Gong’s scream from the living room blew ice through David’s ribcage, snapping his head back. He lunged one step in the direction of the living room before checking himself. How should he play this? She’s found the body, he thought, somehow Hector screwed up and she found her uncle’s body, or a telltale blood spatter.
He’d done his part; as fumbling as his performance might have been, he’d gotten back to the girl’s townhouse, found the alarm system, affixed the transponder, and had retired to Gong’s bedroom to collect his benefits. But now the jig was up, ironically, because the veteran Black Ops commando had screwed up. Now how the hell could he play this so he didn’t wind up in a concentration camp? First comfort her, then reclaim the transponder. Destroy it and hide the pieces.
All of these thoughts roared through David’s mind in about 2.3 seconds, before he burst into the living room and saw Hector Gaines, dressed entirely in black, hunched over…a chessboard? Opposite him sat Tsieh Ping, stroking his chin and contemplating the next move for white.
"I play Queen’s Gambit," he said, "to preempt Sicilian. But you play attacking defense anyway."
"I prefer to take the initiative," Hector said.
"Clever," Tsieh conceded. "Would you not agree, Gong?"
Gong stood there in shock. What had frightened her? A sudden pounding on the door got little notice from the chess players. A voice shouted urgently in Mandarin phrases David couldn’t decipher.
"Would you answer that, Gong?" Tsieh asked calmly.
His niece answered the door and several armed men, like a SWAT team, flew past her. They stopped at the chessboard and lowered their weapons. Their commander looked incredulous. "What is happening here?" he demanded in English.
"Mate in five," Hector said flatly, "if I’m lucky."
The Commander–or man in charge; he was dressed in a business suit–exchanged angry glances with Gong. She blushed and turned away. That, David ventured to guess, explained her scream. She’d expected to find her uncle dead. And then what? Had she planned to pin it on him?
The Commander demanded identification from Hector and David. To David’s surprise, Hector produced an American passport in his own name. The SWAT men patted them down, after which, Hector returned to his seat.
"What is your business here?"
"Goodwill visit," Hector said innocently, while trading his bishop for a knight. "To develop bonds with members of the Chinese space program we hope to be working with."
"You will come with us," he barked. "You will explain this to the NPA." That acronym David understood: the National Police Agency.
Hector simply picked up a decanter and refilled brandy glasses for himself and Tsieh. "Detective, it’s very late," he observed. "Why don’t we see you in the morning? In your office?"
The detective was staggered by Hector’s nonchalance. Then his smartwatch squawked, and he touched his earpiece, turning away and taking a few steps toward the wall. What followed was tense, clipped patter in Mandarin that concluded with the detective stiffening his spine and turning back to face Hector.
"It appears we are not needed here," he said, bowing slightly. "But there is an emergency that requires our attention. We bid you good evening."
The NPA SWAT retreated, closing the door behind them. Tsieh Ping immediately groaned loudly and rose from the chessboard. "I shall pack," he said, excusing himself.
Hector stood and glanced at his watch. "Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Tsieh," he glowered, "but we didn’t come to kill your uncle; we came to extract him. He has many enemies within your government."
Gong gritted her teeth. "He has earned his enemies by betraying the Party."
"Perhaps," Hector conceded. "But he’s made friends also. And his friends are taking him out of here. We’re giving you the option to come with us."
"I would rather die," she spat.
Hector shrugged. "That’s not necessary." He reached under a cushion of the sofa and took out a small zipper case. From that he removed a syringe. "But we’re going to need you to take a long nap."
MahnAz met with resistance from her handlers when she attempted to leave her apartment at five am. But with the taximeter running and, more importantly, the clock ticking on the once-daily flight from Odessa to D.C., she reminded the crew that their job was to escort her, not to impound her. Doe-eyes met her at the airport.
He stared incredulously. "You’re just going to show up unannounced and testify to Congress?" he scoffed. "That’s ridiculous."
"Even more so," she teased, "considering what I’m going to say."
