(Read the prologue)
My jaw throbbed and I tasted blood on my tongue. Hair fell into my face when I met China’s steely eyes with a white-hot glare.
“That hurt, you little shit.” Except he was far from little. Nearly my height, he was lean and built like a mannequin in an Abercrombie & Fitch.
A late-night rendezvous was what I called it, but a business meeting was all it was. Things went south, and not in a good way. Heated words turned into a play for dominance–that is, making sure I was personally acquainted with his fist. Men like him, they talk a lot of shit about cooperation and “soft power,” but when things get ugly it turns out they’re just as animal as the rest of us.
“My apologies,” he said, voice like black coffee–smooth and dark. “Do you want to hit me back and call it even?” I wanted to do more than just deck him, but I knew this was a trap. I bought the backside of my hand to my aching jaw and made sure to communicate with facial muscles that I thought he could get bent. “No? Very well.”
He moved closer and I could smell the cologne on his neck. It was faint, overpowered by the cigarette fumes. “You choose to see us as competitors,” as he talked he began to circle me, like a wolf, “but that is a mistake. We’d work so much better as friends.” I felt his breath against my ear. “Don’t you think?” A chill shot up my spine.
Shit. Not great.
He backed off and brought his cigarette to his lips. I really wanted to be that cigarette.
Don’t blow smoke in my face don’t blow smoke in my face don’t blow–
It burned when it hit my eyes and nose. I breathed in deeply and let it fill my lungs.
Shit, shit, shit.
“I like you, America.” Papa, don’t talk like that. “Please, think on what I’ve said and reconsider my proposal.” He smiled. “Now, get the hell out of my office.”
I held an icepack to my face with one hand and a cigarette with the other. Japan’s head was lost in a comic book. We’d been sitting in silence because I’d been staring out the bay windows, glaring fruitlessly at China’s shitty little flag for a while now. He projected it from the top of his tower 24/7, a constant reminder. I could see it from almost every window in the penthouse. What a curse.
“If murder was legal, I could have solved all of this by now,” I said, mostly just thinking out loud. “I could have solved all of my problems by now. I mean, personally, I’m fine with getting rid of China the dirty way, legal or not, but I know everyone’ll wring my neck for it. I don’t wanna deal with that. But in a perfect world–“
Japan looked up from the book and said, “You’re starting to sound like the people who used to hate.” Her voice could stop time, the way it was so quiet but so heavy.
Our eyes met and she held my gaze for a moment before she went back to reading without saying another word. I mashed the cigarette butt into the ashtray on the coffee table.
What the hell did she mean by that?
I used to walk around the city to clear my head. Now it just has the opposite effect. I see his mark on everything that used to be mine; every corner I turn throws more salt into the wound.
Decline rarely happens rapidly. It starts with complacency and a God complex. You get cocky, you do stupid shit, and sooner than you know it people stop believing in you because you’re not the person they think you should be. You lose business, lose friends, lose connections. You can take and take and take from people all you want, but without anyone who will give you anything you want willingly–stupidly–you’re doomed. My old man learned that the hard way, I’m learning that now, and China’s gonna learn next.
I ended up in a bank, one of the African Union’s branches. Not too long ago they signed a sweet deal with China, who promised to triple their business and even built this very building. How generous, how selfless. This was the cleanest, shiniest bank in the city and would have been beautiful if not for that red abomination in the center of the floor.
I stood top of his flag in the pearly lobby and stared up at his face as it started back from three different screens. China made all of his building play on at least one TV a non-stop channel dedicated to his business–sales reports, good news, advertisements. It was downright propaganda, but I’m just pissed I hadn’t thought of doing it first.
One of the TVs had a news program on. A journalist who worked for one of the bigger papers here was being arrested from his home for embezzlement, it sounded like. This guy had been one of his China’s biggest critics, bringing up issues of unethical practices and digging into rumors of corruption. Now, none of that meant anything.
This wasn’t uncommon. China was a fire. If you fuck with him, you get burned. Badly. All of his critics and opponents mysteriously and suddenly end up in jail or a scandal or ruins. I know the only reason he hasn’t tried to go after me is that he knows I’m too big for him to touch.
