When I lived in Independence, Kentucky, I was part of a fiction writers’ group called the Independence Inklings. We met twice a month, shared and critiqued our WIPs, and did take-home writing exercises. For one, particular exercise, in November 2011, we had to draw from three separate piles: a name, a goal, and an obstacle. Using these three things, we had to write 1,000 words (a pitifully small number for a writer) using first-person POV. I drew “Frank the painter,” “to find true love,” and “that idiot from corporate.”
My mind saw the obvious chic-lit story that hung limply in the air. I cringed and mentally walked away, letting those three things germinate for a few days:
Frank the painter…, whose goal is to find true love…, but he must overcome that idiot from corporate.
The chic-lit fluttered in the breeze, slapping me like an annoying French glove. To get past it, I started focusing on me: What did I like to write? Who I was as a writer?
And it hit me.
The following is what I came up with for that writing exercise:
I was in. I knew it the minute he asked me if I spoke Chinese.
“Chinese? Sure, I speak Chinese,” I shrugged. “Learned it in middle school.”
The executive at the head of the sleek conference table remained silent, but he frowned. The shoulders of his thousand dollar suit crunched forward, as though beneath the table his fingers were gripping the padded armrests of his black leather chair. Hu Sing, the one interviewing me, raised his brows and shot a worried glance at his boss.
“Nǐ de jiǎnlì bìng méiyǒu gàosu nǐ shuō Zhōngwén,” he stated. Your resume does not tell that you speak Chinese.
Of course it doesn’t. It also doesn’t say that I’m highly trained in eight different types of martial arts, that I’m an expert shot with the G26 concealed in my waistband, or that I can hack my way through a 128-bit encrypted firewall in fifteen minutes or less. What it does say is that I’m Frank Panetti, a well-referenced contract painter from Yonkers with a high school education. For the record, my name’s not Frank, and I’m usually clean-shaven. And the excess bulging my shirt over my pants isn’t mine, either, but it sells the look.
I gave Hu Seng a blank stare then shot a brow at the executive, as though waiting for him to speak. Finally I cocked my head to the side.
“That was a joke,” I explained. “The only Chinese I know is chow mein and moo goo gai pan. Is that a problem?”
The executive’s frown twisted into a leer. His shoulders relaxed. He was fine with me as long as I was stupid. Not that I blamed him. The Bao-Dong Corporation in lower Manhattan doubled as a multi-billion dollar cover for a sophisticated, weapons-design facility, and they were hiring me to paint the chairman’s office while he was on vacation. I wouldn’t let someone like me get anywhere near a computer that had access to the entire company’s files.
Hu Sing took the cue from his boss and relaxed as well. “No, that is not a problem.” We hashed out the details. I left.
The following Friday I walked back through the doors, making sure to be five minutes late: just enough to make me an average, American slacker. Hu Sing waited in the lobby. He yelled at me about tardiness. The junior exec’s reputation was riding on this. He’s the one who’d “found” me. I feigned surprise and apologized. Nodding, he led me to the elevators and up to the top floor.
The bad thing about undercover work is that you actually have to do two jobs: your real job and the one you’re pretending to do. Fortunately, I’d spent three summers painting houses while I was at Baylor, and I’d learned all about getting something done right and done quick from my time in the Marines. Unfortunately, the office was huge with lots of tricky corners, and I only had today. Also, Hu Sing stopped by every fucking ten minutes to check on my progress. I had to get rid of this corporate idiot and buy myself some computer time.
While taping, I clipped a closed-loop transfer feed device onto each hidden camera I found. By noon I completed the cut-ins. The next time Hu Sing stopped by—which was in three, two, one, bingo!—I told him I was leaving for an hour to go to lunch. He panicked but had to let me go. I chuckled. You gotta love good old American workforce legislation.
As soon as he left I stood outside the door, pulled out my cell phone, and called the transfer-feed device. It taped the empty room for about thirty seconds then started the loop on the hidden cameras. It would look like the room was empty until I told the loop to stop.
Re-entering the room, I pulled on gloves and rolled up to the computer. Bao-Dong’s systems were on a closed server, accessible only from the company’s sixty-five story building. Any information they wanted to transfer between here and their Shanghai headquarters had to be done via an external device. Until now no one from the outside had been this close to their systems. I controlled my breathing.
The chairman’s passwords were easy to bypass. In seconds I found what I was looking for: Bao-Dong’s in-development plans for a small, remote-controlled stealth rocket that ran on a near-perpetual battery. Something the U.S. military referred to as Total-Range, Unceasingly Energized, Land-Operated, Veiled Explosive. TRUE LOVE. It was the Holy Grail of smart bombs. My lips curled the same way they would if I were about to bite into a seared, rare, twelve-ounce Angus sirloin.
TRUE LOVE’s genesis was one of the Los Alamos breaches back in the nineties. The intent was a surveillance plane operable from any location. At the time we hadn’t perfected the fuel cell. Since then we had, but, reading the plans in front of me, the Chinese had figured it out, too. Also, as we’d feared, they’d adapted the plane to carry a hot payload. From this building, for example, they could direct a precision-hit anywhere in the world.
I downloaded the plans onto a flash drive, simultaneously uploading a virus that would sit dormant for four hours—enough time for me to finish painting and get out. The doorknob clicked. Someone was entering the office!
The files weren’t complete. On a hunch, I grabbed my cell phone, clicked off the monitor, and dove under the desk. Dialing Hu Sing’s number, which he’d given me in the interview, I shot him a text in Mandarin: Meet Han Li in the conference room. Immediately! The text would come up as a private caller, untraceable.
The office door creaked open. A ringtone beeped. He was half in the hall, half in the room.
“Hán Lì shì shéi?” Hu Sing’s voice asked. Who is Han Li? I had no idea, either.
The door closed. Hu Sing’s footsteps hurried down the hall.
Yes, I’ve left my character in limbo. And I’ve left you hanging. (Bad writer! But I only had 1,000 words to work with…?) Yeah, when I wrote it, I didn’t like being left hanging, either. If you check back next week, I’ll post the next writing exercise, in which I continued Trig Denton’s story. Until then, happy writing, everyone! 🙂