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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.

21-06-25

 

Subject: Lemons and Lexus

 

Preheader: When the “ice man” begins to lose his cool, all standard operating procedures are out the window. Chert poberi!

 

DMITRI

 

Irvington, Virginia

 

Emma’s scent was interfering with my focus.

 

In my various Army units as I moved up through the ranks, I was known for my calm. By the time I trained with the FSB in Moscow, my Russian instructors praised me as dispassionate. Careless administrators in the Latvian Secret Service called me “Iceman” to my face, until I corrected them.

 

I am known for—I pride myself on—my ability to focus.

 

But the scent of lemons was killing me. Like silk scarves brushing across the face of a blindfolded man. I drove with a clenched jaw. The battle had heightened my senses and now I  was susceptible to a woman who became excited by danger, who challenged my logic, who slid like a stiletto into my secrets.

 

So I shifted my focus. The smooth, American road unspooling in the headlights. The glossy, varnished wooden steering wheel under my hands. The smell of the leather interior, cool in the spring night and quickened with the crisp lure of citrus.

 

No, that was Emma again.

 

“How’s your hand?” I asked her. She still had ice in a dish towel wrapped around her knuckles.

 

“Better.” Her voice had a faint distant rasp that got me in the muscles at the back of my skull. “I think the aspirin is kicking in.” She looked at me by the light of the instrument panel. “You’d never hit someone with your hand, would you?”

 

I laughed without amusement and flexed my fingers on the wheel. “I’ve broken bones in my hands so many times that I’m getting arthritis in the knuckles. Occupational hazard. Now I never hit with a fist.”

 

She ran a warm, velvet finger over the back of my hand, exploring the bumps and breaks. The car was too small; too intimate. Her touch was too distracting. I shifted my grip to take a turn and her hand fell away. “When we get to the hotel,” I said, “You get us checked into a room, and I’ll get to Bernie, in case she needs help.”

 

“I could do that,” she said, but I cut her off.

 

“I didn’t put together a complete cover for this mission. You’ve got a real credit card and real ID. Not to mention the money to pay the bill.” I grinned at her.

 

“I’m just a sugar mama to you,” she laughed back.

 

“Oh, mama,” I said, and it came out with a lusty air that I should have been able to control. She laughed again, this time with an edge of excitement that was both a warning and an enticement. Thank god the White Stone Inn was close.

 

We separated at the door; Emma going to the front desk in the well-lit lobby and me up the stairs to the second floor. I found room 214 and knocked softly.

 

Far from being distressed by her kidnapping, Bernie was bright-eyed and happy when she answered the door, and she gave a quiet crow of victory when I handed over her cane.

 

“Dimi! You sweet thing—you bring the best gifts! Keep your voice down, just in case. Where’s Emma?” She pulled me into the room and shut the door.

 

“Getting us checked in. If you’re staying, we are, too.”

 

“Well, of course you are. Come over here and move this bed for me. I’m getting a crick from listening over the headboard.”

 

With nothing more high-tech, she was doing her eavesdropping through a drinking glass against the wall. I pulled out my phone and a small roll of duct tape (the fact that it was was fluorescent pink with blue and yellow dots did not lessen its effectiveness). I keyed up my eavesdropping app and then taped the phone to the wall.

 

Bernie mimed clapping her hands in delight. “Gimme one of those earbuds!”

 

We sat on the two beds, facing each other and lost in the discussion from the next room.

 

The two men referred to each other as Sam and Mo. Their voices had the cadence of Americans, but Bernie confirmed that they were of Arab descent, so their names were probably Yusami and Mohammed.

 

Sam and Mo were underlings. They weren’t sure what to do without Sayid. They were waiting for his phone call so they’d know to go pick him and Ihab up. They thought Ihab was an idiot, which made me like them a little more. They hadn’t gotten very far with Connie’s interrogation. She’d apparently passed out several times from fear and was currently sobbing quietly. Her breathing sounded rough; I was of the opinion that Connie and her bad heart would have benefited from a quick trip to the local hospital, but Sam and Mo didn’t share that instinct.

 

They’d planned to torture Bernie in front of her “niece” if Connie wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to know, but had been putting it off until Sayid returned. Bernie rolled her eyes at me. “Not a pair of testicles between the two of them,” she whispered.

 

Emma arrived, a large key in her hands (no electronic card reader keys for the White Stone Inn), and wanted an update. I beckoned her over to my side and pulled my earbud out so she could lean her head in and listen with me.

 

And I smelled lemons. Warm lemons. Graceful, sneaky, bright, delicious lemons.

 

Sitting together had been my idea; my stupid idea. I couldn’t back away now.

 

She leaned into me, pressed against my arm as I stupidly held the earbud between us. She propped herself up with a hand on the bed behind me; I could feel the scant distance between her caressing fingers and the muscles of my ass. Helpless, I tipped my head closer to hers and felt her mink-dark hair brush my jaw.

 

I opened my eyes and saw that Bernie was silently laughing at me. I winced and grimaced at her. She winked.

 

Focus. I am the ice man. Dispassionate and calm.

 

We listened. We learned that Sam and Mo weren’t supposed to call Sayid—but when their leader didn’t check in, they lost their nerve and called “the boss.” Their conversation quickly flipped to Arabic that was tough to translate; my Arabic is rusty.

 

But the upshot was that “the boss” was going to come get Connie the next morning; he planned to arrive by ten. They agreed they’d leave Bernadette in the bathroom of Sayid and Ihab’s hotel room; they’d deal with her tomorrow. Sam was put in charge of watching Connie, and Mo was sent off in their car to see if he could find Sayid and Ihab. (He was going to find a whole flock of police cars on the scene when he got there, I thought with pleasure).

 

“Well,” whispered Bernie after Mo left, “looks like that’s it for now. I think you guys can stand down for now.”

 

“We’re supposed to leave you here?” Emma said.

 

“You’re not going far. That key says 206. You’re just down the hall. Move the phone behind that ugly painting and leave me the earbuds. I’ll call you if it looks like something is changing.”

 

Bernie was calm, but the quick darting glance she gave me told me she was plotting. And plotting gleefully. “Go get some sleep,” she went on, innocent as a kitten. “I slept the whole car ride down, and that’s as much sleep as I need these days. Go on. Get out. Thanks for the cane, Dimi.”

 

For such a small, old woman, she was pretty effective as she bullied and pushed and hustled us to the door. We found ourselves in the hall, looking at her firmly-closed door.

 

And assailed by the scent of lemons.

 

Emma let us into an identical room down the hall. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it. “It’s not actually lemons,” I said out loud. “You smell like lemon peel. Like zest.”

 

“Zest,” she said as she turned to me. “I like that. It’s a single dab of perfume. I don’t use much. It must have warmed up with the heat of the fight.”

 

“Perfume. I’ve never smelled anything so…” I didn’t finish the sentence because I was already having trouble controlling myself. Admitting that she was irresistably enticing seemed like a bad idea.

 

“I have it bottled privately. Shall I get you a little flask?”

 

She’d drawn closer. Or had I? Somehow my back was no longer against the door. “I don’t think it would be the same without your…chemistry. Your warmth.”

 

“My warmth. You seem warm, too.” Her hand was on my forearm, sliding toward my elbow. “I think it would work on you.”

 

“Oh, it’s working on me.” My fingers found the curve of her hip and I drew her closer. My brain was paralyzed, leaving my body to make its own choices. “It wouldn’t be the same on me, though,” I muttered. I took a breath and made one last stab at sanity. “Emma.”

 

“I know,” she said, her hand continuing its journey up my arm to my shoulder. “This is going to complicate things.”

 

“Or make them very, very simple,” I agreed. “We really shouldn’t.”

 

“That’s right. We shouldn’t.” Her hips came flush against mine with the barest ghost of the pressure my swollen cock was aching for, and I pulled her closer until her back arched, pushing  her breasts up and into me.

 

“We can’t,” I said. The warmth of her skin made me realize that I’d lowered my head as she’d looked up. The distance between us melted like my calm. She whispered her reply, her mouth so close that her lips brushed mine with the words.

 

“Then we won’t. We’ll be smart.”

 

It was the pout her mouth made when she said “smart” that made it clear that we were kissing—the softest grazing of skin against skin. Heat against heat. Longing blending into need into want into now into mine.

 

She pulled me closer. I pulled her closer. The graze became pressure. The pressure became demand. Her flavor—the secret, private taste of her tongue against mine—was incendiary. Strength pounded through my body, pushed against my muscles, flattened my feet firmly against the floor to root me. I had a sudden and primitive urge to consumer her, to pull her onto me and push into her and own her taste and her smell and her silky body that melted against me like madness.

 

And then she moved her hand to caress my face, and we both got a surprising slap from the sodden, icy dish towel wrapped around her bruised knuckles. We broke apart with a gasp. Reason was restored.

 

Which, although startling, was a very good thing.

 

Probably.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Dmitri and Emma are both single and consenting adults. In a hotel room. Nothing happening until late morning. There’s a big bed right there. Are we really going to be coy now?

B. Dmitri and Emma decide they should control themselves—at least until this mission is over. They whisper pillow confidences, each in their own bed, until they fall asleep.

C. Bernie uses Dimi’s phone to call Emma; Something Very Bad is happening to Connie.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.

 

You have until Sunday evening (June 27) to cast your vote. Next installment on July 2.

21-07-02

 

Subject: Oh, no! Connie!

 

Preheader: We’re a bloodthirsty bunch of readers. Poor Connie has been consigned to a bitter fate, you cruel readers!

EMMA

 

The White Stone Inn, Irvington, Virginia

 

It’s been my life’s pursuit to chase excitement, and that had included my sex life. Over the years, I’ve explored fetishes, perversions, multiple partners, drug-based enhancements. Most people don’t believe it when I tell them, but it’s true: Sex gets boring.

 

There are all kinds of variations, but after… let’s see; I lost my virginity at thirteen when I seduced a much-older cousin and now I’m thirty-five, so after twenty-two years of (ultimately) inserting tab A into slot B, I’m sort of over it. Sex with my various boyfriends around the world has a mechanical efficiency to it. A means to an end and then please let me try to get two straight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Which sometimes happens.

 

But Dmitri.

 

Oh.

 

Something different was going on here. I had a silvery, electrified nervous system all of a sudden—one that awakened sensations all over my body. Yes, I was wet and pliant at my core, but as we’d kissed, I’d also been aware of the tender webbing between my big toe and its neighbor. The inner bend of my elbow. A diamond shape of muscles at the small of my back.

 

He was making my scalp tingle, and my lungs inflate like balloons. He was re-wiring my system.

 

When I inadvertently slapped him in the face with the icy, wet dish towel over my bruised knuckles, we were both startled and backed apart, the physical connection between us broken.

 

The awareness did not break.

 

Hormones and logic had a head-on collision in my brain. “MORE” and “STOP” crashed into each other and I was temporarily paralyzed. Dmitri was looking at me with eyebrows drawn down and hands clenched in greedy fists.

 

The phone rang.

 

It was my cell, not the hotel’s phone on the tidy nightstand between two vast, unwrinkled acres of bed. Firm, fuckable beds. Beds that needed to be wrinkled. Torn apart. Mattresses dragged off their frames, pillows bunched under hips and heads and knees and…

 

…what? Oh. Phone.

 

“It’s your phone calling me, Dmitri. Must be Bernie. Yes?” I answered, nose crinkled against the effervescence of my lust.

 

“Sweetie,” said Bernie, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but oh, dear.” Her voice snapped me out of my haze.

 

“Oh dear? What oh dear?”

 

“Connie. Sam and Mo think Connie’s having a heart attack, and I think they’re right. I don’t think we can delay.”

 

“Be right there.”

 

I slammed the phone down. Dmitri was back on alert, his focus complete even if his hair was a wreck from my hungry, clenching fingers. “Connie?”

 

I nodded. “Heart attack. I think we have to rescue her.”

 

“Wait.” He handed me the sodden dishcloth (how was he holding it now?). “Wipe your fingerprints off anything you touched. I’ll get the door.”

 

He’d palmed my ass. He’d tugged my hair to get better access to my mouth. He’d touched the hell out of me, but I wasn’t going to stand still to be dusted for fingerprints. “Door knobs. Door jamb.”

 

“Obviously.” It was a matter of seconds to remove any possible traces of us, just in case any investigators thought to go looking for the unknown woman who’d checked in past midnight and then vanished.

 

Then we were down the hall, past Bernie, standing in her open door and watching us, and outside the room that held Connie. We could hear her whimpering.

 

Dmitri drew back to break down the door and I stopped him. “Wait—I have my picks.” I fished the case from the pocket of my jeans. The lock was old and loose; even if I wasn’t trembling lightly from the various hormones racing through me, it would have been an easy pick.

 

“My shoulder thanks you. Now stand behind me, please.”

 

Dmitri had retrieved Sayid’s gun (where had he hidden it? Must have been behind his back; I hadn’t gotten to exploring his ass yet when we were kissing), and he opened the door gently.

 

Peering past him, I felt a flash of fury. Two men (one with a decided black eye) were sitting still, watching Connie in obvious agony. They looked…calm.

 

Loathsome.

 

Both looked to the door when Dmitri came in, and stood quickly when they saw his gun.

 

“Trakhni menya,” Dmitri growled. “What the hell are you doing? She needs help.”

 

Both men gaped. “Who are you?” Their eyes went to something behind me, and I turned so Dmitri wouldn’t have to. Bernie was behind me, leaning on her cane.

 

“Hey,” she said. “I know you. Need a wet wipe to get the dust off that suit, honey? Sorry about the black eye, son.” Then I knew we’d found two of the guys who Bernie’d decked at Martin Perriman Esker’s memorial service, just hours before. (Only hours? Incredible.)

 

“You!” the black-eyed man said. “What the hell is going on?”

 

Dmitri gestured with the gun and the two men moved together to stand between the beds, their hands up. Once they were out of the way, I darted past Dmitri to Connie.

 

Her wrists were taped to the chair and her left cheek above the cloth gag bore the scarlet slap of a right-handed man. Her eyes were wide and her skin was clammy. She rolled her eyes at me in terror and then clenched up at a wave of pain.

 

“You bastards! She’s got a bad heart!” I eased the gag from her mouth, but she was biting down on the cloth and I couldn’t get it away.

 

“Cut away the tape. There’s a knife in my boot,” Dmitri started. Bernie interrupted.

 

“I’ve got a stiletto in my cane.”

 

“Never mind; I’ve got it.” Not as fancy as either of their offerings, I pulled my Swiss Army knife out and cut away at her bonds. Then I eased her down to lie flat on the floor. “Bernie, can you get me a glass of water?”

 

I had aspirin with me; of course I did. I’d taken the bottle from Connie’s own medicine cabinet. “Connie. Connie, can you hear me?”

 

Her face was wet with tears but she opened her eyes. “Emma?” she said in wonder.

 

“Hi. You need to take some aspirin. Thanks, Bernie.” I took the glass of water and shook pills into my hand. “Get these down right now, Connie. I know—do it anyway. This will help. Bernie, call the rescue squad.”

 

“Use the room phone.” Dmitri had herded the two men away from the nightstand. “Clean off your fingerprints after.”

 

“Not my first rodeo, buckaroo,” Bernie gritted out. She barked at the operator and described the situation. “Hurry! She has a heart condition. My name? Oh, no! There she goes again—you’ve got to hurry!” Bernie hung up and wiped off her prints. “Won’t be long now, Connie,” she said with a reassuring smile.

 

Connie, however, was almost beyond noticing. Her skin was gray and her breathing was ragged. I dragged the cover off the bed to keep her warm, and propped pillows under her feet. Nothing much was helping.

 

“Emma,” she groaned. “Emma, that night. They want to know about… oh, God.”

 

A fresh wave of pain stiffened her. When it ended, Connie was unconscious. “Shit,” I said helplessly.

 

“Emma.” Dmitri got my attention. “Check these guys. Wallets, phones. I figure we’ve got about another seven minutes. Bernie, check the bathroom and any luggage.”

 

“What are we going to do with these guys?” I asked as I patted at their hips. Both had wallets, and between them they had three phones. “Bernie—I got your phone.”

 

“Oh, excellent,” she said, “and I’ve got your phone, Dimi. It’s like a key party in the 70s. I hear sirens.”

 

“We’ve got to get out of here.” Dmitri looked at me, and I looked at Connie. Then we both looked at Sam and Mo, who didn’t like the examination. “I should kill them,” Dmitri said.

 

They both protested and I added my frown. “Isn’t there any other way?”

 

It was Bernie who answered. “Sure. Here’s the tape they used on her. Let’s return the favor.”

 

She began taping their wrists behind their backs, and Dmitri handed me the gun and pulled out his own roll of duct tape. It took less than a minute—and then nefarious Bernie insisted they lie on the floor between the beds, head to foot. “Now face away from each other,” she said. The two men were now butt to butt.

 

Bernie made me surrender the gun and had me help tape the ankles of each man—but we bent their knees at her direction and taped them across the face of the other. Hair, skin, pants, socks, ankles—they could get out of the mess, but it would take time. And it would hurt.

 

The sirens were louder now; the ambulance was in the parking lot. “Explain that to the cops, boys,” Bernie crowed. Then she gasped when Dmitri put his large shoulder into her stomach and hauled her up into a fireman’s carry.

 

“Out the door. Now. Emma, get her cane.”

 

I took one last look at Connie—still breathing, but unconscious—and followed them out the door. We were hiding in Bernie’s room, closing the door as a team ran down the hall with a collapsable gurney. We’d done for Connie all that we could. Time would tell if she’d survive.

 

“Well,” said Bernie, “That was a good bit more exciting that I was planning on. What now?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A: The trio hunkers down and awaits the arrival of “the boss” at ten the next morning.

B: Assuming that either Sam or Mo, once arrested, will use their one phone call to call the boss, the trio decides that waiting is fruitless. They need to track down Connie’s ex-husband Alf. They have questions…and he might need some serious protection.

C: Bernie volunteers to be abducted again so she can be the inside man.

 

You have until Sunday evening (July 4; happy Independence Day!) to cast your vote. Next installment on July 9.

 

21-07-09

 

Subject: Work Smarter, Not Harder

 

Pre-headers: With this installment, we’re over 20,000 words in our story—about a quarter of a printed novel. How long can we keep this going?!

