28 2 / 2014
Osin blinked at the bright light. “Was your building damaged?”
“I’ve inspected the entire thing,” Gen said. “Just bullet holes and bodies.”
“I’m sure the police will be helpful. They don’t appear interested in the bodies of foreigners. Why is that, I wonder? Why ignore murder in your jurisdiction?”
“Heh. Osin, men accuse me of bribing the police, but they can’t prove it.” Gen smiled cordially. “I’m sure you understand the irritation of unfounded accusation.”
Osin didn’t smile. “How can I help you, Ms. West?”
“The men who tried to kill me were Afghan mercenaries. City men, trained, secular. I shot several of them before I had to retreat to safety.”
“Good,” Osin said tersely, “London trained you well.”
“I hid upstairs, but I glanced at the people moving in to occupy the ground floor.” She took a long breath. “I regret to inform you, Osin, that two of the men assaulting my location were Soviets. They dressed in civilian clothing, but I’d seen them in Landi Kotal already.”
“Sannikov’s men are in that area.” Osin said immediately. “I’ll call him here.”
“No,” the Baron said, “that won’t be necessary. We already know you aren’t working well with the Bolsheviks. You don’t need to demonstrate it.”
“I need him to hear the accusation you place at his feet.”
“The Zombie figured out everything already.”
“I killed them, tortured them with a knife, and extracted their confessions,” the Zombie said. “They were hired alongside the Afghan fighters.”
“What?” Osin asked.
“I killed them—”
“I don’t care!” Osin said sharply. “You said they were hired?”
“They didn’t have any prestige on them,” the Baron said. “They couldn’t dodge. At least, we can be sure they weren’t working with the Soviet banker.”
“I’m the banker,” Osin said.
“The Orthodox banker then,” the Baron said. “Regardless, they had Afghan coins in their pockets—change from spending afghani bills in Landi Kotal.”
“There is no other banker.”
“Not true,” the Baron said, “if it isn’t Sannikov, it’s his second in command.”
“That name sounds familiar. If you want to call someone out, don’t waste my time with Sannikov. Bring me Emin. Ask him if he’s banking anything for the Bolsheviks.”
“The Bolsheviks haven’t brought their own banker—”
“You don’t need to convince me,” the Baron said, “I know you’re in control. That’s why we came to you first. The soldiers the Zombie killed, they said the Afghan were out to murder Captain Wells and his partner. It was revenge. Wells tortured someone important a decade ago.”
27 2 / 2014
“I’ll stick to addressing Osin then,” the Baron said. “If Sannikov has any loyalty to the Bolsheviks, he’ll be unhappy about Malik’s treatment back in ‘52.”
“Malik tried to kill you,” Gen said, “Not the other way around, right?”
“Right, Schuler killed him, but I kept the cat o’nine lives out of his hands.”
The Zombie spoke up. “I don’t want Sannikov talking. He’d color the situation, complaining about all the fighting in New York. The Baron is right. We shouldn’t engage him.”
Beth started towards the Soviet tent, and the rest quietly fell in behind her. The Baron was looking over her head at the Gaz-51s. Men were seated, balancing on the wooden panels on the sides of the truck beds, swapping cigarettes and pointing at their approach.
“I’d like to start the story,” Beth said, “you and the Zombie can fill in the gaps.”
The Generous Man brought up the rear. “I’ll verify everything. It was my building.”
From his high seat, an older Soviet cupped his hands and called out in a pidgin English developed during World War II, “Baron, follow woman? Rebonok, need mama lead?” He laughed at his own joke, and the older soldiers beside him laughed as well, while the younger cultists at the foot of the truck, mostly civilians, watched the Baron cautiously.
Once they were within speaking distance, the Baron said, “I follow authority.”
Beth smiled and marched through the wide gap between the trucks. Ahead, the two large Soviet tents stood side by side, cast over with tarps to create a shaded breezeway. Men with pips and uniforms were standing in the shadows, talking quietly. One tent was likely for the Bolsheviks, the other for the Orthodox. Their door curtains were drawn back to let in the sunlight. Beth shouted ahead, “Ms. West of London, to speak with Yuri Osin.”
One of the men straightened out of a slouch and leaned into a tent.
“Are they calling him out to meet us?” the Generous Man asked.
“They must be hiding something in their tents,” the Zombie whispered.
Yuri Osin hurried out into the sun, casting a long matchstick shadow to one side. He was tall and thin, only topped by the Zombie, and his spade-like chin was smooth and shining with fresh aftershave. He’d washed his thin black hair as well, having brushed it back to air dry. He’d grease it later, the Baron guessed. He even wore a fresh uniform, this one paler than the last, though still grey. Now he wore no insignia, not even that of a Soviet private. The Baron wondered if he was disassociating himself with military operations in some way, maybe as a reaction to the Soviet corpses that’d turned up at the opium den in Landi Kotal. He rushed up to meet them, not smiling but looking calmly alert and eternally serious. “Good to see you’re alive, Ms. West.”
