The Agents

Los Angeles

  Tran Dinh was annoyed.
  He didn't like America.  He didn't like Los Angeles.  He hated Beverly Hills.
  It was too hot, and he was stuck up on a rooftop that some sadist had painted white, waiting for the unfortunate Mr Sanchez Ruez.  An FBI team was due any time now, and as soon as Ruez answered his door, he was going to get a 7.62mm bullet in the face.  Courtesy of the Accuracy International sniper rifle lying at Dinh's feet.
  He had been practising with it for a month now, and could get a two-inch group at two hundred metres.  It was two hundred metres from where he was sat to Ruez's door.  He had drop and elevation worked out, the figures of which he had triple-checked.  Dinh was confident he could choose which eye to put the bullet through.
  He was an adjudicator.  He was only brought in to resolve difficult situations that could not be handled by other means.  He took pride in his work.  He was careful, methodical and ruthless.  However, he also had tact and subtlety, which was why the AI was suppressed, the barrel twice as thick as normal to accommodate the sound baffles.
  The sun hammered down, and he sweated.  He was still wearing his suit, and inside his gloves his hands were slick.  It was very unpleasant.  The white stone shone in the sunlight, reflecting the fierce glare right up into his eyes.  Dinh raised the binoculars, not so much to check his target as to prevent having his retinas burned.
  Ruez's house was a small Italian-style faux villa, terracotta and tasteful marble, a large immaculate front lawn bordered by a low red brick wall.  The house Dinh was currently perched upon was situated on a T-junction, at the top of the T.  Ruez's house was at the end of the cul-de-sac, at the bottom of the T.
  Looking through the windows was fruitless, they were all stained glass, depicting various Christian icons, the movement behind them sparse and warped.  Even the window set into the front door depicted the Virgin Mary, and it was no more than six inches square.
The porch was covered in a variety of sporting equipment and toys, footballs, a baseball bat, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, a pogo stick, a small guerrilla force of toy soldiers-
  Dinh snapped back, lowering the binocs, frowning.  He put getting distracted down to the heat and his annoyance, then concentrated on the job at hand.
Mrs Markowicz, who was unlucky enough to live here, was drugged and tied up downstairs.  The stupid woman had greeted him warmly enough, but had stopped smiling when he had tasered her.
  Strange how quickly people's opinions changed.
  His car was parked in the alley behind the house, a rented shitbox Oldsmobile.  In case something happened, he also had another car parked not a mile away, a slightly less shitboxy Trans Am.  Everything he needed, he had on him.  ID, cash, credit cards, passport.  The rifle he would take inside and dump in the bathtub he had already filled with water, to get rid of any possible trace evidence.  Then he would go out of the back door, climb the fence and get into his shitty Oldsmobile and drive to LAX.
  If things looked good there, and after contacting Mr Ko everything was deemed satisfactory, he would get on a plane back to Canada.
  If not, he would simply drive out of the city, pick up an alternate identity in San Diego or San Francisco and fly back to Canada.
  In a worst-case scenario he would pick up an identity in San Diego and cross the border into Mexico, and fly from there.
  But the thought made him shudder.  The reality would probably make him physically sick.
  Mr Ko had once offered him a lucrative contract there, three instances over a period of six months.  But he had to reside in Mexico.  Dinh had flatly refused, and Mr Ko had gone away, his usual polite inscrutable self.
  But Dinh knew he had not been pleased.
  Dinh wiped his forehead on his sleeve and sweltered.  He was beginning to detest LA.  It wasn't even a real city, just a lot of small towns that had grown together over time, each stubbornly, stupidly, holding onto their own individual identity.  The city disgusted Dinh on a basic, innate level.  Neo-Nazis one block, Crips the next.  Buddhist monks and muscle freaks, bimbos and greasy executives.  Residential neighbourhoods with enough private security to shoot it out with the LAPD, slums with enough staggering crack whores and swaggering gangstas to fill a prison.