 

DMITRI

 

The White Stone Inn, Irvington, Virginia and points north

 

So far, the only feet thumping down the hallway belonged to the medical team sent to help Connie. But the first team in had already no doubt notified the gendarmerie that two men were on the floor of the hotel room, bound together, in part, with the very distinctive duct tape I’d used to tie up Sayid and Ihab at Connie’s home.

 

And Connie herself, still bearing the tape on her wrists they they’d used to secure her to the chair, was unconscious on the floor.

 

We had mere moments before some form of police investigation began.

 

Clever Emma was ahead of me.

 

“The first door the cops are going to knock on will be the second room those guys rented. This room.”

 

Bernie nodded. “We have to get out of here. Where to? Your room?”

 

I didn’t like that idea. It was like trying to escape into a blind alley. No way out. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

Emma nodded. “First, let’s get the fingerprints out of this room.”

 

“Done,” said Bernie. “I wiped where I touched. We want them to get the other two punks’ prints. Don’t mess with my plan.”

 

I smiled. She was sharp, this crafty old spy. “Okay. I’ll get the door knobs on the way out.”

 

“But it’s after midnight. How can we just stroll out without attracting attention?”

 

Bernie’s question was legitimate. The Inn was small and homey. Very little anonymity here, and very little reason for an old lady with a cane to be thumping around the halls when all decent people were tucked up in bed. Not to mention the notice that might be taken of strangers like Emma and me.

 

Emma looked hopefully at the window. The woman had a lust for house-breaking. “Get over it. You’re not going out the window. We’re going to use the chaos,” I said. “Bernie, what would a little old lady zanyatoy…” I stretched for the English word and found it. “A busybody. What would a busybody do if ambulance crews and cops were dashing up and down the hall?”

 

She began to smile. “She’d get dressed and go sit on that bench by the elevator. Ask a lot of impertinent questions.”

 

Emma began to smile. “And eventually make her way down the elevator to the lobby?”

 

“Where her daughter and her son-in-law would pick her up at the front door. Mother—what’s going on? Are you all right?” I leaned down to kiss my dear mother-in-law on her papery cheek and she whipped her head around until I was bussing her pursed lips. She giggled and then I was laughing, too.

 

I’d kissed both my women tonight.

 

“All right, you two. Let’s get to it before the cops really do show up. How are you and I playing it, Dimi?”

 

Emma’s unconscious use of my nickname sparked a secret thrill at the base of my spine. I ignored it for now. “We’re going to walk down the back steps. Give me that ice bucket. We’re just in search of a little ice. We’ll stop anyone we see and ask questions. Go out the side door, get your car, and pick up our Babushka. Sound good?”

 

Happily, that’s exactly what happened. No one was interested enough to ask any questions. Not when the news spread about two men bound across the face with duct tape.

 

Emma and I heard that particular news from a fascinated guest in a bathrobe just before we pushed the outside door open to leave. News had traveled so fast that I just assumed Bernie had been the one to start it to enhance the chaos. Clever Bernie.

 

There was an anxious moment when Emma pulled up to the front door and we didn’t see Bernie in the lobby. I thought I was going to have to go in after her. But no; here she came under her own steam. She climbed into the backseat and slammed the door behind her with a thunk that sounded of security.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

 

“Me, too,” said Emma. “There’s no sense waiting around to see who “the boss” is when he shows up at ten tomorrow morning.”

 

“Right,” Bernie agreed. “Because one of those two bastards we taped up is going to use his “one phone call” to warn the boss off.”

 

Good thinking.

 

“I’m going to keep going. We look suspicious sitting here by the door.” Emma drove slowly out the parking lot and onto the road. “I’m just not sure where I’m going.”

 

“Wherever you go, do the speed limit while we’re thinking about it.”

 

“Thanks for the tip, mother dear.”

 

“Hah.”

 

Irvington was tiny; we were out of the hamlet in no time and cruising slowly along a dark and empty rural road.

 

“You know what,” Bernie said, just as Emma said “I’m just thinking.”

 

“You go first, Bernie.”

 

“Age before beauty? Fine. I’m wondering if we can hack into the phone system and find out who Sam or Mo calls when they make their one phone call.”

 

The simplicity of the plan rendered me speechless. It was so simple. There was too much about the American judicial system that I didn’t know. “Do the police track who people call when they get one phone call?”

 

Silence. Emma finally admitted “I have no idea. Maybe it’s an invasion of privacy. Not legal.”

 

“Legal?” came an indignant voice from the back. “When has legal ever stopped us?!”

 

“Can you do it, Bernie?” Emma asked.

 

“Not me. But I know a guy.”

 

“Of course you do. And what were you going to say, Emma?” I looked to her, her lovely face lit by the instrument panel.

 

“Just that if Connie is unconscious, or… If she can’t tell them anything, maybe they’ll go after her ex next. I think we have to get to Alf.”

 

“Damned straight.” Bernie was in favor. “Call him. Right now. Use the car speakerphone so we can listen in.”

 

Emma didn’t have Alf’s phone number. We were treated to the phone call she made to her ex-husband, a US Senator and likely presidential candidate who many in Russia thought would be the next president. What an interesting life I was leading.

 

Emma didn’t allow Kingston to ask any questions. She was quite short with him and I found I responded to her stern authority. What would it be like to have that woman dominate one in the bedroom?

 

What would it be like to dominate her? So proud and strong. Both options appealed to me.

 

But that was for another time. Emma hung up with Senator Kingston and placed the call to Alf immediately.

 

It was close to one in the morning, yet Alfred Westham answered the phone almost immediately. He sounded nervous. “Hello?”

 

“Alf, it’s Emma Kingston. Do you remember me?”

 

“Emma! What the hell is going on? Where’s Connie?”

 

Curious. Emma asked the question I was thinking for me.

 

“What do you know about Connie?”

 

“I know I can’t find her, and someone I don’t know is trying to find me. They’ve been sniffing around my office, and my executive assistant was offered five hundred bucks to tell them where I lived. He took the bribe and gave them the address of my summer home, thankfully.”

 

Emma nodded. “Alf, you need to get out of your house. Go somewhere safe, and I’ll come get you.”

 

“Fuck that. I’m in my safe room. Good luck getting to me in here. I can stay in here for weeks.”

 

A safe room. I’ve dealt with them before. Very hard to pry someone out if they were well-constructed. And Alf sounded like a man with a well-constructed hideaway.

 

“All right. Are you still in the house in Swarthmore?”

 

“You know the one. But come tomorrow. Not tonight. I’m not opening my gates until it’s light out and I can see better.”

 

“All right, Alf. I’ll be there.”

 

“And you’ll tell me what the fuck is going on?”

 

“I’ll tell you what I can.”

 

They disconnected and Emma drove with more purpose back to the highway. “Let’s take tonight to regroup. I need more supplies than what I happened to have in my pockets, and Bernie, you need to contact your guy about tracing the call.”

 

“Already on it. He’s going to need money.”

 

“I’ll cover it. Do you need to go home? I’d rather you slept at my place tonight. Dmitri, where are you staying in DC?”

 

We made our plans. Emma would take us to our supplies; Bernie’s at her home and mine at the hotel I’d rented. Then we’d stick together. Get a few hours of sleep at Emma’s before heading north to talk to Alf.

 

I resolutely did not think about what our sleeping arrangements would be in Emma’s one-bedroom apartment.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A: No one answers when they pull up to the intercom in Alf’s gate. Dmitri breaks into the house but comes upon a surprise when he gets to the safe room.

 

B: Alf lets them in and tells them a tale that startles everyone…except Emma.

 

C: Bernie’s guy calls with a list of phone calls made from the Irvington Police Station between midnight and 4am—and one of the names is a shocker.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE!

 

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

Subject: Theater of the Mind

 

Preheader: The vote was tied and I skipped a week, so I’m re-setting the stage here with a touch of sweetness for your weekend palate!

 

7-23-21

 

EMMA

 

On the road and in Washington, DC

 

My Lexus was running on fumes as we drew close to the highway on-ramp. I pulled into an all-but-empty gas station, the midnight-to-morning attendant dozing in his glass box. “Won’t be a moment,” I said.

“Look,” Bernie crowed from the back seat. “They sell that Virginia peanut brittle. It gets stuck in my teeth something awful, but it’s so good. Want some?”

Not waiting for an answer, she took off, making a beeline for the store.

Dmitri was already rapping on the window to push cash under the partition for the attendant.

“I can use a credit card, you know,” I said when he came back. “We’re not wanted for anything, and I used the card at the Inn anyway.”

“Force of habit,” he said, nudging me aside so he could take over filling the tank.

Was this mansplaining? Taking over because the little woman didn’t know what she was doing? Or was it Dmitri’s innate courtesy?

“I’ve got it,” I said.

He shrugged and waited by the pump beside me. We listened to night peepers and crickets in the scrub grass around us and breathed in the acrid sting of gasoline.

“Why don’t you let me drive back?” he said. “You could get some rest.”

“I’m fine.” My reply was automatic, but he didn’t take it as rote.

“You don’t want to sleep even in a car with the two people you know you can trust?”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you. I just…I don’t sleep well without something to put me way under.”

“Like what?” I heard no judgment in his low voice; just honest curiosity.

“Sometimes I take a sleeping pill. Sometimes I drink myself into a stupor. Neither is a good plan if I need to be alert the next day. So I’ll catch a nap when we get back to my place and that will do it for now.”

“Hm.” He nodded, watching me closely.

Bernie thumped back across the blacktop, her cane striking a quick tempo. She clutched a huge tin of peanut brittle. “This stuff is just the worst. Want some? Oh, jeez. There goes my blood sugar.”

Even Dmitri tried some. We stood around making faces and trying to pick clots of industrial glue out of our teeth. A straight shot of sugar and peanuts. Bernie was right; it was the worst. “Gimme another,” I said.

“Oh, yeah. Dimi, take more.”

He demurred. Purist. “If I can’t take over at the wheel, would you mind if I took Bernie’s place in the back and had a nap?”

“Go ahead, Prince Charming,” Bernie said, getting into the front seat. “We’ll wake you with a kiss when we reach the castle.”

Bernie and I rode along the highways, giggling and chatting in sugar-fueled silliness and wishing we’d thought to buy some water.

And I tried to hide the fact that I used the rearview mirror to study the triangular underside of Dmitri’s jaw. He’d rested his head on the back of the seat and fallen asleep quickly and easily (which spoke to a soldier’s life). He didn’t even snore.

Almost annoyingly perfect.

Almost.

Bernie toddled into her little bungalow in Arlington to pack a bag. The next time I checked, Dmitri’s eyes were watching mine in the rearview. “Where’s your bolt hole?” I asked.

He named an anonymous midlevel hotel near the bar that had hosted Martin Perriman Esker’s memorial. Bernie and I sat at the curb when he went in to pack up his kit. No smiling doorman. No valet. Clearly no high-thread-count sheets. Did Dmitri never get to be spoiled? And wouldn’t it be fun to show him a more luxurious life?

At my condo, the expected fight over who got the lone bedroom didn’t materialize. Everyone simply assumed Bernie would get it—including Bernie.

“You don’t want me cranky tomorrow,” she said with a yawn. “I’m hell when I’m cranky.”

“I’ll bet,” I said with a grin.

“Shut it, Emma. Well, I’m crashing from all that sugar, so if you’ll excuse me. Night.”

She was gone and Dmitri and I were left staring at a long sofa and a pair of only moderately comfortable armchairs. This was not the way to shower that man in luxury.

“I’ve had a nap,” he said. “You take the sofa.”

“I told you. I don’t want to sleep.”

“Well, sit on the sofa while I talk to you.”

He was up to something, but his intentions were not nefarious. I could tell. So I sat.

“I’m going to tell you about the one place I can sleep soundly. For hours at a time. Like the dead.” His voice was low and soothing, and he’d dangled a topic in front of me that I would never be able to resist. Sleep is such an intimacy. Such a time of vulnerability. Where would Dmitri Veitas, super-spy, ever let his guard down?

“Tell me,” I said.

“Lie down and I will.”

“Don’t try to talk me to sleep. It won’t work.”

“Then you have nothing to fear. Lie down.”

I curled on my side and folded a pillow so I could watch him.

“Off the coast of Estonia is a series of islands. Some quite big, with towns and even cities. Some are little more than rocks and sea gulls. Too small to even have a name. If you take a kayak from Kuressaare and know just where to go, you can find one of those rocks. Maybe.”

His eyes were looking far past the wall behind me.

“If you’re quick and time it right, you can ride a swell up the side of a rock and catch on and beach the kayak without even getting wet. I did that once, maybe fifteen years ago.”

His voice trailed off in memory.

“What did you find there?” I asked.

He came back to awareness and looked at me. No smile, but the muscles of his face softened as if he was smiling. “Nothing. Not even scrub pine. I found gulls and bird guano and rocks and crags. And some good climbing. There’s a place, on the side away from civilization, where you can climb over a crest and find a bare little hollow, surrounded by rock on all sides.”

“Big enough to sit?”

Now he did smile. “Big enough to build a very small shelter, tied to the rocks against the wind. Over the years, I’ve carried materials there and built a snug little lean-to, with a camping stove and enough sleeping bags to make a comfortable nest. There’s nothing else. No electricity. No trip wires. No alarm system. When I’m there, I’m invisible to the world. And I can sleep.”

“So you bought the island,” I guessed.

He chuffed a little chuckle. “No, Lady Emma. Unlike you, I own no islands. My pockets are not so well lined. Anyway, to attempt ownership would be to draw attention to it.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

He stood and unfolded the afghan from the back of the sofa. He shook it out over me and then knelt by my head.

“I will take you there one day. And you will know you’re safe. You’ll be able to sleep.”

“You think?” I wanted to believe him. His large hand stroked down my hair and curved under my jaw. I sighed in pleasure.

“I do think. Here’s what else I think. I think I’ve had a nap. So I’m going to sit here and guard you. Not only from anyone coming at us from outside, but also from whatever chases you in your sleep. I’m going to keep you safe. And if you have a nightmare, I’ll wake you.”

His words raised childish emotions in me—fear. And hope. “Really?”

“Really.” He leaned over and kissed my forehead. Warmth tingled out from his touch like the ripples when a stone is tossed into water. “Try to sleep. Just for an hour. I’ll keep you safe. Will you try?”

To have this man as a bodyguard? That was, I decided, worth the attempt. I nodded.

“Good. I’ll be right here.”

Moving like a cat, he shifted to the armchair. He pulled over his duffle bag and methodically broke down the pistol he’d taken from Sayid. He wasn’t particularly silent as he cleaned the gun, but somehow the sound was soothing. The last thing I saw as I drifted off was his blond head bent forward in competent, determined focus.

And then—without any fear at all—I slipped into oblivion.

When I woke, I was stiff and needed to stretch.

Dmitri was still there, a faint smile on his handsome face as he watched me. And morning sunlight slanted across his high cheekbones.

I sat up, startled. “How long? How long did I sleep?”

“Oh, at last!” Bernie came out of the kitchen. “I’ve been tiptoeing around here all damned morning. Get up, already, Sleeping Beauty!”

“What time is it?”

“Almost nine,” she grumbled. “And well past time for breakfast. Get up, Dimi, and make us something tasty, huh?”

He grinned and unfolded himself from the armchair, stretching his arms overhead until his fingers flattened against the ceiling. “Yes, tsarina. I am at your command. After I grab a shower.”

“I slept for…” I couldn’t do the math. We’d gotten back after two AM and now it was almost nine and that meant…

“About six and a half hours,” he said. “Do you want the bathroom before I get in there?”

I was still dumbstruck by how long I’d slept by the time Bernie and I were sitting at the breakfast bar, thinking about eating the dregs of the peanut brittle to keep body and soul together until our chef was out of the shower.

“You know, he wouldn’t let me take over watching you,” Bernie said with a lot of side-eye. She was watching for my reaction. “I got up at about seven and told him he could take a break, but he said he’d told you he’d watch over you, so he would.”

“Gah,” I said indistinctly. “I haven’t slept that long in…I don’t know how long. Not without something to stay under the nightmares.”

“Well, you were out to the world when I got up. If I’d had a night on a sofa with a hunk like that when I was your age, he would have been the one worn out, not me.” She was smug. There was a sex kitten hidden amid those wrinkles.

“Bernie,” I sighed, picking through the peanuts to find just the right crunchy cluster. “We’ve got to get on the road. We need to get to Alf and ask him some questions.”

“Whoops—hang on. That’s my phone.” She reached for her cell and rapidly flipped through more layers of security than I use myself. I was terrified of her. “Oh, yeah. Iggy is not fucking around. Here’s our list from the police department.”

She pulled up a list of calls made from the holding area of the Irvington Police Department by detainees. Dmitri joined us, smelling of soap and strength.

“We got the list,” I said to him. “Now we just have to figure out who Sam and Mo called, since one of them must have called his boss.”

“After cleaning the duct tape off his face and hair,” Dmitri said with a grin. “Bernie, you’re a devil.” He put his hand on my shoulder as he leaned between us to read the list. He was warm and alive and exerting a magnetic pull on me. I resisted leaning into him…

…and then I saw a name I certainly hadn’t expected. “Jesus Jumped Up Christ,” I breathed. “Would you look at that?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE.

 

A. Emma recognizes the name of Irwin Grice, chief of staff to that pillar of the Senate, Bradford Kingston. Irwin’s a traitor?!

 

B. Emma recognizes the name of Bradford Kingston, her ex-husband and the man being threatened. Why would Sam or Mo call him?!

 

C. Emma recognizes the name of her own nefarious business partner, Moussou—a man she’d thought she could trust. What’s he doing mixed up in this?!

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE!

 

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

07-30-21

 

Subject: The Boy Scout

 

Pre-header: You forced me to reconfigure what I knew when you voted as you did! Them’s the breaks of writing a collaborative story on the fly, huh?! Pretty cool, if you ask me!

 

DMITRI

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

 

Emma, Bernie, and I were scanning the list of calls on Bernie’s phone when Emma froze. I’d placed my hand on Emma’s shoulder—so casually, not at all out of lust or interest, right?—and I felt the muscles of her neck and back tighten.