"Your funeral," he huffed.
"Oh? I thought that’s what you were hired to prevent."
"Ha." He led her by the elbow to the ticket counter. "I stop murders, not suicides." There were three seats available, for him and two more guards. He had MahnAz’s seat reassigned so they would sit together.
"I hope you’re not going to be chatty," she warned as he took the aisle seat beside her. "I need to nap if I’m going to be fresh for my testimony." But, of course, MahnAz couldn’t sleep. She was far too nervous, and lack of sleep always made her jittery. When the beverage cart rolled down the aisle, it occurred to her that she was terrified. What she truly needed, what she’d order if she weren’t surrounded by Westermann’s spies, was more than, "Orange juice, please."
As Doe-eyes passed her the cup, the dread welled up, forcing itself to the surface. Not now, she thought, but too late, her fingers started trembling and she had to retract her hand.
Doe-eyes leaned sideways, asking quietly, "You need to get right?"
"It’s not what you think," she whispered. Seeing his raised eyebrow, she said more harshly, "It’s not DTs."
"Whatever. But if you need one to get right, you can have one. But only one."
"Okay. Yes."
He flashed a ten-dollar bill for the flight attendant. "Vodka." He passed the miniature bottle to MahnAz.
It proved to be all she needed for the flight. She slept for about an hour and had time to apply some makeup and get herself presentable before they deplaned. The cab ride from the airport was a tedious crawl, and when they finally climbed the Capitol steps, the terror returned with a vengeance. MahnAz felt herself back on the Elburz Mountains, cold, tired, sick from altitude and afflicted with vertigo. She remembered standing on a precipice above a deep gorge and wondering if it wouldn’t have been easier to just pitch herself off the edge. But that would have given her abuser the last word, would have let the man who’d beaten her define her. Throwing her life away would only have ratified his opinion of her and the ruling mullah’s opinion of all women. She’d needed to climb those mountains then. She needed to climb these stairs today.
Cornell was finally calm, though the heart hammering his ribs hadn’t got the memo. He’d fired Borchardt, again, then after old Bullet Head revealed "the true plan all along," he had to give the stubborn Dutchie a ten percent raise to get him back, again. Now, as if Cornell hadn’t been through enough this morning, who should be waiting for him outside the hearing room but that lunatic Iranian lush and her fatwa honor guard.
"Just what do you think you’re doing here?" he demanded.
"I’ve come to testify," she declared with a quaver, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
"Are you even sober?"
"I find that question insulting."
"I’m glad you can find anything in your condition."
At this point Melville cleared his throat and gestured them toward an unoccupied holding room across the hall. Once inside, the door securely closed, Cornell continued his harangue.
"What I find insulting, Doctor, is your constant secretiveness and outright deceit." He turned to the Agent-in-Charge. "How could you let her come here?"
"According to your instructions, sir, the doctor was to have full liberty, accompanied by…"
"Don’t tell me what my instructions were," Cornell barked. "If you can’t follow common sense instead of my instructions, you’re fired."
The young man tucked his chin and moved immediately toward the door.
"Oh, for the love of Leon Lett, get back here," Cornell demanded. "And if you ask for a raise, I really will fire you."
"Mr. Westermann," the lush piped up, "by all accounts you won yesterday. Why would this Chairman, a political ally of D’Arcy Sinclair, bring you back except to tear you down?"
"She’s right, sir," Melville asserted. Gina nodded along. Even the A-in-C concurred.
"In country, we’d never fight a second battle for a hill we’d already taken. We’d take the next hill."
The doctor had removed her sunglasses to reveal deep-set, dark eyes, the orbs of which were not exactly red, but tinged pink.
"Tell me you’re sober," Cornell said.
"I’ve had one drink in ten and half hours." The confession made her blush.
"And what are you offering?"
Her upper lip twitched for half a second. She swallowed and answered, "What I promised: Mars."
"And this comes from you?" Cornell pressed. "It didn’t fall into your lap, courtesy of a skinny, side-winding, Monty Python-talkin’ twerp?"