   LA was pretentious, empty of meaning, as schizophrenic as its inhabitants, each reflecting the other.
  Dinh sighed sadly.  He liked New York.  New York had character.  He liked Chicago.  Chicago was cold and windy enough to make him feel almost at home.  Even Washington, with all it's grandeur and achingly bad architecture, was better than LA.
  He stretched slowly, listening to his joints pop one by one, then swept up the rifle, resting the bipod on the low wall that bordered the roof.  He flicked up the front and rear covers on the scope, switched the safety off, got the butt against his shoulder, holding the rifle firmly, and found the Ruez house.  He panned down and left, resting the marking post in the centre of the scope on the door.  He slowly eased his aim down until the Virgin Mary's head filled that small black circle.
  "Bang." He murmured softly.
  He lowered the rifle, laying it down at his feet again, putting the lens covers down and the safety back on.
  Everyone he met in LA irritated him.  They were all extremists, of religion, of attitude, whatever they could take advantage of.  Dinh wiped sweat from around his almond-shaped eyes, pushing back his hair with a flowing continuation of the same gesture.
  His hair was black, glossy and straight, reaching almost to his shoulders.  He liked it that way in case he needed to change appearance quickly.  He could shave it off in minutes.  He was tall, something from his father perhaps, slender as a long-distance runner.  He moved slowly but gracefully, sure of each movement.  His suit was terrible, nicely cut but in a shade that almost matched his skin, and the metallic grey shirt didn't help.
  Still, he didn't look like a killer.  Here in LA, he was just another gook who had got lucky and made some money, a studio executive or the manager of a Vietnamese restaurant.
  Not a killer.
  He couldn't wait to get back to his hotel room and have a long, cold shower.  The thought of it made him shiver.  Sluicing all this greasy sweat off would be the high point of his day.  Well, that and going home.
  Dinh thought of the cold snow and the biting wind and allowed himself the smallest flicker of a smile.  Home.  Miles from anywhere.  No unbearable heat, no smog, no traffic, no gangs eyeing him from corners, no crowds.
  Tran Dinh wiped sweat from his face again, and went over the activity so far.
  9:30.  Mrs Ruez goes to the store.
  9:49.  Mrs Ruez comes back from the store, eating a Twinkie, as if the fat cow needed any more weight on her hips.
  10:23.  Mrs Ruez makes a thirty-second attempt to clean up the porch before waddling back inside.
  11:07.  Mr Ruez's brother, Marco Ruez, turns up in a gaudy red Cadillac.  
  Nothing else.  Dinh checked his watch.  It was now 3:42, and he was getting anxious.  The FBI raid had been scheduled for the morning.  He glanced behind him, suddenly paranoid, expecting to see agents in full black assault kit creeping up, MP5s aimed.
  But there was just the empty rooftop, and the smog-blurred sprawl of LA beyond.
  He turned back, and waited.  Whether the FBI turned up or not was irrelevant.  He was here to kill Ruez.  That was all.
  Then he heard the helicopter.

  Tran Dinh's mouth, already so dry his tongue felt like sandpaper, got drier.  He turned, picking up the AI, supporting the rifle with his left as his right wrapped around the grip.  He looked hard, sweeping the sky with his dark eyes until he saw it.  Wavering in the heat haze, coming in low, still about a kilometre away.
  He sighted through the scope, taking a second to acquire the heli.  A small McDonnell-Douglas, dark paint job, bubble-style cockpit.  Assault troopers stood on the skids.  One of them turned, gesturing to the pilot.  Tran Dinh clearly saw the letters stencilled in white on the trooper's black body armour.
  FBI.
  -shit-
  He spun, turning back to the house, aiming down slightly into the street.  He hadn't counted on a heli.  None had been mentioned.  Mr Ko's brief had been very specific.  Three to four dark sedans, fed sleds.  Eight to twelve federal agents.  Nothing else.  No assault teams, no SWAT vans, no LAPD.
