"Dai Han, the hooker at the bar is eyeing you as though you were newly minted American dollars.”
Dai Han tilted his head slightly and looked across the room at the bar until his gaze zeroed in on the lone American woman sitting there. Akio was right about one thing, the woman was looking at him with interest. That alone made him concerned. Her manner of dress made him curious. She was indeed dressed to attract attention, and it could be said of her skimpy outfit that she was a hooker. But there was something else going on, something he wasn’t aware of. Allowing his gaze to linger on the woman, he noted she was pretty, not stand out gorgeous, but pretty.
A moment later he changed his assessment to very pretty. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. It was hard to be accurate because she had her hair in a long ponytail that swayed a little on her shoulder when she moved her head a bit. A glimmer from her hair caught his eye. He moved his gaze back up and noted a band around her head that had stones. Curious now, he squinted at the band and made out crystals. Such a decorative item for her to have paired it with the outfit she had on. The red leather skirt was much too short and more than likely too tight. He couldn’t tell much from the black top she was wearing.
Until that moment, he’d been discreet in his observations. But when he lifted his head to stare boldly at the woman, she dropped her head as though nervous and turned away. She was no hooker.
Glancing back at Akio, Dai Han noticed the gleam in his eyes. A shiver of suspicion crawled over him causing him to wonder what Akio was up to.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious why she’s staring at you?” Akio posed the question.
“How do you know it’s not you, she’s looking at?”
“Trust me it’s you.”
Exhaustion weighed on Dai Han’s shoulders until he felt as bent and ancient as his grandfather. He couldn't help but think of the reason he was in Hong Kong: to catch a thief. To prove the thief wasn't Akio. Akio was making the job more difficult with his constant attempts to distract him from the job at hand.
Dai Han couldn’t help but think of the seven years he’d spent with the Brotherhood, training to be a warrior, living a quiet life. He wished for a moment he was back there instead of being in charge of the family dynasty. Running the family business would not have been such a bitter pill to swallow if he were in fact running it. But his father and grandfather were still in charge. They gave orders and he followed them. Some warrior life he was living.
For more than eighteen months the primary job he’d had, had been to oversee the gaming division of their computer company. And the last year it had been strictly corporate espionage. The job had left him with no time for a relationship, not time for a date even. It had been far too long since he’d found relief in the arms of a beautiful woman.
Perhaps that was what had him growling at every word Akio uttered. Akio was his best friend, and a loyal employee of the company. In spite of that he was still the number one suspect as the person giving out company secrets.
When Akio tapped his fingers impatiently on the table, Dai Han chose to think that the growling was due in part for the waste of time rather than his need for female companionship. Instead of sitting in a bar they would do better to find their next appointment. So far they’d been running into one dead end after the other. It was time to question the leads.
“She can’t stop glancing over here,” Akio said, inclining his head toward the bar.
“I’m aware of that. It does strike me odd that she’s staring. It makes me wonder what’s going on.”
Picking up his drink he took a slow sip of the expensive cognac and enjoyed the burn. Keeping his expression passive he studied Akio, who was looking toward the bar. When Akio turned toward him, he blinked. Dai Han picked it up as a sign of worry.
"You should go and talk to her, Dai Han. It’s been a long time since you’ve been with a woman."
"We're here to do a job. When or if I've gotten laid should not be your concern.”
Dai Han’s senses were on high alert as he allowed his gaze to move slowly about the dimly lit bar. The alternating red, yellow, and green flashing lights added to the ambiance but did little to provide better lighting. Considering the bar was in one of Hong Kong’s upscale hotels it boasted a nice size polished wooden dance floor. The area where he was seated across from Akio had tables for couples and groups. He had refused to take a table meant for couples that had been offered by the hostess. Though it was only the two of them, they sat at a table that would accommodate a group of six. He’d also refused any of the arranged seating that included couches. They were a bit too intimate in his opinion. As he allowed his gaze to return to the bar itself he noted the décor was a mixtures of western and eastern. Surprisingly nothing clashed. The designer had done well with the mixtures.
