Kim Chong Shin Yi never imagined that he would one day have a grandson with strains of Egyptian and French blood. But here he was, happily cuddling little Étienne and watching the little boy sleep.
He made it a point to be home and awake every day at 3:30, when Xiu walked in the door balancing her briefcase in one hand holding the baby with the other. Then he could always offer to hold Étienne for a bit while Xiu changed out of her work clothes and had tea.
Today he was a bit more tired than usual. He played with Étienne for about half an hour, and then he laid down on the couch to take a nap.
He never opened his eyes again.
For the past two years, Layla had been progressively growing weaker, and more reclusive. On the eve of her husband's death, she collapsed.
Just as Mei had predicted, no one was home at the time—the girls were at the morgue, making the necessary arrangements for their father's burial—and it was nearly an hour before anyone returned and found her sprawled on the floor. They rushed her to the ER as fast as they could, but the attending doctor's prognosis was grim. Layla would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Xiu cried, but Mei just accepted it philosophically as usual. "I told her that was gonna happen. Well, she's old. Guess we need to remodel the house, since none of us will be going upstairs anymore now."
"How can you be so cold?" Xiu muttered, but even as the words left her lips she already knew why. Layla's new infirmity wasn't likely to make her any less cranky, and trouble loomed just over the horizon, in the form of Judson Goddard.
Layla had made no secret of her dislike of Mei's career path, but Judson made such an irresistible target that she took full advantage. He was too sleazy-looking, too sloppy. He looked suspicious ("Why does he need so many tattoos? Why are his ears so full of rings?"), and for a man in his mid-20s, he was so childish—he would happily play on the floor with Étienne without a second thought. "And this is the man you bring home to us? The town is full of people and you pick the one straight from the gutter?"
The resentment in Mei's eyes was impossible to miss. She'd never said a word about it, but it was obvious enough that she and Judson were a serious item. But she had little to say on the matter, no matter how much she might glare. Even Mei wasn't cruel enough to pick on a widow.
Between their father's passing, their mother's injury, and the new house renovations, the small fund of savings was wiped out overnight. Of course there was no helping it, but it was still immensely frustrating for the sisters. Mei thought she might have finally tracked Rémy down, but now she couldn't afford to go to France to confirm it, and Xiu was literally trapped into her job. If she'd thought she needed the money before for the sake of independence, now she had to work overtime just to keep from going under.
And getting approval for overtime meant seeing Anton Carter face-to-face. If there had been any way around meeting him, Xiu would have found one. But there wasn't. Overtime requests had to be signed by both parties at the same time and sent on to a superior manager immediately. She had no choice. And he knew it, though he was sweet about it and didn't push his advantage. Instead, he kept his conversation to her family and son.
"How's your mom holding up?"
"She's grumpy," Xiu sighed.
"And your son?"
Now he looked up from his computer screen. She tensed for the inevitable, 'How about you?' but it didn't come. He slid her overtime request back to her. "Need you to sign and date here, please. How's the new exhibit coming along?
"Truth? … badly. I'm having to do damage control with every artist I speak to, seems your previous curator made a lot of enemies."
"That happens when you have his kind of problems."
"Which would be ...?"
"Cocaine, from what I was told," Anton said, and went back to answering emails.
As unpleasant as it was to have to clean up the mess of a drug addict, it was too late to fret. The bills were mounting up, and as much as Mei might enjoy her job as a snitch, it didn't pay particularly well. So Xiu kept on working. Her 'work' primarily consisted of inviting artists to present their works in the gallery, and then explaining in detail that no, she wasn't associated with the previous curator, and no, she didn't know anything about the previous problems there.
She glanced at the computer screen and sighed. Forty-one rejections. Most were polite, some were exceptionally rude, one or two actually went into detail about the problems they'd had with the previous curator. She read those over and over again, wondering how she could possibly turn this situation around for the better.
Finally, she caught a break.
