It had been a mere two weeks since the tournament in Norfolk. Emily won the black belt kumite, fighting in the men’s division since there were no other women competing at her level. Her victory, her total mastery of her opponents, had been little short of amazing to everyone there. Of course there were videos of her matches, lots of them, circulating on the web. They would go viral soon enough. A few kids in school had already seen them. Eventually everyone would see them.
Emily had no idea what the impact of the videos would be, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t make her any new friends. Even before the tournament she had been a lonely figure in the high school landscape. As tantalizing as the prospect of watching a young girl beating up grown men might seem, the reality of it would likely prove disconcerting to most kids. As would some other videos of her circulating on the web.
There were lots of nuances to the social life of teenagers that Emily had yet to learn. But one unmistakable change even she noticed. Ordinarily the football team enjoyed an unrivalled ascendance on campus, and within this group the seniors on the varsity squad occupied the pinnacle of high school society. Various badges and other talismans marked this distinctiveness: jackets, t-shirts, patches and assorted jewelry. Respect was also enforced, sometimes ruthlessly, by the seniors themselves, with the tacit support of the rest of the team.
This year, however, the droit des seigneurs—or right of the seniors—was not being so carefully observed even within the team itself. Of course, some falling off was to be expected once football season was over. But this was more precipitous and more narrowly focused than might ordinarily be expected. In fact, it seemed mainly to concern two players in particular, Emily’s friends, Danny and Billy. They were regularly being hassled in little ways by the sophomores and juniors on the team, and these were some of the larger players. It hadn’t broken out into the open yet, but she was certain things were tenser than usual.
There had been the little things. Being shoved against a locker in the hallway crush between classes, cutting in front on the lunch line, resentful glances, angry whispers. Perhaps these were only ambiguous bits of evidence. But they rankled all the same. And there were some bigger things, like the episode with Marty and Jeff in the dojo.
Wayne rounded a corner one day by the shop wing when he saw Jeff shoulder Billy against his locker door with Marty right behind him. It looked like one of those accidentally on purpose kind of moves. Danny was standing next to Billy and reacted instantly, shoving Jeff back across the corridor. He and Marty were much larger than either Danny or Billy. If this came to blows it looked to be a lopsided affair.
From down the hall Wayne let out a growl and moved to insert himself into the middle of the fracas. Until he felt a hand on his shoulder gently pull him back.
“This fight’s not for you, big guy,” he heard a voice behind him say. He turned and found himself looking directly into Melanie’s face. She was one of the few women who came even remotely close to his eye level. Her smile was curious. Did she know something about this? Was it some sort of setup designed to entrap his friends? Or did she just understand the way athletes think better than he did?
“Leggo! What’s it to you, anyway?”
“They need to sort this out among themselves,” she replied. Wayne looked at her quizzically, unable to fathom her interest in any of it. Did she think he wasn’t tough enough to stand up to those guys? He noticed Amanda standing a few yards away with a nasty smirk smeared across her face. Was this her doing?
He rolled his shoulder out of Melanie’s grasp and turned toward the action. He could see Billy being pushed against the wall again and Danny grabbing Marty’s elbow when they all noticed Emily approaching from the other end of the corridor. With her dark eyes wide she gave a quick shake of her head just as Danny was about to kick the back of a knee and Billy was about to swing his fists. They both stopped what they were doing at the same instant as if on cue. Wayne stopped too. Jeff and Marty were perplexed, not quite knowing what to do next. If they struck either boy now it would hardly look like a general disturbance. They might be the only ones blamed for the fight.
But it was more than that. They seemed frozen, as if in fear. That wasn’t quite right either. She seemed so small compared to them. There was something else going on.
Melanie watched it all unfold. Just a look and a barely noticeable gesture and Emily had controlled the entire scene. Even the kids who weren’t her friends had responded to it. How did she have that much power? A moment later she walked right through. They all made way. Jeff seemed particularly careful not to touch her. She smiled at her friends and glared at Amanda. Then she was gone, around the corner and out of sight. The bell rang and everyone hustled off to class. Melanie lingered a while watching Wayne before she left.
At the beginning of last period Emily was called to the Assistant Principal’s office. Her footsteps echoed through the empty halls of the South Wing. A freshman coming out of the girl’s bathroom with her head down almost ran into her. She looked up into her face embarrassed and scurried off.
