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My plan to amuse myself--and maybe you, too.
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The Story So Far...

April 2, 2021

He'd been restless and squirming since I'd come back aboard that afternoon. In many ways, Stavros was like a child—but such a handsome child, and I do have a fondness for beauty.

Finally he offered his confession as we sat on the upper deck, watching the Aegean sunset turn to velvet night. He waited until Nik had served the cocktails and we were alone again.

"Carissima," he said, "I'm afraid I lost them last night."

"Lost what, Stavros?"

"Your diamond earrings—I'm so sorry. I had three kings, but the Sheik—it turns out he had a flush."

Gambling again, on my yacht, with my money—and with the Sheik, no less. A cruel, unctuous man who wrongly thought Stavros was my weakness. No doubt my earrings, the stunning Merlin Twins, would look lovely on his new French mistress. I'd won the diamonds as second prize in a rather outrageous target shooting contest in Djakarta during my first marriage; I could have taken first but pulled my shot at the last minute to avoid the win. I could think of no other graceful way to turn down the matched pair of young slaves that ultimately went to the grinning victor, a purported great-grandnephew of the last Russian czar.

"Stavros, did the Sheik go with you when you got the diamonds?"

"Yes, Emma darling. I insisted. We had to keep each other honest."

Honesty was not a trait the Sheik was likely to ever show, but sweet Stavros didn't know that.

"He saw you open my safe?"

"Yes, but I held my hand over the keypad. He did not see the combination. I promise."

The Sheik, a fan of spy technologies, would have recorded the keypad's tones. Without even checking, I knew the slim, unmarked file was no longer in my safe.

The bait had been taken.

"Hand me my phone, Stav. Not that one; the secure one. I need to make a call."
 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:


A.   The story switches to the other end of Emma’s phone call: the nefarious hero. I’m thinking—a freelance spy type. Tall, blond, possibly Russian but available for the right price to any bidder. They have a history—and perhaps a future.

B.    The tale goes to the Sheik’s point of view. We find out what’s in the slim, unmarked dossier and eavesdrop on his plans for world domination.

C.    Our lady spy calls her government contacts to plot her next move; it turns out she works for the CIA or MI-6.
 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.


You have until Sunday evening (April 4) to cast your vote. Next installment on April 9. And we’re off!

April 9, 2021

Subject: Introducing the Hero

 

Preheader: The vote was definitive; very few people DIDN’T want to meet the hero. Some good suggestions, but I’m longing to meet him, too—so, here!

 

The phone in my hip pocket rang. The secure phone. Clients only. I looked away from the scope long enough to identify my caller. Worth the risk. If I lost my target, I’d recapture tomorrow. If I skipped a call, I might miss a job. Or a warning.

Ah.

At last.

At long last.

I checked the scope (aimed at the factory’s employee entrance) and tapped my earpiece to accept.

“Lady Emma,” I said in greeting.

Silence. Then a surprised laugh. My reward for days of fanatical research.

“Now, how did you find out I was a Lady?” she said. She was smiling, off-balance and trying to hide it. I grinned, my attention split. Small forms were filing out of the factory. I didn’t speak for fear she’d hear my answering smile.

This was a mistake. It allowed her to tag me in return.

“My,” she said. “You really are very resourceful, Dmitri Igorevich.”

I stepped back, startled, and cursed. “Chert poberi.” If she’d uncovered my middle name, she knew my family name as well. I shook my head and conceded the battle to her. “As are you, Lady Emma.”

Im my mind’s eye, I could see her incline her head in an elegant nod of acknowledgment. Her father was minor British nobility. I should have known. In a desert town outside of Kabul, at a Singapore casino’s chemin de fer table, on the tarmac at the Bishkek airport—the woman had an unconscious royalty to her movements that wetworks missions and an assortment of seedy characters couldn’t disguise.

She fascinated me.

“Shall we agree,” she purred, “that what we know won’t be used against each other?”

A promise she was as likely to break as I was, but we would lie to each other in the social protocol of the freelance espionage agent. “Of course. How can I help you, Lady Emma?”

“Stop calling me that, for one.”

“Apologies.”

“Forgiven. I’d like to hire you. Are you busy at the moment?”

I’d forgotten my quarry.  Emma was a distraction. A quick glance through the scope proved I’d missed my chance. Regain? Or address this issue later?

“Possibly. Depends on what the job is and how long it will take.”

“Can we meet to discuss it?”

I looked at the bare, ugly apartment. Its only redeeming feature (an unobstructed view of a distant factory) would not recommend itself to anyone other than me. “I’ll meet you. Shall we try somewhere more refined this time?”

She laughed. “Some place where I won’t get desert sands in my hair? Let’s go to Paris. I’ll meet you the day after tomorrow at noon local time, within sight of Winged Victory.”

The Nike of Samothrace stood in a vast stairwell in the Louvre. Several exits. Crowds. Metal detectors at the entrances. A good place for distrustful people to meet.

“I’ll be there.”

“Lovely. Thank you, Dmitri.”

“My pleasure.”

I disconnected, working to control the small grin that threatened.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

  1. A. Now we switch to the Sheik’s point of view, to measure his menace.

  2. B. We skip the intervening events and land with both feet in the Louvre at the appointed time

  3. C. Emma deals with an unexpected visitor on her yacht—a US Senator traveling in disguise

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (April 11) to cast your vote. Next installment on April 16.

Want a chunk of story every Friday by email? And you vote on what happens by Sunday? Sign up here!

I'm supposed to care about money, but I don't. I'm just here to amuse myself, and maybe you. This story is free to a good home!

21-04-16

 

Emma

Aboard the Labyrinth, moored in the harbor of the Greek island of Samos

 

     The phone rang at almost one in the morning.

     “Geia?” I answered in Greek, but the dock master was proud of his English.

     “Missus Emma,” he said, “I call late at the night but man here say he come to see you.”

     “Wait a moment, please.”

     It took only a moment to power up the drone and send it humming over the silent waters. On the video screen, I watched as the quadcopter approached the shack at the head of the docks, and shook my head when I saw who was standing within the circle of the dock lights.

     “Kristos, tell him I’ll pick him up in a few minutes.”

     “Thank you, Missus.”

     My crew had long since gone to their beds. I wouldn’t wake them to pick up our unexpected visitor. Besides, the fewer people who saw Bradford on my yacht, the better. I slid into the sleek launch bobbing at the stern and cast off. Piloting the small, nimble boat at night, secretly and alone, was a little thrill.

     I pulled up to a dark section of dock and saw Bradford peering uncertainly in my direction.

     “Come on,” I called. “You’d better hurry up.”

     At 58 years old, he was still fit. The easy way he joined me in the launch spoke of a lifetime in the boats of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

     “Don’t say anything,” I warned him. “Sound travels over water. Sit down.”

     Bradford was submissive to no man, but he knows when to listen. He did as he was told, and we were back at The Labyrinth in moments. I ushered him into the main salon and closed all doors and windows before turning to him.

     “Senator. What the hell are you doing here?”

     “I had to come. And no one saw me.”

     “Bradford. For Christ’s sake. You’ve got one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and half the world knows you were married to me thirteen years ago. Why would you come here now?”

     The windows were mirrored; no one moored nearby would see him pacing nervously, but I wished I’d kept the lights off anyway.

     “I need to impress on you how important this is, Emma.”

     “I already know. I told you I’d find out who’s trying to block you.”

     “If anyone found out what we did…”

     “What I did, Brad. You chickened out, remember?”

     “It doesn’t matter. It would be enough to sink a presidential campaign, and I’m announcing next month. We’ve got to nip this in the bud right now. You’ve got to figure out who’s behind this.”

     “We could have had this conversation by secure phone, Bradford. Why did you have to come in person? If even one person notices you, it’s only going to fan the fire.”

     “I took precautions. No one knows I’m here.”

     His security detail knew. His aids knew. His secretaries knew. His wife, a perfect daughter of the Mayflower and an ideal candidate for First Lady, would certainly know he wasn’t at home in his bed on Philadelphia’s Main Line. “That’s good.”

     “Offer me a drink.”

     “No—you’re not staying.” I was already dialing my phone. “I’ve got a friend who can get you.”

     “I’m on the ferry out tomorrow morning.”

     For one of the smartest people I knew, Bradford was being exceptionally thick-witted. I spoke to my contact in Greek.

     “Twenty minutes,” I said after I hung up. “Once you’re off the island, call your detail and tell them to meet you in Izmir.”

     “Turkey?!” Senator Kingston was astonished. “I’m not going to Turkey.”

     “Sure, you are. Abandon every plan you made. Charter a private plane in someone else’s name to get you out of there. And Brad—you and I aren’t going to meet again until you invite me to an inaugural ball, understand?”

     “Oh, I can be seen with you then?”

     “If I quash these rumors and get you elected, it would be perfectly acceptable to welcome your ex-wife to a party with a few thousand other revelers.”

     “First you have to make sure I get elected.”

     “It’s more than that, Bradford. You think they’d use this situation to keep you out of the White  House.”

     “Yeah?” he said, knowing I had more to say.

     “I’m thinking they’ll use it to control you once you’re in the White House.” His face went gray. “So don’t try to see me again. I’ll solve this, but you’ve got to give me space. Understand?”

     He nodded, and I took pity on him and switched to social chitchat until the small helicopter landed on the back deck.

     He looked at me mournfully as they took off, and I remembered why I’d loved him so deeply all those years ago.

     I waved to Bradford as his anxious face receded into the night sky. The sheik had taken the bait and I was on the verge of hiring Dmitri, the finest freelance espionage agent I’d ever come across. This was going to work out.

     Hopefully.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Emma contacts an old associate to enlist a little extra aid

B. A flashback details exactly what has Senator Kingston so unnerved

C. Emma meets Dmitri in the Louvre

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (April 18) to cast your vote. Next installment on April 23.

21-04-23 - Winged Victory

 

DMITRI

Lowest level, Daru Staircase, Denon Wing—Louvre. Paris

 

     It was a pleasure to watch Emma unobserved.