  No helicopters.
  -come out Ruez come out come out-
  The front door opened.
  Dinh's right hand slipped from the thumbhole stock to the safety, pushing it forward before returning to the grip.  Bipod legs resting securely on the small wall that ringed the rooftop, Dinh sighted down the scope and took up first pressure on the trigger.  Poised, leaning forward, rifle cushioned by his muscles and supported by his bones, he looked down the scope, keeping both eyes open and his finger on the trigger.
  Despite his hammering heart, he took a deep breath.  Let it out and then stopped, holding his breath.  Stillness settled into his body and soul even as the roar of the helicopter crescendoed behind him, making his heart beat ever faster.
  For that second, Tran Dinh was nothing more than a guidance system for the 7.62mm bullet in the rifle's chamber.  There was a strange sense of connection as the target stepped into the doorway, Dinh's eyes and the black pupil of the AI's barrel focused on the sun-browned face that came into view, emerging from the interior shadows.  A link between the trinity of men and weapon, from the rifle to the target to the shooter to the rifle.
  Dinh took up second pressure as the marking post crossed that broad nose and squeezed the trigger all the way back.
  The rifle spoke, a quiet phunt that broke the link as the bullet flew, gun pushing back against his shoulder.
  The hollow point bullet performed perfectly, smashing through the nasal cavity and on into the brain, mushrooming as several pieces broke off and spun away, carving through grey matter like knives through butter.  The main mass sliced the brain stem and carried on, punching through the vertebrae to exit in a burst of gore.
  Dinh watched the target fall, trigger still locked back, then let go and raised his hand to the bolt.  A second shot was probably unnecessary, but it was best to make sure.  All he could see of the target was a pair of legs, sprawled awkwardly across the doorstep, but if he placed his shot an inch or two above them-
  "FBI!  PUT THE RIFLE DOWN AND STEP AWAY"
  Reality rushed back in and Dinh turned to see the heli hovering almost directly overhead, assault troopers aiming down at him with their MP5s.  Rotorwash stroked through his hair and made him squint.  The speaker squawked then burst to life again. "PUT THE GUN DOWN!  DO IT NOW"
  Bolt-action rifle versus submachine gun.  Not a winning prospect.
  Fat coils of rope were hurled down, slapping onto the roof like restless snakes.  Two of the four assault troopers turned, slinging their 5s and getting ready to fast rope down.  The helicopter sat under its blurrred blades, fat and heavy with promised death.
  Dinh clasped the rifle close as he moved, diving for the stairway to the house and spilling down it in a jarring tumble of bashed elbows and scraped knees.  He halted halfway down, stuttering fire smacking into the steps, and jammed himself into the lee of the closest wall.  He worked the bolt, up-back-forward-down and popped up, aiming.
  Shooting it out with the troopers was not a solution.
  He fired on instinct, no time to use the scope.  The bullet shattered plexiglas, and the helicopter banked, turning and dipping as the troopers began their descent.
  One locked down, holding on tight.  The other didn't.
He fell most of the way, limbs flailing, before his hand caught a loop which jerked him to a halt six feet shy of the roof.
  Dinh moved, dumping the rifle and jumping  up, rolling clear of the stairway and running across to the trooper as he touched down.
  -short chopping blows-
  The trooper turned, bringing his 5 up.  Dinh knocked him off balance, slapping the muzzle aside with his right and punching with his left.  The trooper grunted, and Dinh slammed a knee up into his groin and as he folded up, shot an elbow into the side of his neck.
  The man dropped, 5 falling loose on its sling.  Dinh stomped down, head and neck, before knee-dropping the trooper's chest.  Ribs broke under body armour, muted cricks.
