MahnAz had not expected to be pulled off duty for a performance review. Especially so close to six o’clock. If quitting time wasn’t sacred in this godforsaken backwater, what was?
"Please, um, take off your hat," the Director of Research requested. "Sit." The blond, bespectacled–what else begins with B?–did likewise. Behind her oh-so-important desk.
MahnAz removed her cap. The Director examined her from behind those ridiculously overlarge glasses. It was as if she’d tried on a slim pair of magnifiers and said, "Gee, these make me look smart… so these will make me look super smart!"
MahnAz raked her fingernails through her hair. She must be a sight. And so, that’s the purpose. This was not a performance review, it was a spot inspection. Evidently everyone here is as uptight as her Agent-in-Charge. Young Doe-eyes had probably expressed concern about her penchant for late-night line dancing. As if anyone who worked in this aerospace Alamo wouldn’t need to kick up their heels on occasion.
"How do you see your work coming?"
Not with those glasses, MahnAz laughed to herself.
"What’s funny?"
Okay, not to herself. "Well, it’s, uh, as John Adams said, ‘Physics are stubborn things.’"
"I’m not sure I follow," the Director opened a file folder. "I’ve been looking at some of your data. I’m having trouble making sense of it."
That’s because it’s too advanced for you. MahnAz suppressed an impulse to flip her off. "Well, what was it that Edison said? ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve succeeded in finding hundreds of ways that don’t work.’"
"Of course," the Director smiled disingenuously, "ours is a game of false starts. But can you tell me where you’re headed with your calculations?"
"I’m not very comfortable," MahnAz demurred, "discussing details at this juncture."
"What would make you comfortable?" The Director removed her enormous glasses and placed them on the desk. "It’s after hours. We should both be off the clock. Is there…anything?"
Really? MahnAz thought, She thinks I’m craving that bad? She thinks I’m that stupid? Or weak? I hiked across the Elburz Mountains in stilettos, for god’s sake, and this bimbo thinks I’m going to fall meekly into her trap?
Then she actually took a bottle of bourbon–unopened, of course, because it’s the first time she’s ever done anything like this, this total setup–from her desk drawer. "Have you been to Mr. Westermann’s office? He has a whole bar there."
MahnAz smoothed her skirt. "Well, when I own the company, maybe I will, too. Until then, nose to the grindstone."
"Okay," the Director countered, smiling facade gone, "maybe you can tell me why, after three months of working here, all you have to show is mathematical gibberish that has nothing to do with FTL propulsion."
"Because–" MahnAz started. She suddenly felt everything leave her: energy, ego, dignity. Then came a surge of fight or flight, and a dam burst within her. "Faster-than-light is out of the question. For now. We cannot generate sufficient energy to pierce the fabric of space-time, which is what is required for warp speed. But we can bend it, like Beckham, kidding, not Beckham. What I am working on, what I am oh-so-close to delivering, is a demi-warp."
"Demi-warp?"
"A bending of space-time, which uses space-time itself as the propellant. If my theory is correct, we’re looking at a speed of one-quarter of light. That’s Earth to Mars in forty-five minutes."
The Director’s jaw hung. For an agonizing five, ten seconds, neither spoke. Finally the Director closed her mouth. "How soon can you test your theory?" It was a challenge, not an inquiry.
MahnAz went for broke. "How soon can you book LHC?"
The jaw dropped again, more subtly, in slow motion. As the Director said she’d look into it, MahnAz replaced her Bears cap and slinked out the door.
*
Calling her so soon reeked of desperation. David wasn’t even sure she’d have landed yet, let alone have her smartwatch charged sufficiently for a face-to-face chat. So, with a bit of apprehension, David rolled up his sleeve, tilted the screen upward and commanded his watch to "Call Gong." The wait seemed interminable, like the first time he’d heard, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!" He remembered that once, during his rookie season, he’d flooded his engine waiting for the flag to drop. That race had been a total disaster, topped off when he’d stalled his car in the pit.