     She’d made no attempt to mask her identity. No scarf bound back the fullness of her mane, a pelt as rich and inky as a Siberian mink. No demure wardrobe hid the strength and grace of her body. No foot-friendly sandal or practical sneaker carried her across the museum’s parquet floors. Her stilettos, on display below perfectly-tailored trousers, rapped out the imperious strides of a queen.

     In fact it occurred to me that she had much in common with the hall’s only statue—Winged Victory. As I sat with the small crowd of art students, our easels set up against the wall and out of the path of the tourists, I added a bold, beautiful head to my sketch.

     High cheekbones. Flashing eyes. Slightly crooked nose that spoke of a life of adventure. A demanding, arrogant jawline. Emma was the embodiment of Nike, goddess of victory.

     The living beauty walked past the marble sculpture, stopping frequently to peer into her phone. Ah—she’d hacked into the security feed and was looking at the cameras to find me. Hard not to smile at her inventiveness.

     Emma had made it to the lowest level—was, in fact, within ten feet of me—and wrinkled her nose in annoyance. She thought I was late.

     I gave her a few minutes to use her eyes instead of her phone, and then I called to her.

“Milady. Over here.”

     Startled, she looked up to scan the crowd. Her eyes passed over me and then zeroed back in. “Have you been there the entire time?”

     She stopped me when I started to stand. “Wait. Let me see. Did you draw that?”

     I compartmentalized the warmth of her hand on my shoulder. “Not much to show for three hours on a camp stool.”

     “You got here at nine,” she mused. “That’s why I didn’t see you come in.”

     “I need to stretch. Let’s take in the museum.”

     “You’re not going to just leave this,” she said, looking at the easel.

     I shrugged. “Not important.”

     Emma studied me as I stepped away. “Leave the hat. I’m going to take the sketch. All right?”

     I suppressed a flush of pleasure. She liked my scribble. “Don’t like the hat?”

     She took it from my head and dropped it indifferently on the stool I’d vacated. “Your hair is much longer than I remember.”

     It was longer so I could alter my appearance quickly if necessary, but she didn’t need to know that. “Would you like me to leave the long hair behind, too?” I asked her archly.

     She reached up and tugged gently on a strand. “Not a wig. No, you can keep it.” Her eyes became flirtatious. “Might be useful as a handhold…under some circumstances.”

     Heat flashed down my nerve endings. Not enough to harden my cock, but she knew she’d walked us up to the border of our attraction to each other. One day we’d cross that invisible line.

     “Let’s walk,” I said. I led her away from the crowds toward the Sully wing and the relative isolation of the near-eastern art and artifacts collection. “How can I help you, Lady Emma?”

     She shook her head. “Don’t do that, Comrade Veitas.” I blanched when she proved so simply that she’d uncovered my past as I’d uncovered hers.

     “I’m sorry. Once I found out, it became difficult to think of you in any other way. You look like royalty. But which name shall I call you today?”

     “I’m perfectly content to be Emma St. Claire. As you no doubt know, that is my legal name, after all.”

     “After you had it legally changed. And all your assets transferred to the Emma St. Claire trust. All the assets you’re willing to admit to, anyway.”

     Her look hardened. “That’s quite enough. Do you want a job or not?”

     There were mysteries in her past that I hadn’t been able to uncover…yet. “I owe you my freedom, if not my life, Madame St. Claire. You have but to ask and I will do it.”

     Emma was in a position to understand just how far I’d go to uphold this statement, but I didn’t think she’d put me to the test. We walked through the galleries, her long legs neatly matching my stride.

     “Thank you. What I need won’t overtax your skills, I think.” She considered her words. “I’d like you to go to Washington, DC and attend a memorial service at a local bar on May 7th.”

     We’d strolled through the Sully wing and were now in Rochambeau. The vast, sun-filled sculpture hall would have seemed empty even with twice the people. “That’s it?”

     “That’s it. I’d like to know who attends.”

     Too simple. Every instinct told me she’d omitted important details from the assignment. “Of course you can’t go yourself?”

     “It would be…unwise for me to attend this memorial.”

     The echoes in the vast space would make a listening device uncertain. It was a good place to pause. I sat on one of the long marble benches, forcing her to come to a halt. “And you can’t just hack into their security feed? Surely a local bar would be easier than the Louvre’s security?”

     She sat beside me and her chin went up. “I know you think I’m just a talented amateur.” Her glare harkened back to an earlier discussion. “But I didn’t hack into the Louvre.”

     “Ah. Bribery, then.”

     “That’s an ugly word. I have a friend.”

     Her brief petulance was a pleasure to see. “A friend in the security office. One who’s wealthier this afternoon than he was this morning. Please don’t be offended by my comment. I told you before—I wouldn’t train you even if we had the time and the opportunity. Your natural instincts are so far removed from practiced spycraft that you’re utterly unpredictable. That makes you a valuable ally and a dangerous enemy. Whose memorial is it?”

     My sudden change of topic forced her to pause. She pulled her chin in, thinking. Still insulted? Proud? Ready to move on with the situation? Her natural reason won out. “His name was Martin Perriman Esker. The memorial is at 6pm on the 7th at Barberini’s Watering Hole on C Street. Shall I write that down?”

     “And how did Mr. Esker die?”

     She stood. “Call me after the memorial. I’ll be in New York.”

     “Central Park West, or the loft in Greenwich Village?”

     Her smooth forehead creased at her wince and then she stopped to think. “I don’t still own the loft, do I? No, I think you have old information there, Dmitri Igorovich. Just call my cell. I’ll be expecting your call.”

     “All right.”

     “I’ll wire you $50,000 now and the second half after we speak.”

     “That’s not necessary.”

     “Don’t be silly. We’ll keep this professional. I might not be done with you.”

     “I certainly hope you aren’t.” I eyed her in open appreciation. A rosy wash of color tinted her cheekbones. She tossed her head and turned to stalk down the steps to the exit.

     I sat back, stretching my arms across the top of the stone bench. It was a pleasure to watch her walk away.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

  1. A. Emma remembers the circumstances that caused Dmitri to tell her she was a talented amateur

  2. B. Dmitri attends the memorial for Martin Perriman Esker

  3. C. Dmitri uncovers disturbing facts about the death of Martin Perriman Esker

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (April 25) to cast your vote. Next installment on April 30.

21-04-30

Almaty Flashback

Pre-header: Authorial override! I NEED to describe Dmitri, so even though most people voted for some variant of the memorial, I'm throwing in the flashback scene instead!

 

EMMA

Flashback—autumn, 2019

Almaty General Prison, Kazakhstan

 

     I could only shake my head when guards brought Dmitri into the prison’s interview room. Over the seven weeks that he’d been held, he’d lost weight. Always rangy and long, he was now veering on skinny.

What a crime against nature. He was going to have to rebuild those lovely, long muscles.

     His handsome skull had been indifferently shaved. The toffee-blond hair was no longer a smooth cap on his head, although patches still showed on his skull. Interesting to see that the small scar at his temple actually skimmed along the side of his cranium for several inches. The hair had hidden much.

The gaunt, Slavic cheekbones were more prominent than usual, but his dark eyes were no less intelligent. He recognized me but masked his surprise.

     I rose from the table and gestured to his restraints.

     Four guards had accompanied Dmitri. This was less out of respect for the man’s hand-to-hand skills and more an attempt to get in on the bribes I was spreading liberally throughout the prison administration. One fished out a key and released the cuffs. Then he stupidly knelt to unlock the ankle restraints.

     Dmitri caught my eye and I shook my head. Do not attack, no matter how vulnerable the guard.

     I speak no Russian, but my imperious “get out” head toss needed no translation. The guards left, locking the door behind them.

     I fished in my bag and tossed Dmitri an apple. He caught it and I saw dark bruises on his wrists. They were an insult on such a magnificent specimen. Like armies that deliberately destroyed works of art that defined a cultural heritage. It ought not be allowed to happen.

     “Ałmaty is world-famous for its apples. Did you know? I bought some while waiting. See what you think.” I spoke in English, our common language.

     “Thank you,” he replied cautiously. He shifted casually until he was standing with his back to the wall, where he’d be behind the door if it opened.

     “Go ahead,” I said, gesturing to the apple. “We’ve got time. Want to sit?”

     “I’m fine where I am. What are you doing here?”

     Assuming the room’s recording devices hadn’t been switched off, I maintained my cover. “I’m verifying your treatment. That’s my job.”

     I sat and crossed my legs. My “human rights observer” outfit didn’t provide much glamor, but I’d caught Dmitri eyeing my form with appreciation on the other occasions we’d worked together—and seven weeks of female deprivation would probably add to my allure.

     The corner of his mouth just barely lifted; the first crack in his impassive facade. He shrugged and took a bite of the apple.

     I could imagine its tart sweetness bursting in his mouth—a mouth that hadn’t had a decent meal in far too long. His grunt of pleasure was involuntary, and extremely sexy.

     The natural sweetness would increase his blood sugar, the juice would quench his thirst, the crunch would satisfy his hunger. I pulled out two more apples and set them on the table.

     He grinned through his crunching. “How tempting of you.”

     I laughed and put my hands over my ears and then my mouth. Others are listening; don’t speak.

     He nodded and focused on his apples. He was down to the third core when the doorknob clicked.

He straightened, waiting for the door to open, but it remained closed. I used my fingers to count down from ten as he watched me. Then I stood and opened the door.

     I gestured, a “come hither” finger beckoning Dmitri into the hall. He shook his head with a little smile, his big shoulders hunching in anticipation of action.

     But the halls were empty, as was the guard post by the front door. Moussou had judged the bribes correctly; our departure was entirely uneventful.

     In the small parking area, Nurislam was curled up in the back seat of the Range Rover, sound asleep. That was okay; he’d done his part getting us to the prison. From the passenger seat, I pulled out the leather jacket and tossed it to Dmitri. “I have more for you, but how about we get out of here before you change?”