 

“Jesus Jumped Up Christ,” she said. “Would you look at that?”

 

“What? What is it?” Bernie tugged the phone closer to see. “Do you recognize one of these names?”

 

Emma shook her head as she released her grip on the phone. “Barney Koenig. Right there. Christ. What the hell?”

 

“Who’s Barney Koenig?” Bernie asked, but I picked up on the initials.

 

“Must be the Senator. Bradford Kingston can’t list his phone in his own name. Is that it?”

 

Emma nodded. “He uses it for all kinds of things. Including the landline into his house in Philadelphia. But why? Why would Sam and Mo call Bradford?”

 

Her voice was filled with a mixture of despair and confusion. I slid my hand to the back of her neck to show her support, my touch far less casual now. Bernie began to laugh.

 

“The Boy Scout? The Pillar of the Senate? Bradford is tangled up in this? There’s no fucking way. That guy wouldn’t jay-walk if his own mother was on fire. Mr. Straight-Laced? Oh, I don’t think so.”

 

“Well, it’s right there.” Emma pointed to the phone. “With a Philadelphia area code. You think there’s another Barney Koenig in Philly and Sam or Mo just decided to call him up when they were booked in Virginia for abducting and torturing Connie?”

 

“Don’t get mad at me, Emma.” Bernie put up a protesting hand. “I’m just saying I have a hard time believing anyone nefarious has Bradford’s phone number.”

 

Emma broke away from my hand and paced through the living room. “I know. I can’t believe it. He should have told me. Why wouldn’t he have told me?”

 

Bernie watched her pace. “You think it’s time you told me and Dimi what the hell is going on here?”

 

Emma darted a suspicious look over her shoulder. “What’s going on is that one of the Sheik’s underlings called my ex-husband from the police station. That’s what happened.”

 

“I don’t think so,” I said quietly.

 

The response was gratifying. They both swiveled to me. “You don’t believe this is Bradford’s phone number?” Emma asked me.

 

“No—I’m sure it is. You would know. But you’re assuming Sam or Mo called Kingston.”

 

They stared at me blankly. “Well,” said Bernie haltingly, “it’s right here…”

 

“Ah.” Emma got it. “They didn’t necessarily call Bradford. They called Bradford’s house.”

 

I nodded. “We have no way of knowing who picked up.”

 

“Shit,” said Bernie. “Who else would be there? Bradford married again. God knows I’ve seen enough photos of him with those kids, to make him look manly and virile. What’s his new wife’s name, again?”

 

Emma was shaking her head. Not in negation but as if she was reproving herself. “Octavia. Octavia Getty Kingston. You know, I picked her out for him?”

 

She sat on the sofa and hung her head, long fingers disappearing into her hair as she rested her head on her hands. “Octavia was the perfect political wife,” she said. “Chilly, but God knows, he’d almost blown his shot marrying a total wild child like me. So I found him a West Coast beauty with a family famous for their political contributions. She wanted to found her own dynasty, so children were a requirement of the marriage.”

 

Bernie had drawn closer in fascination and sat in the armchair by Emma. “She got knocked up real soon after the wedding, if I recall.”

 

“Very soon. Like she kept her uterus on a time clock. Paul was born almost exactly ten months after the wedding. But not a day earlier; Octavia didn’t believe in sex before marriage.” Emma and Bernie exchanged eye rolls; I remained silent, figuring there was no winning comment from me.

 

“Well, that was probably perfect for the Boy Scout,” Bernie said. “I can’t imagine him expecting a little nookie before the wedding.”

 

“He tried. Oh, how he tried to loosen up and relax his impossible moral code.” Emma blew air from her pursed lips. “He never should have married me. Poor guy.”

 

A journey into the regret of nostalgia would not help us now. “And do you think Octavia might betray the Senator?” I asked. “Is there a butler in the house? A secretary or maid? Someone corruptible?”

 

“Good thinking, Dimi.” I’d wandered close enough for Bernie to swat my ass and chortle when I jumped. “I’ve gotten to lots of high-level people by bribing and then blackmailing their staff. That would be a smart way in.”

 

“Nope.” Emma was resigned. “He’s dedicated to the “man of the people” image. No overnight staff in the house. Not even a nanny. He and Octavia have raised Paul and Nina on their own. No, if someone called the house at two-thirty in the morning, it was either Paul or Octavia who picked up.”

 

“So,” I said, “we have new avenues of investigation. First we should find out if the Senator was at home last night.”

 

“Right.” Emma nodded.

 

“You called him last night from the car,” I reminded her. “Did you call the Barney Koenig number?”

 

“No—I use his his cell phone.”

 

“Any sense of where he was?”

 

Her eyes went blank as she replayed the call. “No. Could have been anywhere.”

 

“Well, shit,” said Bernie. “Call him and ask him?”

 

Emma and I both shook our heads. “If he’s involved in this, we don’t want to play our hand,” I said.

 

Emma agreed. “He wouldn’t lie to me. Unless he’s been lying to me. I think… I think I need to have lunch with Irwin Grice.”

 

“Now, who the fuck is Irwin Grice?” Bernie asked.

 

“Bradford’s chief of staff. The one you talked to last night when you didn’t have my cell phone. Yeah? You called the Capitol Hill switchboard to get to Bradford. They sent you to Irwin.”

 

“Right. That guy.”

 

“I’ll offer to tell him a funny story about that call. I’ll make something up. We’ll have lunch. Old friends catching up. He’ll end up telling me where Bradford is, and we’ll have at least one answer.”

 

“Meanwhile,” I said, “we’ve got Connie Westham in the hospital, and Alf Westham locked into his safe room. You’re supposed to get him out.”

 

“Shit,” said Bernie. “Good thing there are lots of us here.”

 

“Right.” Emma made her decision. “Bernie, call the Irvington police and verify that they’ve got security on Connie’s room. Don’t tell them the truth, but tell them… uh…”

 

“Please,” Bernie said. “Are you kidding? I could make this up in my sleep.”

 

“Thank you. Dmitri, will you go get Alf?”

 

“He won’t come out for me if you don’t call to tell him I’m coming. And I’d like to bring Bernie, if I could. I suspect we’ll run into the opposition camped out at Alf’s house, and I’ll need Bernie’s help.”

 

I wasn’t blowing sunshine up an old lady’s skirt, to use a very American expression; I’d been impressed with Bernie and would be glad for her help. She beamed at me in delight.

 

“Finally! You show some sense! We’re going to need a dog. I know a guy.”

 

“A dog?” I asked, as Emma said “Like an attack dog?”

 

“Fuck, no. Fat old Newfie. Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it. What are we going to do with Alf once we’ve got him?”

 

Emma summarized. “Find out what he knows, and then get him to safety. That’s my bet.”

 

“Where’s safe in this situation?” asked Bernie.

 

“With the dog, perhaps,” I teased. She shot me the bird. “If I might suggest? I have contacts in Chile. I’ll get in touch with them. We can offer Alf an extended skiing vacation in Portillo, if you think that would interest him.”

 

“Perfect,” said Emma. “I’ll pay, although that guy could afford it himself. Let’s get him entirely out of the country. And then I’d like you both to research all the other phone calls from the police station last night. Between them Sam and Mo had two phone calls. Let’s see if we can figure out who the other one was to. All right. Everyone’s phones charged? You know what you’re doing—start dialing.”

 

“Once we’re done making our calls, Emma,” I said sternly, “I think it’s time you trusted your partners with the story of what’s going on.”

 

She gulped. And then nodded.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? I ALREADY KNOW!

 

A. Vote for this one if you want to know the backstory of “the inciting incident.”

 

B. Vote for this one because you know your author delights in hearing from you every week.

 

C. Vote if you don’t mind that I’m refusing to let you weigh in this time; I know what’s coming next!

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE but don’t because I know what happens next!

08-06-21

 

Subject: The Event

 

Preheader: Flashback from Bradford’s point of view—this is the instigating event that set the whole mess into motion. A decade ago, what happened on that chill late winter evening?

 

FLASHBACK: BRADFORD

 

Route 70 from Philadelphia to Mataloking, New Jersey. February night in 2011

 

“You never should have married me, Bradford.”

 

Emma was curled in the passenger seat. Every time we drove through a hamlet, the few streetlights shone onto her long thighs, deepening the tormenting shadow beneath her brief skirt. Darkness brought no relief from my madness because I knew she was right there—she would open to my questing hand—she would ride my fingers as we drove through the night.

 

The excitement created insanity. We’d end up wrapped around a tree. Just sitting next to me, she was an unacceptable risk.

 

“Marrying you was the best thing I ever did,” I said, my mouth dry.

 

I glanced at her in time to see those pliant, clever lips curl up. She shook her head. “If you stay with me, this will be your last session in Congress.”

 

“Don’t be silly. I’m running for Senate next year when Arlen retires.”

 

“And you’ll be amazing.” She unhooked her seat belt and rose to her knees, swiveling to kiss my temple and swipe a heated tongue along the tendon of my neck.

 

“Baby. Baby—stop. I can’t drive when you do that.” I could pull over, I thought. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d ridden me in the car. I had to shift into the passenger seat so she could fit over me; my Jag wasn’t actually sex on wheels. It just looked like it.

 

But I had to be careful. She was twenty years my junior, and if we were going to have a wild night with Alf and Connie, then I needed to husband my resources, so to speak. I’d already bent Emma over the island in our kitchen, overcome with nerves and excitement, before we left. It should have been enough. Why wasn’t it enough?

 

“All right,” she purred. She sat back in her seat and I was relieved to hear the seat belt click. Emma courted danger with eagerness and had thought seat belts were confining. But after almost three years of marriage, my darling girl knew what made me happy.

 

“Do you really want to do this, Bradford?” Her voice in the darkness was curious.

 

I nodded, determined, and tried to find the words. “I want to. I want to do it with you.”

 

What I couldn’t tell her was that I was afraid that I’d lose her if I couldn’t loosen up. I was too old, too staid, too much of a rule-follower for a woman who leapt out of planes, climbed mountains, dove in the deepest ocean trenches for sheer joy. Sexually, she was as free and liberated as anyone I’d ever met, and hearing her stories of orgies and swings had excited me like pepper in my veins.

 

She slept with—no, she fucked—men and women alike. Her goal was pleasure and limits weren’t allowed. I wanted that kind of freedom. I wanted to keep her.

 

That’s why we were driving through the night, to a luxurious summer home in the dead of winter. My friend Alf waited, with his beautiful wife Connie. And we had what Emma referred to as a special guest star, too.

 

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” she said, her slim hand stroking my head and neck. “I know this isn’t like you.”

 

She was so beautiful. So mesmerizing. “Didn’t I break into Irwin’s house with you? Didn’t I steal that dish towel?”

 

“You did.” She smiled and I felt the rush of pleasure that came from exceeding her expectations. “And the fact that he has the same kind of dish towels we do and will never notice that you’ve got his cloth in your golf bag…”

 

“Hush.” I blustered, giving her some brio. “I broke in and stole a trophy. That’s what my beautiful wife likes to do, and now we do it together.”

 

“Yes, we do! And now we’re going to open your mind to another new experience. I’m proud of you, Bradford. Especially that you want Marty Esker there. Everyone is on a slider of sexuality—very few people are totally heterosexual or totally homosexual. I love that you’re willing to explore sex with Marty.”

 

I would take to my grave the reason I’d chosen the young aide in my legislative office for this tryst—which is that with his dark hair and natural elegance, he reminded me of Emma. I thought I could perform with him to please my wife while blurring my eyes and pretending Marty was Emma.

 

“And I love,” she whispered, “that you want to see me with Connie. It excites me.”

 

My cock, which had shown fewer signs of life the closer we got to Mantoloking, twitched. I did want to see that. “And Alf,” I said bravely. “I’ll watch what he does to you, too.”

 

“I know you don’t want that, but I love you for being willing.”

 

I turned, taking my eyes from the road. “I love you, Emma. I’d do anything for you.”

 

Her slow smile was hypnotic. “And that’s why you never should have married me. I don’t mean to get you into trouble, Congressman.”

 

“You’re my wife. What two consenting adults do together is no one else’s business. And call me Senator.”

 

She giggled. “What about what five consenting adults do together?”

 

I shook my head, attempting to maintain my enthusiasm and willingness. But after the long, rural roads (taken because the highway tolls might have tracked my car), when we pulled through the gates into Alf’s driveway, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get out of the car.

 

I was filled with hot shame. “I can’t,” I admitted. Alf was standing in the door, waving to urge us in. He wore a robe and looked like a pathetic Hugh Hefner. “Absolutely not. I can’t even get out of the car. Emma, I’m so sorry.”

 

“I have wine. And Marty said he was bringing poppers. They’ll help, Bradford. You’ll forget you’re afraid. I promise you’ll have a good time.”

 

But fear and shame were welling up, threatening to choke me. I shook my head. “You go,” I said. “You get started. I’ll come in in a bit. I really will. Please go. Please don’t look at me.”

 

“You want to leave? We can just go home.”

 

I shook my head. “I would be more humiliated if you didn’t go in. Please, Emma. Forgive me. Go—have a good time. I’ll be in soon.”

 

“I’ll stay with you.”

 

“Go!” I barked at her and she was startled. “I won’t limit you. I won’t be the reason you can’t live your free and wonderful life. I’m an old man, nowhere near good enough for you—but I won’t stand in your way. Get out of the car. Have a good time. I’ll be in later.”

 

“I love you, Bradford.”

 

“I know, baby. I’ll be in in a bit. Make my apologies.”

 

She got reluctantly out of the car. “I’ll save you some wine. You’ll come in soon?”

 

“Soon as I can. Go now. Go on. Have fun.”

 

She closed the door gently and I watched her greet Alf and draw him into the house. Connie and Marty had joined him; they all turned to look at my car in the darkness. Those were the people who were going to fuck my wife while I sat, ashamed and immobile, in the car.

 

Emma closed the door behind her, blocking their astonished stares, and I was pathetically grateful.

 

I tried. I tried to overcome forty-seven years of morality. I tried to set aside what I thought I knew about “wrong” and “right” and “sex” and “love” and “fun.” It did no good. I sat there, the cold creeping into the car, for almost two hours, knowing the woman I loved was spread open for two men and a woman, experiencing what I was sure were more intense orgasms than I had ever given her.

 

I tormented myself.

 

And then the front door of Alf’s beach mansion was jerked open. Alf and Connie rushed out. Alf’s robe was gone. He was dressed in jeans and a sweater. Connie was still wearing crimson lace underwear, visible beneath the open robe that flapped behind her. She carried an overnight bag.

 

They moved to the SUV parked by the garage. Sparing a single glance at me, Alf drove them away. I sat up. Was that panic I saw in his eyes? Where was Emma?

 

She came behind them. She pulled the door almost closed behind her and checked to make sure it had not latched. Her skirt was over her arm; she was wearing her black thong and the sheer white shirt that did nothing to disguise the matching bra beneath. Her long legs still ended in black stilettos.

 

She walked to my car calmly. She was holding her phone.

 

She slid into the passenger seat. “Drive away quietly. Do it now.”

 

“What happened? Where’s Marty?”

 

She shook her head. “Darling, please do as I ask. It’s important that we leave here right now.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Start the car, Bradford. This isn’t a joke. Darling. If you want to be a Senator, start the car now.”

 

Confused, I keyed the ignition. Unlike Alf, Emma wasn’t panicking. She seemed more alive than ever. She had the glow I’d noticed after she’d showed me how to break into a house. “Tell me what’s going on.”

 

“Please leave. Go quietly. Don’t speed. Would you like me to drive?”

 

“No. I can do it. What’s going on? Emma—tell me.”

 

“Congressman, there are things you don’t need to know. You need plausible deniability.”

 

“Jesus Christ. What happened? Where’s Marty?”

 

“Use the back roads again. No toll booths to track your transponder. Turn here.”

 

“Emma.”

 

“All right. I’ll tell you a hypothetical story, shall I?”

 

She was splitting legal hairs. I wasn’t reassured by that. “Go ahead.”

 

“Theoretically, it’s possible if you mix strong cocktails with enough amyl nitrite followed by particularly vigorous exertion, you could potentially cause a fatal heart attack.”

 

I slammed my foot on the brake. It was past midnight and the road behind me was empty, but Emma looked around alertly. “Don’t stop, Bradford. We need to be away from the Jersey shore in the next forty-five minutes.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“If I tell you, will you please keep driving?”

 

I stared at her in horror and then took a deep breath. I steadied myself and put the car in drive. I checked the rear view mirror and pulled back onto the road. I kept the Jag just below the speed limit. “So Marty’s dead?”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said quietly.

 

We drove in silence for three miles. Four miles. Five miles. “What happens in forty-five minutes, Emma?”

 

She looked out her window at the darkness around us and shook her head. “It will probably be more like two hours. Maybe more. It will take a while to get here from Baltimore.”

 

“What’s in Baltimore?”

 

She sighed. “A lot of things.” She turned to look at me. “How much do you want to know? Senator?”

 

The weight of doom hung over me. My legislative aide had died in a sex scandal while I sat in the driveway—a sex scandal convened specifically to induct me into a more libertine life. Marty was a charming, capable man who didn’t deserve to die just to fulfill what I’d told Emma my secret dreams were. What I’d lied to her about.

 

My sigh sounded like a moan. “Keep it theoretical.”

 

“Right.” She sat straight again, facing front and speaking woodenly. “Theoretically, I might have some friends on the wrong side of the tracks. I might know a… we’ll call him a friend…of my first husband’s.”

 

“The one who was murdered?”

 

“That’s the one. And theoretically, I might have gotten in touch with him tonight to call in a favor.”

 

“What favor?”

 

“You really don’t want to know. But theoretically, he has contacts in Baltimore. Some young men who have agreed to chose a luxurious beach house in Mantoloking to rob later tonight. They theoretically are going to carry off some electronics, some art, some silver—and a rug, rolled neatly into a bundle.”

 

The shiver down my spine was almost a convulsion. Marty was being hauled out of the house rolled into a carpet. Sweet, charming Marty—with his ready smile, his easy laugh, his clever way with words.

 

Dead because of me.

 

“What will they do with him?”

 

“Theoretically? They’ll put him somewhere very far from here. There will be no connection between him and the luxurious beach house—which by great coincidence is owned by a lobbyist for Big Oil.”

