The Gesundheit Stratagem

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Prawns are natural bullets. Their hard shell acts as a casing. Their combustible tails, struck by a shrimp fork, experience a controlled burn that can send a prawn straight down the barrel of a gun and into—or through—a person’s chest.

Spies know these things.

That’s part of what makes them spies; and it’s why Chester is so terribly nervous, in the Red Lobster, where Dankers Soph will be.

Here’s how he’d called Dankers.

He’d gone down to the sinus-talkers’ room. Then he’d had one of the sinus-talkers talk about Dankers.

When you talk about a spy—

When you talk about anybody, really, behind their back—

They sneeze.

The sinus-talkers have a natural feel for it—they’ve been raised on anime since birth—and they know how to use it for communication.

Somewhere in the world, Dankers had started sneezing.

He’d probably just been sipping at his drink, maybe companionably talking up some stranger in a bar on an island far away, when his first sneeze had blown the pink umbrella from his glass. He’d have looked embarrassed, like you do, and then the next sneeze would have hit him.

By then he’d have been concerned.

“Pardon me,” he’d have said. “It’s just—achoo! It’s just— someone must be talking about me.”

But pretty soon he’d have noticed the Morse code.

He wouldn’t have told anybody. He’d probably have gotten to a bathroom as soon as possible, would have hidden in a stall and written down the pattern on toilet paper, possibly faking extra sneezes now and again so that nobody else could understand.

Then he would have realized.

“My God,” he would have said, “I told them, I’ve retired.”

“I’ve retired,” he would have cried, in the repetitious matter of de-retired spies.

2.

The salad bar is pretty dangerous, too, Chester knows.

It’s not easy to make C-4 out of the build-your-own-salad bar at a typical Red Lobster, but it’s not impossible, either, and the sneeze guard won’t protect you against explosions from within.

Dankers had called him.

He’d been furious.

“What the hell is this, Chester?” he’d said. “It’s over. I quit.

“I’m activating you.”

There’d been a pause. A sneeze and sniffle, followed by an accusing silence. Then, “Red Lobster. Santa Monica.”

“When?” Chester had asked.

But Dankers hadn’t set a time. He’d just said, “Soon.”

A platter of food bumps Chester’s arm. He startles, cries out, and starts to curse the waiter; but before he finishes, he sees the man’s red sleeve hides Dankers’ arm.

“Oh, God,” he says. “Finally.”

A spy can eat a lot of all-you-can-eat shrimp while waiting eighty hours for a meet. It starts out pretty tasty but by the third day it’s like Pringles from the Pit.

“I won’t stay,” says Dankers, dropping the platter on the table and sliding into the seat behind it.

He lowers his voice.

“There is a pollen god with me. He will kill you if I give the signal. He will kill you if I stay too long; if I leave with you; if I am followed. He’ll kill you if I so much as frown, Chester, and then he’ll go to the bureau and make as much havoc as he can before the priestesses palliate him. So don’t you screw with me. Just talk.”

Chester licks his lips.

“Dankers,” he says, “two of the sneezers are down.”

3.

The sneezers: top operatives culled from a dozen agencies, trained to impersonate the officials of the U.S. government so well that they could sneeze for them.

Trained to intercept those sneezes, so that people like the President could go about their day without the continuous sneezing that you’d normally get from all the people talking about them.

Down in the Sneezing Room they dwell, surrounded by the plushest tissues, and taking notes—insofar as they can through watering eyes and shaking hands—on the timing of their convulsions.

It burns a spy out fast, being a sneezer, but there’s no better way to serve your country; and Dankers had been the man to put it all together. He’d singlehandedly dragged Constitutional governance out of a mire of Kleenex and made the President more than a joke again.

It burns a spy out, being a sneezer, but it shouldn’t kill them.

The room’s well-guarded and it has all the comforts of good life.

A sneezer might want to, but they shouldn’t have to die.

So it doesn’t take long for Dankers to reach the obvious conclusion.

