The 7 Ways to Live Life is coming soon!
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First two chapters (c) Isvari Mohan, 2017:
Chapter 1: Cosmos, California.
The only way you can get to the future is to make it through the present.
It was a bright and calm day.
The blistering, disgusting August sweated itself into September, the new freshman class arrived to a distant sea breeze whistling its way through bike racks and dorms, and two women were killed.
The first woman, Ming, had hurriedly slipped something into a bag, her fingers lacing around the terrified gun still shrouded in folds of fabric. She breathed heavily and bit her lip to help assuage the pain from her broken leg. Spikes of agony were shooting through her body and swallowing her knee cap.
She disappeared before the campus workers came to put the welcome gifts in the airport shuttle. The six plush carry-ons were small presents for the new foreign students and were stamped in cold letters that said “L.I.F.E.” All of them had college t-shirts, pens, pads, name-tags, fliers, and little trinkets inside. One of them also had an extra thing: a multinational, multi-billion dollar secret. Ming had made sure of that.
“I have time to get out of this,” she muttered under a stale breath, thin lines cutting through her face and narrowing her eyes. She was herded back to the red van, the hidden snipers still trained on her. The morning sunlight streamed sleepily into the tiny video camera on her jacket.
They waited for the rescue operation to come into effect in a small alley ten miles away before they shot her. One bullet to the brain, one to the heart. She didn’t crumple like a broken leaf until a full second later, no sound of hurt, no protestation. The way that good spies go. The American government could do nothing but retrieve the body and ship it off to Washington. A certain bald man would later see the gashes in her skin and read the results from an autopsy that showed how painful her death really had been.
Later that afternoon, another woman walked through the sprawling campus of Longhorn University on the side closest to the ocean. She sat under an orange tree almost breaking with fruit, shading a patio and a large, fresh white sign saying “L.I.F.E.” She fanned herself with a damp pamphlet.
“I wonder what it’s like,” she said, clawing away the auburn waves that reached for her face like tendrils.
“What what’s like?”
“Coming here from another country with absolutely no one to help you around.”
“Oh, they’ll be fine, Courtney,” a man answered her, a crinkle swimming on his forehead. “Don’t be worried about that.”
“As the president’s wife, it’s my job to be worried.”
“I’m a bit worried too, Jim,” another man, tall and sunburned, said. He seemed to be a person with too many secrets to keep and his eagle eyes scanned around, as if waiting for someone. “But it’s not like they’re alone. Jessica is there to show them around. She’s lived in California forever.”
“She doesn’t impress me as the type you’d have picked, Hart,” Jim said.
“I know. Why did you pick her?” Courtney asked her husband. “I thought you’d have picked someone like you, or at least someone qualified. She has a terrible school record and has been all over the place.”
“She has a good attitude and is very confident. She wanted to get into this college like crazy, and, frankly, you’re right. She doesn’t have the academic skills to cut it. When she was rejected, she came banging on my door, and I gave her this job. Fine tuning the new overseas students will be plenty use enough for her…besides we needed two more girls to balance the three boys. Thank you very much, Jim,” he gave Jim a glance more of interest than contempt.
“Hey, we were supposed to be color-blind when we did the selecting,” Jim’s voice was a shade too loud and Hart sent him a “cool-it-a-little” glare. Hart was good at that, Jim thought. He had a very expressive face which probably gave off hundreds of distinct phrases. This glare was a mastery of the golden eyes, softly relaxed brows, and a quick shift of the lips under drawn cheekbones.
“Yeah, not sex-blind, Jim! You know this cottage has only two bedrooms and two bathrooms. That means three girls and three boys.”
“Which is sexist as hell.”
“Anyway,” Jim continued, “we randomly picked Aryan Karan, Fu Da, Aiko Moore, and Jonathan Strong. They are all very international. Then we realized we ran out of funds…”
“Thanks to your expensive personal tastes, Jim,” Courtney chided. She didn’t know the details of her husband’s planning, of course, but she knew about the college dynamics. Jim had once been her boyfriend too, and she remembered he hadn’t been able to keep money down for an hour. Interesting how life worked out.
“Whatever. Esmeralda Boryanova’s father is paying for her…he’s very rich. And then there’s this Jessica, who’s paying for herself, I think.”
It wasn’t true, but Hart was pleased Jim thought so. Besides, the chit-chat was good. The whole point was to convince Courtney – and everyone else – that there wasn’t a thing out of place with the new program.
“Interesting lot, anyway. When are they going to be here?”
“Any minute now…the campus bus picked them up from the airport. All except Jessica. Wait, that’s her! That’s Jessica.” Hart walked over to a confident young woman talking with a freshman orientation helper next to the patio, his piercing eyes glancing around. Her brown hair glinted in the sun as she turned on him. Like Hart, she walked and talked with a sureness that was as flawless as it could be without turning into obnoxiousness.
