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For All Nails #104D: The Gun Room

by Johnny Pez



Ciudad Camacho, Kingdom of New Granada
2 August 1974

She didn't have Rabbi Klein to consult on the matter, but Joan Kahn was pretty sure that infiltrating a top-secret military base on a Friday night would be considered breaking the sabbath. Tim Liddy had tried to convince her that the circumstances were exceptional enough to mitigate the transgression (demonstrating a surprisingly deep knowledge of Talmudic lore while doing so), but in the end conviction won out, and Tim grudgingly moved the planned operation up to Thursday night.

It was quite astonishing how much detail Tim had managed to accumulate on everyday operations within the base. For example, every Thursday night Colonel Ortiz had his uniforms sent out to El Tio Pepe's Mexican Dry-Cleaners to be cleaned and pressed (the base laundry being inadequate in his opinion), and they were returned to him by 1 am Friday morning. A discreet bribe to the driver of El Tio Pepe's delivery van allowed Kahn to hitch a ride, hidden behind a rack full of starched shirts.

In her form-fitting black hooded coverall, Kahn was able to slip out of the driver's door unseen while the driver got the Colonel's uniforms from the back of the van. Keeping to the shadows, Kahn circled the Colonel's house and made her way through the alley behind it.

She was familiar with the FANG base's layout from studying a series of telephoto shots taken by Tim from atop the north tower of the King Charles Bridge. Kahn shivered when she thought of the risk Tim had run to get those photos. He had climbed up the north tower in the dead of night, sat on top of it all the next day, photographing the base, then climbed back down again the following night.

When had she started thinking of him as Tim? She couldn't pin it down to an exact moment. Three weeks before, they had simply been grudging allies, temporarily working together to expose the secret machinations of Vincent Mercator. Kahn had been expecting the former CBI director to treat her as an unwanted encumbrance, but he hadn't. He had shared every scrap of information he possessed on the Camacho Project, and treated her like a full partner in their shared enterprise. Perhaps he had just been trying to shame her into being equally forthcoming with her own information; if so, then it had worked, because she had told him everything she had uncovered in two months of snooping. She had been absurdly pleased when he complimented her on her skill at piecing together disparate clues.

One thing she quickly realized after seeing Tim's trove of documents was that her earlier conclusions about the source of the conspiracy had been incorrect. President Moctezuma knew nothing about the Camacho Project -- the operation was strictly Mercator's doing.

Maybe that was part of it. Kahn herself had been captivated by Moctezuma after his election. He was bright, honest, and genuinely concerned about the welfare of his people. Her discovery of the Camacho Project had left her feeling betrayed and thoroughly disillusioned. Now, Tim had given her back her hero. He had even confessed to a certain admiration himself (though in a typically backhanded fashion, calling El Popo "the best of a bad bunch").

Now she was embarked on the final phase of their quest. They both knew that everything they had uncovered thus far could be dismissed as circumstantial evidence, misinterpretation or wishful thinking. They had to get what Tim called "the smoking gun," unmistakable, irrefutable evidence that Mercator was building his own private atomic arsenal. And the only place to get the smoking gun was a building that Tim had nicknamed the Gun Room.

This building was the central focus of the Camacho Project; it was the point from which orders were issued and to which reports were directed. This was (no pun intended) the core of the project. FN1 In the muggy darkness of Ciudad Camacho, Joan Kahn crept through the alley towards the Gun Room.

The alley debouched onto a plaza occupied by the imposing bulk of the Gun Room. From the outside, the Gun Room was nothing more than a vast, featureless cinder block building surrounded by a chain-link fence. The only way in or out was through a single door on the ground floor that was under constant guard by two men. Two more guards marched ceaselessly around the building's perimeter. It had taken the combined ingenuity of her and Tim to figure a way in.

The brightly lit entrance, with its two stationary guards, was around the right hand corner of the building. Another street light stood beyond the left hand corner, leaving this side of the building in relative darkness.