Beth smiled wider. “Should we go inside? Out of the sun?”
Osin smelled like witch-hazel on the breeze. “I’m afraid we have placed sensitive materials in plain view,” he said. “We must meet here.” He briefly addressed the Generous Man. “I’m glad. It seems my radio and your prestige saved a young woman’s life.”
“Yes,” Gen said, “what have you heard?”
“There was a fight,” Yuri Osin said, “Gunshots. Many dead.”
“On my property,” the Generous Man said.
23 2 / 2014
“Lieutenant Song is absolutely a dangerous man.” Beth was smoking another hand rolled cigarette. Smoke puffed gently as she whispered, and words were reduced to a conspiratorial softness, as if they too would be dispersed by the breeze. “Wu is an intellectual. He’s a scholar. Song isn’t even a true child of dynastic China. He’s a soldier, the son of a farmer who fought in the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War. Zin told me that Song only joined up with the PRC cult because the Soviet-planned reorganization of the army left him out of a job.”
“The PRC cult?” the Baron asked.
“That’s what they call themselves,” Beth said, “but really, they’re the former cult of the Qing Dynasty. Most people don’t know this yet. The current Chinese cult is seditionist.”
“They’re not part of the government?”
“Nope. They’re in opposition to the Communist Party in China.” Beth took another, long draw before tossing the butt of the cigarette away. “For good reasons too. They all suffered losses from one purge or another, except for Song. He only lost his job. I mean, that’s a good reason to hate the party regardless, but he doesn’t share their zeal. He’s more interested in rebuilding the occult infrastructure of China.” She blew out the rest of her smoke, emptying her lungs, then took a long breath. “Think about how large China is. It’s bigger than the United States, and far more inhabitable. That means people, so many people you can barely imagine it.”
“That also means endless tasks,” the Baron said.
“Right, so Song wants to bring back the Heavenly Order of the Scholar-Officials. They ran China’s secular bureaucracy. They also sat at the top of a massive, empire girdling cult, collecting tribute from the entire goddamn thing. Their control eroded throughout the colonial era, and the recent political purges decimated and scattered their members, but they’ve keep good records. Song knows what kind of power they used to have. He wants it back.”
“What does Wu want?”
“He wants to oppose the Communists, I think. Reconquering China’s cults and taking tithes are less important to him than overthrowing Mao’s government.” Beth scratched the inside of her ear and pulled out a fingernail caked with dark orange wax. She scraped it off on the knee of her uniform. “Fucking dust.” She looked up. “Put it this way. Wu would like to live in Taiwan. Song would like to live in Beijing. Before World War II, they might’ve been on different sides.”
“I think Song is loyal to Wu,” the Generous Man said. He’d been standing behind Beth, almost without speaking for the last couple of minutes. They’d been reviewing the conversation inside Fairfax’s tent, omitting only Javed Khan’s implication that Gen was an opium warlord. “Call it an intuition.” Gen worked his jaw. He’d been clenching it shut.
“Just intuition?” the Zombie asked.
“I overheard Song and Wu arguing about Schuler. Wu thought you could shoot a Theist to death. Song said you couldn’t. That’s not the kind of conversation you have with an enemy.”
“Sure it is,” the Baron said, “I just talked with Fairfax about the Ark.”
“Enemies always have good ideas,” the Zombie said flatly.
The Baron nodded. “We should get a move on. The Soviets haven’t made up their minds about the casualties in Landi Kotal, not yet. We need to shape the story.”
“Do you know much about them?” Beth asked. “Yuri Osin is in charge, and Miroslav Sannikov is his lieutenant, but they’re not working well together.”
“I heard in the amir’s court in Afghanistan,” Gen said, “After Stalin’s death, it’s hard to say who’s fully in charge. Khrushchev doesn’t appear to be a cultist, and the Orthodox leadership is scarcely seen. Nobody knows if they’re really in control.”
“Right,” Beth said, “Osin is a big shot in the Orthodoxy, and Sannikov is his diplomatic nod to the Bolsheviks. This way they can send a party to the auction without actually knowing who’ll run the cult when they return to Moscow. I figure that neither side wants to be branded a traitor. Not if they’ll be coming home with the Rites for the Ark.”
20 2 / 2014
The Baron stared long at Javed Khan. Look beyond the insults, he thought. “Are you suggesting Song is a threat? You have to antagonize me to stymie him?”
“To suppress,” the Baron said. “Is Song really that dangerous?”
“Yes,” Javed Khan said, “I think so.”
“Lieutenant Song hasn’t even been on our radar,” the Baron said, “and Wu is currently in control. I’m not going to hide anything from him to keep information away from Song.”
“Song represents a different political element within the Chinese.”
“I don’t care. Wu is the man who hired me. Song is his problem, not mine.”
Javed Khan squinted. “If he betrays Wu, he’s all our problem.”
“Regardless,” the Baron said, “I’m going to speak with people in the fort.”