"It’s entirely my own work."
"Well," Cornell breathed. "All right then."
Cornell couldn’t tell if he was being played, but then again, if he testified while his blood was up, a "man of his age" was likely to tear these Congressmen several new drainage systems, ending his prospects on the Hill and inciting a shareholder rebellion. So he dispatched Melville to get clearance for the Doctor to testify and, after an agonizing half-hour in holding, they made their way to the hearing room.
Cornell could tell the cronies had their knives out, but from the moment Dr. Roshanzadeh began her opening statement, the mood in the room shifted. She started nervously, but with self-effacing humor and mild flattery, she pulled the saddle right out from under the cronies. Obsessed as they were with identity politics, they couldn’t risk the visuals of an attack on a woman, especially one who’d shattered the glass ceiling in the sciences, an immigrant and, for all they knew, a (protected) religious minority. As she spoke she gained confidence, fluidity. She introduced concepts that were miles above the heads of everyone in the room, but she wasn’t haughty about it. She spoke as a teacher, supplying images they could wrap their heads around, comparing the bending of space-time to the movement of air over the curved surface of an airplane wing. It was all so simple. When she said her "demi-warp" would make it possible to have breakfast in Bethesda, coffee on the moon and lunch on Mars, the torches and pitchforks should have come out, but none of the villagers were yelling, "Witch!" They were all with her.
"I come here today," she concluded, "as someone who fled brutal repression, because I yearned to be free. And how fortunate I am to now be engaged in this great enterprise. Because what is freedom, but the ability to explore? And how much will your children explore when we open the planets to them and eventually, the stars."
The questions that followed were so fawning that Cornell had to bite hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from getting too giddy. The check from Uncle Sam was as good as in the bank. Not only that, but his smartwatch was vibrating from so many text messages, his hand went numb. Investment bankers, hedge funds, equity traders, all looking for a piece of the action. Apparently, Mars was a hot commodity, and Lone Star’s crisis of capital was over.
David was still fuming when he followed Hector and Tsieh Ping onto the Westermann jet. The exodus from Beijing had been remarkably smooth and uneventful, aided by several ethnic Chinese with distinctly American accents. When he’d asked Hector what the hell was going on, his question had been met with a question.
"Have you ever heard of Shakeel Afridi?"
"Old NBA guy."
"No," Hector grunted. "A Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track Osama bin Laden. After our guys raided bin Laden’s compound and killed him, the Pakistani government arrested Dr. Afridi. The White House resident at the time was eager to claim credit for bin Laden’s death, but completely uninterested in advocating for Dr. Afridi. He was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison. All the White House resident would do in protest was cut some pocket change from our foreign aid to Pakistan. Dr. Afridi’s prolonged imprisonment on one trumped-up charge after another is a stain on our national honor."
"And this is relevant because?"
"Because the current White House resident had likewise responded with indifference to CIA intel that Tsieh Ping had been outed. The current resident, you may recall, had campaigned for re-election in part on his record of protecting the country from cyber espionage. But he was willing to allow our most important asset to be executed for helping us. This would have been another stain on our national honor. Fortunately, there are individuals who serve the U.S. abroad who were willing to put their careers on the line to prevent that from happening."
"And Borchardt was dialed in."
"That’s how the plan came together so quickly. CIA needed us."
Yeah, David thought, a lot of people with skin in the game trusting each other to come through in the clutch. But nobody trusted him. Instead, they’d played him for a sucker. The Chinese? That whole Naw-sue-cah routine was probably just a play to his ego, soften him up to make him an easy mark for Gong. Hell, he could take that; that’s what you expect from the enemy. But his own team had played him. That was a bitter pill. As he strapped himself in for the flight home, David discovered he still had the spare "transponder" in his shirt pocket, and held it out across the aisle to Hector.
"What is this anyway?" he asked.
"Room deodorizer, I think," Hector said. He pulled his book from his carry-on and opened to where he’d left off.
