ALLI CARSON’S back slammed against the mat.
“I missed my opportunity.”
“Patience is opportunity.”
She stared up at the broad face with almond eyes and thick black eyebrows.
“I don’t understand,” she said, regaining her feet. “I missed my chance.”
Sensei smiled his enigmatic Ent-like smile. “You mistake chance with advantage.”
He squared to her, his bare feet set at shoulder-width. He was small and wiry, yet more powerful than a six-foot-six linebacker. “In hand-to-hand combat you must always seek the advantage. Advantage comes with patience.” He cocked his head. “Please explain.”
“I can’t,” Alli said.
“Yes,” Sensei insisted, “you can.”
Alli screwed up her face, but let her mind wander freely. “Everyone has a weakness.”
Sensei’s smile widened. “Everyone.”
“Even you, Sensei?”
“Together, we shall find out.” He lunged at her and she backed away. “Stand your ground. Parry, move not an inch, cede nothing.”
For the next five minutes she did as he ordered. She neither retreated nor advanced, no matter the method of his attack, and at the end of that time she saw the opening on his left side every time he advanced. She waited, patient, for his next attack, and when it came, she was ready, feinting left, then right, under his attack. She was just about to land her blow when his right arm whipped around, his hand gripped her shoulder, and he spun her off her feet.
He stood over her for a moment, a big grin on his face. As he leaned over her, he said, “One half learned, one half only.” He held out his hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, she took it. “You must make certain your opponent is not gulling you into a mistake.”
As he pulled her up, she whipped her left leg up, planted her foot on his chest, and pushed from her lower abdomen, the force traveling through her thigh, snapping her bent knee straight, extending through the sole of her foot.
Sensei stumbled backward, but did not let go of her hand. She was yanked forward, a sharp pain in her extended leg. He sought to take advantage of the momentary weakness the pain caused her, wrapping his right arm around her neck as she was falling against him. But she used his own momentum against him, rolling onto her left shoulder, dragging his body up and over her, slamming his shoulder blades against the mat.
Up on one knee, she rested a moment, breathing deeply to allow the pain to flow through her and dissipate. She found that her heartbeat was accelerated; she could hear her pulse in her ears.
Sensei rose to his feet, bowed, and, turning, walked out of the practice room without so much as a backward glance. He said not a word; none was expected. Praise was something Sensei never extended, feeling it gave rise to ego, which had no place in his dojo.
She remained where she was and wiped her damp forehead on her sleeve. Then she collapsed, sitting on the mat in the center of the room, knees drawn up, arms locked around her shins, as she replayed the last two minutes with breathless wonder.
Some moments later, her roommate, Vera Bard, poked her head into the dojo. “Ah, you’re finished. Good.” Her expression troubled, she stepped into the room and tapped her iPad. “I’ve got to show you something. It’s pretty weird.”
As she was about to step onto the mats, Alli waved her back, rose, and came across to her. Plucking her coat off a wooden peg, she slipped into it, and they went outside into the chill December weather. A brilliant blue sky sparkled overhead and frost danced on their exhalations. The campus of Fearington, one of the prime secret services training centers in the D.C. area, surrounded them, the Federal-style buildings interspersed with stands of tall pines and chestnut trees. Farther away, hidden in a series of natural swales, were the Pits: obstacle courses, firing ranges, and the like.
Alli breathed in the fresh air. Her body felt limitless, her mind drunk on her victory over Sensei. She took Vera’s iPad and checked out the screen. Vera took it from her and brought up an Internet site titled allicarsonbitch-slave.com.
Alli gave a little gasp. “What the hell?”
“The link to the site was e-mailed to me and to everyone else at Fearington.”
“Who sent the e-mails?” Alli asked.
“They were sent by you.”
“What? But I didn’t—”
“Of course you didn’t,” Vera said.
There were a series of photos of nude girls bound and tied, arms extended over their heads or out to the sides as they sat in a heavy wooden chair. All had Alli’s head or face Photoshopped onto them. Below each there was a price for photo sets and short films that could be ordered. Farther down were comments: filthy whore, pervert, hot bitch, and the like, but all of them ended with either a smiley face or LOL, cyber-shorthand for “laugh out loud.”