That’s what he dreaded most now. Not that she wouldn’t answer, but that her face would pop up on the screen and he’d sputter. Where were these nerves coming from? He’d hooked up with five-star talent before. Of course, this was his first assassination.
Gong’s image flashed on the screen. She was walking briskly down a busy street. "David? What’s going on?"
"Nothing, I…just didn’t like how we left things."
She laughed heartily. "That you didn’t bang a gong?"
He smiled back. "No, uh, that I somehow gave the impression that’s all I want."
"Oh?" She stopped walking; he had her attention.
"What can I say," he shrugged. "I’m used to speed. But," he continued, mustering all the sincerity he could fake, "I think you’re worth slowing down for."
He could tell she was trying not to smile, but failing. "Well, if you’re ever in China…"
"I get in tomorrow."
"Wow. That’s not exactly slowing down."
"Well, one step at a time. Okay?"
*
Cornell loved landing at the Reagan National Airport. To him, it symbolized a great moment in the masculine ethos of America, when a leader with vision and backbone had told a coven of whining socialist malcontents that this great country would not bow to their puny threats. The union of air traffic controllers had thought they could extort concessions from the government by grounding the airline industry, and Ronnie had fired the whole lot. That singular act had sent a tectonic shock throughout the land of Jimmy Carter’s malaise, unleashing American capitalism and initiating two decades of unprecedented, robust growth. And not only did Reagan get a notch on his belt, but he got his name on the building. Yes, Cornell loved to stroll through the terminals of the greatest trophy any hunter had ever mounted. But it was August, and he had to step outside.
"I walked twenty feet to get in this limo, and I am already soaked in sweat," he barked. "How do people live in this sauna?"
Gina opened her mouth, no doubt to recite a litany of Beltway habitue coping mechanisms, but Cornell cut her off. "Rhetorical," he grunted.
He knew all about Washington, D.C., going back to its sordid origins. He knew that New York had been the first national capital, until Alexander Hamilton had come up with a controversial scheme to have the federal government assume the Revolutionary War debt of the various states. This would not only enrich Hamilton’s cronies who had bought up war bonds for pennies on the dollar from the soldiers who’d done the actual fighting, but it would punish the states, like Virginia, which had already paid off their state debt, and reward states like Massachusetts, which had not. In exchange for helping get his plan across, Hamilton offered the most influential Virginian in the House of Representatives, James Madison, a plum: the chance to relocate the nation’s capital to the south, on 10 square miles between Maryland and Virginia.
The deal went through, inaugurating the federal government practice of screwing over those who do the right thing in favor of those who don’t, and the new city became a living symbol of corrupt deal-making, being erected, appropriately, on a swamp.
Cornell glanced out the window, bidding adieu to Reagan National, and not without a tinge of shame. Dynamic, free market capitalism was his guiding principle, yet, tomorrow, before the House Appropriations Committee, he would ask Uncle Sam for a handout. Too big to fail, too important to our future, worth the investment: he’d spew all the liberal tropes that spendthrift apparatchiks used to justify rampant waste, just so he could pull a large hunk of pork off the roasted carcass of the Republic. It was a travesty that would make Westermann, the voter, go ballistic. But how could Cornell stand on his principles when his competitor had none? Today had been D’Arcy Sinclair’s moment on the Hill. She’d waltzed into Congress, dazzled them with her glacier-blue eyes, and laid out her demands. Given her political ties, there was little doubt she’d secure Federated’s future. The only question was whether she’d soak up all the funding before Cornell got his boots on. He had to follow her lead and either get Lone Star some funding or poison the well for both of them.
Gina looked down at her smartwatch. "Clark Seitfeind confirms he’ll meet us at the hotel."
"Who’s he again?"
"Freshman from Tennessee."
Cornell shrugged. "Zero influence." His collar was soaked and strangling him.
