Short Story – “Agent of the Caliphate”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“Agent of the Caliphate”

by Geoffrey Mandragora

Authors note:

This story takes place in the alternate history of
“The Thunderbolt Affair,” but is set ten years later in 1900.

 

 

The man in black bowed stiffly at the grand vizier’s approach. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent ascendance of the Mesopotamian Caliphate made the vizier second only to Imam Ali, The Caliph, the only true interpreter of the hidden Quran.

“You are to leave tonight,” the vizier said without preamble. From his robes he pulled a dagger of the kind favored by the Caliphate’s Persian neighbors. “It is imperative that this dagger is publically placed into the heart of the royal personage.”

The man in black received the knife and bowed deeply.

 

The Chinaman trudged through thick dust of the dirt road, bowed under the weight of the box perched upon his back. The walk out from the city was long, cold and damp, usual weather for this miserable part of this miserable country. His head was sheltered only by a black skull cap from which hung a thick black braid streaked with silver. His thin wispy beard was grey with many strands of white. Medium in stature, his lean frame was draped in a long grey smeared smock. A rake and pruning shears sticking out the top of his load identified him as a garden laborer. Just as a few hours ago, he wore a longshoreman’s hook tucked in his belt to mark himself as a dock worker.

A cold wind blew as the twilight rapidly deepened, robbing all color from the scenery around him and washing everything to shades of grey, with deep purple shadows. As he approached the manor house that Sir Eric Pennyforth recently opened for the fall, he changed his course to go cross-country passing though the landscaped hedges to access the servant’s entrance. He paused when he saw two lit lanterns by the door, their glow nearly imperceptible in the late afternoon. He was tempted to grumble out loud at the changed signal, but stifled himself when an older man, not Sir Eric, stepped out puffing on a cigar.

Sir Eric was supposed to be alone.

The Chinaman waited, not moving in the lengthening shadows, confident that this unexpected person could not see him. The man was obviously oblivious and only concerned with his cigar. He wore a tweed cap and Norfolk jacket; his deeply lined face marked him as an outdoorsman. His white side whiskers were ridiculously long and curly like lamb’s wool. Unaware he was being watched, the man wiped his nose, spat and scratched himself before he extinguished the cigar and retreated.

The Chinaman decided to ignore the servant’s entrance, instead trudging further along the outside of the manor until he reached a spot where the ivy covered walls nearly hid a small alcove. He shifted his load and pushed his way through the vines to a small wooden door that led to the coal cellar. He considered the bricks on the left side of the door, mentally counting them from the top of the door frame. His fingers tested one brick, and it slid out like a shelf, revealing a brass key. It took a few seconds to get the lock to cooperate, but soon the door swung open on noiseless hinges. He dropped the box from his back, and hidden from view, stood up straight, carefully shifting his shoulders to assure himself they were not kinked from carrying the load and were ready for violence, if necessary. The small door was so narrow he was obliged to drag the box behind him.

“You are late,” a deep voice growled.

“All your servants were supposed to be dismissed, Sir Eric.” The Chinaman replied in a lilting oriental accent.

“My upstairs maid has taken ill,” he blustered with a touch of defensiveness. He fiddled with the lapels of his casual jacket. He was a strongly built man, with thick muscles, and even though his clothes were carefully tailored, he often picked at them as if concerned they had shrunk. “Both the housekeeper and her husband, the gamekeeper, insisted on taking care of her. Did you find out anything at the docks? Have they smuggled anyone in?”

“The docks here, not so friendly to the ‘heathen Chinnee’ as Liverpool,” the Chinaman replied as he removed the round skull cap, unclipped the thick back braid and carefully wrapped it up. “The majority of cargo going through Maldon is illicit and the locals are very tightlipped. From the English, I received threats, and the few Chinese did not want to talk to me. Either because they ha’ nothing to say or because my Chinese is execrable.”

“Did your language make anyone suspicious?”