 

“Does Alf know?”

 

“He gave me the combination to the front gate for them. And Connie packed up her favorite silverware in an overnight bag.”

 

“I thought that was something to change into.” I felt stupid. “She’s driving around in her underwear.”

 

Emma looked down at herself and unfolded her skirt to lay across her lap. The thought of her almost naked in my car no longer filled me with lust. My horror was overwhelming.

 

“Bradford. Bradford, listen to me. I have two things to tell you.”

 

I nodded automatically, watching telephone poles flash past in the headlights. “What?”

 

“First, no one gave anything to Marty. He poured his own drinks, and chose his own drugs. None of us are culpable. Least of all you.”

 

I shook my head, unable to express the conviction that she was wrong. She kept talking.

 

“And second, tomorrow I’m going to find you a divorce lawyer. We can’t stay married, Bradford. You’re going to be a brilliant Senator. And I’m going to find you the perfect political wife.”

 

“What? No!”

 

She sat back, her arms crossed over her chest. “Yes. I’ll take care of everything.”

 

“Emma—darling.”

 

“I’ll always love you, Bradford. But I’m bad for you. Don’t worry about it. I’ll find someone who wants what you want. Children, Bradford. A stellar political career in which you actually help people. Honor.”

 

Her voice had become wistful.

 

“Because Bradford, you know that ain’t me.”

 

The miles rolled past slowly.  Nothing at all happened. No police cruisers pulled me over. No one called my cell to find out where I’d been. No detectives were waiting at the house. We went inside and I began the job of walling off any thought of the evening my marriage ended.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Back in the present day, Bernie has a plan to get Alf to safety—and her plan involves a dog.

 

B. Back in the present day, Emma has lunch with Irwin Grice, Bradford’s chief of staff, to find out who might have answered the phone when Sam or Mo used their “One Phone Call” to ring up the Senator’s house.

 

C. Back in the present day…damn it, I can’t come up with a good third option. Maybe someone tries to abduct Connie from her hospital room to find out what she knows about Martin Perriman Esker’s death?

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE!

 

You have until Sunday, August 8 to vote. The next installment will come on August 13.

21-08-13

 

Subject: Brunch, Please.

 

Pre-header: I offered you a dog and daring rescue and you chose brunch?! Seriously? You’ve challenged me to do something way unexpected, so here we go!

EMMA

 

Jaleo, 7th Street NW, Washington DC

 

“Emma—my God. You’ve gotten even more beautiful. How is that possible?”

 

Irwin stood from the table to greet me, perfectly executing the social cheek-to-cheek kiss. If Bradford was elected President, he’d have his chief-of-staff to thank for it. Irwin Grice was the consummate political professional.

 

“Flatterer. Please sit—no need to stand on ceremony with me.”

 

“It’s not flattery.” We sat and I handed my menu back to the waiter.

 

“Do you mind?” I asked Irwin. “Let’s just have him bring whichever tapas look the best today, what do you think?”

 

Relieved, he closed his menu and handed it over. “I was looking before you got here. There are too many to choose from.”

 

“Good. Whatever you think is best,” I said to the waiter. “And I’ll have a glass of champagne.”

 

Irwin stuck with iced tea; he had meetings that afternoon. The waiter left and Irwin focused on me again. “When Bradford married you, you were as fresh and beautiful as springtime. I’d never seen anyone so exotic. So lovely. But now you look…”

 

He appraised me coolly and I sat back to give him his chance. He smiled.

 

“You look dangerous. If you put your mind to it, you could get any man in this restaurant, couldn’t you?”

 

“But then what would I do with them?” I replied archly and he laughed.

 

“God, I miss you for campaigning. You were a sure-fire standing ovation when you spoke.”

 

I smiled at him. “That was when he was just a representative. All local stuff. Chamber of commerce and book clubs. You and Bradford have hit the big time now.”

 

He inhaled and raised his eyebrows, affecting humility at the prospect. I wasn’t fooled. Irwin was a shark. For him, running a presidential campaign was the chance of a lifetime. He was champing at the bit.

 

Olives and almonds appeared before us, with our drinks. “It’s the big time, all right. He should have stayed married to you. With you on the stump, he’d win. ”

 

“With me, he would have been arrested.” I repressed the bitter, terrifying memory of the night Martin Perriman Esker had died, fresh from pleasing both Connie Westham and her husband Alf. His overdose and heart attack would have ended Bradford’s career if I hadn’t locked my emotions away and handled the situation.

 

Irwin, who knew nothing of the event, laughed at me. “That might be true,” he agreed, “but the story would have been good for a shit-ton of press!”

 

“A-section, above the fold,” I agreed. We laughed together at the thought.

 

Over fresh anchovies and a dish of spicy beans, I nudged the conversation to Bradford’s second wife. “So is Octavia not an advantage on the campaign trail?”

 

“Well, she’s certainly beautiful enough. You know—that patrician blonde look is always a winner. But she’s wooden in her delivery. We’re working on it, and she’s getting better. But if you gave the speech on the third night of the convention? Fire and brimstone, raining from the rafters. They’d have to call in the riot police to quell the adoration.”

 

“Stop. You know I was terrible for him. And Octavia is charming.”

 

“Hm,” he said. Noncommittal. Polite. Interesting. Was this my villain? Was Octavia “the boss?” I dug in a little deeper.

 

“So you don’t like her?”

 

“It’s not that. It’s just—she’s all family all the time. All she wants to do is take care of her children. She makes her own yogurt, did you know that? Store-bought isn’t safe enough for her.”

 

“My. But she must have hidden depths?”

 

“Octavia? Not that I’ve seen. Home and family. She takes it seriously.”

 

“Does she want to be in the White House? Would she like the platform?”

 

“Meh. She wants to do whatever will support Bradford the most. This isn’t a woman with a lot of fire, I’m telling you.”

 

He was painting an unlikely picture of a mastermind. “That’s a shame. But she and Bradford are doing well, right? I mean, those two kids are as photogenic as you could possibly want. You get them a dog, Irwin, and you won’t be able to count all the donations that will roll in.”

 

“A dog!” His eyes lit up. “I tried that. Turns out young Paul is allergic. Shame, huh?”

 

He and I nodded sadly; not over the tragedy of a child with an allergy, but in mourning for the fundraising photos that might have been. I’d always liked Irwin.

 

“So what are Octavia’s numbers? How’s she polling?” There was no way Irwin wouldn’t have run the stats on Bradford and his entire family before they even considered if Bradford would run for president.

 

“Lackluster. He’s got a far higher Q factor than she does.”

 

“No surprise. He’s a charmer.” Baby artichokes arrived, next to a luscious manchego. “Her numbers will come up once she travels around.”

 

He shook his head, working to swallow his mouthful. “She doesn’t want to travel before he announces. She stays home with the kids. Bradford’s in Europe right now, but she didn’t want to take Paul and Nina out of school.”

 

So Bradford was away and Octavia was home. Good. When that phone rang in the middle of the night—when Mo or Sam used their one phone call to dial his home—he wasn’t there. The confusing possibility that Bradford was somehow tied in to the plot had just become less likely.

 

“So she’s home alone with the kids? No nanny? No servants?”

 

“Won’t have them in the house. Of course, there’s security now.”

 

“Already? He hasn’t even announced yet.”

 

“Not Secret Service. She’s paying for it. You know she’s from money, right? She’s a Getty. Good political family. Anyway, Nina thought someone was following her home from school and Octavia had a fit. Hired a private firm. Boom—like that.” He smacked his hand down on the table, making the duck breasts jump.

 

So she was twitchy, hm? Nervous? That spoke to her being a victim, not a threat.

 

“How terrifying. Do you think someone really was after Nina?” The girl was seven; two years younger than her brother, and looked like a tiny, pretty version of Bradford.

 

Irwin shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if someone actually was after her. A political life means even the threat is enough. Once he announces, I can get him permanent protection for the entire family. There are enough nuts out there to make it a real concern.”

 

Enough nuts, and enough power-mad masterminds, looking to turn an elected official into their puppet.

 

“I’m surprised Bradford has left them, then.”

 

“It’s a big junket to Europe,” Irwin said. “It helps with his credibility on international issues.” He looked at me slyly. “I was under the impression that he might have made an unexpected side trip to Greece a few weeks ago.” I didn’t rise to the bait, so he went on. “Don’t you keep a yacht on the Aegean?”

 

“I have several yachts,” I said airily. “I suppose one might be in Greece.”

 

He laughed, throwing his head back. “God, I’ve missed you. Why is everyone else so dull compared to you?”

 

“Fear,” I said sweetly. “Most people are afraid of things. Me? Not so much.”

 

“Fear,” he mused, shaking his head thoughtfully. “You’re right about that. It drives us all. But not the beautiful Emma. Come back to Washington. Brighten our lives with your fearlessness.”

 

I shrugged. “I visit occasionally. And I promise, Irwin. You don’t want me anywhere near this campaign.”

 

He grinned. “I’m sure you’re right. But I’ll miss the fireworks. I’ll tell you that for free.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Dog. Bernie and Dmitri. Rescue. Come on—you’re seriously going to ignore this one for another week?

 

B. Emma decides it’s time to pay Octavia Getty Kingston a little visit and hops into the car to Philadelphia.

 

C. Remember Wortzman? Emma’s contact at the CIA who can’t decide if he should arrest or hire her? Is it time for him to make his presence felt?

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE!

 

You have until Sunday, August 15 to cast your vote. Next installment on August 20.

21-08-20

 

Subject: Norah

 

Preheader: Thanks for letting me bully you into the dog scene! Pretty soon, we’re really going to have to decide a few things, you know…but not yet!

 

DMITRI

 

North Arlington, VA

 

I shook my head. “That car is not getting us to Pennsylvania.”

 

Bernie flapped a hand at me from the driveway of her little house. “Don’t be silly. This baby will go for thousands of miles without a peep.”

 

I had my doubts. Even with my history of poorly-made Russian cars, the Morris Mini I was frowning at seemed like a poor risk. Not to mention that it was Bernie-sized. Small. Exceedingly compact. Its “Clubman” split tailgate was open as Bernie piled in a dizzying array of cleaning supplies.

 

The Mini had a back seat; I’d just decided I could ride there with my knees spread wide (for some 130 miles) when a large and disreputable van pulled up next to Bernie’s home. “Here’s Billingsley!” she cried happily.

 

A large, bearded man in a graying white tee-shirt waved to her. He got out and came around to our side. “Bernie-baby! What’s shakin’?”

 

They embraced, Bernie almost lost in the vast beard, and Billingsley looked to me questioningly. Bernie simply said “Nope,” and from that moment on, I didn’t exist as far as the man was concerned.

 

“Okay,” he said, turning to the van’s back door. “Now, you’re sure it’s Norah you want? Not Castor and Pollux? Not Zipline?”

 

“Oh, I’m sure. We need Norah. Won’t take a day. You’re a love, Bill. Thanks.”

 

“She’s seen better days,” Billingsley said warningly, which I thought was an apt statement to represent the man as well as the van.

 

“I know all about those who are discounted because they’ve seen better days,” Bernie scoffed. “Open ‘er up.”

 

He pulled open the back door, revealing a vast pile of black shag rug mounded in a heap on the floor. Then the shag rug raised a head and regarded us.

 

“What the hell is that thing?” I spoke thoughtlessly for someone who Billingsley was supposed to be ignoring.

 

“Norah!” cried Bernie. “Come’ere, girl!”

 

A tail detached itself from the heap and thumped against the floor. Norah slowly rose up on feet the size of dinner plates and regarded the road a full three feet below her. Then, gathering herself together, she jumped ponderously out of the van (which rose appreciably at her absence) and nosed Bernie, who cooed and found a pair of ears to stroke.

 

“Norah is a Newfie.” Billingsley spoke to the air. “A Newfoundland. Great with children and other dogs. Loves to swim.”

 

Norah had the largest head I’d ever seen on an animal not actually a bear. She regarded Bernie with love from eyes that would have looked about right on a cow. “Are we going swimming?” I asked, but I was ignored.

 

Bernie and Billingsley concluded their negotiations and Bill handed her a leash that looked comically thin. He drove away and Bernie turned to me in triumph. “Norah!” she said happily.

 

The dog was undeniable. “Norah,” I agreed. “We have a plan that involves Norah?”

 

“Norah is the plan. Best camouflage you’ll ever come across. Help me get her into the car.”

 

“The car? Norah is coming to Pennsylvania with us?” I eyed the car—already too small for me—and then the pony, who had opted to lie down in the middle of the road, her massive head on Bernie’s sturdy sneakers.

 

“We can’t do this without her. Come on, Norah. Up, Norah. Come on, girl.”

 

After cajoling, Norah allowed herself to be persuaded into the back seat, where fur stuck out at odd angles and I had to pull through the window on one side while Bernie closed the door on the other. “There,” she said. “We’re ready. Hop in.”

 

“Chert poberi. You’re serious?”

 

“You kiss your mother with that mouth? Get in, you big whiner.”

 

Bernie’s Mini was painted an acidic green and featured messages on all sides that implied she was part of “The Cleaner Cleaning Services.” A buxom woman’s silhouette buzzed a vacuum cleaner across the words.

 

“Perhaps you think,” I said as I folded myself awkwardly into the passenger seat, “that the world has not seen the films of Quentin Tarantino, and thus does not know what covert agents mean if they call for a ‘cleaner.’”

 

“Oh, no—I’m counting on it. Those movies are the bomb. Wouldn’t you rather hire a cleaning service with the capacity to dissolve a body in the bathtub with jugs of acid?”

 

A large tongue swiped my neck and halfway up my head. I yelped and resisted reaching for the knife in my boot.

 

“Look! Norah likes you!”

 

Norah rested her head in the space between our seats, which she could do without moving much. Norah was packed into an almost-perfectly-Norah-sized compartment behind us. She panted happily, her hot breath flowing down my hip and leg.

 

“Wonderful.”

 

Norah flopped back onto the seat with a large, doggy sigh. The car rocked on its carriage and Bernie corrected the drift to the left. The dog fell into a deep sleep, only rarely shifting occasionally (at which point it was even chances as to whether one large paw would protrude into the front and press against us). To the dog’s credit, she produced very few gastric emanations that required us to open our windows.

 

Two hours later, Bernie pulled off the highway and drove through semi-urban streets until she pulled into a grubby strip mall. “I’ll block the view. You get us some Pennsylvania plates.”

 

She brandished a screwdriver at me. I sighed.

 

We chose a beat-up sedan parked in the back against a chain link fence; grass grew through cracks in the blacktop. The screws were frozen, which was the only reason I had to assume that these plates hadn’t been stolen repeatedly. I switched the plates and handed Bernie hers as I folded back into the Mini. That was when Nora woke up again, shaking her head and thus bouncing the car.

 

“Almost, sweetheart. Just a few more miles.” Bernie smiled at the dog in the rear view and then confided to me, “She wants to be walked.”

 

Bernie. A dog whisperer.

 

We took surface streets from there, the neighborhoods growing increasingly manicured as we went. Lawns grew larger, fancy fences appeared, long driveways disappeared through thick trees.

 

“Okay.” Bernie pulled over. “Art’s house is around the block that way, but we can’t just pull up if he’s under surveillance. You go look.”

 

Gladly, I unfolded, but Bernie stopped me. “Hang on. Take Norah.”

 

“Take Norah?”

 

She shook her head at me like I was slow. “A big guy like you can’t walk through these streets without being noticed. But if you’re walking a dog, you’re just a guy on poop patrol. No one will even see you.”

 

“They’ll see Norah,” I protested. “I can do this better without a dog.”

 

“Nope. You’re wrong. All these people have Ring cameras and security systems. Trust me. Walk the dog. When you spot surveillance, see if you can get a closer look. Norah will help.”

 

“Norah will help?” Despite the head shake that apparently meant she needed a walk, Norah was refusing to get out of the car. She was only slightly smaller than the Mini so I looked like I’d put a leash on the car and it was refusing to come.

 

“Go on, girl.” Bernie reached a hand back and pushed on Norah’s hindquarters, and with a sigh of resignation, the dog shimmied her way onto the pavement. “Dimi,” Bernie called. “Take these.”

 

She handed me a roll of plastic bags. “Oh, no,” I said.

 

“Oh, yes. If Norah poops on someone’s lawn and you don’t clean it up, they’ll call the cops. Promise. Go on, now. Round the block. I’ll wait for you here. And don’t stop walking, or she’ll lie down.”

 

She already had. I tugged uselessly, implored her in English, and finally resorted to singing to her in Latvian. She heaved herself to her feet and we were off. Behind us, Bernie cheered.

 

Once we were moving, I had to admire the simplicity of Bernie’s plan. Instead of creeping through back yards from bush to bush, peering over my shoulder and staying below sight, I was walking openly down the sidewalk. The large black bear rolling along at my side was a good match for my bulk; we were proportional. I reached a hand out (no need to reach down) and ruffled the soft fur on Norah’s head. She gave me the doggy side eye and wagged.

 

As a dog will, she stopped often to sniff, which gave me time to observe the landscape, but I never let her pause long enough to lie down. She peed a few times and I thought I was going to get off lucky. Then she found a place that suited her, squatted, and produced a truly epic pile.

 

I’ve done some unpleasant things as a covert agent, but I wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d known it would involve dog clean-up. Norah lay on the lawn she’d chosen while I wrestled a plastic bag around her deposit, and now relieved, she was less willing to get up once I finished.

 

My determination eventually proved stronger than her sleep instinct and eventually we were back on the sidewalk, a steaming bag swinging like a pendulum from my hand. Urban camouflage, indeed.

 

We rounded the last corner before Alf’s house. The unmarked car parked halfway on the grass was obvious. The license plate was unusual; if I’d studied beforehand, I would have been able to determine which agency it came from, but even I knew they were from New Jersey, and this was Pennsylvania. The two men inside looked relaxed but alert, and they saw me—they saw the dog—as soon as I turned the corner.

 

So I slowed and approached them. “You guys lost?” I called in my best Detroit accent.

 

“What kind of dog is that?” the driver asked.

 

“I’m not sure that’s a dog,” his partner laughed.

 

Norah and I crossed the street to stand by their car. “She’s a Newfie,” I said. “My baby.”