Kahn reached into a pocket on the left arm of her coveralls and fished out a set of wire cutters. She waited until the two perimeter guards had disappeared around the building's left corner, then she sprinted across the street. Four snips at the aluminium strands of the fence let her crawl underneath. Quickly rising to her feet, she sheathed the wire cutters, then reached into a leg pocket to withdraw four sets of metal claws, razor sharp stainless steel, enameled in nonreflective black. Two sets were strapped to her knees, the other two fitted into her hands.

She had practiced climbing a cinderblock wall behind the house Tim had rented, but that wall was only ten feet high. The walls of the Gun Room went straight up for forty feet before they reached the roof. Each time she dug a set of claws into the gritty surface, it seemed to take forever, and each time she wrenched a set free it seemed to take forever squared. She knew to the second how long it would take for the perimeter guards to complete their circuit of the Gun Room, and it quickly became clear to her that she wouldn't be able to reach the roof before they returned.

She froze as she heard the two sets of footsteps, marching in lockstep, approach from around the right side of the building. She didn't dare look down, she didn't dare move a muscle, she didn't dare to so much as breathe. She could hear her heart beating like a kettle drum, and she was absolutely certain that the guards would hear, look up, see her, and empty their rifles into her defenseless body.

She stared at a cinderblock from four inches away, too terrified to even blink, as the footsteps continued their unvarying tread, approaching from the right, directly underneath, receding to the left, and time seemed to go on and on endlessly until the footsteps passed beyond the edge of the Gun Room.

What the hell was she doing hanging from the side of a building like a costumed grafica hero? She was an author, she wrote books for a living, goddammit! She was a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn City! She must have been out of her mind to let that twisted maniac Timothy Liddy talk her into doing this. Hell, she must have been out of her mind to let that money-grubbing weasel Steven Taylor talk her into coming back to New Granada.

Kahn had reached this point in her panic attack when her left-hand claws tried to dig into thin air. She looked up and discovered that she had reached the top of the wall. While her mind had been stuck in kvetch, her body had continued climbing. Grabbing the top row of cinderblocks with her fingers, she unstuck her right-hand claws and reached up. A convulsive jerk freed her knee claws and she hauled herself over the edge of the roof.

She lay in the darkness on the roof while the perimeter guards marched by below. When her breathing and heartbeat had slowed to normal, she sat up and removed the claws. The blades were no longer razor-sharp, and the enamel had worn off the tips, exposing the bright metal beneath. She returned them to her pocket.

The roof of the Gun Room was a wide expanse of concrete, its flatness marred only by the huge metal bulk of the air cooler in the center. It was growling out its deep song of recirculated air, and Kahn could feel the hot wind blowing away from it. The technology for air coolers hadn't changed much in the century and a half since their invention in New Orleans. A set of pumps sent a volatile liquid back and forth, absorbing heat through evaporation on one side, releasing it through condensation on the other. New liquids with better thermal properties had been developed, but the basic principle remained the same.

Kahn lifted herself onto the loudly rattling air cooler and searched the grillwork that spanned the top. There was a square hatch in the very center of the unit to allow service technicians access to the machine's inner workings. A pair of pliers from another pocket dealt with the hatch's hinges, and she was able to pry it up.

A more claustrophobic person would have been unable to do what Kahn did next, worming her way into the roaring, vibrating machinery. Squeezing between pipes that human beings weren't meant to squeeze between, she slowly made her way down past a set of spinning fans to reach the outlet within the Gun Room. A set of ventilation shafts led outward, but trying to crawl through them would have taken too long. Instead, Kahn made her way to the closest outlet and eased the cover away from the wall, dropping down into an empty corridor.

Empty of other people, at any rate. There seemed to be a wall niche every few meters with some piece of classical statuary displayed within. In between the niches were framed paintings, small tables holding Chinese porcelain, books, vases, metal ornaments, and other, less recognizable objects. She was starting to wonder just how much all this had cost Mercator when she spotted Leonardo's La Gioconda at the end of the corridor. That painting, she knew perfectly well, was housed in the Imperial Museum of Fine Arts in Berlin, and not even Vincent Mercator could wangle it from the Germans. It's all a fake, she realized. The statues, the paintings, the art objects, everything. It was all as phony as the hair on Trevor Hazleton's FN2 head.