*
David watched Hector unscrew the external suppressor from the barrel of the old, Soviet-era Makarov PB. He tried not to stare, but the ease with which the former Delta commando manipulated lethal hardware captivated his attention and reinforced David’s doubts about his own role in the mission.
"The weapon is everything we could ask for," Borchardt assured him. "Concealable, accurate…"
"And spooky quiet," Hector added. "Not a sound from the muzzle. Just a muffled click when the slide retracts."
"And, most importantly for us," Bochardt emphasized, "it is exclusively associated with the KGB, so no one will suspect an American has pulled the trigger. Of course, that ruse depends on you leaving the weapon at the scene. So don’t get too attached."
"I’m never sentimental about hardware," Hector said. "Though it is a collector’s item. Caliber is heavier than we need. Wouldn’t a .22 be sufficient? The target isn’t armored. A bullet piercing the skull would bounce around in the cranium, ensuring a kill… problem, Lieutenant Toma?"
David set his jaw. He was sure Hector was trying to rattle him. He’d never served in the military, let alone seen combat. His kills had been clay pigeons blasted from the bow of his abuelo‘s yacht, and one wild and angry boar in the Everglades that had taught David all he needed to know about hunting, which was that he didn’t like it.
Hector checked the weapon again, and slipped it into the hidden compartment of a suitcase.
"You will be traveling on an Algerian passport," Borchardt told Hector as he handed over the booklet. "So use the flight to brush up on your French."
"Oui, monsieur," Hector nodded.
Borchardt placed two small devices on the table. "We’re not giving you a weapon, Mr. Toma. But you need to take these transponders to place in the vicinity of Tsieh’s alarm system. They have a range of two meters. Adhesive-backed. Stick them close enough to the panel so they can read and disable the alarms." David scooped up the transponders and place them in his luggage.
They were interrupted by a knock at the door. Borchardt crossed the room to answer, and in burst Nadine Grijalva, like a Marine clearing a Mosul tenement. She lit into Hector.
"Why wasn’t I cleared for this mission?" she demanded.
"I don’t know what you think you’ve heard, Doctor," Hector responded. "But what we’re undertaking does not require your skill set."
"My skill set?" she repeated as though questioning her own ears. "I speak like a native Chinese. With a little makeup, I can look Chinese. How am I not an asset to this mission?"
All eyes went to Hector, who seemed to gnaw the inside of his lower lip. Did he have an answer, David wondered? Would he dare tell her this was man’s work?
"There are times when fewer hands make…"
"Light work?" she scoffed.
"Lighter consciences."
*
Congressman Seitfeind turned out to be a passionate Constitutionalist of evangelical temperament. Like most eager neo-Burkians, he was fond of lecturing his elders–in tones similar to a first semester college freshman home for the holidays–on their failure to harness the energy of the Tea Party a decade ago to stem the tide of rampant socialism. His contribution to political discourse was dusting off old chestnuts from the Federalist Papers and serving them up as personal revelations, yet he seemed blissfully unaware that Alexander Hamilton had coined the phrase "The American System" to describe an economic policy of corporate welfare, protectionist tariffs, centralized banking, and massive public debt. His most substantial asset seemed to be a hairline that had not receded one millimeter since birth.
But at least he didn’t block the bar. Cornell sipped his bourbon and listened to several states’ rights advocates flatter him sumptuously about Lone Star’s bold stand against the federal EPA.
"Normally, I wouldn’t give one dime to private enterprise," Seitfeind told the assemblage, "But we need to support companies like yours that stand up to the corporatists."
"You’re not afraid of the Left tarring you as a hypocrite?" Cornell mused.
Seitfeind responded eagerly. "Jesus, though he was without sin, became sin to save sinners."
That put a hush on the discussion, as invoking Jesus in a DC gin mill was wont to do. Cornell signaled the bartender for a refill.
