This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims -- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for short. Too bad the 'Flu leaves Man's baser nature untouched...

Go here for more information on the setting.

[tsat home] [#24] [stories]

The Assassination of Caterina Valladolid
by Richard Birt
©2002 Richard Birt -- all rights reserved

Children should come with a warning sticker: 'Be careful what you name this one, it can't possibly live up to expectations.' Or, perhaps, the parents of Arnold van Damme should have been given a stern lecture at wherever it was they had their child registered for his birth certificate to discourage them from giving him that name. I can only assume that his family was of Belgian extraction, since the last name was legitimate as far as I could tell. I also presume his parents -- probably his father, knowing how fathers are -- were quite fond of late 20th century action movies, and thus bestowed that rather unfortunate name upon their son.

It wouldn't have been unfortunate, I suppose, if Arnold had turned out moderately robust. Perhaps not an Olympic athlete, or a black belter, but someone who could at least participate on team sports and not look like easy pickings when he walked into the wrong bar. Maybe someone who could convincingly lie and say they worked in construction, or welding, or some other type of manly profession. Naturally, Arnold van Damme was none of those things.

Arnold was the type of small frail person who -- I am convinced -- grows in the darkest corners of high-school physics and chem labs. Not quite smart enough to win an award, nor charismatic enough to have many friends, but sensible enough not to become a teacher's pet. He was bony, but not particularly limber, and was disturbingly thin. I am convinced he subsists off three things: Guinness, marijuana and tuna sandwiches, the three things that both his office and his very few suits stank of. Arnold's thin oily black hair, always struck me as being both too short and in desperate need of a trim. A very non-prestigious state college had granted him his law degree, and he had just barely passed the bar exam.

Stuck with a habit he could not afford, and a personality that made him less than endearing, but a brain somewhere between those small ears of his, Arnold van Damme was the in-house attorney of the West Street Shelter. Working mostly pro bono for local SCABs, the service Arnold provided in being able to sort through surprise legal documents was vital. He was always available to go down to a police station and see to it that someone was properly charged, or released if there wasn't sufficient evidence. He gave advice on how to deal with problem landlords, or tenants. All kinds of odd stuff the community might need.

The major West Street donors understood how vital Arnold was, and saw to it that the shelter paid him a small amount each month for living expenses, and to keep him around. His office was on the third floor of the shelter, and his purported need for a receptionist, secretary, and paralegals, offered training opportunities to those who were calling the shelter home. I never quite understood whether van Damme worked out of West Street because of a general lack of ambition, or a healthy sense of realism about his capabilities as a person. I doubt it was compassion.

At the time, I was seeing van Damme for the third time in two weeks, and was less impressed with him each time I met him. Everyone with whom I had struck up conversation in the Blind Pig, after getting over the fact that I had a Nightingale who was able to sing Lennon-McCartney tunes -- nothing quite impressed me so much as the night she got the whole bar singing Strawberry Fields -- anyway, they all told me that even if I wasn't a morph, I absolutely had to talk to Phil.

My first day in the shelter I had been referred to van Damme, to deal with the amount of money I was carrying on me; he had recommended I hand the money over to the police for a month, then, provided no one claimed it, they'd hand it back. I consented, and van Damme also arranged a nearby apartment on the fifth floor of a mostly abandoned building. It suited me fine. He also arranged a meeting for me to meet with Phil, but had cautioned me in that reedy nasal contralto voice of his, "You must understand, Phil is quite busy. I'm sure he wouldn't mind meeting with you, but he normally deals with a different," he rolled his eyes up as if looking at a dictionary imprinted on the back of his eyelids, "genre, of clientele altogether. I don't know how useful he'll be for your purposes Rothbart."

Six days later I was back at the shelter, once again expecting to meet with Phil. Instead I got an annoyed lecture from Arnold about the dangers of violating the fire-code in my apartment. He concluded with "You're going to give the shelter a bad name with local landlords if you insist on being a safety hazard, and that simply isn't acceptable." He glared at me over the large lenses of his glasses perched on his thin nose. I was tempted to tell him that he wasn't one to talk to me about smoke damage, given the sweet oily stench in his office that was activating my gag reflex, but decided against it. "Any luck finding a job?" Arnold asked.

Disappointed that I had even been looking, he sniffed arrogantly and noted something down on the pad he had on his desk. "Yes, well I'll get a note to Phil, he's got some good contacts and keep an eye open for you myself. It's important that you be productive you know; and you're hardly as unskilled as some of the people I deal with."

"I'll tell Phil myself, I've got a meeting with him in 30 minutes."

"Oh do you?" He gave me a smug half-smile, "I'm afraid it's been cancelled then. They found an illegal guinea-pig factory out in the east end, and they wanted Phil just in case. Honestly, I don't see how the man thinks he can rehabilitate vermin but nonetheless..." Arnold drifted off, lost in his own thoughts. "Yes, well, if you come back in five days or so, I'm sure Phil can see you then: we may even have a job for you by then."

I stood to leave, "Oh, Rothbart, one last thing. If I get any more complaints about your behavior in the apartment, I'll sign you up for life-skills classes." I shuddered, and had to resist the temptation not to slam the door to his office. Life-skills were the notorious classes that the shelter ran for SCABs, helping them adapt to their new bodies. They were needed; but horrendous for anyone who wasn't interested in how to use a litterbox instead of a toilet.

Another five days passed, and, having had no luck finding a job, once again I found myself in Arnold van Damme's office. His smug smile still on his face, half a tuna sandwich sitting in an unused ashtray. "Lunch?" He offered me the sandwich. I turned it down, I had just had my usual cheeseburger and fries at the Pig. I sprinkled some of the bird seed I kept in my coat pocket on the desk, and Anne-Maya hopped off my shoulder and started pecking away at it quite happily.

Arnold looked over his glasses disapprovingly, but I crossed my arms in front of my chest, challenging him to stop her from enjoying her lunch. "Well, I suppose you already know the bad news, Phil had a court date." He gave me his half smile once again, and once again I suppressed the urge to slug him. "Yes, hard to believe they'd consider his untrained opinion expert, but that's probably just sour grapes talking."

"Probably," I concurred, absolutely serious. I then smiled to see I had taken the grin off his face.

"Well, as you know Rothbart, I've now seen you three times in a dozen days, which is much more often than I like to see my clients. Usually at this point I'd refer you to another law firm, more able to specialize than I am. But, the good news is I found a job for you." He passed a printout over to me, 'Kingsman Securities Inc' read the letterhead. "Yes, just your sort of thing," continued van Damme. "In fact I've already sent your references over to them, that's their reply. You'll have to forgive me for -- how shall I put this -- embellishing your resume a little."

I looked up from the letter. "I'm trained in two types of Martial Arts, and am an expert marksman?"

"If those stories you tell about Guyana are anything to be believed you probably are. Oh yes, here." Arnold passed a small card with my photograph on it across his desk. "I even arranged your license, remember I had you sign those forms when you were first here?" Concealed Weapons Permit, the card read.

"What's this for?" I asked.

"That," his know-it-all grin had reappeared on his face, "will let you carry that knife you're so fond of, as well as that shotgun," he nodded to the oilcloth-wrapped package I had put by the coat stand, "without attracting unwanted attention from the police. It took quite a bit of work to get that for you Rothbart, considering your absolute lack of identification. So, once Kingsman has you set up, do me a favour and give generously to West Street, I've got my eyes set on an authentic 1987 sea-green Toyota Tercel."

I nodded my thanks, swept the birdseed back into my pocket, and Anne-Maya and I left the office.

+ + +

Bert Kingsman was a large fat man, with a deep rumbly voice, and prone to bellowing and belching. It was rumored he was originally a professional wrestler before the cartilage in his left knee gave out: that wasn't hard to believe. His handshake was tighter than an iron vise, and he used those fists to run his company. Kingsman Securities was now the second largest local security firm. Bert wasn't too picky about who he hired, "An honest man, with quick fingers and big arms: That's who I look for," he told me at my job interview. I was hired that day.

"If yer as good as van Damme says, yer hired," Kingsman told me. "Naturally, his recommendation isn't as good as Phil's, but they work together, so if Phil respects him I do. Do ya know Phil, Robart?"

I decided not to correct his pronunciation, "No." I shook my head.

"Ah, good man that rabbit. My brother used to work with him. Bit soft if you ask me, but then what do ya expect from a bunny, eh?" Bert guffawed as if this was uproariously funny, I joined in as best I could, I'd have to meet up with this Phil some day. "Anyway, you really as good as all this?" He waved the resume that van Damme's secretary had put together for me. I nodded. "And you've already got that gun and knife, hmm... I may have just the job for you Robart." Bert sent me down to the basement, telling me to report to Sylvera.

