By Michael Surbrook

Early February, 2034

Ling Ling found watching Marta get dressed for a mission almost like watching someone assemble a puzzle. A highly lethal puzzle.

Marta had risen at five in the morning—leaving Ling Ling alone in the bed—showered, brushed out her hair, and now stood dressed only in socks, briefs, and sports bra. As she virtually never wore anything in white (according to Marta, white was her sister's color) her undergarments were all a flat gray shade. Over this went the armored black bodysuit, covering Marta's muscular form from neck to wrist to ankle. Then came the boots, and then the gloves. The latter had the fingertips missing, in order to allow the razors free play, and had inductive pads in the palms for her smartgun links. The weapon's harness came next, although the weapons themselves (two SIG-Sauer P240s, a Jinsei Hoshoku Zeta, and a katana) were currently residing in a carryall bag. Finally, Marta donned an ankle-length overcoat, turning a tight circle in front of the mirror to watch the play of the coat's hem.

"Well..." she asked after brushing waist-length hair back over one shoulder. "How do I look?"

Not bothering to answer, Ling Ling slid out of the bed and stood up. Closing the distance between herself and Marta in a few steps, she pressed her nude body up against her lover's synthleather-clad form. One kiss became two, then three, as the pair embraced each other tightly. Finally, a flushed Marta took a step back, holding Ling Ling by the shoulders. "I... I need to get going or I'll be late. I'll call you later if I can."

And then she was gone.

Sighing to an otherwise empty room, Ling Ling shook her head. If someone had come up to her eight years ago and told her the love of her life was going to be another woman she'd have laughed out loud... or, more likely, taken a long drag on a cigarette and contemptuously blown the smoke in their face. And now, here she was, anxiously waiting for her lover's return. She felt this way anytime Marta went out on a mission, either the occasional freelance jobs or the more frequent ones she herself needed completed to keep her business as a fixer running. At least after the Jason Stone job Marta had become more discriminating about which offers she took and which she turned down. And this one seemed easy enough. In fact, Ling Ling herself had set it up. The client wanted an escort, an escort who was capable with both guns and hand-to-hand combat, who looked good (no scarred cyber-monsters for them!), and could be discrete when asked. Ling Ling had sent them two, one Chih-wan Lau, who was a virtual god when it came to gunfighting, and Marta, who fit their requirements almost exactly. And now all she could do was wait.

She hated waiting. It turned her into a nervous wreck. She knew how dangerous Marta's line of work was and she also knew that Marta reveled in it. It wasn't that she liked to kill, but more that she lived off the thrill of danger, of the adrenaline rush of being in the middle of the action, of risking death and coming back out of it alive. And even considering how well-wired she was, Marta couldn't do such things forever and not come out unscathed. It had happened before; that op with Raven for example, where she'd been shot in the back (the armor had held, although Marta had been bruised for weeks), or the aforementioned Jason Stone mission, in which Marta had become the puppet of an esper and forced to try and kill Stone himself. Her sister, the fabled Empress, had saved her that time.

Normally she'd head into the office and pass the time doing paperwork and research, but it was barely 6:30 and she really should be back in bed. Turning around, Ling Ling paused upon catching a glance of her reflection in the mirror. As usual she and Marta had slept in the nude (Marta had once joked "it saves more time that way"), and now she took a moment to examine her bare body. Her genetic upgrade, administered when she was still in her early teens, had given a flawless physique, one that still looked as fit at age 37 as she had at age 24. And that was something that gave her pause. She was 37 years old, having been born in 1997, and she didn't even look close to her age. Her stomach was quite flat (although not as nearly as muscular as Marta's), her waist narrow, her breasts full and firm (albeit with the sort of sag one would expect considering how large they were), and her skin clear. No wrinkles around the eyes, no stretch marks around her breasts, no varicose veins in her legs. Her hair was still a rich glossy black, her joints and muscles scarcely complained in the mornings—in fact, her health was virtually perfect. She hadn't thought about getting old, and from the looks of it, she hadn't aged a bit since her twenties. Or, at least, noticeably.

Reaching out, her fingers touched the smooth glass of the mirror, tracing her image. She only wore glasses because she was leery about having anything done to her eyes, although she'd accepted a datajack implant readily enough. Her tapering pointed ears were courtesy of an old boyfriend, who had talked her into the cosmetic surgery. He'd thought they'd make her look like an Asian elf, and had found them quite attractive. Funnily enough, so did Marta, who'd told her early in their relationship it made her look "cute" (and sexy).

