For the purposes of this story, Ed Straker was in Vietnam before it got serious as an observer/advisor for a short period of time prior to being accepted to MIT.
Alec knew they had an issue as soon as his security turned the photos over to him. He headed directly for his superior's office and dropped them on Col. Edward Straker's desk, the group photo uppermost. The silver haired man stared at the black and white representation of his youth. "Where did you get this?"
"With the others in her handbag."
Ed sifted through them: an old, old Oriental man, white hair wispy with age; a middle aged woman, also Oriental, with a pleasant, almost familiar face; and a family photo of the pair with a young girl. He tossed them back on the desk, unbidden memories returning to him. "What's she have to say?" Blackmail seemed reasonable. He was, after all, publicly a man of position and wealth in the movie community.
"Nothing, yet. We're waiting for an interpreter to talk to her 'cargo'." The word was an epithet in his mouth. Alec wanted to shoot the very self-possessed young woman and be done with it.
"Unless this ..." Ed tapped the photos with a fingertip, "is part of her repertoire, we can't."
"Ed ... !"
"SHADO first," Ed told him quietly. "We can't afford exposure."
"It's slavery ..."
"We don't know that." What they did know was that an elusive person called Madam Tiger was known to bring in two shipments a year of young women from Hong Kong. Rumor was that she presided over an exclusive slave auction, yet in ten years, no one had infiltrated one. At least no one was known to have done so. "I'll talk to her."
He wasn't certain what he expected. Madame Tiger looked like she was about twenty. Her clothing was of excellent quality, tailored to her petite figure and in spite of scrapes and bruises; she was as self-possessed as a woman twice her age. Ed tossed the photos on the table as he sat down. She raised an elegantly arched eyebrow in response. He was a little surprised at the light hazel of her eyes. "Madame Tiger?"
"That is what I have been called." Her voice was soft, cultured and only slightly accented. She met his gaze steadily, waiting.
He pulled the old group photo out. "And this?"
A faint smile curved her lips. "A keepsake of my mother's. She believed one of these men was my father."
She shrugged her shoulders. "She did not know. My mother was a Saigon Bar Girl. Her family ... her mother's family," she corrected herself. "thought she was only good to serve them. They were part French. My grandfather was Chinese. It was a painful time for both of them."
Ed absorbed the story. "That doesn't explain the photo," he prompted.
"These men were ... different. They were kind. She said they "staked out" three of the girls as their territory, defending them from other clients. For two weeks, no one else was with them."
Was it luck that led her to touch the photo then; missing his reaction? He recalled the trip to Saigon. As military advisors, the eight of them went into Vietnam and were basically turned loose in the city. With nothing better to do, they staked out a bar and the three best looking girls in the place. He remembered the headache and nausea that grabbed him the third day there. Most of the next week was hazy and then they were in and out with observation duties until they returned to Seoul. His acceptance to MIT came a few days later and he was rotated back to the States. He never gave Korea or Vietnam another thought.
"Why carry it with you?"
She focused on the far wall and sighed. "My mother is dead. She cherished that photo. It is a part of her ... and of me. Why so curious? Is this not more about the aliens and what Cho Lao Che thought to do?"
"Cho Lao Che? The man you shot?"
"Yes. Trusted as my second ... " Her voice shook with fury, her flushing slightly. "For four years he has been ... I did not see such greed in him. Why would he summon them? " Her confusion appeared real.
"They threaten family; offer power - You would know the man better than we would."
She shook her head. "I thought I knew him, but tonight ... I saw only a monster. He betrayed me ... betrayed our clients. If not for your people, we would be dead."
"Your ... clients ..."
Her eyes snapped at his tone. "Your people jump to conclusions," she shot back harshly. "Those I bring are brides or refugees seeking family. I do not deal in slaves."
Ed was taken aback by the vehemence of her denial. "Mail order brides?"
She relaxed again, with a chuckle. "Not exactly, Mr. ... You know my name. May I not know yours?"
"Straker." After all, the amnesia drug would remove the knowledge.
"Mr. Straker." She rolled the name across her tongue curiously, her gaze dropped to the photo. "It is you," she said more to herself than in conversation. "In China, both mainland and protectorate, arranged marriages are still far more normal than in Europe and the US." She held a hand up to forestall his comment. "I understand that these are no longer as understood in other areas, but good matches are still sought by the parents of both parties. Betrothals may happen early in a man or woman's life. Many men leave China before they marry. This does not negate the betrothal. But sometimes it is difficult to ... consummate the contract when one party is in Europe or England and the other is still in China."
"So you're the matchmaker," Ed translated dryly.
"No. The match is already made. I am the escort for the bride. I stand for her family as the marriage is made real by the laws of the land the groom lives in. A civil ceremony is quite short and completely legal in most countries. Once the household is established, the more elaborate ceremonies with invited family can be held."
"And all your clients are willing?"
"Yes. Of the twenty I brought in, eighteen should have had a civil ceremony tonight."
