The Darklighters: Hong Kong

Hong Kong will be the first book of The Darklighters series, a spinoff from Beyond the Rails which follows Jinx Jenkins and Charlie Bender (formerly known by his alias, David Smith) from the time they leave the Kestrel to pursue their fortunes as international law enforcement agents.  Jinx is already a covert agent, and Bender is a fugitive; it’s a match made in…  well, you decide!

Visit of State, which stands somewhat on its own, will be the permanent sample for the first book.  As with all of my WIPs, comments are more than welcome.

Act One: A Visit of State

Prologue

“Tā zài zhèlǐ! one of them yelled off to his left.  “He’s over here!”

He was as good as caught now, penned between the docks on his right and the half-dozen thugs running among the storehouses to the left.  His only chance now was to outrun them to the British quarter and throw himself on the mercy of one of the white policemen…  And then hope they were reticent about attacking him as well.

“Zhuā zhù tā!  Shāle tā!

The order to kill him, shouted in the open lot, sealed his fate.  If he couldn’t escape in the next few moments, he would die in this grimy working area for cargoes of every sort, brought and taken by the flotilla of lorchas that traded with the white devils across the bay; the white devils he now prayed he could reach in time.  If not, the information he had discovered would die with him.

He put his head down and sprinted for the street at the far end of the lot, giving every shred of his remaining energy toward reaching that opening, and the sanctuary he could only pray it represented.  His head jerked to the left with every step, watching the man in padded work clothes parallel him on the sidewalk some fifty feet away.  The assailant was gaining just slightly, but if he turned to intercept his quarry, he would fall behind because of the angle.  Heart pounding in his chest, their victim gave his last ounce of strength to winning the race for his life.

An arrow hissed by a few feet in front of him, sailing on into the bay, and alerting him to this new danger.  He angled toward his left, despite the danger from the runner there, and got in among some stacked crates.  They would slow him yet further, but give the archer a new set of problems that he hoped would be unsolvable.  Zig-zagging through the stacks, he flew out the other side, the fleet-footed pursuer not ten feet behind, the street entrance no further ahead.  As he reached the street, the thug threw himself onto the man’s back, pitching them both to the ground.  There was no time for a fight.  The others would be upon him in seconds.  Twisting around, he put his hand on the man’s face, one finger pressing on an eyeball, and pushed him away, scrambling to get up.

As he reached his feet and turned to run, the man drew a silver dart from his jacket, red silk ribbons attached to make it fly point-first, and threw it hard.  It buried itself in the man’s back just above his kidney, and the wave of pain sucked his remaining energy away.  All he had left to resist with was his voice, and he gave it full reign.

“Help!” he shouted.  “Help me!”

“‘Oo’s that?” came an answering shout from the darkness as the rest of the thugs arrived at the street.

“Here,” the man called out with the last of his strength, falling to his knees.  “Help me!”

He pitched forward onto his face, exhausted, wounded, helpless.

“‘Old it right there,” came the voice, much louder now, and he looked up to see one of the British policemen approaching in a crouch, pistol drawn and leveled.  “Raise your hands!”

One of the thugs who had stopped at the street entrance shifted a bit and drew a shiny object from his jacket.

The Englishman fired a shot into the air and brought the pistol quickly back into line with the man.

“Next one’s in your belly, mate,” he snarled. In the distance, whistles, shouts, and running footsteps could be heard as more policemen reacted to the shot.

The thugs shifted nervously, seeking a way to counter the pistol whose threatening barrel held them all immobile, a pistol that would soon be joined by several more.  Situation assessed, a decision was reached.

“Lā shǐ! their leader swore.  “Ràng wǒmen líkāi zhèlǐ!

No sooner was the order given than the half dozen would-be killers darted into cover and disappeared into the night.  The wounded man was aware of an aching warmth spreading over his right kidney, and his consciousness faded into darkness as well.

 

Part One

 

“Lord Weaver will see you now.”

Abigail Jenkins and Charles Bender rose from the red velvet settee in the director’s waiting room to follow his aide, Carmichael, to his office.  “Jinx” Jenkins had decided some time ago that the man’s first name must be Nigel, but now she changed her assessment to Peter.

Yes, she thought as she followed the perfectly tailored brute toward the inner sanctum, definitely a Peter!

Their footsteps echoing off the marble floor, Carmichael led them to a set of ornate white double doors, each with a gilded doorknob in the center.  Opening the one on the right, he stepped halfway into the room beyond.

“Jenkins and Bender here to see you, sir,” he intoned emotionlessly.

“Ah, good, come in, come in,” the warm voice with the upper-class British accent invited.  “That will be all, Carmichael.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jenkins and Bender entered the opulent drawing room, taking in the bustling sweep of Sydney Harbor framed by the huge picture windows.  Jinx ran her eyes up and down the tall, elegant form of Lord Weaver, director of the Australian Darklighters office, feeling the strange fluttering in her chest she experienced every time she entered this room.  Someday, she’d have to figure out what caused that.

“Sit down,” he offered.  They did so, taking the chairs placed before his desk.  “Care for a drink?”

“No, thank you, sir.”

“Do you have any bourbon?” Bender asked.

“No.  I have an excellent Scotch, though.  Will that suffice?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

Weaver began speaking as he iced a glass.

“Miss Jenkins, I’ve read your report concerning the termination of Reinhard’s operation in Tanganyika and Kenya.  I’m impressed with the improvement in your self-discipline as well as your ability to work without supervision.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And you as well, Mr. Bender,” he said, handing the American his glass.  “I understand that you and your associates were instrumental in assisting our young agent in bringing about that most desired result.”

“Thank you, sir.  As it happened, we had some ulterior motives, but helping Jinx here do her job made ours a lot easier.”

“Well, I’m glad it all worked out to the good.  Now, Mr. Bender, my sources tell me that you’re wanted for murder in America, is that correct?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Not at all.  Miss Jenkins was a teenager doing life in Berrima for three murders.  We secured a Queen’s Pardon for her because she possessed a set of skills and a fine sense of determination that we of the Darklighters value.  Your facility with a gun, your ability to think on your feet, and your willingness to help Miss Jenkins when all she had was what must have seemed a crazy story to you are also qualities we value.  Our American office has begun procedures to have the reward for your capture removed.”

“Can you do that?”

“We can try, and we are trying.  Frightfully inconvenient to have bounty hunters gunning for our agents, you know.  These things can take time.  Just know that we are working on it even as we speak.  I think you’ll find that you’re able to leave your David Smith alias behind you now.”

“I can’t say I’ll miss it.  Three years of being someone else is a bit draining.  In any case, they’ve sort of sniffed that out anyway.”

“I’d gathered as much.  So, how did you find Darklighter training, Mr. Bender?”

“I learned a lot, sir, skills I didn’t know existed, some of them.  Does she know all these things?”

“Darklighters are of necessity specialists, Mr. Bender.  You all, including Miss Jenkins, have a rudimentary grasp of all the skills we teach, but no one person can master them all.  Teams are assembled from various specialties at need.”

“And I’m guessing you have a need now?”

“Precisely.  It was always my intention to keep you two together, primarily to ease your transition into our ranks, but as it happens, a team of precisely your makeup has been requested by our Hong Kong office.”

“I’ve always wanted to visit Hong Kong,” Bender said.

“No you haven’t!” Jinx said sharply.

“What?”

“I’ve had a visit to Hong Kong.  It’s an open sewer, a melting pot of a hundred cultures.  Everybody in the place looks like a criminal, and most of them probably are.  You can’t tell the good from the bad, even if you have a program, and in Hong Kong, there is no program.  I thought you were pleased with my performance in Africa, Lord Weaver.”

“Very much so.”

“Then, why am I being punished with a job in Hong Kong?  There’s no one else you can send?”

“It is precisely because of that performance, Miss Jenkins.  His Eminence, Sir Harry Bligh, one of Queen Victoria’s undersecretaries of trade, has scheduled a state visit to Hong Kong, and the Queen herself has requested that our office provide manpower assistance, or in your case, womanpower, to the Hong Kong office.  Sir Justin, the station head there, has already reported his suspicion that he may have a mole among his operation.  You have proven yourself to be resourceful and direct, therefore, you are going.  Mr. Bender will accompany you, as this should prove an admirable test assignment.”

“Sir,” Jinx pleaded, “look at us.  We don’t look Chinese.  We don’t speak Chinese.  Who in hell thought it would be a good idea to send us to China?”

“I did, Miss Jenkins.  As of the last report I had, Hong Kong was a British colony.  You’ll draw a full suite of equipment, and travel as a newlywed couple.  This will give no one cause to question your close relationship.  For security reasons, Sir Justin will give you the full briefing in person when you arrive.  Now, if you’ve no further questions, Travel Branch is expecting you for outfitting.”

“No further questions. Sir!  Come on, honey, let’s go act married.”

“Yes, dear,” Bender said, rising to follow her toward the door.

 

*

 

The strato-liner Great Eastern made her final approach to Hong Kong low over the Kau-Lung Peninsula that pointed at the island colony like an accusing finger.  The island’s crags and ravines turned the gentle southwest trade winds into invisible rapids in the air, and the big envelopes of the Sydney-to-Tokyo liners were easiest to handle facing into the torrent.

“That’s the colony over there on the north shore,” Jinx pointed out to Bender.  “The good Lord knows why anyone goes to the trouble of clinging onto that little strip of land.  There isn’t bless and all around here to make it worthwhile.  What there is is islands, hundreds of them, and every one a pirates’ haven.  The Brits own this peninsula we’re crossing, don’t ask me why, and the big island, and China owns everything else.”

“China is a signatory to the Darklighter Treaty, are they not?”  Bender asked.

“Yes.  They’re highly supportive and give us all the aid possible.  International crime thrives in a huge rural country like this.  Now, about forty miles down the coast, on the other side of the Pearl River, is Portuguese Macau.  Portugal is not a signatory, and working in there carries a certain, should we say, risk.”

Charlie Bender pushed his Stetson back on his head and regarded this woman, this child really, ten years or more his junior, with admiration.  Twice he had worked with her.  The first time, she had proven herself a stone killer when the need arose, and the second, an able investigator.  If I had a daughter, he allowed himself to think…

“The climate here, forget it,” she went on.  “Hot and muggy, even in winter.  In summer, hot and muggy with rain that could put out the fires of hell.  This is going to be just great, I can tell you!”

The majestic airship eased up to the mast at the aerodrome at the east end of the settlement, the ground crew of what seemed a thousand peasant laborers caught the ropes and wrestled the great ship into place with the gondola alongside the dock.  With the ship finally secured and the gangway in place, some two dozen passengers made their way across to begin their various activities in the British Crown Colony.  Bender and Jenkins went unnoticed in the crowd.  It wasn’t unusual for a wealthy man to use his fortune to secure a young, attractive wife, and Bender was dressed in the style of a wealthy American cattleman, his western suit, string tie, Stetson hat, and gleaming boots giving exactly the right impression.  Jinx, for her part, painted a glowing picture of the haughty trophy bride, her Eurasian features daubed with just the right touch of rouge, and her emerald green traveling suit catching the afternoon sun to perfection.