“Hello, Hart,” she said brightly with a quick smile that was as gorgeous as it was intentionally insincere. “Oh, guess I should call you Mr. Randolph, no President Randolph, right?”
“Hart is…no, uhm, yes, yes…President Randolph is better.” He wiped his brow with a clean, large hand. “This is my wife, Courtney. Courtney, this is Jessica Hampton.”
“Hi, dear, it’s so great to see that you volunteered for this position.”
“I didn’t. I was recruited for it.”
“Of course, of course. How are you feeling?”
“Quite lovely, actually.”
“You know, dear, I love your hair and those shoes. Perfect combination. Where did you get them?” She said it in the soprano manner of a house-wife and finished with a curious flip of her hand.
“Jessica here just arrived and I’m sure that –”
“By the way, President,” she cut him off, “my name is Spice. Everyone calls me Spice, not only my friends. So you can too.” She turned to Courtney, “Where did I get what? My shoes? They were a going away present from the girls at Blackton – that’s the boarding school I went to. As for the hair, it’s natural. So it’s from…my parents.”
President Randolph had cleared his throat and looked away from Spice’s eyes, his head shaking a little.
“Um, we are going to be leaving so, um, we’ll greet you, all of you, I mean, formally this evening. Come, Courtney,” Hart led his wife away, who flashed Spice a sweet grin as she turned.
Later, Hart said that was the last time she had smiled.
“Well, her parents must be happy she made it to such a prestigious university,” Courtney said as they left earshot. She had tugged her slender arm around Hart’s.
“Actually, she has none…or, anyway she doesn’t know who they are. Well at least…What I mean is – she was adopted. Twice. Her first adopted parents, the Hamptons, gave her up to a single mother who then died when she was 16. She had quite a bit of money, though, so she’s been living like a little queen at the boarding school she’s been at since. It seems she spent holidays with some of her friends. Legally, she got emancipated, I think.”
“Oh, that’s impressive. She’s such a pretty little lady, though.”
“Pretty, yes. Lady, no,” Hart responded, a light wind ruffling his slick hair.
Hart got in the car first and Courtney second. Back then, people still drove cars and there were tons of accidents. It was the first time in years that Courtney forgot the seatbelt.
Spice turned around and tiptoed away. It wasn’t like her to eavesdrop, but she’d wanted to know what that horrible President and his almost too young wife had thought about her. Not that she cared. She didn’t care. At all. If she had, she would already be blackmailing him. She squashed a beetle into the floor, grinding it with her heel and imagining it was all her troubles.
In a small van that was pulling into the front of the university and trying to make its way through the crowds, five young men and women sat, jostling with their suitcases, trying to talk to each other. Aryan Karan had introduced himself first. He was from Dubai, born to first-generation Indians, and could only claim Indian heritage in his name. His features were quite European and though handsome in his own way, he was the type of person who could be anyone else, a forgotten face in a sea of others. He had the singular gift of absolute curiosity and kept trying to start conversations with the others in the van. They had been cold-shouldering him out of clear exhaustion but were beginning to give up to his tenacity.
“My friends stopped calling me R.E., because I hate that name,” he was saying, “but my sister keeps calling me that. She’s not my friend and never will be. That’s the strange thing. You’d think I’d be missing my family and all. And I am, honestly. But I’ll see them in a few months, and then I have to tell my parents I don’t want to go into science. Not that I know what I want to go into. I love them, but they’re typical Indian parents, you know.”
They didn’t know and it was just as well, because his parents were far from typical. They didn’t care in the least if he went into science, but he said it anyway, as a conversation booster. He continued, his dark brown eyes hazing with a mixture of disgust and loathing, “And god, my sister is a slut. I’ll never be missing her. What about you, Jon?”
“I think you should not use God’s name in vain or call your sister a…you know. Here’s a picture of my sister, by the way, and I miss her quite a bit too much. My parents are, well, very wealthy and I don’t see much o’ them. But she and I became quite close.” Jonathan Strong was fair-haired and blue-eyed, a perfectly spotless, angelic young man that gave the impression of being an absolute hindrance to any sort of fun. He was wearing a blue oxford shirt that had casually wrinkled itself at the elbows as if in defiance to him, but he was still so preppy that people at prep schools probably felt like homeless slobs when they met him.
“She’s very pretty,” Aryan said, blinking at the phone.
“Oh, I love British accents,” Aiko Moore cut in, commenting on Jon’s marked speech. “My father does wonderful impressions of them. By the way, do you know if we are required to stay in the cottage they provide for us? My parents are going to be here as well. I’m probably going to live with them. We found a place only ten minutes walking distance from…wait, I have a call.”