     Dmitri had the awareness of a large cat waiting to pounce. Freedom so easily gained was not to be trusted—was it? He pulled on the jacket, which I was sorry to see was now too roomy on him. The man needed more than apples. “Okay.”

     “Get in.”

     Nurislam woke when we closed our doors. “Want me to drive?” he murmured.

     “I’ve got it,” I said. “I know the way now.”

     “Okay.” The boy was asleep again almost as soon as he finished speaking.

     I pulled out and onto the streets of Almaty, heading for the A-2.

     Dmitri was silent as I negotiated the surface streets. We left the minor evening rush hour behind us as we headed away from the city, the glorious Tian Shan mountains on our left catching the radiance of the setting sun.

     “Just like that?” he finally said.

     “Just like that,” I agreed. “The Almaty Airport is closer, but if you don’t mind, I think we’d better not risk you being re-acquired. We’ll head over the border to Kyrgyzstan. It’ll take about four hours to drive to Bishkek. Is that okay with you?”

     He shook his head and then studied the bruises on his wrists as if astonished to find them unbraceleted by hard steel. “Emma. What are you doing here?”

     “Getting you out, of course.”

     “Why? How? I don’t understand.”

     “For the thrill, of course. That was exciting, wasn’t it?” I gave him a blazing grin and his surprise came out in a bark of laughter.

     “Exciting? You just broke me out of prison. Have you lost your mind?”

     “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want to stay? Shall I take you back?”

     He growled. “Keep going.”

     He took a few more moments to think, the evening going purple around us. “How did you find me?”

     “Wortzman,” I said simply.

     “I thought he wanted to arrest you.”

     “He does. But the CIA also likes to hire me. Apparently I can accomplish things they can’t. Like getting a useful freelancer out of an Almaty prison.”

     “Which you did by—?”

     “Baksheesh, of course. Huge, admiring bribes. Spread liberally across the prison employee roster.”

     “And I’m sure the CIA won’t reimburse you.”

     I shrugged, indifferent. “Money is easy. I have plenty. I was glad to help.”

     He huffed an unwilling laugh. “You are entirely unpredictable. No wonder they want to hire you. You’re a very talented amateur.”

     A flash of irritation brightened all my nerve endings. “I beg your pardon. Who just got you out of prison? Talented amateur. Please. There’s gratitude for you.”

     “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said, holding up a placating hand. “I have nothing but admiration for your style. No one trained in spycraft would have been direct enough to walk into a prison and start bribing people. Too much of a trail left behind.”

     “What trail? What do you mean?”

     He shook his head, probably at my belligerent tone. “The paper trail required when government agents provide cash for bribes. It would never be approved. It’s just not done. But you operate outside the bounds of a government, and you aren’t officially trained. You’re fearless and brilliant and no one could possibly predict where you’ll show up next. You’re in a class all by yourself.”

     I was mollified by his sincerity and I tried to bite back my smile. “Oh.”

     The silence after his praise felt awkward until he broke it. “More apples,” he demanded.

     “I can do better than that. Hey, Nurislam. Hand up that cooler, will you?”

     The boy was happy to do it, since it left room for him to lay down. His snores soon blended with the sounds of Dmitri working manfully through cold skewers of beef wrapped in flatbreads. I hadn’t been sure what to get him to drink so went with large bottles of water. He offered no complaints.

     At last he slowed down. “Apple for dessert?” I offered.

     He moaned. “I couldn’t. This was the best meal I’ve ever had. I want to apologize for being so smelly. The prison wasn’t too big on personal cleanliness.”

     He smelled gamy, it was true—but mostly he smelled like a large, warm male. “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it. Once it really gets dark, I’ll pull over and you can change into the clothes I brought you.”

     The few cars on the highway were turning on their headlights against the coming night. We flew across the gently-rolling steppe as light faded from the vast landscape.

     He spoke again from the growing gloom. “I haven’t thanked you yet.”

     A chuckle burbled out of me. “The trained spy has to thank the talented amateur. This should be good. Hit me with it.”

     He reached out a large, skinny hand, long spidery fingers wrapping around my wrist and sending a rush of warmth up my arm. “I owe you,” he said simply. “No one else was going to get me out. I would have rotted there for decades. Thank you.”

     I shivered at his words and covered his hand with mine for just a moment. “It was fun. My pleasure.”

     His hand fell away. “Where’d you get this car?”

     “Borrowed it.”

     “From who? You know someone in Kazakhstan?” His question blended suspicion with amusement.

     “I know someone who knows someone in Kyrgyzstan.”

     “I’d be very interested in learning more about that.”

     “I’m sure you would.” He kept secrets. I’d keep mine.

     Far ahead I saw a petrol station lit up in the darkness. “We’ll stop there.” While he was changing in the bathroom, I had Nurislam buy a black knit cap to keep Dmitri’s bald head warm in the chill night air. The ex-prisoner must have done a quick wash in the sink because his sour smell had been abated when he got back into the car, and he was pleased to have the hat.

     He’d explored the pockets of the jacket by then and had found the passport, Kabul plane ticket, and enough cash to get him wherever he wanted to go next. “It appears I’m Estonian,” he said as we got back on the road.

     “That’s right, Sergei. Any problem with that?”

     “Not at all. This is very good work. Where’d you get the photo?”

     It was Wortzman, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I have my sources.”

     “It seems you do. I must thank you again.”

     “Same thank you. Wouldn’t be much of a rescue if I left you in Bishkek with no papers.”

     “That’s true. Shall I drive for a while? Would you like to rest?”

     I shook my head and spoke unguardedly. “I don’t like to sleep.”

     Of course he wouldn’t ignore that. “What does that mean?”

     “Nothing.” The world was blackness except for the glow of the dashboard dials and the empty grey stretch of highway shining in the headlights. Finally I volunteered it. “I have nightmares.”

     I knew he was looking at me and I fought the instinct to squirm. “We’ve worked together twice,” he said thoughtfully, “and met once at that casino. And that’s the first truly personal thing you’ve ever said to me.”

     “Oh, like you’re an open book. Mr. Share.”

     I glanced over in time to see his eyebrows go up in acknowledgment. “I suppose we neither of us are prone to disclosing information.”

     “Like, how is your English that good?”

     I could hear the smile in his voice when he answered. “Because I was trained. I’m a talented professional.”

     “And you’re Russian,” I pushed.

     “Close enough.”

     “You’re not actually Estonian, are you?”

     “Maybe.”

     I gritted my teeth. “Fine. Keep your secrets.”

     The kilometers flew by, measured in the blur of road markers catching the headlights. The silence was so complete that I jumped a little when he spoke quietly.

     “Latvia.”

     My eyebrows hit my hairline. “You’re Latvian?”

     He nodded. “And you have nightmares.”

     It was a surprisingly intimate moment. I held out my hand to shake, and he enfolded my fingers in his. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

     “Same.”

     It was colder in the car after his hand left mine, but I was warmed by the knowledge. Latvian. Dmitri was Latvian.

     We crossed the border uneventfully and made it to the tiny airport outside of Bishkek just after midnight. With a cheerful wave, Nurislam drove off in his boss’s Range Rover and Dmitri and I stood on the tarmac.

     “Your flight isn’t until 7am,” I said. “You’ll have to sit on a bench all night.”

     He shrugged. “Still a great deal better than what I was expecting when I woke up this morning. What about you?”

     I gestured to my plane, tucked off to the side. “I’m out of here now.”

     His eyebrows went up. “Why aren’t I going with you? That looks nice.”

     “Sorry, pal. We part ways here. But you know how to get a hold of me if you want to hire me again to kidnap any oligarchs.” Our second job together. A total adrenaline rush.

     “Or if Wortzman wants you to be a spotter for me again.”

     “Right.” Our first meeting; I wouldn’t have been able to actually pull the trigger, but Dmitri had no problems with it. “I’ll be seeing you.”

     “I look forward to it. Thank you again, Emma.”

     “Don’t make a scene, darling—I’m dressed in a field jacket and ugly shoes. We can do better.”

     He threw back his handsome head and laughed. “We’ll do better. Safe travels.”

     “To you, too. Bye, Dmitri.”

     “Until we meet again, Emma.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Emma contacts a surprising ally to back up an unsuspecting Dmitri at the memorial service (a reader’s excellent suggestion!)

B. Dmitri reports to Emma about the memorial (and suspicious death) of Martin Perriman Esker

C. Emma is nabbed by Wortzman, her contact at the CIA, who can’t decide if he should arrest Emma or try to hire her.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (May 2) to cast your vote. Next installment on May 7.

21-05-07

 

EMMA

 

Cessna Citation X+, several miles over the Atlantic

en route from Paris to Washington, DC

 

     The voice that answered the phone was creaky and timid. “Hello?”

     “Bernadette,” I said, “It’s Emma Ba.”

     “Emma Ba? I don’t know any—do you mean Emma Kingston?” The old woman’s voice was suspicious, a senior citizen on the alert for telephone scammers.

     “Yes, Emma Kingston.”

     “Why, I haven’t seen Emma Kingston since she married that lovely fellow.  The Congressman.”

     “He’s a Senator now. But I last saw you in a Singapore casino, three years ago.”

     The confused, querulous tone vanished. Bernie dropped the old lady guise. “Emma! Son of a bitch. I didn’t recognize the number. How are you?”

     She was 79 years old and walked with a cane now, but Bernadette Welford was as sharp as she’d been when the CIA first put her to work during the Cold War. “I’m very well. I was wondering if I could interest you in a little job.”

     “Oh, please. I’m just sitting here like an old lady. I’m aching for something to do.”

     “Wonderful. You’re a love.” Bernie was an inspiration to strong women everywhere, or would have been if she hadn’t been so good at staying covert. I eased out of my shoes and curled my feet under me in the plush leather chair. “I’m going to text you the details of a memorial gathering in DC. Not a formal service; it’s at a local bar. I just want you to go, look around, and notice who’s there.”

