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São Paulo, Brazil
"The CIA will snatch you up or shoot you in the head."
Pel's parting words echoed inside Kiyoko's ears as she rode the narrow, creaky elevator down to the ground floor of their São Paulo apartment building. Pel was always saying things like that, ever since they fled Maryland. But Kiyoko was a princess, and wouldn't cower, especially when she had important tasks to do.
The elevator stopped with a shudder and she entered the lobby, empty except for a bank of locked mailboxes, and Gabriel, their muscular ex-special forces bodyguard. Gabriel stood just inside the grated doorway, glancing up and down the street. His black-framed augmented reality glasses had 10X zoom with image enhancement and could identify any face with a criminal record or military background.
Still scanning the street, he thrust up a hand. "Hold on, I haven't finished the recon," he said in gracefully accented English.
"There's no bounty on me," Kiyoko reminded him.
Gabriel turned to face her. The dark-lensed data glasses obscured his eyes, which she thought were his best feature, closely followed by his Roman nose and prominent jaw. Spoiling the effect, huge ears jutted out from his close cropped brown hair like radar dishes. "I am responsible for your safety," he said, "same as Pel and Charles."
Beneath his loose-fitting blue shirt, Kiyoko knew, were two high-tech guns she hoped he'd never have to use. "Well, I do feel safer with you around," she said, "and appreciate all your help." He was certainly friendlier than Alzira, who worked Fridays and Saturdays and didn't like to talk or go anywhere. Gabriel was nice to look at too, except of course for the ridiculous ears.
He tugged on the curved visor of the blue baseball cap he liked to wear outside. "Are you really wearing that outfit?"
Kiyoko was wearing regal scarlet and gold robes she'd sewn back in Baltimore, and a bright red wig indistinguishable from human hair. She owned twenty wigs and changed them every time she went out. "Red brings luck. And this is the most respectable attire I own."
"You look good, of course," he said, "but the officials won't take you seriously if you wear that wig."
"But it matches my robes." He said I look good.
"And the — crown? Is that what you call it?" Gabriel's English was excellent, much better than her Portuguese, but his vocabulary had limits.
"Tiara. Princesses wear them to formal events."
"I suggest you not wear this tiara."
"Maybe you're right." Her realm was large and influential — at least it had been. But it was located in BetterWorld, Media Corporation's virtual reality. BetterWorld had over a billion users and an economy that was overtaking the physical world's, but some people were stuck in the past and didn't get it.
"But the wig must stay," she added. Her real hair, brown with rainbow streaks, clashed with the robes, and she didn't have time to change.
He shrugged, scanned the street again, and unlocked the door.
It was bright outside, no clouds. Squinting, Kiyoko followed Gabriel down the cracked tiled sidewalk along Rua dos Estudantes, inhaling the fruity, spicy smell of caramelizing sauce. Rini Takahashi, the petite cashier at the yakisoba stall, waved. "Konnichiwa, Pingyang-san!" They bowed to each other.
Liberdade, Kiyoko's adopted district in São Paulo, was home to the world's largest Japanese community outside Japan. Otaku heaven, leagues better than Baltimore. Japan, China, and South Korea wouldn't grant her asylum, so this was the next best thing. And once her eyes adjusted to the sun, the weather was perfect, especially now that the rainy season was over. No freezing cold, no sweltering heat.
Still, she missed her Baltimore friends, some of whom she'd known since elementary school. She might never see them again. Not to mention her poor sister, imprisoned and alone.
The yakisoba smells gave way to garbage and chlorine. They passed graffiti-covered walls, a crowded manga store, and an empty sushi restaurant. Kiyoko quickened her pace until she was next to Gabriel. "Do you think Pel's right about the CIA? Will they come after us?"
Gabriel turned his head. "Take it easy, they have not so far. But your CIA loves to meddle."
"So is that a yes or a no?"
"Risks probably outweigh the benefit. If one of their agents is caught, Brazil would take advantage. The USA would look like stupid outlaws to the rest of the world. But if my government did not think they might try, they would not have hired a close protection officer. Your friends are famous. The government would be embarrassed if they took no precautions and you were abducted."
"We've been here two months and nothing's happened."
He nodded. "Hey, either no one is looking for you or they haven't found you yet."
"You are starting to worry as much as Pel. Relax, let me do the worrying."
Ahead and to the right, the canyon of whitewashed shops, restaurants, and apartment high-rises opened up into Praça da Liberdade, an aging tile and concrete expanse with withered cherry trees and teeming knots of people. Her uber-cute friend Reiko rushed toward her, wearing a red and yellow Super Fox costume. "Yahho Kiyoko-hime! Genki desu ka?" How are you?
"Hai, genki desu." Good.
"My boyfriend agreed we can keep your cat as long as needed," Reiko said in Japanese. "He wants to know when you will travel."
If they had to flee again and couldn't take Nyasuke, Kiyoko wanted him in caring hands. "I haven't planned anything. It's just in case."