Although the various labs (situated miles away at the other end of the base) operated nonstop around the clock, the Gun Room staff all worked a 12 hour shift from 8 am to 8 pm. Tim had photographed them queuing up at the building's entrance in the morning. This allowed Kahn to creep through the carpeted, overdecorated hallways at (she checked her wristwatch) ten after three on a Friday morning without having to worry about being seen.

Nevertheless, she did worry. There might be guards stationed within the Gun Room that Tim didn't know about, despite all his inside information on the base. And Tim had also cautioned her about one of Mercator's henchmen, a ruthless intelligence agent named Martin Falcone. Tim had devoted as much time and effort to tracking Falcone as he had to spying out the Camacho Project, and according to Tim, Falcone had been spending most of his time recently in New Granada. He hadn't been seen in Ciudad Camacho since June, Tim reported, but he might turn up at any time. Kahn shook her head. As if she didn't have enough on her mind.

She found maybe half a dozen doors on this floor of the Gun Room, and all but one of them were locked. She decided to leave the locked ones for later on the principle that they would be harder to open than the unlocked one. The room beyond the unlocked door was dark, so after slipping through and closing the door she reached into yet another pocket and produced a set of infrared goggles.

In the eerie greenish half-light the goggles created, Kahn could see that the room she was in didn't look the least bit like the center of a vast criminal enterprise. Influenced no doubt by all those David Flin films, FN3 she had been unconsciously expecting a vast, gadget-filled control room full of lab-coated technicians and black-uniformed guards, while Mercator himself presided over the operation with a Persian cat in his lap. Instead, it looked more like photographs she had seen of Haldane Hewson's FN4 Casa Azul in Acapulco. Deep-pile carpeting covered the floor, interspersed with lionskin and bearskin rugs. The walls, she confirmed with a reluctant touch, were covered in plush velvet. The theme of enthusiastic overdecoration she had seen displayed in the corridors was intensified and given an overtly erotic twist. Nymphs and satyrs were represented everywhere in the tables, lamps, sofas, cabinets and chairs scattered around the room. Female nudes predominated among the statuary and artwork. No less than three fake fireplaces stood against the walls, one facing a low Japanese table, one facing a particularly large bearskin rug, and one facing a sunken bathtub. An equally lavishly decorated hallway led off to the left, while a wet bar and kitchenette took up the wall to the right.

Moving cautiously into the room, Kahn saw that one of the tables was covered with a profusion of scattered papers. She was just able to make out the writing with her goggles, and the words STATUS REPORT leaped out at her. She leafed through the grapped pages, and in moments knew that her quest was at an end. She had found the smoking gun.

She heard a door creak open down the hallway, and a glance over her shoulder revealed a large glowing shape coming into view at the far end. Dropping the status report back onto the table, she dove for cover behind an overstuffed sofa as the shape lumbered into the room. She saw it reach for one of the lamps, and closed her eyes while shrinking back into the sofa's shadow and pulling off the goggles.

Light impinged on her closed eyelids, and she warily opened them a crack. The room was brighter than it had been, but was still half in darkness, with the light from the lamp forming a small circle near the hallway. What had been a glowing shape in infrared was revealed to be a dark-skinned human being. It took a moment, but finally Kahn was able to recognize him. It was Dr. Stephen Urquell.

Kahn was astonished at the change in Urquell's appearance. Five years before, when he had been one of the leading figures in the CNA's atomic bomb program, Urquell had been a tall, well-built man. Quite homely, of course, and with the sort of dress sense associated with men whose minds were preoccupied with more important matters, but still, a fine figure of a man for all that. Now he was still tall, but his body had changed from 200 lbs. of muscle to 400 lbs. of fat. His lively brown eyes were now buried within folds of skin, and his walk had become unsteady. Unaware of his hidden observer, Urquell made his way to the kitchenette, humming odd snatches of old Vandalian road music. He opened the refrigerator, and began rooting among the cluttered shelves.