The Chinaman shrugged. “Most laborers here are Cantonese. I told them I from interior, Chengdu.” Nimble fingers fluffed out the thick black hair that was too long for a gentleman, and unfashionably short for a lady. The same fingers peeled away the wispy beard to reveal a sharply pointed chin, and divulged a softer, more feminine face.

“So you learned nothing.”

“No, learned something, but not enough.” The Chinaman nodded and removed the grey smock, and then slowly unwrapped the bandages that bound her breasts.

Sir Eric pointedly looked at the ceiling. His visitor was still covered by a light cotton shirt, but he attempted to retain propriety. For her part, the woman acted without emotion as if unaware that she was not alone. To her, the change between roles was routine and she was confident that her manner was sufficiently uninviting. “A ship registered to Egypt will pull into the port of London tomorrow noon.” She seemed to be struggling with the “L” sound, “Will pull,” she repeated with a more robust pronunciation. “But early this morning, a boat from that ship delivered passengers to Northey Island.”

The island was supposedly left to nature, but rumor of smugglers persisted.

“The man you are looking for, he from caliphate, yes?” From under her thin shirt she pulled fitted pads designed to conceal the subtle rounding of her hips. Though thin, her toned muscles rounded her figure more than was optimal for disguise work. It was a pity that females in society had so little freedom of movement. She opened the box and carefully removed a shelf containing a gentlemen’s tail coat carefully folded so that it betrayed no winkles from the way it had been packed. From deeper in the box she pulled a dress shirt with a boiled front and a detached collar and quickly pulled it on.

“Yes, but I expected them to arrive in a more roundabout method, not a ship directly from the Old Ottoman empire.” Sir Eric drew a leather cylinder from beside the table and unrolled a map.

The woman added trousers of the finest wool and frowned at the markings. “It was not much of an empire even before the Great European War.”

“Yes but even that was preferable to the disintegration of all the continental empires. England is now furiously trying to block Russian expansion into the Middle East.”

“As Japan is working to keep them from expanding into China. But I understand the immediate problem, your treaty with Persia. It is vital since your Admiralty has determined to convert the entire navy from coal to oil over the next five years.”

Sir Eric kept his face expressionless.

The woman smiled without warmth. “Is that secret? Was I not supposed to know that?”

“I cannot comment, even to deny your statements.”

“But I do not need your confirmation, and I give you gift. We know your plan. We are moving in the same direction. Now, you know that we know, and we know you know.”

Sir Eric fought down a grimace at her word play.

“And you know we will not interfere, as long as you do not interfere with our oil interests in Malaysia.”

“I cannot comment for Her Majesty’s government.”

“Of course, just as officially I cannot speak for the Emperor. The Black Dragon Society currently walks the same path as the Japanese Empire. Your Empire, and mine, currently walk same path, and so we walk together. I will abide by the agreement to work with you, as long as we are in your country.”

“So it is your opinion that the threat is real. The Caliphate has sent an operative to murder the ambassador.”

“So far, the information I did find meshes with the information from you informant.” For this evening’s excursion she decided to go without binding as she would need the extra mobility. She topped the shirt with a vest of heavy white silk, cleverly tailored to hide the many pockets.

“How elegant.”

“Is not our next step to attend the Persian ambassador’s reception?”

“I am, but you were not invited.”

Her lips pressed tighter at his tone. The Englishman was not without intelligence but occasionally lapsed into an authoritarian mode, a notion he needed to be disabused of. “I determine where I need to be. You will provide the appropriate invite. Or is that beyond the means of your Exploring Officer’s Club?”

“The Exploring Officer’s Club does not have official standing, true, but we are in contact with men of courage in influential places. I am sure we can make some arrangement.”

She knew all this, and she knew a great deal more, but she was careful never to hint at the depth of her knowledge.

