Chiang Mai – Monday, Feb. 24, 11:00 a.m. (11:00 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 23)
Peeking out the door of a laundry vestibule, Raven watched Ingrid and Sasha leave their hotel room. She had her new friend Ice to thank for the excellent lookout point. After Ko had accosted them and abruptly let them go, Raven’s nerves were beyond frayed. More desperate than ever for some rest, she went through with the plan to book a room and crash for a couple of hours. Meanwhile, Ice gave a bonus to the housekeeping manager so he could use the spot for observation. Only a half hour ago, Raven had switched places with Ice. Now, she texted him, “On the move.”
Ingrid gave the impression of the perfect social media darling. She wore strappy beige sandals and a metallic gold bikini, clearly visible through her sheer white cover-up dress. With its double slit and deep V-neck, the flowing garment accentuated her legs. Ingrid’s platinum blond hair was piled up in a messy bun, and she was carrying a large woven bag with short tortoiseshell handles looped over one arm. Sasha’s navy-blue bathing-suit shorts, white polo shirt and loafers suggested Nantucket. Together, they made quite an attractive pair.
Strolling down the hallway, putting their heads together and laughing, they seemed carefree, as if they were indeed on vacation. Sasha draped his arm around Ingrid’s neck, resting it on her shoulder. She reached her hand up to hold his, as they joked about the night’s exploits and their hunger.
Raven trailed at a safe distance. She followed them to the pool, where they settled into lounge chairs along the main deck and signaled for the waiter. Questions ricocheted in Raven’s mind. What were they really doing? How could they relax so well amid their deal-making? How dangerous were they?
Raven texted her new location to Ice, who appeared within minutes. She pointed discreetly to the other couple.
“Want me to eavesdrop?” he asked her. “Or set up your phone again?”
“Great idea,” she said, tapping on the screen. “Here, take it, but this time, we’ll use it as a listening device. It’s quiet here—I’ll be able to hear.”
“You’ve got all kinds of super spyware, don’t you?”
“It’s a normal app, widely available,” said Raven without sarcasm, as she took a second phone out of her bag. “That primary phone transmits, and this secondary one receives. The primary will pick up everything in the surrounding area. Easy. Data gets saved in the cloud. I’ll go to the lobby and listen. OK?”
“OK. Whew,” Ice said. “Glad you’re not suspicious of me.”
Raven cringed. What did he mean?
“Off I go with my two phones,” he said.
“Wait. Take off your shirt.”
Ice raised his brows.
“If you’re going to sit by the pool, you need to look the part,” she said. Rummaging around in her bag, she took out some sunblock and handed it to him. “Here. Give me your shirt and pick up one of those big pool towels in that rack.”
Standing before her, Ice removed his shirt, revealing a large chest tattoo—an elaborate, geometric eight-pointed star that Raven recognized as a Buddhist symbol. “Better?” he asked.
Raven shot him a flirtatious look and reached for his shirt. Surprised how distracted he made her, she worried she was blushing and pushed her private thoughts to the back of her mind. “Better,” she said, tucking the shirt in her bag. “Thanks.”
He went on his mission, while she found a comfortable chair by a fountain in the lobby. She knew Ice had accomplished his task because she could hear Sasha and Ingrid clear as a bell—they were talking about food. She put the phone on speaker and rested it on the table. Then she put her hair in a ponytail, took a spy novel out of her bag and pretended to read while she listened. When a waiter cruised by, Raven billed an ice tea to her room.
After a while, Ice texted, “They’re eating ‘tropical’ fruit, ‘American-style’ pad Thai and sparkling water.”
She sent him an alien emoji.
“Save me,” he wrote.
“Not yet. LOL.”
The conversation between Sasha and Ingrid lagged. Guests strolled by, and Raven passed the time by imagining their lives. Who were they? What were they doing? Where were they from? Her eyes felt heavy, but she knew the situation could morph in an instant. She couldn’t afford to doze off. “Any action at the pool?” she texted Ice.
“1 pregnant woman managing a toddler on deck, husband on phone. 1 woman swimming laps. S sleeping. I reading. 8 lounging,” Ice wrote.
