyon Row.

The male suit spoke. "You're working on a case involving the Brézé family."

"Yes," Salvador said. "Chief, who are these people?"

"You don't need to know," the woman said neutrally; somehow she gave the impression of wearing sunglasses without actually doing it. More softly: "You don't want to know."

"They're Homeland Security," the Chief said.

"Homeland Security is interested in weird love triangles?" Salvador said skeptically. "Besides, Homeland Security is like person, it's sort of generic. You people FBI, Company, NSA, what?"

"You don't need to know. You do need to know we're handling this," the man said.

Wait a minute, Salvador thought. He's scared. Controlling it well, he's a complete hardcase if I ever saw one, and hell, I've been one. But he's scared.

Which made him start thinking a little uncomfortably that maybe he should be scared. The man was someone he might have been himself, if things had gone a little differently with that IED.

"Handling it how?" Salvador said, meeting his pale stare.

"We've got some of our best people on it."

"Who, exactly."

"Our best people."

"Oh, Christ—" he began.

"Eric, drop it. Right now," the Chief said.

He's scared too.

"Hey, Chief, no problem," Cesar cut in. "It's not like we haven't got enough work. Right, drop it, national security business, need to know, eh?"

The two suits looked at each other and then Salvador. He nodded himself.

"OK," he said. "I wasn't born yesterday. Curiosity killed the cat, that right? And unless I want to go meow-oh-shit as my last words..."

"You have no idea," the woman said, almost whispering and looking past him. "None at all."

Then she turned her eyes on him. "Let's be clear. There was no fire. There is no such thing as a Brézé family. You never heard of them. You particularly haven't made any records or files of anything concerning them. That will be checked."

"Sure," he grinned. "But check what? About who?"

Salvador waited until they were back in the office before he began to swear; English, Spanish and some Pushtu, which was about the best reviling language he'd ever come across, though some people he'd known said Arabic was even better.

"Let's get some lunch," Cesar said, winking.

Yeah, Salvador thought. Got to remember anything can be a bug these days.

"Sure, I could use a burrito."

They shed their phones; when they were outside Cesar went on: "How soon you want to start poking around, jefe?"

Salvador let out his breath and rolled his head, kneading at the back of his head with one spade-like hand. The muscles there felt like a mass of woven iron rods under his hand, and he pressed on the silver chain that held the crucifix around his neck.

"It's fucking Eurotrash terrorists now, eh?" he said.

"Yeah. Eurotrash vampire terrorists. Maybe Osama bit them?" Cesar said, still smiling.

"Or vice versa."

"What sort of shit is coming down?" Cesar said, more seriously.

"Our chances of getting that from those people..."

"... are nada."

"Somewhere between nada and fucking zip."

Cesar looked up into the cloudless blue sky. "Maybe these Brézés are just so rich they can shitcan anything they don't like, pull strings, some politician leans on the FBI and the Company? Call me cynical..."

"Nah," Salvador shook his head. "You can't get that just with money. Not with those people, the spooks. They know they're going to be there when any given bought-and-paid-for politician is long gone. You need heavy political leverage. Whoever they were, they were feds, and not your average cubicle slave either. They're not going to tell any of us square-state boondockers shit. The Chief didn't know any more than we did, he was just taking orders."

"You sure?"

"I've known him a long time. We're related, cousins."

"You old-timers here are all related," Cesar said. "It's not fucking fair."

"You people who just got off the bus don't understand the strength of our family feelings. Can I help it if we're descended from Conquistadores?"

"Fast Conquistadores and slow india girls. Hell, my family goes right back to Cortez too."

"It does?"

"Sure. One of my great-many-times-grandmothers was squatting in the dirt grilling a guinea pig when he rode by on his horse."

Salvador's grin was brief; his eyes made a to business flick.

"So..." Cesar said.

He leaned back against a wall. "How long do you want to let it cool before we start poking in violation of our solemn promise?"

"Couple of months," Salvador said. "First thing, get all the data on an SD card and make some copies and let me have one. Scrub your notebook and anything you've got at the office. None of this ever goes on anything connected to anything else."

Cesar grinned. "I like the way you think, jefe."

 

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