“I can make the arrangements. I have a Tesla carriage waiting. We can depart for London within the hour, and stop at the telegraph office.” The carriage was the latest rage in London, running on an electric motor designed by Nicola Tesla while employed by Edison Paris, and powered by the flow battery a charging system that transformed the Industrial revolution.

She stopped dressing to look at him, allowing herself a puzzled expression. “Who will drive this? “You?”

He shuffled his feet. “I have a man.”

Her eyes narrowed and she permitted a glower of disapproval. “I have not been consulted about any others. No one is supposed to know of my presence here.”

He raised placating hands. “He’s one of us.”

“You mean,” she pointed out, “One of your Exploring Officers. Do you trust these people?”

“More than I trust you. We are all in service to the crown.” The club was originally founded by veterans of the peninsular campaign, members of Wellesley’s “Exploring Officers,” in effect, gentleman spies. Now it recruited from all branches of military to provide unofficial intelligence and easily denied espionage. “I even know their names.”

The smile on her face was cold, more a baring of teeth that a friendly gesture. “You know all you need to know of my identity.”

“Yes,” he said drawing the word into a sardonic hiss. “The mysterious Ju-ni. Miss Number Twelve.”

And that, she thought, is more than he needs to know. She, on the other hand, knew every detail about his life, associates, and finances. And she was pleased at the balance of knowledge. “What have you told him about me?”

“Only that I will not be alone and he is not to ask questions.”

The woman thought about this, opened a tin and took out pieces of flesh colored wax. She applied the substance to the corners of her over large eyes. Considered an exceptionally beautiful feature in her native land, those beautiful eyes were a hindrance to good disguise. She gazed at her reflection in the mirrored lid of the tin. Not sufficient for daylight, but for tonight under the soft glow of swan lamps they would pass as European. She coughed and then spoke in a rasping tenor with an American accent. “You can tell him my name is John.”

“Of course.” His tone was sardonic, just shy of contemptuous.

Her face did not change expression as she considered his words. “What is the plan once we are inside?” Not only had her accent changed, but her English was far more precise. She had an exceptionally good sense of accents, her only consistent problem being the damn “L” sound.

“We are supposed to maintain a low profile, identify the threat and stop him from killing the ambassador. I assume you can handle yourself in a fight?” he closed his pocket watch, slipped it in his waistcoat pocket, and crossed his arms. “Or will I have to protect you?”

“I am trained.” She sighed inwardly, frustrated that her ability should even be questioned. “I can fight.” She looked at the Englishman.  She knew his abilities.  He boxed in college and in the Army. Now he studied Jiu-jitsu under the reclusive S. Yamamoto in Soho. He was a skilled fighter, but held himself too high, vulnerable to lower attacks. He was unaware that they had sparred together. Twice.

Both times she’d intentionally lost after testing his abilities.

She applied a thick mustache, most artfully curled at the edges, and goatee to cover the point of her chin. From the box she produced a short brown wig; it took only a moment to tuck her hair under it. Lastly, she pulled a top hat from the crate. “You said within the hour?”

He nodded. “We should go.”

From the wooden box, Ju-ni filled her pockets with small bundles and cords. “I am ready.”

 

The man in black sat at a table outside of one of London’s most luxurious hotels. Gone were the black robes and in their place was a dark suit with an old fashioned waistcoat that buttoned up to his chin. He sipped at the tea in front of him.

A man in a grey suit approached and sat across. “I have confirmed that her Majesty’s ill health will keep her from attending the reception. It will be presided over by Prince Edward Albert.”

The man in black frowned. “The queen is the symbol.”

“The queen is old. Edward is poised to take the throne. Would it not be appropriate to remove the future of the empire?”

The man in black sipped his tea and nodded. “You have the garment?”

The newcomer nodded.

“Your men are reliable?”

“The ambassador’s guard will not know what hit them.”

 

Sir Eric strode back from the telegraph office, glowering. The driver, still called Young Bell even as he approached forty, tipped his cap. Sir Eric nodded and slipped into the separated passenger compartment. The carriage took off, the electric motor barely a whirr drown out by the crunch of the tires on the poor road.