With another sigh she dropped her hand from the cool glass and turned her back on the mirror. Not only did she have Marta's mission to worry about, there was her own lack of aging. She suspected her genetic upgrade had something to do with it. Even without much exercise it had made her stronger and healthier than she'd even imagined, and now, a regular training regime with Marta kept her quite fit. Martial arts, weight lifting, treadmill—one whole room of the apartment was now outfitted as a gym. But how long would it last? Marta wasn't an upgrade, she was packed with some of the best wire money could by—artificial muscle tissue, accelerated reflexes, a reinforced skeleton.... what would happen when she got older? Hell, what would happen when she reached Ling Ling's current age? She was 30 now and in the prime of her life, but even with modern medicine, she'd start to show the effects of time in another decade—and then things would only get worse. What would the effect of all that wire be? And what about herself? If her genetic upgrade had slowed her aging, how slow was it? How long could she expect to live?

Flopping down on the bed, Ling Ling pulled the covers over her body, hiding her current state of undress from the world. She'd get an hour or two of rest and worry about all these questions later.

The garage in the basement of the apartment building was virtually empty, no big surprise at six in the morning. Marta walked from the elevator doors to where her bike was parked, followed by the echoes of her boots on the concrete. Reaching her motorcycle—a rugged and dependable Yamaha XT2000—Marta busied herself for a few minutes with packing her gear into the rigid and lightly armored saddlebags. Then, swinging one leg over the machine, she straddled the seat and settled her helmet on her head. It was time to go to work.

Right... time to go to work. Marta took her helmet back off and stared at it, before looking up to where Ling Ling would be—provided she could see through concrete and steel. Normally she'd have been off without a second thought, but now... Now she was edgy and a little jumpy and she didn't know why.

No... that wasn't true. She knew why. She was due to get married in a week or two.

That's right, married. Something she would have never even considered a decade ago, when she'd picked up and dropped partners on an almost weekly basis, living her love life in the same fashion as her chosen profession—constantly on the edge. But that had all changed. She'd been hired by Ling Ling as a bodyguard and had fallen in love almost at first sight, going so far as to seduce her employer in a steam-filled Japanese bath in San Francisco. Ling Ling, in turn, after a harrowing few days of getting shot at by seemingly every Triad gangster in San Francisco, had asked Marta to accompany her back to Hong Kong, just to see her safely home. And so she never left, the past few years bringing them closer and closer together, to the point where they couldn't imagine being apart.

Ling Ling had suggested the idea of marriage initially, in the warm and sweaty afterglow of one of their frequent lovemaking sessions, as they lay entwined in a tangle of sheets. She'd agreed, seeing no reason not to (it only would make official what they already knew), and then had dropped the idea on her sister, just to see her reaction (The expression on Shion's face had been priceless to say the least.). But now... now the idea had started to hit home. She was going to get married. When she went out on a mission she wasn't just leaving something as simple as a friend or lover behind, she was going to be leaving her wife... and that, in its own way, was a frightening and sobering realization.

Setting her helmet back down on the bike's gas tank, Marta wrapped her arms around her chest, hugging herself to suppress a sudden attack of the shakes. She'd had plenty of lovers before, but she'd never really been in love, until now. And she'd loved Ling Ling almost from the moment they'd met. Well... not exactly. To tell the truth, it'd been lust at first sight... But the more time she'd spent with her the more her simple desire had turned to love.

In many ways, Ling Ling was her complete opposite. She was calm, collected, and restrained, a steadying influence on Marta's own enthusiastic nature. And this was had what attracted her in the first place. Her mysterious and inscrutable fixer persona had sparked Marta's interest as much as her well-endowed body had sparked a more physical desire. But after their first encounter in San Francisco it had gone beyond that. They'd spent a long weekend being chased by several competing Triads, all of whom wanted to keep Ling Ling from completing a deal with another Triad, and during that time she'd found the Chinese woman to be daring, intelligent, resourceful, unflinching in the face of danger, and capable of defending herself if needed. Absolutely nothing like virtually all of Marta's previous lovers—well, female ones any way. Even her own sister had remarked on the difference after meeting Ling Ling for the first time. "She's mature, responsible, levelheaded, just what you need to keep you from getting yourself killed." And to be honest, her sister had been right. Ling Ling had become her emotional anchor, her point of stability in her otherwise chaotic (and quite dangerous) lifestyle. Not that she'd ever expected to live that long anyway... the world was going (or had already) gone to hell, so "live fast, die young and beautiful" had been her motto. But... she was going to get married, married to a woman she found to be absolutely perfect (well, almost—Ling Ling's only real flaw was her addiction to cigarettes), and the last thing she wanted to do was leave her a widow.