“Not guns,” he says. “Not bombs, or there’d have been more casualties. They were dragged down to Hell by nose demons—because someone didn’t say God bless.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a mole,” Dankers says, “in the blessing room.”

“They all say it,” Chester says. “I mean, we’ve listened to the tapes. The very, very boring tapes. When someone sneezes in the sneezing room, the blessers bless them from the blessing room. Nobody’s slacking. But someone doesn’t mean it in their heart.”

You have to mean it when you bless someone after a sneeze. You can’t just say it. This is a thing spies know.

“Someone doesn’t mean it,” Chester says. “Which means one of the blessers got taken out at some point—swapped for a double. Replaced with a damnable insincerely blessing mole. And you’re the only one on God’s green earth who can possibly figure out who.”

Dankers sighs.

He rises to his feet. He drops a bundle of bills on the table. He thinks for a moment.

“I’ll check it out,” he says. “If you’re telling the truth—“

“You can’t tell people,” Chester wails.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Dankers says, “then I’ll come back. But just this one case. Then I’m gone, and you never, ever talk about me behind my back again.”

Chester sags. He looks very small, except for his tummy which is a bit rounded because of all the shrimp he’s been eating.

“Thank God,” says Chester softly. “Thank God.”

Ironically, it’s almost impossible to kill someone with a lobster, or use them for any other intelligence purpose except maybe boiling them and dipping them in butter.

You can’t kill someone with a lobster.

But that hardly would have mattered, given Dankers’ pollen god.

4.

Time passes.

5.

If you’re in the spy business, you have to expect surprises.

That’s why the blesser hardly blinks when he gets home and sees Dankers on his couch eating the leftover pasta from last night.

“Thought you were dead,” the blesser says.

Dankers puts his feet up on the table. It’s a display of dominance, such as is common among spies.

“I didn’t die,” he says. “I retired.”

“Nobody retires,” says the blesser. He drops into a seat opposite Dankers. “Pepper?”

Dankers gives him a wry look.

“It’s good with pepper,” the blesser says. “Look, what’s this about?”

“There’s a mole,” Dankers says. “Someone isn’t blessing with a whole heart. I’ve checked you all out, you all look like when I hired you— but it’s not that hard to steal a man’s face with a goose liver mold, so looking’s not enough. Anyone blessing weirdly? Behaving oddly? Sniffing around and asking questions they oughtn’t ask?”

“There’s a guy,” says the blesser. “Been sniffing around.”

“Russian?”

“Dankers,” says the blesser, “I spend my life in a clean room rattling off ‘God bless you’ to an intercom. And meaning it. I don’t know from Russians any more. But he gives his name as Gesund.”

“Funny,” Dankers says.

“Yeah.”

He already knows, the blesser can tell. Heck, for all I know, he hired the guy.

But he doesn’t say that. Not to Dankers. He just waits for Dankers to chew more pasta and swallow it and talk.

“What’s he look like?” Dankers says.

“Blue eyes. Heavy set. Bit of a beard.”

“Hair?”

“Brown.”

“Gesund’s height?”

“Funny,” the blesser says.

Then he hesitates.

“Tall, I suppose.”

There are seventeen ways to kill a man with a plate of pasta, and none of them have names.

6.

If you bless someone in German, they turn into a German. Their loyalty shifts—slowly but inevitably—to the German government.

It didn’t used to matter, not when Germany was split and its politicians spent all their time sneezing.

Now, in a lot of ways, it does.

“None of my blessers would have made a mistake like that,” Dankers says. “They hear Gesundheit, they say, God bless you. Quick as a gunshot, even if they missed the sneeze.”

They look down at the slumped body of the man.

“Good work,” Chester says.

“It hurts a man’s soul,” says Dankers, after a while.

Prawns are natural bullets.

“Eh?”

“This job,” Dankers says. “It hurts the soul.”

Prawns are natural bullets. Sneezing’s a signal. Some people are okay to kill because they’re on the other side.

“Mm,” Chester agrees.

Just some of the things you have to know
If you want to be a spy.

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