Once more he allowed his gaze to land on the woman he’d observed, the one Akio had pointed out. He stared long and hard at her as though by doing so he would be able to read her mind and therefor her intent. It wasn’t working so he turned his attention back to what had caused him to peruse the woman in the first place. Akio. He stared hard at him one brow lifted in a, tell-me-what-the-hell-is-going-on-with-you, kind of manner. He kept his brow lifted until Akio stuttered then spoke.
“Dai Han, you could use some female companionship.”
Suspicion mounted as he eyed his friend and asked, “Why are you so interested in my love life?” Without thinking, Dai Han’s gaze swung back to the woman at the bar as he waited for Akio to answer to his question.
"Normally I wouldn’t be interested in your love life, but your behavior is making it so. We’ve been at this spy business for months, and your attitude is, if you’re not going to have fun, no one is allowed to. I want to have a bit of fun. I’m not just thinking of myself. I think you deserve to indulge a bit in something other than work. You’re too tense. You need to loosen up."
Turning his attention from the woman at the bar Dai Han narrowed his vision on Akio wondering why for the past three days his friend's sole mission appeared to have been aimed at trying to get Dai Han to refocus his attention. They’d come to China for a specific purpose, getting laid was not on his agenda.
A sour taste hit the back of his throat. He was suspecting one of his best friends of espionage simply because he’d pointed out a very pretty woman. Still there was something a bit off kilter, perhaps there was no real need to worry, and he should take his friend's observations at face value.
With a weary sigh Dai Han took another sip of his drink before answering. "I have not been tense. I have merely been concentrating on the job I was given. Besides, as for the woman at the bar, I believe you’ve made a mistake. She’s not a hooker. Look closely at the woman, at her clothes. Don’t you notice anything odd?"
"No, not really."
"You should. Your mother and three of your sisters have dress shops. Look more closely and tell me what you see."
Akio looked back to Dai Han after perusing the woman who’d suddenly turned away. “I don’t see anything but a hooker. What do you see?”
“A woman pretending. Everything she has on is new. Tonight is the first time she’s put any of it on including the ‘screw me’ stilettos."
"How do you know all of this?"
"Because it’s my job to observe people and things. I take nothing at face value." He stared long and hard at his friend watching him swallow knowing there was something he was guilty of. Perhaps it would turn out to be a little thing, perhaps not. Dai Han would have to wait and see how it all played out.
"So what do you observe that I’ve missed beside the fact that her clothes are new?"
The slight crack in Akio’s voice amped the unwanted suspicion growing in Dai Han’s mind. He didn’t want to think his friend had anything to do with his mission to China other than to accompany him, but little things were beginning to point to the fact that there was more going on than Akio was admitting to. For now he’d play it cool and not give anything away until he was ready. He’d answer Akio’s questions about the woman, pretend, as his friend was doing.
“Do you not notice the way the woman is discreetly tugging on her skirt then smoothing it down with her fingers? She’s not used to being in that get up. She’s uncomfortable.”
“Then why is she wearing it?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps you asked her to come here and make an attempt to entice me."
“How many Americans do I know?”
“I’m not sure. You’ve hired plenty. Perhaps you’ve hired this woman.”
“For what purpose would I have hired her?”
“To get me laid.”
“But you said she’s not a prostitute.”
Dai Han stopped in what he’d been about to say. His gaze zeroed in on the woman at the bar and he blinked once then again. He stood by his first statement. The woman was definitely not a pro. She was now looking down as though concentrating on her drink trying to pretend she’d never observed them. If he didn’t make a move she would soon leave the bar and he had to talk to her, he had to know if someone…his friend, was trying to distract him.
With a heavy sigh, he again sipped his drink. He hated that he’d given in to family pressure, hated that someone had been stealing ideas from the company. He hated it even more that his father thought it was Akio. Pulling in air, he blew it out as he gazed across the room.