Javed Khan sagged under the unbearable weight of futility.
Fairfax spoke up. “So you don’t have any response, Javed Khan.”
“I’ve made my point,” Javed Khan said.
“You’re proven that don’t have any power or enforcement.”
“We aren’t dead yet,” he said sourly.
“No real power, no real enforcement,” Fairfax said. “So get out.”
Javed Khan looked the Baron once over. “This is on your hands.”
The Baron shook his head. “I’m not the one offering the Rites to a hostile world.”
Javed Khan turned around, face towards the ground, and pushed aside the curtain. He shouted to his guards in Pashto and stepped out into the pitiless sun. They said nothing, but helpless to calm him, they fell in line behind their defeated leader.
“This auction is toast,” Fairfax said with soft satisfaction. The Baron could almost hear the delicate sigh of a connoisseur in the man’s tone. Such elegant treachery and coercion must’ve been his wine and cheese.
“You really are a despicable man,” the Baron said flatly.
“I am one of the best,” Fairfax said with a smile.
“Do you think Song is a threat?”
“Likely not,” Fairfax said. “He’s barely spoken English. If he’s a threat, he’s kept his cards too close to his chest for us to read anything. Javed Khan is paranoid. That’s all.”
“I think he’s onto something,” the Zombie said, swallowing his last mouthful of fibers. “Song at least has ambition. There’s no other reason a paranoid man would notice him.”
“Let’s all keep our eyes peeled,” the Baron said, “and director? You make sure the rest understand that we’re not friends, you and I. You make it clear that you’ve rebelled against Javed Khan. I wasn’t interested in undermining him. I just needed inside.”
“Why do you need inside anyways? Who do you have to talk with?”
“The Artemisian,” the Baron said, “I was a witness to the fighting in Landi Kotal.”
“Something I should know?” Fairfax asked.
“Nothing particular. If it’s important, I’m sure you’ll find out.”
Fairfax smiled. “Very good. You may go too, Baron. And thank you for your advice about the Rites. It’s good to remember that the world is always changing.”
“Occult or otherwise, it never stands still,” the Baron agreed.
The Zombie pulled aside the gauze tent. “I’ll see you assholes later.”
Smith sat silently. Goffe spat. Fairfax grinned.
Without another word, the Baron walked out of Langley’s tent and into the open yard. Ahead, he could see the Generous Man and Beth passing Javed Khan, waving at the Baron.
“So he’s an opium warlord for sure,” the Zombie whispered.
“We’ll ask when the time is right,” the Baron said. “Right now, we need to think about pissing off the Soviets just right, or Beth won’t live until tomorrow.”
19 2 / 2014
The Baron stared at Javed Khan. They’d reached the point where conversation failed to bring compromise, where words weren’t any good for persuasion.
“What will you do about it?” Fairfax asked.
“Stay out of it, director,” the Baron said.
“I’m not talking on your behalf,” Fairfax said, “I’m asking him if he plans to draw his weapons against you. Either he backs down, or we start the fight right here, right now.”
The Zombie pulled more canvas threads off the fraying edge of the tent door.
Javed Khan stared at the Baron d’Holbach. “You’ll allow this?”
“I never had a choice.”
“I thought you were a philosopher.”
“Inaction is a choice.”
The Baron nodded very slightly. “Then I’m choosing the sake of the world over your ambitions. I don’t doubt your story. I know you’re the victim of misfortune. What I’m doing here might be objectively evil, but I’ve already dirtied my hands for the greater good.”
“So you admit you aren’t the man of your reputation?” Javed Khan asked snidely.
The Zombie slowly chewed on his canvas threads like a grazing cow.
The Baron blinked very slowly at the leader of the White Mountain Roamers. He was stalling for time, wrestling with the reflection of his own shame. Javed Khan was a fool, but he plucked at the Baron’s heart. I’m failing my own principles, the Baron thought. Was that just another grand illusion, to dream that one could maintain a sense of moral strength and trust across the decades? Maybe this was just another failure to accept, a loss of values that was as inevitable as the sunset. After all, he would not leave without finishing his business at the fort. Beth and the Generous Man were here. He had to meet up with them soon, if only to deliver the Zombie’s story about the fighting in Landi Kotal and ensure Beth’s safety from the Soviets.
“I don’t do this lightly,” the Baron said, “and I’ll pay you everything I can spare after this is over. That’s the best I can do. Anything more, and I’d be swapping one failure for another. So I fail my reputation, and I fail you, Javed Khan, because the stakes are simply that high. May history judge me well for it.” He turned around to look directly at Fairfax. “Director, please, don’t start a fight. I’d have to find a way to make it costly. I can’t afford to be your ally. Understand?”
“So long as he backs down.” Fairfax pointed to Javed Khan.
The Baron looked to the Roamer. “One last question. Why keep me out?”
“Lieutenant Song,” Javed Khan said. “Wu’s assistant. He thinks you know enough to give him leverage. I don’t trust him, and I don’t trust you to keep your mouth closed.”