The steaming heat hit them before they cleared the gangway, and the sweat began to appear with a promise of misery to come.

“I see what you mean,” Bender said as they reached the dock.  “It was hot in Mombasa, but this is like being steamed in a kettle.”

“Well, get ready for more of it, then,” she said.  “This is going to be just great.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Bender?” a gentleman no older than Jinx asked, approaching them.  Attired in trousers, a collared shirt without a jacket, and a straw boater on his head, he was a walking demonstration of the proper response to the climate.

“Yes, we’re the Benders,” Charlie said, speaking up as the husband would in any marriage.

“I’m Harvey Bartlett, from Government House,” the lad said.  “I’m to take you to Sir Justin.”

“Capital, my boy.  Lead the way.”

“What about our bags, darling?” Jinx asked, playing her role to perfection.  “We shouldn’t just leave them here on the dock.”

“Those men will take care of them,” Bartlett said, indicating a pair of Chinese laborers.

“They’ll take them to the quarters we have retained for you.  Sir Justin directed me to fetch you the moment you arrive.  Which, I suppose, would be now.”

“There, dear,” Bender said, “everything’s been arranged.  Lead on, young man.”

“Yep,” Jinx muttered as she moved to follow Bender and their guide to a waiting carriage, “this is going to be just great.”

 

*

 

Young Mr. Bartlett led the Benders up the faux-marble stairs into the lobby of Government House near the center of the shoreline settlement. It faced north toward the harbor and stood at the base of one of the glowering hills behind, which meant that it was shaded for at least part of the day, a feature that Jenkins most heartily appreciated.  The lobby had that sterile, depressing, government-chic presentation so common to colonial facilities, but without interacting through other than a wave, the young man led them through, and down a narrow hall, entering a door marked “Office of Antiquities.”  A middle-aged secretary occupied one desk, and an elderly retired sergeant-type the other.

“Ah, Harvey, there you are,” the secretary greeted him.  “Sir Justin’s been asking after you.”

“Bit of a delay with the dirigible, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, well, you’d best go right in.  He seems to feel that you’re late.”

“The privilege of command,” Bartlett sighed.  “Come along, then, folks. Time to meet the gov’nor.”

He knocked on one of the two doors at the back of the office, opened it, and said, “The Benders are here, sir.”

“Who?” came a voice.

“The agents from the Sydney office, sir.”

“Oh, brilliant!  Send them straight in.”

“Right this way, then, folks,” Bartlett said, opening the door wide and waving them through.

“Come in, please,” Sir Justin encouraged them.  “Have a seat, then, won’t you?  There’s been an additional development since you were dispatched, and—  Oh, I say, terribly uncivilized of me!  Sir Justin Thyme, Hong Kong chief of antiquities, and quietly head of the Darklighter office here.”

Sir Justin, around fifty, tall and slender with still-blonde hair and a chevron mustache to match, took on the air of a startled meerkat as he stood erect, hand offered for the customary shake.

“Abigail Jenkens,” Jinx replied first, taking his hand briefly with a slight seated bow.  “I’m sorry, sir, did you say Justin Thyme?”

“Afraid so.  My parents were great music hall performers, and I suppose it was irresistible to them.”

“Charlie Bender,” her colleague said, shaking Sir Justin’s hand in turn.

“All right, then, Mr. Bender,” Sir Justin said, returning to his desk and taking his seat across from them.  “How much do you actually know about the situation here?”

“Not much,” Bender replied.  “Jinx, here, is the ramrod on this drive.  I’m just here to back her play.”

“I say, that’s odd.  But, very well, then.  What have you been told so far?”

“Not much, in fact, sir,” Jenkins replied.  “You’ve an imminent state visit, you’ve sniffed out an assassination plot, and the Crown requested extra assistance for you from our office.”

“Yes, and when the Queen ‘requests,’ things are made to happen.  I do wish she had consulted with me first.  What I mean is, we have things under control here.  Walking you through the process and getting you fully on board will likely take more effort than we’ll gain by your presence.  Has either of you been to Hong Kong before?”

“Yes, I have,” said Jenkins.

“Then you know the situation we face here.  A transient population of tens of thousands, shifting loyalties, a hotbed of piracy and smuggling, of intrigue and anarchy.  Nine out of ten Chinamen on the island is a refugee, and half of those are refugees from one warlord or another, all with plans to overthrow the government.”

“Forgive me, Sir Justin, but what does that have to do with a plot to assassinate the undersecretary?”

“The exact point I’m trying to make,” Sir Justin said.

Jenkins and Bender exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Let me explain.  My man Friday, young Mr. Bartlett, reacts a bit more, oh, let us say, enthusiastically than I do.  Our local police rescued a coolie from a pack of assassins a few nights ago, and the fellow reported overhearing a conversation that suggested the possibility, nothing more, of an attempt on a high government official during a visit to the island.  There was nothing pointing to who it was.  Could have been a warlord, or the head of a tong for all the specifics it contained, but in light of the undersecretary’s upcoming visit, Mr. Bartlett felt that it shouldn’t go unreported.  I couldn’t help but agree with him.  Be prepared, and all that, what?”

“And then Her Majesty got involved, eh?” Jenkins asked.  “Well, now that we’re here at her direction, we can hardly just decide to leave, so why don’t you provide us with the facts that you have, and we can get started?”

“I’m sorry, get started?”

“Of course, sir.  Her Majesty, and through her, Lord Weaver, want us involved, so let’s get involved.”

“Hardly necessary,” Sir Justin said.  “This is really more a local matter, something for the police to handle.  I don’t know why this even came to the Darklighters’ attention, frankly.  This is hardly the sort of international crime we were formed to handle.”

“I suspect we’re involved because Victoria rex says we’re involved,” Jenkins replied with a puzzled expression.  “Lord Weaver mentioned your concern about a mole in your office.  Perhaps that’s the basis of your reticence to confide in us?”

“Well, you’ve caught me, then.”

“What makes you think you have a mole here?  Seems a fairly small operation.  An enemy agent should have a devil of a time infiltrating a crew this close and intimate.”

“Well, as you might imagine, Kraken is very active in a chaotic environment like this.  Over the past few months, bits of information that no one should have have turned up on the street, operations have fallen apart, carefully planned raids have struck abandoned warehouses, that sort of thing.  One, maybe two events like that could be coincidental, but there’ve been altogether too many to write off to simple coincidence.”

“Sounds like it, sir,” Jenkins agreed.  “We might be very useful to you, in that case.”

“How’s that, Miss Jenkins?”

“Whoever this mole is thinks we’re here to aid your preparations for the minister’s visit.  Perhaps if we concentrate on ferreting out your mole, we could be of far greater service to you than by simply joining your team.”

“Why, that’s a capital idea!  What would you need to get started?”

“A list of all personnel who might have access to knowledge of Darklighter operations to start with.  Then a synopsis of your activities on this operation so that we can assess who might be working against you.  Probably most important would be to meet with the agents who are actually working this case.”

“That would be Calvin and Kwon.  I can’t imagine it would be one of them, though.  They’re both top-notch, dedicated as you’d say.”

“It is more likely to be somebody like a file clerk,” Jenkins allowed, “but they’ll need to believe we’re working with them, anyway.  Agents can be turned, and when they are, they’re in a position to do untold damage.  We should probably eliminate them first.”

“Quite so.  They’re out doing field work on this.  They usually check in in the afternoon, around four, to report on their day’s activities.  If you’d care to report back here, should we say, three-thirty, I’ll introduce you as the additional agents assigned by the Australian office.  They needn’t know you aren’t working on the main issue.  Meanwhile, I’ll have Bartlett take you to your hotel.  You’ll have a few hours to get acclimatized, and I’ll have Mrs. Marston make up that list for you.”

“It’s going to take more than a few hours to get used to this climate,” Jenkins said, rising to her feet.  “The list will be a nice distraction, though.  We’ll see you this afternoon, then, Sir Justin.”

“Splendid. A pleasure meeting you, Miss. Mr. Bender.”

“Sir,”

“I’ve never worked with an American before,” Sir Justin said as they shook hands.

“What do you think so far?”

“Direct, straightforward.  Refreshing traits around a British government office.”

“I hope those are positive assessments, Sir.”

“Quite so.  In any case, I think that Aussies are probably more akin to Yanks than they are to Brits, anyway, so you two will probably make a smashing team.”

“It’s worked well so far.”

“Splendid.”  He opened the door to the outer office.  “Bartlett, show these folks to their lodgings, then come back here.  I’ll have a package for you to take to them just shortly.  Mrs. Marston, come into my office, please. I have an urgent project for you.”

As they followed Bartlett through the lobby, Bender said, “Not the start I expected, but it promises to be interesting in any case.”

Jenkins took his arm and stretched up to nuzzle his ear, as any newlywed lady might do.

“I know where I’m looking first,” she whispered.  “If you think I’m trusting anyone named Justin Thyme, you’re crazy.”

 

*

 

Jinx sat on the third floor balcony of their suite in the Grenadier Arms Hotel on Wellington Street, three blocks back from the harbor, fanning herself with her pith helmet-shaped straw hat.  She had changed into one of her working rigs, a safari-themed lightweight blouse and long skirt eschewing the usual feminine accoutrements, the bustle, layered petticoats, corset, and all of that.  This meant that she was merely miserable as opposed to being in agony, and when Charles brought the package that Bartlett delivered to their door, she waved him to the seat on the other side of the small round table.

“That was quick,” Jinx said as he laid the package on the table.  “I had the impression that he was going to obstruct us.”

“He may yet,” Bender said, breaking the seals on the thin Manila envelope.  “No telling what’s in here.”

He took out a few sheets of paper and sorted through them, making mmm-hmm noises as he skimmed the text.

“So, what do we have?” Jinx asked, slouching in the chair and stretching her legs out in a most unladylike fashion; if Bender was put off by this, he didn’t show it.

“We have his itinerary here,” he replied.  “His ship arrives day after tomorrow in District Four, wherever that is, and he then goes on a madman’s tour of the whole city.”

“Great!  He might as well paint a target on himself.”

“Oh, that’s just the first day. He’s here for three more days after that, during which time he visits basically anywhere he wants, any time he wants.  We’d have an easier time keeping track of a colony of prairie dogs.”

“Never heard of that breed, but that could work to our advantage.”

“How in God’s name could that work to our advantage?”

“Put yourself in the shoes of our opponents.  You have the task of assassinating Sir Harry, and let’s say, because of the mole, that you’re reading that report that you have in your hand right now.  The first day, he’s on a strict schedule.  His movements are known and predictable.  You can pick your spot, and eliminate him on ground of your own choosing, yeah?  But if you don’t get him on the first day, then he’s all over the map.  You’re reduced to setting up somewhere, or worse yet, wandering around the city, probably with your weapon in plain sight, hoping, just hoping, that your paths cross.”

“So they’re going to move on the day he arrives, you’re saying?”

“Yes.  Tomorrow, we walk the route laid out on the itinerary, and try to identify the best places to do the deed.”

“How about changing his route at the last possible moment?”