She answered a little blue phone with an obnoxious yellow and gold om sticker pasted on the outside. She explained it was her parents and then took off in an absolutely unintelligible jumble of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Fu Da quietly commented that he spoke Mandarin too.
“Oh, really?” Aryan’s eyes smirked. The way Fu Da spoke English might as well have been Chinese.
“I am from China. We speak Mandarin in China. It is a language of deep cultural meaning.”
“Are you here with your family?” Jon asked, preventing Aryan from another ill-timed comment.
Fu Da’s black hair hung over his square eyebrows as he bowed his head, appearing almost as some wounded bird of prey. “My mother is here. With me. I have no other family, though I once had a sister. She was killed when she was a kid. My father is still in China. In prison.”
Aiko had hung up and was staring at him. Esmeralda Boryanova, who had been pretending to be asleep, clutched the picture of her dead mother in her right hand and tried to shut out visions of her father. She tried to focus on her memories of Romania, the solitary farms, and the loud, well-fed gypsies she’d grown up with. A black tear rolled down her cheek as she thought of her young cousins waking up that day after the raid and finding her gone.
As the van slowly made its way to the back of the university, a soft-haired girl was sitting on a patio, squashing ants one by one, and trying to fight back tears that threatened to erupt from her green eyes. She looked up as it revved in and watched quietly as the students piled out, grabbing their suitcases and looking warily around. Da looked up at her, and at that moment, a tiny water droplet streamed down her cheek. But by the time the others got around to noticing her, all semblance of sorrow and weakness had dropped away, and Aryan went up to her.
“Aryan,” he said, shaking her hand, “from South Africa originally and then I lived in Dubai. But ancestrally Indian. You must be Jessica. Nice name for such a lovely girl.”
“It’s Spice. And don’t flirt with me. Listen, I have no idea what it’s like in Dubai, but – ”
“You can come and visit me if you like…you’ll find out. You’re an orphan, where else will you go? We’d love to have you.”
Spice’s lips curled and Da put a suitcase down with a thud. “Well, technically, there are a lot of places she could go. And I would assume, based on your introduction, unsavory social skills, and your own admission of what your family is like, that she would rather go to any number of other places. Fu Da is my name, by the way,” he bowed to Spice. “I am from China. My mother and I have come here on political asylum.”
“You might not want to comment on what other people should and shouldn’t do,” Jon began. “Your own social skills seem also to be lacking. Where I come from…uh…”
He stopped and the others turned around. Spice was staring at the girl who climbed out of the bus. She had large, soulful eyes, thick curls that hung to her shoulders, and an exquisitely designed blue dress that picked up the color of the sky. The other four hadn’t noticed her at the airport, because she’d been the first in the van and had come from a different terminal. “Do you need help with…oh, ok…,” Aryan said as he watched her lift a heavy bag down as if it was a feather. She was thankful for the offer, but clung to her bag. She stepped down from the van, lightly, gracefully, like a ballet dancer, and she peered around at all the others gaping at her.
It wasn’t that she was extremely out of the ordinary. She was, indeed, very beautiful, but it was the entire, worn-out yet sharp, intensely foreign air about her that was intriguing. She seemed almost oblivious to her own beauty, and not in a coquettish way, but rather as if she was honestly more used to punching men with her hand than letting them kiss it. Jon thought she looked like a queen from a fairytale. He blushed.
Spice broke an envious silence, “What is your name? Where do you come from? Oh, and that dress is way too much for California or any school, for that matter.”
“I know,” Esmeralda said. “My father has absolutely no taste. Not in clothing his children, nor in choosing which women to leave.” It was strange for her to be this open, but a fortune teller had told her she’d make five new friends last week. She judged people in just a few seconds, and she had already decided that these five would do.
“My name is Esmeralda Besnik,” she tossed her bag off her shoulder, “though my surname according to the university is ‘Boryanova.’ I do not wish to take my father’s name, nor will I. I grew up with my mother on a farm in Romania. I’m a gypsy and I don’t mind being called that. I don’t wear stuff like this ever. Jeans and t-shirts will be fine here?” She spoke in a lovely, sing-song voice, with the type of accent that made English beautiful. It was hard not to be jealous of her.
“It seems you’re cool,” Aiko said, noticing Spice’s look. “Good energy is a good thing. Embrace it. Yes, jeans should be fine.”
“Good energy? You do know there is no such thing. Energy is merely a function of the capacity to do work and –” Da stopped as the boys were called in to see their room. The girls watched their retreating backs critically.
“I don’t actually have any jeans with me, but I have some money…” Esmeralda began.