“Well,” Akio repeated, “Is she an innocent woman sitting at the bar or is she more?”
“A woman is always more than she appears. I would be a fool not to know that. Still, I stand by my earlier statement. You’re trying to push her on me, and of course it makes me wonder why.”
“I’ve been with you the entire time we’ve been in China. How could I have made arrangement with her to try and get you laid? If anything I’d try and get myself laid. You're crazy, and like I said, wound too tight. When you look at a woman and all you see is her clothing and doubt my motives, then you need to ask yourself why. Look at her, she’s beautiful. I haven’t had the pleasure of making love to an American Black woman. I’ve made love to English, Dutch, even Italian, Black women, but not an American.”
“Did you pay?”
“Then you weren’t making love,” Dai Han stated quietly. He continued staring at Akio his interest piqued. He’d been gone from Japan for four months now tracking down clues, and he had nothing concrete. Perhaps out of boredom perhaps to test his friend, he rose.
“I think I’ll go and offer to buy the lady a drink.” He waited for the slightest hint of a signal between Akio and the woman at the bar. When he saw none, he walked toward her, still unsure of her, or his friend. At least his friend he wanted to be sure of.
Carrie Ross felt the first inklings of fear as it traversed her spine. Revenge was never a good motive for anything, she thought as she pulled lightly on the short skirt. Dang!! What had she been thinking dressing like a hooker? And what had made her stare across the room at the two men? At least that one she could answer. One of the men looked very much like Russell Wong, and she had a major crush on him. She’d actually thought it was him and had glanced around the bar noticing that no one else was paying any particular attention to the man or his companion. She’d tried to tell herself to stop staring at the men but something about them, both of them, warranted her attention.
The shorter man seemed nervous, a bit agitated as though he didn’t want to be in the bar. She wondered if the taller man was the shorter one’s boss. Her would be Russell appeared distant and in control. He also had a look that translated into, I-don’t-want-to-be-here. She wondered why the men were in the bar when it was so obvious that neither wanted to be there. The shorter man kept giving furtive glances around the room as though he were looking for someone. She could tell the moment he spotted her observing them. Turning quickly away she tried her best to pretend she’d not been staring. Something intrigued her about the taller man, some vague emotion she was picking up from him, sadness perhaps. Whatever it was, it drew her attention again and again. After every sip of her fruity drink she glanced toward him, trying her best to divine more about him.
She couldn’t tell how tall he was from his seated position but his head was at least a couple of inches higher than his companion. Though he had on a suit she sensed his body was well built. She’d stared so hard and so long that the man’s friend had noticed and told him. When their gazes met she’d acknowledged what a dumb idea it was to have a one night stand with a complete stranger.
It wasn’t that she’d chosen Russell Wong’s double but he’d definitely caught her attention. Bad idea, her internal sensor screamed at her, real bad idea. She could see the man approaching her from her peripheral vision. It was the same moment her fingers began to tremble. Then he was so close that she could smell his masculine scent mixed with a tangy blend of citrus and spice. She took in a breath and let it out in one big whoosh. Her mind took an unexpected and sudden trip down memory lane. Blinking for a moment she could have sworn her ex Greg Donovan stood before her repeating the words to her she still remembered from their last conversation.
“I love you, Carrie, but I hate making love to you. It’s like making love to a stickperson, cardboard, no deviation or imagination. Is it any wonder I cheated on you? Hell, maybe you should try it. Maybe it would loosen you up.”
Blinking away Greg’s words Carrie worried her top lip discreetly with the tip of her tongue. What did she think she was doing allowing Greg’s cheating to push her to this point? A one night stand and dressed like a hooker to boot. This wasn’t her. Had she really been so bad in bed that she’d pushed her fiancé into the arms of other women? She wasn’t sure. She’d enjoyed herself and he’d always behaved as though he had felt the same. Well, up to the moment he’d gotten caught cheating.