  -gun-
  Dinh knelt, snatching the pistol from the trooper's thigh holster.  Black and bulky with large calibre rounds.  He looked up and started shooting, emptying the magazine into the underside of the heli, gun ramming back against his hand with every shot.  The heli swooped away, roar receding a little as the troopers clung on, lowering their weapons.  Dinh ejected the mag and rolled the gasping trooper over, patting him down.  No, no, no, no, ah.
  He tore open a pouch and drew out two spare mags, thick blocks of black steel filled with double-stack columns of rounds.  He checked them even as he pushed a magazine into the butt of the pistol.  Oh what a surprise.  Americans and their .45s.  Like a child with it's favourite toy.
  He snapped back the slide and tucked the spare mag into his belt.  Vague thoughts of shooting the trooper surfaced and submerged.  He had fucked up enough.  Killing an FBI agent was neither tactful nor subtle.  Time to leave.
  Even as the heli swung back around, he aimed as he ran, loosing off rounds at the fuselage as he headed for the stairs.  Return fire chipped the roof.  Dinh shot twice more, fast trigger pulls that slammed rounds into body armour, then stooped and grabbed the rifle from the steps and hurried into the house.  Mrs Markowicz's bedroom, the lady herself lying ramrod straight on the bed, staring at him.  Dimmer and quieter in here.
  He grinned at her and winked as he hurried past.  Hall, bathroom on the left.  He threw the rifle into the tub and then ran downstairs, jumping the last half dozen and grabbing the banister, swinging around and sprinting into the kitchen, kicking the back door open and moving outside, back into the hot sunlight.
  The heli was coming around again, moving to the other side of the house, troopers probably hoping to rope down and catch him inside.
  -tough shit-
  He ran through the yard, vaulting the fence easily and dropping down next to his Oldsmobile.  The classic ninety-eight had seen better days, the white and sea green paint job scratched and fading.  But it would blend in.
  He got in, dropping the pistol onto the front seat and sliding behind the wheel.  Fifty metres ahead, the end of the alleyway.  Too close, the helicopter would see him emerge.  He peered into the rear-view mirror.
  The other end was two hundred metres distant.  He dug the key out of his pocket, jammed it into the ignition and twisted.  The engine coughed and then rumbled, turning over sedately.
  Dinh dropped into reverse and stamped down.  The ninety-eight's tyres gave a brief squeal as they found their grip and the engine whined up, throwing the car back down the alley.  Past the narrow mouth of the alley, Dinh could see traffic flashing past, and he gritted his teeth.
  He glanced forward, ready for FBI agents to come scrambling over the wall.  None appeared.  His eyes flicked to the rear-view.
  Nearly there.
  The mouth of the alley drew closer and closer, tyres quickly winding the distance down until he was right there and as the rear poked out into the street he spun the wheel hard right.
  The tyres screamed this time as the car swung out into the street, a ninety-degree spin that flung Dinh hard up against the door as traffic screamed by on both sides, horns blaring, brakes shrieking.
  Dinh punched it, shifting up into first and swinging around a skidding truck, mouth locked into a savage grimace.  Sweat ran into his eyes as he dodged an oncoming Humvee and got on the right side of the road, ignoring the screams behind him.
  He reached across, picking up the pistol and ejecting the mag.  He wedged the pistol between his legs, upside down, then sucked in his breath and delved behind his belt for the last spare mag.  The mag slotted into the butt and he slapped his palm down on it, clacking it firmly into place.
  He worked the wheel one-handed, spinning it right and then hard left, slewing around a taxi and moving up into second and then third when he hit a long flat stretch, eyes darting to the rear-view every second.
  No sign of pursuit.  He wound the window down.  No roar of helicopter rotors.  On his way to home free.  He turned off onto a side street, trying to get his bearings.
  -LAX is almost straight south of Beverley Hills-
  He breathed deep of the muggy air rushing in through the open window.  He grinned and slapped the dashboard.