     “I’ll bring my walker. I’m absolutely invisible when I have the walker. If I’d been able to disappear this effectively back when they sent me into Cuba, Fidel would have been dead in ’61. I swear, a walker is like a cloaking device. No one ever notices the old lady.”

     “Perfect. Keep your eyes open. I’m looking for two things.”

     “Lay ‘em on me.”

     “A tall Russian. Blond, mid-thirties. Little scar on his left temple. He’s on my team. Don’t let him notice you, but back him up if he needs it.”

     “No problem. What else?”

     “Anyone who might be attached to a sheik.”

     “Like an actual Arab leader? Or a “take me to the casbah” kind of stereotype?”

     “Arab leader. I don’t expect the sheik to show, but I’m wondering if he’ll send someone to check out the gathering.”

     “So you want me to do a little racial profiling.”

     “Well…”

     “Just yanking your chain, Emma. I know what you want. Text me the info. How do I get in touch with you after?”

     “I’ll call you the next day. This number’s good?”

     “Oh, hell yeah. This line is safe. I’ve got this digital world sussed out. I’m one switched-on retiree.”

     She made me laugh. “I bet you are. And I can wire your fee to the same account?”

     “Oh—nope. I’m going through the Grand Caymans now. Switzerland has too many rules to suit me. I’ll reply to your text with the deets.”

     “Thanks, Bernie. I’ll be in touch.”

     We finished our communications by text. My luscious little jet would have me in Washington in just a few hours, but there was still time to rest and review the plan. I reclined the seat and closed my eyes. With two astute observers put into play, how much could I learn from the memorial?

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Senior citizen Bernadette is forced to teach a small gaggle of millennials a thing or two.

B. Dmitri reports to Emma about the memorial (and suspicious death) of Martin Perriman Esker

C. Emma’s luscious jet is forced to make a detour in response to an SOS from an old friend.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (May 9) to cast your vote. Next installment on May 14.

Subject: Bernadette For The Win

 

Pre-header: Readers really liked Bernadette. Praise to Liz Velardi, who suggested an old lady spy made invisible by her age. Great idea. Now I’m in love with Bernie, too!

 

21-05-14

 

DMITRI

 

Barberini’s Watering Hole, Washington DC

 

     Camouflage is critical to surveillance. White and grey fur in the Hindu Kush. Sand and shadow in the Gobi Desert. Blue blazer and chinos for a memorial in a DC lobbyist’s bar. I stay below notice by researching my environment.

     As it happens, research saved me—for when I looked into the recently-deceased, I found his death wasn’t so recent.

     Martin Perriman Esker, 24, had been found a full decade earlier upright on a rustic bench in a western Maryland state park, as naked as the day he was born and very definitely dead. The coroner’s report found amyl nitrite in the bloodstream, and evidence of both hetero- and homosexual sex in the hours before death.

     Last known employment was as a junior staff member in the offices of then Representative (now Senator) Bradford Kingston, during the time when he was married to one Emma Morgan Llewelyn; married names Emma Ba and Emma Kingston. Current name Emma St. Honore. My client.

     Interesting.

     I texted Emma in the hopes of finding out more, but she remained silent except to remind me I was just to observe—not harm or kill anyone at the memorial.

     As if I would (without proper payment).

     In the hour before I left for the memorial, I thought to research Barberini’s Watering Hole and found that at the time of Martin Perriman Esker’s death, it had been a popular Capitol Hill gay bar named the Rod and Staffer. So I shined my shoes and switched my broadcloth shirt for a fitted version. As expected, the friends who’d opted to hold Esker’s ten-year remembrance in a bar were predominantly gay men. My camouflage was successful.

      The organizers hadn’t secured a separate room. The memorial took place in the main bar, with plenty of unsuspecting patrons surprised to find themselves attending. The crowd was varied, and included older apparatchiks, young women, a few silver-haired seniors, and a scattering of artist types and other creatives.

     I was using an electronic ear to eavesdrop on conversations across the bar, turning my phone to point at different clusters. I’d confirmed that Martin Perriman Esker was generally (although not exclusively) gay in his choice of sexual partners, that he was well-liked, and that his death, even ten years later, confused his friends—none of whom could ever remember him taking an interest in hiking or other outdoor activities that might have led him to a small state park far from his home.

Three young men caught my attention. They were bent over the phone one carried, and then all three scanned the crowded room.

     Middle Eastern judging by skin tone and hair. Suits of a conservative cut but inappropriate colors—one in berry, one in mustard, one in a green just a shade too bright to be right for the nation’s capitol. Judging by movement and bearing, they were either military or mercenaries. I turned my phone casually to eavesdrop on them and saw them alert like a dog spotting a bird. One touched an earbud and I realized they’d been scanning for electronic ears.

     I switched off the app immediately and swiveled to engage the two startled strangers next to me in conversation, but the trio of men had the direction and were heading toward me, scanning the room and assessing the crowd. I slipped my earbud into my pocket.

     The leader of the three men, in his berry-colored suit, had nearly reached me when a senior at a table against the wall tried to rise.

     She thrust out her walker to get a better grip and Berry walked into it. It caught him neatly in the testicles and he doubled over in pain.

     “Oh dearie! Dearie, me!” the gray-haired woman said, horrified. “Did I hurt you? Oh, sonny—sonny, are you okay?”

     She wrenched herself upright and put her weight on the walker, which was now unstable because one leg was planted on the man’s instep. She leaned on the handles to peer uncertainly at him and he offered a small scream as he fell backwards, bumping into his companion in the mustard suit. The pair of them staggered backwards and Mustard fell into a table.

     Emerald suit stepped around a café table to approach the old lady from behind. She, now fluttering in agitation, pulled a practical cane from the clip on the walker.

     “I should never use this thing in a crowd. I’m so sorry, dear. Look—I’ll use my cane now.”

     She waved her cane at Berry to prove her sincerity but instead unintentionally caught Emerald in the throat with the practical T-shaped handle.

     “Gak,” he said, clutching his neck.

     The senior turned to find the cause of the disturbance and was confused to see her victim. “Now, honey—what has happened to you? Are you all right? Goodness, what is going on?”

     She turned to implore the crowd, now watching open-mouthed and caught between laughter and horror. Her sweeping appeal somehow put the four-pronged base of her cane into the crotch of Mustard Suit, who had recovered enough to step up, his hand held at chest height like a fighter waiting for a punch. He, too, doubled over in pain.

     The phone that flew from his hand ended on the floor, where the senior somehow managed to slap her walker down on top of it. It shattered with a crunch that could be heard over the bar noises.

     “Now, what was that? Who left that on the floor?” she cried querulously. “Oh, gracious!”

     “That’s his phone,” gasped Berry who had returned to the fray. He leaned down to get it as the senior did the same. They bumped together, his head bouncing off the large purse she carried. He fell back against a table and his head clanged against the base.

     “Oh, my hip!” cried the oldster.

     She straightened slowly and was roughly pushed aside as Emerald turned to grab Berry.

     The old lady was spun about on uncertain feet and somehow ended up falling into me.

     I caught her before she fell and she looked up at me.

     “Emma sends her regards,” she said with a wink.

     Then she turned and tottered back to the three men now picking themselves up off the floor.

     “Boys. Boys, now let me wipe off your suits. You’ve gotten all dusty on that floor. Wait—I have some Wet Wipes in my purse. Now, where are they?”

     In her quest, she managed to throw an elbow into Mustard’s nose as he was rising from a sad review of the shattered phone. His eyes stinging with tears, he grabbed his fellows and they fought through the crowd and out the door.

     “Here they are!” she cried triumphantly, waving an economy-sized packet of wipes in the air. “Now, where did you go?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Dmitri offers to buy Bernadette a cup of coffee; they talk spy craft.

B. Bernadette offers Dmitri a ride on her scooter, if he knows how to find Emma. He does.

C. Dmitri reports to Emma and asks her who the hell Bernadette is.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (May 16) to cast your vote. Next installment on May 21.

21-05-21

 

Subject: Emma is Confused

 

Pre-header: The vote was close between Bernie offering Dmitri a ride on her scooter and Dmitri reporting to Emma—so here’s both for your entertainment!

 

EMMA

Secret pied-a-terre apartment in DuPont Circle, Washington, DC

 

To say I rapidly lost control of the situation implied that I’d ever had even a modicum of control in the first place. I did not.

 

When he called, the concierge told me that a Harry Llewelyn was at the front desk and wanted to come up.

 

This was startling, as Harry Llewelyn was my father. As far as I knew, he was dug in deep in his indifferently-heated but very atmospheric castle (really just a fortified manor home) in Wales. He had never before visited me, even at homes I admitted I owned.

 

I accessed the building’s security feed to check the view from the discrete lobby camera.

 

Staring back at me and making no effort at pretending they didn’t know I’d be looking was one very large blond Russian and one very small senior citizen. Bernie waved at the camera with a happy smile. I immediately knew three things.

 

First, Dmitri and Bernadette had, against all odds, identified and assessed each other at the memorial and then had opted (alarmingly) to partner up.

 

Second, despite telling Dmitri I’d be in New York and giving Bernie no information at all about my whereabouts, they’d found me.  And they’d used my father’s name to successfully ensure they got my attention.

 

Third, given that they were both holding helmets covered in decoupage flowers, Bernie had apparently persuaded Dmitri to ride behind her on her Vespa. Probably he carried her walker and cane as they puttered through Washington, DC.

 

“Send them up,” I told the concierge with a resigned sigh.

 

Dmitri politely ushered Bernie in through my front door before him. Not just courteous, I thought. He used the time to assess the condo from the hallway for potential threats.

 

Not so Bernie. She marched into the apartment, her cane thumping on the carpet. “But you’re on the boring side of the building! This must be a terrible view, Emma, darling. I’d have thought better of you than this. It’s really quite plain in here.”

 

I kissed her papery cheek. “Sorry to disappoint you, Bernie. I’ll invite you onto The Labyrinth and we’ll sail the Aegean. It’s extremely posh.”