 

The driver reached out to pet Norah and she lolled her very large tongue at him. He laughed. “She’s great. Not easy to clean up after, though, huh?” He eyed my sack.

 

“You know it.”

 

“I’ve got a Rottie at home.”

 

The term defeated my English so I nodded and took a chance. “So you know.”

 

“You know I do!”

 

“So are you guys lost?” I asked them.

 

The driver forgot he was admiring my dog. His professionalism came back. “Protective detail. Nothing for you to worry about.”

 

It was a good line, but it was a lie. “Really? Who for?” I did my best to ape a curious neighbor.

 

“Sorry, sir—I can’t divulge that detail.” Of course he couldn’t. He was here to track down Alf for whoever was running them.

 

“Well,” I said doubtfully, “do you have ID?”

 

They both showed me their badges, and I pretended not to notice that they were both from the Trenton, New Jersey police department. A little freelancing. “Cool,” I said. “I’ll keep my eyes open too, and let you know if I see anything unusual.”

 

“Unusual like that dog?” the partner laughed.

 

We all had a chuckle over that, and then they watched, delighted, while I had to persuade Norah to give up her spot napping in the middle of the street like a huge, black speed bump. I waved at them, brandishing my large poop bag, as Norah and I headed around the corner to get back to Bernie.

 

“You were right,” I said once I got back. “Alf’s home is being watched, and Norah was a real asset.”

 

“Past her prime, my ass!” Bernie caressed Norah’s head and got out a large dish and a bottle of water. “How about a nice drink, my darling? Okay.” She turned back to me. “Here’s how we’re going to play this.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE.

 

A. Bernie lays out her plan for getting Alf out of his safe room and onto a plane (during which time Bernie and Dimi learn more about the night Martin Perriman Esker died).

 

B. Emma heads north to have a little convo with Octavia Kingston. Is Octavia the mastermind behind Bradford’s possible blackmail? Or another victim?

 

C. A local homeowner tries to hire “The Cleaner Cleaning Service” and gets far more than she bargained for.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE! You have until Sunday night (August 22) to vote. The next installment will be on Friday, August 27.

21-08-27

 

Subject: It’s Octavia Time

 

Pre-header: Time we started getting some answers, don’t you think?? Emma’s going to visit her ex-husband’s new wife to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Go, Emma!

EMMA

 

Ardmore, PA

 

The slightly shabby Victorian had changed since I’d lived there as Bradford’s first wife. The front lawn was immaculate behind the new iron fence, the architectural gingerbread on the porches had been highlighted in a peach paint that stood out against the white clapboard, the cameras at the eaves spoke to the increased need for security.

 

I’d been the wife of a U.S. Representative. Octavia Getty Kingston was the wife of a U.S. Senator. And no matter how much you try to retain a “man of the people” image, a Senator’s home needed to be gracious. Especially if your second wife came from money and had standards to maintain.

 

Octavia herself stood on the front porch, her arms crossed in front of her slim torso. I’d called her when I left DC to make sure she’d be home. She’d wanted to finish our visit before her children came home from school, but no matter how ruthlessly I violated the speed limit, I couldn’t get to Ardmore before three o’clock. Her son and daughter were due home at any moment.

 

“Hello, Emma,” she called when I got out of the Lexus. Her appearance was a throw-back to some ancient Viking conqueror. The blonde hair was almost white, the skin was fair, the eyes were the icy blue of a northern fjord.

 

“Thank you for seeing me, Octavia.” I stood at the foot of the steps, waiting for an invitation to join her.

 

She eyed me impassively. This close, I could see signs of stress. A fine web of lines indicated her forehead was tense. The cords in her neck stood out against the ivory blouse. The crossed arms, I realized, were not a reaction to the cool breeze but a defensive posture. Octavia was not happy.

 

At last she nodded, inviting me up. “Paul and Nina will be home in a few minutes. We’ll wait here, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Of course.”

 

We stood there, making the slightly awkward conversation of two women who had ruled the same house. I commented that the new fence looked nice, she pointed out that the peonies were spectacular in early summer, we both admired the swing that now hung from the spreading branch of the maple tree.

 

The private security guards were visible first, walking down the street. The woman walked with the children. The man came fifteen or twenty feet behind. They bracketed nine-year-old Paul (who was the spitting image of Bradford) and seven-year-old Nina (who had her mother’s Nordic coloring).

 

“They used to be able to walk home alone,” Octavia said, barely loud enough for me to hear. She saw me watching and clarified. “The school is on this block. They don’t even have to cross the street. Paul was so proud when I let him walk his sister to school the first time.”

 

I was startled to see that the brightness in her eyes were unshed tears. “Octavia…” I said.

 

But she turned to greet her children with a smile as they ran up to her, eager to share the news of their day. Octavia introduced me as a friend of their father’s, and both children politely shook my hand. The son and daughter of a politician. I wasn’t the first friend of their father’s to show up on the front porch.

 

The security guards separated. One walked around the outside of the house and the other let herself inside for a quick scan of the interior. They ended up sitting in the car parked in front of the house, where they were both obvious and unobtrusive. High-priced talent.

 

“Come in,” Octavia said once she’d gotten the “all clear” and the kids ran inside.

 

The entire back half of the house had been rebuilt. From the street, Bradford’s house was all Ardmore. From inside, Octavia had created a sliver of her native California, with an open floor plan, skylights, sunlight, and glass, showing a view of the new pool. I raised an eyebrow in appreciation. Instead of the series of small Victorian rooms I’d known, she’d created a space that was ideal for entertaining.

 

Paul and Nina had celery and peanut butter, and tall glasses of milk. Then little Nina threw herself on the floor of the kitchen with a sprawl of crayons and paper, and Paul pulled out a tub of Legos. “Let’s sit here,” Octavia said, leading me into the sunroom. Within sight of her kids but out of easy earshot.

 

“All right,” she said at last. “What are you doing here?”

 

Her direct nature was one of the reasons I chose her as my replacement as Bradford’s wife. She didn’t play games and hadn’t seemed like she would be easily distracted from caring for her husband and family. An ideal political wife.

 

And she was intelligent. So I didn’t insult her. “Who called here last night between two and four in the morning?”

 

(Author’s note: Yes, it was just last night! We’re packing a lot of action into 24 hours!)

 

Octavia had a good poker face, but the shock was too much. She flinched as if I’d raised my hand to strike her. Then she turned away from her children and uttered one tiny whimper.

 

Not a mastermind then. A victim.

 

“Was it Sam or Mo who called you?” I asked gently.

 

“How did you know?” She spoke the words as if her throat was tight.

 

“I know.”

 

“Could you get me a tissue, please? There’s a box on the side table.”

 

She wiped away two fat tears and inhaled shakily. Then she set her shoulders and turned to face me. She was calm but her eyes darted as she searched for escape. There was none to be had. “I don’t know what to say.”

 

“Tell me what happened.”

 

The story spooled out haltingly. Six weeks earlier she’d gotten a phone call from someone who told her they knew her secret. They’d asked for comparatively little for their silence—just five thousand dollars.

 

“And once you paid, they knew they had you.”

 

She nodded. “I realize that now. I’d admitted fault, I’d acted to hide the truth, I was now in their pocket. Whatever they wanted, I’d have to do.”

 

“And they didn’t want money after that, did they? They wanted information.”

 

She plucked another tissue with an elegant hand. “Yes. About Bradford. If he was going to run. What he was thinking. Whether he had any secrets. They asked about you, too.” She darted a look at me as if I was to blame. “Sam was supposed to meet me at a coffee shop this morning, but he called late last night to tell me we’d postpone. I’ve been so scared. I didn’t know what to do.”

 

It was time to get to the heart of the matter. “Octavia, what is your secret? How did they get to you?”

 

She rose and turned her back on the kitchen. Her arms were crossed over her stomach again as she stared unseeing at the pool.

 

“I think I can help,” I said. “But I have to know what they have on you.”

 

She turned at my words. “He’s still in love with you. Did you know that? Bradford? You’re the wild child he couldn’t tame. I’ll never be first with him.”

 

“That’s not true. He loves you. And he loves his children.”

 

She raised an imperious eyebrow and looked away, not wanting to make eye contact. “Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?”

 

I cocked my head. “Explain.”

 

She looked at her kids and then startled me by walking into the kitchen. “Want to watch a movie?” she asked them.

 

They cheered and fought over what to watch. Soon they were enraptured, staring at some colorful cartoon about a fish. When Octavia returned, she was calmer. Her voice now masked by a song about the layers of the ocean, she spoke her bitter truth.

 

“Bradford isn’t Paul’s father.”

 

Holy shit. I sat back, darting a glance at the boy. He was Bradford as a child. I looked my question at Octavia.

 

“Bradford needed to be a family man. And I needed…” Her voice, brisk and efficient, broke. Emotion leaked out of a well I thought was dry.  “I needed my babies. I longed for them. Children of my own, to love and care for. Children to live my life for.”

 

She smiled wistfully as she looked at Paul and Nina. “I was named Octavia because I was the eighth generation of Getty women born in the new world. Nina is number nine. We have a legacy of strong, loving women who act in service to others. I couldn’t let that die out.”

 

I waited. It didn’t take long.

 

“I thought Bradford was too old. He was 51. The odds aren’t great. So…” Her torso was twisting under the tension of telling the story. “You know his nephew? Lucas?”

 

I shivered. The last time I saw Lucas, he was eleven years old. I’d laughed about how much the boy looked like his uncle.

 

“He was eighteen when I approached him. We had an arrangement. As soon as I was pregnant, we severed all ties. And just two years later, Bradford and I had Nina. So I’d hoped that Bradford really was Paul’s father, but the tests don’t lie. Paul’s the wrong blood type to be Bradford’s child.”

 

“And someone stumbled across the test.”

 

“I suppose that’s what happened. Anyway, they knew. They said they’d tell Bradford unless I did what they said.”

 

Octavia wasn’t a fool. She knew that any blackmail while Bradford was a Senator was bad—but if he ascended to the Presidency, she would be in the pocket of her blackmailers, and thus a threat to national security.

 

Her tension was appropriate.

 

“What do I do?” Her voice was a whisper. “He’ll leave me if he finds out. He’s never loved me.”

 

This situation was getting very, very deep. The Sheik (and whoever was directing him) had his hooks in Bradford for the death of Martin Perriman Esker, and into Octavia for the paternity of her child. Someone wanted control of the next President.

 

I reached out a hand to cover Octavia’s chilly fingers. “We’ll figure it out. Tell me everything you can about the people who called you.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE!

 

A. Emma has a frustratingly-unproductive phone call with Bradford.

 

B. Bernie, Dmitri, and Norah the sleepy Newfie foil surveillance to bust Alf out of his safe room.

 

C. Emma reads the tea leaves and predicts the future; she contacts an old friend for a big political favor.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE! You have until Sunday night (August 29) to vote. The next installment will be on Friday, September 3.

21-09-03

 

Subject: Going After Alf

 

Preheader: Do things like this go on in the suburbs all the time and we’re all just not noticing them? Effective camouflage is—well, it’s effective!

 

Recap: Alf Westham, an oil lobbyist with a swingin’ sex party history, knows about the death of Martin Perriman Esker ten years before. Someone (personified so far by The Sheik) wants that information so they can blackmail Senator Bradford Kingston once he is elected US president. So the dynamic duo of lethal Dmitri the Latvian agent-for-hire and Bernadette the octogenarian master spy are on their way to bust Alf out of his safe room and get him out of the country before the Sheik can abduct and interrogate him. There are two cops (off duty and far beyond their jurisdiction) at Alf’s gate. Who knows who else is circling?

 

DMITRI

Swarthmore, PA

 

It made my skin crawl to move so slowly, but Bernie was right. The dog I was walking—the extremely large, extremely slow dog—was remarkably effective camouflage. Norah and I made our way with painful slowness along the suburban street, she hanging her head to sniff at every passing shrub and me holding a glaringly bright blue bag bulging with her leavings.

After an eternity we rounded the final corner, only to see that Bernie’s lime-green Mini Cooper was surrounded by women, some pushing baby strollers. Two were leaning in the front window and the rest were circling restlessly.

I sat on a convenient retaining wall to assess the situation. Norah immediately collapsed at my feet in a vast pile of shaggy black fur. She began to snore.

I watched the Mini Cooper. The women weren’t a threat, I realized; they were customers in search of The Cleaner Cleaning Services.

By the time I put in my earbuds and called Bernie on my phone, I was struggling to control my chuckles. The woman who came very close to assassinating Fidel Castro in the 1960s was being interrogated about bleaching the grout in the master bath.

“What?” Bernie answered the phone with an irritated snap.

“Need a rescue?”

“Oh, you think you’re so funny.” Her voice was muffled as she turned to beat back the women at the window. “It’s my boss. Give me a minute. Give me a minute. Hang on.”

I watched as the front window rolled up. The crowd around the car backed slightly in irritation.

Where is you take this much timing?” Bernie had switched to Russian. “I have ladies who want from me here. Like hungry…

“Piranhas?” I suggested. “Your Russian is a tragedy, Bernie. It hurts me to hear it.”

Naveshat’ pizdyley.”

I laughed. “That was better. Figures you’ve lost all your Russian except how to curse. Tell them you have to get going.”

They want mine numerals.”

Nomer telefona. The words aren’t that different from English.”

Ukusi menya.

My bark of laughter was too loud. One of the women in the back of the pack looked around. “Just put the car in drive, wave and smile, and get out of there.”

The brake lights came on. The women protested. The Mini edged slowly forward and at last the crowd parted. Bernie was free and heading down the road.

An inert pile of Newfie was sprawled across the sidewalk and strollers were now heading our way. So I got Norah on her feet in a surprisingly short time (her nap must have refreshed her) and we were off in the other direction. While Bernie drove in large circles around the neighborhood, Norah and I continued our walk as I filled Bernie in about the surveillance set up in front of Alf’s gate.

“Yep,” Bernie said. “That’s what I figured. Can you get into the woods behind Alf’s place without attracting attention?”

“You gave me a bear to walk. How can I not attract attention?” My grumpiness was for show only. Norah had more than proved her worth. “We’re getting into position now.”

It was too urban a word to say that Alf’s house was on a “block.” The roads in this neighborhood did not run in neat lines. But the dog and I made our way to a wide gap between two small mansions where we could get access to the woods behind Alf’s house. I felt more exposed crossing that lawn than I’d felt in a market in Afghanistan with a sniper’s rifle strapped to my spine—but in both cases I reached safety without attracting attention.

“All right,” I said. I crouched down next to a fallen tree and Norah resumed her usual position, snoring in the leaf litter. “I can see the back door and the garage. Go ahead.”

Bernie left her phone on so I heard everything. She pulled up to the gate and began to put Alf’s entry code into the security system. Then the cops got to her. She told them she was the supervisor, come to make sure her crew had done a good job cleaning Mr. Westham’s house. She made them show her their badges, and never implied she noticed they were in the wrong state. She told them Alf had called the office; he was out of town for the next month. And she refused to let them into the house with her.

She was distrustful and annoyed and pushed forward the image of a fussy old lady far past her prime. She was magnificent. My admiration for her grew.

“Okay,” she said to me. “I’m in, and they’re still out. If Alf is watching on his security cameras…”

“The garage door is opening,” I said. “Pull around back. Want me to go in and get him?”

“Fuck, no. Stay there. Cover me.”

“Consider yourself covered.”

She pulled into the garage and was getting out of the car, planting her walker determinedly in front of her (who would expect a rescue via walker?) when the garage door rumbled down again, cutting off my view. From his safe room, Alf was watching, and sealing off his house as securely as he could.

The wait was endless. I listened through my ear buds as Bernie attempt to persuade Alf to come out, and I practiced the patience I’d first learned during weeks and months on surveillance in Libya. Patience, I think, marks the difference between an experienced living operative and an inexperienced dead one.

The belief was proved once again when I heard a branch snap to my left. Whoever had moved forward once Bernie entered hadn’t waited long enough.

I eased my gun from its holster but remembered Emma asking me to avoid killing anyone. The knife in my boot had a heavy handle that would work as a sap to knock out an opponent.

I flowed over the log, watching where I put my feet, and found my target. He was Middle Eastern in appearance and older than the young toughs we’d come up against so far. The Sheik was running out of henchmen.

The question was—where was his partner?

I couldn’t sense anyone else in the woods with us, but that meant little. Only a fool would assume he had only one opponent.

Bernie had cracked Alf out of his safe room and they were moving through the house to the garage when I clocked the watcher on the temple. I caught him as he fell and checked his pulse; still alive and breathing. Pity. I took his phone and wallet.

From my right I heard a sudden flurry of noise and then a simultaneous “Oof!” and a thump on the ground.

I crept back, listening to thrashing. A voice, short of air, cursed. “Allaena!”

Arabic. The partner.

At first I thought the only thing that had changed was that Norah was awake. Then I saw the pants and shoes coming out from under her.

She was lying on top of a man, her dinner-plate-sized paw planted firmly on the arm of the hand with the gun. Her massive jaws were clamped around the man’s throat. Drool rolled down his neck in drips that made me shudder with sympathy.

“Hi,” I said as I stood over them.

He rolled his eyes at me, panicked. “Can’t breathe!” he gasped. “Help me!”

“Yeah.” I hunkered down next to him to take the gun from his hand. “That’s kind of going to be a problem. I don’t know what command will make her let go.”

His eyebrows couldn’t go any higher. He tried to beat at the dog with his free hand but she uttered a deep growl that seemed to come from the center of the earth and he stilled again.

“Let’s just take a moment, here,” I said.

“Dying!”

“No, you’re not. Not yet.” He had the look of middle management. I looked over my shoulder to make sure his buddy was still passed out. Safe there. “What’s your name?”

He didn’t want to answer, but had no alternatives. “Omar,” he gasped.

He’d answered the first question. We’d get into a rhythm. I put a knee down; relaxed but still ready for movement. “You were watching the house?”

“Yeah.” Two questions. He was mine. “Can you move your dog?”

“I really can’t. Who lives here?”

“Some guy.” Norah shifted and he grunted. “Westham! Some guy named Westham!”

“I see. And why were you watching Mr. Westham’s house?”

“What’s that accent? Are you Russian?”