+ + +

"Patrol duty! Hah! Can you believe they wanted to put me on patrol duty? I'd clip-clop around neighborhoods and nod politely to children," she snorted loudly and derisively, "No, when you've been on the SWAT team, it doesn't matter what they do with your salary: Being transferred to patrol duty, that's a demotion!" Sylvera Dumont had been a beefy woman, one of the strongest officers on the force. She had the boxing trophy from the police academy to prove it, and the photos of her showed a woman with muscles bigger than my own. She had been good with the guns too, and knew the technical details of fire-power much better than I did, "Yeah, I could castrate a mouse at 100 yards with a 22 caliber... You wanna know how I know?" She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. Sylvera had told me all this while having me take apart my shotgun, she wasn't too thrilled with it, saying it was "a highly unorthodox , but acceptable weapon... I suppose. Still, I'm not happy that you don't have standard issue." I would soon learn Sylvera wasn't happy about most things.

"Let me be clear about this bucko, you work for me, and I work for Bert Kingsman. We aren't equals on this assignment. As far as I'm concerned, you're my fingers and I'm in charge of security on this operation, catch on? If you're good and do what I say before I think it: I'll let you groom me. If you don't cooperate, I'll make you groom me, and that's all you'll be doing, got me?" She put her eyes directly in front of mine.

I leaned forward, matching her stare for stare. "Gotcha."

Anne-Maya, perched on my shoulder started to chirp Eleanor Rigby.

"Cute," said Sylvera. "You come with a sound track." She leaned back on to the custom-sculpted foam shape behind her. She was a gorgeous white Arabian mare. "So, what's her name?" asked Sylvera, nodding to the Nightingale.

"This," I put my hand up to my shoulder and she hopped onto my fingers, "is Anne-Maya." I put her down on the table. She jumped up and down, and chirped a single note to Sylvera in greeting.

"She always make that much noise?"

"Only if I'm not paying attention to her." That brought an angry chirping out of Anne-Maya. "Or too much for that matter."

"That could be a problem you know."

"I'll leave her in the apartment if it's necessary for the job. Otherwise she gets restless. Besides, she likes seeing the city, and knows how to behave... for the most part." Anne-Maya glared at me, but I sprinkled a little seed on the table, and she started happily eating again. I wondered how much of her was still left in that tiny brain.

"So, what's the job?" I asked Sylvera. I hadn't noticed it till now, but she was fully capable of speech without the Voder that graced so many morphs. She stamped a foot on the floor, and a transparent glass monitor came out of her desk, the lights dimmed and an image appeared on the screen.

It was a woman, approaching middle age, elegant, well dressed, with short black hair, sunglasses, and a Spartan but fashionable red-skirt ensemble on. "La Presidenta Caterina Valladolid is coming to town. We're her security detail."

"What company is she president of?" I asked.

"Not company Rothbart, country. She runs Argentina, ever since her Daddy died and left the country to her. Unopposed in the past election, held six years ago."

"The president of Argentina is coming to town?"

"You're a bright one, aren't you?"

"And we're her security detail."

"So it would appear."

"Isn't that unusual? Don't heads of state normally have their own security, especially considering Argentina's at war right now?"

"Ah so you would think: but look at this." Sylvera clicked a hoof twice on the floor and the slide changed. 'The de los Chonos Peace Accord' said the slide, and was then followed by a summarization of the main points. "My theory is the country's gone broke. Valladolid is coming up here to get peace with Britain. There's no credible threat to her, and thus she's hired us. If her military found out she was about to put them out of business, well... would you trust a secret service security detail under those circumstances?"

"Alright then, who're we expecting?" I rubbed my beard with a thumb. I didn't like the idea of having to save a President from her own military. The Second Falklands war had been an on-again off-again affair with England for Argentina. Officially Argentina was claiming the islands to make a SCABs-friendly amphibious environment. Essentially the Falklands would become a nature preserve for SCAB's only, especially providing an environment for those unfortunate enough to have been morphed to aquatic creatures.

Most of the world, however, understood that it was little more than a tool for the Valladolid presidency, which had long ago dismissed both the Argentine Senate and Congress and placed the country under martial law. So long as the Argentine navy kept duking it out in the South Atlantic with European forces, the crowds rioting on the streets of Buenos Aires were government-friendly. Illegal international press reports continued to leak from South America though, indicating that this was less and less frequently the case.

The war was unpopular in Britain and Europe as well. Increasingly the talk in Brussels was of pulling out and letting England continue fighting on it's own. But even then, the popular slogan on the streets of Liverpool and Manchester was "Just give them the Bloody Islands!" If Argentina could keep up the pressure, England might well give in.

Anyway where was I? Oh yes. "Alright then, who're we expecting?" I asked Sylvia.

"Valladolid, and the British Foreign Minister are signing the accord. The Secretary of State will probably drop by as well to make sure there's an American in the official handshake, maybe the president as well. And then there's Dr. Inigo de los Chonos, the Chilean: He's the architect of the deal, and if it happens, he'll probably get the Nobel."

"We're only responsible for Caterina Valladolid's security?"

"Yep, and the good news is, she's got the Presidential Suite at the Edelweiss."

"Why's that good?"

"That's where they're signing the peace accord, the lobby of the Edelweiss; because of Caterina's security concerns. So all in all, it should be an easy job, and bring good profile to Kingsman S. Any questions?"

"It's just me and you doing security?"

"Yep. We get Joey Luca as our chauffeur, but otherwise it's just us."

"Alright, when does it all happen?"

"Be here tomorrow at 0600 sharp, Joey will take us to Smerton airport -- that's off in the country -- where 'La Presidente's' private jet will be landing at 1030... hopefully." Sylvera's eyebrows and nose crinkled in obvious distaste. She was probably as unhappy with the situation as I was.

"See you tomorrow then... uh, sir?" I wasn't sure quite how Sylvera wanted to be referred to.

"You do that." I stood to leave. "Oh, Rothbart?" I turned. "Bring that bird along too. I like the classics. And, naturally I don't approve of non-uniform dress, but you look tough enough as it is I suppose. Just... shower, and brush up a little would you?"

I tried to think of something to say back to her, but nothing came to mind, so I simply nodded and left her office.

+ + +

Arnold van Damme found me that night at the Blind Pig. "Rothbart, how's it going?" he asked, holding his usual pint of Guinness. I didn't believe the man wanted to socialize with me.

"Good, I suppose." I was listening to Anne-Maya chirping along to Bird on a Wire with the piano player. Someone had rearranged the furniture in the Pig the other night, and I found it all somewhat disorienting. I think the lighting had been changed as well.

"Yeah, I thought Kingsman would work out for you. What do they have you doing?"

"Uh, I don't think I can tell you that Arnold." One of the wolves had started howling along to the song, and everything became suddenly quite cacophonic.

"Feh, Attorney-Client confidentiality. Come on over to the booth." We went to the back corner. He sat down on the mismatched green vinyl upholstery and slid over. A plastic-wrapped tuna sandwich appeared on the table beside his pint. "Is Donnie watching?" Arnold asked.

I looked up, the bartender had his back to us, "No," I shook my head. "I think a fight's gonna break out by the pool tables."

"Good." Arnold took out his small plastic baggie and cigarette papers and started rolling himself a joint. "He said if he ever caught me doing this again I'd be out for a week. Now I just make sure he doesn't catch me. So, you've got something on me now: what's Kingsman got you doing?" I recounted the events of the afternoon for him. Van Damme offered me a drag on his joint but I declined. He took off his glasses and blinked at me with his small tiny eyes. God, I bet the smell had gotten into my jacket just from being next to him.

"Edelweiss, huh? That's a good coincidence. Phil's gonna be there in three days: doing a presentation on one of those rodent colonies or something; he's really into that stuff. If you want I could mention to him that you'll be there as well."

"Yeah, I'd appreciate that. I was kind of hoping to meet him tonight."

Arnold was munching on his second tuna sandwich; he seemed to be able to make things appear out of thin air for his consumption. "Won't be happening. He's tied up in court: had the Centre clear his schedule for tomorrow as well, some kind of complication." I finished my Rum and Gingerbeer, and stood up. I really didn't want to spend too much more time with Arnold, I noticed no one else was sitting near us either. "Yeah, you take care Rothbart. Give a call to my office about Phil at the Edelweiss, I'll get the information nailed down for you."

I ordered a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich from the bar, for take out, and then looked up into the rafters for Anne-Maya. She's quite fond of the bar, and almost impossible to get out when she doesn't want to leave. The general racket can make her hard to locate as well. They finished the sandwich for me and I took it. Still no sign of the Nightingale.

I stepped up onto the dais -- funny, I didn't remember the elevation being there before -- where the piano player pounded away happily in one of those unending bar tunes. "If you see Anne-Maya, tell her to get home on her own." I shouted to him over the din, "I'll leave the window open. He nodded and kept playing. I left the bar. It was getting dark out and I wanted a good night's sleep. Besides, I find the Pig gets to be a bit claustrophobic when it gets too crowded.