When I looked away I saw South Africa, the manager of this branch, watching the TV too as the innocent man was taken away in cuffs. Then the program took a break and one of China’s stupid, bullshit feel-good reports came on. Our stocks are soaring! You must be one dumb bastard if you aren’t investing in my business! I had to unclench my jaw to talk.
“You know he’s one sick son of a bitch, right?” My words came out like steel; cold and sharp. But the look in South Africa’s eyes matched.
“Of course we know that,” she spat. “But we’d rather deal with the son of a bitch with the rising empire than the son of a bitch with the declining empire.”
“He’s going down.” I smashed my fist and palm together. “I am going to bring that motherfucker down.” Japan kept her eyes on the screen. She was playing some RPG and it looked like she was winning, but there was so much happening that I couldn’t tell for sure.
“China. I’m gonna teach that smug asshole that he’s not untouchable, that he’s not a god, that he bleeds just like anyone else. I’m going to burn his empire to the ground and take back my crown.”
She put the controller down and looked at me. Though her face didn’t change, there was a glimmer in her eyes. She was rarely outwardly swayed by the pulls of emotions, but this was starting to ignite some kind of flame in her I hadn’t seen in years. “We,” she said in that heavy voice. “We’re going to burn his empire to the ground.”
“Okay, partner, you wanna hear my plan?”
The Monday morning papers sang about how China’s oh-so-advanced and oh-so-smart computer security system was breached. Panic, panic! Nobody knows who was behind the attack! How could this happen to the self-proclaimed tech giant?!
China may have some of the city’s–hell, even the world’s–best hackers at his command, but I knew someone better, and she owed me a favor.
Now, there was just one more pawn to move.
North Korea didn’t appreciate having a gun shoved in his face as Japan and I forced our way through his front door, though I can’t imagine why.
“You cowards, cornering me like this. I’ll kill the both of you. I’ll flay you alive. I’ll break every bone in your body one by one, I’ll–”
“Take it easy, sunshine,” I said. “We just want to talk.”
Though North Korea was fresh outta grad school, he’d been China’s money man–CFO, technically speaking–for years; the bastard liked ’em young, smart, and ruthless. I, on the other hand, hated the smarmy little rat–hated his beady, judgemental eyes, his stupid hair that was always perfectly combed, how his crisp, white button-ups never had a single damn wrinkle, and the way he smelled like clean. Like soap. Like a hospital bathroom.
“Sure, that’s why you bought a gun.” He kept a gun on him too–some of us did–but I doubt he had right now. I bet he wished he did.
“Oh, this thing?” I shook it around a little and his whole body jerked backward. “It’s not even loaded.”
“What the fuck do you want?” There was a strain in his voice, like a vein was gonna pop somewhere. He liked to act tough, but he was sweatin’.
“You look pale, kid. Come on, let’s take a seat.” So we sat at in his snow-white living room in his snow-white house on the snow-white furniture in plastic coverings, Japan and I on the couch and him on the sofa across from us.
“Now, I don’t have allergies,” I said, “or any kind of respiratory sensitivities, but if I did, your house would be the place to go. I don’t think there’s a single speck of dust in here.” I thought maybe he’d sneer, but instead he smiled. I set the gun down on the coffee table between us and his eyes moved faster than I’d ever seen anyone’s eyes move. His muscles tensed as he stared at it. Part of me wished he would make a grab for it.
I looked around the room and tried to keep the conversation rolling. “You like white, huh?”
“It’s clean color,” he said softly, but I didn’t detect any fear in his voice.
“I’m gonna tell you a secret.”
“I don’t want to hea–”
“We’re gonna to rob China blind and we’d love your help.” His eyebrows shot up and he just stared at me.
“That bank he just opened up with the African Union. He’s got a big vault down there somewhere, right? And I’m assuming it’s filled with money. We tried real hard to find the password to his little treasure trove when we hacked his computers,” more eyebrow movement from North Korea, “but we left empty-handed. You’re his money guy, though. If anyone can get us in, it’s you.”
I’d had a lot of things planned for this moment. Japan and I even went over a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine to try. I had to promise her I wouldn’t use any form of torture, but I did come up with creative alternatives. I was working it through in my head, thinking of maybe trying some mind games involving the pistol, when North Korea finally said,
“Fine.” Hold on, what?
“Oh, yeah? Just like that?”
