Perhaps this moment from the recent past will shed some light on what happened in Shanghai.


Devra was in the crosshairs again.  

As she sat in the park, Devra watched the activity around her with interest.  Children playing under the watchful eyes of their parents, and judging by the different racial makeup of some, nannies and caregivers.   Joggers working off the pounds.  A few businesswomen enjoying their morning lattes among the trees.  A large German Shepherd mix, raced past her.  If the owner was nearby, Devra couldn’t make him or her out.  

After having been at the center of so much activity, Devra was grateful that the life and bustle swirling all around her seemed completely unaware of her presence.  She wasn’t Dr. Devra Bogdanovich, one of the first people on the planet to identify and understand Exotic Matter.  Or the woman who tried to stop its influence on humanity, and in the process of doing so, antagonized millions who were willing to embrace it.  She wasn’t the recently fired researcher from the CDC, or the woman now shunned by former colleagues for what was termed radical and questionable methods of attacking XM exposure the way one would attempt to control a virus.  Even if she believed, as did others, that it was a virus of the mind.  

The woman who had been shut down, and then shut out, took it all in.  

Devra had rarely thought about it before, but now that she was living the moment herself, it made sense that so much of what she knew as tradecraft involved public parks.  This park had a small dam that spilled over into a central lake.  The faint sound of crashing water could be heard in in the distance.  

The espionage business made ample use of the public spaces for a reason.  Plenty of space.  Civilians to provide distraction.  Multiple exits.  And if you picked your spot well, and Devra had, then sighting a tail, or a potential threat, was easier than being among a densely packed crowd.  

All good reasons.  And there was another: the shooter has insisted on it.

It was a cool morning in Atlanta.  Devra could feel the air hinting that winter was just around the corner.  She pulled the collar of her coat up, and adjusted her sunglasses.  Then she checked her watch.  The man wasn’t late.  She was early.  Devra had been on the run before.  And she had practiced the drill of the covert meeting on more than a few occasions.  Step one, arrive early.  Check.  Step two, assume you are being watched.  Devra could more than assume.  Check.  Step three, get what you want.  She’d make sure to check that box.  Step four, leave intact.  That was always the unknown.  Especially now that Devra had made a lot of enemies.  

And having made a lot of enemies was the reason for this meeting. 

Devra remembered a quote, something about the most dangerous man is the one with nothing left to lose.  A slightly smile crossed her face.  The most dangerous woman as well. 

The man was on time.  She saw him coming up the pathway.  He carried a black briefcase with both hands, holding it in front of him against his body.  An awkward position, but not so unusual as to draw suspicion.  It was, however, an excellent way to identify oneself.  And to show that neither hand carried a weapon.  

Devra watched the man as he moved to her.  She slid over a little as he joined her on the metal bench.  

“Do you know that everyone here, when they ask if you want a drink, asks if you want a Coke?,” the man said in perfect English.  

“Coke is interchangeable with soft drink here in Atlanta,” Devra replied.  

“Yes.  Understood.  Interesting how proximity to the point of origin can have such an influence on human behavior, or in this case, communication.  Take a brand name of a specific product, and make it a general term for any beverage.  It creates a hierarchy where one brand rises above all others, as one brand equates with quenching thirst.”

“Or maybe they just assume you want a Coke,” Devra smiled.  

“That could be as well”, the man smile back.  “As far as you know, my name is Mr. Hwang.  Is that acceptable to you?”

Devra studied the man.  Chinese.  Handsome.  Impeccably groomed.  His suit looked more expensive than if it had been sewed together with hundred dollar bills.  “Completely,” Devra replied.  

“We have been following your research, obviously.  And its very public failure,” Mr. Hwang said, without any emotion.  Devra knew what was happening.  The first test.  She was ready.  

“Perceived failure, Mr. Hwang.  Much of what was learned from the early trials never made it beyond the lab.  The portal virus was a shot across the bow.”

“So shoot first, and call whatever you hit, your target?”

“No.  Not at all.  But sometimes, to draw a target into the open, you have to make it realize that it is under attack,” Devra said, squaring herself to Mr. Hwang.  “The truth about the Shapers and Exotic Matter is something that needs to revealed.  It is the only thing left that matters to me.  I didn’t find myself in this place by choice, Mr. Hwang.  Events beyond my control forced me to take actions... sometimes extreme but always necessary actions.  And I’m in too deep to turn back now, even if I wanted to.  Which I don’t.”

