“What’s the source?”
“The Aussie’s man in the Sixth Bureau. This is eyes only, understood?”
Don’t worry. I’ve got nothing in the works. Has Burzynski seen it?”
“No, and let’s keep it that way for as long as possible. If their contact gets burned it’ll come right back to us.”
“He hasn’t seen it yet, but he will soon. We can’t keep it buried indefinitely.”
“Let me know when he finds it.” The line went dead.
Michael Cardano was holding a transcript of the interrogation of Tang Tian, an operative of the Guoanbu. He was a decorated veteran of the PLA, an expert in hand to hand combat who had been transferred to the Ministry a decade earlier. He had spent several years working out of the Chinese Consulate in Manila. He was later posted to the embassy in Tokyo and finally served as a Cultural Attaché in Los Angeles.
In a sudden turn of events he was recalled to Beijing and taken into custody by the counterintelligence bureau. The interrogation mainly concerned a failed operation in the United States. Cardano was transfixed by one passage in the transcript.
Int: Why didn’t you seize her?
Tang: My men tried.
Int: You didn’t order the sniper to fire?
Tang: He had been neutralized.
Int: So she had help. Were the Americans there?
Tang: She needed no help.
Int: She beat you. Is her wu shu better than yours?
Tang: [no reply]
Int: The great Tang, beaten by a girl?
Tang: [no reply]
Int: She looked you in the eyes, stared you down. That’s what your men said.
Tang: [no reply]
Int: What deal did you make with her?
Tang: You didn’t see what I saw. You wouldn’t understand.
Int: Fine. What did you see?
Tang: Wind in the pine trees.
Int: What’s that, more Japanese mysticism?
Tang: There are no genetic shortcuts. There is only training.
Cardano had a pretty good idea who the interrogator was asking about. He had looked into those eyes once at a child’s birthday party. He knew what Tang must have seen: focus, discipline, serenity. As he read the transcript over again he knew he was seeing the face of an old adversary. But this passage painted him in the colors of an ally, almost a friend. He was being held in a detention facility outside of Beijing.
From other parts of the transcript it was clear his family was in danger. His wife had been beaten in the street one day by unknown thugs. His six year old daughter, Tang Li Li, was shunned by the children at her school. The interrogator made an ominous threat about taking the child away. It was difficult to see a way out for Tang. Cardano had received intelligence of a prison riot at Qincheng Prison which might mean Tang was already dead.
He knew the Chinese had been interested in the results of genetic experiments conducted in a secret facility in Tokyo years ago. The idea had been to enhance the aggressor instincts and neural function of soldiers. They came to nothing after foreign agents invaded the lab. There was no sign a particular gene sequence had been isolated, no samples of a virus encoded with the sequence. Nothing. The lead scientist, Dr. Kagami, was humiliated by the affair and took his own life shortly afterwards. The idea of a genetic code existing in some obscure files somewhere persisted for awhile. It fit the classic espionage fantasy perfectly: a tiny bit of dangerous data easily hidden anywhere. It was practically irresistible. But eventually even that dream faded away and the whole project seemed to have been forgotten.
Until, that is, the Chinese got the notion the gene sequence existed, not in the form of a microdot or a digital record, but in a living person. They searched the world over for any sign of this person. But they mainly suspected the Americans had gotten there first. After Kagami’s suicide, attention had naturally turned to his daughter, who had been his main assistant. She was a biochemist in her own right. At first the Chinese assumed she merely had the data in her possession. But someone spirited her out of Tokyo before anyone else could seize her. Later they came to believe she was the data, or at least that she knew who was.
As he mused on these things Michael gazed out the window of his study in Torbay. He was watching his son, Anthony, in the backyard. He was getting some self-defense training from Jesse and Ethan, members of their security team. It looked a bit more like horseplay than a serious lesson. Andie came up from behind and kissed him on the back of the neck.
“He’s finally having some fun.”
“I don’t think he’s learning much about fighting,” he replied.
“He misses her, you know.”
“I suppose. But we mustn’t rush back there.”
“Has it occurred to you that she may need us?”
“I have the strangest feeling we may end up needing her more than she needs us.”
“Remember how he would follow her around the estate? And those camping trips?” Michael nodded with a sigh. “They’d strap on backpacks and she’d take off for the woods at a dead run, and he’d run after her. He’d follow her to the ends of the earth if he could.” He couldn’t help but smile at this.
“There are still some arrangements I have to make before we can go back.”
“I’m not sure how much longer you can keep Yuki here,” she said with a smile. “We’re going into town, a bit of shopping. We’ll be buying new luggage,” she said archly and gave him another peck on the cheek. She went to find Yuki.
Michael was expecting a call. Rumors were flying about a major martial arts tournament where an unlikely competitor had dominated the field. He knew the Chinese had been there even before he received the transcript. But were they the only ones? The phone in his pocket hummed quietly.
“I hear you helped her in Norfolk. If that’s true, I am in your debt,” he said into the phone. “Tell me what happened.”
“She didn’t need any help,” the woman on the other end of the line replied. “She faced the Chinese on her own,” she said in a still trembling voice.
“And they let her leave?”
“They didn’t really have a choice, I suppose,” she said with a shiver of pride, still living in the moment. “She’s amazing, you know.”
“Yes, but how exactly did she manage to escape them?”
“She didn’t escape.”
“Wh, what…,” he stammered out. He knew she was safe, but the thought of her in danger clearly upset him.