David shook his head. "Oh, this just keeps getting better and better."
"Yes," Ping agreed, reclining fully. "First class!"
David sat silently through the takeoff. When they reached their cruising altitude, he flipped on the TV. Fox was reporting a story out of China. The graphic read "Forbidden City Lockdown." David chucked Hector in the shoulder. "Hey. Was this the NPA emergency?"
The report revealed that a manhunt had paralyzed most of Beijing. The reporter was hoping for corroboration, but apparently a high-level member of the Chinese Politburo had been gunned down last night in the Forbidden City, a place known for its draconian gun control.
Hector went back to his book.
"This doesn’t interest you?" David said. "Or you already knew?"
Hector was mumbling French again. Ping was asleep. David flipped around channels to see if there was more on the story. CNN was naming the victim: Xi Dong Wen had apparently been found in the hotel room reserved by a Singaporean woman.
"By the way," David nudged Hector again, "You still have that Russian pistol, right? You never used it, right?"
"It’s somewhere."
With that, the cockpit door opened, and a slim, shapely leg emerged. Nadine Grijalva put a hand on the ceiling to steady herself, then walked down the aisle to take a seat behind Hector.
"I assume I don’t have to hide in there all the way home?" she said.
David’s mouth hung open for several seconds before he muttered. "Unbelievable." He had to turn away, but he couldn’t stay silent. "Is this what you meant by traitors everywhere? You couldn’t trust me; you thought I’d betray the mission?"
Hector closed his book and rolled his head to his left shoulder to face him. "Lieutenant," he almost smiled, "I would never distrust your loyalty. But I saw some of those commercials you made for your NASCAR sponsors. What I don’t trust is your acting ability."
"Oh, fuh-nny," he groused. "I got three million dollars for my NAPA know-how, okay?" He shot a quick glance at Grijalva, expecting her to snicker, but she hadn’t even been listening. She stared glassy-eyed out the window like her mind was a million miles away. Or at least, back in a Beijing hotel room, where she’d lured a man into a trap, and seen his blood and brain matter splattered on a wall. A moment ago David had felt cheated, an actor deprived of his big role. Now he felt small for another reason; he looked at Nadine, noting the tremor in her chin, and selfishly felt…relief.
MahnAz had Doe-eyes stop the car at a Kroger. She popped her door before he’d set the emergency brake.
"Hold on, I’ll go with you."
"I just need to pop into the meat department," she said. "Ramadan’s coming and I want to order a suckling pig. I’m ironic that way. Rabbit at Easter. Bread and water for Thanksgiving."
"Yeah," he drawled. "Know what else would be ironic? You getting shivved by a crazed jihadi the one time I didn’t escort you."
As the meat counter was fairly empty, Doe-eyes kept a respectable distance. This allowed her to chat casually with a customer sporting a brand new Stetson to go with the old, sickly pallor and bad teeth. The butcher called his number and St. John Templar-Maubray ordered half a pound of sweet breads.
"Why didn’t the first files you gave me have the meta data?"
"That was about rescuing the ship, Lone Star III. We didn’t see any need to involve the Chinese at that point."
"We? Who are you really? British Intelligence?"
"Now there’s a fine oxymoron. Once an empire on which the sun never set, now a socialist archipelago in the throes of cultural suicide. You have better things to worry about than who we are."
"You mean my fabulous lie?" MahnAz groaned. "Perjury and fraudulently inducing investors to give large sums to Lone Star?"
St. John took his package of sweetbreads from the butcher and turned from the counter. "Remember the old adage, today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact?"
"You don’t mean there’s hope for the demi-warp?"
He counted to three on his fingers: "Conceive it, believe it, achieve it," and winked at her. "You’re so much closer than you think."
On the way back to the car, Doe-eyes sidled up to MahnAz and asked rather bluntly, "He slip anything into your bra this time?"
MahnAz tipped her head, raising the visor of her cap above the tangelo Texas sun. "Yes," she declared. "Confidence."
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