Authors: Iris Johansen
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense
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Who can say for sure that one will live to see tomorrow?
Why didn’t she think of this city as home? Catherine Ling wondered as she looked down through the clouds from the window of the jet approaching Hong Kong. Other people would have found it strange that she had never regarded this exotic, wonderful, terrible city as her home place. She had spent her childhood here on the streets struggling, sometimes starving, always having to use her mind and wits just to stay alive. It was only when she was fourteen and had been chosen by Venable to go to work for the CIA that she had left the city. Perhaps it was because she had never been at ease enough to think of it as a haven. Wasn’t a home supposed to offer safe haven?
Her cell phone was vibrating, and she frowned as she looked down at it.
Should she ignore it? She had no desire to argue with him right now. Venable hadn’t wanted her to go to Hong Kong to be with her son. He’d had that job for her to do in Guatemala City, and he could be as stubborn as he was devious. But if she didn’t get the argument settled now, she’d have to face it when she was with Luke and Hu Chang after the plane landed. Venable would keep trying until he reached her. He never gave up.
“What is it, Venable?” she asked curtly as she accessed the call. “I can’t talk very long. I should be landing within the next fifteen or twenty minutes.”
“I know. I timed the call that way. It had to not be enough time for you to smolder and build up resistance and just enough time to spark that mind of yours into gear.”
“I’m not going to Guatemala City. Forget it.”
“I’ve already forgotten it. I’ve sent Tolliver. I really didn’t want to send you there anyway. You were much more suited for this other job I’ve had in mind for you for the last week. It just had a few awkward ramifications I didn’t want to deal with.”
“And where was this job?”
“Tibet. I decided that since you were so determined to go to Hong Kong, I’d give you work closer to there.”
“Bullshit. It may be close in distance, but it’s a world away in every other aspect.”
“Unfortunately, that’s true. And this one isn’t going to be easy. If I didn’t need you, I’d give it to the local guy and let you take your vacation.”
Her voice was soft. “Let?”
He chuckled. “Wrong word. I’ll rephrase it. I wouldn’t try to persuade you to postpone your time with your son. There were a few headaches connected to bringing you into it. I actually was looking for another agent even though you’re as close to perfect as I could get.”
“No,” Catherine said with precision. “Not Guatemala. Not Tibet.”
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “But I decided to leave it up to fate. If you’d agreed to Guatemala, I’d accept it. If not, you were mine.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“I’m listening to every word. Believe me, if you weren’t so good, I’d let you out of this one. As I said, bringing you in may be a major headache.”
“Good. Then you won’t feel too disappointed if I refuse the assignment. Venable, for God’s sake, what can I say to convince you that I’m going to spend these next few weeks with my son and my friend, Hu Chang. Then I’m going to take Luke back to Louisville to start the school year. Period. End of discussion.”
“Not quite. You’ve not allowed me to offer my side of the discussion. Have you ever heard of Erin Sullivan?”
“No. Yes.” Memory was stirring as she made the connection. “She’s a journalist. There was some kind of big fuss about her a few years ago. I didn’t pay much attention to it. You were keeping me busy down in Venezuela at the time.”
“Not exactly a fuss. She won a Pulitzer for her stories about the earthquake at Qinghai Province in Tibet a few years ago.” He paused. “She also worked side by side with the monks and the Chinese soldiers rescuing the victims of the quake. By the time the Chinese government decided that Erin Sullivan was gaining too much star power and influence among the Tibetan people, it was too late. The villagers throughout the mountains were regarding her as their angel of mercy.
“Very admirable. And dangerous. China doesn’t appreciate interference in their policies in Tibet. But she’s an American, and that gave her an umbrella of safety. She had no desire to be an activist. She didn’t consider it her place. She just helped where she could.”
“So why are we talking about Erin Sullivan?”
“Unfortunately, she’s become a problem for us.”
“How? You said that she’s not trying to stir up trouble.”
“Sometimes people cause turmoil just by being what they are.” He added dryly, “If an angel of mercy becomes a victim, then that means a martyr. Martyrs can ignite wars.”
She stiffened. “And has Erin Sullivan become a martyr?”
“I don’t know. I don’t believe it’s gone that far yet. What we do know is that she disappeared on her way to write a story about an orphanage in the mountains two months ago. She hasn’t been seen since.”
“Why hasn’t her newspaper raised hell?”
“She just dropped off the face of the Earth?”
“I didn’t say that. There have been rumors.”
“Rumors from what source?”
“The same source that sent me a tip that the unrest and revolt building among the Tibetans because of Sullivan’s disappearance might cause an upset with big brother China if it wasn’t addressed. It wouldn’t take much to do that. China has always been more ready to attack than negotiate.”
