Angeline walked woodenly into Billy’s office and collapsed into a chair next to Coke. Although it was lunchtime, she was not hungry. Her grief had her stomach doing flips. “Let’s get on with it.” She heard Coke wince and felt the rub of his hand as he held it between his own. Her reflection in the mirror atop their grandmother’s oak buffet to her left showed why Coke had winced. Between the bags hung from her swollen red eyes her swollen red eyes and her puffy red cheeks, she looked like a raccoon that gotten on the losing end of a fight. She took the shot of whiskey that Brandon was handing to her, downing it in one gulp as her mind kept replaying the images and sounds from the video. It had been like acupuncture; the flu had receded.
“Angeline, you do not have to do this,” Alex Capperton said, moving in the attempt to look her in the eyes. Her focus he could see was not him, but somewhere behind him. He turned around seeing only the wall. He raised his voice slightly and shook her shoulder gently. “Angeline, have you—”
“Yes, yes. I heard you, Alex. I know what…” Her words trailed off. Alex shook her again, causing her to frown and shove his hand away. “Stop that. I’m hearing everything you’re saying. Why are you here? I wouldn’t have thought this was a matter that called for legal advice.”
Alex looked at Billy for help.
“Sis, I called him…to help us think through this. The request could get ESS into a middle of a firestorm…if it goes badly, as it might well do…”
Alex picked up from where Billy left off. “This is a job for the UN, the State Department, anyone but us, Angeline. We have no diplomatic cover if it goes bad.”
“But if the trawler is released and nothing happens to Angeline, it could be a major coo for the president’s plan…and with that benefits, goodwill for ESS,” Brandon offered.
Billy scowled. “And ESS take over the State Department next?” His scowl deepened further. “We’re not the government. You might remind Meg of that when you see her at the State Dinner.”
Meg was the president’s daughter as well as a tenured professor at Yale, whose specialty was Asian politics, and in particular that involving the two Koreas with a heavy focus on South Korea. Her dissertation, a rough framework for reunification of the peninsula, was thought to have been the basis for the president’s plan.
Brandon ignored his cousin’s comment about the president’s daughter. No good would come of it and he knew that when all of this over Billy would regret what he had said. Billy was upset and when he was upset, he lashed out at Meg, though he would never go at her directly. Besides earning the president’s enmity, Billy cared for Meg. Emma and Billy’s engagement three years ago had been a surprise. Six months prior, Billy and Meg had resumed seeing each other again and Brandon, like Angeline, had thought Meg would be the one Billy would marry. “You didn’t say one word in opposition to the president’s plan…even agreed with Angeline on a suggested timeline to present.”
“Consultation only, for the UN or the State Department to work with.” Billy rummaged in a file on his desk and extracted a piece of paper. He looked at briefly and hefted it toward Brandon. “See. Draft. Working document only. For State use.” Billy tapped the back of the paper near the headings where he had read from.
Coke joined in, not happy with Angeline even being told about the request. “What has been requested is on the ground diplomatic work…in a country we don’t have access to. No visas, nothing. She’s the only one that has verbal access only and Pyongyang could revoke that in a split second and then—”
If it had been up to Coke, he would have told the Eternal Leader hell no. Billy and Brandon had overruled him, then called Alex, who had sided against him, arguing that it was not right to keep this from Angeline. For what it was worth, he had suggested waiting a day or two. He was still miffed. His suggestion after that was that they let him take the blame for not telling her. Let her be mad at him. The infernal leader, as Coke called him, could make the request again, months later…if Pyongyang was being sincere.
“Tell the president I will go.”
How could she not do something? Mac had died. She had to find out why. He was no traitor that she knew. Nothing that anyone said would convince her that he had forsaken his homeland. Mac deserved whatever she could do.
“Why are you considering this?” Coke asked. Seeing her jerk as if she had been slapped in the face, he whispered to her that he was sorry. He put a hand on her arm. “Angeline, don’t. Please. That monster will kill you. All that pageantry…to…” He saw the arena. To him, it had looked like a miniature version of the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. “It’s all an ego trip to him.”