“What would Song do?” the Zombie asked.
“Like these Langley dogs, he mocks my auction.”
“Have Wu reign him in,” the Baron said.
“He is Wu’s enemy.”
“Did Wu say that?”
“Wu wouldn’t say a word, but I saw a division between them.”
“He has an ego, Baron. Much like yours, I hated to see it.”
18 2 / 2014
“Ah, he’s talking about you,” the Zombie said the Baron.
“Javed Khan, I am Ethiopia’s representative,” the Baron said.
“Ethiopia doesn’t offer anything but a foreign thief.”
“I haven’t stolen the Rites, nor do I want to. I’ve asked for them.”
“You’re a diplomat at best,” Javed Khan said, “but a mugger at your worst. You showed your nature in my office. How willing you are to win through intimidation and destruction. I can’t trust you to keep the peace. Not when we stand this close to disaster.”
“Disaster? Do you mean giving the Rites to a military superpower?”
“I mean the wanton murder of my men. I mean poverty, Baron.”
The Baron scowled. “You want payout for your greed?”
“For my investments, I deserve to be paid.”
“We all want money, but at least I want to save the modern order.”
“You mean the Western order, the power structure built on European industry? The one that fought over Pashtun land like we weren’t already here?”
“This isn’t about the Raj,” the Baron said. “This is about an occult war machine.”
“No, Baron, this is about the British and their colonies. This is about European bred and born men forgetting who you are and where you’ve come. Who do you think is the hero here?”
“This isn’t a fairy tale—”
“Do you think this story is about you, Baron?”
“We’re all the heroes of our own stories,” the Baron said flatly.
“Answer the question!”
“I object to calling anyone a hero here.”
“You’re ignoring the question.
“What are you even asking?”
“Will you listen? Really listen?”
The Baron nodded his assent. Go ahead, he mouthed.
Javed Khan took a deep breath. “The White Mountain Roamers banded together two hundred years ago. We made wishes for our farmers, Baron. We grew wheat. We baked naan and we ate it. That was what we wished for. Only here and there did our men grow poppy seeds. We refused the company of the traders of Jalalabad, growing and scoring and scraping whole fields of opium. We refused to sell to foreign powers, because it was our medicine, not our addiction. But those you called the lascars, the coolies—they taught Europe and America that opium was bliss, and your people demanded it, not for medicine, but for fun.”
“Opium is older than civilization. We’ve always used it for fun.”
“This is something new, something modern. Opium warlords, people like your so-called Generous Man—they needed more opium. They demanded our cooperation, the farmers’ cooperation. Because the West demanded our opium, they demanded our fields!”
“You made money—”
“We stopped planting our food, Baron.”
“So locals fought with locals—”
“For foreign money! At gunpoint, we planted foreign money. At gunpoint, we nearly gave it away. With guns, bought with foreign money, we took back what was ours. And still, because we had to eat, we planted more and more foreign money, poppy seeds as good as any note, and we sold their scrapings. That’s what we’re good for. That’s the place we found in the world.”
“You came to our land! This is a fort built over a Pashtun village. We own it now. The Raj is gone. This is a Pashtun story. When history writes about today, it will write about me.”
“The Ark is a global story.”
“No, this is the story of the White Mountain Roamers.”
“You aren’t more important than the world, Javed Khan.”
“We are fighting a losing battle against opium warlords, Baron. The police at Jamrud found the body of one of the murderers. He was Afghan. A secular mercernary.”
“He could’ve been hired.”
Javed Khan pressed on. “The people who’re suffering, the people that will be saved with money and power—they’re my people. Before you came here, my enemies were planning to cut my throat. When you leave, they’ll still be waiting, still sharpening their knives.”
“Cutthroats are nothing compared to the threat of the Ark,” the Baron said, but he didn’t have much conviction in his voice. He believed that Javed Khan’s sale of the Rites would be a disaster on the scale of civilizations, but he already knew that he didn’t have any chance of convincing this man to give up his secrets. Javed Khan saw the world as his enemy.
“You are a foreign invader, an outsider. You came to take what my people have found, what the gods gave them for their salvation. You offer nothing to replace it. You ask us to continue to suffer for the peace of foreign powers. No, Baron, no. I won’t allow it.”
15 2 / 2014
“Our bad luck is that the Rites were found,” the Baron said.
“Maybe,” Fairfax said. “Do you know much about what the Ark can do?”
“Stories circulate about the Ethiopians carrying the thing to war against Italy. It’s hard to tell how much of it is real and how much is tall tales.”
“I’ve have people combing records,” Fairfax said, “accounts from Italian officers. Journals, field reports. My staff and I, we’ve done research.”
“You find anything?”
“The fight swung against them, but nothing miraculous happened. Just rust, rot and plague. The same shit every army faced, except getting worse fast, just before it was all over.”
There was a voice somewhere outside the tent, a command shouted in Pashto.