  -do pass go do collect two hundred thousand dollars-

  He parked in Lot B of LAX and checked the pistol.  A P14, a high capacity .45 calibre semiautomatic.  He braced the gun between his hands and edged the slide back a little.  Round in the chamber.  He knew there were thirteen more in the magazine, he'd used the pistol before in his stint with the Canadian military.
  But he couldn't take it with him.  Not much further, anyway.  He tucked it into his belt, climbed out of the car and locked it.  He patted the ninety-eight goodbye and hurried off, gloved hands tucked into pockets, head down.
  Avoiding attention was an art form.  He kept his head tilted down as his eyes scanned the area, watching the reflections in windows, vehicles pulling up or cruising slowly by, people with their hands in their pockets.
  But no one was watching him.  No one appeared to be talking to themselves.  No one was wearing too-heavy clothing.  No one was pacing him.
  Dinh looked up as he left the lot, glaring at the driver of a Jeep who bipped his horn as he passed in front of the vehicle.  A jet roared directly overhead.  Dinh grinned up at the fat white steel bird and then got his mind back on the job.
  LAX was always busy, and he had to repress a shudder.  Weaving through the crowd, trying to avoid bumping into anyone without seeming to, he walked quickly past terminal one, eyes noting the position of two LAPD officers.  Sweating copiously now, knowing he looked suspicious, he strode to the Air Canada desk, confirmed his reservation and assured the girl first class would be fine, yes he was sure, thank you very much.
  With fifteen minutes to spare he almost ran to the toilets.  They were empty, though the smell made him gag.  He dumped the P14 into the paper towel disposal, then locked himself in a stall and stripped his jacket off.  It was slightly cooler in here, there was no hot sunlight coming through the windows, no press of clammy bodies, and he unbuttoned his shirt down to mid-chest.
  Almost there.  One phone call and it would all be over.
  He waited until his breathing had slowed, until the sweat had stopped slipping from his pores, and got up.  He wiped the sweat from his face, took his gloves off and pocketed them.  He folded his jacket neatly and tucked it nonchalantly under his arm.
  Dinh cast a single glance at the mirrors over the sinks as he left, and saw only a good looking businessman in a bad suit, slightly sweaty with the heat but not unusually so, his dark eyes pools of calm.
  -just one phone call-

  "I'm afraid there has been a problem."
  Mr Ko's usual neutral tone was firmly in place, but it still made Dinh break out in a cold sweat.
  "I see." Dinh aimed for nonchalant and got perhaps halfway there.
  "Your adjudication was less than its usual standard.  The matter was not resolved."
  "If it's about the third party-"
  "No." The flat toneless voice of Mr Ko iced over. "Their presence was anticipated.  You were informed accordingly.  Your lack of care was not anticipated."
  "I adjudicated appropriately."
  "You did not.  You resolved the wrong matter.  Our client feels entitled to full reimbursement.  They are adamant.  They will not even pay your expenses."
  Dinh bit his lip, free hand fisting. "I see."
  "I doubt that you do.  A meeting is required to resolve the dispute.  The usual place in two days.  Good day."
  Silence, as Mr Ko waited for a response.  Even when furious, he did not shout or swear, and was never rude.  He would not slam the phone down.  To do so would offend his sensibilities.
  "Goodbye." Dinh forced himself to ease the handset back into its cradle and stared at the keypad.
  He was in very deep shit.  He had hit the wrong target, most likely Marco Ruez.  And now he had to have a face-to-face with Mr Ko, which would at the very least mean a chilling warning and no work for six months.  It might mean a bullet in the head, or something more unpleasant if Mr Ko was feeling particularly annoyed.  Not that he would give any sign of his intentions.
  But not turning up would mean an immediate death warrant.  Dinh had seen someone turn up five minutes late to a meeting with Mr Ko and leave half an hour later with no fingers.
  "Motherfucker." Dinh hissed, turning away from the phone.