“The good news is that this cyber–smear attack is being viewed as a practical joke inside Fearington. It’s likely someone here is the culprit.”
“Well, it’s not funny.” Alli kept reading. “Look here … here at the end, a date for my supposed death—December twentieth.” She looked up at Vera, appalled. “That’s two weeks from now.”
“Hey, come on, you can’t believe this death threat is real. I mean, someone’s gaming you, sure, and we have to stop it, but…”
“After what I’ve been through I take everything seriously,” Alli said.
“Okay, but … I mean, no one in their right mind would think that’s really you in those photos. Look, here and here again, the lighting’s off.”
But Alli, who had felt a chill run down her spine the moment she saw the images of girls bound into that nightmarish heavy wooden chair, felt plowed under by the intimate eeriness of the photos. And her fear only increased when she saw the date of her supposed death.
“Come on,” Vera said. “We’ll take this to the authorities. They’ll find out who’s behind this shit, put him away, and that’ll be the end of it.”
Alli began to shiver uncontrollably.
At once, Vera put her arm around her roommate’s shoulders, pulling her close. “You’re cold as ice. What is it?”
Alli remained mute, but her mind was churning with terror. December twentieth was the fifth anniversary of the day she had been kidnapped by Morgan Herr.
* * *
ALAN FRAINE, captain of detectives of the Metro Police, was halfway through his strenuous thrice-weekly workout when he saw a man enter the cavernous second floor of Muscle Builders Unlimited, wrap a towel around his neck, and check out the rows of StairMasters. Something familiar about the man made the short hairs at the back of Fraine’s neck stir. He continued with his second set of biceps reps, but his mind was no longer in it, and he set the dumbbells aside before he injured himself.
He watched with curiosity as the man strode over to his section. It was then that he recognized Dennis Paull, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Paull straddled the bench next to Fraine and said, “Alan, how’s it going?”
Fraine had had occasion to work with Paull and Jack McClure several months ago in connection with Henry Holt Carson and Middle Bay Bancorp. Carson had been part of a conspiracy to frame Fraine’s best detective, Nona Heroe. Paull had gotten her out from the Feds’ custody.
“Sorry.” Fraine tried to hide the depth of his surprise. “I didn’t recognize you out of your suit, Mr. Secretary.”
“Hardly anyone does,” Paull said. “That’s a gift sometimes.”
“So I imagine,” Fraine said. “I had no idea you were a member.”
Paull produced a complicit grin. “I joined this morning.”
Fraine waited for the shoe to drop. The secretary wasn’t here to break a sweat or to exchange pleasantries.
“Alan, I have a proposition for you.”
Fraine’s ears perked up. “I’m listening.”
“I’m putting together a special group.”
“What kind of group?”
Paull leaned forward. “A SITSPEC—”
Paull waited while a couple of gym rats passed by, talking reps and sets and punitive diets. “A black-ops group. Situation-specific, hence the acronym.”
“Nothing. Go on.”
Paull nodded, lowering his voice, forcing Fraine to lean toward him. “This one is very special. I’d like you and Nona to be part of it.”
“Mr. Secretary, I appreciate the offer, but Nona and I are local and I’m sure your SITSPEC is not. It’s probably not even domestic.”
“There you’re wrong. It is domestic and, as of this moment, it’s local to the D.C. area.”
Fraine considered this possibility. “Why us?”
“I know I can trust you. You and Nona owe me; at the end of the day, I know you won’t turn me down.” He smiled. “Besides, before it’s over, there’s a good chance we’ll be intersecting with Henry Holt Carson’s interests.” His smile turned sly. “I know you can’t pass up that opportunity.”
* * *
“THERE’S A time and a place for everything,” the General said.
“No.” The General lit a cigar with a wooden match. He had a head like a helmet, with a fringe of prematurely white hair like a priest’s tonsure. “Of course not peace.”
The other man, small-boned, sharp-nosed, and gray as a rodent, shifted in his wing chair. He wore a pale-colored suit and a black tie. By his side was a carved hickory walking stick. His name was Werner Waxman, though he also might be known as Smith or Jones, Reilly or Coen, depending on what country and what year he was in. In any case, Waxman was not his real name. “But you said—”
“For me, peace doesn’t exist.”