The Zombie went to the door. “Someone’s on the way.” He pulled the gauze curtain aside, giving them a clear view out of the fort grounds. “Hi,” he called out.
Javed Khan was walking behind the two armed guards they’d seen at the front gate. “We’re coming inside,” he called ahead.
“Not armed!” Fairfax shouted.
“I’m coming inside,” Javed Khan said, pushing between his two guards and slipping past the Zombie as if he weren’t even there. His guards waited outside with their guns loaded and ready but pointed towards the earth.
“Javed Khan,” the Baron said with a short nod.
The Roamer’s face was a study in grim stress, twisted up by lines, sickly and sweating. “Baron,” he said loudly, “I’m here to escort you personally. You will leave Ali Masjid.”
“You armed?” Fairfax asked.
“I have business in the fort,” the Baron said.
“I’m not armed,” Javed Khan said, “and Baron, your business can wait.”
“I’m not being contrary. I don’t think it can. Time is short.”
“By ignoring my orders, you’ve threatened my authority and the safety of this auction.”
The Zombie grunted. “Your orders are ridiculous.”
The Baron held up a hand. “Don’t threaten the man.”
“I know, I’m asking you not to start.”
The Zombie shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“We’re leaving, Baron,” Javed Khan said, “That’s final. As a man of respect, you must understand. I can’t threaten you, but your reputation is at stake. Let’s go.”
“You’re smarter than I thought,” Fairfax said to Javed Khan. “You tried this inside.”
“What are you talking about?”
“If you try to take the Baron out, I’ll fight you here and now,” Fairfax said.
“Baron?” Javed Khan asked sharply.
“If he chooses to leave,” Fairfax said, “I’ll fight you then too.”
“Fairfax,” the Baron started.
“If there’s going to be peace, he finishes his business here.”
“I didn’t agree to this,” the Baron said.
“Exactly,” Fairfax said, “and you don’t have to. This is my bid for power. You can’t stop it.”
“You disgusting pig,” Javed Khan said. “What right have you?”
“The same rights as a pack of opium dealers trying to sell an artifact.” Fairfax placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. “There’s no rule of law here.”
“My men are dying. Decent men—”
“I don’t care!”
Javed Khan shouted, “Have you no respect for death?”
“I respect the fear of death, but no, I’m not afraid of it. The Order of the Cincinnati doesn’t recruit cowards, and Goffe, Smith, myself—we’re all going to the afterlife when we die.”
The Baron looked to the Zombie. His friend was quietly picking at the edge of frayed canvas, pulling out threads and putting them in his mouth. No chewing. Only swallowing. Should we go, the Baron mouthed. The Zombie nodded. The Baron took one step.
“Stop,” Javed Khan said, stepping in the Baron’s way. “This isn’t over.”
“I don’t have a choice,” the Baron said.
“You do. Fairfax can’t stop you from stopping him. Force a stalemate.”
The Baron stared the man in the eyes. It was desperation or determination, something that tightened glares until they were half-lidded. Javed Khan was serious. “How?” he asked.
“Leave the Zombie here. Use force. Walk away.”
Fairfax interjected, “That doesn’t benefit him.”
“It benefits his reputation!” Javed Khan shouted. To the Baron, “You come here saying you want peace, but you stomp around in my office in front of my men! You shame me in front of the Chinese, and then you take over their investigation for the murders of my people!”
“The Chinese wanted my help,” the Baron said.
“They’re paying a terrifying monster to be their ally!”
“Talking about me?” the Zombie asked.
“You might as well be one man,” Javed Khan said with disdain. “You pretend you’re of different minds, but you approve of his violence. You stand there, silent!”
13 2 / 2014
“I can spare a minute,” the Baron said.
Under the shade of canvas eaves, Fairfax drew aside a gauzy screen and waited for the men to step inside. Smith and Goffe went in first, each immediately retreating to folding tables set up beneath gauze-shaded windows, fluttering in a thin breeze. The Baron went in after them, the Zombie nearly on his heels. Once they’d stopped in the central space, Fairfax came in behind them and circled around, going for a table near the back. It was a dim room, cooled well enough by virtue of being shielded by several layers of canvas and well-aired.
“What’s this?” the Zombie asked, nudging a burlap sack with his foot.
“Rice, salt,” Smith said. His corner of the room was dominated by arms and supplies. There was a short pyramid of ten pound rice bags and a line of canisters of salt. “For sale, for eating.” There were also a handful of flat crates on pallets, wrapped up in sheets of heavy waxed paper, each containing dozens of canned goods. There was a small stove and a large heavy pot with a lid for boiling, both on a rolling dolly which had probably been used to unload the supplies originally. Plates, bowls, utensils were crowded in steel buckets. Beside the cutlery squatted a heavy wooden gun chest with some simple padlocks. It could probably hold six rifles in mounts, plus assorted handguns and scads of ammo. Smith’s table was covered in maps of the Pass.