  Running was simply not an option.  Neither was waiting for Mr Ko to show up first.  That would be almost as bad as turning up late.
  Only one course of action lay open.

  The Pheasant and Dragon was the usual place.  A Vietnamese pub in Somerset Heights, the Chinatown of Ottawa.  Wedged between a tacky pagoda tea house and a glaring neon sushi bar, it was a tall building of dark stone and wood, tinted windows and brass fittings.
  It was also closed.
  The city was cold and windy enough to pass for Chicago, except it was in better repair.  Dinh enjoyed the cold, letting his long coat hang open as he crossed the street slowly.  He hadn't spotted any watchers, and he'd been waiting almost an hour, pretending to be absorbed in a book at a bus stop.
  He knocked on the door, loudly.  He couldn't see in, thanks to the tinted glass, but he stepped aside a little anyway and knocked again.
  Nothing.
  Dinh looked up and down the street, hair falling about his face, tickling his cheeks.  The wind picked up, stirring the dark fronds, blowing some across his eyes.  He flicked them aside quickly, impatiently, pulling his billowing coat closer to him.
  The envelope in the inside pocket crackled softly.  Eighty thousand dollars.  It was quite a bet he was making.  Gambling with his life, in fact, something he was not used to.  His job usually entailed adjudication from range, and where close work was called for, he always used a weapon.  It was one of his conditions.  The targets were nearly always civilians or at best, criminals, with little to no knowledge of combat.  His job was safer than most recreational sports.  He always had the advantage, in training, armament, positioning and intelligence.
  But this was a different matter.
  Dinh knocked again, so hard it hurt his knuckles this time.  He wasn't going to just walk away, there was somebody on the premises.  There was always someone on the premises.  The Pheasant and Dragon was the heart of the Asian underworld in Ottawa.  It was a meeting place, neutral ground that could be rented by the hour, and frequently the place was wall-to-wall with Chink Triads and Jap Yaks, the Viets always sidelined, always packed into a corner, laughing anxiously loud, trying to mix.
  Dinh felt his jaw tense and fisted his hands hard, trying to draw the tension away from his face, down to where no one could see it.  He thrust his hands into his pockets and started kicking the base of the door.
  It jerked open. "We're closed."
  Dinh stepped forward, leaning on the door, keeping it open. "I need to talk to Vuong."
  "He's not here." Dinh could see a thin slice of the speaker's face and one dark eye.
  "I thought this was a day of business." Dinh took the envelope out and passed it through.
  It was snatched from between his fingers and torn open.  Dinh waited a few seconds, wanting to smile, wondering what the expression was behind the door.  Eighty thousand-dollar bills usually managed to raise an eyebrow.
  The door swung all the way open. "Come in, please."
  Dinh slipped across the threshold, shrugging his coat off.  Two Asian men faced him, identically suited in dark blue, one small and squat with muscle, the other slightly shorter and shockingly thin.  The second man held the opened envelope, his bony fingers pinched tight around it.
  The first man stepped forward and took Dinh's coat, sliding his hands over it before hanging it up on a peg beside the door.  He then turned and faced Dinh again, clasping the wrist of his left hand with his right and standing by the door.  Dinh eyed him carefully.  Chinese, at least half.  Probably from Hong Kong by way of the UK.  His knuckles were lumps of stretched scar tissue, and the thumb of his left hand was misshapen, elongated and thick at the middle.  A particularly bad break that never healed right, maybe.
  "Wait here, please." The second man spoke, gesturing with one pale claw of a hand at the tables along the wall.
  The antechamber was a narrow rectangle, three metres wide and nine long, with a bar occupying half of the left-hand wall.  There were three doors not counting the one behind him.  One at the opposite end of the room, one halfway along the right-hand wall, breaking up the row of tables, and another behind the bar.
  Dinh moved to a chair, and shifted it round so he could sit and keep both men in view.  The second man hurried out, leaving through the door at the opposite end of the room, letting it drift shut behind him as he quick-stepped up the stairs beyond.