An up-and-coming artist from the state university responded positively to her solicitation and even put her in touch with some of his colleagues. Xiu responded to all emails promptly and accommodated his requests, including transportation into the city. She justified the expense by attaching a spreadsheet of the admission receipts for his last two showings, proudly displaying the results to her boss.
"Guy gets over a thousand unique visitors every night when he does shows, huh?" Anton mused. "Well, sure, I guess we can cover him then."
"Thanks. I'll let him know right away."
His eyes flickered. "You doing alright?"
… and there it was. She swallowed through a tight throat. "I'm fine. Thank you."
He stood, came closer. "Xiu, if you need anything—"
"You gave me just what I needed, Anton. An opportunity, and support. I can't thank you enough." And she left his office quickly.
Étienne was drowsy on the way home. He could sleep through the smoldering tension in the house, he was probably the only one who could.
But fortunately tonight was quiet. Mei was out, and Layla was sitting at the kitchen table. Her notebook was in front of her, but she was quite asleep. Xiu rolled her back to the new bedroom, just off the kitchen area, and positioned her right next to the bed. Her mother would wake up eventually and decide whether to get into bed or keep writing. If she was actually put her into bed, she threw a fit and screamed that her daughters wanted to take away her independence.
She was utterly lost without her husband. And they all knew it.
The showing was a resounding success. People came from other cities to view the gallery, the guestbook was filled with new entries, the young artist was overwhelmed with praise, and the last visitors left very late indeed.
Xiu stayed until the end, and looked at the mess with a regretful gaze. She had to take care of it tonight, or she'd have a bug infestation come morning.
"Great job tonight," Anton Carter announced as he appeared out of nowhere. "Time to clean up, huh?"
He mopped the sticky floor while she took out the trash and packaged up the leftovers for a local charity. Once that was done, he offered her a ride home. "I couldn't dream of letting some cabbie take you home this time of night."
"If you insist, but it's not necessary."
"I do insist."
He escorted her to the front porch. Unlike Pascal, he didn't try to weasel into the house.
That was the beginning of change. Without even realizing it, Xiu began to relax her guard around Anton. And his demeanor, while always friendly, now became genuinely kind. The face-to-face meetings were no longer so tense. She made suggestions and recommendations about the gallery that he listened to and occasionally agreed with.
And then the day came when he showed up unexpected and unannounced, lingering at the door of her office.
"Xiu! Hey there. I've just heard from Oskar-Budro, they're one of our foreign clients. They have a series of lithographs that they want you to display, since the gallery is actually popular now, thanks to all your hard work. The lithographs will be here in four days, I need you to develop a showing for them by next weekend."
"D … develop?" Xiu squeaked. It was one thing to assist an upcoming artist with a show. It was an entirely different matter to create a show for a corporate client. Once again, she felt the weight of some heavy expectations on her shoulders. She looked at Anton with a pleading gaze, but his face was just as cheerful as ever.
"You can do it, Xiu. I have every confidence that you'll do fantastically. I'll send you an email with contact details and what you can expect to receive."
He turned to go and stepped on a squeaky toy.
"Ah … perhaps we need to revisit your salary discussion, so that you can make more regular arrangements for a babysitter."
Two blocks away in a basement apartment, a man's computer chimed with an 'incoming mail' notice. Judson Goddard half-opened his eyes and quickly forwarded the email before going back to sleep.
On the other side of town, Mei Shin Yi's computer received a forwarded message. She read it several times, eyes narrowed.
"I knew it," she muttered.
"Knew what, sis?"
"Nothing," Mei said, and hurried outside to dial a familiar number. Within seconds a gruff voice answered, "This is Chief Frank."
"Chief, it's Shin Yi. I just got a confirmation about our Agent Number Ninety-Two. He's smuggling again."
"So what do you know now?"
"In four more days, my sister is going to get a whole crate of lithographs from Denmark. Based on Ninety-Two's previous heists, the crate that my sister actually gets will not be the same crate that goes through customs. They'll be switched out before anyone can actually sign for it or verify the contents."
"So you're saying that in addition to Ninety-Two himself, he's got an insider in our customs office. Any clue who that might be?"