*
As Westermann’s private jet sped to an undisclosed Eastern location, David had his earbuds in, listening to Mandarin phrases he might need to use, such as "Where is the bathroom?" and "Help. I’ve been shot." Across the aisle Hector was mumbling to himself, reading along to an audiofile of Camus’ La Mort Heureuse in the original French. After an hour or so, they rose to stretch their legs and use the commode. As they returned to their seats, David broke the silence.
"This plan came together fast," he said. "You really think we’re ready?"
Hector was stoic as always. "You go to war with the army you have."
David knew that was how Hector needed to frame the mission. Not cold-blooded murder, not vicious assassination. War and retribution. But he still wasn’t sure he could buy in. A question clawed its way from deep in his mind, as he imagined it had for every recruit in every trench and foxhole since warfare began. "What does it take to kill a man?"
Hector Gaines narrowed his eyes. His voice was as level as his gaze. "Resolve." He retook his seat.
"That’s it?" David asked. "You just decide to?" The two looked at each other across the aisle.
"Resolve goes beyond deciding," Gaines pronounced. "Because at any moment you can undecide and decide on something else. Resolve means you’ve removed the possibility of any other course of action. You kill the man because it’s impossible to do anything else."
"You make yourself hate him?" he asked.
"You’re not required to hate, although training to kill often involves incitement to hate. Because hate is easier to teach than resolve. But hate is a passion and it can’t be trusted. Passion can abandon you at the precise moment you need it. And you hear a siren song you take to be your better angels. The untrained man will hesitate and try to formulate another option that doesn’t require him to kill. At that point, he’s lost. He is the one who will die."
Hector replaced his earbuds, but before he flipped on the audio, David said, "My grandfather fought at the Bay of Pigs. He was captured. Tortured in Castro’s prison for almost two years before getting his release."
"I’m sorry to hear that," Hector said, out of politeness, David assumed, because he didn’t think he was saying anything Hector didn’t already know. But he needed to say this much: "He believed they’d been betrayed. That the Communists knew they were coming. There were traitors in the State Department."
Hector opened his book. "There are traitors everywhere. You go to war with the army you have."
*
Cornell settled in behind the microphone and adjusted its angle. Melville, siting beside him, opened his valise and took out Cornell’s opening statement, placing it on the table. Cornell pretended to scan the document, but actually surveilled the faces arrayed around the room. This particular Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee had jurisdiction over Commerce, Science (including what remained of NASA), and the Environment. Given the EPA kerfuffle, he’d get no help from the Greens. The Science geeks were already sold, but held remarkably little sway. The hill he needed to take was Commerce, on this committee split evenly between free marketers and cronyists. His statement attempted to make a pro-growth case: the coming economic boom triggered by the next wave of technological advancements, as well as the excitement generated by conquering a new frontier. He didn’t get far before the Chairman interrupted him.
"So, Mr. Westermann," the calcified cronyist sneered, "you’re asking us to pay one-hundred million dollars to generate excitement in west Texas? Why not just build a golf course?"
"It’s not for west Texas," Cornell growled. "It’s the world over. Our airline industry was once thriving. But travel has declined steadily over the last decade, despite abundant, low-cost fuel, because public anxiety over terrorism has produced a pervasive, fatalistic notion that we can’t go forth. Literally, we cannot venture outward. That industry is contracting. Tourism is contracting. It’s great for those in your party who cling to the debunked pseudoscience of climate change. They’re happy for retrenchment. It fits their narrative, and it keeps the great unwashed off the slopes of Aspen, or wherever else the elites take their private jets."
"So, you’ve got something against private planes, Mr. Westermann?"
Cornell took a sip of water before responding. "For the record, Congressman, to get here, I flew commercial." He waited for the laugh, which was less than he had hoped for, then continued. "What Lone Star is engaged in is potentially the greatest feat of exploration mankind has ever embarked on. About space travel, John Kennedy said, ‘…whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.’ Lone Star is an enterprise of free men and women surpassing natural boundaries and physical limitations."
