eBook: 9780989558839 ($4.99 US) / Trade Paperback: 9781942052159
It is a truth universally acknowledged that politics is the second oldest profession—and that, sadly, it resembles the oldest profession in too many ways to count on a gentlewoman’s properly sheathed pinkies and toes.
Being the epitome of reticence and decorum, she must strive to stay out of politics at all costs—
Unless, heaven forbid, it is necessary to sully herself in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
But before trotting out onto the campaign trail, she must remind herself about the difference between a lady, a whore, and a politician: whereas both the whore and the politician will perform unseemly acts with the strangest of bedfellows for money (in the case of the politician, this is euphemistically called “campaign donations”), neither the lady nor the whore equates money with power because she holds all the power she needs in her dainty (if not always properly sheathed) pinky.
Speaking of strange bedfellows, the culinary combination of chocolate and peanut butter was popularized with the invention of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup back in 1928. This take on a pie version will have you crossing party lines to get a slice:
Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie (From Courtney Wade, Gillett Pennsylvania)
• 1 crust made from chocolate graham crackers
• 1 1/2 pints vanilla ice cream, softened
• 2 cups creamy peanut butter
• 1 jar of hot fudge
• 1 container of whipped cream
1. Mix ice cream and peanut butter with mixer on low speed.
2. Pour into pie crust.
3. Freeze 3 hours.
4. Add hot fudge topping. Return to freezer.
5. Serve each piece with whipped cream.
* * *
I lay on a large table, naked except for the sushi that has been placed strategically on and around my body.
It’s not a great look, but this doesn’t stop three Chinese diplomats (I use the term lightly; in truth, they are spies) from plucking raw fish wrapped in seaweed and rice, while staring at my naughty bits.
One of the city’s premiere sushi chefs slices and dices away at his workstation. Because his chef’s jacket and hat are insulated, he is oblivious to the cold air blowing in from a block of dry ice below the floorboards, which flows into a tube on the tabletop beneath me.
This is supposed to keep the sushi fresh. Unfortunately, it has also turned my lips blue and numbed my bum. Beneath parsley pasties, my nipples stand at attention, whetting the diners’ appetites for hanky-panky, if not nigiri-maki.
I’m in a private penthouse which crowns a sixty-story building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, its stunningly romantic waterfront district. It is owned by one of the diners—Professor Hong Li, whose status as a world-renowned mathematician gives him the prestige he needs to hide in plain sight. My mission has me working undercover as a nyotaimori. In Japanese, the term means “female body platter,” but it is universally interpreted as “go ahead and cop a feel between bites of your dragon roll.”
The dining room’s other major attraction is its well-appointed vodka room—a large glass freezer in which hundreds of premium, obscure vodka bottles are stored at 28° Fahrenheit. Forget sake. If the way these guys have been blitzing themselves on the fermented potato juice enjoyed by their comrades to the near west is any indication, international relations with Russia are thawing at North Pole speed.
My geisha-like role demands that I lay here stock-still. I mustn’t shiver or move a muscle. This is particularly difficult whenever Li’s chopstick grazes a breast on its way to pick up yet another piece of gunkan-maki.
Either he needs lessons on how to hold his utensils, or he presumes I’m on the menu, too.
How do you say, “Be careful what you wish for” in Chinese? Will a jab in the jugular with a chopstick get my point across?
My mission’s team leader, Jack Craig, is located in the apartment directly below this suite, where he listens and watches the video bugs smuggled into the suite’s various air vents by tiny drones, just last night by our tech operative, Arnie Locklear. Jack must have guessed how annoyed I am with Li because he whispers through my concealed ear bud: “I guess it’s a bad pun to warn you to keep your cool.”
He’s right, of course. My reason for being here has nothing to do with the fantasies of these slobbering men, and everything to do with our country’s national security. Through its encryption circumvention project, Bullrun, the NSA learned that Chinese cyber-hackers have somehow pirated the Department of Defense’s secure satellite feed for its Middle Eastern battlefield data networks—the heart and soul of its network-centric warfare.
Experts predict the Chinese economy will reach one-hundred-twenty-three trillion dollars by the year 2040—or almost three times that of the entire world’s economy a mere decade ago. Now that China is building itself into a consumer nation, it is looking to curry favor with those who can help it with its skyrocketing oil demands—including the Iranians, with whom the old saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is doubly true when it comes to the United States.