“That’s a good thought, if we make the change too late for the mole to pass the information on to his contacts.  Of course, if Sir Harry dictated the route, then it can’t be changed, and of course, there are certain places he’s coming here to visit.  He’s still a target there.”

“Still, it’s an improvement.”

“It absolutely is.  Tomorrow we need to find out who set the route, and if we can’t change it, then we’ll need to walk it.  What else do you have there?”

“The list of people aware of Darklighter activities.”  Names and titles covered the front of the page, and he turned it over to find that half of the back was covered as well.  “Christ, it looks like half the police force is privy to what we’re doing.  The governor’s on here, of course, but it looks like half a dozen ministers, and all their secretaries as well.”

“Let me see that.”

He passed the sheet over, and she scanned both sides.

“Jesus, why didn’t he just put an ad in the paper?  We’ll pass this on to Lord Weaver, but there’s already been so much damage done here that I don’t think controlling it is possible.  What could this fool have been thinking?”

“You’re not asking me, are you?”

“No, but if you chance to have an answer, I’d love to hear it.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s all right.  It looks like we can use the local police, since so many of them know all about us.  Tomorrow, then, we’ll find out if the route can be changed, and if not, we walk it.”

“We can’t do that today?”

“It will be dark in a couple of hours, and I want to see it all in daylight.”

“Makes sense, but I thought our job was to catch the mole.”

“That would certainly be a nice little cherry on top of the operation, but we take our orders from Lord Weaver, and he sent us here to prevent Sir Harry’s assassination.”

“So, why the act with Sir Justin, then?”

She tossed the list back across the table.

“Look at that.  Security in this office is leakier than my dear departed mother’s colander, and if this supposed mole, or the whole herd of them, think we’re doing something else, then we can go about our real business with a free hand.”

“I like the way you think, lady,” he said, lifting one of the glasses of lukewarm lemon water.  “To deception.”

“You’re a fast learner, Mr. Bender,” she replied, sitting up and lifting her own glass.  “To deception.”

 

*

 

“I had no idea you were such a gentleman,” Jinx said as Bender adjusted her chair.

“I try not to let word get around,” he replied, moving to his side of the table and taking his seat.  “Anyway, who would have guessed how nicely you clean up?”

“Now there’s an item I really wouldn’t want getting around.”  She picked up a menu from the table.

They shared a small round table in a quiet corner of the Grenadier Arms’ dining room situated so they could see both doors and anyone loitering in their vicinity.

“So, you’ve been here before,” Bender said.  “What do you recommend?”

“Chinese fare is quite tasty,” she said.  “Stay away from the seafood, though.”

“Why?”

“These people have never discovered fish.  Everything has shells, or tentacles, or virulent poison glands.  Or some combination thereof.  Try the chau-mein with chicken or beef.  It’s usually served in a light sauce with vegetables that a westerner might recognize.”

“I’ve really missed a good barbecue,” Bender said wistfully.

“Oh.  Try the Mongolian beef, then.  It may not measure up to Dodge City’s finest, but their heart’s in the right place.”

“Really?  I thought that was served raw.”

“No, that’s tartare.  Mongols and Tartars have very different ideas about what constitutes food.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Frequently.  But, try the Mongolian beef.  You won’t be sorry.”

A Chinese waiter, dressed as if he were preparing to serve at the palace approached their table.  Jinx, seeing him coming, gave Bender an incredible smile and reached across to take his hand.

“Is the young couple ready to order?” the man asked, keeping his eyes down.

“My husband has been toying with the notion of Mongolian beef,” Jinx said coquettishly, “and I can’t help but wonder whether he’s serious.”

“Silly woman, of course I’m serious!  It would be a mistake to think I’m trifling with you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, darling.  My husband will have the Mongolian beef, then, and for me, the chau-mein with chicken.  And a large pot of tea, as well.”

The waiter, obviously surprised to hear the “wife” ordering at the table, gave Bender a curious look as if seeking his approval.

“Yes, that’s fine,” Bender said.  “Add a bottle of cheap port, and I think that will be everything.”

“Very good, sir.  It will be just a few moments.”

He collected the menus and departed for the kitchen.

“Well, that certainly drew attention to us,” Bender observed.

“Yes, but as what?  If he does remember us, it will be as those playful newlyweds, not as those grim and serious spies.”

“Ah, I see.  Well played, Milady.  Since we’re on the subject of grim and serious spies, do you think there’s anything behind Sir Justin’s failure to produce Calvin and this Kwon fellow?”

“There could be.  Operations like this don’t always follow a schedule, though.  They could have been tied up with something.”

“Silken cords?”

“Let us pray not, shall we?”

“We shall.  Tell me, is there any theater in Hong Kong?”

“I don’t know.  What difference could that make?”

“I thought you might enjoy an evening out before our work starts in earnest tomorrow.”

“I see.  You wouldn’t be trying to seduce me, would you, Mr. Bender?”

“I am completely innocent,” he protested.  “Going to the theater is a normal thing for a married couple to do, and I simply thought you might enjoy it.”

“I see.  I’d rather be rested than entertained, and I think a newlywed married couple is far more likely to stay in the room than go out looking for a theater company in Hong Kong.”

“I suppose you may be right at that,” he replied.  “Of course, a newlywed couple has access to some activities that we’ll be denied this evening.  I assume we’ll be denied?”

“You are absolutely correct in that assumption, my friend.  Now reach over and touch my face.”

“What?”

“The waiter is coming with the tea.  Be affectionate, dear.”

“Of course.”

He leaned forward and ran the backs of his fingers down her cheek.

“So soft,” he said.  “I could almost believe you were something other than what we are.”

“That would be a mistake,” she replied, her dazzling smile on full display for the waiter’s benefit.

“Here is tea,” the man said, placing a fat white pot in the center of the table, and setting two red-enameled porcelain cups down beside it.  “Cook say your meals almost finished.  Just be few minutes.  One of the boys is looking for your wine.”

“Don’t worry about that if he can’t find it,” Bender said.  “I have all the spirits I need right here.”

He patted Jinx’s hand.

“Ah, very good,” the man said with a knowing smile, and retreated toward the kitchen.

“We’ll need to get lots of rest tonight,” Jinx said.  “The illustrious Sir Harry arrives two days hence at someplace called District Four.  After that, he proceeds to Government House, then attends a trade conference, and returns to Government House for a state reception.  My guess is that the attempt will be made at the conference, but we have to look at everything.”

“Why the conference?”

“Trade officials from four countries will be there.  It’s the point of maximum damage.”

“I disagree.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Where would you strike, then?”

“The reception that evening.  There will be dignitaries and diplomats from every fiefdom in southeast Asia, and the scene will be chaotic.  Any pretense at security will be just that, a pretense.”

“Good points.  I believe you’re getting the hang of this business, Mr. Bender.  We’ll cover the conference anyway, and if he’s still alive after that, then we’ll know you were right.  Ah, here comes dinner.  No more shop talk, now.  Tell me of life in the grand metropolis of Tombstone.”

 

*

 

It was late, but the woman couldn’t rest, and if she wasn’t resting, none of the others had best dare rest either.  Clad in smudged Chinese work clothes, she leaned over a stained and dog-eared copy of a Hong Kong street map, measuring distances and calculating times from one point to the next while two men stood unobtrusively by, trying to be invisible, but ready to offer thoughtful noises of agreement at the slightest provocation.

The room itself was bare concrete, stained and chipped with the indicators of age that would tell a trained observer the history of the place; the woman cared nothing for that, only that it was secluded, secret, and shunned by the local farmers.  She had matters of importance to attend to.

There was a knock at the door.  Both men produced pistols and aimed them at the aging wood.

“Quem é?” she asked.

“Carlos.”

“Digite.”

          One of her men slid back the bolt and admitted a third swarthy, generic thug, heavily armed, and pushing a well-groomed Englishman before him.

“What in the hell is this?” the woman asked.  As the man opened his mouth to answer, she cut him off with, “You were told never to come here.”

Her accent was warm, smooth, and Latin, but if it brought the man any comfort, he concealed it well.

“I have vital new information, your Ladyship.”

“Have you never heard of, how do you say, a messenger?”

“This is far too important to trust to a third party.”

“And so you decided to cross the harbor and come to this place, leading anyone who might be watching you to the heart of our operation?  You are a fool.  What is this vital information that no one else can know?”

He glanced around meaningfully at the three men in the room with them.

“Spare me the effort of repeating it all to them,” she said, exasperated.  “You have come all this way and risked everything we are working for to bring me this news.  So, bring it.”

“Well, your Ladyship, it seems that these Darklighters have acquired two additional agents for this case.”

“Two days before the operation?  So what?  What can they accomplish at this late date?”  She sneered almost audibly.  “This is your big news?”

“Milady, they are not here to thwart the plot.  They are here to discover the leak in the Darklighters office.  Grant you, there isn’t much time, but should they tumble onto it…”  He gave a shrug, and left his hands up.

“That would cut off the flow of information at the most critical juncture,” she finished for him.  “And knowing this, it did not occur to you that they might be watching you, might have followed you here?”

“I apologize, Milady, but there was no time.  I had to make this known to you, and had I taken the time to encode a message, and then search for a trusted courier, it wouldn’t have reached you before tomorrow.”

“Hmm.  We must attempt to capitalize on your poor judgment.  Tell me of these agents.”

“Of course.  They are a man and a woman masquerading as a married couple, though the man is quite a bit older than the woman.  The man is playing the part of a wealthy American cattle baron.  I don’t know anything about him, but the woman is an Australian, and I’m aware of her by reputation.  Her name is Abigail Jenkins.  They call her Jinx, and it seems to fit what we know of her.”

“And what is that?”

“She’s a soldier in the Darklighters.  They got her out of a prison where she was doing life for murder, so she has complete loyalty to them.  Incorruptible, would be my estimate.”

“Anything else?”

“She is utterly ruthless in a fight, savage, as you might say.  Well-versed in guns and knives, as well as unarmed, and she knows her way around a bomb if someone else puts it together for her.”

“Perhaps that is the American’s job.”

“Perhaps.  I know nothing about him, though.  He is newly recruited, and our dossier contains little beyond his name, Charles Bender, and the fact that he is wanted for murder in America.”

“A mystery,” she surmised.  “Very dangerous.  Keep a close eye on them, but next time, send a messenger.  I do not intend to have this operation compromised by a simple breach of protocol.”

“Yes, Milady.”

“I will take care of our new playmates.  You stick to the plan and keep me updated on Sir Harold’s activities.”

“Yes, Milady.”

“Carlos, take our friend out through a different exit, and make sure he leaves unobserved.”

“Sim, Senhora.”

Carlos gave the man a light push toward the door.

“There’s nothing else?” he asked the woman.

“I told you, stick to the plan.  I will deal with this complication.”

“Yes, Milady.”

He turned toward the door and let Carlos guide him toward the proper exit.

“Francisco,” she said to one of the other men, “tomorrow morning, you take a couple of the fellows over to the island and see what these new agents are up to.  If you see an opportunity, get rid of them.  Not until evening, though.  I don’t want them to be missed before Sir Harold’s visit.