"But, Mr. Westermann," the Chairman flipped through a dossier, "didn’t you once say, that ‘crony capitalism’–your term–‘crony capitalism is organized crime with a smiley face’ and that ‘companies that take corporate welfare abuse their customers by making them pay twice for the same service and enslave those consumers who choose not buy their products. They use the brute force of government to compel participation in commerce that should be entirely voluntary.’ You do recall saying that, Mr. Westermann, don’t you?"
"I said it."
"And yet today," he pressed the point, "you come before Congress asking for corporate welfare, at a time when, I might add, you are actively suing the federal government!"
"I object to that characterization–" Cornell asserted, but the Chairman, informed that his time had expired, made a curt remark about "biting the hand that feeds" and yielded the floor.
"The Chair recognizes the Representative from Tennessee."
Clark Seitfeind rose in his chair, and Cornell thought for a second he was going to stand, or draw one leg up under his hindquarters to sit in a perched position. But he came down on the edge of his seat, thrust his slim chest forward and tucked his chin. His too-loud voice reverberated throughout the chamber.
"Mr. Westermann, let us just clarify, did you file suit against the federal government?"
"No, sir."
"In fact, in the case to which the Chairman alluded, the federal EPA is suing the State of Texas, is that correct?"
"Yes, sir."
"And are you a party to that litigation?"
"No, sir."
"Are you engaged in any litigation with the federal government, Mr. Westermann?"
"The EPA is suing Lone Star Aerospace alleging that our operations threaten the extinction of a species…of red ant."
"Ah, not enough red ants in Texas?" Seitfeind rolled his eyes theatrically. "And what is the status of that litigation?"
"It is being held in abeyance, pending the outcome of the EPA’s suit against the State of Texas."
"Alright, let’s get to the crux of the matter, Mr. Westermann. I’m going to summarize the situation as I see it, and you tell me where I’m wrong. First, the federal EPA targeted your company with a ridiculous enforcement measure because your major, in fact, your only competitor, Federated Space Flight, was a major donor to the president in the last election. True?"
"That is our assessment."
"Thank you. And if that enforcement action had succeeded, Federated would now be enjoying a monopoly on commercial space flight?"
"A virtual monopoly, yes."
"And yesterday, CEO D’Arcy Sinclair asked this committee to continue funding Federated Space Flight. In your mind is there a basis for granting Federated continued funding while declining to fund Lone Star?"
"To my knowledge, the contracts were virtually identical."
"But what would the consequence be to, let us say, to the public, if Congress funded Federated, but declined to fund Lone Star?"
"Federated would have a monopoly. With all the adverse effects of monopoly: higher prices, lack of choice, scarcity of service, loss of incentive for quality and innovation."
"But, Mr. Westermann, you’ve always preached self-reliance. Couldn’t you survive on private equity alone?"
"Congressman, if you were betting on a football game…"
"I’m sorry, I don’t gamble."
"But if you did," Cornell persisted, "would it matter to you if one team had been spotted a two-touchdown lead?"
"I suppose it would."
"Well, that sort of thing matters to investors also."
"I see that my time is up. Thank you, Mr. Westermann."
Cornell nodded. This young buck had done all right.
*
MahnAz lay awake after another sleepless night, dreading going into work. She had no idea if her gambit had worked. She’d spent two days looking over her shoulder, waiting for the blue coats to circle her desk and escort her out. But they hadn’t come. And she’d been a model citizen. Nine to six, bright and chipper, directly home and in bed by eleven. The Director had not asked any follow-up questions, which led MahnAz to believe she didn’t believe her, but couldn’t yet make the case for Westermann to get rid of her. That gave MahnAz time. Get out some resumes. Test the waters. She was probably done with private enterprise. But she could teach. With her CV she’d be a rock star professor. Any university would want an accomplished, ethnic, female theoretical physicist…with a fatwa on her head. Yeah, that. Imagine the campus Keystone Kops trying to protect her from the Sharia Separatist militants who were so welcome in "diverse" college communities.