The mandate of my employer—a CIA-sanctioned black ops organization that goes by the name of Acme Industries—is to stop the hand-off of this very valuable intel before it leaves the country. But the Chinese are smart enough to go old school in the delivery process: hand-to-hand, as opposed to e-mail or texting.
For the past week, we’ve been trying to infiltrate Li’s sumptuous penthouse suite, to no avail. He has stayed holed up here the whole time. Body guards are posted outside the steel-enforced, double-door entry. Even the maid who cleans the suite has been vetted by the Chinese embassy employees, as are the well-paid escorts who sleep with Professor Li.
The word sleep doesn’t begin to describe what he does with these unlucky ladies. And the way he eyes me, I’ve no doubt he wants me to experience his bedside manner first-hand.
Should I be worried? Nah. I don’t have time. This dinner was our one and only chance to stop Li’s plot. And from the chatter we’re hearing in our targets’ native language, we realize time is running out. The handoff is supposed to take place at this meeting, but the guest of honor—the person who will be taking it out of the country—has yet to arrive.
I hope he shows up soon. Otherwise, I may be too frozen to stop him.
My only way to answer Jack’s warning is to sigh, ever so slightly. When I do, a slice of fatty tuna roll slides off my midriff and onto the table. Professor Li smirks and mutters, “Zuòwéi tā de dàtuǐ, tā de rǔfáng fēngmǎn. Hǎo yīgè biǎo, dàn wěidà de, dàng zuò'ài. Wǒ jiù zhīdào jīn wǎn shāo hòu, shì ma?”
The sushi chef in the corner must get the gist of Hong’s remark because his eyebrows roll to the ceiling. Abu Nagashahi, Acme’s translator on this mission, snickers.
“Don’t tell her,” Jack and our tech op, Arnie Locklear, warn him in unison.
After a long pause, Abu mumbles, “No kidding.”
Oh, really? And what nasty little aside could our supposedly diplomatic friend here have said to earn my desire to wring his neck with my frigid fingers?
Whatever it is, he is saved by the gong announcing the visitor we’ve all been waiting for.
The men leave the table for the private dining suite’s reception room. The rooms are separated by a solid glass wall. Despite closing the glass door behind them, the mirrored ceiling and walls allow me to watch along with my mission team as two workmen roll in a large, beautiful black lacquer box. It stands vertically, and has beautiful Chinese characters on the door.
Hong Li snaps his finger at the sushi chef—the universal language for “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get the hell out of here.”
The man is no fool. He bows slightly and hurries out after the delivery men. The click of the door closing behind him sends a shiver up my spine.
“Stay perfectly still, Donna,” Jack murmurs. “It seems they’ve forgotten you’re there.
Easier said than done. The cold is tickling my nose. I hold my breath in the hope that I can keep from sneezing.
A man enters the room. He’s in his late thirties, with a full head of long, blond shoulder-length hair. He wears wire-framed glasses over his large brown eyes.
“Arnie, tilt the living room camera down and left, so that our facial recognition software gets a better look at him,” Jack whispers. “Donna, you’ve also got him in your line of sight. Can you turn your head, just a bit to the right?”
I do so, ever so slightly. Thank goodness all eyes are on the stranger, even those of the professor’s personal body guard, a hulk I’ve nicknamed King Kong. At six-foot-three-inches tall and over two-hundred pounds, should the occasion arise, it’ll be a challenge for me to take him. I mean, let’s face it—it’s not like I can hide my Glock under the pickled ginger garnish in my belly button.
If that time comes, failure is not an option—not if I want to walk my children into their new classrooms on the first day of school tomorrow.
Hong Li smiles at the man and gives him a slight bow. His two associates follow suit.
The Chinese spies smirk at the man’s hesitant, unsmiling nod in return.
I don’t like the feel of this.
“I presume you want to inspect my handiwork?” The man’s hushed question comes out in a stutter.
Li tempers his curiosity with a shrug. “Please, do us the honors.” His English mimics his guest’s Southern inflections.