“Bom, Senhora.”

Satisfied, she turned back to her map.  Marcella Fernandez y Padilla hadn’t become one of her employer’s top assassins by leaving things to chance, nor by trusting incompetent assistants.  The Rose of Iberia would brook no interference.

 

Part Two

 

Bender sat in a relaxed posture, seemingly oblivious, but studying the two employees who managed the administrative duties in the Hong Kong “Office of Antquities.”  Harriet Marston, a middle-aged woman, not yet matronly, but headed that way at a rapid pace.  What was her story?  Why was she in the colony?  Was she a wife?  A widow?  Had she come here as an attractive young woman seeking her fortune?  Would bitterness have driven her to betray her country?  Greed?  A simple need for money?

And what of the old sarge?  Benedict Smiley.  As an American, Bender was well aware of the reputation of people named Benedict.

“Mr. Smiley,” Bender said with an air of casual interest, “I couldn’t help noticing your military bearing.  Have you served in the armed forces?”

“Why yes, sir,” the man said, stopping his work to regard the American with interest.  “I retired as a colour sergeant in the Yorkshire regiment.  Nominally out of Sheffield, but I spent most of my career with them in India.”

“Impressive, Sergeant.  You must be very proud.”

“It had its moments, I suppose.  Mostly marching, standing, and sleeping in the rain, though.  How about you, Mr. Bender?  Are you a military man?”

“Barely.  I marched with Sherman during our civil war.  I was just the wrong age, though.  Missed most of it.”

“From what I’ve read of that war, I’d say you were just the right age.”

“Yeah, I may have been, at that.”

At that point the door opened, admitting two men, one white and one Chinese.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” Mrs. Marston greeted them.  I think he wants you straight away.”

She walked back to open the station chief’s door, exchanged a few words with him, then returned to the small office.

“He wants to see all of you. Go on back, then.”

 

*

 

The four visitors filed into the small office at the back of the building.  Jinx noted the austere conditions, thinking that a senior manager who had been knighted for his service should have a better office than this.  Sir Justin had had two extra chairs brought in for this meeting, and they made the room seem positively crowded.  Then she remembered that the unit here was masquerading as the Office of Antiquities, and put it down as part of their cover.  Tough break for Sir Justin, though.

“Come in, come in, sit down, please,” Sir Justin greeted them.  “I trust everyone is well this morning?”

All the agents nodded their assent.

“Good, well, let’s get right to business, then.  This room isn’t going to get any cooler, I’m afraid.  The new people in the room are Abigail Jenkins and Charles Bender from the Australian office.”

“Mounting the big guns, are we?” the white man asked flippantly.

“In a way,” Sir Justin cut him off.  “Sydney sent them at Her Majesty’s behest to assist us with our current task here.  Apparently she is keen on Sir Harold surviving his visit to our fair island, so she ordered up some reinforcements for us.  These gentlemen are Yang Kwon and Allan Calvin.  They’re two of my very best agents, and have been working on this case since its inception.”

“And accomplished precious little,” Calvin finished for him.

He was a short man, stocky, probably a bulldog in a brawl, and Bender took an instinctive dislike to him.  Completely unfounded, he realized at once.  Probably the layout of his features.  They gave him the look of a street tough, the sort of bully one would expect to find strong-arming children for their pocket change.  He choked the feeling down and responded.

“How so?”

“We had the initial tip that set all this off.  Of course, you have to take this sort of thing seriously.”

“Of course.”

“Yes, well, we involved the police, because no one else has the manpower.  They went to the place we were tipped off to, and found nothing but a simple won-ton bar, a place workers go for a cheap lunch.”

“Did they search the place?”

“They did.  Turned everyone out into the street.  Looked in every nook, pulled up floorboards, you couldn’t have hidden a gnat in there.  They found nothing.”

“Maybe there was nothing to find,” Jinx said.  “I’m sure every office gets their share of false tips.  Maybe another eatery wanted to cause a problem for their competition.”

“Maybe,” Calvin conceded, “but then we got another tip that a vacant house was being used by men with guns and telescopes, but when we went there, all we found was a vacant house.”

“Maybe that’s all it was,” Jinx said.

“Where do these tips come from?” Bender asked.  “Do people just walk in off the street and ask to talk to the Darklighters?”

“Of course not!” Calvin said.

“Well, I had to ask, because from the documents that Sir Justin gave us yesterday, it looks like half the population of the colony is aware of the Darklighters, and what it is that we do.”

“That’s a serious accusation,” Calvin said, and he wasn’t smiling.

“Gentlemen,” Sir Justin intervened, “the police get tips from their informants, and pass along those they feel are more appropriate to the work we do.  We work with our police force, not behind their backs.”

“Have you been authorized to do that?” Jinx asked.

“Miss Jenkins, you’ve seen the conditions here.  Without the direct support of the police, all a dozen white men can accomplish is to watch everything and hope we see something.  International crime is under no such constraints.  Oh, sure, we have Agent Kwon, and Miss Liu, who’s in the middle of another case, but two agents aren’t going to make a dent in what goes on here.”

“I wouldn’t dream of accusing you of anything, Sir Justin.  I merely point out that the protocols were established for a reason, and I’m surprised to see how thoroughly they have been abandoned here.”

“I’m sure you are absolutely right, as far as the letter of the law is concerned, but you would do well to remember that we would have no case at all if we weren’t working with our police here, and Sir Harold might be walking blind into an assassination.  Which would you regard as the more important, Miss Jenkins?”

“You make a strong case, Sir Justin.”

“All right, then.  What Agent Calvin hasn’t yet said is that the raid found this house not just abandoned, but as clean as a new construction.  No sign of cooking by any of the vagrant population, no filthy blankets, no utensils, not even dust, which could be considered a bit unusual, given the housing situation here.  In addition, outside the back door was found a small device which proved to be a detachable box magazine from a bolt action Lee-Metford rifle.  This weapon has been proven capable of accurate fire from a distance of over eight hundred yards.  This house was less than three hundred yards from Sir Harold’s route.  In addition, there were fresh gouges in the wooden floor that align nicely with an appropriately-sized tripod.  I think, in view of these developments, that you must agree that the cooperation of the police has been invaluable.”

“That isn’t for me to judge,” Jinx replied.  “It sounds like you’ve had some great success here, in any case.  So, in light of all that you’ve discovered, what do you see as our role in this?”

“I still think we’d all be best served if you were to concentrate on ferreting out the source of our leak.  Knowing that you are working on that problem would free my agents up to concentrate on the assassins, and knowing that someone is actively investigating might make the traitor more cautious.”

“Or more careless,” Jinx added.

“Careless?”

“Yes. Consider.  This operation is most likely to be put in motion tomorrow, when Sir Harry’s movements are structured and known.  Literally the day before, their informant learns that he or she is under scrutiny by hunters, if you like, dedicated to bagging him.  Maybe he feels the need to deviate from an established routine.  That would make a mistake more likely.”

“I see.  That would, of course, necessitate letting the knowledge slip out that that’s what you’re here for.”

“Of course, and the sooner, the better.”

“I’ll see to it.  Calvin, you and Kwon do the same, but subtly, understand?  Don’t just blurt it out.  Let it slip.”

“I quite understand, sir.”

“Yes,” Kwon agreed.  “A most excellent plan.”

“Well then, Miss Jenkins, Mr. Bender, that’s where we stand.  We have precious little information, beyond the evidence of an imminent attempt.  Do you have any questions?”

“I don’t think so,” Jinx said after a moment’s thought.  “We need to get busy on that list of names you gave us.  We need to show the real mole, whoever it is, that we’re serious about catching them.”

“Quite so,” Sir Justin said.  “Do you gentlemen have anything to add?”

“Only that I hope you know what you’re doing,” Calvin replied.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bender asked.

“Only that you’re going to be out there prodding people that we’re depending on to do our work.  I hope you do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the good guys.”

“We know what we’re doing, Agent Calvin,” Jinx told him.  “We just hope you do.”

“Now you listen—”

“All right,” Sir Justin interrupted, “I think we’ve covered everything we can here.  Miss Jenkins, if you and your partner are ready to get started, you can go ahead and do that.  Agent Calvin, I’ll need you and Agent Kwon to stay behind.  I want a full briefing on what you were doing yesterday evening.”

“We’ll be going, then,” Jinx said, rising.  “Best of luck, gentlemen.”

 

*

 

Jenkins and Bender closed Sir Justin’s door behind them and stopped at the end of the hall.

“Do you have a feeling that he’s holding something back?” she asked.

“I’ve rarely felt anything more strongly.”

They began to walk down the hallway toward the reception office.

“Could either of you provide us with a map of Sir Harry’s route tomorrow?” Jinx asked.

“Mrs. Marston keeps those files,” Smiley answered.

“Whatever do you need that for?” the older woman asked.  “That’s supposed to be a secret matter.”

“Yes, and we’re supposed to prevent his assassination, so if you please, or should we wait for Sir Justin to rule on the matter?”

“Very well, there’s no reason to get snippy.  I’m just doing my job.”

As she took her time finding a key and opening a file cabinet, Bender stepped over to Smiley’s desk.

“Sorry to disturb you, but do you think you could point out the lavatory facilities for this building?”

“Of course. They’re hidden in the back, I’m afraid.  You go out this door, make a left, and halfway down the hall you’ll see a—”

“I’m terrible with directions,” Bender interrupted.  “Do you think you could show me?”

“Oh, very well.”

He took a key from his waistcoat pocket and locked his desk.

“Follow me, sir,” he said, stepping around to the door.

Bender followed him past a good number of closed doors on either side of the hall, and into a side corridor, where he stopped him.

“I don’t actually need the lavatory,” Bender said.  “I want to ask you a couple of questions off the record.”

“That isn’t appropriate, sir.  Questions for me should be asked through Sir Justin.”

“Well, you see, that’s the thing.  You can’t get the full story from just one man.”

“What makes you think I would know more than the director?”

“Not more, necessarily, just different.  You move in different circles, you hear different things.”

“Anything I might hear comes under the heading of a state secret.”

“Well, you see, that’s the thing.  It is believed that you have a traitor in your office, someone who is feeding valuable information to the enemy.  Those other people, they don’t know.  They have a lot of book learning, but you and I are soldiers.  We’re the only ones here who understand what it means to write a check for your life to your country, then stand on the firing line and wait for it to be cashed.  Sir Harold arrives tomorrow, and we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m asking you, one soldier to another, who looks suspicious to you?  What happens that seems out of the ordinary?”

“I see.  There aren’t many people in this office.  There’s Sir Justin, of course, but he’s above suspicion.  Her Majesty doesn’t make a habit of granting knighthood to traitors.  His office staff consists of Mrs. Marston and I.  She handles the correspondence, keeps the files, and whatnot.  I’m more in the way of his adjutant.  I keep track of the various operations, coordinate assignments, generally do the sort of jobs that free him up to manage the big picture.  Then there’s Harvey.  Bartlett, his runner.  He greeted you when you arrived.  Harvey is his legs, and Sir Justin keeps him hopping.  Any of us would know any number of things of value to criminals.  It isn’t me, of course, but I don’t expect you to take my word for it.”