“You’re ready to camp out here for a few weeks,” the Baron said.
“Man survives on rice,” Smith said simply. “Staple food.”
Goffe’s corner was much sparser, containing a couple of heavy duty safes, various cardboard boxes labeled with radio parts, chemical bottles, and a single oversized field radio wired up to a couple of batteries big enough to run two cars. When Goffe caught the Baron’s gaze, he said, “I can call in the cavalry.”
“With a wish?” the Baron asked.
“I also report back to Heckhaus,” Goffe said. That was a yes, he used wishes to boost the signal and set the channel.
“Why tell me?” the Baron asked.
“You should tell the others,” Goffe said, “We’re not just Langley. We’re the CIA. We have people, we have contacts. If you tell people, they won’t make stupid decisions.”
The Baron didn’t care for Goffe’s indirect threats, but it was the kind of information to make a man cautious. “Thank you for the warning.”
“No need to stand off with a guest,” Fairfax said, sitting down behind his table. “Baron, I’m sorry, I don’t have a seat to offer you. This isn’t a place meant for more than three.” He gestured to the right half of the room, which had been given over to cots. “You can drag one over?”
“I hope not to spend too long,” the Baron said.
“I’ll get straight to the point then,” Fairfax said. “I need your advice. Your occult insight.”
“I already answered this question,” Goffe said, fiddling with his radio.
Fairfax raised his voice. “When you’re two hundred, you can have the last word.”
“He’s just old,” Goffe said.
“That’s not what Heckhaus said.”
Goffe looked up irritably, then pulled a pad over, flipped open to a page and started drawing geometric shapes in pencil, free-hand. The conversation appeared over.
Fairfax looked back at the Baron. “So the Rites aren’t meant to be lost?”
“That’s right,” the Baron said. “They’re invincible. That way, it isn’t impossible to find the instruction manual. Just in case of emergencies.”
“So the designers of the Ark wanted people to be able to use it?”
“At least to save themselves from it, yes. They stuck it in a temple after a while.”
“Right, Goffe told me the history,” Fairfax said.
“I told you the rest too.”
“Shut it, operative,” Fairfax said.
“Yes, director,” Goffe said snidely.
“Baron, if the Rites weren’t meant to be lost, do you think the designers added a ritual to the Ark for locating them?” Fairfax rapped his knuckles on the table. “Do you think they gave them some kind of homing function, like a way to call the Rites back to the Ark?”
“No,” the Baron said, “why do you ask?”
“I’ve been dealing with these White Mountain Roamers since I arrived, Baron. They’re disorganized, easy to bribe, talkative—and none of them seem to know how the hell they found the Rites. I was thinking, maybe Javed Khan had discovered some ritual for locating it.”
“I don’t think so,” the Baron said. “A homing or return property is a good idea, but it’s not something that’s commonly seen in artifacts. Not over long distances at least.”
“Why not? Ancient man wasn’t stupid.”
“It’s not stupidity,” the Baron said, “it’s lack of imagination. Fairfax, how much did Goffe tell you? Do you know about the Falls?”
“Of course,” Fairfax said. “Him and Heckhaus inducted me.”
“Did you read Apostasy?”
“It’s the only English-native textbook for prestige.”
“Then you know about the Fall of Truth, when the Apostate destroyed wishes for knowledge? When she ended the era of occult espionage?”
Fairfax nodded slowly. “I see your point. Prior to that, people wished to know where stuff was hidden. They didn’t need any expensive blessings to find their things.”
“Historically, the only reason the Rites remained lost is that it was unknown where they’d been last seen, what they looked like, or whether or not they were even invincible. The gap of ignorance was tremendous, and most people didn’t believe the Rites persisted.”
“Did that raise the cost of the wish?” Fairfax asked.
“It did. Nobody, not even the Ark cult, knew enough about the Rites to make it objectively easy to find, so nobody bothered wishing. But imagine if you were the ancient Ark-makers. You’d expect to know who captured them. You’d know what the Rites were like, their properties, their description and so forth. Finding them with a wish would be trivially easy.”
“But the makers still didn’t prepare for long term loss?” Fairfax asked.
“That’s their failure of imagination,” the Baron said. “Who knew that you could abuse wishes for knowledge? Who knew the Apostate could break the system of prestige? Nobody, which is why it hadn’t happened before. They never thought wishes for knowledge would disappear overnight. If the Ark became a serious problem, they probably assumed that people would band together and pay up. There’d be no need to invest in a redundant trick.”
Fairfax leaned back in his chair. “Makes sense. I just figured with all the safety features…”
“It’s a smart idea,” the Baron said, “but we have the benefit of hindsight.”
“So how do you think Javed Khan and his group of opium dealers found the Rites?”
“If they’re really invincible,” Goffe said, “a fire, or a flood.”
“Or someone dug them up,” the Baron said. “I learned recently that Kaiser Abbas went around searching for them in this part of the world. If they were hidden poorly, he would’ve heard their invincibility. They must’ve been hidden well, until some disaster struck.”