Mr. Hwang studied Devra.  “Those are the words of a zealot, Dr. Bogdanovich.”

“My passion doesn’t blind me, it motivates me,” Devra answered, locking eyes with Mr. Hwang as she did so.  

He blinked. 

Mr. Hwang tapped the briefcase that was now resting on his lap.  

“A down payment.  As agreed.  But we will want access to everything.  And once all the data on the portal virus, as well as your current research is in our systems, the computers you have access to will be hard-walled.”  

“ADA doesn’t care about me anymore.  She found what she needed in Klue,” Devra replied.  

Mr. Hwang continued.  “No network connections.  I will be your point of contact from now on and until our agreement bears fruit or until it is terminated.”

“You’ll get what you want, Mr. Hwang.  Hulong has been chasing Visur and IQTech since the start.”

“Our position in this... Exotic Matter arms-race, if you will, is something that we choose to keep to ourselves.  There are other ways to draw out the enemy than shooting at them, Dr. Bogdanovich.  Being perceived as weak, for instance, can lead one’s competitors into a false sense of confidence.  Arrogance is the downfall of many western companies.  And philosophies.  Hulong has one thing you lack above all else, doctor,” Mr. Hwang said.  

“Yeah.  What’s that?”

“Patience”, Mr Hwang smiled.  

Devra looked into the distance.  Past the lake, and toward the small dam, no more than ten feet high.  She could see the water pouring over it in glassy sheets. 

“Ever heard the term scorched-earth policy before, Mr. Hwang?”, Devra asked.  

“Of course.”

“Well, here in Atlanta, they are famous for more than sugared water that once included cocaine as its main ingredient.  During the American Civil War, this city was the site of one of its more famous battles.  The battle of Atlanta.  Heard of it?”

“Forgive me, but no.  I’m not as versed in American history as I should be.”

“The main thing you should know.  The Union Army, led by William T. Sherman defeated a force of Confederates defending the city under the command of John Hood.  After Sherman won the battle, he ordered the city evacuated.  And then he burned it to the ground.  Everything.  Military buildings, shops, schools, churches, stables, homes... everything.  The fires of Atlanta burned so brightly and with such intensity that the glow of the flames was visible a hundred miles away.”

Mr. Hwang studied Devra.  He was seeing something few others had witnessed.  And it unnerved him.  

“Now, Sherman realized that some would see this action as little more than retribution.  But this was an act of psychological warfare, and perhaps one of the most famous.  It so terrified his enemies that he was then able to continue his march onward toward the sea, facing a demoralized Confederate force that knew what the general they opposed was willing to do.  Was capable of doing,” Devra said.  

“A shot across the bow,” Mr. Hwang nodded.  

“A very loud one.”

“You’ll fly commercial to Los Angeles.  First-class, of course.  We will have one of our corporate jets take you the rest of the way from there.  The information, tickets, and your first payment are in the case,” Mr. Hwang said, as he rose to his feet, setting the briefcase down on the bench behind him.  

Devra didn’t get up.  If she did, Mr. Hwang would be dead where he stood.    

“We look forward to a successful venture together, Dr. Bogdanovich,” Mr. Hwang said.  He offered no hand, and didn’t wait for her reply.  Instead, Mr. Hwang turned and walked away.     

Devra watched him go, then looked over at the case.  She grabbed it by the handle, then pulled it onto her lap.  Inside, she found everything Mr. Hwang said would be there.  Her plane ticket was for a flight leaving in the evening.  So the other ticket she would need to buy would be expensive.  

But thanks to what was also in the case, that wouldn’t be an issue.  

Hubert Farlowe watched the Chinese man in the tailored suit step away from Devra through the scope of his Kel-Tec RFB, keeping the crosshairs trained on him until he was well clear of her and his intent was certain.  If at any point during their meeting, Devra had moved to stand up, then the man would have met a quick, violent and certain end from one of things he’d taken with him when he and Devra separated from Visur.  

From his position across the lake, just beyond a small dam with gently cascading water, Farlowe re-acquired his original sighting position in the scope.  

Devra was in the crosshairs again.  

She was still sitting on the bench, but this time, was looking his way.  Directly his way.  She closed the briefcase and held it up with both hands.  She had what she wanted.  Which meant that for now, Farlowe had what he needed.  A reason to keep going.  

Farlowe gave Devra one last look through the scope, then began breaking down the sniper rifle.           
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