“We have my invitation?”

“There has been a change in plans. You will be the invited guest, the representative of an American industrialist.” He handed her a sheaf of telegraph paper.

“And you?”

He sighed and harrumphed. “I will be given a change of clothes and become your secretary.” He settled himself for the two hour ride to London.

 

The reception was not at the Persian Embassy, that building was too small for the throng of guests meant to impress the new ambassador. His grace, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, graciously volunteered the use of Clarence House, and it was near this four story building attached to St. James Palace that Bell parked the carriage and the passengers disembarked.

The evening air was calm with just a hint of the cold weather to come. The carriage parked next to a lorry powered by an internal combustion engine. Horse drawn vehicles had been prohibited in central London for a decade, except of course the mounted unit of the queen’s guard.

Sir Eric knocked at the back of the van. The door opened and he reappeared a minute later, accompanied by a man in a sack suit who clutched a scuffed leather valise. He had the manner of a bureaucrat and the bearing of a clerk, a profoundly unremarkable clerk. This practiced inconspicuousness was his best weapon.

Sir Eric was still wearing acceptable evening attire, but now there was an ink smudge on his left cuff and the elbows of his coat were shiny with wear. A set of round wire spectacles sat perched on his nose.

Ju-ni nodded in approval. The disguise was well designed, subtle, giving Sir Eric the look of a humble man trying desperately to maneuver in higher social circles.

For his part Sir Eric was fuming.

“Is there a problem?”

Sir Eric glared at the clerk. “Tell her what you told me.”

The man chewed on his upper lip. “The covert detail that was supposed to guard the ambassador on the way to the reception lost him.”

“So, our man already made his move?”

“No, the ambassador made it to the reception. His Persian guards are a little overzealous. They are under the command of General Fazad, the ambassador’s right hand man. You can’t miss him. He is a fierce looking bugger with a forked beard. He looks terrifying, but is right pleasant when he gets to know you.”

“Tell your detail that we will follow the ambassador home.”

“Certainly.” From the valise he removed the invitation and handed it over. The pair trudged to the main entrance where a liveried servant checked their credentials and ushered them in.

“This way,” Sir Eric gently nudged Ju-ni. “We are not supposed to be in the main receiving line.” He inconspicuously guided her to the south wall. The room was full of important gentleman and military officers, including men in the log tunic and broad sash of the Persian army.

The new ambassador stood with a small entourage on a slightly raised platform on the east wall. Three of his retainers wore European style evening dress. A fourth man with a forked black beard and the braided uniform of a Persian General hovered around him and glowered at everyone. The ambassador chose to wear layers of traditional robes, dripping with cold braid and an outrageous turban.

The Prince had not yet arrived.

“The ambassador looks ridiculous, and nervous.” Sir Eric muttered and frowned inwardly. “When he presented his bonafides to the Court of St. James he was warned about the possible threat to his life. He dressed like a civilized man then.”

Ju-ni gave him a sideways glance. She had a very different definition of civilized. “So the threat is the reason for the stern attendant, that General Fazad.”

“Yes the embassy’s military liaison and de facto chief of staff. He must be taking the warning very gravely the way he is glowering at everyone. I though he was supposed to be ‘right friendly.’”

“‘Once he gets to know you,’” Ju-ni repeated sarcastically.

A naval officer approached a look of recognition in his one good eye, the other a pale glowing orb. As he closed, the astute officer noted Sir Eric’s appearance and he just walked by.

Ju-ni fixed her attentions on the shiny bronze-like mechanical left hand. That had to be Admiral Rollins, commander of the British submarine fleet. She snapped her eyes off the device and went back to appraising the crowd.

“Do you really think he would strike here?”

“The ambassador is well guarded at the embassy, it would be very difficult to reach him. We expect the attempt to be going to or from the reception, or at it. The bugger made it here safely. My money is on the trip back.”

