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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.