+ + +

The car we took out to the airport was an odd design. It reminded me of an ambulance, since the compartment at the back was designed to hold a large SCAB if necessary, and was doing just that with Sylvera. I sat in the middle, which was distorted to be shaped like a limousine, and Joey Luca, a standard Kingsman chauffeur, was driving. We arrived at the airport at 10, and I released Anne-Maya. Experience had shown me she had a lot of trouble being in cars, so I took along the cage and kept it covered while we were on the road.

It was a three and a half hour drive to the airport and all four of us were happy to get out and stretch our legs. The plane was two hours late, so I was more than glad I had brought along lunch. I fed Anne-Maya on top of the car, and she entertained Joey and Sylvera with a game of Name That Tune. I stretched out and napped for half an hour. The landing plane woke me.

Caterina Valladolid looked every inch a president. Her body language was stern and demanding, very alpha-male. A strong Spanish accent dominated her speech along with that funny Argentine burr rattling her English as well. She was clearly a woman to whom the word 'feminine' would be a derogatory insult. The plane stopped and the airport staff wheeled the steps up to the door. She stepped out and lit a cigarette in a long ebony holder, looking around and taking in the environment.

Her eyes settled on the three of us. "You are from Kingsman's?" she asked.

I stepped forward. "Yes ma'am."

She smiled at some unknown joke. "Good, you will find my luggage inside the airplane."

I blinked, a bit stunned, "I beg your pardon?"

"My luggage, amigo, it is in," she hesitated, searching for the right word, "el avion? Los valises? Ah, you brought a horse, how thoughtful." She walked past us and up to the car, which Joey jumped to let her in. There was absolutely no swaying of her hips as she went past us, I noticed she wasn't wearing heels either.

Sylvera turned and glowered at me, unhappy that I had spoken up. "Well Rothbart, aren't you going to go get 'los valises?'" She did a fair impression of Caterina, but was clearly angry with me. I sighed and went into the airplane. The interior was quite nice, and I found two suitcases and an overnight bag at the back. And that was it. I sighed as I took the luggage around to the back of the vehicle, she certainly packed light, but what was more depressing is we weren't only the security for the Argentine President: We were her staff as well. Curiouser and curiouser.

The trip back to the Edelweiss was long and painful. I sat with my back to Joey. Looking at both Caterina, who was an unending source of questions, comments and orders, and Sylvera, who was an unending source of glowers. Even when I tried to direct Valladolid's questions to Sylvera, the president kept talking to me. This only annoyed Sylvera who soon decided she simply wasn't going to talk to the president at all, and let me deal with her every whim. I was exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel, and I still had more work ahead of me.

+ + +

The Edelweiss was, reputedly, one of the country's premiere hotels. Its lobby was enormous, and thrummed with activity. The vast space, which served as both brain and heart of the enormous structure, had a cavernous shape which soared up four stories; some of the premiere rooms had windows facing into the lobby and to outside. The Presidential suite was up at the 41st floor.

The Hotel staff was more than ready for us, but as shocked as I had been at the lack of luggage and staff President Valladolid had brought with her. Nevertheless, they were quite effective, and Caterina gave a fifty to the manager for their help. Joey took the limousine back to headquarters, and left me with his pager number in case I needed the car again. Sylvera still refused to talk to me, leaving me to coordinate security concerns with the manager.

I munched on the complimentary shrimp and vegetable platter left in the main room. Valladolid had retreated to her bedroom, saying she had a headache, and instructed me not to let her be disturbed, giving me a light punch to the shoulder as she left, once again calling me amigo. Sylvera was sulking in her room, which left me and the manager alone in the central room.

"So I expect you'll want to see the stage tomorrow?" he asked me.

"Uh, of course," I agreed. "Um, the other parties have approved the design I assume?"

"Yes Mr. Tuck. And naturally I have heightened security. Heads of state have stayed here before you know, but never with such a small number of staff." He arched an eyebrow disapprovingly.

"I appreciate that," I assured him. "But the Argentine government has to make certain choices I suppose. These are the only keys for the 40th and 41st floors? I asked, waving the key ring full of swipe cards.

"Yes sir." He assured me. "The only other possibility of getting in is with the master card. He showed me his own copy of that. "And there are only two copies of this one: the one you are looking at now, and one in a bank vault outside the building. As you know, the fire escapes are down only, sealed with card-activated doors, and, as you saw, the elevators work the same way. Floors 40 and 41 are only accessible via elevator eight which is on special reserve for the President, and should anyone tamper with the elevators at all, the fire alarm will sound. Oh yes, should the fire alarm sound for a security reason, on this floor you will also hear this sound." He went to the small security box and pressed two buttons. A piercing electronic wail filled the air briefly. "That sound will be heard in two places, in these rooms to alert you and your staff of a potential security breach, and in my office to do the same. You should be quite secure Mr. Tuck."

"Yes, I suspect we will be. Thank you.," I showed him out, sat down in an armchair and let Anne-Maya out of her cage. She flitted around the room, and then settled on my knee, looking at me with her purple eyes. I ran a finger over her head and down her back affectionately. I decided I'd tour both floors to see what danger we could possibly be in for.

+ + +

"I'm the President of Argentina! I'm not going to be told what I can and can't do by my security guard."

"Yes you are," replied Sylvera, calmly, but forcefully, "and if you don't like the job Rothbart and myself are doing, then you are more than free to fire us and hire someone else. But until then, we're in charge of security, and you're confined to your rooms."

"Unless of course you want to go to the consulate -- or the embassy in Washington." I added.

"No," said Caterina, crossing her arms in front of her chest and staring out the window at the skyline. She lifted her lip in a sneer and looked at me: "I can't believe you are taking orders from a horse, hombre." I shrugged and ignored her. She had been throwing this particular temper-tantrum for almost an hour now: first with me, then with Sylvera, and now with both of us together.

Valladolid wanted to spend the afternoon out on the town, shopping, and perhaps catching a baseball game in the evening. But we had both put our feet down. There was no reasonable way to protect her outside with only us two, especially without a specific itinerary. I had suggested we could visit either the consulate in town, or the embassy in Washington earlier, but that had upset Caterina even more. It was very clear she would rather stay in the hotel than perform any official function as the head of state. She was acting like a condemned prisoner, and it was getting to be unbearable.

I looked at the Grandfather clock it showed five to six. I took an almost wilted carrot stick from the vegetable tray and munched on it. "Well," I said out loud, "I'm going to take a nap so I'm well rested for tonight. I've got the keys: so no one goes in or out without my permission. If you feel hungry Presidente, get Ms. Dumont to wake me up. It's probably a good idea that I taste-test everything before you eat it."

Caterina clicked her tongue. "That's so barbaric: You honestly think the hotel staff would try to poison me?"

"Do you want to risk it?" Sylvera asked, effectively arching one of her eyebrows to leave a questioning look on her face. In response Caterina strode off to her room, slamming the door behind her.

"You'll be okay?" I asked Sylvera.

"Oh yeah, I don't think her highness in there could do to much to me; not without waking up you and your gun anyway. I'll get you up at 2200." Anne-Maya and I both went into the small room that had been designated as mine. I unlaced my boots, took off my coat and hat, and lay down on the bed.

I did a mental scan of the two floors that had been bought out for us. The suite we had was at the front of the hotel, the only side that did not immediately face out onto other tall buildings. I had drawn the curtains in all the other suites, so as to not make it immediately apparent to a potential sniper where we were not. I had also re-arranged furniture so as to slow down anyone trying to sneak around unnoticed: leaving beds like they had been slept in, and closet doors open. On each door hung a 'Do not disturb' sign. And a call down to management had given me a guarantee that the halls would not be cleaned during our stay there: Any cleaning staff I saw on our two floors would be up to no good.

I had given the fire escapes a try as well. There were two, and they both spiraled down in a triangle to the kitchen level, immediately below the lobby. The exit to every level was a steel door that required a card key, and every three flights of stairs was blocked by another door requiring a card key, and a combination lock. It would take a very clever assassin to get up to the 41st floor. The doors all clearly said they would unlock if the fire alarm was pulled, but if that was the case, any would be killer would have to get past the mass of people going down the emergency staircases. Caterina Valladolid was quite safe in the Edelweiss, and the thought of all my security precautions soon had put me to sleep.

Sylvera woke me up at 10, and I joined her in the main room. I dragged a chess table over from the side of the wall, and soon the two of us had a brutal game going. I had lost most of my major pieces, while Sylvera was simply down a few pawns. Caterina soon emerged from her apartment and laughed at the chessboard, she slapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, how about something to eat then, hmm?" she both asked and ordered at the same time.

I rubbed my shoulder painfully. "Please, don't hit me. What would you like."