 

“Lovely,” she said with a smile. “Now—what about a little drink? Do you have a whiskey? Where’s that young man?  Ah, Dmitri. Emma, I found your Russian with the scar.” Dmitri, arms folded, was waiting in silence against the wall. Had anyone burst through the door, he’d have been hidden in the swing and would have had the advantage. “He’d gotten into a little trouble with your Sheik and his underlings.”

 

She plopped down into an armchair and regarded the whiskey I poured her with satisfaction. Dmitri raised one eyebrow and the corner of his mouth quirked. Was he masking a smile?

 

“But not to worry,” Bernie said after a satisfied sip. “I rescued him.” Then she inhaled the fumes rising off the cubes of ice in her glass. “Oh, that’s good.”

 

“I have questions,” I said, attempting to overcome the feeling of being swamped. “But I’ll start with something easy. Dmitri, can I get you something to drink?”

 

“Oh, get him a vodka. Russians like vodka. You could do us a favor by living up to the stereotype, Dmitri.” Bernie said.

 

“Nothing, thank you,” he said, and now he was wearing a small, unwilling grin.

 

“Pfft,” scoffed Bernie. “In my day, the entire foreign service was drunk most of the time. Both sides. We all floated on a sea of alcohol. I couldn’t have done half the things I’ve done without the power of some Dutch courage.” She took another sip and regarded the amber liquid fondly.

 

“I’d like to hear some of those stories,” Dmitri admitted, smiling at her.

 

“Well, come over here and sit down. I’ll tell you all about it. No one’s going to shoot us. Can’t you tell? Emma’s chosen her secret lair well. Poor sight lines. Drapes pulled over the ugly view. You know she scans for listening devices. Relax, handsome. Have a vodka.”

 

He crossed the room with a cat’s grace and sat on the sofa near Bernie. “Water?” he said to me.

 

“Oh, for Chrissakes,” Bernie sighed. “This generation. What a wimp you are. At least make him drink it in a shot glass for the effect, Emma,” she called to me as I went to the kitchen.

 

“Now,” I said as I set his large tumbler of ice water before him, “first tell me how you found me.”

 

“He texted you this afternoon, you silly girl,” Bernie said. “You told him not to kill anyone. He used the cell tower transponder to narrow the search and then I got into the city’s real estate database. He figured out the fake name. We were a pretty good team, weren’t we, Dimi?”

 

“I could have gotten into the database.” Dmitri was a little grumpy about it.

 

“Yes, dear,” she said, patting his knee. “I’m sure you could have. Don’t worry about it.”

 

I needed to strengthen my security measures. “All right. What about the memorial? What did you see?” Bernie opened her mouth to answer and I cut her off. “What did you see, Dmitri?”

 

His report was concise and thorough. Even Bernie was impressed. “How do you know all that?” she asked him admiringly.

 

He regarded her thoughtfully and then pulled out his phone. He showed her the app he used to eavesdrop and she put her drink down to clap her hands together. “Spectacular! Where can I get this app?”

 

“It’s my own modification of a commercial program, but I can send it to you.”

 

“You’re a darling. Emma, I’m in love with this hunka hunka burnin love.”

 

“How nice,” I said, shaking my head to clear away the confusion. It didn’t help. “Did you mention the Sheik?”

 

Dmitri shook his head. “I think Bernie is right—these were underlings. Three of them. Photos here.” He showed me several candids; he’d accessed the bar’s security cameras. And he’d mocked me when he thought that’s what I should do. Hmph.

 

“But they had a scanner and they heard my eavesdropper. They were coming for me when my guardian angel intervened.”

 

He smiled at Bernie and she preened with pride. Between them they recounted every swift “blundering” attack, pausing several times to review grips and work out the choreography together. It was a mutual admiration society and I wasn’t wanted. But after a time they abandoned their peculiar mix of hilarity and discussions on how to efficiently disable or quietly kill attackers. As if they read each other’s minds, they sat back down and turned to me. Dmitri let Bernie be the one to ask.

 

“So, Emma. What the hell is going on here? Why does an unseen Sheik care about a gay staffer from your ex-husband’s offices who died ten years ago? And why do you?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

  1. Emma throws caution to the wind and tells Bernadette and Dmitri what she knows—and what she doesn’t know.

  2. Emma is not yet willing to trust Dmitri and Bernie with the full truth, but does explains the Sheik’s threat.

  3. Emma keeps her secrets. Instead she gives Bernie and Dmitri their next tasks; they are annoyed when their tasks take them in separate directions and they are unable to work together on them.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (May 23) to cast your vote. Next installment on May 28.

21-05-28

 

Dmitri Cooks Dinner

 

Pre-header: Tight vote this week! Just one vote (it was Antha’s mom’s choice) decided the winer. So here we go—Emma explains the Sheik’s threat.

 

DMITRI

Secret pied-a-terre apartment in DuPont Circle, Washington, DC

 

I have always preferred to work alone. It’s safer that way.

 

But Bernadette fit no molds. I could make no assumptions about the spry old lady who drank whiskey with as much pleasure as she got from wiping out thugs who greatly underestimated her. She was acting as if we were partners, she and I.

 

And I saw no reason to correct that view.

 

Bernadette fixed her steely gaze on the beautiful woman who stood before us. “So, Emma. What the hell is going on here? Why does an unseen Sheik care about a gay staffer from your ex-husband’s offices who died ten years ago? And why do you?”

 

Emma pursed luscious lips as she considered us. Bernie and I refused to fill the silence that developed. Let Emma be the one to speak next. At last she did.

 

“I can’t tell you everything I know. But I would like to continue our working arrangement, and so I will tell you what I can.”

 

“That’s fine,” Bernie said with a nod. “Tell us what you can and Dimi and I will figure out the rest.”

 

She spoke with a degree of confidence that forced a grin out of me. Bernie looked like a babushka. She should have been haggling over the price of a chicken in the market. She should have been knitting sweaters and balaclavas for her grandchildren.  Instead she was a master intelligence operative at the very acme of her game. Every spy should want to be Bernie when he or she grew up.

 

By her sour look, Emma had realized at last that she had a tiger by the tail. Bernie probably would figure out the entire situation with just a little more information. And if she didn’t, I would.

 

“You work for me,” Emma said doubtfully.

 

“Sure do,” Bernie agreed. “I need another whiskey.” She rattled the ice in her glass imperiously and Emma, surrendering to the inevitable, refilled the drink. But she sent me a blue-eyed plea for help.

 

I rose. “Was your kitchen stocked for you before you arrived?”

 

“I suppose,” Emma said. “Why?”

 

“Because we could use some food to absorb the alcohol. Let’s see what you have.”

 

Ah. It would be a pleasure to cook in this clean and shiny space. I explored the refrigerator and the pantry. Emma and then Bernie trailed after me and established their space at the breakfast bar to watch me. “I can make a chicken piccata. You have endive and walnuts; I can sauté them.” Flavorful, full of protein, low in carbs and empty calories. “Do we need anything else?”

 

Emma wore a look of pleased surprise. Bernie slapped her half-empty drink down on the counter. “A little pasta. Butter it, too.”

 

I began my preparations. “Don’t you worry about cholesterol?”

 

“Cholesterol should worry about me,” Bernie said defiantly. “I’ll be dead before my arteries clog. Butter and more butter, you Russian hottie!” Emma uttered a sound that would have been a giggle out of anyone looking less like a goddess. “Now spill it, Emma,” Bernie demanded. “We’ll watch the Russian cook and you’ll tell us what we need to know.”

 

“Fine,” Emma said. “But try to leave this alone. Don’t dig any deeper until I ask you to. Understand?” She fixed us both with a stern eye, and we both nodded meekly. Then Bernie winked at me and I had to turn back to the cutting board to hide my answering smile. Old witch.

 

“There’s a lobbyist for Big Oil named Alfred Westham,” Emma began. She immediately interrupted herself to clarify with me. “Do you know what I mean when I say Big Oil?”

 

I gave her a bit of my history. “I lived in Detroit from the age of seven until I was twelve. I know what Big Oil is.”

 

Emma’s eyebrows went up and Bernie slapped the counter. “Really? That’s why your English is so good. How’d you get here? Why’d you leave? What’s the story?”

 

I focused on cutting up the chicken, fighting to remain dexterous. Old breaks in my hands were breeding grounds for arthritis. I was too young. I was too old. “Emma first, please. One mystery at a time.”

 

“He’s going to clam up,” Bernie said to Emma. “We’ll never get it out of him.”

 

“Go on.” I cut off Bernie. “A lobbyist for Big Oil. Alfred Westham. What about him?”

 

“All right,” Emma conceded. “Alf called my ex-husband a few weeks ago. I’m assuming you both know I was married to Senator Bradford Kingston?”

 

I sliced into the lemons, the sharp citrus oils flavoring the air, and nodded. Bernie reminded Emma that Bernie had been at the wedding and had enjoyed it very much. “You were a beautiful child bride,” she said.

 

“I was hardly a child,” Emma protested, but I intervened.

 

“You were twenty-two and your groom was a little more than twice your age. And he was your second husband.”

 

Bernie straightened. “You were married before? To whom, I wonder?”

 

“Can we focus, please?” Emma sighed heavily. “Back to Bradford?” Bernie and I agreed we’d let her continue. “Thank you. Alf told Bradford that someone had offered Alf a bribe for information on the death of one of Bradford’s staffers.”

 

“Just how many of Bradford’s employees have died on his watch, Emma, darling?” Bernie’s eyes were bright with interest. “Is he a brutal man? Whip people in dungeons under the Capitol? Is there a streak of bondage and dominance running through that Pillar of the Senate? It’s always the quiet ones.”

 

“Stop, Bernie.” Emma winced. I’d come across a small first aid kit in the pantry and fished out two aspirins. I put them in front of Emma with a glass of water and she nodded her thanks. “Bradford has been in public service for…more than two decades. Naturally, a few staff members have died during that time. But there was only one death that was unexplained. Strange.”