"And the other two?" he asked.
"Delivered to the American Consulate tomorrow to make contact with family living in New York. They are fifteen and seventeen. They were kidnapped two years ago and held to bring their mother back to the Mainland. Many persons have worked to free the girls. I was ... in the right place at the right time. The Mainland will lose interest once they are back in the States with their family."
"You recognized the aliens?"
That got a wan smile. "England is not their only destination, Mr. Straker," she answered his question. "There are large areas of Asia that are sparsely populated. Incidents ... occur." Madame Tiger looked much older than her actual years at that thought.
"There won't be memories to trouble you this time," Ed told her. "In the interests of security we don't let survivors remember the encounters."
"I do not know that I wish to lose my memories."
"I'm not giving you a choice." He slipped the photos across the table to her and left.
Alec and security confirmed that the women were wives-to-be, not slaves stolen from their homes. The youngest of them were indeed the daughters of a political asylum claimant in the US. SHADO was working to get things straightened out so that the delay in getting the ladies to their intended husbands and to the US Embassy in London would not be an issue. Alec still wasn't happy, but there was no sign of duress in any of their stories. All of them asked after Madame Tiger with no trace of animosity.
Dr. Jackson was waiting for the Commander when he returned to his office. "We have a problem, Commander."
"Madame Tiger is resistant." Ed felt tired as he said those words.
"You suspected this?" The doctor looked curious.
"Given the number of people involved, it seems logical at least one of them would be. Any indication of why her assistant hooked up with the aliens?"
"Wires in his brain, "Jackson told him. "He was apparently under alien control, all personal volition taken from him. I'm not certain he was even still alive as we account it."
Straker snorted quietly. "Perfect set up, if we hadn't been tracking them and if she hadn't killed him."
"Yes, sir. Your recommendation, sir?"
"Use the new drug."
Jackson opened his mouth and closed it. The new version of the amnesia drug had some side effects that were ... unfortunate, to say the least. The drug could take a few hours or a lifetime from a person and there wasn't a way to determine which would happen yet. He nodded and left. SHADO's security was of paramount importance.
Alec entered the office a few moments later. "They've all been dosed and are heading off to sleepy land. The kids are the worst. They were already terrified that the Chinese military would find them, now this. Jackson had one of the nurses stay with them until they dozed off."
"Good. We have Madame Tiger's contact list. Have security take care of getting the ladies and their grooms together. I think we'll deliver the young ladies to the consulate tomorrow."
"We will?" Alec regarded him curiously. Ed's eyes looked oddly opaque as he stared at nothing in particular. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Madame Tiger is a resistor. The amnesia drug won't work on her."
Alec wondered at the somewhat toneless voiced. "Unsuitable to recruit?"
"For a number of reasons," Ed agreed, still not meeting Alec's gaze.
The sharp blue gaze focused on him. "Jackson's going to use the experimental drug."
"So we may have complete amnesia when she wakes up ... " Alec looked troubled over that.
"Better than being dead," Ed reminded him sharply. "And better than being a security risk. We can't allow that."
Alec agreed with a sigh. "No. But sometimes I wonder how many innocents we have to destroy before we might as well be them. Sorry. Guess I'm tired. I'll go make arrangements with security in case we need them."
Ed dismissed him with a nod and returned to the reports stacked in his basket. It was only when the door closed that he pulled out the copy of the group picture and looked at it. Had he just consigned his daughter to oblivion because of SHADO? Would she even survive the experiment? How had he become so cold hearted that he couldn't even contemplate finding out if she was his before he made the decision that could kill her?
No, it was for the best that he not know. Not now. Not ever.
Alec and security stood in for Madame Tiger's people at eighteen wedding ceremonies that were all legal and above board on paper. He and Straker delivered Lao Miu Tan and Lao Szu Pan to the American Embassy in London where their mother awaited them with tears and hugs, thanking the two men over and over again for returning her daughters to her. She was a small woman, plain faced but with massive intelligence showing in her eyes.
A few days later, Madame Tiger awoke in a hospital room. Her head felt like she'd been hit with something very heavy. The narrow faced doctor with the Byzantine eyes asked her questions and she answered them. She was missing a week. Cautiously, she asked about her assistant. Mr. Cho did not survive the accident that put her in hospital. And her brides? They were delivered to their new families courtesy of Harlington-Straker Studios.
"I will write a letter of thanks. To whom do I address it?" She asked politely.
The doctor told her and withdrew. Three days of tests revealed no brain trauma, just a week of memories missing, which was reasonable she had been unconscious in the hospital for that length of time. She flew back to Hong Kong on a private jet supplied by one of her clients.
Ed Straker had put the incident behind him, turning his attention to more recent attacks and defenses. He was curious when his secretary put a box on his desk, but waited until he had finished with the reports of the day before opening it. Inside was a white jade sculpture of a tiger, pale aquamarines sparkled in its eyes. An elegant note accompanied it. "If you were my father, I would be very proud. When your war is over, look for me."