Sometimes she thought he’d given her a line, but he’d insisted he loved her. He’d also insisted that perhaps if she could loosen up and be more open, that maybe bringing in another woman and participating in a threesome would possibly rekindle the sparks. Greg had confessed that if he were sexually satisfied he’d be able to go through with the marriage.
The thing that hurt the most was that for an entire fifteen seconds she’d actually considered doing what he’d asked. Then she thought of the remembered pain. Maybe the part she was now playing should be her. Maybe the Russell look alike could give her what she was lacking. If only.
Taking another look around the bar he moved toward the woman. When he was within inches of her, he stopped, not wanting to invade her personal space. It took only a moment to notice more things about her, her scent for instance. She smelled very good.
“Hello,” Dai Han said. “Do I know you?" “No,” the woman answered but offered nothing further. Her behavior left him perplexed. For a moment he wondered if he should go or take another few seconds to see if there was any connection between her and his friend.
“No? Hmm, I didn't think so. But my friend, Akio, thought you were staring.”
“Perhaps I was. Sorry.”
“Was there a reason?”
“You reminded me of Russell Wong.”
“Actually he’s Chinese American and his heritage is mixed. His mother is of Dutch and French origin.” Carrie stopped abruptly when she noticed the way the man in front of her was looking at her as though she’d taken leave of her senses. “My apologies.”
“I’m not sure really, but you look as though I’ve offended you and it was not my intent. I just happened to think you look very much like him.” She brushed her ponytail back over her shoulder and stared up at him. “My name is Carrie, Carrie…”
A smile easily flitted across his face as he waited for the woman to give him a false name. It wouldn’t bother him if she lied, but he decided to save her the trouble.
“Don’t bother. It’s always safer for a woman not to reveal too much to a stranger, not even her name.
He didn’t believe that the woman’s name was Carrie, but he’d go with that. He had nothing to hide not even his name. Studying the woman he decided not to give the prepared speech he’d given to Americans in the past when they’d glibly said they couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. His eyes fluttered and he quickly exhaled. The woman before him was uncomfortable enough; him taking offense would more than likely cause her to bolt.
When she gave a weak attempt at a smile he noted the deep dimples in each cheek. He stared for a moment into her dark brown eyes and a slight tingle of excitement gave him the first inkling of sexual arousal. Taking a deep breath he ordered his body to behave. “And my name is Dai Han.” Since she’d given only her first name he’d decided to do the same.
He’d crossed the room to her for a purpose, to gauge the reaction of Akio. No, it may not have been the best idea to test his friend, but Dai Han was annoyed at having been gone away from home for so long with so little to show for it. Every lead he’d been given seemed to dry up moments before scheduled meetings. And each time they had either preceded or followed some very strange reactions from Akio.
Believing in coincidence was a liability and on this particular trip there had been too many coincidences. His father had decided it was up to Dai Han to find the leaks in their computer software business. For three years the tension at the company had steadily increased. Dai Han had narrowed it down to the hiring of Americans for the company. This was why the sudden emergence of a Black woman in China that Akio seemed bound and determined to set Dai Han up with, set alarms bells to ringing. Perhaps if he had not been the one to hire the last three Americans. Perhaps then Dai Han would have been able to ignore the coincidence. But as it were he’d barely missed each of the last hires to interrogate them. And one had to wonder if perhaps they’d been tipped off that he was coming.
“Excuse me, Dai Han, is something wrong?”
Damn. Blinking, Dai Han sighed wondering how long he’d stood in front of the woman daydreaming. He attempted a smile. Perhaps he was too tense. Perhaps he did need to get laid. Though he’d determined that despite the woman’s dress she wasn’t a hooker he’d also decided she was out for anonymous sex. What the hell, he thought. In a few days he was headed back to Japan. The trail had grown cold. Because of the leads drying up he’d convinced his father to hire another American from Stevenson, their largest competitor of games in the States. Akio had done the hiring same as always. The employee would be there in a week. He’d decided he would stick to the employee like glue. The phones would be tapped and the home they were providing for the employee to live in was ready. Surveillance cameras had been installed very discreetly in every room of the home with the exception of the master bedroom and the bathrooms. He’d thought of doing it but his father had balked. Everything was in place. He only needed to wait for the new employee. Then all questions would be answered in time, even Akio’s loyalty.