All of a sudden, Raven heard what she was waiting for.
Sasha: “I need a drink.”
Ingrid: “Calm down. I’ll hail the waiter.”
Ice texted, “S woke up.”
No kidding, Raven said to herself. Sasha was complaining the service should be faster. Abruptly, music blasted.
A text message from Ice popped up. “Teenagers!”
All Raven could do was wait. After an anxious minute, the music stopped and the voices of Sasha and Ingrid reemerged. When they did, Raven swore she heard Sasha say “Evy.” She grabbed the phone, raised the volume again and held it to her ear.
Sasha: “I told you she was stupid. Did she think she could do it without being detected? So naïve. That woman had no idea what was at stake.”
Ingrid: “Be thankful for her foolishness, Sasha. That’s why we found out—and took care of it. But my question is this: Why don’t your colleagues know what’s at stake? Why won’t they stand up? Why are they willing to forfeit their power?”
Sasha: “You know that line of thinking started before your father died. There are too many restrictions now. There’s neither enough on-the-ground intelligence, nor enough data collection. That’s where you and I come in.”
Ingrid: “When my father was there, the place still had guts. They would never have let China go unchecked like these people do now.”
Sasha: “I know. Drained of people, resources and political support. Our enemies sit back and laugh. We zero in on the radical Muslims—and forget Russia and China also seek to mow us down.”
Ingrid: “I never forgot. You never forgot. How could we, when the Communists stole everything from our families?”
Raven gasped. I know the history, she thought. Cuba was like that. My family was torn apart too—poverty, injustice, dictatorship and corruption leading to revolution. Then Communism heaped on more misery—expropriation, extrajudicial killings, new forms of repression, corruption festering all over again. So Sasha and Ingrid hated Communism, but now what were they doing? Had they gone too far? Heart racing, Raven stared at her book and listened like her life depended on it.
Sasha: “Precisely why it was imperative we took on this fight. We remember the mission. We are guaranteeing the future of America, and we are safeguarding democracy around the world. People will thank us!”
Raven suddenly felt blazing hot. She prayed the recording would be solid.
Ingrid: “I know. We must remain vigilant. The Russians and their cybercrimes and election games, that’s one thing, but this ‘Belt and Road’ strategy of China is something else. Overt and yet invisible. Blanketing these countries with Chinese investment, Chinese lending, Chinese products, Chinese tourists, Chinese everything! Why don’t more people see what that does? A stealth invasion. A quiet infiltration of the entire world! It’s outrageous. It sickens me. And if you don’t do something about it, I will!”
Sasha: “My, my. When your father told me you were seeking employment, he didn’t tell me you were prone to insubordination. Rest assured, darling. I am at least as vigilant as you are. These people who think China will cooperate and share are fools! This is not a sand box. If we don’t crush China, China will crush us!”
Ingrid: “Exactly. Use Chinese rules. Play their game.”
Sasha: “Right you are! And you deserve some credit too, Ingrid. I must say, you are not only a stunning woman, but one brilliant hacker. Smith and Ko won’t know what hit them! What magic! Thank you, darling.”
Raven heard the conversation go dead. Was it over? A text from Ice illuminated her phone: “PDA.” She made a disgusted face and waited. A woman's voice broke the silence.
Ingrid: “This will be the turning point, Sasha.”
Sasha: “Yes. The Thai buffer zone will push China back. With one front protected, we can move on.”
Ingrid: “America will be better off, the CIA will reclaim its glory, and you’ll be back in.”
Sasha: “I’ve had enough sun. Let’s go to the room. We have a little time before our next meeting.”
Raven lost the conversation and assumed they had walked away.
Before she had a chance to worry about it, Ice sent her a text: “On their tail.”
“Thx. I’ll meet you,” she typed with jittery hands. Shocked by the scale of their scheming, she took a couple of seconds to think of what else to do. Then she shot off a message to both Anna and Tanner: “URGENT: OMG!!! Uploaded audio files of S&K to OfficeBox. Explosive! MUST LISTEN! S&K on the move again. Gotta run. Will keep you posted.”
Copyright © by Wolf Bahren. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher with “permission requests” in the subject line at email@example.com. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.