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Zara Hightower stepped into the town car with tinted windows, sliding along the leather seat, positioning her briefcase at her feet on the floor. She gave the man who slid in beside her a small smile and looked out the window, ignoring the way her heart wanted to accelerate. It was always this moment, when she was so close to her goal, when her body wanted to betray her. She never let it. Never. She was very, very good at staying in control. Breathing. Keeping her heart rate perfect, adrenaline at bay.
The car moved forward, and her head went up alertly. "Wait. I need my interpreter. She always travels with me."
The car kept moving. The man beside her, Heng Zhang, turned his head and gave her a small, polite smile. "Miss Hightower, you do not need an interpreter. I speak English."
"I'm aware that you do, Mr. Zhang, but I require my own interpreter. I made that very clear to Mr. Cheng when he invited me. I was given assurances when I agreed to speak with his people. I've turned down his request four times, and will do so this time as well if you don't stop this car immediately, turn it around and get her."
She kept her voice smooth and even. She had a certain reputation to uphold. She never lost her temper. She never raised her voice. She was always polite. She cut people down sweetly, so sweetly they almost didn't realize at first that she was telling them off. She was an expert at that as well. Seeing as how she was considered one of the world's leading minds in the field of artificial intelligence, those around her should expect that she could hold her own with anyone, but they always took one look at her and judged on appearances. Like now. Zhang made the mistake of looking her up and down and giving her a look that said she was nothing in his eyes before turning away from her and looking out the window.
In her head, she went through the moves that would end his life and then the driver's. She would use one hard-edged chop to the throat, hard enough to drive through the trachea. Or she could just scratch his arm accidentally. Smile and apologize. Then, when he slumped on the seat, for good measure she could follow up by taking his gun and shooting the driver in the back of the head, shooting Zhang to be certain and then taking control of the car. One, maybe two seconds was all she'd need.
Zara sat very still, appearing as she always did. She looked like a beautiful model with her long legs, oval face, flawless skin, large slate blue eyes and long red gold hair that fell down her back, thick and unusual, sheets of it falling below her waist, looks that most reporters ended up commenting on when they should be listening to what she had to say. Still, her looks enabled her to get her work done. She shouldn't complain. It was her looks that often kept her alive.
She turned her head and looked out the window, resisting the impulse to kill Zhang for his smug, superior attitude. They probably had a camera on her. She let her mind drift, uncaring of the direction they were taking her. She knew where Cheng's lair was. He was famous in the district, his building a fortress. The government tolerated him because he paid them well and gave them all sorts of reasons to keep him protected. Cheng bought and sold secrets and shared them often enough with the government to buy their protection.
Once at the facility, the car pulled into the underground parking garage, went through three guard stations and pulled right up to a private elevator. Zhang got out first and went around to her door. For a split second, Zara debated whether or not to have it out with them right there in the parking lot by refusing to move from the car. She knew they would force her, but she also knew they wouldn't kill her.
Cheng needed her. He wanted the information she had. He had kept doubling the price each time she refused to come to his private facility to give her talk on the VALUE system, as she called her project, and its uses in the business world. He thought he had bought her with his more than generous offer, the one that would set her up for life if she accepted it-or get her killed.
She slid out of the car without looking left or right, and followed Zhang into the elevator. Neither spoke as they were whisked up to the middle floor where Cheng waited for her. She was stopped as she stepped off. Two guards with automatic weapons took her briefcase and pointed to a door. She stepped through it into a narrow cubicle. Immediately her entire body was scanned for listening devices, weapons and cameras, anything that might harm Cheng in any way.
Zara knew Cheng was paranoid, and deservedly so. He had his hand in every criminal activity around the globe that had to do with running guns, drugs or political secrets. He had top minds working for him developing all kinds of weapons that he sold on the black market. What he didn't develop, he stole. She knew every paper in her briefcase would be scanned and copied before it was returned to her. She'd come prepared for just such a thing. Those papers were "encrypted." No one could break the code because there wasn't one. In reality, the code was nothing but sheer gibberish, but it would give Cheng's people something to keep them busy.
She was taken from the cubicle and marched through an open floor where there were several desks leading the way to Cheng's office. He stood in the doorway, all smiles, as if she should be pleased to meet him even though he'd broken their rules.
"Miss Hightower, how good of you to come," he greeted.
She stopped moving a few feet from his office, forcing Zhang and the two guards to stop as well. "My interpreter?" She didn't smile. She kept her gaze fixed on Cheng without blinking, something she'd practiced for a long time. She was very good at it.
"I'm sorry." Cheng didn't sound in the least remorseful. "You must understand I have many enemies. I don't, as a rule, allow any outsider into these facilities. There are always industrial spies. We won't need an interpreter."
Stubbornly she didn't move an inch. "Don't you think you should have let me know you changed the conditions? I'm uncomfortable without her. When I come to Shanghai, I always use her and have grown used to her."
Cheng stepped back to clear his doorway, waving toward his office. "Please come in, Miss Hightower. My staff has made you tea, which I believe is your favorite drink."
She stood for several seconds, letting them all worry. Zhang stepped close to her. "Miss Hightower." He waved toward the office.
She looked at him coolly. Haughtily. Every bit as arrogant as his boss. "I'm deciding. I added this additional talk to my agenda, and as you both are aware, I've had a very tight and exhausting schedule. I did this as a courtesy. I don't need the money. To have your boss break his word so quickly is disconcerting to say the least."
Zhang switched instantly to his native language. "Do you want me to take her up to the interrogation room? Bolan Zhu can extract the information you require from her."