“That’s decent of you.  We’ll have to look, of course.”

“Of course you will.  Other than that, we have three teams of agents that work out of this office.  Calvin and Kwon you just met.  The other two are working their own cases, and have no information to sell about this one.”

“What about Calvin and Kwon?  What are they like?”

“Rock solid.  Two years together, impeccable record.  They’ve solved several tough cases that nobody thought they could.  Top notch team, that.  Probably why they were given this case to work.”

“How about Calvin?  He seemed awfully defensive in there.”

“Obviously, I wasn’t present, but if you challenged him, he gets that way.  Takes great pride in his work, and doesn’t like to be questioned.”

“Just his personality, then?”

“That’s right.”

“And that’s the whole staff, just ten of you?”

“Yes, sir.  Our cover is as the office of Antiquities.  How many people could we have on staff, and still be able to maintain that charade?”

“Yes, I see your point.  Anyone else I should know about, informants and the like?”

“Well, informants aren’t usually given information, rather, we receive it.  I suppose they could be selling to both sides.  There is a superintendent and two senior officers of the police force who visit him frequently, and some civilians, at least people in civilian clothing, who come in less often.  I have no idea who most of them are, or what they discuss, so any of them could be your leak.  Of course, that would mean that Sir Justin was giving them the information himself.”

“Maybe for valid reasons,” Bender said.  “What they do with it afterward is out of his control.”

“Quite.”

“You’ve been very helpful, sergeant,” Bender told him.  “We’d better get back before they start thinking we’re the spies!”

“Capital idea, sir.”

The two men returned to the office to find Jinx poring over a small map, and Mrs. Marston back at her desk and hard at work.

“Ah, there you are,” Jinx greeted them.  “Where did you get off to?”

“I needed Mr. Smiley to show me to the loo.  It’s pretty hard to find.”

“Oh, all right.  Let’s get started, then.  It’s going to be a long day.”

Bender held the door for her, and they went out.

“Anything I should know about?” she asked when they were away from the office.

“Yes.  There’s a very small staff here, just the secretaries, Sir Justin himself, Bartlett, his runner, and three teams.  The one we met is the only one working on this case.  There are three senior police officers who visit Sir Justin frequently, and a parade of civilians who he knows nothing about.  I put it in his ear that we’re here to get the traitor, so everybody in the organization should know about it within then next half hour.”

“Excellent.  You push people, they tend to make mistakes.  Let’s just hope it happens in time.”

 

Part Three

 

Bender and Jenkins made their way arm-in-arm up the gentle grade toward the financial district of central Victoria, an area that would rank high on Undersecretary Bligh’s list of sites to visit.  It was early morning, the remnants of last night’s pea soup fog holding the humidity at bay for a short time longer.  Bender’s senses were assailed by the non-linear architecture, the brilliant colors worn by both sexes, the aromas of a thousand exotic dishes cooking for the morning meal, and the ongs, angs, and zhis of an utterly foreign tongue.

District Four had proven to be a series of docks lying at the far west end of the waterfront.  It was a nicer area, if any waterfront district could be called nice, catering more to passenger vessels than cargo carriers; small wonder that an Undersecretary would rather disembark here than between a drove of pigs and a shipload of fertilizer.  Of course, that would necessitate him traveling through this area that Bender could only describe as a slum, with houses, apartments, shacks, and hovels thrown haphazardly together, and seemingly stacked atop one another.

“This route can’t possibly be necessary,” he suggested to Jinx.

“It certainly doesn’t look promising,” she agreed.  “What alternatives might we propose?”

“His ship could anchor out in the harbor, and he could come in by launch and disembark at the most convenient landing.”

“That’s risky.”

“Riskier than this?”

“Think ahead.  You’re asking a titled peer of the realm to transfer to a small boat out in that windy channel.  If anything goes wrong, and he goes into the drink, he’s going to want to know whose bloody idea this was, by God!  I think I’d rather he be shot than have him gunning for me.”

“He’d be wet but alive.”

“Yes, wet, angry, and very much alive.  We can certainly suggest it, or rather, you can suggest it, but I don’t see him going for it.”

“Oh?  Do you know him?”

“I know his type.  Pompous, arrogant, and entitled.  He isn’t going to approve it.”

“His funeral,” Bender said, stopping.  “Just look around here.  If you wanted to take the time, you could count a thousand windows and rooftops that any sniper would consider perfect vantage points.”

“You’re assuming they’re going to shoot him.”

“Why wouldn’t they?  It’s direct, has no convoluted plan to go wrong, just one simple bang, and he’s dead.  And there’s a little bonus.”

“Which is?”

“Look around this place.  A sniper could get a clean shot from there, or there, or there,” he said, pointing out a few spots, “and then he could disappear.  You couldn’t track one man in here with a team of bloodhounds.”

“Yeah.  There aren’t enough coppers in Hong Kong to lock this place down, either.”

“Not enough in China, more like.”

“Well, we’ll pass our concerns along.”  The ground flattened out as they moved into Victoria Town, the British area of the colony, with its stucco and plaster buildings, some reaching to five stories.  “I wanted to walk the route to get a feel for what we were up against.  Now that I have…  Well, I feel like if we can get him through that stretch, he’s home free.”

“And then there’s that ‘they know that we know that they know’ thing.” Bender said.

“What’s that?”

“The assassins know what we’re looking at, because they looked at it, too.  We have to assume they’re competent if they’re going after a state official.  So they let us expend all our effort securing the slums, then, just as we crest the hill with a sigh of relief, bang, from that tower right there.  Or that rooftop, or that window.”

“You aren’t doing anything for my confidence, Mr. Bender.  I think I liked you better as Mr. Smith.”

*

Marcella Fernandez y Padilla, the rose of Iberia, sat in a well-worn chair by the window of a dirt-floored hovel reading a passage in a thick, leather-bound tome, a studious expression on her dramatic features.  There came a single rap at the door, and it cracked open far enough to admit a man’s head.

“Your pardon, Ladyship,” the man decked out in Chinese laborer’s rags said.

“Yes, Lee, come in.”

The man entered and bowed deeply.

“Our contact has reported that the two new agents have taken a cab to the waterfront to walk our target’s route.”

“Ah, that is excellent,” she said, laying the tome on the side table.

“Excellent, Ladyship?”

“Yes, Lee, exactly what we hoped.  That idiot Stover dropped a piece of his weapon the other day, and that could have been a disaster.  Instead, this gives us the opportunity to use his mistake to our advantage.  A shame he isn’t around to see it.”

“But, how can we make use of a mistake?” the man asked.

“They found a piece of a high-powered rifle, did they not?  Now they are focused on the notion that a high-powered rifle is instrumental in our plans.  We will help them embrace that idea.”

She rose and crossed to a steamer trunk at the dark side of the room.  Moving a few items of clothing, she removed what looked to be a clarinet case.  Returning to her chair, she took a pad and drew a diagram of a few buildings and streets, not a map of anyplace in particular, opened the case, and placed it atop the broken-down custom rifle whose pieces nestled in their felt compartments.  Closing the case and locking it, she extended it to Lee.

“Take this to an empty house with a good view of the route and hide it in a room that overlooks it.  Not too well.  We want it to be found, yes?  Once you have done that, create a note with the address, and describing a European with a weapon checking the views from the windows.  Say that you were a vagrant, there to sleep the night, and he didn’t see you in the shadows.  Write it in Chinese and give it to Mei Li to be delivered to our contact with some breakfast cakes he has ordered.  Once he has it translated, he will put the cat among the pigeons, well and truly.  By the time they realize that there are no pigeons, our work will be done, and we will be on the way home.”

“Excellent, Ladyship,” Lee said, bowing deeply once again.  “This is why you have no peers!”

*

Bender and Jenkins had completed the task of testing the security of the Central District office buildings, and had stopped for the noon meal at an open-air rice emporium.  Building security had been practically non-existent.  Most had a receptionist at a desk in the lobby, but a few lacked even that.

The test had been simple.  First Bender had entered and attempted to walk past the desk and start up the stairs, then a few minutes later, Jinx would follow.  The outcome was nearly always the same:  If they acted like they knew what they were there for and just walked confidently past the desk, Bender was rarely challenged, and Jenkins never.  The meaning was clear; a sniper could pick virtually any rooftop or vacant office he liked, and just walk in and set up.

As they ate their chau-mein bowls, Bender struggling with the chopsticks despite Jenkins’ rudimentary instructions, he looked around at the commanding buildings surrounding the main street.

“You know this is impossible, don’t you?” he asked, feeling the futility seeping into him.  “First there was that slum down there, now this, and we haven’t even gotten to the trade center yet.  If they want him, they’ve got him.”

“They’d better not.  The Darklighters are not fully supported by all the signatories yet.  We have yet to prove ourselves in the eyes of some of them, and we have a highly visible role here.  If we fall on our faces, there could be repercussions that go far beyond Hong Kong.”

“Oh, good, I’m glad there’s no extra pressure on us, then.”

She just sniffed and shook her head.

At this juncture, a Chinese man in western dress came bustling into the dining terrace, and Bender nudged Jinx when he realized the man was heading straight for them.  It was moment before they realized this was Kwon, the Hong Kong agent.

“I’m glad I found you,” he said with no preamble beyond a slight bow.  “We have had word from an informant about a possible sniper’s roost in the Shānpo District.  We’ve notified the police, and I’m on the way up there now.  Sir Justin sent me to inform you in case you’d like to come.”

“I certainly would,” Bender said.  “How about you?”

“I really want to see every foot of this route,” Jinx replied.  “You go ahead if you want.  There may be something useful there.”

“I’ll do it.  Will you be all right on your own?”

Her reply to that consisted of a tilted head and a raised eyebrow.

“All right, then, I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Bender, just as happy to be relieved of the struggle with the chopsticks, rose and joined Kwon for the brief walk to the address provided.  They started back down the main street before Kwon consulted a file of Chinese characters scrawled on piece of nearly transparent paper, and directed their steps into a tiny alley and up a gentle incline.  How any series of characters could describe a location in this rat’s warren escaped Bender entirely.

“Where did this intelligence come from?” Bender asked, only superficially trying to follow the route.

“We have developed informers among the island’s population,” Kwon said.

“Reliable?”

“Generally.  You need to understand China, Mr. Bender.  China has an empress, but the country is vast, and the communications primitive.  Most of the country is ruled by the regional dictators you call warlords.  It is an apt name.  Most of their so-called governance consists of endless battles as they try to seize land from one another, farmland, grazeland, water rights, the usual things.  Hong Kong was given to the British as a treaty concession almost as a joke, as it was considered a worthless rock without development potential, and that British presence would suppress the rampant piracy.  That didn’t happen, but thousands of peasants, seeing what your countrymen made of this worthless rock, flocked here to make new lives away from the lash of the warlords.  A large percentage of the population is more loyal than you might think.”

“Really, I had no idea.”

“Most outsiders don’t.  They see hundreds of British and thousands of Chinese living side-by-side, and think only of the potential for problems, but we’re really quite a unified family here, despite our differences.  Ah, here we are.”