She was dead if she left Lone Star. But she was dead if she stayed. She couldn’t possibly deliver on her fiction of a demi-warp. If Lone Star ever laid down a deposit on the Large Hadron Collider, they’d find out just how colossal a fraud she was.
Her desktop computer rang, startling her. No one ever called that way. And she didn’t recognize the number. She looked disheveled in the black opal reflection of her screen, so she opted for voice only.
"Hello?"
"Tried you on your cell, but your battery must be flat."
"Why are you calling me?"
"Seems your company is in serious trouble at the DC hearings," Maubray rasped. "Insolvency awaits. That is, unless you can testify to your research and sway the committee."
"Are you out of your mind?" MahnAz gasped. "Are you aware of the state of my research?"
"Your good boss," he began with ultra-polite condescension, "who incidentally has kept you alive for three months, is about to lose government funding and any hope of private equity. So, as barmy as it may seem, I strongly suggest you get on a plane immediately, fly to Washington and pull his fat from the fire."
"By perjuring myself to Congress?"
"Well, when you put it that way…" he seemed to relent. "Yes."
He clicked off, leaving MahnAz to stare at the wreckage of her face in the dark screen.
*
"This is not the China of the Cultural Revolution," Gong proclaimed, "Or even Tiananmen Square."
When David had called from his hotel, he’d jokingly suggested they go out for Chinese food. Her response had been surprisingly humorless. "You’re in China, Mr. Toma; it’s simply food." The evening had devolved from there into a tedious series of lectures, during which Gong punctuated her Party rhetoric by jabbing her chopsticks at him.
"We’ve done away with the one child policy, instituted democratic and market reforms."
"Democracy, you say?"
"We’re not afraid of democracy, David," she said. Her use of his first name was without warmth; her face was plastic, and her voice seemed almost synthesized as she continued, "It is ultra-democracy–the individualistic, bourgeois aversion to discipline–that we seek to avoid. It’s what makes American society so chaotic and corrupt."
"So, democracy’s okay, as long as everyone thinks and acts the same way?"
"We have a much more utilitarian view of government, of most things, in fact."
David watched her struggle vainly to pick up a sliced water chestnut with chopsticks. "That explains these tools of modernity." He stabbed the morsel with his chopstick and offered it to her. She bit. He thought that might serve as a peace offering, but she just chewed quietly then sipped her tea without speaking.
The evening was not headed in the right direction and David was starting to get nervous. How was he going to get into her house if he couldn’t get her to drop the indoctrination?
"I just find it hard to believe you’re still a Communist," he said. "After four years in the U.S.?"
"You’re kidding, right?" she laughed. "Your Ivy League has more committed Communists than our Politburo. In fact," she continued, inexplicably dropping the facade, "I was not political at all until I went to an American university. It was there I first learned of the class struggle."
From a tenured professor, David imagined, making a six-figure salary to teach two classes.
"I learned how difficult it had been to make the progress in our country. The cost was enormous."
"What was it, forty-five to seventy-five million that Mao killed?" David asked.
"Yes. And if that had all been for a mistake, that would have been monstrous. We would have been monsters. But that’s not the China I know. We’re not monsters, we’re industrious people, focused on a great future." She had seemed to be speaking from the heart, rather than reciting talking points. But after a brief, earnest interlude, her words struck David as stale talking points she’d been fed, as surely as he’d fed her that water chestnut. "I became convinced I had a duty to preserve and continue the Revolution. Made all the more difficult with the way America blocks progressive Socialist reforms. All of which are only for the good, when you consider, we’ve got a billion uneducated peasants. They need the government to order their lives or they’d…well, first they’d breed themselves into perennial famine…"
"So, you have to control their breeding…"
"Through education, not compulsion. And put them to productive labor."