“You can have some of mine,” Aiko said, a thick black braid swinging around her neck of its own accord. “I have far too many. And I know what it’s like to be completely out of place, too. It was like that when we moved to the Falkland Islands from Hong Kong.”
“What do you think of Aryan?” Spice asked, switching the conversation. She was a little too sure that Esmeralda would look good in everything and she had liked getting attention for the first time. She didn’t want a gypsy girl to ruin that.
“He’s alright,” Esmeralda said. “I think he’ll be much more fun than Jonathan or Da. Oh, there’s a crow! Find another one. Find another one!”
“One crow means sorrow. And two crows…thank god, there’s another one! Two means joy.”
Spice rolled her eyes. “Esmeralda, that superstitious nonsense would probably have gotten you tried for witchcraft in the past.”
“Of course you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” Esmeralda tossed her head like a proud horse ready to challenge the wind. “And I prefer to be called Rald. I’m not some seductress from the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Spice sighed. Maybe Rald wouldn’t be much competition after all. The assistants, proudly wearing Longhorn hats and t-shirts, came out and checked their ID’s, showing the girls their quarters and telling Aiko that it would be more than fine, given the University’s limited resources, if she wanted to stay at home.
Each room had three beds – two bunk beds with a rickety ladder to the top one and one single bed. The girls’ room was designed in pastel pink and white with a single fluffy pillow for each girl and a thin sheet. Spice told the others that they could always buy replacements and that they’d be provided with thick down blankets in the winter. Aiko said that she’d never use down, because of the cruelty to birds, and Spice said fine, she could freeze if she wanted to. The boys’ room was decorated in shades of blue and the shared study room, kitchen, and bathrooms in brown and yellow. All in all, it looked like a children’s playhouse and the truth was it had been part of a daycare center the year before.
The six young adults washed up, looked at pictures of their families or wrote in their diaries, and as if with one thought, entered the shared hall at the same time, seating themselves on mats and couches.
Esmeralda plopped gracefully down next to Aryan, wearing one of Aiko’s jeans. She’d washed her hair and drops dashed out of her curls. “So, how’s your life?” she asked, noticing his hard jawline and twinkling eyes and coloring slightly.
“Better than most,” his one slightly crooked tooth made his smile even warmer. “Yours seems to have been pretty rough.”
“Understatement of the year,” she sighed dramatically. “I don’t even want to be here…I miss Saihra and Niko so much.”
“And they are your…” Aryan left off, expecting Esmeralda to finish but she waited, “brother and sister? Uncle and aunt?”
“Cousins. They were my cousins.”
“Well –” She couldn’t remember anything clearly, only gun-shots and violence, blood, her father taking her away, “‘Are,’ I think…and they will think that I betrayed them.”
“I’m so sorry for you, Esmeralda,” he patted her hand and her watery eyes met his.
“Call me Rald, actually, and thanks. I’ll tell you the details later,” her eyes fell on the others in the room, and Aryan took the hint.
“At the risk of sounding clichéd – you lost two friends, but I hope you make many more here.”
“I’ve already made one,” she replied with a coy smile. Jon had pretended to be looking out the window, but he frowned.
Meanwhile, at the President’s house in the middle of campus, a secretary got a shaky call from Mr. Randolph. “My wife,” Hart said with a voice trembling with emotion, “she…didn’t make it.” One second, she was singing along to a car radio, and the next, she was a bloody, mangled mess of blood, and muscle, and brains. Still a less painful death than Ming’s, of course, but quite gory in the aftermath.
The six L.I.F.E. kids, when they found out, took the news as one more thing in their already hectic lives and moved on with their stuff, many secretly thankful they didn’t have to dress up for a party. They ate at the dining halls for the first – and, they decided, last – time. Aryan was the only one who didn’t complain, but he was willing to eat absolutely anything, and he proved as much by finishing some sort of goopy, tasteless, uncooked thing that the dorms called “pizza.”
In the night, sitting around “the Commons” as Jon had named the shared sitting area, the six students shared ages and majors. Aiko was 19 and wanted to go into medicine. Despite the fact she was a vegetarian and an animal lover, she handled blood very well and enjoyed the thought of saving lives, perhaps in a third-world country where doctors like her would be well-needed.
Spice was 18 and wanted to go into law or political science. She cared little of the world, but didn’t mind making a fortune pretending she did.
Esmeralda was 17 and a born dancer. She was young, but intelligent, had not been to a formal school in a long time, but was quick to learn and intense in her studies and her life.
Da was exceptional, a prodigy perhaps, at math and wanted to be a particle physicist at CERN. The only thing he did, being a self-proclaimed nerd, was study and research and work alone, so the job fit him well. He, like Esmeralda, might graduate young because he’d already gotten a math specialization two-year degree from an intense recruitment-only university program in Beijing. He and Jon were 18.