"No se." She wandered over to the window. "Bueno, what are the bifstek's like here?"

"Probably good, is that what you'd like?"

She put on her sneering smile and looked at me, "Si."

Sylvera rolled her eyes at me and I picked up the phone and dialed room-service. I ordered two of their largest steaks with fries, then I put the phone on hold "How do you like your steaks Presidente?"


I took the phone off hold. "Make them both rare please. And do you do chicken? Yes bring up one of those dinners too please. Oh, and the apple and carrot platter. Thank you."

Sylvera looked at me questioningly, "Why so much food?" she asked, looking perplexed.

"I figured if they do try to poison la Presidente, this way it will be harder to guess what it is she's eating."

"What if they poison everything?"

"Well, it's not our budget, is it Sylvera?" I stood and walked over to Valladolid. "You're going to have to wait in your room until the food arrives Presidente."

"What? What nonsense. In all my years, I've never heard --" I grabbed her arms and pushed her into the room, closing the door behind me. She wasn't a cooperative protectee, but when we forced her into something at least she did as she was told.

"Was that really needed?" Sylvera asked me, shaking her blonde mane.

"Oh, probably not. But did you want to spend more time with her than necessary?"

The mare grinned at me, "Do you remember whose move it was?" She nodded at the chessboard.

"No. We'll have to start again I guess." I matched her grin and we did just that.

The food was delivered quite safely 20 minutes later, I tipped each of the boys with a 10, and uncovered the food. Using my knife I sliced a wing off the chicken and sucked the meat off it: it was tender, moist and really quite good. I munched on a couple french fries -- I confess I have a thing for potatoes, fried ones especially: I can't seem to get enough of them -- they went down pretty good as well, although I've had better. Finally I took a slice of one of the two 18 ounce steaks I'd ordered. It was so tender it dissolved in my mouth, juicy and full of flavour. I closed my eyes in bliss.

Sylvera cleared her throat, "Do you how non-PC it is to look like you're enjoying meat?"

I shrugged, "It's good, do you want some?"

She fixed me with a glare that answered all my questions. "Come on then, bring those carrots over here so I can eat too."

I wheeled the tray with the apple quarters and carrot sticks around to her side of the chess table. I looked at the board and moved my bishop. "Check," I declared for the first time that evening.

Caterina came out from her room, "Oh good, they brought the food," she said and walked over to the still-uncovered second steak. She breathed in deeply and looked ready to start eating there and then.

"Whoa -- hold on, that's not yours." I corrected her.

"What do you mean?"

"Yours is the other one, that one's mine."

"You're joking? There's una raja missing from this one!"

"I had to test it for you."

"Very well." She wheeled the tray with the cut steak over to the table and set up to eat there, she was very unhappy, but I only had more bad news for her.

"Presidente, you can't eat yet."

"Dios mio, why not? Did I forget to say grace or something?"

"No, I want you to wait ten minutes, so if anything happens to me, we at least have a bit of warning time before it happens to you."

Valladolid slammed cutlery down on the table and crossed her arms, "Fine," she said, "I'll wait. Diez minutos." She fidgeted in the chair, crossed her arms and glared at me, easily matching the one Sylvera had just thrown me over the meat. I sat back down at the chessboard.

"Rook kills Bishop at e8." I moved for her, and then twiddled my fingers anxiously above the board: I'd been ready for this move, what was my planned response? "Good game Rothbart, you lasted a bit longer that time."


"That's checkmate." Damn, she was right. How did I get myself into that? "Set up the board again. I did so and we played again, and I lost, again.

After ten minutes Caterina started eating. For a president she wasn't a particularly gracious eater, although that may have had to do with the fact that she didn't have much of an audience to perform for. The food was fine, as it turned out, although there was no end to the litany of complaints from Caterina as to how much better the beef was in Buenos Aires, or how terrible a chess player I was.

After I had said good night to the two ladies, I spend the night quietly in the main room, finishing my fries and eating the now refrigerated chicken. I woke up Sylvera at dawn, and slept until nine.

+ + +

"So they're actually building the structure inside the hotel?" I asked the manager, a bit befuddled by what I was seeing, although, come to think of it, Sylvera had told me this would be happening at my initial briefing. I suppose I had just ignored it. "Don't you have conference rooms here? Why aren't we using one of them?"

"We have several conference rooms, and have played host to several significant international conventions here at the Edelweiss, Mr. Tuck." He was very annoyed with me. "However, this is the set up Dr. de los Chonos informed me was acceptable to all the parties. Since it doesn't interfere with our operating of the hotel, I felt it was necessary -- for the peace accord naturally -- to accommodate the desires of the parties." I grimaced and wondered how much of his accommodation had to do with the fact that while the construction crew made a terrific racket hammering together the stage, an Edelweiss crew was busy mounting a large Plexiglas sign with the Edelweiss name and logo prominently displayed. The international photos and film of the signing of the accord would feature free advertising for the hotel. I wondered if the treaty would, in time, be remembered for the hotel where it was signed instead of its drafter.

"Is everything fine in terms of your security needs Mr. Tuck?" the manager shouted over a loud drill, breaking my reverie. "All the other parties have approved the stage."

"It looks fine," I shouted back, the drill dying just as I started and the entire lobby hearing what I had to say. "How are you filling in the underneath?" I asked in a quieter tone.

"We're not: American security requests that underneath the platform remain open to public viewing, and not offer a hiding space." I nodded, a sensible thing to do. "Is there anything else Mr. Tuck? I really must look after some other business."

"No." I shook my head, "If the Americans and the British say it's alright then it probably is. I'll come back and take another look at it during the day once it's complete and a little less loud down here." The drill had started up again.

"Alright, I'll let my staff know to expect you down here then. Have a good day Mr. Tuck." And he scurried off across the lobby like a beetle, adjusting his bow tie as he went. As it happened, I had one security concern, but could think of no easy way to bring it up without possibly treading on the manager's toes. I pondered it a moment, but decided to ignore it and went back up to the 41st floor. Still it hung in my mind though: Why were all the construction workers speaking Spanish in an American hotel?

+ + +

Donald Penn was the chief detective of the Edelweiss hotel. The position paid very well, but entailed a great deal of responsibility ever since the gruesome spree of murders that had taken place so many years ago. A young man, he was quiet and new to the job. Like the manager he stood on formality, but his roving eyes took everything in. Detective Penn and myself were the only ones standing behind the cordoned off stage that afternoon, the light from the now sinking sun drifting in through the highest windows of the lobby, and lending a soft golden glow to the entire space.

The stage had been painted dark brown, and red carpeting was stapled on to it. Low heavy red drapes hung in the background, a notable gap cut into them for the purpose of displaying the Edelweiss sign, which (I now noted) had the year and tomorrow's date on it as well. It would be an integral part of any photo. On stage was a table with two chairs at either end, one for the British Foreign Minister, another for President Valladolid. Two podiums also stood at either end of the stage, a single microphone on both of them: The press would be given official copies of what was said, after the event.

Mentally I plotted out how we would do it, and ran my plans past Penn. "Okay, so how about this: I'll be with the President on stage, and we'll have Sylvera in the audience. That way I'll be able to look for anything funny beside the president, and act as a body guard, and she'll be my second set of eyes and ears."

Penn nodded, seeing sense in my proposal. "Would you like to be hooked in to the hotel security system? We can provide you with a earwig and pouch pocket. Normally I don't offer that to external security -- the British and the Americans bring their own -- but you are very undermanned for any unwanted eventuality." I wasn't too fond of the phrase 'unwanted eventuality,' but couldn't think of an alternative, so, for the third time in our conversation that afternoon let him slip the phrase in to our conversation.

"No, that's alright. I think I'd find it more disorienting than anything to have people talking in my ear like that." Sylvera had offered me the same option with the Kingsman's equipment earlier in the day. Just listening to her breathing had thrown off my balance, and when she talked unexpectedly I had a bad habit of whipping my head around to look at where she wasn't. My own hearing had been badly affected as well, and although Sylvera had found the whole incident very amusing, she agreed my performance would probably be better without it tomorrow.

"I'd also recommend that your security personnel both wear full uniform, that way they are easily recognizable by hotel staff," Penn suggested. I looked up and around the lobby, I thought I saw one of the curtains in a fourth floor suite twitch.

"Well, I'll talk to Sylvera about that. I haven't gotten a uniform yet, so I'll just be wearing this jacket and hat. I haven't worked at Kingsman long enough." The curtain was still, the twitch was probably just my imagination.

"Yes sir. I'll let my staff know Mr. Tuck. Is there anything else?"

"One last thing Penn, hold my hat and coat, would you?" I took off my leather coat and gave it to him, "I'm just going to check out the construction job under there." I crawled down into the dark space underneath the stage. It had just three feet of height, so I was on my hands and knees, the carpeting and tiles were covered in sawdust from the morning drilling.