"We have an appointment," Gabriel interrupted in English. He didn't know a word of Japanese beyond biru kudasai — how to ask for a beer. "Officials are not like other Brazilians. They expect you on time."
Good point. Kiyoko couldn't screw up her first audience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if she wanted her sister freed. She told Reiko she had an important meeting, and apologized for leaving.
They took the stairs down into the Liberty Metro Station, bare concrete plastered with ads. Gabriel bought new pass cards with cash, same as every trip. Kiyoko averted her face from the white surveillance cameras. They were in every Metro station and every train car, effective crime deterrents according to Gabriel.
Pel thought the CIA could hack into the Metro and traffic cameras and they should never leave their apartments without a disguise. In case he was right, Kiyoko made an effort to vary her appearance and avoid the cameras. Anything to keep Pel from losing the rest of his sanity points.
A northbound train arrived, shiny white and brightly lit. It was after rush hour so there were plenty of seats. They added some kind of lavender freshener in the air conditioning and it didn't stink of fast food and puke like the trains back home.
Kiyoko faced away from the camera on the rear ceiling. Gabriel sat next to her, in the aisle seat. Kiyoko opened her big Sailor Moon carry bag, another remnant from home, and plopped her tiara inside. She pulled out a faux-Victorian hand mirror and brushed her wig.
"We get off at Luz," Gabriel said. "Three stops."
"I know." He was always stating the obvious, as if she were a clueless tourist who'd never been in a city before.
He didn't say anything else until they arrived at the Luz station. "We can take the underground walkway."
That was a shame. Luz was European grand at street level, a huge arcing hangar of metal and glass, with a big clock tower outside. "Lead on," she said.
The round-ceilinged pedestrian tunnel was starkly lit, with bare concrete walls. It had moving walkways in the center that were motionless.
"This section isn't finished," Gabriel said. "But it goes straight to the Ministry."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had offices in a brand new skyscraper, along with other tenants. Kiyoko had waited over a month for an audience.
The tunnels were mostly deserted except for construction workers and the occasional homeless person laying on newspapers or cardboard. They took an escalator up, passed through a guard station with a walk-through body scanner, and rode an elevator to the 28th floor, arriving at yet another guard station.
"They're as paranoid in your country as they are in the U.S.," Kiyoko whispered as they waited in a square, formaldehyde-reeking lobby for confirmation of their appointment.
"I think it's more that security is a big industry in Brazil." Gabriel flashed a friendly smile. "Which is good because it pays well. Not enough to get rich, but SSG pays all my expenses, too."
He'd never told them how much he made, and Kiyoko considered it rude to ask. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was using some special fund to pay Serviços de Segurança Globais fifty thousand reais per month, some fraction of which went into Gabriel's bank account.
A young woman wearing a blouse and dark skirt entered the lobby. "Olá! Sigame por favor." Follow me. She led them past busy cubicles to a corner office.
A pale, rounded, middle-aged woman in a crisp business suit stood up behind a polished desk with a big computer screen. Behind her on the gleaming white walls were pictures of her receiving or giving awards, and framed screens playing silent loops of children with puffy cheeks.
The woman shook their hands. "Miranda Rossi. São Paulo Bureau Chief, Department for Human Rights and Social Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs." She spoke English with only a faint accent. "Your dress is very ... elaborate."
Suddenly Kiyoko felt out of place. "It's traditional. But thank you."
Everyone sat, Kiyoko and Gabriel in blue padded chairs facing the desk. Kiyoko began formally, using the protocol she'd acquired as a princess in BetterWorld. "I thank you with all my soul for granting this audience. And as well for your government's granting of sanctuary."
Ms. Rossi's brow furrowed. "So as I understand it, you want Brazil to pressure the United States to release your sister, Waylee Freid, from custody?"
"That's it exactly. Yes." Doubts crept into Kiyoko's head. This wouldn't be easy. Maybe impossible. But she had to try.
Ms. Rossi stared at her desk screen and moved a finger along it. "Ms. Freid is being held by the U.S. government on charges of conspiracy, fraud, theft, assault, trespassing, various cybercrimes ... I assume you know the list?"
Kiyoko still trembled and cried when she was alone in her bed and thinking about her sister's plight. But she wouldn't do that here. "That sounds so negative, the way you worded it. Waylee let people know how MediaCorp is trying to control the world. She's a hero. No one was hurt."
"It says here twelve people were injured, two of them hospitalized."
Guards mostly. No one had been seriously hurt. "An exaggeration. Waylee is a political prisoner and should be freed. I've been trying to get Brazil to help, other countries also."
With Charles's help finding addresses and disguising her location, she'd been contacting ministers and diplomats all over the world. She had also started petitions and fundraisers in BetterWorld and on the general Comnet, but most were deleted, probably on orders from MediaCorp management.
Ms. Rossi hadn't responded, so Kiyoko prompted her more directly. "Can you assist?"