The address was a house, in the loosest possible definition of the word, that seemed to be made of old balsa wood crates and oilcloth.  Kwon identified them to the police lieutenant in charge, and they stepped down into the darkened, slightly sunken interior.  It consisted of one room, rags and empty food boxes littering the floor, a couple of pallets made up for crude beds, with a not-so-faint odor of human waste overlying everything.  This was obviously used as temporary lodging by the island’s itinerant population.

Kwon crossed to the low windows on the opposite side from the door, noting the clear view they gave through two different gaps of the undersecretary’s route, and also to catch what clean air found its way in through the openings.

“An ideal site,” Kwon said to Bender, who had followed him.  “Perfect view of the route without being conspicuous.”

“Agent Kwon,” the lieutenant said from behind them, “we found this hidden in some of this bedding.  I assume it’s what you are looking for?”

Kwon and Bender turned to find the lieutenant holding a long, flat case such as a musician might use to carry his instrument.  The case was open, and stored in form-fitting felt-lined depressions were barrel, stock, body, and telescopic sight of a broken-down rifle of obviously high craftsmanship.

“You assume correctly, lieutenant,” Kwon said, taking the case and placing in on a crate turned on end to serve as a table.  He lifted the scope and sighted through it toward the street below.  “Have you ever seen anything like this, Charles?”

“No,” Bender said, hefting the bolt assembly.  “This is obviously custom made by a skilled smith for high-precision work.”

“Obviously.”

“How did your informant come by this knowledge, did he say?”

“He was staying here last night.  He was wrapped in his blankets, and apparently overlooked in the dark when a man came in with this case.  He took out the telescope and peered out the window with it, apparently testing the view.  When he was satisfied, he put it away, locked the case, and hid it.  Our man knew it was something that would interest us, and when he left, he delivered his report.”

“Seems frightfully convenient.”

“Some of the most momentous events in history have turned on such trivial items.  Anyway, it’s hard to argue with the results.”

“It is that.  I can’t imagine a sniper is going to be fully effective after he’s lost this gun.”

“It does seem like the centerpiece of an assassin’s trade.  Now, of course, the question becomes, what’s his backup plan?”

“Indeed.  Well, let us hope is isn’t as efficient as this one.”

*

Bender took the grand staircase of the Grenadier Arms two at a time, only pausing at the desk long enough to retrieve the room key.  Kwon had offered to share a ride back to Government House, but Bender’s nose was saturated with the scents of rotting food and raw sewage.  Suspecting his clothes might be as well, he wanted to change before he went back to work.

Opening the door to the suite, he stripped off his lightweight jacket and tossed it at the sofa before heading toward his bedroom, loosening his tie as he went.  A slight sound stopped him in his tracks, a tiny scrape coming from Jenkins’ room.  Knowing she wasn’t in because the key had been waiting in the lobby, he drew the small Smith & Wesson revolver from its shoulder holster, and cautiously approached her door, which was ajar.

First mistake, he thought, creeping toward it silently on the heavy carpet.

Reaching it, he leaned back and kicked it hard, sending it slamming back against the wall and following it in a fierce charge, spinning as he entered to clear the area just inside.  As he completed the turn, his hand was kicked sharply inside the wrist, and his pistol went flying.  Before he could think to react, he was kicked in the stomach, and as he bent forward, he was grabbed by the hair and kneed in the face.  Thrown to his back by the force of the blow, he was able to focus on a slight figure dressed head-to-toe in black who darted out the door.

“Hold it!” he shouted, feeling stupid even as the words left his mouth.  Struggling to his feet, he gave staggering chase, ears ringing, head spinning from the powerful blow to the face.

The door was closed, and he turned to check the balcony.  There the man was, attaching a grappling hook to the rail and tossing its rope to the street three stories below.  Collecting his wits, Bender charged, taking him down with a flying tackle that slammed them into the railing, and threatened to pitch them over.

Landing partially on top of the man, he clambered to get on top and pin him down with his much heavier weight.  The man was having none of that, and slapped both hands, hard, over Bender’s earholes, adding to his disorientation.  Stunned, he took a finger-thrust to the eye that sat him back on his heels, then a four-finger strike to the throat.  As he tried to shake off his shock, the man wriggled out from under him, hopped the balcony rail, and by the time Bender got to his feet to look, he had disappeared into the crowd, leaving nothing behind but a small grappling hook and a black cotton rope.

“Shit!” Bender decided, every part of his head throbbing in pain, and turned to examine the suite with his one good eye.

His own room had been thoroughly ransacked, drawers emptied, and suitcases turned out onto the floor.  The materials that Sir Justin had provided were spread out on the bed, but there hadn’t been many, and it was the work of a moment to verify that nothing had been taken.  The thief had apparently just started on Jenkins’ room when he had arrived, as only the side table drawer had been turned out, and the top dresser drawer was open but undisturbed.

With nothing more to be gained by remaining in the suite, Bender selected a light khaki tropical suit from the pile on his floor and started to change.  Sir Justin would need to know about this development.

*

Jinx, young and fit as she was, arrived at Government House with burning feet and a dull ache in her lower back.  Undersecretary Bligh’s chosen route was over ten miles long, which given the pace required to examine the surroundings, translated to over four hours on her feet.  Over the course of those ten miles, she reckoned she had seen ten thousand places that were ripe for ambush.  The final nail in the coffin was that Sir Harold himself, or more likely someone on his staff, had picked the route personally, and it was not subject to alteration.  She had no doubt she would be greeting a dead man tomorrow.

She trudged up the six curved steps at the entrance on wooden legs, looking forward to sitting down somewhere, anywhere.  The moment she entered the lobby, a concerned-looking clerk rose to greet her.

“Mrs. Bender, thank God you’re here!” he said.  “They want you in the Office of Antiquities right away.  The doctor is with your husband now.”

“Doctor?  What the hell’s happened here?”

“I’m not certain, Ma’am.  They just said to send you back right away.”

“Thank you,” she said, tired legs forgotten as she quick-stepped down the hall and pushed the door open.

Bender sat, or rather sprawled, in a tipped-back office chair, a tall man in a frock coat bending over him, looking into his eye from an inch away through a small instrument.

“There’s good news here, at least,” the man, obviously the doctor, stated.  “The cornea isn’t damaged, though you have a tidy scratch on the white of the eyeball.”

“What the hell is this?” Jinx demanded from the door.  “What’s happened to him?”

“Come in, Mrs. Bender,” Sir Justin greeted her.  “Close the door and we’ll fill you in.”

“You’re the wife?” the doctor asked as she did so.

“Yes.  Abigail Bender.  What’s going on here?”

“Mrs. Bender,” the doctor said, preparing a compress from the contents of his bag, “your husband returned to your hotel suite after he left you, and was attacked by an unknown assailant.”

He turned back to Bender and laid the compress over his eye, moving Bender’s hand to it with a direction to hold it in place.

“He was given a pretty sound hiding, though there doesn’t seem to be any serious damage.”

Jenkins looked at Sir Justin with raised eyebrows, and a tilt of her head toward the doctor.

“I’m sorry,” he said at once.  “This is Doctor Radcliffe from Victoria Hospital.  He is aware of our activities here in a general fashion, and works with us on cases such as this.”

“The hospital knows about us as well?”

“And a lucky thing, too,” Sir Justin said.  “Mr. Bender had quite a close call.”

“Can you talk, Charles?” she asked.

“I can.”

“Then you tell me, what happened?”

“Kwon took me to where the police had found a sniper’s roost that overlooked the street where Sir Harry will be parading tomorrow.  We found a custom rifle, tailor-made for a professional assassin.  The place was a dump, rotting food and human waste in the corners of the room, so I went back to the hotel to change before coming back to work.  There was someone in your room who attacked me when I challenged him.  Little fellow, slight, wiry, and a skilled fighter in a manner much like you.  He scratched my eye and clawed my throat, and escaped by sliding down a rope from the balcony.”

“Probably how he got in, as well,” she said.  “You’re sure he’s all right, doctor?”

“Yes, and by all indications, he’s very fortunate to be alive.”

“How’s that?  You said it wasn’t serious.”

“Not the wounds themselves, no, but from his description of his attacker, and the depth of the fingernail strikes on his throat, it’s very likely his attacker was a woman.”

“My bloody luck,” Bender said.  “The boys at the saloon ain’t gonna believe this!”

“I say, most men wouldn’t take that news quite so well.”

“I train with that one,” he replied with a nod toward Jinx.  “I don’t have any misconceptions about what little girls are capable of.”

“I see,” the doctor said with a closer look at Jinx.  “Well, here in the colony, and possibly all over China, the criminal gangs, the triads, are known to employ female assassins.  They employ various stealthy weapons to avoid detection, things like long pins that are part of their jewelry, and the like, and one of their favorite techniques is to pack a poisonous paste under their long fingernails and deliver a strike just like this one to transfer it to the victim’s blood.”

“Do you think that was done here?” Jinx asked, voice rising.

“Oh, no.  The poisons they use are extremely fast acting.  He would have been incapacitated before he could have gotten to the lobby.  No, whatever she was there for, it wasn’t to kill.”

“There’s a relief.  I guess the question is then, what was she there for?  Darling, can you shed any light on that?”

“I can’t,” Bender said.  “She hit my room first.  The drawers, the suitcases, the works were dumped in the floor and searched, by appearances.  The material that Sir Justin sent us when we first arrived was spread out on my bed, but there wasn’t much of it, and I could tell at a glance that nothing was missing.  She hadn’t gotten well started on your room when I interrupted her, so she could have been looking for something in there.”

“She could have been looking for one particular fact, a name, an address, anything.  She could have written it down or memorized it, and gotten what she came for without taking anything.”

“I don’t think so,” Bender said.  “If she’d gotten what she came for, she would have left before I arrived.  She was still searching when I got there.”

“She was still searching, she wasn’t there to assassinate one of us, so what the hell?” Jinx pondered.

“Probably there to determine what you know,” Sir Justin offered.  “Looking to see if the coast is still clear to execute their plan.”

“That’s very possible,” Jinx said, “but how did find out about us so quickly?”

“We obviously have a mole,” Sir Justin said, “and since we don’t know who it is, he or she could have access to any sort of information.”

“And Sir Harold arrives tomorrow morning,” Bender said.  “We have to figure this out quickly.”

“You, Mr. Bender, will need to see to your health.  I’m leaving you some drops for that eye, and you’ll need to keep a compress on it for the next few days.  Likewise, that throat wound.  Things infect easily in this climate, and you’ll need to keep it clean and dressed at all times.”

“That’s going to hinder me working on this case.”

“If you were a normal patient, Mr. Bender, I’d recommend a week of bed rest.  After all, you took some hard blows as well these gouges.  Of course, in your line of work, that isn’t going to be possible, but I strongly recommend that you at least rest for the rest of the day.  You can start fresh in the morning.”

Bender started to protest, but Jinx rode over him.

“Tut, tut, tut, dear.  Doctor knows best.  I’ll take you back to the suite.  You can put your feet up and we’ll compare notes about our day.”