A footman entered the hall and announced, “His highness, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales.” He omitted the list of lesser titles.

Both the prince’s and the ambassador’s entourage shuffled in preparation for the formal greeting.

From behind his spectacles Sir Eric scoured the room. “Do you see anyone suspicious?”

“Too many,” Ju-ni replied. She raised her chin at a heavily muscled waiter. He does not have much experience carrying a tray.”

“He’s one of ours.”

She pointedly moved her eyes to the left. “The man in black with the white collar.”

Sir Eric surreptitiously studied the dark skinned man in an evening jacket, high buttoned clerical waistcoat, and the Church of England collar around his neck. “I do not know the reverend, what is suspicious?”

“He has been determinately moving closer to the ambassador. He is clever and is too practiced at looking innocent.”

Sir Eric stepped over the waiter as if fetching a drink for his boss. He whispered something to the waiter, then returned to present the glass to Ju-ni.

She took it and pretended to sip at it.

The ambassador’s entourage fell in behind envoy as he made his way to the Prince.

The cleric casually stepped among the groups as if trying to get a good view at the meeting. Two men stepped from the crowd, roughly grabbed him by the arms and with a minimum of fuss led him out of the hall.

Now Ju-ni was glaring at the ambassador’s attendant. “I do not like the look of that man.”

“He is a rough looking general, probably came up through the ranks.”

“No, he moves wrong. Not like soldier, more like thief.” Her accent was slipping.

As she spoke the general stepped closer to the ambassador and placed his hand on his shoulder, his right hand moving toward his tunic.

Sir Eric pushed through people afraid he was too late. He got to the front where a phalanx of security moved to block him. He pointed at the general. “Get him away from the ambassador!” he shouted.

The sound did not have the intended effect. Everyone turned toward him.

The general jerked his hand away from the ambassador and lunged at the Prince as he drew a dagger from his sash.

Two guards grabbed at him and he sliced one down the right arm and spun to bring his blade across the throat of the second, oblivious to the blood that spouted on him. The first man grabbed at him again, the fingers of his left hand finding purchase on the distinctive forked beard, which came off in his hand. He hesitated with his arm outstretched just long enough for the general to slice up under the arm, releasing another torrent of arterial blood. Two of the Persian entourage broke away, running for the exit. Sir Eric tried to shove past but he was enclosed by a knot of people alarmed at his initial outcry.

No one paid attention to Ju-ni. If it were possible to run through a crowd in a self-effacing manner that would precisely describe what she did. One second she was sliding into the crowd, the next she was past.

The prince was backpedaling away, but the general was almost on top of him as two burly men clutched at him.

Screams filled the air, drowning out the faint whistle of a fine steel chain that seemed to wrap itself around the general’s wrist, jerking him back. He spun and jerked back on the chain, his superior size pulled Jun-ni closer. He slashed at her throat. A woman screamed anticipating another fountain of blood.

Ju-ni caught herself, but waited a split second. As soon as the general was committed to the strike she pulled her head back, allowing the blade to barely touch her throat, leaving a tiny red line. She brought her left hand up and grasped his wrist, yanking at him to use his own momentum to stumble forward. Instantly she had a silk cord from an inner pocket and leapt on his back as she jerked the cord tight around the man’s neck. Her aim was to break the hyoid bone, perhaps even shatter his windpipe, but the man’s neck muscles were surprisingly strong. Most men suddenly deprived of air would panic, or grab at the offending cord. This man calmly reached over his left shoulder and with the precision of an artist sliced into Ju-ni’s left arm.

She did not flinch, but pulled tighter.

The blade was coming back for another slice but the Japanese woman clung on.

A shot startled everyone in the room. No one was supposed to be armed in the royal presence, even the prince’s armed guards were outside the hall. A heavily muscled waiter stood to one side, smoking derringer in his hand. A guard reached for him, but another stopped him

The general staggered at the impact in his chest. He smiled as he collapsed. Once his body hit the floor, Ju-ni allowed herself to relax and sit down, coddling her arm.