The two men were sunk into the dim, woody interior of a hunting lodge deep in the forests of Virginia. Far from the media spotlight glare inside the Beltway, they sat on either side of an enormous fireplace composed of stones as large as their heads. It was late, only a few scattered lamps left on, their pools of lights burnishing the wide polished floorboards. A tray with the remains of coffee and dessert sat unnoticed on a low table nearby.
The General lifted his cleft chin, blew smoke at the coffered ceiling. “I, personally, don’t know what peace is, and, frankly, I don’t want to know.”
Waxman leaned forward, his muscles tense. A blue vein beat at the corner of his left eye. “Peace is death.”
The General’s gaze came down, fixed Waxman with the accuracy of a lawn dart. “Yes.” He seemed as much impressed as he was surprised. “You’ve caught the essence precisely.”
“Well. Waxman inclined his head, a formal Middle European gesture. “That’s my job, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t want that.” The General rounded the ash crown of his cigar on the lip of his plate. “I wouldn’t want the responsibility of making sense of it all.”
“We all have our roles to play.” Waxman’s eyes glinted as he turned his head. “You, General, are a man of action. You carry out a plan to perfection.”
The General stirred, wondering now what Waxman wanted. “This enterprise of yours—it had better work.”
“Trust me, General.”
“The last individual who said that to me is six feet under.”
Like a conjuror, Waxman produced a thin smile as if from nowhere. “As to that, I have no worries.”
The General sucked on his cigar. “The stakes are astronomical.”
“Such melodrama! This isn’t Hollywood.”
“You can’t afford to be wrong.” The General stared at the ash at the end of his cigar. “About anything.” He glanced up. “Or anyone.”
Waxman’s thin smile seemed set in cement.
The General regarded Waxman with carefully concealed distaste. He seemed pale and weak, unfit for anything outside a well-ventilated room, but, as he had said, they all had their roles to play, all of them. Each brought a different expertise to the enterprise. They were bound not by friendship, but by need. Better by far than friendship, the General judged. It was unthinkable to betray someone you needed. And betrayal was the one thing they all feared. He knew that, because it was what he feared, the fear muscled way down in the depths of him, but always keeping a wary antenna out for red flags.
The members had made a covenant with each other a long time ago on a dark and turbulent night filled with blood, death, and terror. They were determined to fill the power vacuum Waxman had foretold would come to pass in the Middle East. And, despite Acacia’s first failure, he had been right, damnit, all the way down the line, right.
“I know you,” Waxman said. “You like to give the people around you a hard time.”
“That’s my job.”
Waxman nodded. “The reins of power. I understand.”
“What reins? We’re all in this together.”
Waxman’s eyes grew diamond-hard as he sat forward on the edge of his chair. Had it been anyone else, the General might have been alarmed. But Waxman was Waxman; he lived in his own head.
“There’s bullshit and then there’s bullshit, General. You may have fooled the others, but never for a minute believe that you’ve fooled me.” Waxman inclined his narrow torso like an arrow aimed at the General. “History informs us that while rule by consensus may work for a short time, it breaks down.” He spread his white hands. “We’re all human, General, we all want what we want—and it’s never the common good. You want what you want, General. I know it and you know it.”
And what is it exactly that you want, Waxman? the General wondered.
He set aside the remains of his cigar. “You’re really in love with that mind of yours, aren’t you?”
“Mind games.” One corner of Waxman’s lips twitched. “You don’t want to start with me.”
“Is that a threat?” The General’s voice was languid as he rose.
Waxman had no choice but to get to his feet. One shoulder was noticeably lower than the other, as if he were poised to make a fast getaway. The General towered over him; nevertheless, he appeared anything but intimidated.
“Sun Tzu wrote, ‘All war is deception,’ General,” Waxman said as, leaning on his stick, he brushed past. “You would do well to keep that in the forefront of your mind.”
The tick-tock of the walking stick was like the beating heart of a clock. The General watched Waxman disappear into the innards of the hunting lodge. At length, he turned and picked up his cigar, but it was already cold. The taste he loved was gone.
Copyright © 2012 by Eric Van Lustbader