I smiled. He wasn’t a fool. But I wasn’t here to answer questions. “Why were you watching Mr. Westham’s house, Omar?”

He whimpered. The drool from Norah’s mouth was now wetting his collar. She was immobile, watching the woods around us with unseeing eyes. Her focus was on the tender, vulnerable throat below her great big teeth. “My boss. My boss said to.”

“I see. And who is your boss, Omar? Hang on.” I touched my earbud to turn off muting. “Bernie, wait there, please. Stay in the garage. We’re safe. I just need a moment.”

She was a professional; she didn’t ask questions. I turned my attention back to Omar. “I’m sorry—I interrupted. You were telling me about your boss. Please continue.”

“I can’t breathe!” No wonder, with the full weight of Norah crushing his lungs.

“I can imagine. Your boss?”

“He’ll kill me.”

“Him later or the dog now,” I agreed. “Take your pick.”

Allaena,” he groaned. “Sheik Jamal Al-Abdullah.”

I frowned. “The Olympic sprinter?”

“Different guy. The Sheik is House of Saud.”

“Of course he is. And where would I find the Sheik now, if I wanted to pay him a visit?”

Omar managed a mean smile. “Gone. In the sky. Flying back to Riyadh. Good luck getting to him.”

“Hm.” What more could I get out of this guy? I took a shot. “Who’s the Sheik working for?”

His surprise had to be genuine, given that he had more than two hundred pounds of drooling Newfie on his chest. “Working for? What do you mean?”

Okay. So this guy didn’t know. “Norah,” I called.

She obeyed instantly, releasing Omar’s neck and coming off him with more speed than I’d ever seen her show.

Omar gasped in relief, but I’d cold-cocked him before he had a chance to enjoy his freedom. His cell phone and wallet went into my pocket with his buddy’s. I’d now taken three guns off these guys; my arsenal was growing. I stood and connected to Bernie again.

“Okay. Go ahead. You’re clear,” I told her.

“Oh, good. This whiner is really objecting to lying under a bunch of cleaning supplies.”

“Wait until he sees how good it feels to drive back to Washington, DC lying under my partner.” I ruffled Norah’s huge cranium in affection and she looked up at me in obvious satisfaction.

“I thought I was your partner,” Bernie grumbled. The garage door rolled up and the Mini backed out.

“Pick us up one street over. By the way, this is one amazing dog.”

“Told you.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE.

 

A. Dmitri reports to Emma that they’ve got Alf; she’s just half an hour away at Octavia’s in Ardmore so they decide to meet up and compare notes.

 

B. Dmitri and Bernie drive Alf to a private airstrip outside of Frederick, Maryland to begin his journey to a ski resort in Chile. Alf attempts to bribe Dmitri and Bernie.

 

C. Emma confirms the Sheik’s identity and tells Bernie and Dmitri the backstory of her interactions with her enemy.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE! You have until Monday…or Tuesday…or Wednesday to cast your vote. (I’m sorry to be so late today!) The next installment will be on Friday, Sept. 10, God willing and the crick don’t rise.

 

21-09-24

 

Subject: Etta James

 

Pre-header: At last—my love has come along. My lonely days are over. Emma and Dmitri get their hot clinch after a long damned time!

 

Recap: Big Oil lobbyist Alf Westham is clearly available to the highest bidder—and since he knows how Martin Perriman Esker died a decade ago, Emma knows that she has to put Alf on ice so the Sheik has nothing with which to blackmail Emma’s ex-husband as Bradford runs for US President. Having told Alf that he’s going to be taken to a very posh Chilean ski resort, octogenarian master spy Bernadette is using Emma’s plane to take Alf to the back end of nowhere, leaving him on an island in the Pacific Northwest. This leaves Emma and Dmitri in an “alone at last” situation in the guest house of a friend’s otherwise-empty estate.

 

DMITRI

The Pennsylvania countryside

 

The sound faded of Bernie’s absurd lime green Mini Cooper crunching down the driveway. Having seen them off, Emma returned and leaned on the French doors to the terrace.

 

I drank in the sight. She was a goddess. Long, lithe limbs and a cloud of mink-dark hair. Eyes that watched me with warmth and the hint of intelligent humor that defined what made Emma remarkable.

 

“Well?” she said.

 

“Well?” I relaxed against the sofa, the May evening cool on my skin.

 

“It’s just you and me at last. Are you going to do something about that?” Her voice held laughter—and desire. Nerves at the base of my spine reacted. The ancient predator in me sat up and sniffed the air.

 

“Oh, I’m going to do something about that. But first I want to savor this moment.”

 

“Savor? You want to savor being so far apart?”

 

“Emma, in my life, there are very few people who know how I earn my living.” She moved from the doorway and onto the terrace, lured by my words. “And of those, there is only one who I want in my bed.”

 

Her sharp inhale flared her nostrils. Response of the prey to the suspicion that she was being hunted. Excitement. Adrenaline. Fascination. She watched me as she sat her lovely heart-shaped ass on the arm of the chair opposite me. “Is that right?”

 

I nodded. “I don’t deny myself sexually. But it is dangerous—for me and for any woman—to share too much of myself. So I patronize a series of extremely high-class brothels around the world, where care is taken to keep me healthy. I am frequently tested.”

 

“As am I,” she said.

 

“Of course you are. And when I finish my transaction, I leave the brothel. No one has any expectations of more. No one has any rights or responsibilities. It works out well. But there is something—no, two somethings—that are not a part of those events.”

 

She was leaning forward, watching me. Her chest was rising faster, pushing those supple breasts against the silk of her blouse. “What are those things?”

 

I sat forward slowly. “The first is—trust.”

 

She sat back in recognition and her inhale ended with a little sound that was almost a gasp. “Yes.”

 

I stood and began to pace. I moved away from her at first so she would relax. “I find that I trust you, Emma. Do you trust me?” I looked over my shoulder to witness her response.

 

Like me, Emma lived a life filled with secrets. She liked it that way—but like me, she craved the benefits of a partnership. Temporary or otherwise. No one likes to stand alone forever. “I do,” she breathed.

 

“Good.” My prowling was taking me in a slow arc. I would end up behind her.

 

“What was the other thing?” She asked.

 

“Ah,” I said, and stretched. I pulled my wing bones down and back, rolling my head at the relaxation of the muscles. It would not do to get too worked up too quickly. “The other thing.” I was behind her now. “The other thing is—small spaces.”

 

She couldn’t turn far enough to see me so she cocked her head to the side to concentrate on hearing me. “Small spaces?”

 

“Small spaces,” I confirmed, stepping up behind her. “Like this one here.” I put my hands on her shoulders and she sat up straighter. “The crescent of skin behind your ear, where it flows down into your neck.” I leaned down to her, lowering my voice to a croon. “The scent of this small space—ahh.”

 

I breathed her in and she shivered.

 

“You’re not wearing your lemon scent tonight, but the smell of you is still driving me crazy. Just here—just this space. To smell. To pull back this mane of hair so that I can touch.” I ran a single finger around her ear. “To kiss. To taste.”

 

She rolled her head to give me access as I suited my movements to my words. Her breath left her on a hum of building tension. Her hand, resting on the back of the chair, was white-knuckled.

 

I braceleted her wrist with my far-larger hand and lifted her arm. “Secret places like the inside of this elbow. Not exactly in the middle—no. Here on the edge, where tendons lie in wait. For me to smell. And touch. And kiss. And taste.”

 

Her arm bent as I worshiped her elbow and she tried to turn into me. I stopped her and stood.

 

“Secret spaces. The small of your back—just here.” My two thumbs met just to either side of her spine. I massaged there, my fingers reaching to pull against her waist. Her backbone stiffened in pleasure and she groaned, rolling her head again until I was helpless to resist the long tendon of her neck. “Emma,” I sighed against her skin.

 

“Oh, more,” she said. Her words were thoughtless, primitive, based purely in need.

 

Adrenaline was surging through me. Every muscle screamed with power to claim her. I caught her beneath her knees and lifted her into my arms so I could at last sink into the glory of her lips—soft, pliant, yielding lips that clung to mine. “How much more?” I asked.

 

“All,” she crooned, pulling my mouth to hers again.

 

“Good,” I mumbled against her lips. “There are other small spaces I want to experience.”

 

I felt her smile. “Yes, do. Here?”

 

“Inside.” I turned to the guest house. “I don’t want you to get cold.”

 

She purred but stopped me in the living room. “Let me set the security system. Just a moment.”

 

She wanted to see to our physical safety. In that moment I felt a burst of worship. Of raw, uncontrollable possession. This woman was made for me, and I was going to keep her happy. She wriggled to get down and I let her go, immediately missing the heat of her body against me.

 

Emma locked the terrace doors and fiddled with a wall-mounted control. “There. Now we can forget about the world. Come with me.”

 

She led me to the master suite. “This isn’t a small space,” I acknowledged with a grin. “This is a big space. And this is just the guest house?”

 

She turned and shook back her hair. Her eyes were glowing. “What other small spaces did you want to explore?”

 

Ahhh. She drew me to her with a single exhale. Then she was back where she belonged—pressed against me. “Places you can only touch and taste with someone you trust,” I said. Her eyes were wide in anticipation, but I surprised her by slowing down. I touched kisses to the corners of her mouth, to the tender flesh beside her eyes where it turned to cover the slope of her nose. I tipped her head so I could taste the line of her jaw and then pressed her over my arm so I could sample the velvet under her chin.

 

“I want to find small spaces, too,” she sighed.

 

“Mmm” I agreed. “Later. All you want. Not now.”

 

I backed her until she sat suddenly on the bed. I knelt before her and took her ankle to ease off one  shoe. I put the heels of my hands together at the top of her foot and reached my fingers around to the sole. Then I moved like someone opening a book, pulling and stretching the tender muscles of the instep.

 

Emma groaned and her spine curled as if she was melting. “Do the other one.”

 

I grinned. “With pleasure.”

 

As I released the muscles of her other foot, she fell back on the bed with a groan. I raised her foot to my mouth so I could bite gently at her arch and she offered a whimper that filled me with pride.

 

I took a moment to untie and kick off my boots before kneeling over her on the bed. She opened her eyes and reached up. “Come down onto me.”

 

“No.” I shook my head. “One more small space first. Just here.” I came onto my elbows so our faces were close. I could feel her breaths against my skin. My hands slid through the richness of her hair until they met at the back of her skull. “If I find that secret ridge just here, where your skull ends at your neck…if I put my two thumbs here… if I press up gently…”

 

It’s the richest part of a massage. The neck is very gently stretched and the reaction washes in waves down the body. The release is mesmerizing.

 

Emma exhaled in a low groan. “Oh, God,” she sighed.

 

“There. That’s the small space I love most. Look at you. You’re breath-taking. Emma, you’re dazzling me.”

 

Her eyelids flickered and I could see her eyes rolling beneath the tissue of the skin, but she was unable to gather herself to respond until I eased the pressure on her skull. Then the long lashes swept up and I was trapped in the shine of her eyes.

 

“I’m dazzling you? Dmitri, I think you’re making me drool.”

 

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. And somehow the laughter didn’t diminish our connection; it strengthened it.

 

“Find some small spaces under my blouse, please.” She smiled, but she meant it, too. Any more of this and I would lose my goddess to frustration.

 

The silk buttons slipped free and she lay before me in champagne lace. Her lingerie was as lovely as she was. Pity I was compelled to remove it. Then I tasted her ribs, her collar bones, and at last with her hands clamped on my head, her ruby-tipped breasts. “I smell,” I said, “I touch. I kiss. I taste.”

 

Emma writhed beneath me. I shifted to one hip to give each nipple the attention it deserved and her clever hand found my belt buckle—my zipper—my waistband. “Off. Take these off. Dimi, please.”

 

“I’m savoring,” I said.

 

“Stop savoring. Dig in. Enjoy.”

 

My laughter was muffled by the breast in my mouth. “There are places on you I need to taste.”

 

“Taste them later. I would love for you to taste me, but later. Stop teasing me. I’m teased. I’m about to explode.” With her foot, she was pushing my pants down my thighs. Her impatience was contagious and I lost the few last tatters of my self-control.

 

“Don’t get rid of those jeans. I’ve got a condom in there,” I told her.

 

“Just one? There are some in my bag. I’ve got you covered.”

 

“Okay. Cover me, then. Here.” I fished out my lone condom (apparently not enough for my goddess) and she snatched it from me. She sheathed me while I stripped her, both of us laughing and shivering and lost to urgency.

 

“This should be slower,” I said—the way a man would say “Here comes the tidal wave we cannot escape.”

 

“Fuck that. Next time. Please, Dimi. Now. Now.”

 

The goddess must never be denied. I pulled up her knee to open her to me more fully and seated myself at her apex. And then I threw my head back and closed my eyes to focus on the heat—the tightness—the slippery grip of her slowly opening to me.

 

“Oh, God. Go slow—you’re huge. Oh. Oh.” Her breathes were coming in pants, but her claim that she wanted me to go slowly was counteracted by the hips beneath me, which thrust upward to impale her on me. “Oh, yeah,” she sighed. “That’s it. That’s it. Yeah.”

 

Once I was seated inside her, I paused and looked down at her. “You made me go too fast,” I accused.

 

Her eyes were half-lidded, but she still had the presence of mind to flash me a wicked little smile. “I’m going to make you go faster than that.”

 

Her hips lifted under me and pressed me just a bit deeper into her. She gasped and I moaned. She tried to set a pace, but I was much bigger than she was and at last she appealed to me. “You do it,” she tried.

 

“Go slower,” I grunted, but she was having none of it.

 

“I don’t need slower. I’m ready. I need faster. Deeper. Don’t tease me, Dimi. Come on—please?”

 

The predator at the base of my spine growled at me to let go. Between my lusts and her urgings, I surrendered and reared back. I paused at the edge of madness to gaze at the luscious creature before me. And then I thrust.

 

She cried out, her arms going out and then up to cling to the headboard so she could push back against me. “Do that! Just like that! Again, Dimi!”

 

My control was shot. I could not have taken a direction if there had been a gun to my head. All I could do was thrust into her, pierce her, penetrate her, make her mine.

 

I drove on, pounding relentlessly, feeling a coil of steel growing tighter and tighter inside me. Like a passenger, I watched as her pants became moans, her moans became cries, and I had the presence of mind to be grateful that she was approaching her climax quickly because I was no longer able to slow down.

 

Energy and power and strength surged through me, lighting me up. Rage, lust, greed, need roiled into one massive heat until I shouted out a mighty roar and came from the soles of my feet, emptying myself into her as she shuddered and seized in her own climax under me.

 

At the peak, the light was brilliant white and I was a god to match my goddess…

 

…and then I crashed down on top of her, drained and empty and pure.

 

Her heart was pounding against mine and shivering aftershocks rippled across her body. I tried to move but her arms came up around me. “Don’t go.”

 

“I’ll crush you.”

 

“You’re holding me together. Stay for just a minute. Please?”

 

I had the strength after all; I turned just far enough to capture her mouth with mine.

 

“Emma,” I sighed.

 

“Small spaces,” she smiled. “I see your point.”

 

I grinned lazily against her shoulder and she let me roll off her. I disposed of the condom and pulled her into my arms. “Small spaces,” I agreed as we slipped into a doze. “Small spaces and trust.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE!

 

A. Pillow talk—Emma’s first time, Dmitri’s first time.

 

B. Pillow talk—so tell me about the Sheik.

 

C. Phone call from Bernie. You’ll never guess what happened.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday (Sept. 26) to vote. The next installment will be on October 1.

21-10-1

 

Subject: Plotting in the Afterglow

 

Pre-header: Sorry—I’m denying you Bernie strapping a Newfie to her chest and parachuting from a plane, walker in hand. I like that plane!

 

Recap: Bernie’s flying off to the Pacific Northwest to dump Alf Westham where he can’t cause any trouble. Dmitri and Emma, after knowing and admiring each other for four years, have at last had the opportunity to succumb to their desires. The mysterious plot to blackmail the future US President has been put temporarily on the back burner…but not for long!

 

EMMA

The Pennsylvania countryside

 

My fingers had charted four separate scars on Dmitri’s broad torso before my mind realized what I was feeling.

 

I opened my eyes lazily. We’d never taken the time to turn out any lights in the handsome master bedroom so my view was well-lit. “Bullet hole,” I said as I traced the puckered scar over his hip bone.

 

“Came in there, went out here.” He moved my hand just a few inches over, curling my fingers around the muscles of his side. “I got lucky.”

 

I explored the exit wound, which was much larger than the entrance. “Lucky,” I said. “And this one? A blade?” Tracing the long scar along his ribs made him jump. Ticklish—really? The daring assassin was ticklish? I filed the fact away in the growing category of fascinating Dmitri facts.

 

“Old fashioned bayonet. That one was friendly fire. An idiot during Army training. Not even remotely honorable. Or even interesting.”

 

So he thought. “And these?”

 

“Boring. Uninteresting. No scars on your luscious body?” He folded me in his arms and rolled, halting my inventory. “I can’t see a single flaw, but there must be something.”

 

I chuckled, pleased with his selective vision. At thirty-five, I no longer have the body of a teen. On the other hand, thanks to various trainers around the world, I was more muscly than the waifish teen I’d been, so perhaps I felt as good against his naked body as I’d used to look in the eyes of various (far-less-interesting) lovers.

 

“Knife wound in my scalp. Got that on a fishing trawler in the Azores when a rogue crew of pirates attempted to kill off my crew of pirates. Scar on my foot from broken glass in the surf when I was eleven. Want to see?”

 

He kissed me and I forgot what we were talking about.

 

“How long do we get to hide here?” His voice was low and intimate. My entire body smiled.

 

“At least until sunrise. There’s not much we can do before then.”

 

“Good.” He rolled back, pulling me with him until I was draped on top of him. “Tell me what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

 

“A good question.” I propped my chin on my fists so I could relax on top of him while still admiring his face. “The Sheik must be in Riyadh by now. We might have to go after him.”

 

He narrowed his eyes in thought. “I don’t have many contacts in Saudi Arabia. You?”

 

“A few.” I shrugged. “The House of Saud is a strange mixture of fanatical loyalty and people who will gossip at the drop of a hat.”

 

“What do you know about the Sheik?”