Part Four

Bender stood in the hovel he and Kwon had investigated yesterday.  A crew had been sent to clean it out, and with the help of several sticks of incense it became marginally livable.  It was an easy assumption that following all the police activity in and around the house yesterday that the shooter, whoever he was, wouldn’t return again.  Furthermore, having lost the weapon he had hidden here, he would be forced to start from scratch on the first day of the visit.  He put his good eye to the eyepiece of the wide-angle telescope situated to look down over the processional route.  Pressured people made mistakes.  Bender prayed for a big one.

Two blocks up the hill, Kwon lay prone on a rooftop looking through a similar telescope.  Set up next to it on its own low tripod was a much more powerful precision model.  On the roof beside him lay a long-barreled Whitworth rifle with a telescopic sight; it wouldn’t be the case that, having seen something significant, he would be unable to influence it actions.

Down below, Bender swept his telescope along the route.  The police had done a creditable job of keeping everyone back from the street, but the assassination attempt wouldn’t come from the street.  Trying to watch everything without knowing what he was watching for, he began to second-guess their every action leading up to this moment.  His main regret was that they hadn’t quietly set an ambush around the house to nab the shooter when he returned this morning to set up the shot.  They would have solved the problem and wouldn’t be wondering which of a thousand possible things could go wrong now.  He made a mental note to never repeat this mistake and swung his telescope back to the left to begin another sweep.

Another sweep completed, and nothing in the least suspicious observed, he checked his watch.  10:15 AM.  If the undersecretary was on schedule, he would be nearing the end of the receiving line and preparing to board his carriage.  Still nothing suspicious.

And what would constitute suspicious?  Bender had no idea.  Certainly, if he spotted someone in a window setting up a high-powered rifle, that would qualify, but any of these thousands of Chinese and hundreds of whites lining the route could be the culprit, and could stand there unnoticed until the very instant he was ready to act.  The only chance they had was for someone to be looking at him when he made his move.  Even then, if it weren’t the right person, it would make no difference.

Adjusting the eye patch to hold the compress more tightly against his left eye, he swung the telescope back and began another sweep.

*

Undersecretary of Trade Sir Harold Bligh was a surprisingly slender man, and not particularly tall by current standards.  He wore a dark blue three-piece suit, long necktie with collar up, and a top hat on his full head of silver-gray hair.  His imposing yet perfectly groomed walrus moustache gave him exactly the right look of authority and breeding.

His ministry bodyguards preceded him down the long gangway to the passenger dock in District Four, and his extensive entourage trailed him like a line of ducklings following their mother.  At the bottom of the gangway waited a receiving line headed by the governor-general and his wife, and including an impressive formation of personages that stretched well down the pier.  Near the foot of this line waited the Hong Kong Superintendent of Antiquities, one Sir Justin Thyme.  A military band at the proper distance played Rule, Britannia as the undersecretary made his way down the ramp.

Abigail Jenkins took in all this pomp and circumstance from her position within the Hong Kong security detail near the foot of the pier.  She found very little in life to be as boring as these high-level ceremonies.

“How long does this go on?” she asked Agent Calvin, who waited to her left.

“Longer than you’d like,” he replied.  “He has to be greeted by the governor-general, who then introduces his wife, then walks him down the line and makes individual introductions to everyone higher in status than the city’s rat-catcher.”

“Wonderful.”

“Take heart, lady.  At least we aren’t in the middle of it.”

“Praise God for that!  We’ll miss lunch at this rate.  What do you say, want to borrow a carriage and find a restaurant?  We should have plenty of time.”

“No need for that,” Calvin replied.  “The governor-general has arranged for catered food to be provided in the carriages.  It will be a rolling feast of sorts.”

“And we’re to be included in this?”

“Oh, yes.  We’ll be in the carriage directly behind the undersecretary’s with two uniformed policemen.  Two of us will face forward, and two to the rear.  I had assumed that your partner would be in the carriage with you, but I gather he and Kwon were given an assignment away from the procession.”

“Yes, I was told the same thing.  Still, you know the ground far better than we do, so it should work out all right.  Where are you going to sit?”

“Back of the carriage facing forward.”

“I’ll watch the rear, then.  One copper with each of us.  Best we can do, I suppose.”

“Yes.  This procession through town is one of the poorest ideas anyone’s had in a long time.  I’d think if someone was out to kill me, I’d have the God-given sense to keep my head down.”

“And me as well!  Didn’t anyone advise him of the situation here?”

“Oh, of course, but this is one of those lead-by-example types who won’t be intimidated by common thugs.  His words.  He’ll not allow them the high ground.”

“That will be hard to contest if he’s under the ground.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, lady.  He’d not be doing this if I were in charge.”

Their conversation continued in this vein for another twenty minutes before the undersecretary came off the pier with the large party of dignitaries who began climbing into the carriages, some open-topped, some with canvas sun shades in place of roofs.  All were drawn by large black horses decorated with plumed and silvered harnesses.  Jinx, Calvin, and their two policemen took their places in the carriage behind the twelve-passenger coach set aside for the undersecretary’s party.

As the members of the processions boarded from the left side of the conveyances, a bustle of activity was occurring on the right as at least a dozen Chinese workers, mostly women, under the supervision of a white woman in fancier Chinese clothing, loaded portable braziers onto the carriages, securing them against the jolts of travel with clamps, and settling containers of various dishes into their depressions.

“We realized, given the time of docking,” Jinx heard the governor-general telling the undersecretary, “that the breakfast you received on the ship would likely be substandard, so we took the liberty of inviting some of our local culinary experts to provide a portable feast of some of the local cuisine.  You can dine as you tour, Sir Harold, on delicacies from sweet-and-sour pork to pineapple bread, all of them famous as Hong Kong’s local signature dishes.”

“There, you see?” Calvin asked as he and Jinx took seats next to the two uniformed policemen.  “Probably a good thing we didn’t steal a carriage after all.”

“Borrow.”

He opened a basket and took a piece of pineapple bread.

“Care to try some of this?  It’s a Hong Kong specialty.  Delicious.”

“Maybe later,” she said, already scanning the office building to their immediate rear.  “I shudder to think this might catch on.  Every charlatan from Sydney to Calcutta will be offering gourmet carriage rides.”

“A new cottage industry,” Calvin agreed as the carriage started to move out behind the undersecretary’s coach.  “Might be fun.”

“Yes, well, there’s a time for fun, isn’t there.  Just keep your eyes open.  Lives and reputations may depend on it.”

“Maybe, but there must be fifty guards with this procession, and we’re right in the middle of it.  It’s the people on the extreme ends who’ll do the important work.  Sure you don’t want some bread?”

“Later,” she said absently, studying the dark openings in the warehouse slipping by on their left.

*

The four draft horses labored to pull the big coach up the shallow grade to the first of the Western sectors, the lighter one carrying Jinx and Calvin handling the grade easily.  She could hear the voices of the dignitaries behind her discussing something, though she couldn’t make out the words.  She didn’t actually try very hard, her unwavering focus remaining on the buildings behind from where a trailing shot would come, should their mysterious sniper have so chosen.  Then she heard the driver of her own carriage commanding the horses to stop, and Calvin stood up from the seat across from hers.

“Something’s happening,” he said, stepping down to the street, hand over the pistol concealed beneath his coat.

She followed, not yet fanning for her gun, but catlike in her alertness.  The undersecretary, preceded by two of his security men, stepped down to the street, focus and interest on a chaotic marketplace just off the road to the left side.

“God, tell me he doesn’t want to go in there,” she said hopefully.

“I’m afraid he might,” Calvin replied, as the two police officers stepped down behind them and moved to join his security detail.

“Don’t get drawn into that drama,” Jinx warned Calvin.  “Watch the surroundings.  Remember, we’re dealing with a sniper.”

“Absolutely right,” he agreed, turning his back to the party and scanning the rooftops and windows across the road.  “Whatever he wants here, I hope he gets it quickly.”

As the two of them kept watch on the impossible array of vantage points confronting them, they heard the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting.  They turned quickly to see one of the undersecretary’s assistants down on one knee, having soiled the front of his trousers and Sir Harold’s shoes.

“I—  I’m sorry, Sir,” the man said weakly, making no move to rise.

“Damned unfortunate,” the undersecretary said, looking for a cloth to wipe his shoes with.  “Must be this damned foreign food.”

The aide, still making no attempt to rise, got a sicker look on his face, then pitched forward into his own vomit, still conscious, but twitching and taking on a yellowing complexion.

“Damn,” Sir Harold exclaimed, “what’s the matter with the man?”

“It has to be tainted food, Sir,” one of the security detail said, “but, what did he eat?”

“Mister Havener,” another of the security men said, kneeling beside him, “what did you eat?  Mr. Havener?”

But the aide only moaned once, and closed his eyes.

“Mr. Havener!”

With still no response, the security man bent over him, listened to his chest, then put his face close to the stricken man, feeling for breath.

“God almighty!” he exclaimed, standing up.  “He’s dead!”

Sir Harold looked as if he were about to speak, then vomited projectiles of masticated food in a stream five feet long as he, too, fell to his knees, then continued on to land on his face.  Another of the security men joined him, followed quickly by another aide.

“Jesus Christ,” the first guard shouted, “we’ve been poisoned!”

“We need a doctor,” Jinx said.  “Is there one with the party?”

“He stayed aboard the ship,” the guard said.

“There are doctors’ offices all around here,” Calvin said.  “I’ll get one,” and before anyone could say anything else, he darted off into the confusion of the marketplace.

Jinx could only watch as two more people from the main party went down, and curiously, no one from the other carriages, even though the food had been distributed throughout the caravan.

*

A quarter-mile off the route, and some two hundred feet higher in elevation, Bender and Kwon stood in an empty office in the Hightower Exports Building overlooking the procession.  Bender took his turn at the 24-power telescope while Kwon swept the area with the 8-power binoculars.  Locating the convoy, Bender swung the telescope onto the stopped vehicles.

“Uh-oh,” he said to Kwon, “they’ve stopped, and it looks like people are getting out of the carriages.”

Kwon looked at the telescope, and gleaning the direction, stepped to the window and turned the binoculars on the scene.

“Does it look like trouble?” he asked.

“No,” Bender replied.  “Looks like the great man saw something he wants to get a closer look—  Wait a minute.  Somebody just went down.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know who’s who down there, but somebody’s on one knee.  Now he’s fallen over.  He’s on the ground.”

“Shot?”

“I don’t think so.  I didn’t hear anything?”

“Should we go down there, do you think?”

“No.  We’re supposed to watch.”

“They might need help.”

“They have a couple of score of people down there.  I don’t like this.”

“What is it?”

“Somebody just checked the man who went down, and the way he stood up seems to suggest that he’s dead.  Hang on.  Another one’s down.”

“What the hell is happening down there?”

“I don’t know, but they aren’t taking cover.  They would be if they were being shot at.”

“I don’t like being stuck up here,” Kwon said.  “We need to get down there.”

“So whatever’s happening to them can happen to us, too?  Wait a minute.  Another one’s down.  And another!”

“Dammit!  We need to do something!”