Regularly spaced wooden four-by-four columns held up the entire structure, crossed two-by-fours connected the columns on the vertical, but it was possible to see all the way to the back, not a single X to block vision. The stage was so low however, that once I had crawled about 10 feet back I was hidden in darkness. The secret service would need a short midget with infra-red vision to make out what was happening down here. Then again, considering some of the SCABs I'd seen working for Kingsman, that probably wasn't entirely impossible for the government to get their hands on.

The pillars were held in place with thousands of sandbags, making the stage immobile. It all looked pretty good down here. I slapped one of the canvas sandbags and started to turn. The bag produced a small clinking sound. I stopped and patted it again. The same soft metallic sound. I drew my knife from my boot and cut the bag open. Ball bearings. One pound lead spheres filled the bag instead of sand. What the hell was this?

I cut open the bag underneath it. Fireworks, no, dynamite, with a red plastic-coated wire leading out of the bag to somewhere further back. I wrapped the wire around the knife and was about to cut it when I thought better. If the wire led somewhere there might be more dynamite under the stage. I started following the wire but it was difficult. Obviously this had been placed here by the workmen, and was expertly hidden underneath sawdust and sand bags.

My red wire joined with others and I followed it back into the darkness. Finally it came to a small black box, where almost 40 of the wires plugged into the back. 'Deviso de Detonacion', said the barely visible white print. A small antenna was raised on the back, and the whole contraption hidden in its own canvas bag. I pulled out the red wires one by one, sometimes shredding them and leaving little copper threads sticking out of the back of the box. Someone, someone who had a lot of time to plan, was intending to blow up the stage. Actually given the amount of shrapnel and dynamite down here, there was probably enough to bring down the entire Edelweiss.

The wires out, I turned the box over in my hands: a nifty little device, probably designed for mining originally. The bottom of the box had more white print: "Produjo en Santiago, Chile. Produced in Santiago, Chile." and a small five pointed white star. Definitely planted by that Spanish speaking construction crew. Caterina Valladolid was not safe in this hotel.

I crawled back out, about to explain what I had found to Donald, when it occurred to me that Donald might well already know what was under the stage. After all, hotel staff had been here supervising the construction of the stage, and from what I knew the crew had been hired by the Edelweiss itself for this purposes. Besides if I let anyone know that I knew what was happening, Caterina might well be put in more danger if this was the Hotel's doing. A death was a death, whether public or not. I crawled out into the light, and knocked the sawdust off my pants.

"Anything down there?" Donald asked nonchalantly.

"Mmm." I grunted noncommittally; he wasn't really expecting an answer, and it was best not to technically lie.

"We just received notice, the President won't be able to make it tomorrow, that means government security falls by about two-thirds. I thought you should know. The plan is to keep going as prepared."

"Sounds sensible," I said trying to keep cool. "Who's rented the rooms that look out into the lobby for tomorrow during the signing?" Donald and I walked over to the main desk where he pulled up the necessary files on a computer. One of these days I'd have to get reacquainted with the machines, it seemed everyone used them.

"The entire third floor has been rented by the Society for Protection and Defense of Lapimorphs, North-East Chapter. They've got a conference going on in the afternoon, but it should all be locked and guarded in the morning. Fourth Floor, there's Dr. Pfeffergast's, and Mrs. Wing's rooms. They're semi-permanent guests, but I happen to know they're both out of town this week. Then the fourth suite belongs to the municipal government for visiting dignitaries," Penn squinted at the screen scanning through information. "No. It's empty tomorrow too, and then the third suite is being rented by... a Mr. Jaime Ferrar, who is... ah, here we go. A Chilean diplomat. Huh, maybe he's associated with Dr. de los Chonos, although that party's supposed to be staying at the Regal-Constellation." Penn blinked in surprise.

"Maybe they just need a little home turf if the signing turns nasty?" I shrugged, I had darker thoughts about what the actual purpose of Jaime Ferrar's room was.

"Perhaps Mr. Tuck," Penn agreed. "It looks like he's had the room booked for these three weeks as long as the conference has been planned to happen here."

"Well, thank you Penn. You've been quite helpful. I'll see you tomorrow I suppose."

"Yes." Penn stood and offered his hand which I shook. "Hopefully it'll be a piece of cake, Mr. Tuck."

"Hopefully." I turned to walk off to the elevator.

"Uh, Mr. Tuck?" Penn stopped me.

"Yes Penn?"

"I realize you haven't been with Kingsman all that long, but how large would you say his work force is?"

"I'm not sure, 200 strong maybe. It could probably expand quickly if it had to. You know what security's like. Why?" We were now walking to the elevator bank.

"Oh, no reason. It's just getting harder and harder to find good staff to work here at the Edelweiss, nothing official, but we're thinking of contracting out. If I can I'd like to hire local."

"I'll mention it to Kingsman, he might be more useful with answers than me." Elevator eight opened when I inserted my card.

"Yeah, well nothing official, yet, Mr. Tuck. It'll be a pleasure working with you tomorrow."

"Likewise I'm sure Penn." The elevator closed, and whisked me up to the 41st floor. I had quite a bit of thinking and planning to do before tomorrow.

+ + +

"So why don't we just cancel and get her highness to the airport? You better have a damn good reason not to Rothbart, cause you've got five minutes to convince me, before I call Kingsman and get him to give me the biggest damn escort he can drag together and take her to back to Smerton." Sylvera and I were discussing my discoveries in the lobby quietly, we could hear Caterina singing in her bath.

"Because I defused the detonator. Now it'll be easy to find out who's behind this, which we still don't know."

"No Rothbart, you defused a detonator. How do you know there isn't another one under the stage? These are professional killers we're up against! I'm sure they've thought of an alternative method of disposing of her."

"Maybe they have, but there's more at stake here than just Caterina! There's a peace accord that needs to be signed. Sure we can save her life, but if the de los Chonos accord is signed then we help save thousands of lives. I guarantee that if news about a possible assassination on Valladolid leaks out, Argentina isn't going to come within a thousand miles of another peace accord with Britain on the Falklands. And even more sailors are going to be sent to their deaths somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic.

"Yeah, well I'll tell you, if the assassination attempt is successful and la Presidente is killed, there's not going to be much of a government left in Argentina that would possibly ever be in favour of signing a peace accord. Not to mention, if what you seem to think you foiled is any hint of what whoever it is we're up against is capable of, there may not be much of an Edelweiss left either." The Arabian mare was very serious, and right.

"Look, I realize you disagree with me, but there are some things so important, it's worth risking quite a bit to get them. Peace is one of those things. Think of how much better a place this world would be if we could just get militaries to agree to stop waging war. If the amount of money we invested in making arms went into producing food, or research --"

"Yeah, I've heard all that before, the military-industrial complex is very bad. Oooh... look out. I'll also remind you that the best way to keep peace is to be prepared to fight, so don't start lecturing me on --"

"Alright, I don't want a debate Sylvera. Just remember, Valladolid obviously thinks this mission is important enough to keep secret from the rest of her government. She didn't even bring a secretary with her to sign this accord. The woman may well be keeping her country together through force of will alone, and she obviously thought coming here was important for the future of Argentina, and she's risking quite a bit to do it."

"Fine. We'll stay, if you've got enough of a plan to make security a bit easier to control. I'm not the bionic horse, you know."

"Of course I've got a plan. This is what I propose..."

+ + +

"Yes, Hello Assistant-Director Cherney. My name is Rothbart Tuck, I'm in charge of security of President Valladolid. Yes, I've been informed that the President will be unable to make it, and naturally President Valladolid regrets this, but is still glad there will still be something of an American presence there tomorrow to show international endorsement of the de los Chonos Accord.

"Alright, this is why I'm calling you. The President has decided to take the opportunity to properly welcome and thank the Secretary, the British, and of course Dr. de los Chonos. So she's requesting that we space out the arrivals somewhat. Would it be possible for you to arrange your scheduling so the Secretary arrives at the Edelweiss no sooner than 11:00 am?

"Yes I do realize that's an hour off-schedule, and it must be somewhat inconvenient for you. But the President is quite insistent. At any rate, she guarantees that nothing will be done until the arrival of the Secretary.

"Thank you Assistant-Director, the Imperial Democratic Republic of Argentina is grateful for your assistance in this matter. Goodbye then." I sighed. The new name Valladolid's father had given the country was quite a mouthful. I hoped Sylvera wasn't listening too closely at the door; we had agreed that I would make the calls, but she would be furious if she discovered the promotion I had just given myself.

+ + +

"Yes, Director Ragan please. This is Rothbart Tuck -- oh, Tuck, T-U-C-K like the friar -- I'm the head of President Valladolid's security detail. Yes, I'm afraid it is rather urgent that I speak with Director Ragan, this is about the agenda for tomorrow's signing ceremony. I'll hold...