Could he really have spaced out again? He glanced toward the bar wondering if somehow he’d been drugged. He was being paranoid.
“Carrie, may I buy you a drink?” he asked.
“No thank you. I was just getting ready to leave.”
“But it doesn’t look as though you’ve done what you came here to do.”
Sliding one long leg from beneath the bar, Carrie stopped. Bringing her hand to cover the wide expanse of flesh that showed below the hemline, she tilted her head and gave him a wary glance. “I beg your pardon.”
“I assume you came to dance, have a few drinks and meet new people.” Dai Han gave himself points for not telling her that he could sense she came to the bar looking to get laid by a stranger probably for her to tell her friends about. “I’m not Russell Wong but I am a pretty good dancer.”
The woman appeared to be studying him then after what appeared to be careful consideration she gave him her answer.
“I’m sure a couple of dances won’t hurt, but I can buy my own drinks, thanks. And…no slow songs,” Carrie cautioned.
“Would you like to move away from the bar, perhaps find a table and talk a bit before we dance?”
“I thought you were anxious to dance.”
“Not that anxious. But I am anxious to hear the sound of another voice besides Akio’s.” He watched for signs of recognition but saw none. It could be that she was a very good actress. “Akio is my friend,” he pointed toward the table.
“Oh,” Carrie said, “You told me that already.
“When you said he’d told you I was staring at you.”
Again Dai Han smiled.
“Perhaps a few minutes of conversation would be okay.”
He gave a full grin watching the woman, the way she was assessing the danger level. Very good. At least she wasn’t totally stupid, foolish perhaps. Ordering drinks for both of them Dai Han ignored her when she said she could buy her own. When the bartender handed over the drinks he took them and led her to a table. For a time the two of them chatted telling lies that they were both aware were lies.
Listening to the music Dai Han recognized the tune, knowing it was a fast number he stood. “Would you like to dance now?” he asked and held out his hand. When Carrie moved into his arms it reminded him how long it had been since he’d held a woman in his arms. They swayed to the music feeling the rhythm, trying to become in tune to each other’s moves.
An eerie feeling caused him to pause. He peered over the woman's shoulder and in Akio’s general direction. He hesitated as his instincts went on the alert from one simple act. Akio was on his cell talking with his head bent and his hand attempting to cover the phone, the scene was strange. It wasn't the phone call that bothered him but Akio’s secretive manner. As Dai Han stared at his friend, Akio looked up and their gazes met. Akio turned presumably to say parting words to whomever he was talking to then hurriedly got off the phone. Dai Han took in a deep breath and released it. His thoughts lingered on his friend. That was odd no other word for it. The scent of the woman bedsides him once again tickled his nostrils and he tried to return his attentions to her. When he did he noticed she was staring at him with a wary look as though she thought she’d happened on someone who was about to come unglued.
“I'm sorry, Dai Han, but I forgot I’m supposed to be meeting my friends.” Carrie glanced at her watch. “Darn, I’m late.”
The impulse to smile came quickly. Dai Han didn’t blame her. She was lying and in a rush to leave him. “I thought you wanted to dance. Did you change your mind?”
“Like I said, my friends are waiting for me.”
He didn’t miss the way her eyes darted about the room. If he wasn’t mistaken, they appeared to linger on Akio. His gaze followed hers. Slowly he returned his attention fully to the woman who was staring at him with a puzzled expression then in the direction of Akio once again. What the hell was going on? The best way to find the answer to a question was to ask it. Dai Han was nothing if not direct.