Jon was a typical British boarding school child, old-fashioned and religious, and going into theology and history because he felt that’s what God – or his parents – would want.
Aryan was 19 and had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do, other than he wasn’t going to go into science.
As they headed off to bed and Jon very loudly said his prayers, Da mentioned that they were like six sides of the same shape.
That name stuck and in their first picture together, that Aiko insisted they take, the bags under their eyes and fake smiles notwithstanding, their arms were linked together in a crude hexagon.
Chapter 2: Arlington, Virginia.
If a tsunami is far away, it does not reach you at once. But when it does reach, it hits you with more of its waves.
“Random question. Who the hell is this Ming?”
“Mr. President –” a plump secretary was clipping down the floors, her heels resounding through the empty hall. A few strands of gray streaked through her hair.
“It’s Glibson, Jane.” A sharp looking man in a sharper suit, Glibson was the President of the United States, fresh off of elections, though it had actually been a while, and a tad too polished for the Pentagon. A fact Jane hadn’t thought possible until now.
She lowered her Blackberry from her eyes and glanced at him, “It’s Dr. Harris, Mr. President.”
“Well, Dr. Harris, perhaps you could just give me the summary. Very high-level?”
“I’ll start at the beginning if you like. You understood from the debriefing that the U.S. has been funding the Black Arrow in China, right? The Black Arrow,” her blunt fingernails rubbed a yellowing eyebrow, “are rebels fighting the Chinese and North Korean governments and they’re succeeding, in a way.”
“Yes, yes. I know that. I know all of this. I just want it repeated.”
“Then perhaps, Mr. President, you shouldn’t interrupt me.” Jane made no small show of her irritation that her close friend, the Democratic presidential candidate, had lost to this over-slicked pile of pressed-shirts. He smelled like women’s cologne and rosewater and it was all too much. Such a close election too.
“I’d think you’d do better than to speak to me like that.”
Jane rolled her eyes, “I’m not your secretary. And if you want to take it up with the boss, take it up with him. At any rate, the Chinese have not unearthed any definitive link between the Black Arrow and the U.S. We are succeeding in weakening ties between China and Iran. But here are the problems: 1) The arms the Black Arrow is getting are being funneled through the Potowar in Pakistan, which is terrorist controlled. 2) ISIS is stealing some of those arms. 3) Other Islamic groups that get some of the money and arms – trickled down of course – are running operations in Africa involving the illegal ivory trade, human trafficking, and drugs. Then they are working with Chinese businessmen who are buying these drugs and ivory. So far, so good?”
“So far I know all of that. Obviously.”
“It’s hardly obvious what a Republican President knows. To be honest, I’m surprised you know Africa is a continent and not a country.”
Glibson frowned, “Look, I will have you fired.”
“I’m enjoying this because I know you can’t.”
Glibson grunted. “Well, I understand that this is why Iran has locked its borders and stopped responding to the nuclear deal. It’s dealing with Russia, now, right? I wasn’t debriefed on this – it’s all been so soon since this urgent meeting was called. Is Iran nuclear?”
“Yes. We are nearly certain of that. We couldn’t afford to tick off Russia and have them side China on a little island deal we had going. Iran has small nuclear weapons and can process more, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
“So now, the ultimate question,” they had reached the end of the hall and Glibson swung into an arched doorway, “who the hell is Ming and why is it important that she’s dead?”
“You know there are clichéd male spies, right? And clichéd female ones?”
“Well, Ming, sir, was both,” she opened a door to a meeting room in which everyone else had already assembled. “I’m briefing him on Ming,” she said.
“If she’d done it faster, we’d be done by now.”
Jane sat down and clipped through her memorized speech, her voice almost flat, but with a higher-pitched breathy word jumping up here and there. “It’s been rumored in the government that Ming had a family and young child whom she left for her job. Ming was, as far as the Chinese were concerned, a trusted official of the government and a trusted advisor to the Communist Party. It was there that she met and worked with Chang, another spy who decided to join American hands and double-cross the government. They worked very closely together on a number of different cases for several years and had succeeded in penetrating the Chinese government’s steel shell. They were prime American assets.”
What the Pentagon – and Jane – did not know was that some of the secrets Ming and Chang had discovered were ones of American brutality and that they had started working together on other projects, regarding every American request with heavy suspicion.
The last year, one of the CIA’s spies in Eastern Europe, Anya, had been murdered horrendously – tortured to death, in fact – and she had been a close friend of both Chang and Ming. They had taken the loss quite hard. Chang was later caught one night on the wrong side of the North-South Korean border. Ming escaped, but Chang was placed in the murky depths of a life-long prison. His family, with Ming’s indirect help, was said to have escaped to the U.S., after receiving political asylum, but several people involved doubted that. Ming continued working in China at great risk to her life.