 

Martin Perriman Esker. Found dead on a bench, naked but for his boots, in the middle of a western Maryland state park many miles from his home. None of us said his name, but we all thought it.

 

Emma went on. “Alf’s implication was that they were looking for information that implicated Bradford in the death.”

 

I turned from the stove to watch her. Bernie asked the question. “Did he have something to do with it?”

 

But it was me Emma looked at when she answered. “He absolutely did not. But someone thinks he did.”

 

“Who?” I asked.

 

Bernie answered for Emma. “The Sheik. The master puppeteer running the three gaudy suits I took care of in the bar. They came to see what they could find out. And you needed to make sure it was Martin Perriman Esker that they were interested in.”

 

Emma nodded and looked at the glass she held, her long and elegant fingers wrapped around the glass. “Exactly.”

 

I turned back to the stove. The chicken was browning nicely. I’d be able to put a plate of energy in front of her within half an hour.

 

“So what do you want us to do?” Bernie asked. I listened carefully for the answer.

 

“Well,” Emma said, “I think we have to start out by looking at the source.”

 

“Martin Perriman Esker? But he’s dead,” Bernie protested.

 

“No, I said as I heated the olive oil for the endive. “Alfred Westham.”

 

I didn’t need to turn around to check Emma’s surprise. I could hear it in her voice when she replied. “That’s right. He’s not an innocent man, and I’m not sure he’s as loyal to Bradford as he wants to imply. What if he’s the one looking for information on behalf of the Sheik?”

 

“Or whoever’s running the Sheik,” I said.

 

“Right. Who’s behind the puppetmaster?” Bernie asked. “So what now?”

 

“Now I want Dmitri to find Alfred Westham and do some very quiet surveillance.” I could find him. I clicked my heels and bowed to Emma to indicate acceptance of the assignment.

 

“Nice heel click!” Bernie crowed. “And what do I do?”

 

“Bernie, I have a harder job for you. Alf’s ex-wife has disappeared. I need you to find her.”

 

“Now we’re talking! Do you suspect foul play?” Bernie asked eagerly.

 

“Doubtful. She opposed the divorce, got a lump sum payment from Alf, and has vanished from the social scene—but that doesn’t mean she’s vanished from the cyber world. Find a credit card. Find a bank. Find something that will let us know where she is and what she’s up to.”

 

“Name?” Bernie was all business now.

 

“Constance. Connie. I assume she kept her married name after the divorce, but you should figure out her maiden name, just in case.”

 

“Obviously. Dimi, that’s smelling really good. Do I have time for one more whiskey before dinner?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Judging it too late for Bernie to go home, Emma gives Bernie Emma’s bed and puts Dmitri on the couch. Where will Emma sleep? Hmm. Perhaps a few longing looks—a few hopeful touches between Emma and Dmitri?

B. Dmitri proves his godlike status by doing the dishes after cooking the meal; then he vanishes into the night on Bernie’s scooter to begin his investigations.

C. Dmitri and Bernie kick Emma to the curb and race off into the night to chase down bad guys and flirt with each other without restraint.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (May 30) to cast your vote. Next installment on June 4.

21-06-04

 

Subject: A Little Backstory

 

Pre-Header: I’m calling an audible. I didn’t like any of the choices I gave you last week, so I’m hereby moving the story along a little faster.

 

EMMA

 

If I’d put away as much whiskey as Bernadette had, I would have been nodding in my chair. Instead, her grey head was lowered over her phone and her fingers were flying.

 

I’d insisted on helping Dmitri with the dinner dishes. He didn’t hold with the “you cooked so I clean” philosophy and was moving about the kitchen with his accustomed economy of movement. Occasionally his fingers would brush mine as he handed me a dish to dry and I repressed a little adolescent shiver of pleasure each time.

 

I was about to declare that it was too late for sweet little Bernie to go home (I’d put her in my bedroom which would leave the sofa for Dmitri and me. Did I really want to extend the high school feelings by seeing if I could make out with him—a spy, a killer?—on a sofa with a granny figure one room away?) when sweet little Bernie looked up at me, her head tilted in an expression of scorn.

 

“Christ, Emma—what made you think Alf’s missing ex-wife was actually missing?”

 

High school evaporated from my brain. Time to focus. “What? Well, she’s nowhere to be found.”

 

“Please. She’s not even using her maiden name—and no surprise. Constance Westham has been on a cruise for the last sixteen days, where she apparently took selfies with every male on board so she could post them on her Facebook account and annoy her ex-husband. Look.”

 

Dmitri lifted the plate from my hands so I could take Bernie’s phone.

 

There was Connie, blonder than when I’d known her, skin pulled taut in what was probably a very expensive plastic surgeon’s personal touch, large breasts on display. I scrolled through her feed, noting the variety of photos with different men. The younger men were cute, the older men looked wealthy. Connie was partying and trolling for her next husband.

 

“Give me back the phone.” Bernie held out an imperious hand and I surrendered to her. “Let’s seen now…” She was typing into a search engine with both thumbs, like a kid. I’m  35; less than half her age, and I still hold my phone in one hand and type with one finger. Slowly. ‘Yeah. Her cruise ended two days ago. She should be home. And home is…”

 

This took her a few more minutes and she turned away from me to hide her actions. She’d apparently moved past the open door of Facebook and had gotten into some database she wasn’t supposed to be in.

 

“Here it is. She’s got a place on the Rappahanock River on the Northern Neck. We can be there in…under three hours. If we obey the speed limit.”

 

Oh, yes. Let’s move this along. The threat to Bradford was too real, and time was slipping away. “Dmitri, will you join us?”

 

He set aside the last shining pot and nodded. “A pleasure. Shall we take Bernie’s scooter?”

 

His sly sense of humor was a surprise. I knew he was intelligent. I’d just never before seen him in a teasing mood.

 

“I have a car in the basement.”

 

“I’ll drive,” Bernie announced. “You two will go too slowly. I can tell by looking at you.”

 

“No,” said Dmitri with silent authority. I agreed.

 

“Bernie, no way you’d pass a breathalyzer,” I said. “You’re definitely not legal to drive.”

 

“You people. Everything has to be legal. You’re a stick-in-the-mud, and so is he. I blame the twenty-four hour news cycle.”

 

Despite her grumbling, Bernie curled up in the back seat of my Lexus and was asleep by the time we crossed out of the city.

 

“And here we are again,” Dmitri said, “you driving me through the night with someone asleep behind us. Are you hiding beef kababs anywhere?”

 

“Not this time.” I smiled at the memory. At that hour, the traffic had died away and we made good time—even if, as Bernie had theorized, I stuck strictly to the speed limit. “Since we’ve got some time, shall we trade questions? I ask you one, you ask me one?”

 

The silence told me he was thinking about it. He didn’t want to share—but he wanted to know more about me. I know that’s what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing. And my curiosity was stronger than my desire for privacy.

 

In the flash of a nanosecond I admitted to myself that I wanted to open myself up to his inspection. I thought he, at least, could admire the choices I’d made. And if he responded well—if he didn’t mess this up—we’d be that much closer to making out on a sofa somewhere.

 

Or doing more than making out.

 

So I waited for his reply and held on to my hopeful anticipation.

 

“All right,” he said. I kept my face wooden, holding back the grin.

 

“All right. Please—you can go first.”

 

He half-turned in his seat to watch me. “How did you pay for the apartment we were just in?”

 

This was a clever question. If I were to answer honestly, I’d be handing him a great deal of information. So, I thought. Put up or shut up, Emma. Tell him or shut this down.

 

Passing headlights briefly illuminated his face. The angles of his cheekbones. The patience in his silence. The deadly, skillful, clever conviction. I shivered in response to him and exhaled slowly through pursed lips. Then I told him.

 

“When I was seventeen, I married Ousmane Ba. He was a beautiful black man from Senegal. Thirty years old. My parents were horrified. In retrospect, that was probably why I married him, although at the time I was sure I was in love. That illusion lasted almost all the way through the wedding.”

 

I smiled in reflection of the wild child I’d been. “Ousmane was very rich. At least—he always had a great deal of cash. That was fun. I discovered after we married that he owned a fleet of illegal fishing trawlers that were permanently stationed offshore, stripping the sea of anything they could catch.”

 

Dmitri was listening without response so I kept talking.

 

“The only other outfit as big as Ousmane’s was run by a guy named Moussou. And one day, Moussou decided to move up in the ranks. He killed Ousmane. And then I was a widow.”

 

“How old were you?”

 

“Just turned twenty.”

 

“And you’d inherited illegal trawlers. Did Moussou come after you?”

 

“He came after me. He thought he was going to intimidate me. Instead, I invited him in, cooked him some dinner, and made a proposal.”

 

Dmitri hadn’t successfully masked the small laugh I’d surprised out of him. I was delighted by his response, so I kept going.

 

“I have an impeccable heritage and contacts across Europe and the United States, and Moussou was an underworld thug. We are perfect business partners. I’ve opened up new markets where he sells our fish—and other products—and he provides me with support when I can use a hand. And we’re both raking in money hand over fist.”

 

“I see.” His tone was studiously neutral. “Moussou could provide you with a contact if you needed, say, to break someone out of a prison in Kazakhstan.”

 

I nodded. “A local drug lord in Kyrgyzstan with a Range Rover and a driver I could borrow.”

 

“And you’re not indebted to this Moussou? He doesn’t hold anything over you?”

 

I chuckled and shook my head. “Far from it. We know far too much about each other, and make each other far too much money. We’ve achieved something extraordinary between us: Trust.”

 

“Honor among thieves.”

 

“Exactly. As far as that goes. But it can be challenging to spend money so illegally acquired, so I have shell corporations that acquire little footholds around the world—houses, apartments, condos wherever I think I might need them.”

 

“A smart choice. But you’re wealthy in your own right.”