“You underestimate how much I resent China. He’s a lying, selfish, manipulative snake. A traitor, a fraud, a narcissist–” North Korea’s face got a little red right as he stopped himself, and I wondered if it was just from anger or if there was ever something more. If this was a “lover scorned” situation, it put Japan and me in a pretty good position. I was just little disappointed we wouldn’t get to do the routine.
Northie continued, “I resent you too, but at least you never pretended to be my friend. It was always very clear that we were enemies. I like that, that simplicity. That clarity.” He folded his hands in his lap then said in a matter-of-factly tone, “I can get you into the safe, nothing more and nothing less. What you do after that will be entirely on you.”
“And don’t you worry,” I said, “we won’t tell on you. China will just assume we got ahold of the information during the hacking, so you’re safe.” I wasn’t lying. I wanted every last bit of China’s anger directed at me. I wanted to feel it at its hottest. “Hey, mind handin’ me my gun?” Carefully he reached for it and sneered when he realized it really wasn’t loaded. He tossed it at me.
“Alright, now both of you fuck off.” He was probably itching to bust out the Clorox and spray down the whole room. “And don’t you ever pull anything like this again. This time, I was merciful. Next time I won’t be.” I believed that.
He saw Japan and me to the door, practically shoving us along. I planted my feet and turned back to him. “Wait, one more thing. What’s the deal with the TVs?”
We sat at the kitchen bar, pizza boxes and booze stacked on the counter around us, and went over the plan.
“We’ll be committing a crime,” Japan said. “A pretty big crime. Against a very powerful person.”
I scoffed. “Who’s gonna stop us? No, really. What’ll they do–uhh, give me a slap on the wrist at the worst? Look, I own this city. I still own the City Council, the police, the prisons. I’m their god. I’ll tell ’em to steal a kid’s lunch and they’ll do it without blinking. I’d tell ’em to eat sawdust and they’d get on their hands and knees and whimperer, ‘Yes, sir,’ while they shove a handful of it in their mouths. I have this place and its politicians on a damn leash. Not even China can’t take that away from me.”
Later that night we found out that, combined, pizza and plotting make a pretty good aphrodisiac.
We’d stumbled into the bedroom and by the time her top came off I was pressing hot kisses down her neck and she was grabbing a handful of my ass. This was great, but soon I felt hands on my shoulders–definitely not a woman’s hands–and lips trailing down my back.
It was Germany.
How did he get there? Had he been there this whole time? Didn’t know, didn’t care. Neither did Japan. The three of us made love all night.
I also had a safe on the basement floor, so no one gave us a second thought when he stepped into the elevator. As it raced down, my heartbeat shot up. I looked over at Japan, maybe becaue I wanted to see if she was nervous at all. Maybe it was the adrenaline and the possibility that this could still all go to shit and we’d end up dead or worse, but a crazy impulse washed over me. I wanted to tell her that I loved her.
She never liked romance.We never kissed in public, never hugged. I always found it funny how she was so much more comfortable with me touching her thighs than holding her hand. Looking at her now, wearing ridiculous triangle shades, a leather jacket over a t-shirt that just said “I Can Be Shit, Mama,” and glittery jeans, she was more beautiful than ever. My ensemble–golf shorts, cowboy boots, and a red baseball cap, just couldn’t compare.
In the end, I didn’t say anything at all. The doors opened and we stepped out.
In front of us was a long corridor, vaults on both sides. These safes belonged to politicans, celebrities, and other disgustingly wealthy businessmen. This sacred hallway was a shrine to capitalism, and it was so beautiful I almost shed a tear.
Walking down the hall, we passed only one person. Switzerland.
We brushed by each other without a word, but then he stopped and said, “Hey, wait.” My heart dropped, but I turned and tried to play it cool.
“What’s up, man?”
He stared at us for way too long, then said, “Nice pants,” and walked away like nothing had happened. Whew.
The rest was a cinch. We reached China’s safe and entered the passcodes North Korea had given us. I punched in the last number and held my breath. There was no blaring alram or blinking red lights. Just a soft beep and the sound of the door unlocking. Bingo.
We’d made it–but the moment the door opened we were starin’ down the barrels of two P420s.
“America, I’m disappointed!” China’s voice. This time the coffee had a little cream. “Did my gentle encouragement not get through to you? Perhaps you need a harsher lesson–” His eyebrows wiggled a little. “What the hell are you two wearing?”