The men that were trying to get to the attacker broke off and converged on the prince.

“No!” shrieked the ambassador pointing at the assassin. “He must not die!”

Sir Eric turned toward the man, could the ambassador be complicit?

The ambassador tore through his voluminous robes and revealed sticks of dynamite chained to his body. “He armed it! It will go off any moment!”

The crowd fell away, a sudden tide churning for the exits while the burly men forcefully marched the prince out of the room.

The naval officer with the mechanical hand grabbed at the ambassador and tore away part of the robe to reveal a smoking chemical fuse. He had only seconds so he risked the direct approach. He snagged the fuse with blasting cap in his mechanical hand and ripped it from the explosive harness. The cap exploded, blowing away part of the clockwork apparatus, but the dynamite vest did not react.

Rollins sighed with relief as he inspected the ruined hand. He told Danjella to stay at home; the event was going to be boring. Good thing she keeps a supply of repair parts, he thought.

The ambassador was still apprehensive. His lips were trembling but he managed to say “There is another one,” the ambassador wailed. “I can feel it doing something.”

“Another one? Where?”

The ambassador seemed to have exhausted his capability of speech, his eyed rolled back in his head.

“Really, the turban?” Ian rubbed his face with his good hand. “Sit down, carefully.” After prodding the headdress, he used the damaged steel plate in his hand to cut through the cloth. The turban was held in place by a series of springs, attached to a percussive detonator. Dislodge any of the springs and a clockwork mechanism would snap against the detonator. The clockwork was also running, a cricket gear ticking of the seconds and although there were no numbers showing it was most likely to go off momentarily. Again, the device was straightforward without anti-tampering mechanisms. He used the sharp plate on his hand to cut the bindings on the explosive and removed the stick of dynamite and detonator from the assembly. He set it gingerly on the floor and then looked around for Sir Eric. Neither he, nor the small man who attacked the General, nor anyone else for that matter, were to be seen, just the body of the dead guard.

 

Sir Eric entered his study to find his gamekeeper waiting for him, casually lounging in a wingback leather chair smoking a cigar, with a glass of whiskey in his hand. A manila folder rested on his lap.  “That could have gone better,” he said.

Before replying, Sir Eric went the side table and poured himself a measure, then sat across from the other man. His manner was smoothed and polished. Gone was the tugging of clothes and the blustery speech. “Sorry sir, I assume Bell gave you the gist of it?”

The other man nodded. “He reported to me after you sent Ju-ni on her way. How bad are her injuries?”

“The arm is deep, but clean. She bandaged it herself and it did not seem to trouble her. The neck wound is barely more than a scratch.” Sir Eric reported. “It wasn’t a complete loss; we confirmed the caliphate does have a network operating in the Empire.”

The older man sat down his whiskey, opened the manila folder in his lap and mulled over the contents. “My friends in the Nagasaki police department have tracked down some information about her, but still not her name. She was raised in the mountains of Iga and is almost certainly kunoichi.”

“She is a very fast fighter. I took your advice about giving her low openings when we sparred.”

“Excellent, it was what she expected to see, keeps her from looking too close. Same reason we let her see me in the house. Even highly trained people are often fooled by seeing what they expect. In fact, you need to work on that. They tell you to expect a fork bearded general, and you ignored the threat because that was what you anticipated.”

He placed the file folder on the table. “Study this; you will be working with our Japanese friend in the near future.” He rose, and yawned. “It has been a long night, and I still have work to do at the Admiralty.”

“Yes sir. Please give my regards to Emiko-san and Miko-san.”

Mr. Cooper-Smythe, director of the Exploring Officer’s Club and Spymaster of the British Empire, nodded at the mention of his wife and daughter. “I will.” He placed the tweed cap on his head, casually saluted Sir Eric and started his long trip back to London.

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