“And China was responsible for Sullivan’s disappearance?”
“Not that we can confirm.”
“Stop pussyfooting around. If she’s been missing two months, you must have an idea where she is. You wouldn’t want to send me in blind if you didn’t. She’s an American citizen.”
“And Tibet is still a wild and desolate land where anyone could be lost for decades and never found. We’ve been making inquiries and tapping our sources.”
“Sources, again. What sources, Venable?”
“Have I piqued your curiosity, Catherine?”
“No, I’ve been trained to question and probe. You had a hand in that training.” But she had been caught and held by the story of Erin Sullivan. It made her angry. She hated the idea of good people being thrown to the wolves as the journalist probably had been. She supposed she should be accustomed to the lack of fairness in the world by now, but she never got used to it. “And I won’t let you lure me into searching for her out of sheer curiosity. I left my son for over three weeks while I pulled your hot potatoes out of the fire in Colombia. I want Luke to remember that he has a mother who cares about him. I’m sure whoever you send after Erin Sullivan will be competent.”
“You’ve told me yourself that you have to walk carefully around your son to make sure that you don’t overwhelm him. He got along without you for nine years just fine while you were searching for him.”
“You know he didn’t get along fine. Rakovac tried to destroy him and almost succeeded.” She felt a ripple of pain as she remembered the torment of those years after Rakovac, a Russian criminal, had tried to punish Catherine by kidnapping her two-year-old son. He had kept him for nine long years and tried to turn him into everything that Catherine would hate. She had only recently managed to free Luke, and they were still tentative with each other. “He survived, but I probably won’t know how damaged he is for years. Yes, he’s had to be independent all his life just to avoid Rakovac’s abuse, but now he has to know I’m there for him.”
“He has his tutor, Sam O’Neill, and Hu Chang.”
“I’m his mother, dammit.”
“A mother who Luke isn’t sure he knows what to do with,” Venable said bluntly. “He knows about surviving neglect and torture. He knows about a man who put a gun in his hand when he was a small child and took him on guerrilla raids. He doesn’t know about normal relations.”
“He’s learning,” she said fiercely. “Every time we’re together we get a little closer. Yes, I have to be careful not to let him know how much I—” She stopped. She wouldn’t reveal to Venable the aching frustration of having to restrain the deep, boundless love she felt for Luke. She wanted to reach out, touch him, smother him with the affection that had been stolen from both of them. She couldn’t do it. Luke was older than his age in many ways, but his lack of experience in ordinary emotions had stunted him, and he was only now beginning to open to her. She had to hold back, respect that reticence. But God it was hard.
“Do you think I don’t know why you’ve been letting me send you on assignments during these last six months?” Venable asked softly. “I believe Luke may be as torn and confused as you are about how to make the adjustment. You both have to occasionally step back and take a deep breath before you take another step forward.”
“Very perceptive,” Catherine said dryly. She wasn’t surprised that Venable had studied her situation and come so close to the exact truth. No one ever underestimated Venable’s cleverness. “And a convenient explanation for you in this case. Abandon my Luke and go off on CIA business because it’s good for us as well as the country. No deal, Venable.”
“Think about it. Look Erin Sullivan up on the Internet. Get to know her.”
“The hell I will.”
Venable chuckled. “I think you will. I’ll get off the line now so you can check her out before your plane begins its descent.”
“Wait.” She had just thought of something else. “You said bringing me into the mission would cause you big problems. Why?”
“I was wondering when you’d ask that question. It all has to do with my source. He doesn’t want you involved.”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“And how am I supposed to do that when you won’t tell me who he is? I take it you’ve changed your mind.” She stiffened as she began to have an outrageous suspicion. “Just who is your source?”
“Someone you know very well,” he said quietly. “Hu Chang.”
“What the hell? What’s Hu—”
But Venable had already hung up.
What did Hu Chang have to do with Erin Sullivan? He might slide in and out of political situations like a Las Vegas magician if he chose, but he seldom chose. At least, she didn’t think he often dabbled in the fates of nations any longer. What did she know? After all these years, he was still an enigma to her. She had met him when she was only fourteen and had been on the streets selling information to the highest bidder. He had been a practitioner of Chinese medicine, and they had bonded and become friends. She had not learned until later that Hu Chang was also the foremost creator of poisons in the world and sold them to the highest bidder. By that time, it had not mattered to her. He was her friend. He had saved her life, and she had saved his. Two solitary people who had found one person they could trust to make the loneliness go away.
He doesn’t want you involved.
Well, dammit, she didn’t want to be involved.
But why did Hu Chang want to close her out?