"Director Ragan? This is Rothbart Tuck, I'm in charge of President Valladolid's security detail. Yes, there's been a change of schedule for tomorrow, something's keeping back the Americans for an hour. Well, what I propose is this: what if you arranged it so that Sir Bryson arrives at twenty to eleven? That will give him a bit of time to chat with the media, and look over the accord before the Americans arrive.

"Yes Director, I will be quite certain that there will be no photographs of President Valladolid alone on stage without the Minister there. I appreciate your cooperation on the issue then. Sorry about the sudden change in plans. See you tomorrow then? Take care." That call made me smile, I liked the way everyone seemed to get their own title in the English government. Two more calls to go.

+ + +

"I'm sorry, who am I speaking to? Dr. de los Chonos? Is that really you? Wow. I didn't expect to reach you sir, just let me say that it's an honour to speak to you. You have put an astonishing amount of work into getting this peace accord signed, and, well, there's just not a good enough way to express my admiration, sir.

"Oh right, well, my name is Rothbart Tuck, and -- I was actually looking to speak to whoever was in charge of security for you, do you think you could pass me on to them? You'll take a message? Are you sure Dr. de los Chonos? It really wouldn't be a problem for me to call back later.

"Alright then. Unfortunately, the president has an unexpected engagement tomorrow morning that's arisen. Well, what I was hoping was if you could arrive at about 10:20, we should be ready by then. Yes, I've informed the Americans and the British already, they'll be arriving at a delayed time as well.

"Good. Let me sincerely say Dr. de los Chonos that it would be an extraordinary pleasure to meet you. Really? Wow, well that's quite a compliment sir. Alright then, take care of yourself.

"Oh, Dr. de los Chonos? There is actually something. Someone left a message here for me to get in contact with Jaime Ferrar, and unfortunately it's not a name I know. He wouldn't happen to be a member of your delegation would he? You don't recognize the name either... hmm. Alright, well, again, it was a great privilege to be able to talk to you, Dr. de los Chonos."

+ + +

"Hello? Arnold is that you? Yeah everything's good here, I'm kind of busy at the moment. Oh my God, Phil, I completely forgot. No, I think it's Lapimorphs Protection or something like that, not rodents. Well, actually there is a difference Arnold, Lapimorphs are -- Arnold are you smoking? Well, I can hear you holding your breath.

"Okay, alright, never mind. Listen Arnold, could you please tell Phil that I'm going to have a hell of a busy day tomorrow, and it's just going to be absolutely impossible for me to meet up with him, even with us being in the same building.

"Is that this Friday? The Blind Pig? Okay, in the evening... yeah, I'm just noting it down is all, I've kind of got a lot on my mind. Yeah, actually I am really busy. No I'm not going to tell you with what. Okay, you know what, I'm seeing you on Friday, we'll talk about what attorney-client privilege means then. Goodbye Arnold."

+ + +

"Hey Penn, it's me Rothbart. Well, there's been a change in plans for tomorrow, and I've got reason to believe there's an active threat against President Valladolid's life. No, we aren't canceling the signing, The President is very clear, the de los Chonos accord has to be signed and publicly.

"Alright, this is what I've done, I've staggered the arrival of the other three parties by 20 minutes, and Sylvera's arranged for Kingsman's to send more men, eyes on the ground for us, who will be plugged into the hotel security network. Every 10 minutes we'll do another sweep of the grounds until the ceremony is over, then we're rushing the President out of the Edelweiss. The grounds aren't going to be safe here anymore.

"Yeah, I haven't let any of the other security teams know about this. I'm convinced one of them may be responsible, and I don't want to tip them off. I'm trusting that no one in the Edelweiss is involved, but naturally you'll keep what you know close to your chest.

"Thanks. We'll coordinate tomorrow at 8:00 and begin the sweeps at 9:00, alright?"

"Have a good night Penn." Getting Penn on the inside had been Sylvera's idea. She had pointed out that in the unlikely circumstances the Hotel staff were involved in detonating 120 sticks of dynamite in the lobby, then it was almost a certainty they had the rooms bugged and the phones tapped. Besides if I didn't inform them how I'd shuffled the schedule around, then Penn would almost certainly be ballistic by the time the Americans showed up -- an hour late. I had one last call to make I dialed the number.

"Hello this is the Chilean Consulate. Hola, es el Consulado de la Republica de Chile. Los horas del Consulado es..." I hung up the phone. Damn, there was no way to check out if Jaime Ferrar was legitimate and just here on a project other than the de los Chonos accord.

Falling asleep that night was difficult.

+ + +

At 7:30 am the next morning I did a full tour of the hotel with Penn looking for anything suspicious. It took us 80 minutes without investigating any of the rooms. I could confirm that all the entrances and exits to the hotel were well guarded by Penn's people and Kingsman's. The bank of security cameras was functioning fine. The hallways and attic were clear. The elevators were monitored. The conference rooms locked and secured. But Penn refused to allow me to engage in a room-by-room search. "Sorry Mr. Tuck, we have to respect the privacy of our guests. I can't violate their privacy unless I have more than reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity. I certainly can't engage in searching all of them."

I wanted to argue, and probably would have been right to. I didn't want to search all the rooms, just one in particular. But I let it slide, at this hour of the morning it would raise too much suspicion to break into Jaime Ferrar's rooms in Suite 403, and whoever was there would have more than ample time to hide what they were doing. Nothing could be done without a warrant anyway. I told Penn to inspect all the media equipment carefully, and to instruct the reporters not to take footage or photos of the President without the Foreign Minister present as well. I headed back up to Valladolid's suite.

There I helped Sylvera into her official uniform, which was essentially the riding get-up for a horse, although the bit dangled outside of her mouth. Sylvera was full of snide remarks as I went about doing the buckles and such according to her instructions. Although obviously she had never dressed herself, she was full of contempt for the fact that I had never done it either. It didn't help the situation when I initially put her saddle on backwards.

"How do I look?" She asked when I was finished, trying to look herself over in a full length mirror designed for human shaped bodies.

"Fine, I guess. None of the straps are twisted or anything."

"Good now take it off and groom me."

"You're kidding."

"I'm not going in to that lobby as mangy as this. Come on Rothbart, move. My brushes are in my overnight bag."

"Why don't I just do it with the gear on? It wouldn't be perfect, but it would look the same. Take less time too."

"Are you still here? You can't groom a horse in uniform, take this stuff off and get moving. We don't have all day here. I guess we don't have enough time to do anything about my hooves... oh well, they'll do." I tried to take off her gear in the reverse order of the method in which I had put it on, but I lost track and eventually just had it all off and lying in a pile. Then began the brushing, which seemed to take forever. I complained, but she had an answer for that too: "This isn't my fault! We couldn't have done this last night, and you had to do the security tour this morning. Come on: less chatter, more work." Valladolid was dressed and sitting in the armchair watching us finish. Putting on Sylvera's saddle and bridle was just as complicated the second time around, and both women were laughing at me by the time I was finished.

I looked at the clock, five past ten. We were late, but not irreparably so. "Are we ready then?" I asked Valladolid; Sylvera and I certainly were. La Presidenta nodded. She was wearing her usual red business suit and matching hat with sunglasses, and tightly clutched her black purse to her body: she looked very professional. She was nervous -- hopefully it was just jitters and stage fright related to the signing. I had gone to some lengths to make sure Valladolid was unaware of what was happening. The de los Chonos accord was too important to let her worry about this. Besides, I was in charge of security, it was my concern.

We reached the lobby, and there was already a swarm of media milling about. It was good to see the hotel security was equally thick. Sylvera and I stood on either side of President Valladolid. Lights flashed, and a storm of questions erupted out of the reporters who waited to mob us in the lobby. I felt my heart start pounding, as I literally pushed people out of Valladolid's way in an effort to part the mob to the emptiness of the stage. Sylvera was engaged in a similar struggle. My eyes scanned the crowd frantically, desperately hoping that if anyone did try anything I'd see it before it happened. All this while Caterina Valladolid was very cool and collected. She didn't answer questions, or even look at the reporters, just clutched her purse tightly to her chest and stayed in between myself and Sylvera, her lips were pressed together tightly in a grimace.

After what seemed like an eternity of pushing through the crowd, at last we reached the velvet rope barrier that separated the stage from the rest of the lobby. Penn was there, he opened the barrier and Valladolid and I slipped in, Sylvera using her body to block the media from following. I went up the stairs to the stage first, and offered a hand to Caterina, but she declined and walked up on her own. I got her sitting on a chair at the back, and then went to speak to Penn and survey the lobby.