 

A twisted subject. “He’s cousin to the current King.”

 

“There are a few of them, aren’t there? Cousins?”

 

I chuckled. “Since the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932, there have been seven kings. The founder, and six of his sons. Between those seven men, they’ve had an estimated 120 wives between them, and roughly three hundred sons and daughters. That’s a lot of princes and princesses.”

 

“Chert poberi,” he swore softly.

 

“No kidding. Our Sheik—Jamal Al-Abdullah—is a prince. But he’s a minor prince, if such a thing is possible. Fourth son of one of Ibn Saud’s many daughters. So he’s a grandson of the founder, and a second cousin of MBS.”

 

“Mohammed bin Salman.”

 

“Bin Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman.” I completed the formal name. “Current heir to his father the King, who is said to be suffering from dementia and thus no longer likely to throw this son aside for another. MBS is the guy in charge, and he’s got a fondness for his cousin Jamal.”

 

“Our Sheik.”

 

“Exactly. I’ve seen the two of them together, and it’s pretty clear that MBS likes our Sheik because Jamal is a follower. He’s been trained all his life to be cruel to those below him and slavish to those above him. He craves a strong authority figure, and he’ll never get enough attention from MBS.”

 

Dmitri thought about it. “The US has good relations with the House of Saud, doesn’t it?”

 

“Well, theoretically. MBS has murdered some US-affiliated journalists and others, so the situation is strained at the moment,” I said dryly. “The human rights abuses are grotesque.”

 

“So who pulls the strings of our Sheik? Does MBS want to blackmail the future US President?”

 

I’d been wondering the same thing. “I can’t be sure. I mean, who wouldn’t like dirt on the leader of the free world? But I don’t see MBS being that subtle. He’s more overt. More direct. I’d have guessed he’d favor threats and posturing over a quiet blackmail plot.”

 

“And you’ve met him?”

 

“I have. I’ve been to several parties he’s attended. Ringed by security at all times, but he likes to talk to the ladies.” Who he regarded as lesser beings, obviously.

 

“So if not him, then who else would the Sheik respond to? Another cousin prince?”

 

I shook my head. “They follow the leader. If orders don’t come from the top, they’re not going to risk being put out of the line of succession—or be thrown into a prison and tortured or killed, which does happen when a prince falls into disfavor. No, I think we have to look past the House of Saud for the Sheik’s master.”

 

“And isn’t that interesting.” His fingers were absently tracing the bumps of my vertebra, making my skin glow. “So why would he go to Riyadh, then?”

 

I raised an eyebrow. “Why, indeed? We only have the word of the underling you questioned outside Alf’s house. Perhaps the guy was lying.”

 

“He wasn’t lying. Norah was suffocating him. He told me the truth—as far as he knew it. But that doesn’t mean he actually knew where his boss was going.”

 

“So.” I rolled off Dmitri, who grabbed to keep me atop him. I squirmed away and found my phone. “If we find out his flight plan, we might be able to make some assumptions. Did he go to Riyadh? If he didn’t, where did he go?”

 

“You have contacts at the—is it the FAA?”

 

I grinned while working my phone. “Your knowledge of the US systems is alarming, you scary Russian.”

 

“Please. Latvian. Scary Latvian. I don’t work for those thugs.”

 

“Unless they pay you.”

 

“Exactly. Who are you going to call?”

 

“Who else? Who can break into the FAA database and find out what we need?” My call went through. She was still awake. “Bernie? Want an in-flight entertainment?”

 

Bernie cackled in delight. “Absolutely. And wait until I tell you what happened!”

 

What happens next? You decide:

 

A: Bernie discovers that the Sheik’s plane landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

 

C: Bernie discovers that the Sheik’s plane landed in Pyongyang, North Korea.

 

D: Bernie discovers that the Sheik’s plane landed in Moscow, Russia.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday night (Oct. 3) to vote. Next installment on Friday, Oct. 8.

21-10-08

 

Subject: Bernie’s Report

 

Pre-header: Once we’re post-sex, you know we’re in the back half of the story, so I think things had better start rolling along pretty quickly here! The next installment can help to make that possible!

 

Recap: Emma and Dmitri are buzzed by great-sex hormones. Both of them being unable to relax for long, they’ve spent their afterglow trying to figure out the What’s Next in the effort to keep future U.S. President Bradford safe from blackmail. They’ve decided that the best way to proceed is to figure out who is the puppet master holding the Sheik’s strings. The Sheik has left the country; purportedly on his way back to the impenetrable security of the House of Saud—but Emma doubts that it was Saudi leaders who hatched a blackmail plot against Bradford. So she turns to her ally, Bernie the Aging Master Spy, to ask Bernie to hack into the FAA database and see if the Sheik’s plane really landed in Riyadh.

 

DMITRI

The Pennsylvania countryside

 

Hearing only Emma’s side of her conversation with Bernie was maddening—as was the sight of Emma naked on the side of the bed. I rolled and shifted until I was sitting behind her, my legs bracketing hers, my arms around her waist, and my ear pressed to her phone. She shivered and leaned into me, but stopped my hand from traveling upward to capture a supple breast.

 

“Bernie, what do you mean? What happened?” Perhaps Emma thought I could only focus on one thing at a time, but I was perfectly capable of listening to Bernie on the other end of the phone while also admiring the ruby tip of Emma’s breast.

 

Bernie was laughing. The sound of her voice and the feel of Emma’s answering smile against my cheek pushed me into a surprised fugue moment. Just days ago, I was an independent operator, and absolutely sure that was the best option for me. Now I was more than halfway in love with two women—one old enough to be my grandmother and one whose delicious essence was silk against my skin. I would die for either woman. Better than that, I suspected that both would kill for me.

 

I was alone no longer.

 

Relationships are weakness. Every person in my profession knows it. But somehow I’d found myself in a pair of relationships that made me stronger.

 

Overwhelmed by the realization, I compartmentalized the emotions and focused on Bernie’s report.

 

“One hour into the flight,” she said, “I let this pig decide I was asleep.” I could hear her contempt for Alf Westham—a man who’d proven himself more than likely to sell his loyalties to the highest bidder. “And even though I’d told him to leave the flight crew alone, he starts creeping up to the cockpit. You did too, you sniveling bastard. Am I talking to you? Keep quiet, then!”

 

Emma recaptured Bernie’s attention. “What happened?”

 

“What happened? My damned hip again. Froze up. I couldn’t get up.”

 

“Are you all right?” I asked.

 

“Dimi, darling! I didn’t realize I was on speakerphone.” She wasn’t, but she didn’t need to know that I was holding Emma’s naked body as close to my own as I could get it.

 

“How’s your hip?” My concern overrode other considerations.

 

“Fine. I took a pill. I need a good massage and a damned surgeon with the balls to give a new hip to someone my age. Anyway, I thought the pig was going to get to the cockpit when who showed up to save the day?”

 

Who, indeed? Did Emma have a flight crew trained in personal security? Bernie didn’t keep us waiting.

 

“Norah, of course. This glorious dog. The only creature on the planet that I love more than the two of you. Alf had to climb over Norah to get to the cockpit and Norah just rolled over and wiped Alf out. He was down on his stomach and gasping for air in a nanosecond, with Norah on top of him and suddenly stone deaf. Oh, quit your whining, you wimp. You were never going to suffocate.”

 

Having seen Norah the immense Newfoundland in action, I had a burst of sympathy for Alf Westham, as loathsome as he was.

 

Emma laughed and almost as an afterthought pulled my hand up to cup one lissome breast. That made me grin.“What did you do?” she asked.

 

“What else?” Bernie crowed. “Took the opportunity to interrogate the weasel. And believe me, we now have so much dirt on this guy that we own his ass. He’s not going to breathe a word about what happened to Martin Perriman Esker ten years ago, are you, buddy?”

 

In the background, Alf Westham gave a grunt of frustrated acceptance.

 

“That’s right.” Bernie was satisfaction personified. “I’ve got a list of bank accounts and several very high-and-mighty people who would be very interested in what I’ve learned. You say anything you’re not supposed to, I won’t have to kill you. There will be a line at the door to end your life.”

 

She’d pursued a rare chance and it had paid off—but the risk was not over. “Did you secure the information?” I asked her.

 

“Darling Dimi. I’m not a child. Not only did I download all the information to a drop box that automatically opens on my death, but I also emailed it to both of you. Can I assume you haven’t checked your email yet?” Her voice was rich with implication

 

My dignified response of “I don’t know what you’re talking about” would have come out better if Emma hadn’t slipped a hand between us and caressed my cock, which made me yip and then groan with pleasure. Emma and Bernie both laughed.

 

“About time,” Bernie said. “Anyway, we’re detouring to Chicago. I’m going to let Alf off there, where he’s going to be a very good boy, and then I’m heading home.”

 

“Good.” Emma was purring at my response. “I didn’t like the idea of leaving him on some island forever.”

 

“Forget him; what about my guy on that island? With this pig forever? No, this way is better. But why did you call me? Something I can do for you?”

 

To my regret, Emma moved her hand away and focused on the call once more. “Can you hack the FAA?”

 

“Hack it? Don’t have to. I’ve got a buddy. What do you need?”

 

Emma stood, leaving me cold and alone but offering me a stunning view as she paced. She and Bernie went over the details of how to find where the Sheik’s plane was heading while I watched her, content to let her do the thinking.

 

Bernie’s guy was good. Not ten minutes later Bernie had our answer.

 

“He’s not just heading for Moscow,” Bernie reported. “He landed two hours ago. Looks like your boy has new friends in the Kremlin.”

 

Emma and I exchanged looks. “Now, that sounds more like the origin of a blackmail scheme,” she said to me and Bernie. I nodded. It did indeed. Vladimir Putin, with his KGB background, was well-versed in stealth operations, extortion, and blackmail—and he would very much like to have leverage over the next leader of the free world.

 

Bernie was speaking, and then Emma answered. “I promise. No plotting until you get back. We do this together.” I’d leaned back on the bed to watch her. I was idly stroking my cock, which was no longer just semi-erect. Emma fixated on the action of my hand and bit her plump lip in concentration. “Bernie,” she said, “there’s something I really need to do. I’ll talk to you later.”

 

Before Emma disconnected, I could hear Bernie’s delighted laughter from across the room.

 

What happens next? You decide:

 

A: Where’s Bradford? We need to talk about the Russians.

 

B: Where’s Bradford? We need to talk about Martin Perriman Esker.

 

C: Where’s Bradford? We need to talk about who his wife chose to father Bradford’s son.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday night (Oct. 10) to vote. Next installment on Friday, Oct. 15.

21-10-15

 

Subject: Bloodlines

 

Pre-header: Split vote between tell Bradford about Moscow or his own “son” so I cast the tie-breaker. Love that false sense of power in the morning!

 

Recap: Future US President Bradford Kingston faces two blackmail threats (one about the sad death of his staffer Martin Perriman Esker, and one about the true identity of Bradford’s son’s real father). Emma, Dmitri, and Bernie (to say nothing of the sleepily magnificent Norah) have determined that the threats originate from the Putin faction; the Sheik is simply his errand boy. Now what do we do about it?

 

EMMA

The Pennsylvania countryside

 

“Emma,” Bradford said when he came onto the call, “how is it possible that you have a phone system more secure than the US government’s here in the Paris embassy?”

 

I smiled prettily at him through the screen. Part of the reason his system was as good as it was is because of a little outfit in Nevada that I fund; a stable of extremely-well-paid “grey hat” hackers who keep my smuggling operations at the cutting edge of technology—and who keep the federal government on their toes, trying to keep up. “Darling, trust me when I tell you that you do not want to know. Are you alone?”

 

“As requested. What’s going on? Have you found out anything?”

 

The connection was crystal clear. I was in Pennsylvania and he was in France, but we might as well have been sitting on either side of a table. Dmitri and Bernie had finished walking Norah and were seated on the terrace outside, able to watch the call but not hear it. “I’ve found out quite a lot. And no surprise when it comes to blackmail, the information is deeply personal, so I want to talk to you about it.”

 

“Personal?” Bradford looked guilty for a moment, although I chalked that up to the universal reaction to seeing a police car in the rear view mirror; even if you haven’t done anything wrong, you immediately wonder what could have been discovered. Bradford was the most upright, law-abiding man I know. He’d be an astonishingly good president.

 

“Don’t look so alarmed. You’re good—but you may be vulnerable.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

I inhaled. “The Martin Perriman Esker situation has been contained for now, and I’m working on a way to take that off the table. I’d advise you don’t ask for further details.”

 

“You won’t be in any danger, will you? I don’t want you to risk yourself for me.”

 

Boy Scout. He never did understand that I run toward risk. “Again, not for you to worry about. The second one is more delicate, though.”

 

I gave him a moment to prepare himself. Telling him that his beloved son wasn’t actually his son was going to hurt. He braced himself and nodded for me to continue.

 

“Bradford, I met with Octavia.”

 

“My Octavia?” He was startled. “My wife? Why?”

 

“I found out that the men who were nosing around for information on Marty Esker were also in contact with Octavia. Bradford, they were blackmailing her.”

 

“Oh, my God. My poor darling. Is she okay? Should I call her?”

 

“She’s fine, and I think you should call her—but let me explain first.”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

I’d called Octavia before the call to Bradford; she’d gladly given me permission to tell her story. “When you and Octavia married, you tried for children right away, didn’t you?”

 

Bradford sat back in his chair, the anonymous communications booth behind him a featureless cream. His reaction looked more like resignation and less like confusion, and I was hit with the truth. Bradford knew more about this situation than either Octavia or I suspected. “My God,” he said. “Lucas.”

 

He was a highly intelligent Boy Scout. He’d come straight to the issue, looking past the first year of their marriage when Octavia feared for Bradford’s infertility and finally in desperation took matters into her own hands by coming to an agreement with Bradford’s nephew Lucas. “You knew?”

 

“Knew she was sleeping with Lucas to get pregnant?” He suddenly looked old. Fatigue grayed his face. “I knew. I saw them coming out of the pool house once, and again at the beach a month later. They both looked awkward and unhappy, but Octavia is a very determined woman. She did it for me.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “I couldn’t tell her I knew and loved her for it. And I couldn’t tell her my secret, either.”

 

I inhaled. “Bradford. What secret?” My assessment of Bradford’s honorable personality was suddenly awash in neon lights. My scalp prickled in anticipation.

 

His eyes wandered from the screen as he looked into the past. Then he pinched his temples together in a move I knew from long experience; it meant he was summoning the strength to Do The Right Thing. “There’s a reason Lucas looks so much like me.”

 

“What?!” On the terrace, eagle-eyed Dmitri sat up, ready to move. He’d heard my gasp of surprise. I waved him back. “Excuse me? Bradford—you? With Allison?!”

 

His sister-in-law, the chilly and elegant chair of any number of high-toned charities, hardly seemed the type to sneak off with her husband’s brother for a tryst.

 

“Don’t misunderstand,” Bradford said. “I didn’t—. We didn’t… Christopher is sterile. They asked me to be the sperm donor. For Lucas and Kelly both. No one knows, and I want to keep it that way. Can we?”

 

“Oh.” I sat back, swamped by the genealogy. “My.”

 

“I know.”

 

“So—your wife had Paul by your son, and then Nina by you. Paul’s actually your grandson. This is confusing.”

 

He wore a rueful grin. “Like a soap opera. I know. And I couldn’t tell Octavia because this wasn’t my secret. But Paul is mine—every inch of him. It’s just one generation removed. I couldn’t be prouder to be his father, or prouder of Lucas, either.”

 

“My God.” It was a lot to take in. “You’re such a good man.”

 

He blinked. “Thank you. Why would you say that when you’ve heard this sordid little story?”

 

Because he’d done the best he could at every turn. He’d treated everyone with respect and compassion. He loved his children and his wife. He deserved a good and happy life. “Because you are. A good man, I mean.”

 

He chuffed a little laugh and inhaled. “What do we do about this?”

 

Right. Back to the question at hand. “The first thing you need to do is call Octavia and have a very frank talk with her. I think you’ll be able to set her mind very much at ease.”

 

“I’ll do it as soon as I hang up from you. It will be a relief to clear the air.”

 

“I’m sure. Make sure she’s on a secure phone.” He nodded; obviously. “You’ll need to secure the medical records to make sure no one else stumbles on the blood types.”

 

“I should have done it before now. That’s doable.”

 

“Good. As for the immediate threat, I think we can wrap this up with the Marty Esker thing; the solution for one is going to solve the other, too.”

 

He set his mouth as he regarded me, his big and shrewd brain turning. “You’re saving my bacon, here, Emma. I’m grateful. Let me know how I can help.”

 

“The less you know, the better. Be a good president, Bradford.”

 

“I haven’t even announced yet,” he protested.

 

Nonsense. “A mere formality. The election is yours, and I’ll keep your reputation squeaky clean and polished. With this little exception, it won’t be hard to do.”

 

His smile spoke of pride. “You’re a wonder.”

 

“Yes, that’s true. Go call Octavia.”

 

“Thank you, Emma.”

 

“Love you, Bradford. In an ex-wife sort of way.”

 

His chuckle returned the vitality and charm to his face. I disconnected, knowing he would be a superb leader of the free world. Then I rose and went to the terrace where Dimi and Bernie sat pushed together on one end of the sofa. The rest was taken up by Norah, snoring in her sleep with her great big Newfie head in Bernie’s lap.

 

“Okay,” I said. “We need to stop this campaign by Vladimir Putin to blackmail Bradford. I’m thinking the best way is to get something on Putin that would humiliate him if it came out. Mutually-assured destruction. You tell on us, we tell on you. So who’s got an idea?”

 

“Ooh!” Bernie cried. “This is going to be good! Can’t be a sex scandal; he’d love that.”

 

“Right,” said Dimi. “Make him look more like a man. Can’t be a power play; his people already fear him. We need something that he himself would hate.”

 

“Exactly. Between the three of us, we’ll pull a “Mission Impossible.” Set him up and hold it over his head. So? What do we like?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?  YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Dress Putin in a Marilyn-Monroe-sings-to-the-President golden gown with full wig and make-up; take videos.

 

B. Gin up evidence that Putin is a bed-wetter who cries like a toddler when thwarted.

 

C. Show him in photos and videos submitting to Bernie in a bondage dungeon.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday night (Oct. 17) to vote. Next installment on Friday, Oct. 22.