The woman almost smirked. "Your government considers itself the leader of the world, not a follower, and doesn't release prisoners just because another country requests it."
Not going well so far. Kiyoko kept her composure. "Brazil is powerful, with much influence. An official request would at least be considered. You could make a case for exile instead of imprisonment, saying that Waylee was following her duties as a journalist to uncover the truth and let people know about it. She belongs with her family, not in a cell."
Ms. Rossi folded her hands together. "We have already received considerable pressure to return your friends Pelopidas Demopoulos and Charles Marvin Lee. Your government claims that we are harboring criminals."
"What we did was share information, let people know how they're being scammed."
"The U.S. government provided a compelling case," Ms. Rossi said, "and our asylum conventions do not normally cover persons under indictment, like your friends. It's only because our government considered their acts to be of a political nature that we granted asylum. I suspect this was to point out the hypocrisy of your government when they lecture others about human rights and democracy and so on."
"We greatly appreciate your hospitality. Couldn't you extend it to Waylee?"
Ms. Rossi half smiled. "She's in custody. There isn't much anyone other than her lawyers can do. Why not leave it to them?"
"You read the charges. They're overwhelming her."
"What do you mean?"
"The government came up with as big a list as possible to overwhelm her defense. Even if not all the charges stick, she could be in prison until she dies." Kiyoko fought an outbreak of tears. "She has this illness and might not survive long in prison."
I'm a princess. Don't cry. "Cyclothymia. But Pel — Pelopidas Demopoulos — thought all the stress, when we were on the run, turned her totally bipolar. Bipolar two, it's called. She was doing fine last I saw her, but now she's all alone, and she's one of those people who hates being alone. When she hits the depressive cycle, she might kill herself."
"Maybe her lawyers should use a mental illness defense, then."
Kiyoko bit her lip and clenched her toes. "She'd never allow it. It would undermine everything she did. Can't you help?"
"Your sister should at least be treated for her illness, maybe put on suicide watch."
"She should be freed. She can come here and everything forgotten."
Ms. Rossi shot out a quick breath. Just enough to betray a sense of disdain. "I will see what might be possible." She glanced at her screen, rose and shook their hands. "Please leave your contact information with my secretary."
Kiyoko fought an urge to step up her arguments. That would only irritate her most important potential ally. "Thank you for your efforts."
On the way out, she prayed to Yudi, the supreme deity with many names. Please guide Ms. Rossi's heart. Please give me strength. Please don't let my sister die in prison.
* * *
Gripping her by the arms, a burly white man and a burlier African American woman marched Waylee down a brightly lit concrete hallway lined with steel doors. Special Housing. Waylee's wrists and ankles were shackled, limiting her steps to inches. She carried a thin bed roll and a set of generic-looking toiletries, and wore a bright orange shirt, pants, and slippers.
The receiving guards had taken her original clothes, strip searched her, photographed her naked from every angle, led her past hoots and hollers to a shower, made her scrub with delousing shampoo, and blasted her with scalding water. After that, they gave her the orange uniform to wear. Most of the other prisoners wore asparagus green, but she was special, they said.
They halted in front of a door stenciled 1057. "Your new home," the male guard said. He had a dark goatee and shaved head with stubble on the sides that betrayed early hair loss.
Never in her life had Waylee imagined confinement in such a place, the high security wing of the Federal Detention Center in downtown Philadelphia. Back to her birth city, where she and her sister suffered years of abuse until she blinded her stepfather and escaped. Wouldn't it be funny if Feng was in this prison too?
"This place is an assquake," the female guard said, her breath stinking of fried sausage. "But wait 'til you get to ADX Florence."
Waylee wasn't sure where that was, but obviously it was bad. "I'm innocent until proven guilty."
The guards chuckled.
I should shut up. Her lawyers told her not to talk to anyone because every word would be recorded and used against her.
Baldy spoke into his wraparound mike, "Unlock 1057, please."
She heard a click, and the man opened the door.
Her cell had the length and width of a cargo van interior. It had white concrete block walls, a narrow slit window, a concrete ledge with a brown plastic mat, and a stainless steel toilet/sink unit. The door was solid steel except for a small plexiglass window and a metal flap at the bottom. It smelled like bleach.
"I'm not violent," she said. "Why am I in solitary?" Bad enough the magistrate denied bail, but why did they have to make things worse?
"All terrorists go to maximum security," Baldy said. "It's the rules." They ushered her inside the cell.
"I'm not a terrorist."
"Lunch will be delivered between 1100 and noon," Fried Sausage said. She turned Waylee to face the door and pointed at the flap on the bottom. "It will come through that slot. You have half an hour to eat and then slide the tray, plate, cup, and utensils back underneath. If you fail to do so, you will not receive your next meal. Do you understand?"
"Jawohl, mein Kleinlichführer." She didn't know much German, but some phrases stuck in her head.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wrath of Leviathan"
Copyright © 2018 T.C. Weber.
Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
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