Three-Ox Liu stared mutely at the computer screen, unable to believe his eyes. His protege, Christie, the girl whom he'd rescued, seen to her training, and made her into the assassin that was his hidden advantage in the Hong Kong underworld, held a knife to the throat of Liu's only son.

"Sheng..." he whispered aloud.

He had no illusion that Christie would hesitate to slash the young man's throat. Liu himself had seen that spark--or perhaps that lack--in her when she was just thirteen, had cultivated it until she was a paid killer of notable talents. What he didn't, couldn't understand was why.

"What's the meaning of this?" he roared, assuming that a microphone, webcam, or both was connecting the computer to the room where she held Sheng hostage.

"Are you listening now, Liu? Good. You're probably asking yourself what, why, all the usual questions. Don't worry; I'm going to explain. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that a wrong was 'unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong,' and he was completely correct."

"Revenge? I've given you everything that you are!"

"Revenge is a dish best served cold, Liu. Master Su taught me that. Did you know that I'd been his student for two years before you ever met me? It's no surprise that you thought of him when you saw me. It was a plan, you see. Lo Whan was a petty crook with too much ambition operating too near Red Phoenix interests. I used my father's data to make him overreach himself, so that you'd come down on him with your customary brutal efficiency. Master Su judged that curiosity and ambition would make you willing to talk to me, and of course he was right. It was hilarious that you 'introduced' me to Master Su as part of your 'payment' for what I knew, but it goes to show your perception, your instinct for a situation. It's too bad that instinct didn't tell you that you were being set up, but that's your major flaw. The problem with being a tiger is that you have a tiger's ego; you expect things to go your way, fate to turn in your favor and so you don't question unexpected good fortune."

Liu's brain was racing as he tried to digest what she'd said. Their original meeting had been orchestrated? How was that even possible? It would require the manipulation of several people, including himself, to say nothing of a great deal of luck.

Yet, he remembered all too well his own reactions to the events of that night. He'd felt the hand of fate behind everything, putting life in order for Liu's success. Only, it hadn't been good joss but the hand of a master planner.

Christie might have had a talent for deception, but it hadn't been her plan. It relied too much on information she'd had no access to at her age, both of personalities and of underworld dynamics. She herself had claimed Master Su had assisted, but why? Liu had been on friendly terms with the snake master for years.

You can trust a act in its own interests. Did he had some unstated grudge? Or was it that he wished to help his student?

Liu thrust the puzzle aside angrily. None of this was important now! He could not afford to be distracted, not if he wanted to save Sheng.

"It all worked out so perfectly, didn't it?" Christie said. "Thanks to you, I had my entree into the underworld. You saw what I was capable of and gave me the chance to use it. Of course, I had to keep you close, but that was easy. And by not inducting me into the Red Phoenix, keeping me as your independent contractor, you gave me the opportunity to make outside contacts. After all, I don't think that you'll be as enthusiastic a patron for me after today."

She tapped the point of her stiletto against her lower lip as she talked, assuming a parody of a thoughtful attitude. She was almost flirtatious in her manner, macabrely so.

"You really should have suspected, Liu, when you heard my name. Isn't it just a little too coincidental that you'd destroy my family, and then I'd show up in your life three years later bearing gifts?"

"Your father killed himself! I had nothing to do with it!" he shouted, but she was already continuing, and now there was nothing flirtatious or posed about her. The camera had zoomed in on Christie's face, and her eyes were cold. Something dark and sharp was in them, as Liu imagined they'd look at the moment of the kill.

"Did you think I wouldn't be curious? Father was a gambler, and you'd bought up his debts. You had some directly as overseer of Red Phoenix gambling operations, but you'd acquired all of it. I can only assume that you wanted leverage, a door into the financial markets both to launder your triad profits and to tap for additional gain. But then he lost his job. He might have overcome that. A financial genius can always find work in Hong Kong; a crooked one might even have a better chance if he played his cards right. He could have come around--except that you called in his markers. All of them. Was there pressure on you to make something back from the capital you spent? Or were you just scared--or stupid?" She shrugged. "It doesn't matter. The point is, you were the one who forced him into the corner. You took away my family, Liu, my entire life as it had been."