“Carrie, did my friend pay for your services?”
Bringing her gaze back to the man she was supposed to be dancing with, Carrie studied his face. The music was loud and he had a very deep accent so maybe she'd misheard. Telling herself that in order to calm down wasn't working. “Did you just call me a hooker?”
“Are you?” he asked.
There was no misunderstanding. She was mortified. She never should have dressed the part. She remembered a cliché, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Apparently Dai Han had seen a hooker. Glancing over his shoulder she observed his friend watching the two of them. She frowned in confusion wondering what the heck she’d gotten herself into. Instantly Dai Han’s attention focused on his friend as though he’d read her thoughts. For what seemed an eternity she stared at the man in front of her before turning and walking away. She didn't look back at him but did glance at the man he had assumed was her pimp. Walking as stoically as possible Carrie headed away from Dai Han.
Dai Han’s attention had been so rooted on his friend he'd barely glanced at the woman until her head had turned sharply toward Akio. It was then the warning bells clanged the loudest. He stared hard at his friend watching different emotions play across his face. His disappointment was obvious. Why? Dai Han wondered. Why would his not being with this woman upset Akio? It was time to investigate this further. Without even so much as acknowledging Carrie, Dai Han made a bee line toward Akio.
“Dai Han. Why are you back so soon? What just happened?”
With a half-smile half snort Dai Han answered. “What are you talking about?”
“The woman you were dancing with, she just walked away from you. Why?”
“Why do her actions concern you?”
Akio hunched his shoulders and attempted to smile but the smile looked weak only serving to further Dai Han’s suspicions. “Are you familiar with her? She looked at you twice.”
“I've never met her,” Akio replied.
“You were very concerned about my meeting her. Now you're concerned that it didn’t work out. You can see how that might look a bit suspicious.”
“Look Dai Han, just because you're on a secret mission doesn't mean you should be suspicious of me. I'm your best friend. We've been friends for thirty years. Have you forgotten that?”
Blinking his eyes, Dai Han stared at Akio then shook his head slightly as though to clear it of cobwebs. The things Akio had said were true and before all this nonsense at the company he would have never been suspicious of his friend. He had trusted him with his life and secrets more times than he could remember.
But it was a fact that Akio had hired all of the Americans. It was also a fact that the sabotage had taken place in his division. It was hard to ignore that every time Dai Han had been about to close in on a suspect that suspect disappeared and either Akio was with him or had prior knowledge. Friend or not, those things could not be ignored, nor could the fact that for more than a year Akio had been behaving strangely. He'd been caught in more than a dozen lies. Dai Han had originally taken the case because his father had ordered him to get to the bottom of what was going on within the company and to prove his friend's innocence. But lately it was beginning to look as though all the information he found was pointing to Akio’s guilt.
Still, considering that proving his friend’s guilt was definitely not what he was after; he wanted to end the confrontation. He wasn’t ready to stick another knife in the heart of his lifelong friendship. With the constant fidgeting Akio was doing Dai Han felt as though he was on a rollercoaster. If only he could get to the root of what was going on with his friend. If only he could find those responsible for stealing from the company.
Damn. Perhaps he should have taken the bait. Now it was too late. The woman had disappeared and he didn’t need a psychic to tell him his friend had hoped he’d leave with the woman. He was nervously trying to think of a way to escape Dai Han’s presence. Extremely intuitive, Dai Han knew this to be true as he narrowed his eyes in his friend's direction. He’d try once again to make things right. Perhaps the evening could be salvaged.
“We've spent many nights together enjoying ourselves, brother. Perhaps it's a good thing the woman left. We can have dinner and a couple of more drinks, and then we can work on our strategy for tomorrow.”
“I have something to do,” Akio replied while looking away.
“How can you have anything planned? I am the one who planned out this trip to the second. I don't recall any input on your part that you had plans. Besides, we're on company time so you'll have to cancel your plans.” Dai Han’s words had come out much harsher than he’d intended.