"From which you reap vast rewards."
"Much less, I’d say, than you capitalists. And, if we do, at least we’ve earned it."
"For all the good you’ve done, ordering people’s lives."
"I’m glad you’re beginning to see things my way," she smiled. "Especially," she intimated, lowering her voice, "because I really want to have sex with you."
Huh, David thought. Didn’t see that coming. Apparently, now back in China, Gong could take a utilitarian approach to many things. Allocate resources where they were needed to produce the most good. Not David’s style exactly; he preferred acquiring assets through conquest rather than bureaucratic redistribution, but in the case of Miss Gong, he didn’t care if he gained access to her virtual pleasure palace through siege or surrender. Plus, he remembered his abuelo, who died cursing Castro and Che. "Jode los comunistas!" he’d said. Abuelito, David thought, I’ll do this for you.
*
Cornell did not like being dragged back for a second day of testimony, but it was the Chairman’s prerogative to yank his chain and set him up for an extra grilling by the remaining cronies on the Committee. As he walked across the Rotunda, newly wet from his climb up the Capitol steps in the one hundred percent humidity of the DC swamp, flanked by Melville on his right and Gina on his left, whom should he behold but D’Arcy Sinclair, holding court with her K-Street operatives and a few living, breathing arguments for term limits. Well, barely living and breathing. She’d set herself up, strategically, outside the corridor leading to Statuary Hall and the hearing rooms beyond. A fitting perch, Cornell thought. In fact, he could imagine her cronies pushing through legislation to honor the vaunted Ms. Sinclair with an alabaster likeness inside the Hall, somewhere close to Huey Long.
Cornell had no intention of acknowledging her as he passed, but, as if orchestrated, the crowd in the Rotunda suddenly converged, preventing him from cutting a wide swath around her.
"Mr. Westermann," she called cordially, "if you have a moment…"
Cornell tried a side-step, but smacked into Gina and sent whatever device she’d been reading skittering across the floor. D’Arcy seized the opportunity to step in front of him, locking her glacier-blue eyes with his.
"I’d like to clear up a misconception you might have. About those schematics."
"Why don’t you take that up with my attorney?" He gestured to Melville, who nodded politely.
"I wish I could tell you where I’d gotten them," she said with feigned sadness.
"You got them from a man named Tsieh Ping," Cornell grunted. "A very highly-placed member of the Chinese Politburo."
"Oh." D’Arcy averted her icy gaze, before continuing. "I told them it was a bad idea to give them to me. I begged them to go directly to Lone Star."
"Them?"
"Well," she whispered, "the CIA, of course. But they said you weren’t exactly friendly with the federal government. They thought you couldn’t be trusted with knowing."
"That my people were in jeopardy?"
She shook her head. "We didn’t know the schematics had been changed; we just thought they’d been stolen. But no, CIA thought you’d make a stink about Tsieh, and they couldn’t risk losing their most important asset in China. If it hadn’t been for Tsieh’s intel, the Chinese would have hacked the State Department, Defense, our banking system. He’s kept us one step ahead of them for the last ten years. If anything ever happens to Tsieh Ping, we’d better all start learning Mandarin."
Cornell’s throat tightened. He resisted the urge to loosen his tie. "And you’re telling me this why?"
"Well, I trust you," D’Arcy cooed. "I’m sure you’re every bit as patriotic as I."
Cornell gave her a pinched smile and moved brusquely past. He tapped frantically at the crystal of his smartwatch, speed-dialing Borchardt. By the time he passed the bronze likeness of Barry Goldwater, his Security Chief had picked up.
"We’ve got to get Hector out."
"Cold feet?" Borchardt asked.
"How ’bout I warm them up your ass? I told you no Ox-Bow!"
"Collect yourself, Mr. Westermann."
"You know what D’Arcy Sinclair just told me?"
"Doesn’t matter," he growled. "If she approached you, they know we’re coming."
*
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