 

“My mother is wealthy. A Morgan, descended from the original robber baron, J. Pierpont Morgan, who surely would have appreciated illegal fishing trawlers. I have a trust fund, which is why some of my homes and properties are in my own name. But I make far more from my partnership with Moussou.”

 

“But you don’t really need the money.”

 

“Everyone needs more money.”

 

“Not you.” His gaze was fixed and steady. I was being assessed—and I was judging him by his assessment. When he spoke, I knew I’d met my match. “You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the thrill.”

 

His words gave me the very thrill I craved. “That’s true.” I glanced at him. If I hadn’t been driving, I would have slid onto his lap and found his tongue with my own. I wanted my breasts crushed against him, his arms wrapped around me.

 

He inhaled sharply and then sighed in a slow breath. My flash of lust had reached him. “You’ve been very honest,” he said. “Thank you.”

 

I nodded. I took a few miles to recover my balance and asked him. “My turn now?”

 

“What can I tell you?”

 

“Please. What else? Tell me how you came to grow up in Detroit.”

 

He bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “This is… taking a step,” he said. “With this exchange of intimacies, we move beyond I hire you or you hire me.”

 

“I know.”

 

“All right.” He paused and then spoke. “The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I was five. My father, Igor, was part of a collective of Latvian factory workers brought to the United States for five years to learn modern factory production techniques. We came when I was seven, and moved back home when I was twelve.”

 

“Did you want to go back to Latvia?”

 

He interlaced his fingers as he thought about the question. “Want to go back.” He studied the darkness beyond the window. “No. And yes. My mother hated Detroit. She never learned the language. Everything was too fast, too colorful. She was scared all the time.”

 

“And your father?”

 

“My father.” His hands stilled, fisted in his lap. “Let’s not talk about my father.”

 

Interesting. “All right. What did you like about America?”

 

The fists eased and he laughed. “The Detroit Lions.”

 

Then we were both laughing. “My older brothers had played football—what you call soccer—before we came to the US, and my sister was too little. But I was the only one who played football first. Real football. Well, not real football, but I mean not soccer. We played touch. Pop Warner league, you know?”

 

I’d grown up in England, but I knew what he was talking about. He told me about going to Lions games and watching on TV. By the time he was twelve, he was big enough to be a defensive back, and he’d loved it.

 

He’d loved fishing in the lakes, he’d loved Happy Meals, he’d loved riding the bus and roughhousing with his friends. But he wouldn’t talk about his father, and he spoke of his time in the US with a wistfulness he probably didn’t notice.

 

“Bernie’s going to be furious that she missed all this,” I said as we drove into the town of Irvington (rolled up neatly for the night) and found the road that would drive us through the countryside to Connie’s house on the river.

 

“Please,” came a raspy voice from the back seat, “I’ve been awake for miles. Dimi likes football and fishing.”

 

“You know,” he said, turning in his seat to look at Bernadette. “The nickname for Dmitri is actually Dima.”

 

“Too bad.” She sat up and pulled herself to rights. “That sounds like a girl’s name. You’re Dimi from now on.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he grinned. But he turned back to face front when my headlights picked out the dark cottage at the end of the road and Bernie pointed.

 

“Well, hell. Does it look like that front door is hanging open?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Using their combined spyycraft, our team searches Connie’s empty house and finds a disturbing clue.

B. The Sheik’s minions are waiting behind that open door; a brawl ensues. Bernie is abducted and Emma and Dmitri must race to her rescue.

C. Connie tells Emma, Dmitri, and Bernie an alarming story.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (June 6) to cast your vote. Next installment on June 11.

21-06-11

 

Subject: Time to Focus

 

Pre-header: Overwhelmingly, we voted for a combo of two or three of the last options—which is SO where I wanted to go with this by the end…so: Satisfied!

 

DMITRI

 

Remote river road near Irvington, VA

 

“Kill the headlights,” I said to Emma. “Pull off the road.”

 

The three of us eyed the dark house before us as our eyes adjusted. The front door hung open. A sedan was parked in the driveway; did it belong to Connie Westham, the woman we were looking for?

 

Or to someone meaning her harm?

 

This assignment had been out of character. Was it a professional job? A personal attraction to Emma St. Claire? Now as danger threatened, I set aside banter and flirtation. Time to focus. “I’ll check it out. Stay in the car.”

 

Emma turned to protest. Bernie was faster. From the backseat, the octogenarian voiced her opinion.

 

“Mangez-moi le pomme de terre,” she said scornfully.

 

The translation confused me. “Did you just say ‘eat me the potato?’”

 

“Oh, like your French is so perfect. There’s no way the women are staying behind, Bozo. At least I’m certainly not. Emma?”

 

“Hell, no.” Emma replied. Emma was an adrenaline junkie. She’d straightened behind the wheel. I heard the smile in her voice. “I’ve been breaking into peoples’ houses for fun since I was twelve. I’m definitely going with you.”

 

“This is not for fun. It’s not a time for skilled amateurs,” I said with authority. That earned me a swift rap on the back of my skull from Bernie’s cane.

 

“I was running ops long before you were born, sonny. Don’t try to teach me my business. Here’s the plan.”

 

My respect for Bernie grew as she outlined a strategy. Emma and I went out the windows so no one would hear slamming car doors. I headed for the back door, keeping to the darkness under the trees, as Bernie made her call to Connie’s house. I heard her querulous voice as I brushed past the car in the drive (hood still warm; someone had recently arrived).

 

“Connie?” Bernie called into her phone. “Connie, are you there? It’s Aunt Bernie, dear. I’m at your house. Is your front door open? Darling? Can you hear me? I’m worried! I guess I’m coming in…”

 

Emma gracefully climbed to the roof of the porch from the far end. She’d go in from the second floor while I went through the back. Bernie, moving with great and geriatric care, would fetch her walker from the trunk and make her very slow way to the front door, calling out for her “niece” and attracting any attention.

 

No movement in the house. The back door had already been forced open. No need to break in. Something was definitely wrong. I suppressed my concern for Emma and Bernie. This was a time for icy professionalism.

 

I nudged the door open with my foot. No response from inside. Bernie was calling from out front. Hopefully her distraction would work to my favor.

 

All the lights were out. And I could hear someone moving.

 

If it was Emma coming down the stairs, a little light wouldn’t matter. If it wasn’t Emma, then we’d all be startled by the light but I’d have the advantage of knowing the change was coming. I found a panel by the door and flipped every switch.

 

The kitchen lights blazed on. I blinked in the sudden brilliance.Two men were focused on the hallway to the front door. One held a gun.

 

The other held Emma, his arm around her neck from behind.

 

“Khara!” the one holding Emma swore. Arabic, I thought. No doubt now that we’re dealing with the Sheik’s men.

 

The gunman swung the weapon to me and I obediently dropped to my knees, hands raised. Ignoring Bernie’s calls from the front, he headed toward me. A little closer, I thought. Come closer, zadnitza.

 

The younger one, holding Emma, used his free hand to grab her breast. I plotted murder for that one. “This one we can have fun with before we kill her, right, Sayid? This one’s a pretty little slut.”

 

“Shut up, Ihab,” Sayid said shortly. “Don’t move,” he said to me.

 

“I’m not moving. Don’t shoot me. Please don’t shoot me.” I cringed, making myself look as small as possible. Emma caught my eye.

 

Astonishingly, she looked excited. No fear at all in that woman. She raised her eyebrows to me in a question.

 

Not yet, I thought. The gun is not close enough…yet.

 

“Please, sir! Please don’t hurt us!” I used my best American accent and cringed as he drew closer, which he enjoyed. He swaggered as he stepped that last critical footstep forward.

 

That was close enough.

 

I nodded to Emma and shot my hands into the air, grabbing Sayid’s hands and forcing them upwards as I rose. With my weight on my back leg, I swung the upper part of my shin straight up to crush his testicles.

 

He screamed and doubled over. I slammed one hand against his, forcing the gun away from his thumb and into my own waiting hand. Then I drove an elbow into the back of his neck and put him on the ground.

 

Just in case he wasn’t out, I drove his forehead down onto the fieldstone floor in two quick slams. Then I checked on Emma.

 

She’d swayed to one side and swung one fist from chin height back in a smooth arc into Ihab’s groin. Like Sayid, he was now shrieking in pain.

 

And it was a pure delight to see her hook one foot behind his and jerk forward, pulling him off his feet like poetry. Like music. The woman had had training, and she’d kept up with her practice. I would have liked to try a few falls with her myself.

 

She leaned down and braced herself on the floor to deliver punches to Ihab’s head, hitting (I noted with approval) from her core and not from the strength of her arm. He stopped shrieking with a gurgle. Blood was coming from somewhere.

 

She stood too soon; she had no idea if her opponent was truly incapacitated. But she balanced this beginner’s error by fetching him a tremendous kick to the balls; my own shivered in sympathy. No way he wasn’t ruptured. “That’s a gift for your fun. From your pretty little slut.”

 

Her hair was wild and her skin was flushed. Her eyes were bright; she was angry and insulted and excited. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a woman look more alive.

 

“Well,” I said. “I guess we got them.”

 

“I guess we did!”

 

Even though both men were now unconscious, I sent her to look through the kitchen for something to tie up both men. I examined the gun. It was clean; hadn’t been fired recently. There was a bullet in the chamber.

 

Emma cried out in victory; she’d found a roll of duct tape. The fact that it was fluorescent pink with blue and yellow dots on it did not lessen its effectiveness and I talked her through trussing up both men while I kept the gun on them. Both were unconscious; I thought without remorse that it was unlikely that the man I’d attacked would survive.

 

“Nice form,” I complimented. “Where’d you get your training?”

 

“Ex-military guy from the Israeli special forces. Krav Maga. I work with him whenever we’re on the same continent, and he’s got a routine for me to practice with. I try to do it every morning. Came in handy today, I must say.”

 

“Agreed.” I upgraded my assessment of Emma from talented amateur to extremely talented amateur.