The stranger purses his lips as he twists the latch on the door of the exquisitely painted box. Inside is a clay figure—an ancient Chinese warrior. With the push of a lever, the platform on which the statue sits rolls out.
His hosts are awed enough to murmur and clap.
“Wow! What exactly is that?” Arnie asks.
“It looks like one of China’s ancient terra-cotta warriors of X’ian,” Abu answers. “Back in the 1970s, while digging a well, a couple of farmers in the Shaanxi province unearthed a similar clay figurine. When all was said and done, eight-thousand of them were uncovered. They’d been buried in the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. In fact, there’s an exhibit of them here, at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.”
“So, how old do you think it is?” Jack wonders.
“Qin ruled around 209 BC, so it’s at least that old,” Abu responds. “But this one is a replica.”
“How do you know?” Jack asks.
“Because it’s the spitting image of Xi Jinping, China’s current president.”
Darned if he’s not right.
“Nailed him!” Arnie yells in my ear. “The dude who brought the box is the sculptor, Carolus Duran.”
I recognize that name, too. Known as “the Twenty-First Century’s Rodin,” Duran’s works can be seen in many great art institutions, including the National Gallery in Washington, London’s National Gallery, and the Met in New York.
“Your president should be quite pleased with the resemblance,” Duran declares.
“When will it be delivered?”
Duran glances down at his watch. “In half an hour, it is to be transported via train to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, along with the rest of the soldiers in the exhibit now at the Asian Art Museum, just in time for the presidential reception tomorrow evening.”
“President Xi will be honored to receive such a unique gift from your president.” Li’s smile is too wide to be genuine. “I presume you’ve done as I asked?”
Duran nods. “Yes, of course! I’ve hidden the secret compartment, here.” He points under the left arm of the soldier, which is raised slightly from the torso, as if it’s holding something. “There is an indentation, here. Press slightly, and it opens, like so.”
To prove his point, Duran presses a panel in the armor directly under the soldier’s armpit. Apparently he has pushed a spring lock because it appears to fall into the opening that has magically appeared. Duran’s hand disappears into the statue as far as his wrist. He shifts it slightly, and then pulls it out. The panel drops back into place, as if the clay has never moved.
“Excellent,” Li murmurs. “Now, we shall toast your masterpiece—and the release of your parents from our hospitality in Chengdu.”
Duran winces at Li’s joke at his expense.
“Arnie, what’s he referring to?” Jack asks.
Arnie’s research is fast and furious. “Apparently Duran’s folks disappeared about a month ago, while on a group tour of China. Chengdu is one of China’s largest cities inland—much too rainy and overcast to be a major tourist stop.”
“In other words, they were kidnapped as a way to coerce Duran to alter the statue for their needs,” Abu surmises.
“I have a bottle of Russo-Baltique, for just this occasion.” Li nods at one of his associates, whom I’ve nicknamed Snapped Fingers because that is exactly what will happen to him the next time his chubby paws grab at anything on me that isn’t wrapped in seaweed or rice. I call Li’s other toady Poked Eyes, because he seemed mesmerized by my Telly Savalas, and I’d like to alleviate him of that fixation.
“Donna, don’t move,” Jack warns me.
He’s preaching to the choir. I shut my eyes tightly before Snapped Fingers passes me on the way to the vodka room, knowing full well that Jack will warn me if I need to open them again.
“He’s found the bottle,” Jack whispers. “Okay, he’s walking out now … He’s gone. You can open your eyes.”
Arnie whistles. “That vodka is worth a million and a half dollars. The flask is solid gold, made from old coins from the turn of the last century!”
I watch as Duran adamantly shakes his head at his host’s offer. “No, really, I must be getting back. The museum’s curator and transportation director are expecting me to deliver the piece as soon as possible.”
Li’s smile hardens. “We will take care of its delivery.”
Duran’s eyes open wide. “But—but that would be considered most unconventional! The artist must always be present when our president commissions a welcoming gift, specifically for another head of state—”
Snapped Fingers pours the vodka into two glasses on the sideboard, and then places them on a tray. In no time, he is standing in front of the sculptor.
“They will understand that you’ve been called away early, to Los Angeles, to meet with your president,” Li’s tone is gentle, as if he’s talking to a child. “No one keeps great men waiting, am I right? Now, let us drink up.”