Cheng shook his head, a small, humorless smile on his mouth, one that reminded Zara of a cold-blooded reptile. "Don't be so bloodthirsty, Heng. She will cooperate."
"I apologize again, Miss Hightower."
"I dislike others speaking in a language I can't understand," Zara said, still not moving. She had understood every word they said. Her resume never stated that she was gifted in languages. That was kept a secret for instances just like this one. She admitted to knowing a few pertinent words in the languages of countries she traveled to often, but was careful not to let on that she understood without her interpreter. Her heart had jumped at the name Bolan Zhu. He was extremely good at torturing people.
"Zhang was only asking after your comfort. We knew you would have trouble without your interpreter, so we tried to think of other ways that would assure you would enjoy your visit with us," Cheng lied smoothly. "We thought a tour of our labs was in order. Understand, this is a great privilege, one not extended often."
As in never. A tendril of unease slid through her. He wanted her evaluation. She understood that. He wanted to hear what she was doing in her chosen field of expertise. She understood that too. She had the feeling that seeing his labs, especially his computers, the ones that stored all that data, the secrets he blackmailed or paid others to get so he could sell out countries-including his own-to the highest bidder, would earn her a bullet in the brain.
She kept her eyes steady on Cheng's face. Zhang didn't matter. He would carry out his boss's orders, but he wouldn't act on his own. He didn't take her as a threat.
"Miss Hightower, I realize the circumstances are unusual, but if you would just come into my office and hear me out, I would appreciate it."
She felt Zhang stiffen beside her. He didn't like his boss asking. He was used to the man ordering others and if they didn't obey, punishment was swift and brutal. The fact that she was a woman and an American probably offended him even more. Deliberately she made certain to stand as tall as possible so she could tower over Zhang. He was particularly short, and she knew it irritated him that she was tall. Cheng was the same height as she was in her heels.
Zara flashed Cheng a small smile and walked past him into the spacious office. She took the chair he indicated and sank into it, deliberately crossing her legs. Zhang didn't like her, but he appreciated her looks. Doing the leg thing always kept others from thinking she was brilliant. She'd found out that most people didn't think looks and brains could go hand in hand.
Cheng seated himself across from her, not behind his desk, clearly trying to create a much friendlier atmosphere. He picked up a file and scanned it quickly. "This is very impressive. I see you went to MIT as an undergrad and then got your PhD at Stanford in Computer Science. Your subfield is machine learning?"
He made it a question, but Zara didn't respond. Instead she looked slightly bored. She was really good at that particular look as well. She'd perfected that and the wide-eyed innocent look she was certain she was going to need very soon.
"I see you teach at Rutgers University. Why not private business? You could make a lot more money."
She shrugged. "Money bores me. I realize it makes the world go around, but I don't spend much time in the real world, Mr. Cheng. My mind prefers other pursuits." Which she supposed was the strict truth. She didn't think about money because she didn't have to. She thought about other things like life and death. Like survival. "I spend most of my time working on things others don't understand, and that's all right. My programs, hopefully, will be a contribution to the world."
"There isn't a lot here about your earlier life."
She frowned at him. "What does my earlier life have to do with my work?" She kept her voice mild, as if barely interested. She kept her heartbeat the exact same rhythm, and that took just a little extra work, but she knew it was possible her vitals were being monitored just by her sitting in the chair he'd chosen for her.
"I like to know everything about anyone I do business with."
"I'm not a businesswoman, Mr. Cheng. I lecture. I get paid to lecture. I give talks on exciting new breakthroughs in the world of artificial intelligence. That's what I thought you wanted from me, and knowing anything other than my credentials is not really helpful. I can assure you, my credentials speak for me. I'm regarded as one of the leading experts in AI and machine learning. I thought you were aware of that."
"I'm very aware of that, Miss Hightower," Cheng assured. "It's just that you're far younger than I thought you'd be. I noted your age, of course, but thought it was a typo."
His gaze flicked several times to Zhang, and more than ever she was certain they were somehow determining if she was lying or not. She liked cat-and-mouse games. She was good at them. She was fairly certain his secretary, or whoever prepared the report on her, wouldn't dare give him a report with a typo. His secretary wouldn't survive the hour.
"My age does sometimes give people pause, but I graduated with honors, I assure you," she said with a small shrug as if she didn't care whether he believed her or not. She uncrossed her legs to switch them, drawing their attention immediately. Once comfortable, she moved her foot, clad in a sexy blue high heel to match the blue jacket she wore, around in lazy circles. That always seemed to mesmerize males. It worked with Zhang, but not with Cheng.
"You disappear for long periods of time."
He made it a statement so she smiled sweetly at him as if waiting for a question, making him ask.
He sighed. "Where do you go?"
She shook her head. "I don't really think what I do in my downtime is any of your business."
"You're more of a consulting professor for Rutgers. I want to know where you go, Miss Hightower. You're asking me to trust you around my researchers."
She stopped the lazy circles, planted both feet solidly on the floor and leaned toward him. "Let's get something straight, Mr. Cheng. I'm doing you the favor, not the other way around. I said no over and over. I made it clear I wasn't interested in your money. You may think I agreed to speak to your people because the money was too good to pass up, but it was because you intrigued me. You were that persistent. I thought the research mattered to you. If you keep insisting on playing this silly game, I would very much like you to ask your driver to return me to my hotel."
"Have I offended you with my questions?"
Zhang interrupted, once again in his language. "Let me take her to the interrogation room, Mr. Cheng."
"That's it." Zara stood up, glaring at Zhang. "I can't believe how rude you're being when you invited me here. Please return my briefcase and escort me down to the car."