The little that Jane knew of that story she was instructed not to share with the President yet. They didn’t want to shock him with too many things.
“And her death?” Glibson glanced around at the dark prison-like room. Really they’d do better to look less like a movie and more like a cheery office space. He’d change that later. He didn’t like protocol.
Another man jumped in, “She was betrayed by the Chinese, so we wrote her off for dead. The life a spy, okay? There was little we could do. She was radio silent until three hours before she was shot. She transferred the capsule she had on her to a bag. It has the highest state secrets – including the Blenheim Papers, which you know of – and has state-of-the-art tracking and self-destruction devices. It’s not in American-friendly or even American-neutral hands now.”
“See here, Mr. Glibson, Ming is a grave loss to this country. The Chinese finally found out she was our agent and her life was in great danger. She knew that,” a bald man said. Thick hair sprouted from his frowned eyebrows and dissolved into the expanse of forehead. His skin was just the right shade of brown for him to pass off as any race. He was old, but not with the gray oldness of a senator. He was more sprightly, the fat thrusting itself into freckled wrinkles. More grandfather than killer. But of the two, he wasn’t the former.
“What about the information she was carrying?” Glibson asked.
“That’s the thing,” a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, chugging a huge gulp of water. “We don’t know. If China has it, we’ll find out in a year, tops.”
“What did she have exactly?”
“Definitive proof on the recent Chang case as well as the faked murder of Ali.”
“But that would destroy the alliance between China and Iran. We could probably start dealing with Russia again.”
“But she was storing it with the U.S. Black Arrow files, so…”
“And it’s worse. The Blenheim Papers were being transferred at the time as well. It’s such damn bad luck for her to have been caught now with them also on it!”
The bald man cleared his throat, “Calm down. This may be the biggest intelligence leak in American history. But it may not be. It was a mistake and the Chinese don’t know the Blenheim Papers are there. I doubt they even know what the Blenheim papers are.”
“I barely do,” President Glibson said. “The debriefing was all very quick. It basically has all the financial transactions between the Big Triangle – that’s the military industrial complex, oil, basically Mynxx, and the CIA – and the Arab countries, right?”
“Basically?” the bald man coughed with slight pride. “God, sir, you’ve just listed the one set of papers that can completely destroy the country. Forget what the public would think about the money laundering and the wars it’s caused. Pockwood Charleston or Aetherin, or frankly even the CIA mammoths, will serve your head on a platter to the Saudi sheiks if they have to. If that information surfaces, a lot of people will make you pay for it.”
“Why me?” the President said, like a teenager whining to her mom. “Frankly, this is completely the fault of you and those CIA mammoths.”
“Well, we don’t take the blame kindly. We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs in the public lately. It’s easier to just vote you out of office.”
“Isn’t it easier to sacrifice a few billion dollars here or there?”
“Oh, they’ve already taken their few billion hit. Now, they need the money and fast. And you realize that with some of these people they get a good portion of this cash from China. It’s what makes our job so damn hard.”
“Well, you should tell them we’ll only deliver on our side if they stop the doubling on theirs. We can’t keep up this charade with China,” President Glibson said. “There have been too many close calls for my liking. If the war touches U.S. soil, I draw the line.”
“You realize, it’s what they want, though? Think about how many more weapons they can sell if the public is behind another decade-long war.”
“You promised,” Glibson’s green eyes buckled under a torrid glower. “These are our people we’re talking about and I’m going to represent them.”
“Hey, it’s not my problem,” the bald man said, his lips sweetly upturned. “I just said that there are some CEO’s who’d rather sell their missiles than save lives. And if you can’t deliver enough war in the Middle East, they’re going to bring it home.”
“Then step up the ante. A suicide attack in Tehran or something…link it to Al Qaida.”
The bald man stared at him with his beady eyes. Sometimes, he thought, the President of the U.S. would have been better as Miss America. Not that that really bothered him. It only gave him more power.
“First, to bring this back to the topic at hand, we can’t. Second, ISIS is the problem, not Al Qaida. We can keep funding the Black Arrow, but I’m not going to tick Russia off while the Blenheim papers are running around. We don’t want to make it in some people’s interests to support a transition of power in the Middle East. Then there’ll be no more oil. Trust me, they won’t be kind enough to cut your head off, then.”
“America is almost self-dependent on oil. Why do we even need theirs?”
“There’d be no control in the region. Oil is control, Mr. President.”
“There’ll be war if there’s a transition,” the President said.