There was still quite a bit of space, and my perception of the mob of media clarified a little from up here. There were too many of them running around, but it probably had more to do with the fact that we were the only party to have arrived. They milled about now, some waiting by the door for Dr. de los Chonos, or the other parties to arrive, others hung about near the stage, contradicting the request, and snapping photos of the very photogenic President Valladolid.

I squatted by the edge of the stage, still looking out at the crowd, and removed my hat. Donald backed up till he was standing next to me. "Anything?" I asked.

Penn shook his head, "No, we're still doing sweeps, but I don't think there's anything to found."

"Good. That's good."

Caterina joined us, "Rothbart, what is this? It is ten past ten, where are the others?"

Penn turned to answer the question. "Security concern ma'am, we've staggered the arrivals of the delegates.

"Why wasn't I informed of this?"

I stood, using the effect of my full height to stare her down. I really didn't want to have to deal with one of her Presidential fits. "Because, Presidenta, you aren't in charge of security for this mission. Now, please go back and sit on your chair, and I'll look after this."

Valladolid looked like she was about to say something, but instead she smiled, nodded to me and did what I wanted without an argument. That was a first. With nothing left to discuss with Penn, I backed up and stood immediately in front of Valladolid, hoping that my body would act as a shield if necessary. Five minutes passed, nothing happened.

A roar of excitement erupted from the crowd near the door, a clear sign that Dr. de los Chonos had arrived. I took a final look around. A reflection on one of the fourth floor windows caught my eye. The window was... tilted out. The reflection didn't match up with the others, because the window opened slightly towards me. I ran to the front of the stage. "Donald, do those windows open out?" I pointed up, and jumped off the stage.

"No... they don't."

"Come on!" I shouted and ran to the elevator bank, Penn just on my heels. I grabbed Elevator Eight with my key card, and once inside Penn inserted his security card to override the programmed controls and take us to the fourth floor. I followed Penn down the hall and he stopped in front of the door to the suite I had been dreading.

"Mr. Ferrar?" Penn pounded the door to suite 403. "Mr. Ferrar, this is hotel security. If you don't open the door now, then I will unlock it."

There wasn't a sound from inside. "So unlock it!" I said.

Penn put his all-access card in. An audible click was heard, but he was unable to open the door. "Jammed," he said out loud, stating the obvious.

"Hold the doorknob open, and move out of the way," I told him. I backed up and gave a powerful kick just to the left of the lock. The door flew open, and the wooden chair jamming it on the other side was reduced to shards. I held the door open with one hand, and drew my knife with the other; all the drapes were drawn except for one. A big man stood by a sniper's tripod set up at the one window I had seen earlier. He was startled to see the two of us come in.

Without wasting a thought, the big man picked up a broken chair leg and ran towards us swinging his impromptu cudgel. I held my knife lamely out in front of me, trying to swing at him. I ducked his swing at my head and dodged out of the way. Donald Penn, however, was a sudden flurry of fists. In less than a minute he had the man pinned on the bed with his hands behind his back, I looked at him. "Tae Kwon Do," Penn answered my unasked question.

I went to the window and looked through the telescope: it was aimed at Caterina. Who was shuffling for something in her purse. Dr. de los Chonos, his shock of white hair making the old man easily visible in the crowd, had just come in, and was walking slowly and answering the media's questions. Valladolid seemed very stressed. I grabbed the wallet on the dresser.

"Are you Jaime Ferrar?" Penn asked the man, under him.

"Si." He grunted in pain from the armlock Penn had him in.

"Who do you work for?"

"Por favor, No hablo Ingles." I opened the wallet looking for significant ID.

"Uh... cuando estamos tu... shit!" Penn's ignorance of Spanish brought out the first strong emotion I'd ever seen from the usually collected detective.

"Chile," I said, and flashed the photo ID I found. "He's from Chile. And I bet anything he's a government agent and speaks English if you press him."

Penn tightened his grip on the man's arms bringing a scream of pain "Well?" Penn asked. "Es Chileno?"

"Si..! No..! Aaaaaiii" The scream was incoherent beyond that and the man's face flushed in pain. I glanced back at the lobby and saw that de los Chonos was almost on the stage What the hell was Caterina doing? Her hand was in her purse, her shoulder flexing very reflexively, as if squeezing a stress ball. I looked back at the man on the bed, he was panting now that Penn had released his grip somewhat.

There was a tattoo on his left shoulder, a stylized golden sun. No Chilean secret service operative would have that emblem on their shoulder. It would be the equivalent of finding an American with a maple leaf tattoo. I looked back out the window. Juan Ferrar was backup, not the main assassin. The main assassin was sitting on stage, sweating profusely now, probably wondering why the stage underneath her hadn't blown itself to kingdom come.

I swung the window all the way open "Stop her!" I shouted. "She's got a bomb!" The crowd in the lobby looked up at me, quite baffled. Everyone except Caterina Valladolid that is, she knew exactly what I was talking about and ran for the entrance.

Damn, there'd be no way to catch up with her, unless... What can I say, I'm a sucker for cliches. "Geronimo!" I shouted and jumped four stories down to the hard ground waiting below. I landed on my feet and rolled, my legs in incredible pain from the force of my fall, but nothing broke. The crowd in the lobby had made quite a bit of space for me, and Sylvera stood by my side, I could barely stand though. There'd be no way to chase after Valladolid, and it looked like she'd already left the lobby. Sylvera neighed, the first equine sound I'd ever heard from her -- today had been a good day for firsts -- and shook her head at her saddle. Of course: it wouldn't matter how fast Valladolid was if I was chasing her on horse.

Sylvera slipped the bit into her mouth, I put my right foot into the stirrups, and didn't have enough force to throw myself up onto her. My left leg hurt like hell when I landed back on it. I was on with the second try though. Saddles are a much more painful ride than you would think just by looking at them, and Sylvera hadn't even started going yet.

Once again, it occurred to me that sitting in the lobby I had the perfect opportunity to live out a personal fantasy of mine. I yanked the reins and my fine white Arabian steed reared up in surprise and gave a shriek. "Hi-yo Silver!" I shouted, and Sylvera galloped out of the lobby, I am quite certain giving me a rougher ride than was necessary. What can I say? Carpe Diem.

Out on the street there were still more people, but I spotted the red of Valladolid's clothing sprinting north, almost at the end of the block. I pointed her out to Sylvera and away we sprinted, thundering down the sidewalk. The edges of my vision blurred slightly as we ran.

Valladolid turned at the end of the block, and then ran across the street. Sylvera dodged an oncoming truck and followed after her, I was glad the mare was better at this than I was. It took pure effort for me just to clutch the reins and keep my balance. I wasn't really paying attention to where we were going: I was just hoping to all hell that I wouldn't slip off and bash my brains on the pavement.

We followed Valladolid into an alleyway. She tripped midway down, and Sylvera was soon practically on top of her. I dismounted, but tangled my foot in the stirrup and was facing backwards. I twisted around but failed to help the situation, with my right foot now crossed in front of my left, hopelessly tangled in the leather strap. I leaned on Sylvera for support and tried kicking off the stirrup; that only made it worse.

"Caterina Valladolid," I said, reaching down to remove the stirrup, "Uh, I'm placing you under citizen's arrest." At last I got the stirrup off and stood properly. "Um, I'm not sure what you're going to be charged with, but I know what your people were up to, and I'm sure they'll find something."

Valladolid got up, her outfit now hanging on her awkwardly, straining in some places. A mustache, a thick one reminding me of a caterpillar, sat underneath her nose. The face was similar to the one I was familiar with, but obviously male. "According to the United Nations Zurich Convention of 1963, I am applying for political asylum in this country. My name is Arturo Valladolid. I request an attorney, and that you put me in contact with your federal government. I am certain they will want to talk to me."

"Holy crap," said Sylvera, giving voice to my similar sentiment.

Sylvera kicked in a door getting us to the back room of an abandoned store. Caterina, or Arturo rather, and I both sat down on a pair of rickety chairs, as I tried to sort out what to do next. Penn found us a few minutes later, carrying my hat and knife, both of which I had dropped in the lobby.

Arturo gave him the same line he had given us. "Okay, well I guess I better get the hotel to cancel the signing. I'll get the Government to send over some CIA and INS people. You guys just wait here: make sure he doesn't go anywhere." Once more it seemed that nothing could faze the Edelweiss Hotel Detective.

When the police arrived along with the CIA and INS, Arturo was immediately taken away. Sylvera, Penn and myself gave our version of events. The head police officer didn't look too happy. "Look guys, as far as I can tell you three are the heroes here, but you acted to hide a potential act of terrorism, so I'm placing you under arrest. You're charged with being co-conspirators in an act of terrorism. You've got all your rights, but I'm advising you not to contact a lawyer yet. Provided you don't leak out what happened, this should all blow over in a few days."

We were not handcuffed, but were led to a police van and taken away. "They didn't read us our Miranda rights," commented Penn dryly.