The fear doesn’t leave Duran’s face, even as he watches Li take one of the glasses. Finally, he takes the other glass from the tray; he raises it to his lips.
I would wager it’s a cocktail of succinylcholine—a paralytic agent—and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. As he falls backward, Snapped Fingers is ready to catch him, and ease him onto the floor.
Li takes something from his inside jacket pocket and places it into the statue’s hidden compartment.
“That’s it—the intel!” Jack declares. “The president won’t even know that he’s handing it over to President Xi, along with the statue.”
“And should word leak out, he’ll be disgraced,” Abu adds. “His detractors can use it to call for his impeachment, maybe even his resignation—or worse, call him a traitor, and ask that he be tried as such.”
Just as Poked Eyes wheels the box out the door, I let loose with a squeak of a sneeze.
“Oh … hell.” The dread in Jack’s voice tells me all I need to know: That slight movement caught the attention of Hong Li.
He waves at his bodyguard. “Take care of her.”
He’s out the door, too, with Snapped Fingers on his heels.
I am left with King Kong.
Jack shouts, “Hang on, Donna, I’m on my way.”
I’m hanging on, alright—to the far side of the table, which is now the only thing between King Kong and me. It’s too wide for him to reach over it, but the platters I throw at him bounce off, like beer caps in a pong game between two drunks.
He tilts the table on its side and rushes towards me, swatting off my kicks as if they’re raindrops until he’s got me backed up against the wall—really, against the chef’s workstation. He grabs one of my legs and jerks it up, so that I’m now flat on the countertop. He has one hand on my throat. He smiles when he sees my eyes grow big at the realization that he’s cutting off my oxygen with his broad thumb.
Gasping, I grasp at anything, and come up with a chopstick.
When I jab his eye, he howls and backs off. He hesitates only a second before yanking it out. A torrent of blood pours forth. I’m a mother of two tweens who play sports like kamikazes and their little sister does anything they say on a dare, so granted, I’m no stranger to blood, but this has my lunch climbing into my throat.
King Kong has me cornered in front of the door to the vodka freezer. He’s only six feet away and rushing right at me when I throw my last weapon—the chef’s Blue Steel Ao-ko Mioroshi Namiuchi knife.
The good news: as it hits his chest, it stops his forward momentum.
The bad news: when he falls over, it’s forward—and on top of me.
Even worse news: As I fall backward with him on top of me, the force of our weight pushes open the door to the freezer and propels me into it—
And clicks shut behind me.
I try shoving the door, but it won’t open. King Kong’s body is, quite literally, a dead weight blocking my only way out.
My situation is dire. I’m naked, I’m freezing, and for once I’m in no mood for a vodka martini.
Despite the fact that the glass wall between me and the dining suite is tempered and thick, I pray I can penetrate it somehow. Shivering, I stalk the room, looking for a way out of my predicament.
My eyes scan the backlit vodka case. Like the antique gold Russo-Baltique, all of the bottles in Hong Li’s personal stash are works of art. Belvedere’s bottle is encased in a glass bear. The Diva bottle is especially stunning: a clear cylinder with a tube of precious gems in the center.
But neither of those will give me what I need: freedom.
However, a bottle encrusted with diamonds may just do the trick.
There are several here. Oval Vodka’s bottle is covered in them, but unfortunately its shape plays off its name. The cask-like Alizé Vodka bottle is studded with pink crystals. I slam it against the edge of the table, and most of the crystals fall to the floor, so that’s of no help.
The next bottle I grab—a brand called Iordanov—is so embellished with diamonds that it glistens in the light. Holding it by its long neck, I once again whack the center table with all my might.
I’m left holding a piece of very expensive glass still encrusted with diamond crystals, where it counts most: around its jagged end.
By now the cold is getting to me. I can barely feel my fingers or toes, and my muscles ache. I drop to my knees against the wall with my homemade glasscutter, which I hold tightly as I etch a square in the glass. Here’s hoping it’s large enough for me to fit through, and that it’s not just the size I wish I were. (Note to self: pinch that inch, then get rid of it for good.)
I don’t have much strength, but still, I kick at the etched square. I hear it give way—
Then I pass out.