Taking a deep breath, Marta shook her head. She had a job to do, and now wasn't the time for introspection. Running a hand through her hair, she pulled her helmet one and started the bike up with a roar that bounced around the otherwise quiet parking garage. Putting the bike in gear she roared out into the early morning, leaving behind a streak of black rubber on the concrete.

The L3 Exchange wasn't exactly the most visible of corporations. In fact, it wasn't even a corporation. It was, for all intents and purposes, a one-woman operation with the occasional hired help to keep things on schedule. Even its offices were low-key, run as they were out of a small waterfront warehouse whose sole purpose was to house all the accumulated goods the L3 Exchange found itself dealing in. High-end computer parts, top-of-the-line cybernetics, rare art objects, fine teas, quality firearms (along with other weapons), and designer clothing; anything that was small in size and had a high markup. That was the Exchange's primary trade. For Ling Ling was no fool. She didn't have the wealth and reach of someone like Nabiki Tendo, who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Mega-Tokyo and had the cash to buy the rest. So while Nabiki dealt heavily in corporate espionage intel and goods of questionable origins, the Exchange had its fair share of aboveboard and perfectly legal contracts. Just enough to make the Exchange viable on paper and to avoid unwanted attention.

Sitting at her office desk, Ling Ling stared at the cigarette slowly burning itself into powder sitting in the ashtray. Even here she couldn't concentrate. Oh, she'd done a little work, but for the most part she was just as distracted here as she had been back at home. And the reason was simple. She was getting married.

Her parents had been pushing her to get married for the last 15 years or so. Which, to be honest, was one reason why she hadn't. They wanted her to get married to the "right" kind of man, which meant he needed to be handsome, intelligent, well-educated, and wealthy. Oh, and most importantly—Chinese. Marta, needless to say, wasn't Chinese, and most certainly not male. On all accounts, totally (and utterly) unacceptable as a candidate for marriage. Her parents would have a fit—if her mother didn't die of shock first. At the very least they'd refuse to ever speak to her again—if they didn't simply disown her right out. Not a situation she wanted to deal with.

For her, the problem was simple—in fact, there was no problem. She loved Marta and Marta loved her. What else was there to discuss? Except, of course, her parents wouldn't see it that way.

Sighing, Ling Ling lit a fresh cigarette, letting her old one reduce itself to a pile of salt-and-pepper colored ash. Marriage to a man acceptable to her parents would almost certainly require her to play second-fiddle to her husband for the rest of her life. Everything she'd carefully worked for and built up from virtually nothing would be for naught. The wives of up-and-coming lawyers/doctors/politicians/corporate executives/what-have-you's certainly didn't run their own businesses, and most certainly didn't sell guns and software to solo operatives performing corporate espionage ops. And after 12 years of living on her own in Hong Kong, working her way up to be one of the top fixers in the Pacific Rim, she wasn't playing second-fiddle to anyone.

Her relationship with Marta was more of a equal partnership actually. They complemented each other nicely, for while she herself was quiet, restrained, a little mysterious, and maintained a facade of Asian inscrutability, Marta was vivacious, outgoing, exuberant, and very, very good in bed. Ling Ling had to smile at that. Even after five years the two of them made love more times in seven days then she'd ever done in seven weeks with any of her previous boyfriends. And she certainly didn't want to give that up.

But it wasn't just the sex that attracted her to Marta. Which seemed an odd statement for her to make, considering she'd never really considered making love to another woman until she'd met Marta. No, it was the fact that she could vicariously shed her fixer persona and through Marta do all those things that she wouldn't otherwise be able to get away with. Such as acting rude to annoying Triad soldiers, punching out (and occasionally out-and-out shooting) bothersome street samurai who won't take "no" for an answer, and dressing in outfits that occasionally verged on the scandalous. Marta was the yang to her yin. Hot-blooded, full of energy, she shone like the sun at times, and made a sharp contrast to Ling Ling's preference for the shadows and darkness, as well as her cool nature. And, to be honest, if yin was female, than Marta did (at times) fulfill the yang role of the male. But together, they became one, making an almost perfect partnership.