The AP’s office was behind the library fifty yards or so from the front office. When Emily opened the door she saw the nurse and the school counselor sitting to one side of the central desk. The AP was a large, middle aged woman, Mrs. Abernathy. The three of them stopped talking when she entered.
“Miss Tenno, I’m sorry to pull you out of class, but we’ve gotten some disturbing information.”
“It’s okay to call me Emily, Mrs. A. I like that name.”
“Thanks, Emily. Can I ask how things are at home?” This question had to come up in official circumstances sooner or later. But it was clear from the look on her face that Emily still had no idea how to answer.
“Things are okay, I guess. Why do you ask?”
“Well, we heard your circumstances changed a bit over the last few months. Is your Dad still traveling?” Emily sighed and a pained expression crawled across her face.
“No.” She paused for a moment as she thought about how to continue. “My Dad died last fall.”
“I’m so sorry, Emily.” The other two were now on high alert. “I know your mom left years ago. Have you heard from her?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “She’ll be back in the states soon.” It was a relief to be able to give this answer truthfully, even if Mrs. Abernathy was sure to misunderstand the way it was true.
“Where have you been living in the meantime?”
“Oh, I’ve been staying with friends,” she said, as nonchalantly as she could manage.
“I see from your file that you’re not a minor anymore. But are there any other adults looking after you?”
“I’m pretty much on my own these days, until my Mom gets back. I’ve got my own apartment in town now.”
“Well, you’ll need to give the address to Mrs. Telford for our records.” Emily sighed again, as if this innocuous request was more of an imposition than anyone might have expected. “But that’s not why we called you in. Rumors about you have been circulating around the school for the past few days, and they seem to have some connection to a text message with a couple of pictures attached.”
“Mrs. A, I can explain about those….” Mrs. Gilman, the counselor, interrupted her.
“You don’t have to explain. You’re an adult. It’s not a crime to send stuff like that. But it is against the school code of conduct.”
“That’s not important just now,” Mrs. A. interposed. “We’re worried about you, dear. Girls with turbulent home situations can suffer from self-esteem issues.”
“I didn’t send that message. Amanda did.”
“Uh-huh.” The conversation came to a dead stop. “Now why would she do that?”
“You’d have to ask her. Look closely and you can see they were taken in the locker room in gym class.”
“Well, we did look closely, Emily, and we saw something else, too. Your arms and legs are all bruised up.” She sighed and looked down at the rug. “How did you get those bruises, dear?”
Emily could not fail to see that these women meant well. But what could she tell them that wouldn’t make things worse? Showing the tournament video satisfied the doctor about the bruises. But it probably wouldn’t have the same effect in this situation. They might just conclude she was a danger to the rest of the students. Staying in school was turning out to be almost as tricky as staying alive. She tried another tack.
“You don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.” They looked unpersuaded. “Really. I’m very capable. I do my own cooking. I do all the cleaning. I get straight A’s. I have friends. I’m a very cheerful person.”
“The text seems to have been sent around by Danny Rincon. Is he one of your friends?”
“Yes, but… he didn’t send it. I told you.”
“If a boy is abusive, he’s not your friend. You have alternatives. We can help you.” Emily had to smile at this. How many times had she trounced him in sparring at the dojo, after all!
“You have the wrong idea about Danny. He’s not abusing me. We train at the same dojo. I get the bruises from doing martial arts.” As soon as the words came out of her mouth she regretted them. The obvious questions hovered unspoken in the air. What sort of dojo lets kids hit each other as hard as those bruises suggested? What was really happening to this poor, isolated girl? These women looked even more anxious than before. She looked imploringly at each of them. But the weight of their solicitude was just too much.
“I want to reassure you that we can help. You’re not alone. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Trust me,” she said with a forced smile. “I really don’t need help.” She tried to sound confident, but in the back of her mind she was picturing all the ways she really did need help, all the dangers she couldn’t confide to these women.
There was still the puzzle of the text message, and the bruises. It wasn’t clear to anyone what they should say or do next. They couldn’t force her to accept help.
“We’ll be talking to Mr. Rincon later,” Mrs. A. offered after an uncomfortable silence, clearly hoping to reassure the girl. Of course, it had just the opposite effect, threatening as it did to bring even more scrutiny to her living arrangements.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that. He had nothing to do with those pictures.”
“I know, you think it was Amanda. But his name is on it. I would be remiss not to talk to him.”