“She fought them, seven or eight of them, in a dark parking lot. She could have killed them all, if they hadn’t backed down. I think they must have felt lucky to get away themselves.” He recognized Emily in that account. She was certainly her father’s daughter. “In the end, she spoke to one of them,” the woman continued, “the leader, I suppose. They reached some sort of understanding, and then the Chinese left.”
“What did they say, do you know?”
“No, I couldn’t make it out, and she wouldn’t say. But she seemed satisfied with whatever it was.”
“Were you watching the whole scene?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “I was on the roof of the hotel. I saw it all through a rifle scope.”
“Why didn’t you just take them out for her,” he asked with increasing agitation. It was a rude question in a disconcerting conversation: one more sign of how much he cared about George and Yuki’s daughter.
“I wanted to, let me tell you. But she made me promise not to shoot anyone, not unless they threatened her friends.”
There was an awkward silence. Michael knew who she was: a trained assassin, one of Meacham’s people. But Meacham was on the run now, and many of his agents had gone their own ways. She was one of these. That didn’t make her trustworthy, and he knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding her departure. What he most wanted to know was how she got involved with Emily in the first place. Had she been sent to kill her? Perhaps she was just waiting for the right moment. Maybe she was still working for Meacham. Still, Emily had asked a favor of this woman, and Michael had learned to respect her judgment. She seemed to see right through people. And she was barely eighteen.
“Shall I trust you,” he asked himself out loud.
“That’s up to you. I wish I could say I had helped her, repaid what I owe. But she had so little need of me….”
“She saw something in you. That says something, I suppose,” Michael mused. “How do I contact you?” The woman gave him instructions, and a name: “Connie.”
He was making preparations for their return home. He had already accepted a position in a defense industries related think tank specializing in East Asian economies, the Seacord Foundation. He was arranging for a large house just north of Charlottesville, big enough for his family, his security team and house guests. This location had a couple of significant advantages. It was an easy drive to D.C., and it would be an even easier one to Emily’s high school. He knew how important that last detail would be to her mother.
Connie told him Meacham no longer posed any substantial threat to him, and as far as she could tell the Chinese didn’t either. He was inclined to agree with her on the first point. Meacham had been effectively neutralized in Taipei. Several of his key followers had been killed, many others had begun to move to a safe distance from his interests, in case they should collapse entirely. It might take him several years to rebuild his position. One consequence of this turn of events was that his chief rival in the intelligence community, Burzynski, now had a much freer hand to pursue his own agenda. Michael was uncertain what the implications of this new freedom might be. Particularly worrisome was his willingness to work with the North Koreans, to play them off against the Chinese. Michael didn’t know what this might mean for his family, for Yuki, and especially for Emily. Even if she had come to some sort of resolution with the Chinese, they might not be the only dangerous players left in the game.
In the end, Michael didn’t have much choice about returning home, even if he had wanted to stay in hiding. Once Andie and Yuki learned Emily had confronted the Chinese there was no longer any support within the family for living in concealment. They wanted to live again as a normal family, they wanted to follow Emily’s lead. He had started pulling the arrangements together a few days earlier. Anthony was enrolled for the remainder of the spring term in a Charlottesville middle school. Building the shell corporations and other fronts to conceal his interest in the house would take a little longer
Yuki no longer needed to hide under the title of cook in his household, as she had for so many years. There was no point anymore. And Andie had grown close to her since Christmas, having seen the way she felt around Emily when they were all together in New Zealand. She had always seemed inscrutable before, in large part because they hadn’t realized Emily was actually her child. But once the relationship was known, Yuki’s heart was like an open book. In fact, Emily had become a daughter the two women practically shared, especially since she had started wearing Andie’s clothes. Michael arranged for Yuki to have a position at Seacord as his assistant. She was an expert on the subject of bio-engineering and genetics for military purposes and would surely prove extremely useful.
Connie sat for a moment in the food court of the Georgetown Park mall after she ended the call. It was a pay as you go phone purchased a few moments earlier. She removed the sim card and snapped it in two. She was apparently not interested in receiving any calls on this phone. Her precautions were probably unnecessary, but the habit was ingrained at this point. She tossed the phone into a nearby trash can, one with a lot of greasy food waste in it. Might as well make tracking her a messy task even if no one was paying attention.
She took a peculiar route through the mall, a few extra turns that brought her past various kiosks and especially reflective display windows. She rode an escalator to an upper floor, and then down a glass elevator to the parking garage. She walked out the garage entrance on to M street. It’s not especially hard to spot a tail on a busy sidewalk if you’re observant and not in such a hurry that you can’t afford to stop every once in a while and look in a shop window.
Connie wondered how observant Emily really was. Did she understand what it would take to outmaneuver the people who were interested in her? People had wanted her dead just a few months earlier. She herself had been sent to kill her in a public restroom on the Charlottesville campus. Emily was there on a college visit. She disarmed her attacker and defeated her. But it wasn’t because she was observant. She was just faster. And when she had the upper hand she should have killed her with her own poison syringe. That’s what Connie would have done, without hesitation. But Emily didn’t kill her, no matter how much she may have deserved it. That kind of compassion was dangerous.
She was genuinely worried for the girl who had given her a second chance. But it wasn’t as simple as paying a debt. When Emily stared her down that day she looked back into her eyes, too. What she saw there was terrible, even sublime. It haunted her to this day: a pitch black serenity, a wellspring of generosity. There was a storm there, too, violence of inhuman proportions, titanic forces held in a precarious balance. The girl was dangerous, Connie knew it, but she wasn’t invulnerable. Quick reactions were not going to be enough to keep her safe.She walked over to the Foggy Bottom Metro station and caught a blue line train to Washington National Airport where she boarded a plane to Seattle.