  "Drink."
  Dinh looked round.  He wasn't altogether sure the man had spoken, he was standing so still, one hand still locked around his wrist, feet shoulder-width apart.  Almost military in posture.
  "Drink." The man said again, still no hint of a question in his tone.
  "No, thank you." Dinh said, leaning back slightly in his chair.
  The man gave a curt nod and went back to staring at the wall.  Dinh wondered why he had taken up position by the door.  It wasn't like he could afford to back out now.  If he had miscalculated and Mr Ko was as omniscient as he seemed, Dinh had just killed himself.  The man guarding the door certainly wasn't a good sign.  But it certainly wasn't as bad as a bullet in the brain, either.
  The door at the other end of the room swung open to admit the thin man, slightly out of breath. "Vuong will see you."
  He stepped aside, gesturing to the door he held open.  Dinh stood, looking at the guard. "After you."
  He stared back, before moving his gaze to the thin man and shrugging out of his solid stance, ambling past Dinh.  Letting a gap open up, Dinh looked him over telltale bulges, but saw none.  He followed a few steps behind.  Suits could be tailored to hide weapons, and most semiautos didn't make much of a lump anyway.  Thanks to his stature, the thin man had even less chance of hiding a gun on him.  He didn't seem to have one, and his jacket was buttoned up.  Unlikely he was carrying.
  Dinh waved the thin man ahead and was ignored.  After a second, Dinh shrugged and carried on, following the guard up the stairs.  Bracketed by the thin man, he knew exactly how vulnerable he was and wondered about taking action, removing the guard from the equation, then the thin man, but what would be the point?  What would it gain him?
  He had placed everything on one roll of a die and he had to stick with it.
  Footsteps were muffled by the plush carpeting.  The walls were painted dark, a deep shade of red like heart's blood.  As the stairs turned back upon each other as they ascended, Dinh saw prints at each landing, fine examples of calligraphy, Wang Meng's 'Forest Grotto', and several he didn't recognise.  Lit softly, it was difficult to make out the details in passing.
  They stopped on the third floor and the guard opened a door, standing aside to let Dinh go first.
  -this is it two in the back of the head here or not at all-
  Dinh felt his shoulders and neck crawl, muscles tensing in preparation for the impact as he stepped through the doorway.
  "Tran Dinh." A small, compact man in a grey suit rose, extending one hand in a short chop towards a chair set in front of his desk. "Please."
  Dinh moved into the room, small, oval-shaped, decorated in dark walnut panelling and brass polished so well it shone like gold.  A window of tinted glass took up one wall.  The desk was clearly the centrepiece of the room, an altar to respect itself.  Rectangular, with squared-off edges, it was immaculately sheathed in black lacquer with small designs etched into each corner in crimson.  Pheasants and dragons.
  He heard the two men follow him in and the door click shut.  Dinh eased himself down into the chair, which was very comfortable.  He resisted the urge to slouch, keeping his back straight and folding his hands on his lap.
  "I am Vuong." The man smiled, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes showing an age his relaxed face did not. "Tea, Chan."
  Dinh didn't glance over his shoulder.  To move his attention from the man he had come to meet to a servant would not be wise.
  Subdued footsteps, the door slipping open and closed behind him.
  "How is business?" Vuong beckoned the other man forward. "Nguyen."
  The thin man stepped into Dinh's peripheral view, passing the envelope to Vuong.
  "Steady." Dinh cleared his throat, always unused to such small talk before getting down to business.
  Vuong riffled through the notes lightly, then set the envelope down and sat, smiling still.  The expression added ten years to his age easily, putting him somewhere in his forties, a sharp-boned face fattened a little with good living, the bright eyes hungry.  He leaned back in his chair, looking expectantly at Dinh.
  "And yourself?" Dinh asked after an uncomfortable moment.