Sylvera smiled. "They don't want the charges to stick. We used to do it all the time if a good officer could be implicated with something like manslaughter. Leave a big gap for him to walk through in the trial."

+ + +

Two and a half days later they had all three of us in the same questioning room. The right of Habeas Corpus had probably kicked in by now, but none of us had contacted lawyers. The officers had even had the decency of putting us in a separate wing of cells and only locking the main door, so we were free to wander around.

Anyway a thin woman, with graying hair and a nervous flutter in her right eye came in. "Hello, Mr. Tuck, Detective Penn, and you must be Ms. Dumont. My name is Janice Franklin, I work for the deputy secretary of state. I suppose you want some answers, I'm here to give them." She sat down in front of us and put her blue leather portfolio case down in front of her. "First, you're all being released, and the charges will be erased from your criminal record. I understand you three have been very cooperative in this regard, and the American government extends its thanks. We would also appreciate it if you kept quiet about what happened three days ago. It was hard enough explaining your theatrics to the media, Mr. Tuck; I'd rather not spread panic about the possibility of a suicide bombing the scale of which we almost faced. You'll also all receive a token of thanks from the American Government, the size of which I hope you will appreciate. Now, you must have questions."

"Yeah, who were we guarding all this time?" said Sylvera.

"You were in fact guarding Arturo Valladolid, Caterina's younger brother. He's a gendermorph, and so when he changes to his female form the resemblance to his sister is uncanny."

"What's happened to him?" was my question.

"We've decided to grant him asylum. A few hours after the incident was meant to happen, the Argentine military seized strategic Chilean military bases throughout the Andes, and their Air Force began a surgical bombing campaign on major cities. There's now a third full-scale war in South America. More importantly though, Arturo was high enough up the chain of command that he was able to inform us of some interesting spots to point our satellites at. Now we've got evidence that Argentina may well have nuclear arsenal capabilities. Almost certainly they can engage in biological or chemical warfare."

"How about the man I left in the hotel room?" asked Penn.

"Jaime Ferrar was on a suicide mission from what we've been able to determine. If Arturo was unable to, or incapable of blowing up the stage, he was to kill him. Ferrar would almost certainly have been killed in the ensuing chaos, and because of everything he had on him -- with the exception of the tattoo Mr. Tuck, it was quite clever that you noticed that -- anyway, all evidence would point to him being Chilean, not Argentinian, and Argentina would have had the same excuse to invade, through slightly different means. We've handed him over the English as a POW."

"The de los Chonos accord?"

Franklin snorted a laugh at this. "Dead and buried my friend. Argentina is the belligerent bully of the Southern hemisphere, and not keen for peace anytime soon."

"That's a shame," I said. "So this whole exercise was just to gain an excuse for war?"

She nodded. "From what we can tell. Of course it would also have been an opportunity to kill several hundred Americans in an act of terrorism, not to mention several significant members of the international media. The public outrage would have been horrific, and we would almost have certainly been sucked into the war on Argentina's side, and against Chile and Europe."

"That's sick."

"Yes it is, but let me assure you Mr. Tuck: The actual Caterina Valladolid, who is probably in hiding at the moment, is a very sick woman. That she would send her own sibling off on a suicide mission like this is beyond reproach in my opinion."

"So, what's being done."

"Well, we're alerting Uruguay as to the situation with the weapons. Britain and Chile will almost certainly duke it out with Argentina for years to come now. We've decided to let the Brazilians know as well, but at the moment they're tangled up with Venezuela and local rebels in the hell-hole that used to be Guyana. There's not enough left of Bolivia and Paraguay to make them worth warning. Otherwise, that's where our duty ends." She sighed. "South America is going to hell in a handbasket."

"So let me summarize: The suicide bomber has been offered asylum, and will probably live a cushy life. The war which almost ended has not only been given international sanction to keep going indefinitely because the psychopath in charge of Argentina clearly isn't interested in peace, but it will probably start to involve other nearby countries. And we've now decided to let Argentina and Chile butt heads in the mountains, and possibly launch weapons of mass destruction at each other. What would easily have been the greatest and most murderous act of terrorism on American soil in the past quarter-century is being covered over so as to not raise a panic. And the three heroes are being bought out and told to stay quiet about it?"

"Welcome to the wonderful world of the CIA, Mr. Tuck."

"It's an odd world we live in."

Franklin shrugged. "Yeah, but I don't run it, I just try to live in it. Take care you three, and next time, consider doing the right thing and alerting the officials."

+ + +

"Jesus! Well, at least that explains why you weren't here last night." Arnold van Damme licked the cigarette paper and sealed his fresh joint. He was at his usual booth but the three of us had joined him. Penn had never heard of the Pig before, but wanted a drink after our encounter with Janice Franklin.

Sylvera though had been here before. "Oh yeah, used to participate on the raids in the SCABby places -- God, those were the good old days. I thought the door was in the centre of the bar though."

"Maybe it's been moved?" I suggested. It looked like someone had put up ceiling tiles since the last time I had been here, but the tiles already seemed to be slightly stained.

Anyway we had gotten there, and van Damme had waved us over to his booth. Sylvera had taken some medication, and partially morphed into a human form. Enough so that she could wear clothes and sit down with us. She told me the effect would wear off in a few hours, but she liked having hands on occasion. Van Damme had wanted to hear the whole story, so we had relayed it to him, each of us with our own particular twist on the tale, and he'd promised Attorney-Client privileges.

"So, she was a polymorph huh? That's quite clever," he said in his annoying voice. He took a sip of his Guinness and lit his joint. Penn shared it with him. "Well how much money did they give you then?"

"$200,000 each," answered Penn.

"Yeah, so what are you gonna do with it?"

"Pay off my gambling debts," Penn was quick to answer, and then took another drag and sipped his lager. The house detective at the Edelweiss was a much more complicated man than I had initially thought.

"I'm going to go upstate for like four months and live on a ranch... I think that oughta be enough to cover it." Sylvera's eyes took on a bit of a glaze, as if she could picture her new residence as we spoke.

"What about you Rothbart?" Arnold asked.

"I don't know really. I guess since the shelter helped me get the job, I'll give something like half the money to them." Arnold nodded approvingly, he'd be getting that car of his soon. He munched on a tuna sandwich. "And then..."

"And then what?" asked Sylvera.

"Well, you'll think it's silly."

"Give us a try," said Penn, inhaling again.

"Alright, I wanted to set up my own company. You know, a private security and investigations firm. I figured I could work for Kingsman on the side a little, and you said you might need help occasionally Donald. So I thought I'd go in to business for myself."

"I'd probably hire you, yeah," Penn nodded in agreement. "You're a smart guy. A little nuts, but smart, and good."

"Hey, I'd be happy to work with you too when I get back, if you ever need backup," Sylvera put in. "Just no calling me 'Silver', alright Trigger?" I smiled and shrugged, everyone had liked that part of the story except Sylvera. I'd have to be careful with her, she'd get her revenge for that somehow.

"Hey, you can count on me for business too," van Damme chimed in. "I need some muscle occasionally for delivering subpoenas and stuff. Anyway, the shelter might want to use you as a co-op and training opportunity."

"What are you gonna call the company Rothbart?"

"I don't know yet."

"Well don't worry about it, no need to decide right away," suggested Penn.

Anne-Maya hopped up and down on our table chirping in greeting. I ran a finger along her saying hello. "So she's been here all this time?" I asked.

"Yeah, got here about three days ago, I think," said Arnold. "She's been holding court here quite well since then; quite the charmer, that Anne-Maya of yours. Well, except for yesterday of course."

"What happened yesterday?"

"Oh, Phil was here, giving one of his god-awful lectures about the living conditions of rats or something. Absorbed everyone. Would have put me to sleep though if it wasn't for my choice to engage in certain stimulants though." Arnold gave a high-pitched machine gun laugh.

"Phil Geusz?" asked Penn, getting the pronunciation right, "I thought his interest was rabbits and lapimorphs."

"Yeah, well, whatever," retorted van Damme. The lawyer was a very bitter man regarding the profile his fellow West Street counselor had obtained. In my head I cursed my luck on missing Phil once again. Seeing the way my streak with Phil had been going, he was probably out of town for a few weeks now. I decided not to press my luck and not ask.

It was interesting that Anne-Maya had come back to the bar though: a homing nightingale. Hmm, nightingale... Nightingale Security? It had a nice ring to it. She had left the table, my purple-eyed wonder, and flown over to the piano again. She started to sing the beginning notes of a familiar song. The piano player soon picked it up, and began singing along with her.

"You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh..."

I swirled my rum and gingerbeer and hoisted my mug in a toast. "Of all the gin-joints, in all the cities, in all the world, huh guys?"

Sylvera looked at me, cocking an eyebrow and giving me that disapproving face of hers. "What on earth are you talking about Rothbart?"

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