“Huh!  Your buddy Calvin’s doing something.  He’s fleeing the scene.”

“What?  Let me see that.”

Bender stepped back and let Kwon put his eye to the powerful telescope.

“Where are you going, Allan?” Kwon muttered.  “Well, look at this.  He’s talking to a woman.  She’s dark-complected, but definitely not Oriental.  Do you know her?”

Bender returned to the telescope.

“No, I’ve never seen her.  Mediterranean, maybe.  Well, look at that.  She just handed him something.  Small, might have been an envelope.  He put it in his pocket, and now he’s running down the street again.  Where are you going, Mr. Calvin?”

As the two agents watched, Calvin stopped before a line of storefronts, looked around, then entered one of the doors.  A few moments later, he reappeared with an older man in a dark blue suit, carrying what was obviously a physician’s bag, and led him back toward the carriages, exhorting him to hurry.

“Ah,” Kwon said, “he went to get a doctor.  I still don’t know what that says about what happened down there, but it explains where he went.”

“Except for that woman.  What’s her part in this, and what did she give him?”

“What, indeed?  We need to get to the bottom of this, and the only way to do that is to get down there.”

“We’re supposed to keep watch.”

“Watch for what, Charles?  Whatever was going to happen has happened.  We’re doing on one any good staying up here.  We need to join the main party.”

“All right, Kwon,” Bender agreed, “but don’t say anything to Allan about his stop on the way to the doctor.  He doesn’t know what we know.  Let’s not let on that we saw anything out of the ordinary until we have a chance to investigate it.”

“You’re asking me to betray my partner’s trust.”

“No, I’m asking you to put the security of the organization ahead of personal friendship.  Can you do that?”

“Yes, Charles, since you put it that way, I can do that.  That doesn’t mean I like it, though.”

“Good enough for me.  Let’s get down there.”

*

There were five people on the ground by the time Bender and Kwon arrived at the caravan.  Guards were still looking around the area, hoping against hope that they would catch sight of some mysterious attacker, but of course, there were no attackers to be seen anywhere.  The doctor that Calvin had fetched was kneeling beside one of the stricken, administering an unknown drug with an eyedropper.  Jenkins saw them coming and walked to meet them.  Calvin stayed behind, observing the doctor.

“You blokes saw?” she asked.

“Yes,” Bender answered.  “What’s the status here?”

“Havener, one of the secretary’s aides, is dead.  We have five people down altogether, and it looks like some sort of poison was mixed into the food the caterers loaded onto the carriages.”

“The secretary?” Kwon asked.

“Not good.  He’s still alive, barely.  This doctor that Calvin found administered some sort of general antidote.  Speeds up the heart and increases the adrenaline.  Supposed to aid in flushing the poison from the bloodstream.”

“Let’s hope there’s something to it,” said Bender.  “Where did Calvin go right after people started falling?”

“He went to find this doctor.  We’re lucky he was here.  The secretary’s doctor stayed aboard the ship for some reason.  If it hadn’t been for Calvin’s knowledge of the area, they’d probably all be dead.”

“Jinx,” Bender said, “Calvin made a stop after he left you.  Before he got to the doctor.  He met a woman back in the marketplace.  Dark complexion, but not Chinese.  Mediterranean, maybe.  She gave him a package, maybe an envelope.  Of course, we couldn’t see what it was from up the hill, but it certainly raises some questions.”

“It certainly does.  How do you want to play it?”

“Say nothing to him for now.  He doesn’t know he was seen, and we want to leave it that way until we’re ready to confront him.”

“That’s a sad way to treat a man who’s been a loyal servant for over a decade.”

“We haven’t known him that long,” Bender said.  “If we turn out to be wrong, you can say you told us so, and we won’t contradict you, but if he’s been turned, we have to find out before he can do anymore damage.”

“Of course, you are right, and I appreciate you leaving me out—”

“God damn it!” Calvin shouted, standing up and throwing his bowler.  “Son of a bitch!”

“Here, Agent Calvin,” Bender said to him, “what’s all this blaspheming about?”

“Bligh’s dead.  Dead!  And with a doctor right here!  We had one simple job to do, and we failed.  Miserably, might I add!”

“Hardly the doctor’s fault, is it?” Bender asked.  “He doesn’t even know what sort of poison he’s dealing with.”

“He’s a doctor, isn’t he?”

“I assume so, but you can’t blame him for this.  Tell me, was everyone who’s down riding in the main carriage?”

“Yes.  Five people just keeled over, one right after another.”

“But, food was put in every carriage, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“And some of the people in the other carriages must have eaten some of it.”

“What does it matter now?”

“Well, it just seems that the attack was targeted on the secretary’s carriage, which means the poisoner must have been present to supervise the loading.  Surely, he wouldn’t have trusted a few lackeys to distribute it properly.”

“I say, you’re quite right, old boy!  I’ll send the police down to search for the catering crew at once.”

“I’m sure they’re long gone by now,” Jinx said.

“Almost certainly, but there’s no harm in checking.”

“We’ve failed utterly,” Calvin lamented.  “Not just us, but the Darklighters themselves.  We’ll probably be disbanded and put out to pasture.”

“Not necessarily,” Jinx said.  “There’s still plenty of work to be done.  Catching the poisoner for starters.”

“That’s police work,” Calvin replied.  “We won’t even be invited to help, not after we’ve failed so completely in the one task we were given.”

“We don’t work for the police,” Jinx reminded him.  “We work for the Crown, and the president, and the emperor, and the czar, and a dozen other heads of state that far outrank any little local police force.  We have a lot left to do here, and if the police don’t like it, a telegram to the Queen will see them removed from the case.”

“So, what do we do now?” Bender asked.

“We need to get back to the office and regroup,” Jinx said.  “The police and the secretary’s security force have this in hand.  We need to see what we have to work with, and decide what to do next.”

“That sounds sensible,” Kwon agreed.  “I’ll find us a cab.”

“Excellent,” Jinx said.  “Allan, if you’ll tell the police where we’re going, and ask them to try to find the caterers, we’ll be on our way.”

“All right.  I have something to do first, though.  I’ll meet you at the office.”

“What do you have to do?” Kwon asked.

“Oh, I just need to meet with an informant.  He frequents the docks, and I want to check to see if he knows anything.”

“Ah, very good.  We’ll see you shortly, then.”

*

It was midafternoon by the time Agent Calvin arrived at the Office of Antiquities, and a spirited discussion was in progress between Sir Justin and the other three agents.

“Ah, Agent Calvin,” Sir Justin greeted him, “about time you got here.”

“My apologies, Sir,” Calvin replied.  “I had a couple of important things to get done.”

“Ah, yes, your informant.  How did that go?”

“Unfortunately, he had been moved out of the area by the police before the ship arrived, so he wasn’t in a position to see anything.”

“Too bad, that.  We could use a break on this case.  So, Miss Jenkins has told us what she saw as the carriages were being loaded.  Perhaps we could get your recollections.”

“Of course, Sir.  I didn’t really see anything out of the ordinary.  We stood around waiting for Sir Harold to pass down the receiving line, and then, just as we were loading into the carriages, a Chinese crew came up on the other side and started putting pots and baskets of pre-prepared into the carriages.  I hadn’t been given any notice of this, but Sir Harold’s security detail didn’t seem to object, so I just assumed that it had been approved beforehand.”

“Quite.  Did you eat any of the food?”

“Uh, well…  I don’t remember.  After what happened, everything before that is a blur.”

“You did,” Jinx said.  “You ate some kind of bread.  You offered me some, remember?”

“Yes, you’re right.  Pineapple bread.  Why does it matter?”

“If we can establish who ate what,” Sir Justin replied, “we might be able to determine where the poison was.  If we can analyze it, it might point back to the poisoner himself.”

“Ah, that’s a good thought.  I don’t see how it’s possible, though.  I mean, those who were eating were probably trying a little of this and a little of that.”

“Likely,” Sir Justin allowed.  “Still, there would be value in trying.  Now, we only have one other question to ask you.”

“Certainly.”

“Who was the woman you met on your way to fetch the doctor, and what was in the package she gave you?”

“What?  What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“Charles and I were near the top of Commissary Hill watching through a high-powered telescope,” Kwon told him.  “We saw you meet with a Caucasian woman before you went on to the doctor’s office, and she gave you something.  What was it, and why?”

Calvin, at a loss for words, looked around from face to face.

“Well, I—  She—”

And then he slammed his elbow back into Jenkins’ face in the seat beside him, knocking her over backward, and bolted for the door.  Kwon almost grabbed his arm, but missed, and Calvin shouldered the door open and ran through the anteroom and out into the hall.  Kwon and Bender reached the door in time to see him sprint down the center hallway, and out the front doors into the street.  They ran out in pursuit, fanning out to cover both sides of the street.

Calvin ran as only the hunted can, turning over stacks of boxes, garbage containers, anything he could to throw up obstacles in their path, but though he slowed down Kwon, Bender, on the other side of the street, was able to keep pace without obstruction.  Calvin began to knock down people into Kwon’s path, scattering their belongings, then, seeing Bender gaining ground, he darted into an alley on the other side of the street.

Bender crossed at full speed and entered the alley behind him in time to see him duck into a side passage.  Reaching the passage gasping for air, Kwon right behind him, he turned in to see Calvin lying face-down on the ground of a cul-de-sac, nowhere left to run for anyone unable to scale the wall like a fly.

“End of the line, Calvin,” Bender shouted.  “Give it up!”

“You must surrender, Allan,” Kwon added.  “I won’t let anyone harm you.  You must trust me.”

“Must I?” Calvin asked, his voice filled with liquid.

He rolled to his side facing them, pink foam gathering around his lips.

“Did you think I’d be left without an escape route?”

He coughed, red spittle flying.

“Calvin, dammit,” Bender exclaimed.  “What have you done?”

“What have I done?  I’ve escaped, of course.”  He coughed again, then moaned.  “Funny.  It was supposed to be painless.”

His voice was fading quickly now.

“Who told you it was painless?” Bender asked much more quietly.  Sympathetically.

“Ah, ah, mustn’t say,” Calvin gasped.  “Never catch the rose.”

His eyes closed, and seconds later his breathing stopped.  The only motion that remained was the pink foam gathering into droplets and falling to the street.

“Dammit!  Dammit, dammit!”  Bender stood up.  “What the hell was he talking about?  What’s the rose?”

“Whoever or whatever provided the poison he took.”

“What do you mean, whatever?  You think some mythical beast behind this?”

“No, no.  The rose is either a person or an organization.  They provided him with poison to keep him from being interrogated, and probably masterminded the assassination as well.  He’s inadvertently given us a clue.  Now it’s for us to work out its significance.”

“How the hell are we going to do that?” Bender asked.  “The rose could mean anything!”

“True.  But it only means one thing.  We have Allan’s case files, his apartment, everything that’s on his body, and the caterers if we can find them.  There must be something there.”

“I don’t know.  Anyone who provided a suicide draught likely thought of everything else, too.”

“We will see, Charles.  I’ll find a policeman to secure the body.  Why don’t you go back to the office and see to your partner?”

To be continued