Kahn was suddenly aware of the small pistol holstered to her left calf, and felt her hand slowly sliding towards it. The room's thick cinderblock walls would muffle the sound of the shots, and the man at the heart of the Camacho Project would be gone. If Tim were here, she knew, he wouldn't hesitate a moment before drawing it and firing its full clip into the renegade physicist's broad back. Tim had long since judged and sentenced Urquell in his mind, and he would have no qualms about carrying that sentence out.

But she wasn't Tim. She hadn't come to New Granada as an executioner, she had come as an investigator to expose a terrible secret and prevent a terrible injustice. She remembered their conversation three weeks before, when she had discovered his true identity.

For someone who claims to be devoted to peace and justice, he had sneered, you don't seem all that interested in either one.

For me, she had answered, justice is more than just a fancy word for vengeance.

Where does justice lie here? she asked herself. Was it just to kill a man for choosing to live and work in a foreign country?

But, a part of her answered, this isn't just some hopeful immigrant looking to start a new life in a new country. This is a man who has knowingly crafted a weapon and chosen to turn it against his own people.

And would it have been better if he had stayed in the CNA and placed his weapon in the hands of someone like Lennart Skinner? Urquell is just a scientist playing with ideas. He only left the Confederation because Vincent Mercator made him a better offer than Carter Monaghan had.

That doesn't make him any less a traitor, the other part of her mind answered. Now Kahn recognized her mental sparring partner: it was Tim. They had debated the question of Stephen Urquell many times.

Traitor, shmaitor, she answered the mental Tim Liddy. Do you know how many people have called me a traitor just because I question the government's version of events? To a Jeffersonist, being called a traitor is a badge of honor.

Kahn's internal debate was interrupted by a woman's voice. "Esteban, mi precioso, I'm lonely!" Standing by the hallway was a woman that Kahn vaguely recognized, a minor estrellita from half a dozen second-grade Mexican surf pictures. She couldn't for the life of her remember the estrellita's name, except that it had been assigned to her by a film producer.

"I'll be right there, honeybunch," Urquell assured her. He returned his attention to the refrigerator, so he didn't see the look of disgust that momentarily flashed across the estrellita's face.

In that moment, Kahn made her choice, and her hand moved away from the holster.

She waited silently while Urquell chose his midnight snack and followed the estrellita back down the hall, conscientiously pausing to switch the lamp back off. The distant door creaked shut, and Kahn emerged from her hiding place. She picked up the status report from the table where she had dropped it, and slipped out of Stephen Urquell's gilded cage.

She knew now why Urquell had been allowed to degenerate into a physical wreck. As far as Vincent Mercator was concerned, the North American physicist was nothing more than a tool to be used to acquire a coveted prize. As soon as the prize was within Mercator's grasp, the tool's use would be at an end, and it would be discarded. What point was there in taking care of something that you were going to throw away?

She walked along the corridor, ignoring its bogus treasures, looking for the air vent that would lead back to the building's roof. In (she glanced at her wristwatch) just under two hours, she was due at the base's kitchen, where a produce lorry would be unloading a consignment of fruits and vegetables. Thanks to Timothy Liddy, there would be an unlocked door on the side of that lorry that she could use to get inside after the cargo had been unloaded.

A copy of the status report would be on its way to the Justice Press in New York City via the Royal New Granadan Postal Service, while the original went with the two of them to New Orleans, where she knew of an exiled Mexican businessman with ties to the Moctezuma administration.

As she spotted the air vent, Kahn smiled a grim smile. If it had been Vincent Mercator in that room, she would have fired.


Forward to FAN #105: Do You Know the Way to Millinocket?

Forward to 4 August 1974: How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

Forward to Joan Kahn: The Osterman Weekday.

Return to For All Nails.

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