Angeline bit her lip as Coke kissed her hand and looked into her eyes. “It’s different with me.” She saw the look of disbelief on Coke’s face. Billy snorted and Alex was not much better; she could see him trying to marshal an argument. “Alex, he can’t do anything not now, not with the world watching. Not with him saying he’s providing safe passage for the operator. When would I leave?”
Alex’s expression changed to resignation. Her tone told him that she had made up her mind. Nothing would change it. He flipped open his phone and looked. “Next Saturday night, the night of the State Dinner.”
Carla knocked on the side door to Coke’s left and came in. She handed Billy an envelope and left quietly. Billy opened the note, read it, and passed it onto Angeline. “It’s for you.”
Angeline examined the envelope. “San Francisco. I don’t know anyone there.” She took out the note, handing the envelope to Coke. In the haze of tears, she read and reread the contents of the note, then read it aloud. “‘A message awaits tender heart’s personal receipt in San Francisco. Stars are aligned with you. Signed the Owner of the Book.’” Angeline handed the note to Coke, sucking in a breath. “Becky must have found the former owner of the Korean imagery book.” She told them about what she and Embers had learned.
“So this is somehow connected to the investigation?” Alex asked. “I take it that you are tender heart?” Angeline nodded. He held his hand up to stop Billy from interrupting with his own questions. “Why? Who calls you that?”
Angeline rubbed her face, tired from the questions, from all of it. She swallowed. Coke was going to blow on this one. She had never revealed this and it would sound worse than it was. So much she had not told him and now this. “The Eternal Leader.”
“What the hell?” Coke asked, pulling Angeline toward him so they faced each other again. “Are you involved with him?”
Angeline shook her head. “It’s not like you think. It’s his code name for me…because of my outbursts when he upsets me.” Coke’s face lost its intensity and he sat back in the chair. “It dates from that night five years ago. It’s how I know the message is from him, and not his advisers.”
“So, San Francisco is tied to Pyongyang as well as the investigation,” Alex said, reading the note, then handing it to Billy, “and Pyongyang is tied to investigation.” He looked at everyone. “Do I have it right? Have I missed anything?”
“I bet he had the drawings stolen,” Billy said drily, slapping the note down on the desk, “and is betting that if he lets the operator go, and the drawings go—”
“We don’t know that, Billy,” Angeline said, her voice hoarse. She looked at everyone, asking that they not jump to conclusions.
Brandon refilled Angeline’s shot glass and poured one for himself. He handed hers to Angeline and picked up the note off the desk. He read it quickly. “Angeline is right and he may not have known about the drawings until after they were seized.”
“Why are you defending this maniac? He killed Mac,” Billy said, launching from his chair towards his sister, only to be stopped by Brandon stepping in front of him. Instead, he sat on the edge of his desk in front of her, not touching or gesturing at her. “Angeline, please. I don’t want…” His voice choked. “I’ve lost a good friend when Mac…” He stared up at the ceiling, unable to finish the sentence. “I can’t lose you.”
Angeline stood up and hugged Billy, whispering, “You have my permission to explode a powder keg under the Eternal Leader if I don’t…”
“Don’t finish that sentence,” Billy muttered. He squeezed her tight. “And, I might. Think of it as Mac’s parting gift.” Angeline laughed softly. He winked in return. To Alex, he said, “Set it up, but Angeline will enter and return from Seoul, not Beijing, with a military escort to and back from the military demarcation line. She can opt out at any point before she enters North Korea.”
Coke tried again, placing his hands on her waist as she stood, her back to him. “You’re sure about this? It’s too risky.”
She wiped fresh tears away and closed her eyes for a moment, steeling herself as she looked at her brother. Stop the tears. Mac would want revenge, not sympathy. “I have to do something for Mac. He deserves more, though I have two conditions.”
Alex stopped making notes on his tablet, hearing the brittleness in her voice. That was her way of saying someone was in for it. By the time she got to Pyongyang, her anger and grief would be frozen mass that she would break over someone’s head. He guessed the Eternal Leader’s. “What is that, Angeline? You know that Pyongyang may not agree or double back on it.”
Angeline ignored Alex’s last statement. If the Eternal Leader wanted to play roulette, she would make sure he regretted it and there was also her brother. “The drawings are turned over to me and Mac’s family remains safe and unharmed. When I leave, they leave, with me.”