“I’d guess a library fire,” Goffe said.
“Farmer, tills, breaks a pot,” Smith wagered.
“They were able to read the Rites,” the Baron said, “We know it, since they sent around that translated ritual with the invitation letters. Once the Rites were found, it must’ve been trivial to ID them, and you know too well, any idiot can be in the right place at the right time.”
“The wrong place, for the wrong people.” Fairfax said. “Bad luck.”
11 2 / 2014
After pulling around one more hairpin, they drove up to the crest of the hill and pulled to a stop a few meters short of the open gates to Ali Masjid. There, two Pashtun men in loose white clothes and kufis were standing around with rifles at their waists. One of them raised their hand to stop the already parked vehicle, then came forward. “Generous Man?” he called out in thickly accented English. “Javed Khan requests your respect in this matter.”
The Generous Man lightly brushed his waxed mustache with his fingers. “What matter?”
“The Baron d’Holbach is banned from the fort until we are ready to accept bids.”
“Why?” the Generous Man asked.
“He offered no bid and stood aside while Zombie attacked Javed Khan. We respect his strength. We admire his moral character. Still, we cannot allow him to bring a weapon into such a delicate place. This is Javed Khan’s order.”
“Why are you telling me?” the Generous Man asked.
“We have been asked to ignore the Baron. You must handle him.”
Beth scoffed. “You mean you’ll ignore his arguments?”
“His threats,” the White Mountain Roamer said.
“I won’t be barred from going inside,” the Baron said succinctly.
The White Mountain Roamer watched the Generous Man for a response, as if the Baron had said nothing. The Generous Man shook his head. “Don’t ignore him.”
“Respect Javed Khan’s request,” the Roamer said, “please.”
The Zombie said, “Want me to just push him out of the way?”
The Generous Man turned to the Baron. “I’m sorry, but if you’ll please wait outside.”
“You’ll speak with Javed Khan?” the Baron asked.
The Generous Man nodded. “We’ll be back shortly.”
The Baron stood up and hopped over the side of the jeep, landing in the dust and gravel. The Zombie stepped down and stood in front of him, casting a tall shadow to the west, away from the fort. The Baron sighed. “What changed?” he asked the Roamer.
The Roamer said nothing.
Beth repeated the question for him. “What changed?”
“Javed Khan asked for the Baron to leave after the Zombie attacked him.”
“To leave his office,” Beth said, “Why the fort?”
The White Mountain Roamer stepped aside, waving the vehicle on through.
“We’ll be back,” Beth said.
The Generous Man let off the break and drove up towards the gate and into the fort. The Baron stood in the shade of the Zombie, wiping his sweaty scalp with his hand to keep cool. “Any ideas on why Javed Khan is barring us now?” he asked.
The Zombie shrugged. “Something must’ve raised an alarm, and I’d be we know something that’d make things worse.”
“Like what? Accusing the Soviets of murdering the Roamers? Beth could do that.”
“That or the fighting in Landi Kotal,” the Zombie suggested. “We killed Soviet soldiers. Hell, I’ll be taking the credit for the kills.”
“You think Javed Khan already knows about that?”
“If anyone checked out the den after we left, they could’ve made a phone call to the village. Javed Khan was in the Ali Masjid temple recently also. Maybe someone dodged there.”
The Baron appreciated the Zombie’s brainstorming. His thoughts were following similar paths, but the outright ban still struck the Baron as unusual. If they knew something that might incite violence, Javed Khan out to warn him to keep silent or stay away from certain people. Instead, he was forced to stay outside. It wasn’t rational. It was anxious.
He’d see soon enough. Fairfax’s jeep was coming slowly up the hill, and the White Moutain Roamer guards were chatting to each other quickly in Pashto. “Please,” the English speaker said to the Baron, “clear the road.”
The Zombie grinned. “Oh, now we exist. Hi.”
“Please, clear the road for the Americans.”
The Baron didn’t move. He wouldn’t signal any accidental assistance here. He was waiting for Fairfax, and then he’d make sure the Roamers understood their arrangement.
Director Fairfax slowed to a halt. “Baron, you in the road for a reason?”
“Javed Khan kicked us out. You’ll get us inside, and that’ll be the end of that.”
The Roamers exchanged glances. “This is our auction,” the guard said sharply.
Fairfax gestured to Goffe, who was sitting in the passenger seat. “This man can kill the lot of you from where he’s seated. Don’t make a fuss about it now. If the Baron wants in, I want to let him in. We’ve got shop to talk.”
“We don’t need any violence now,” the Baron said. “I’m not interested in intimidating anyone. I just need to talk with some of the people inside.”
“Yeah, and I’m one of them.” Fairfax thumbed the back of his jeep, where Smith was crouched with the Garand in his hands. “Hop on it. I’m tired of this sunshine.”