Emily walked back down the halls, pausing here and there, utterly perplexed by her situation. How had she made enemies so fast? Things had been so much simpler when she was a loner. She was committed to her friends. There was no going back now. But how exactly was she going to learn to navigate the social scene? She had hoped to have put the violence of the past few months behind her at the tournament. But it now seemed to have taken on new life. Even though Mrs. A. did not understand the true dimensions of the dangers this girl faced, she clearly sensed danger. Emily’s highest priority was to stay in school and graduate. A few months back the main threat she faced was from covert operatives and assassins. But now even the sympathetic concern of school officials was threatening to become an obstacle.
On the ride home these same thoughts preoccupied her. She turned down her street and coasted the dirt bike the last half a block when she spotted him. He was definitely out of place. An enormous Chinese man stuffed into a cheap gray suit. Obviously government issue. He was loitering a few yards from her driveway. She popped the clutch and revved the engine. But as she sped past it struck her that he looked familiar. He was one of Tang’s men from the hotel parking lot in Norfolk!
She skidded and spun the bike to a stop, and looked him up and down. He looked at her but couldn’t see her face under the tinted visor. Her first thought was: “They know where I live.” And that means Danny and his mom are no longer safe. Who else knows? There was no point holding back now.
She pulled into the driveway and cut the engine. He looked at her uneasily. She took off her helmet and got off the bike, glaring at him the whole time. What was he doing here? What did he want? He made no move towards her. He didn’t seem to have signaled anyone. She looked about and saw nothing else out of the ordinary. She walked straight up to him. Like her dad, she preferred the direct approach. He cringed a little.
“What do you want?” He was slow to respond, seemed at a loss for words. English was probably not his best language. “Come on. Out with it.”
“I have a message…,” he fumbled. “From Tang Tian.” Emily stared at him, angry that he was even there, that he had invaded her private space, and especially for the threat she thought it implied.
“He begs your assistance, Sifu.”
“Why didn’t he come himself?”
“He is in prison. He may be dead. He needs your help.”
“Dead? What help can I be?” That sounded wrong as soon as it came out of her mouth. This man was clearly shaken by the message he was bearing. It was a heavy burden. She started over again.
“What’s your name?” The question was a tiny kindness he hadn’t expected. He sighed. His whole body sagged as he heaved out the words in a breathy voice.
“Let’s not stand out here. Come on up.” She led him upstairs to her apartment. This was also not at all what he was expecting. Tang’s men had spent months last year searching the country for her. She had proved infernally elusive. And here she was inviting him into her home. He sat in her kitchen while she made tea. He was too big for her furniture, his legs pinched under the table. He was surprised to see how small she was. He didn’t have the leisure just to look at her the last time they met. She had, after all, nearly killed him and the rest of his team. She had even beaten Tang himself! Perhaps he could be forgiven for having an outsized notion of her stature. But now she hardly seemed threatening at all.
“Tell me about Tang.”
“He was arrested for treason.”
“Because I didn’t return with you?”
“Where is he now?”
“A ministry prison. We think he’s dead. His family needs your help. That’s why I’ve come.”
“What can I possibly do?”
“His wife died last week. The Guoanbu took his daughter. We think they will send her to Pyongyang.” Emily was stunned. But what did it have to do with her?
“His daughter? What do they want with her?”
“She’s six,” he said evading her question. “She’s called Tang Li Li.” The whole thing sounded horrible. But it still wasn’t clear what she could do about it.
“Pyongyang will offer to release her in exchange for you.” There it was. The other shoe had finally dropped. She glowered at him. Her eyes flashed.
“Are you here for Tang, or for the Koreans?”
“Forgive me, Sifu. I hate the Koreans. And I hate my superiors for using them.”
“You can’t really expect me to go along with this. How do I know Tang Li Li even exists? How can I trust anything you say?” He had nothing to say. He reached into his jacket and handed her a picture. It was a little girl with straight black hair in bangs with large, expectant eyes. She looked to be four or five.
“Tang Tian respected you. He would never ask you to sacrifice yourself.” He stood up and bowed. She looked at him in silence as he turned to go.
“How can I contact you?” He gave her a card with the number of an import business in Alexandria. Then he was gone.
Obviously there was nothing Emily could do for him, or Tang Li Li. But she was now on high alert. Perhaps that’s what Jiang really had in mind. Whatever may have passed between her and Tang, there were other people still interested in her. Was it still the Chinese? Were the Koreans merely acting as proxies for them? Or did they have their own agenda? One thing was certain: she needed to speak to Michael. But that would mean finding a public computer terminal.