“Not if it’s complete. Right now Iraq and Syria are stuck in transition. That’s a lot of war, a lot of terrorism, which theoretically could be better for us. Russia could stabilize the place in an instant. And then it’s curtains, America. If we want to win the war – even to set up democracy – we have to wait.”
“This is just terrible. I’d never have signed up for this job if I knew this is what it’s all about. I’m not even the most powerful person here, am I? I should be the one serving people’s heads on platters.”
“Well, sir, welcome to Washington.”
“Why not something in Saudi Arabia?”
The bald man patted him on the arm, “Listen, Glibson, the first thing you should learn in office is you don’t touch Saudi Arabia. They give us oil. They give us direct routes into a whole lot of networks. They deal with Pakistan. Their leaders are friends, close friends, of the Big Triangle.”
“Then what exactly are our options?”
“To follow up on the information capsule – it’s codenamed God’s Flower – and to put its suspects on high priority, without alerting the U.S. government or people at large. I guess Operation Black Arrow holds, as does Operation Khyber Pass, but we should be on the lookout for suspicious things. This is the worst time for such a thing to happen.”
“Then why the hell would you risk transferring the Blenheim papers? Any government that gets its hands on it will spin it! Even Downing Street probably,” Glibson was the type of man who thought he would sound wiser if he called the British government “Downing Street.” No one else at the Pentagon did.
“But we thought everything was safe. Absolutely safe. It was a mistake, and we’re not sure how it happened. China was one step ahead of us with Ming, apparently.”
“If I may,” someone else said, “you have nothing to worry about from the likes of London. English Oil, much like Mynxx, is quite invested in the whole thing.”
And then a brilliant idea hit the President, “Maybe Ming was double-crossing us?”
“No, she wasn’t,” the bald man looked at him with the “can we please not ask any more stupid questions” face of a tired parent.
“I understand why the Blenheim Papers needed transferring,” Glibson absentmindedly twisted his gold wedding ring around and around, “but why did you permanently give her the Black Arrow files?”
“It was her one hope of getting out alive. The Chinese needed her alive.”
“So you risked that information for one girl?” the President’s face turned red.
“That ‘one girl,’ sir,” the military advisor on China sarcastically made quotes in the air with his long fingers, “sacrificed her family and Chang, her friend and lover, in order to save our country. Don’t think she wouldn’t have given her life. But we needed her. We need her. We are now lost without her. And we can’t trust anyone. As many spies as we have in China, they must have an equal number here. This whole mission will be so much slower now.”
“And what about…God’s Flower?” the President asked. “I’m assuming we’re just going to have this covert CIA intelligence operation going on.”
“Clandestine,” the bald man said, squinting at a paper he’d picked up. “Not covert.”
“What’s the – ?”
“Look it up, Mr. President. Wikipedia will tell you the difference.”
“Fine. So what you do know about the information so far?”
“We have traced it as far as we can, and we can do no more.”
“Using astrology. How do you think? We have the best network of agents and information in the world. And we watched that leaked video very carefully. We have no reason to believe it is a fake,” the bald man allowed himself a measured eye-roll.
“Alright, alright. Who are the suspects?”
“We just ran over everything a few hours ago. It’s all very new. I hardly think I need insult you by telling you it’s beyond classified,” a younger man piped up.
“Of course, Bret!”
“Only one is an American, an orphan from California, I believe. Jessica Hampton is her name and she seems obviously above suspicion, but, then, so do all the others. She’s codenamed Queen Andes. The problem with the rest is they are students on visas…from all over the world. And there’s limited tracking we can do. For example, I could try to find out who Jessica’s real parents are, but it was a closed adoption – double-blind actually. And then people who are watching what we’re doing, like the FBI, will start getting suspicious.”
“Yeah, don’t do that. Then we’ll have the FBI faking reports and running smear campaigns and sending out informants that later get caught. They’ll mess the whole thing up. They always do. Find out all your information the old-fashioned way. By talking to people, looking up public records, and hiding all the people you use and records of what you’re looking up! No one should be able to trace this back to us.”
“Wouldn’t the FBI be useful?” Glibson asked. He had a soft spot for the FBI.
“Are you kidding?” the bald man bit down on his fingernail. “You’re talking about an organization that screwed up so badly they thought having a paid informant help the 9/11 terrorists was a good idea. Look, just let me handle them.”
“Moving on, are there any suspects from China?”
“One, only one from China. But he’s above suspicion, or at least I can be pretty sure he is.”
“Oh, this is him, is it? Well, he must be above suspicion…look who his father is!” the Secretary of Defense flipped through the files.
“Just because his father was an activist, doesn’t mean he’s above suspicion. And who else could it be?”