The Baron walked around the back of the jeep and climbed up. The Zombie jumped up after him, landing in the bed with a bang that made the suspension creak and rock. His invincible feet had imparted too much force on the metal, easily four or five times his actual momentum.
“Don’t break it now!” Fairfax shouted.
“Keep still,” Smith said to the Roamers.
Fairfax gunned the engine in neutral, then let off before shifting into gear again. “Go report to your boss,” he shouted to the Roamers as he passed, “the boys are back!”
“Do you have any idea why Javed Khan wanted to keep us out?” the Baron asked Fairfax. “It doesn’t make sense to lock us out just because he’s scared.”
“One second,” Fairfax said, swinging the wheel to bring them around the last curve and through the open gate to Ali Masjid. “There, look, that’s why!”
In the middle of the fort grounds, a dozen listless Pashtun men were seated on blankets thrown over the dirt. Before them was laid a row of fifteen rolled up mattress covers, all once white, now partially died a mottled purple-brown and encrusted in muddy red dust. Modern body bags hadn’t been introduced to this part of the world. The White Mountain Roamers were laying out their dead in the sun, victims of the Soviet murders. Some of the bags were staining the earth with a touch of blood. Others were dry and days old, only now delivered to the fort.
“The Pakistani police brought them in while you were gone,” Fairfax said, “even the ones that were being held as evidence. The White Mountain Roamers were attacked again.” They pulled to the left, following the fort’s perimeter towards the Langley tent at the back.
“Is that all of them?” the Zombie asked.
“That’s half the Roamers,” Fairfaix said, “and Javed Khan is panicking.”
“No surprise there.”
“He’s been arguing with Wu and Song since they came back from the temple and found the police unloading that pile of corpses. Wu wants to start accusing people immediately. Javed Khan wants to back off before the murderers go for the throat. When news came ten minutes ago that you two saw action in Landi Kotal, he shit himself.”
“Why? What does he expect me to do?” the Baron asked.
“The last three murders happened about the same time the fighting in Landi Kotal started. It doesn’t take a genius to know they’re connected. He thinks you’re a lit match near this powder keg. You’ll know who the murderers are, you see, and Song wants that knowledge for leverage, blackmail. Wu wants it to declare open war in defense of the auction.”
“Beth has been running the investigation with Wells. Why didn’t he ask to keep her out?”
“He assumes the worst because she’s a woman,” Fairfax said. “Fucking idiot.”
“I’d never have taken you for a Hound of Artemis.”
“I ain’t anything of the kind,” Fairfax said, “but women are sneaky by nature. They’re cunning. If he thinks she’s an idiot, he’ll never see London’s plan coming.”
“London has a plan?” the Baron asked.
“They all have plans,” Fairfax said, “and I admit, we don’t know them yet.”
“Don’t have to know nothing,” Smith said. “We’ll muscle ‘em.”
“That’s the plan,” Goffe muttered.
The Baron made a mental note that Fairfax was a disgusting human being, but he was also deeply paranoid, which meant there’d be little chance of fooling him in the long run. The Director pulled the jeep up behind the other two, reassembling the wall of cover before their tent. “Welcome to my humble abode, Baron. If you’ll come inside, I have some questions.”
10 2 / 2014
Fairfax had the swagger of an armed man. “You haven’t tried sneaking past the CIA, little lady. Now you lot head on up. I’ll be the cavalry.”
“Never tried,” Beth said, “Hope I never have to.”
Fairfax smiled, ultimately ready to believe that he wasn’t being patronized by a woman. The Zombie hopped back into the jeep and sat down on the trunk. Gen shifted into gear and swerved around the corner, taking them up the next leg of the switchback.
Beth spoke first. “There’s a dangerous man.”
“More so than the average Langley cultist?” the Baron asked.
Beth glanced back at the Baron. “How many have you met?”
“And they’re all like him?”
“Better put, he’s trying to be like Heckhaus,” the Baron said, “but they’re all dangerous, I agree. They’re not part of the CIA because they’re cultists. They’re part of the CIA because they’re spies and soldiers. Only these crazy few think magic is going to win them the Cold War.”
“You shouldn’t march under his banner,” Beth said, “that’s all.”
“I’ll make it clear. He’s opposing Javed Khan. I’m not. I just won’t be kept out.”
“Have something in mind?” the Generous Man asked.
“I want to talk with a few other people. The Vatican, Major Callum, the Soviets. I might even prod Fairfax’s mind for a few, if it looks productive.”
“Be careful with the Soviets,” Beth said.
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” the Baron said.
“That quote is a joke. Literally, Falstaff was joking.”
“Falstaff also survived a battle by playing dead,” the Baron said.
The Zombie grinned. “Are you comparing yourself with Falstaff?”
“Am I a fat ugly coward?”
The Zombie laughed, declining to say anything more.
“Just be careful with Fairfax. If you’re perceived as a CIA ally, the Chinese won’t work you, and the Soviets already have several reasons to hate you.”
“I’ll play Fairfax to my advantage,” the Baron said, “trust me.”