She smiled at him.

"I think you know what happens now."

Liu was on his feet in an instant, flying to the door Christie had vanished through. It was locked, of course, but Liu had expected that and his charge broke it open with a screech of hinges bending, screws tearing out of the doorframe. She was expecting him, no doubt, perhaps was ready with a gun to ambush him upon entry, but if he could act quickly he was sure he could take her, even if he had to give his life in the process.

Only she wasn't there. The door did not lead to another room in the suite as he'd thought, but to an adjoining hotel room, which gave it access to the hall. The video that had played was not a broadcast in real time from another computer, but prerecorded, as certain conversations should have told him.

He hadn't wanted to believe it, though, because a pre-recorded message meant that there was no hope, no chance to change the outcome, so he'd ignored the evidence that said Christie had walked through the door, signaled the computer remotely to begin playback, and strolled out of the door of the adjoining room. By now she wouldn't even be in the hotel, her escape plans no doubt already formulated well in advance.

She'd left him a present, though. Sheng Liu was still in the chair from the video, still bound, still gagged. A leather-bound copy of the complete works of Poe had been placed in his lap, open to the first page of "The Cask of Amontillado." The blood spattering the cream-colored paper and Sheng's shirtfront was a rusty brown color, telling Liu that his son had been dead before the first course at dinner had been served.

Christie snapped her cell phone shut the moment the computer's webcam broadcast showed Liu breaking down the door. With a flick of her wrist it went sailing into a nearby garbage can; such things could be traced and like any modern crime syndicate the Red Phoenix was well-versed in the electronic arena. Nor could be sure that the carefully constructed dossier she'd prepared would be placed in Venerable Pien's hands soon enough for Liu to lose control of triad assets. He would lose that control sooner or later; explaining just why he'd deliberately undercut the 489's nephew in a highly profitable operation would be neither easy nor pleasant.

As for her, Christie was sick of Hong Kong. Her particular specialties were already in demand, and there were markets in Japan, America, and Europe where she might make her fortune. Her resume, after all, was exceptional, and with her bridges burned and memories laid to rest, it was time to move on, free of the shell of her past.

Her forefinger flicked the single tear off her right cheek and she strode off towards the beach and the waiting launch.

-X X X-

The Present

"Of course there's more, the journey between then and now when I came to work full-time for DOATEC," Christie said. She hadn't moved from her position atop Arnholt while she spun out her story. "But I suppose you don't want to hear that, mm, do you?"

She bent her head and kissed his throat, her lips resting softly against the pulse. Arnholt's skin was cool under hers, and the artery was still. Christie smiled, wondering at what precise moment his heart had stopped. He'd barely felt the prick of the needle in among her nails raking his back--and, of course, at that particular moment he'd hardly been aware of anything above the waist, anyway. Then it had just been a matter of waiting for the toxin to take effect, paralyzing the muscle fibers of the heart.

As she'd told him, they'd had time.

The assassin slipped from the bed and began to dress, donning underwear and the skimpy halter and miniskirt, then settled the long honey-blonde wig into place. Arnholt had thought the wig was to protect them from having their affair detected, which in a way it was. Christie fished his wallet out of his pants and extracted the cash, then tossed the billfold away casually. That should finish the picture nicely. Businessman takes whore to hotel room, overestimates his capacity and suffers a heart attack, whore gets scared, steals businessman's money, and vanishes. That the sex had had a little chemical help in stopping his heart would go unnoticed without a sophisticated toxicological exam, which an overstressed M.E. wouldn't likely order--particularly with DOATEC putting on the pressure to cover up the embarrassing circumstances of Arnholt's death.

Christie took out her cell phone and dialed, waiting patiently for the click of an answer and then the sequence of beeps indicating that the phone at the far end was decoding DOATEC's latest encryption of the digital signal.

"Hello, Victor," she said. "I don't think you're going to have to worry about losing your funding for Project Omega any more." She laughed at his response, then hung up, slipped the phone back into her purse, and stood. Even as she strutted out the door in the swivel-hipped sashay enforced by her stiletto heels, Christie was already looking forward to her next job. She gave no more thought to the debris of her last than a snake did for its shed skin.