10-22-21

 

Subject: Moscow-Bound

 

Preheader: We’re coming to the end; I figure three more after this one will see our story done. At 50,000+ words, that’s a publish-able novel!

 

RECAP:  Emma has discovered that the mastermind behind the plot to blackmail future US President Bradford Kingston is Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that these days, whispers of a scandal are just as damaging as undeniable proof. So, even though Bradford is fully innocent of any wrongdoing, Emma knows she needs to stop Putin from launching a stealth campaign. To create her strategy, she turns to her allies, Dmitri the lethal mercenary and Bernadette the octogenarian master spy.

 

EMMA

Cessna Citation X+, several miles over the Atlantic en route from New York City to Moscow

 

“I miss that dog,” Bernie pouted.

 

“Well,” I said, plucking a tuft of black fur from the sofa beside me, “At least the dog didn’t miss a single part of this plane.”

 

Bernie ignored me. “I wonder if the trainer will let me buy her. That’s a good dog. Don’t tell me she’s too old to be of use. Experienced doesn’t mean dead, you know. Did you see how she wanted to stay with me, Emma darling?”

 

We’d met the trainer on the tarmac at the airport. Norah had climbed heavily into the back of her trainer’s van and laid immediately down with a huge sigh in a shaggy obsidian heap. Norah wasn’t pining for Bernie as much as she was taking her mid-morning nap. “I sure did,” I lied. “True love.”

 

Bernie got a glint in her eye, “Seems that’s going around.” She looked from me to Dmitri, who was sitting (quite properly) in his own swivel armchair. His shirt hid the marks of my nails on his back. I kept my mind firmly on the mission and not on his powerful body. Mostly.

 

“Ahem.” I sat forward. “Can we please formulate a plan before we land in Moscow?”

 

We had long hours to go, but Dmitri mirrored my posture, sitting forward and lacing his fingers together between his knees to give me his full attention.

 

“What? Plan?” Bernie rolled her eyes. “We have a plan. I thought we were going to humiliate Putin and use that to get him to stop blackmailing Bradford. What’s the problem?”

 

Dmitri’s iron-jawed expression cracked into the grin he saved only for our octogenarian. “Exactly. But how would you do that?”

 

“I don’t know, but I’m sure alcohol will be involved.” She beamed with satisfaction at the Scotch in her glass, the ice resonating gently against the crystal with the hum of the jets.

 

“I’ll need a little more of a plan than that,” I said archly.

 

“My. What a dry statement. You need a drink, Emma darling.” Bernie grabbed the decanter on the table and made me a cocktail.

 

I turned to Dmitri. “Perhaps you have more to offer?”

 

He bit back his smile and addressed the situation Together we formulated a plan, with Bernie’s sporadic input “even though an op like this is jazz, not classical music. Plan all you want,” she insisted, “but be prepared for improvisation.”

 

I’ve never really liked jazz.

 

We used our combined strengths. I phoned my smuggling partner and had him put out feelers for a purchase no self-respecting Russian oligarch could resist: enameled and bejeweled eggs crafted for the last czars by Carl Fabergé. Moussou was able to find not one but three Fabergé eggs, of very dubious ownership but uncontested authenticity. One of them, commemorating “OTMA,” the initials of the last czar’s four daughters, had been stolen from the Hermitage after the Second World War. Dmitri pronounced it irresistible. I bought all three through Moussou.

 

“That’s our lure,” I said with satisfaction when I hung up.

 

“That’s the smokescreen,” Dmitri corrected me. “The egg is why he’ll allow himself to be persuaded to come to your hotel. The true lure is a private night with the notoriously luminous Emma Ba.”

 

Flatterer. I tried to hide my pleasure at his words. “Thank you. And you? How did you do?”

 

Dimi spread his hands in a gesture that said “Job complete.” “Madame Irina will have a full dominatrix rig ready for us by tomorrow night.”

 

“With a submissive’s outfit that Putin will fit into?” I clarified.

 

“Dog collar and leash,” he assured me. “Leather bustier. Stripper’s g-string.”

 

“Put him in high heels,” Bernie added. “Even if he’s on his knees, a nice pair of stilettos will set the scene.”

 

“For me, right?” I asked her.

 

“For him and you. Don’t be shy with the spike heels, here. Less isn’t more. More is more.”

 

“Good touch.” Dmitri made a note. “Did you reach your friend, Bernie?”

 

She’d been unwilling to share any details of a contact in Moscow who could provide highly-illegal pharmaceutical grade supplies. “Of course.” She dropped her phone into her lap. “He’ll get me three syringes of happy juice at the hotel.”

 

“Excellent.” I was pleased to hear it, and fought down the burst of excitement that such a caper gave me. The plan was beginning to gel. “And you can fix the recording devices in the hotel?”

 

“Piece of cake. Even the stuff they actually try to hide. You get Putin to talk for ten or fifteen minutes and we’ll loop that. Anyone watching will think they’re seeing a live feed.”

 

“You’re a master.” I sat back trying to work through what we were missing. “So I arrive in Moscow with my sweet little aunt” (Bernie dimpled) “and check into the finest hotel in the city. Two suites. Moussou sets up a meet with Putin’s agent, and I insist on meeting the man himself to discuss the purchase of three priceless Russian antiquities. Dimi, you’ll hide in the plane, in my smuggling locker. No one’s found it yet. Sneak off the plane when you’re ready. You’re sure you can meet us in Moscow?”

 

He didn’t say “Obviously,” but his attitude expressed the sentiment anyway.

 

Bernie joined in. “I’ll blunder around the hotel on my walker and make sure you can get in unobserved. No one will notice a sweet, ditzy old babushka. Up to the roof with you, with your hooker gear.”

 

“She’s not a hooker. She’s…”

 

“I know. Very exclusive brothel. Got it. Anyway, the bodyguards will search Emma’s suite before Putin arrives. She and he have civilized cocktails for ten or fifteen minutes before she stumbles into him and slips him a needle full of paradise.”

 

“It won’t hurt him? No need to have a doctor on stand-by?”

 

“Fuck him,” she said shortly. “It’s a little pharmaceutical recreation. He’d have to be in shitty shape to be wiped out by it. Man up, Emma. I’ll take whatever you don’t use, for the plane ride back.”

 

Chastened, I sat back.

 

“You’ve got three doses, if you need them, but you probably won’t. You don’t want him loopy and giggling all night long. You signal Dimi, he rappels down from the roof, you and Putin get dressed in a whole new exciting wardrobe, and Dimi videos you putting Vladimir through his paces. Literally. You might try riding him while you’re whipping him.”

 

I shuddered, and picked up the narrative. “Dmitri sends the video to Bradford and to me, and goes back up to the roof. He’ll be on his way back to the plane by the time Putin comes around.”

 

Bernie sat back, content, “You show him your video and explain who else has it. He doesn’t bother your press, you won’t bother his press. He puts his clothes back on and leaves like an obedient little oligarch.”

 

“You leave when Dimi does,” I insisted. “If the video copy to Bradford doesn’t slow him down, I could be heading for Siberia. Or worse. If I have to run, I don’t want to worry about you.”

 

“I’m faster than you think,” she protested, but Dmitri cut her off.

 

“Bernie, you go with me. I’ll make sure she gets back to the plane. And you’ll be right behind us, correct?”

 

I nodded. No one wanted to have to mount a rescue.

 

“I like it.” Bernie nodded. “All we need is a place for a very large dog. Still, no plan is perfect. But Emma darling, keep this in mind: You’re composing a symphony. And this is jazz, man. You’ve got to be ready to improvise.”

 

“Okay, Dave Brubeck,” I said. “You’ll be right down the hall if we need a sax solo.”

 

“Emma, for God’s sake. Brubeck played the piano. Like God would play the piano. Don’t mock an old lady, you naive little pretty girl. You might still need me yet.”

 

“We will always need you, Bernie.” Not even Bernie could maintain an aloof huff in the face of Dmitri’s obvious affection.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? You decide:

 

A: Everything goes to plan until Bernie meets a vodka she’s been dying to try.

B: Everything goes to plan until one of Putin’s bodyguards refuses to leave.

C: Nothing goes to plan. An op like this—it’s ALL improvising. Jazz, man.

 

Or suggest something else. You have until Sunday evening (Oct. 24) to vote. The next installment will be on Oct. 29.

21-10-29

 

Subject: Rooftops

 

Preheader: We’ve never had such an accord before; everyone wants everything to go wrong. Your wish is my command; here we go!

 

Recap: Emma, Dmitri, and Bernie have strategized. The best way to stop a blackmail scheme is to get something worse on the blackmailer. That’s why Emma will lure Vladimir Putin to her hotel room with promises of Faberge eggs and hot sex. Bernie will drug him. Dmitri will dress him in bondage gear and film beautiful Emma in dominatrix leather, whipping a grateful Russian premier. Easy, right?

 

DMITRI

Rooftop, ultra-modern hotel in Moscow

 

In an impressive tribute to Emma’s abilities to plan, our strategy to blackmail Vladimir Putin went off perfectly.

 

Until, that is, everything came off the rails and went utterly and totally wrong.

 

I was in place, tucked into the shadow of an air conditioning unit on the roof, a full two hours before the presidential motorcade arrived at the hotel. The security team’s snipers appeared on the roof right on schedule.

 

But there were four of them, not two.

 

Why were there two teams up here with me in the darkness? They should have covered the entrance and that was it. What were they doing setting up overwatch on the back of the hotel as well as the front?

 

Before they spotted me, I was over the ledge and hanging from the loops on my climbing rope, which I’d run past Emma’s bedroom window.

 

This was a vulnerable position. Not only was I dangling twelve stories over the Moscow streets, but my all-black clothing would be visible against the tower of glass to anyone on the ground with a quick eye. And say what you will about the state of the Russian military; the teams put together to guard the Russian president were entirely capable.

 

I had a decision to make. Wait for the second team to leave? Or climb down to enter Emma’s suite, before the security sweep of her rooms that would certainly precede the president’s arrival?

 

From above me, not forty feet away, I heard a voice say “Command, Roof Two is in position.”

 

That made my decision for me. Roof One was overwatch on the entrance; Roof Two was watching the garden in the back. They were there to stay, so I was down the rope and nudging open the window to Emma’s bedroom. Something had gone wrong with our plan. As something always does.

 

Once inside, I listened before moving. The total silence was unnerving. My entrance had been quiet, but not silent. All modern hotels had suicide (or accident) protection on their windows; they wouldn’t open far enough to admit a body. Emma had forced the block earlier that day so I could get in, and the sound of sliding the window past the remains of the block was enough to be heard in the next room. Emma, at least, should have heard me. Wary, I crept through the darkness to peer into the living room.

 

Empty. Lights on. Champagne chilling in a bucket. Silent. No Emma. No gun-toting bodyguards. No Russian president.

 

I ghosted back into the darkness by the window to consider my options. Then I heard something unexpected from the garden far below me.

 

“Emma! Oh, Emma, darling!”

 

It was Bernie, calling out across the night from the hotel’s back entrance. I peered out the window and saw Bernie on her walker hobbling down the path to a cluster of people just disappearing under the trees. “You forgot your scarf, Emma! Wait—I can’t catch up!”

 

I was a fool. We’d all been fools. Putin wasn’t going to visit with Emma in the hotel; he was taking her to a private villa on the grounds, where his security (and his privacy) could be more closely assured. Great. Our entire plan was now useless.

 

And Bernie—our jazz master—was downstairs in the garden, improvising at the top of her lungs to let me know what was going on.

 

Message received, Dave Brubeck. Play that piano.

 

If Emma had been summoned to the lobby to meet Putin, then had she been able to prepare for the change in plans?

 

In her bathroom, I found the three syringes of “happy juice,” provided by Bernie’s contact and already sealed into tampon containers. I’d approved of the camouflage; like all males, I was uneasy dealing with any feminine hygiene products—and Putin’s team was entirely male. We’d been confident that they wouldn’t be discovered. Foolish of us. I pocketed the container.

 

Retrieving the duffle bag of dominatrix/submissive equipment was going to be far more difficult. It was secure—hanging inside an air conditioning vent from the roof—but now unreachable. The snipers on garden overwatch would unquestionably see me climb back onto the roof.

 

Time for jazz. Improvisation was the new strategy.

 

I pulled off my black sweater; the white shirt underneath would make me look like any other guest (as opposed to a commando in nighttime black-out gear). I rode the elevator to the lobby as if I belonged there. Not unexpectedly, the lobby was crawling with security. I ignored them and went out the front door.

 

I was trailed, obviously, but was able to elude the agents by donning my sweater again and climbing up the first building that had a little loose mortar between its bricks. One day the arthritis in my fingers would make this kind of “mountain climbing” impossible—but that day was not today.

 

It wasn’t long before I was over the wall and into the hotel’s garden. The security teams had too much faith in their overwatch and night vision goggles; I was able to sit comfortably with my back leaning on the private villa, screened by bushes that should have long-since been cut back. I listened to the two guards on the front door and learned their names (Nik and Alexei), their patterns, their code words.

 

Dinner arrived, delivered by two room service waiters and a manager. The manager was denied the right to enter, but the agent in charge at the door cleared the food with “Command,” and the agent inside opened the door to them. Three on the ground, then, and Emma eating dinner with Vladimir Putin. For a while, at least, her virtue was assured. Unless two room service waiters were in on the debauchery.

 

Forty-seven minutes (and three quarter-hour check-ins) later, the waiters left, wheeling their empty cart. By then I had Nik’s vocal cadence down. (Alexei, as the door team’s junior member, didn’t speak much, and never spoke to Command.)

 

If Putin was expecting sex with Emma, now would be the time. While I value patience in any operation, I felt a prickling of uneasiness at the thought of Emma—daring, beautiful Emma—with that malevolent force of evil. He’d ruined mother Russia; I’d be damned if he’d hurt Emma. To hell with improvisation; I considered how to improve my chances of success if I stormed the villa.

 

Nik’s amused voice stopped me. He was talking to Command.

 

“Who? Well, who is it? Really?”

 

“What?” Alexei wanted in on the joke.

 

“That same little old lady is on her way. Command couldn’t stop her. She wants to give her niece a scarf. And she’s drunk.”

 

“Who—the little old lady?”

 

“Command says she’s been in the bar all evening. Here she comes. Look out—she’s coming pretty fast, with that walker. Roof Two—keep her in your sights.” Nik was chortling.

 

I could hear Bernie stumping toward the villa with painful slowness. She was singing as she came along, a breathless, tuneless croon about “Emma, Emma, you need your shawl, Emma.”

 

Nik and Alexei were both chuckling. I got ready. There would be a moment when Bernie would come out from under the trees and be clearly visible from the roof while Nik and Alexei were all but invisible in the shadows by the door. While Roof Two was laughing over a sweet, drunk old lady, I’d take out Nik and hope that Bernie could keep Alexei’s attention.

 

Jazz.

 

In keeping with the theme of the evening, that’s exactly what didn’t happen.

 

I stepped forward and reached for Nik from behind, but Alexei, several feet to the side and farther back than I thought, saw me and blinked in astonishment. So I pivoted and drove the heel of my hand into the side of his head. He went down as if pole-axed. Nik, still laughing, was just turning when Bernie threw herself to the ground and tangled herself in her walker.

 

“Young man!” she cried. “Oh, young man—help me up!”

 

Distracted, he didn’t check behind him, so I got an arm around his windpipe and choked off his air. He was too startled to fight me until it was too late. I held off his air until he lost consciousness. I dragged him into the bushes and pulled the earpiece from his head.

 

“Command,” I said in his Chechen accent, “Permission to help the old lady up.”

 

Command, whoever that was, was laughing. “You’d better help her up, Nik. She looks like a turtle on its back.” Bernie was, indeed, waving both her feet and her arms and creating an impressive diversion.

 

I had Nik’s hat and overcoat off by then and shrugged into them. Not too impossibly tight.

 

“Oh, young man,” Bernie said with a grin, “Thank you for helping me up. Do you speak English?” I had no idea if Nik was bilingual or not, but Bernie realized her mistake and tried again in very poor Russian. “I will to talk to sister daughter, please. Yes?”

 

I righted her walker and she started off determinedly for the villa. I keyed the microphone.

 

“Command, she wants to go in. Please advise.”

 

“Hold, Door One.”

 

Bernie and I stood in the circle of light before the front door, whispering from the sides of our mouths.

 

“Do you have a tampon, dear?” Bernie winked at me and I bit back a smile.

 

“I do.”

 

“Perhaps you’d give me a few. When the guard comes to the door, I’ll stumble into him.”

 

We didn’t have much time. Command would talk to the guard inside, who would talk to Putin, who would talk to Emma. I ripped the paper off the tampons and shook out the syringes. Bernie took them in a practiced hand. “Thank you, dear. And perhaps you’d like these.”

 

From her large handbag, she fished not one but two pairs of steel handcuffs as well as actual ball gags that buckled at the back of the head. Bernie was a terror. I took both, agreeing that it was possible that both of the agents I’d subdued might actually regain consciousness, and I should be ready for that.

 

“Open the French doors once you’re ready,” I told her.

 

“Well, obviously. Don’t you look nice in that hat.”

 

“Bernie, you’re a mad woman.”

 

“Better that than bored in front of Netflix. You’ve got the gear?”

 

I shook my head. “Still on the roof. We’ll have to improvise.”

 

“Well,” she said happily, “Jazz. That is what I’m good at.”

 

The front door opened and I lowered my head so the guard would focus on Bernie and not me. “Please come in,” he said in fluent English. Bodyguard and translator, then.

 

“Oh, hello, dear. Is my niece here?”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE.

 

A. Doesn’t matter what you say; I’ve already decided the last-but-one scene.

 

B. I’d let you vote, but since I’ll be at the bottom of the planet, I might not see your response.

 

C. It’s not that I don’t love you—but I can write this and set it up to mail next week, as usual.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. But don’t. I’ll send the next one on Nov. 5—and an epilogue on Nov. 12. I’m hoping to get the entire story ready for a print (or ebook) version by December 15. Everyone who has ever voted (and I’ve been keeping track!) will get a free e-book with my grateful thanks!

The story will conclude next week...