“How long were you in there?” Japan asked with absolutely no inflection. “An hour? All day?”
“That’s embarrassing,” I added.
China didn’t seem fazed by our sick burn. “North Korea told me about your scheme,” he said. “Trying to hit me where it hurts, hm?”
“That kid’s a rat,” I hissed. It was a language China would understand.
“No, America,” China’s voice got unusually sharp; did I strike a nerve? “You are the desperate animal, clawing pathetically at whatever’s in front of you as you struggle to hold on to the last bits of your power and influence.”
“It’s really attractive when you talk down to me.” He sneered.
“I should kill you both, but murder is beneath me.”
“Somehow, China, I really doubt that.”
“No, I’d rather you rot away in prison where you can watch me take everything from you.” He motioned to his two henchmen and they closed in on us. Not only were they shredded, they also had guns. P420s, to be exact. We didn’t have P420s.
“Trying to steal someone’s money can get you a lot of time in this city,” China went on. “As you know, we take our finances very seriously.” He made a little tsk-tsk noise. “The cyber attack won’t make you look very good, either.”
When it looked like his goons were gonna throw us out and, probably, put us in a chokehold until the police arrived, Japan wiped out her phone.
“Hold on,” she said. “I have to Instagram this.” She threw up a peace sign. “Hashtag ‘being arrested.’ Hashtag ‘no filter.’ Hashtag ‘blessed.’ Hashtag ‘depression memes.’ Hashtag–”
“Shut up,” China begged.
When we were back on the first floor, concern began to spread across China’s stupid, sexy face when he saw the entire bank looking up at the television screens with expressions that were anything but pleased. Propaganda videos were playing on every screen, but they weren’t fluffy, BS infomercials praising his success. In fact, they were doing the opposite.
I turned to China and saw he’d paled. That’s right, asshole. Stare in horror at the beginning of your end.
“See, the whole money thing was just a distraction,” I said just above a whisper. “We targeted your finances during the hacking to throw you off. North Korea fit into it all nicely. I figured he’d tell you about our plan–in fact, I needed him to.” At that point, Japan had scurried off to snap some pics of our victory. Hashtag ‘get cucked.’
“After all,” I continued, “Keeping you away from the TV station was crucial for Japan to carry out her part of the plan. Truth is, I was gonna rob you–much more masterfully than the pretend shitshow that went down today–and you wouldn’t have been able to catch me. But it was Japan who wanted us to expose you for the monster that you are. It was brilliant and brutal, so of course I liked it. Sow doubt, create chaos. That’s what she called it.” We watched together as a cute anthropomorphic cat ripped China apart.
Did you know that he’s been monitoring every surveillance camera in that shiny new AU branch that he so generously offered to build it for free? Uh-oh! Well, I guess they were right when they said nothing is really ever truly free, hehehe! He even put some of his own recording devices in places you wouldn’t expect! Like the toilets? Teehee~ If you bank there, he’s probably stealing your personal information. Waaahhh, so scary!
We’d gotten all the material we needed during the cyber attack; proof of China’s unethical practices, ties to oligarchs, and internal corruption within his company. It was all there, and all Japan had to do was make a video that we’d play across every one of China’s TVs throughout the whole city. And it was one hell of a video.
As China continued to watch, complexing looking more sickly by the second, I pulled my sunglasses off the front of my shirt and slipped ’em on. “I know you’re lawless and depraved, but I can play that game too. Some future advice, don’t ever underestimate what I’m willing to do. This just barely scratches the surface. I can sink much, much lower.” I gave him a firm pat on the shoulder and walked away.
“This isn’t over,” he said from behind me. Now who was the desperate animal?
“Oh, I hope not.”
Later that night Japan crawled on top of me, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I love you, bitch.”
I took her hands in mine and we kissed.
Just gonna reiterate that: 1) This was written from the lens of MAGA!America, 2) I don’t think China wants to take over the world, and 3) that I would much rather see Washington and Beijing work with each other than against each other, diplomatically speaking. Trump thinks–thought?–China is a vicious competitor out to ruin America. I don’t.
The thing with the surveillance and the African Union is real news, but both China and the AU deny it. In this story, it was true. In reality, it may or may not be.