“There’s a girl from Eastern Europe, codenamed Sugar Rose, but her father’s Russian – could be a trail there, we know so little about her. The dad seems to have some Kremlin links, though mostly business oriented. She’s Romani – a gypsy, though we don’t call them that anymore. Then there’s an Indian American from Dubai, codenamed White Daisy, a Jonathan Strong from England, Carnation, such a clean man he is though, incredibly religious family. Notice the parents again. It can’t be him! Oh and there’s Aiko Moore, codename Lotus. Altogether normal family, no interesting background, half Japanese-American, half American, lived in the Falkland Islands, lived in Hong Kong as a small kid…none of them are likely candidates.”
“But it must be one of them?”
“Yes, one of them has the information…we are sure that the trail vanishes with those students in Longhorn and that little building they’re staying in.”
“All of them have the same L.I.F.E. bags, given to them the minute they arrived. And we know the information is, or was, in one of them. Ming was forced to put it in there. The question is which bag and why. It’s a risk to just have it floating out in the open, but they gave her no choice but to conceal it in there.”
“Yes, I have watched the video. How do we know she even put it in the right one? How would they have known?”
“Probably they didn’t. One of the kids has to know and must have very quickly looked for it in all the bags when they arrived. Or maybe there are names inside the bag on some of the welcome material and it’s less of a risk than you think.”
“How the heck do we pick the right kid?”
“We can’t. And it wouldn’t do if we pick the wrong one…and who is going to do this?”
“You’re right. No one in this room can risk their life – or is trained to do so…and the secrets are too great to send anyone else.”
“Why can’t we steal all the bags?” Glibson asked.
The bald man shut him up with a wrinkled nose, “Let the experts handle this, sir. We have to find someone to send, first. Not to mention if the kids really do have anything to do with it, they’ll remove it immediately. If we mess up that badly, everyone in the government will find out.”
“Too many governments would pay a fortune for double-crossing,” another man continued. “Too bad we can’t be sure about someone, like we could be about Ming.”
“Yeah, bit of luck there, the way we figured out we could trust her.”
“So what now?”
“Nothing, I guess. Five of them are innocent. I guess we should start crossing off one by one.”
“I can’t believe the Pentagon’s expert opinion is to do nothing,” the President said with a signature quick smile that was one of the many charismatic reasons he’d won the election.
“Meanwhile,” the bald man ignored him, “we’re making it impossible for anyone to get that information anywhere. The minute the chip is removed from the container, there will be a GPS tracker in effect. Unfortunately, it can’t be activated till then.”
“Does the person in possession of it know that?”
“Probably. But it will take them a lifetime to figure out how to turn that tracker off from the outside.”
“So this mission now proceeds slowly and cautiously. And we assume that this never happened with regards to the whole Black Arrow mission? We continue on our program, countering China, working with India and Japan – everything as if this didn’t happen,” the President said. “Rumors of her death won’t get out?”
“What rumors? There is only one man in the U.S. – in the world, most likely – who knows Ming’s real name and that’s me. Rumors can’t get out,” the bald man said.
“And from what we know only one person in this country knows of the information’s existence.”
“One of the students in Longhorn?”
“Well, or one of those six is a decoy and their father or mother probably is the real problem.”
“But that would rule out Queen Andes ‘cause she’s an orphan, and, surely, Plum Blossom.”
“Who is Plum Blossom?” the President threw his arms up, “and why can’t we use their real names?”
“Because if we’re used to talking in code there’s less room for error, later, sir,” Bret answered, “and it’s Fu Da.”
“I think we are too keen to rule out Fu Da.”
“Are you saying we can’t trust his father?” Bret’s lips pursed.
“No, I am saying we can’t trust his mother.”
“Well, how do you know the information was stolen by someone working against us? Maybe Ming intentionally –”
“They’d have told us if they were working with her. There’s plenty of reasons why, but that’s the most obvious one,” the bald man sighed. “It’s really too bad all these children had to end up in the same house thanks to –”
“Excuse me, but how do you know that only one person in this country knows?” President Glibson again.
“Well, Red Shark doesn’t trust anyone.”
“He or she,” continued an assistant, “is the only one who knows where God’s Flower is hidden now.”
“You know the Chinese armed spies who killed Ming? We captured them and tapped into their call with Red Shark. He said that he was the only one who knew about the information other than them…though we think he said it will ‘stay within his family.’”
“Or she, again, we don’t know. Whoever it was used robotic voice techniques.”
“But you couldn’t trace Red Shark?”
“Well, we tried.”
“And what did you find out?”
The Secretary of Defense straightened the papers on the table in front of him and looked up, “Look, the call came late this afternoon from an unidentified phone in Cosmos, California, within at least 10 miles of Longhorn. That’s really all we know.”