 

“Well,” she said once she’d bitten off the last strip of tape and wound it around Ihab’s unmoving ankles, “now what?”

 

“Now we wait until someone wakes up and find out what’s going on. I gather Connie wasn’t upstairs?”

 

“Not that I saw. Hey.” Emma looked around the kitchen. “Where’s Bernie?”

 

An excellent question. I’d lost track of a member of my team and felt a cold finger of dread.

 

Chert poberi. That dread was justified. Bernie’s walker was lying alone in the front yard. The car in the driveway was gone.

 

There had been more than two men waiting in the house.

 

Bernie had been abducted.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Dmitri and Emma recognize that things are now out of control and call the police.

B. One of the Sheik’s minions wakes up but is confused; what he tells them makes little sense and Dmitri and Emma have to decide which parts are true.

C. Bernie, canny old lady that she is, gets in touch with Emma and rats out her abductors.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (June 13) to cast your vote. Next installment on June 18.

21-06-18

 

Subject: Reach Out And Touch Someone

 

Pre-header: The combo vote got the highest score—confusion from an injured minion plus a phone call from the unstoppable Bernie.

 

EMMA

 

House on a remote river road near Irvington, VA

 

My adrenaline, like a flash of fire in my nervous system, didn’t last long after I beat the crap out of my would-be rapist. Once it burned off, I was left with the feeling of screaming, overwhelming victory, and the growing suspicion that in hitting Ihab, I’d broken something in my hand.

 

Dmitri was checking the duct tape I’d wound around the wrists and ankles of both men, but he saw me flexing my right.

 

“If you can still make a fist, you probably haven’t broken anything. But you might have fractures. Let me see.”

 

His hands were large and warm and safe. Unlike me, he wasn’t shaking. Did the man even produce adrenaline? He was carefully pressing the bones of my hand, his thumb pushing intimately into the cup of my palm. “Your Krav Maga trainer didn’t tell you to strike with your elbow, or the heel of your hand?”

 

“He did,” I said, wincing. Dmitri moved on to the fingers. “I forgot.”

 

He nodded. “Heat of battle. You did well.”  Gently he worked each knuckle and I managed to suppress the reflex that would have jerked my hand from his. “I don’t think anything’s broken, but you need ice. And some kind of painkiller.”

 

He let go of my hand, and I was sorry. We liberated one of Connie’s dishtowels, filled it with ice, and I wrapped my hand. Better.

 

“How do we track down Bernie?” I asked.

 

“First things first. We search the house. See if we can find Connie. And you can find some Advil or something.”

 

“Okay. I’ll go upstairs, you take the basement.”

 

“We’ll clear the house together. Don’t leave any fingerprints.” There was no arguing with him. He was definitely in Professional Mode. He was very thorough, checking places like under-sink cabinets where Connie could be crammed only if she were dead or unconscious, which was chilling.

 

As we went, Dmitri wiped down any places we might have touched—including the fridge door and the windowsill in Connie’s bedroom where I’d climbed in from the porch roof.

 

I checked out her medicine cabinet. “Hey—she has aspirin. Not Tylenol or Advil; actual aspirin.” I helped myself to two and then tucked the rest of the bottle in my pocket. Dmitri stuck his head back in the door.

 

“Aspirin? What else does she have in there? Any prescriptions?”

 

“Yeah. There’s something called Ranexa…and this one is… Propranolol.” I stumbled through the name.

 

Dmitri nodded. “Wipe your fingerprints off the bottles and the door. Your girl has a heart condition. I hope wherever she is, they’re taking care of her.”

 

“Huh.” Connie and I had never been great friends, although we’d passed a few wild nights together, but until that moment I hadn’t actually thought of her as a person. She was just another step on the path to helping Bradford. Now she was missing and possibly courting a heart attack.

 

Beating up Ihab had been more fun than thinking about Connie.

 

We ended up in the kitchen again, where Sayid was breathing in a way that made me nervous—a sort of hitch-hitch-hitch, exhale pattern that didn’t sound good.

 

Ihab’s eyes were open, but unfocused. Dmitri squatted next to him.

 

“Marhabana akhi,” he said in a gentle voice. “How are you feeling?”

 

Ihab struggled to focus. “Salam, brother.” He paused while he summoned his thoughts. “I hurt.”

 

Dmitri grinned at me. “I’ll bet you do. Where did they take the woman?”

 

“The woman?” Ihab’s eyes wandered to me.

 

“Not me,” I said. “The blonde.” At least, she’d been a blonde the last time I saw her.

 

“Yeah. The blonde.” He offered the ghost of a smile. “She cried. Like a…” He couldn’t complete the thought and I considered fetching him one more kick to the crotch. Dmitri’s hand closed over my ankle in reproof. I wasn’t actually going to do it.

 

Probably.

 

“Where did they take the blonde, brother?” Dmitri maintained a gentle, friendly tone, but Ihab’s senses were waking up and he uttered a groan. Small trembles became the shakes and the wetness in his eyes overflowed to actual tears. “The blonde—where is she?”

 

“The stone,” he gasped. “I need help.”

 

“The stone?” Dmitri looked at me and I peered out the back window.

 

“It’s too dark. I can’t see if there’s a stone out there. Shall I go out?”

 

“No. Wait for me. What do you mean, brother? The stone? Where?”

 

“Alkhisyatayn,” Ihab gasped. I looked at Dmitri, who shook his head.

 

“Means his balls hurt. But at least he knows something, even if he’s confused.”

 

He was leaning down to draw Ihab’s attention again when my phone rang. Startled, I fished it out. “It’s Irwin Grice—Bradford’s chief of staff. What the hell could he want at twenty minutes to midnight?”

 

“Answer it,” Dmitri said sharply.

 

“Hello? Irwin?”

 

“Emma—it’s nice to talk to you again. I’m sorry to bother you, but the Capitol Hill switchboard got a call from someone who says she knows you and needs your phone number. The operator called me instead of Bradford. Can I give your phone number to someone named Bernadette?”

 

Laughter and relief welled up and popped bubbles of delight out of my skull. “Yes! Irwin, give her my number! Oh, thank you!” I nodded at Dmitri, and he sat back, his big shoulders relaxing.

 

“She’s on the other line. I’ll give it to her now. What’s going on?”

 

“I’ll explain everything, Irwin, but first I need to talk to Bernie. Will you have her call me right away?”

 

Time is so variable; it seemed to take hours for Bernie to call, but it was probably only a few seconds. Dmitri was standing beside me when the call finally came through. Unknown number. I put it on speakerphone.

 

“Bernie?”

 

Her voice, as alert and spunky as ever, eased the last tension in my heart. “Sweetie, I’m sorry I had to call Bradford, but these Arab assholes took my phone, and I don’t have your number memorized.”

 

“So they did abduct you?”

 

“The rat bastards. Shoved me into a trunk, if you can believe it, with your friend Connie, who I must say is a serious wet blanket.”

 

“Where are you?” Dmitri interjected.

 

“According to the room service menu, I’m at the White Stone Inn—Finest In The Northern Neck.”

 

“You have a room service menu?” I was confused.

 

“Please. I could walk out of here right now, if I wanted to. And if I had my cane. These Arabs have no respect for the mature woman. They should be shot for their treatment of me.”

 

“Are you hurt?” I panicked, but my alarm was premature.

 

“Not hurt—insulted! They think they’ve locked me in a bathroom and they’re all next door talking to the wet blanket. I can hear them through the walls.”

 

Dmitri was using his phone to find the White Stone Inn. He nodded.

 

“How did you get out?” I asked her.

 

“Get out? Please. I opened the door. They propped a chair under the handle. But the fucking door opens inward. How was that supposed to lock me in? Honestly—the quality of these jokers is a damned crime. So now I’m calling from room 214. I assume you’re going to come and get me?”

 

“We’ll bring the walker and the cane,” Dmitri promised. “But you’ll do more good if you stay there.”

 

“Don’t I know it,” she said. “I’ll keep listening through the wall until you get here, and then we’ll make a plan. Take your time. I am in no danger at all, and it’s really a very nice room.”

 

I felt a burst of affection. She was tough as nails.

 

“We’re on our way, Bernie.”

 

I ended the call and found Dmitri looking at Ihab and Sayid. Then he turned to me. “If I was alone, I’d kill these two.” Sayid, I thought, was already on his way out, but Ihab’s eyes got wide.

 

“I’d really rather not,” I said delicately. This was, I knew, the difference between a professional and a talented amateur. “Do we have to?”

 

Dmitri thought about it. “I guess not. It’s not like this guy is likely to explain how he was abducting a woman when two strangers broke in and beat him up. He heard the call with the chief of staff, but who would believe that? All right—if you want to risk it, we can be the good guys.”

 

He wrapped his hand in a towel, picked up Connie’s phone, and dialed 9-1-1.

 

When the operator answered, he said clearly, “I need help.” Then he laid the phone down on the counter without hanging up, and without speaking further, took my elbow. We walked out the front door.

 

Somehow his authority was so complete that when he held out his hand for my keys, I obediently got in the passenger seat. He started the car.

 

“It will take us about twenty minutes to get to Bernie. We should decide what we’re going to do then,” he said.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

Look: I already know what’s going to happen next—and it’s too soon for Emma and Dmitri to take advantage of a large hotel room bed plus a few hours to kill. No actual sex yet, although they can make out a little. But we’ll get to that eventually—so I need to know how hot we’re going to go. So this week’s vote is more about your preferences than the story:

 

A. I am uncomfortable with overt sex scenes; I prefer closed-door implications. (No need to vote, Lexie; I already know you don’t want to read your sister’s idea of a sex scene, and who can blame you??)

B. I’m good with open-door sex, but let’s not get too graphic. Detailed discussions of anatomy, for example, are a touch too far.

C. I like a dirty sex scene with heat, thrills, anatomy, and glory. I was fine with the sex scene in CYN & THE PEANUT BUTTER CUP.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (June 20) to cast your vote. Next installment on June 25.