  "We do a brisk trade." Vuong's smile grew wider and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and interlacing his fingers, pressing the tip of each thumb against the other. "Likely to keep my family busy for some time.  No foreseeable difficulties."
  "I am glad to hear it." Dinh realised he was starting to sweat and made a conscious effort to relax while not moving.
  The door opened behind him and he almost jumped out of his seat.  Vuong saw it, and settled back in his chair. "Ah, tea.  Nghe thuat uong tra."
  Another expectant look.  Dinh shot a smile back. "Tea smoothes the way."
  Vuong sighed happily, relaxing. "I do so like to see a young man keep in touch with his roots."
  Dinh mentally uncrossed his fingers.  Something his father had taught him a long time ago, Viet culture.  He had never been interested, never paid attention.  Only repetition had made that phrase stick.
Chan set the tray down on the desk, directly in between Vuong and Dinh.  The tea set consisted of a fat teapot with a small plump snout and large handle, one large cup that closely resembled a bowl and two smaller cups.  Vuong poured as Chan stepped aside, the teapot dripping steaming water, the blue wave pattern on the porcelain as glossy as the sea it imitated.
  "From Bat Trang, of course." Vuong waved to the tea set as he filled the bowl. "Only two cups made the journey successfully."
  "Most regrettable." Dinh commiserated, smelling the tea strongly now, the usual flat herb smell mixed with something subtler.
  Flanked by Chan and Nguyen, Dinh knew he was going to damn well drink the tea whether he enjoyed it or not.  If he refused at this point, they would probably just pin him and then pour the boiling liquid up his nose.  Bad manners didn't get you very far anywhere.
  "Mmm.  Though the journey itself was regrettable." Vuong poured from the bowl into the two cups. "The Americans are to blame, really.  I understand you visit there regularly?"
  "Only on business." Dinh accepted a proffered cup, nodding his thanks slowly. "Sadly, it is a necessity."
  Vuong wasn't in the same league as Mr Ko, but he was still a competent player, hiding behind smiles and chit chat, insidious pretenses Mr Ko never stooped to.  And he had Chan and Nguyen close by, even if he wasn't armed.  One of them had to have a gun, or they were both deadlier than they looked.  Letting him come up here without a search spoke of arrogance or stupidity.
  Or perhaps just good manners.
  "If only we could carry out our business from home." Vuong sighed, sipping his tea.
  Dinh held the cup under his face, letting the warm scent waft up into his nose.  It actually smelled quite pleasant and he managed to relax an inch. "That would be convenient."
  "Still, there is some business that is better taken care of away from home." Vuong sighed contemplatively, taking another sip of tea.
  "Very true." Dinh agreed.
  The cup was burning his hand.  He switched, taking a drink of the steaming liquid.  It wasn't half as good as it smelled.  He took another drink, then cradled the cup in his lap.
  "Difficulties often occur, and it is better to resolve them somewhere other than your own doorstep."
  -very subtle you fucking gook-
  "Indeed.  Most are easily solved." Dinh shrugged. "But one or two can be troublesome."
  "Ah." Vuong tipped his head back and shook his head. "Business."
  "Yes.  There has been a misunderstanding." Dinh put the best face on it he could.
  "In your adjudication?" Vuong raised both of his slender eyebrows.
  "Between Mr Ko and myself."
  Vuong sighed. "I'm afraid I cannot adjudicate a difference between the two of you."
  Dinh nodded. "Of course.  I would not expect you to."
  "Oh?" Vuong looked through a haze of steam, poised behind his cup.
  "I wish to resolve the dispute myself." Dinh drank the last of his tea down, and set the cup back on the tray.
  It stung his mouth, tasting of flowers and the dull alkali tang of green tea.
  "Most commendable." Vuong set down his cup and refilled Dinh's. "Most commendable."
  He propped his chin on his hand, elbow supported by the desk, and narrowed his eyes.
  "Tell me."