"I've narrowed it down to four people—two dockworkers, one manager, one higher-up—but you don't exactly go public with that kind of info, y'know."
"Yeah, never a good idea to accuse a public official, and the dockworkers will just claim to be following orders as always." The older man sighed and took a gulp of coffee. At least Mei hoped it was coffee. "So whaddya callin' for, kiddo? You trying to go undercover there?"
"No go, Shin Yi. It's not like everyone in town doesn't already know just what you look like, you don't exactly blend in. "
"But it's my case, no one else knows it half so well!"
"Doesn't matter, girl. You go in marchin' yourself there and you'll see just how quick those folks can make all of the evidence disappear. There won't even be anyone for you to arrest."
Mei grunted angrily. The chief was right, of course, but she wasn't about to let go so easily. She hadn't worked on this case for weeks and months to let some jerk-off patrolman blow it all straight to hell. "Chief, I got an idea—what if … I sent someone else in to be the undercover agent?"
"Someone else, you say?"
"Yeah, someone who knows just as much about this whole thing as I do."
"What?" Judson Goddard took a step—two steps—backwards. If he hadn't hit the wall, he'd have fallen down. "You want me to do what?"
"Jud, honey, I'm not asking for a lot—"
"The hell you're not, you want me to apply for a job as a dockworker? And go undercover? This is too crazy. I can't … Mei, even for you, I can't …"
"Jud … you won't be doing any actual work. You're there to be my eyes and ears. I'd do it myself, but my boss won't even consider it."
"Why can't you just bug the place?"
"Because it's a warehouse, the bugs would pick up the sounds of the place, not the conversations. We need a live body."
"No." Judson shook his head and turned away. Even for a hot girl with a sweet ass, this was too much, too dangerous. "Not me. Get someone else."
"Fine," Mei snapped at his back. "I guess I'll talk to that new guy at my job … he actually looks like a dockworker, big strong muscles, lots of tats … and he's not scared to go in a big dark building all by himself. He'll be just perfect." And she walked away without a backwards glance.
Despite himself, Judson heard every word of that. And each one hit him hard.
"She's lying," he muttered to himself, but it was too late. There was a reason that he was hopelessly in love with Mei Shin Yi, and she knew how to use it against him perfectly. Despite his common sense and every instinct for self-preservation, jealousy won out. He caught up to her before she was even halfway down the hall.
"Mei! Mei … I'll do it, okay? Just … don't …"
She caught him by the shoulders and looked at him gratefully. "Don't worry about a thing, okay? Like I said, we need someone on the inside, yes, but the whole area will be surrounded. We'll be coming in as soon as you give the signal, and you can give it as soon as you feel endangered. All we want right now is one single crate. Okay? It's simple, really it is."
"Yeah," Judson said, and smiled weakly.
Mei met his gaze and held it. "Let's go back into your place and talk it over a little more."
He already knew that she had no intention of talking, but she was willing and ready, and he didn't question her motivations. She offered herself and he took full advantage of her momentary generosity. She took what he gave, as long as he was able to give it.
He continued to lie still, eyes half-closed, long after she got up and left.
Mei slipped out of the apartment house, feeling more than a little guilty, and all but ran to a bar to drink it away. She knew that this entire situation was dangerous. She knew that she was using Judson. She knew that she was dead wrong for all of it.
But she'd thought the situation over more times than she wanted to admit, and there really was no other way to catch their mysterious Agent Number Ninety-Two other than to make life hard for him. Confiscating a shipment of artwork that he was smuggling was probably the best, if not the only, way to do that.
She'd considered more than once about telling Xiu what was going on, but in her heart she already knew that there was no point. Xiu was so incredibly trusting that she would blab to the wrong person (in complete innocence, of course) and months and months of hard work would go straight down the drain in the blink of an eye.
So Mei kept her feelings to herself and ordered a second glass of something strong. She would wait to strike at Agent Number Ninety-Two until the time was just right. If she had a temper, she also had infinite patience to match.