She went down to the driveway, cast a wary eye around her, and got back on the bike. As she rode through town she wondered about her security precautions. How had Jiang been able to find her? Had she gotten lazy? Security hadn’t seemed quite as important after Norfolk. Still, she hadn’t made any imprudent phone calls or spoken to any strangers. It’s true, she had not been as wary of everyday situations as before. She had relaxed.
She needed to find a computer terminal she hadn’t already used to call Michael. The software he had given her was secure as long as she didn’t call from the same place twice. The problem with living in a rural area is that there aren’t a lot high-tech access points. She hadn’t used the public library in Covington yet. It was a bit of a ride, but in her present frame of mind the distance seemed trivial.
The road down through the mountains was bleak. There were no leaves yet. The sun still hung low in the sky. The first green shoots would not be visible for a while. As she wound her way through the valleys her eyes raked the scenery, sifting it for any sign of pursuit. She registered every side road and path, any place where she could turn off to avoid someone.
Covington was the largest city in this part of the state west of the Shenandoahs. It was the county seat of Allegheny county. But it was still a small town, the last stop on Interstate 64 heading to West Virginia. One high school, county offices, a mall, lots of freight businesses, a chemical plant, a couple of abandoned textile mills, a park on the river.
She turned on to West Riverside Street and pulled up to the Jones Memorial Library. It was a large two story brick building across from a public parking lot and a block from the river. She put the dirt bike in a spot in front and hurried up the front steps. There were some terminals next to the old card catalog cases. But they wouldn’t do for a phone call, too exposed. The librarian pointed her to a cluster of terminals deep in the stacks on the other side of the building. If she was lucky they would be secluded and unoccupied.
The phone in Michael’s pocket buzzed. He hadn’t been expecting it, but a call from Emily was always welcome.
“I’ve got some news. How much time do we have on this line?”
“Three minutes, Emily. What’s on your mind?”
“I heard from one of Tang’s men today. Someone named Jiang.”
“Tang’s brother in law. He found you?”
“Yes, he was at my place. In my kitchen.”
“Can you describe him?”
“Enormous, with a crew cut and a round face…, and very sad eyes.”
“That sounds about right. Was he alone? What’d he want?”
“Is Tang dead? That’s what he thinks.”
“I think he’s right. His team was broken up after Norfolk. I think he was killed in a prison riot. After that Jiang slipped off the radar.”
“Could he be working for the North Koreans?”
“I hardly think so. Why do you ask?” She sketched the main details of the story Jiang told: Tang Li Li, Pyongyang, a trade.
“It’s hard to know what to say about that story. It could be true. The Guoanbu can certainly be ruthless. The mother may be dead, and they have been known to use children as pawns. And they have used Pyongyang as a proxy before. But I don’t know if we can verify whether they actually have the girl.”
“What about Jiang?”
“I can’t believe he would be part of a plan to use his niece.”
“What about my place. Is it still safe?”
“I don’t know. What’s your sense of Jiang?”
“He’s a broken man. He could still sell me out. But what about my friends? And the family I’m living with? Are they safe?”
“I’m sorry, Emily. I don’t know. We’re almost out of time. You need to be extra cautious now. If the Koreans are involved, they may already be there.”
After the call Michael took the sim card out of the phone and smashed it into little pieces. Events were moving faster than he had anticipated. He had thought he could wait a few more weeks before making his move. But it was clear he needed to act now. He spoke to his security team later that day and had special instructions for Ethan and Jesse. Now he just had to figure out what to tell Yuki.
On her end Emily waited for the software on her thumbdrive to cycle through its closing routine, erasing the digital records of the call from the terminal, the server and the local network. She looked at the photo of Tang Li Li. If there was any truth in Jiang’s story she must be pretty miserable, alone and disoriented, surrounded by people who don’t care about her. But was there any truth in that story?
Two thoughts kept recurring in her mind. First, she would have to talk to Jiang again before this was over. She took out the card he had given her and looked up the business name on it, Shanghai Treasures on North Henry Street. It would be about a four hour drive if she decided to pay them a visit.The second thought: Michael told her the family would be returning the following week, which meant there was an even more pressing errand. She would have to retrieve her father before her mother got back.