So what was she going to do? Taking a long drag on her cigarette, Ling Ling stared at the computer screen through a haze of smoke. She was going to get back to work, that's what she was going to do. And when Marta returned from her most recent op, she was going to take her wife-to-be to bed, and make passionate love to her all night long. That's what she was going to do.

It was 7:15 AM when Marta finally arrived at her destination. It hadn't really taken an hour and fifteen minutes to drive across Hong Kong, especially since she was on a motorcycle, it had been stopping for breakfast. Still, one could never tell with HK traffic, in thirty minutes the streets would be packed and it might have taken even longer to get here.

"Here" was the parking garage of yet another one of HK's towering office buildings, of which the city seemed to have an endless number of. After a while they all started to blend together, and she and Ling Ling tended to remember individual features, as opposed to the buildings themselves. This was the one with the indoor waterfall (which made nearby conversation nearly impossible), that one had the nice tea counter, while this other one was all polished granite and chrome and seemed to be chilly even in the middle of summer. But a parking garage was a parking garage. They all looked exactly the same, being a combination of yellow and black hazard stripes, white lines marking parking spaces, and the omnipresent ticket machine.

And just like her own garage, this one seemed empty. Oh, there were plenty of cars, but virtually no people. She glided down the on ramp and made her way to the elevator block. That's where the bike parking usually was, and where she'd meet her contact.

True to form, two Asian men in suits and overcoats stood there looking just a touch out of place in their designer sunglasses. Under her helmet Marta chuckled. Everyone wanted to look so cool, calm, and collected, to the point where they'd dress like an idiot. But then, she was one to talk, since she'd wear a black overcoat on some of the hottest days of the year. Not to make a fashion statement, of course, but to hide her guns and other gear. And she's sweat like a pig to do it.

Parking the bike and switching the engine off, Marta took a moment to remove her helmet and shake out her hair. She had considered cutting it, but Ling Ling liked to run her fingers through it, which had effectively killed that idea. Besides, her sister's was longer, and never seemed to bother her any.

Marta Nys?" one of the two suits asked.

"That's me," she grinned, stowing her helmet and undoing the saddlebags

"Please don't make any sudden moves."

"Wha...?" Marta glanced around. Where the hell had they come from? Instead of two men, now there was at least eight. And worse yet, they all were armed, and were all pointing their weapons at her. Her hands went to her hips from pure reflex and simply slapped against her synthleather-clad thighs. Fuck me! Marta stared at the saddlebags for a moment. Packed safely away.

Standing slowly, she raised her hands over her head.

"When my boss hears about this, she's gonna be plenty pissed at you guys."

"Don't worry Miss Nys," the suit replied. "She will." And then something hit her neck.

A fresh cigarette and a moment to think. A merc unit going to Africa wanted information on anti-material rifles, as well as the sort of armor being used by corporations in the area. They were willing to pay for both the intel, and once they had selected the weapon they wanted, the guns themselves. So Ling Ling had spent the last few hours gathering data from such diverse locations as South Africa, Switzerland, and the UNA, eventually coming up with a list roughly a half-dozen strong, in sizes ranging from 15 to 20 millimeters. She'd also supplied them with a run-down of possible ammunition types; APFSDS for long range shooting, HEAP of wrecking vehicles, and HE for soft targets. The armor list was tougher. There were any number of corps working in Africa, and most of them had well-equipped security forces. On the other hand, MBTs were expensive to ship, operate, and maintain, and guzzled fuel to boot. Odds were, the corps were using lightly armored wheeled vehicles, such as various forms of APCs, light tanks, and recon vehicles. Nothing special. Africa itself was a different matter.

The 1990s had seen the so-called "dark continent" ravaged with famine, drought, tribal warfare, and out-and-out genocide. But none of this compared to the havoc wrecked by the AIDS virus. The disease had killed millions, infecting upwards of 45% of the local population - on average. When combined with a lack of food, water, or foreign intervention, parts of Africa had seen death tolls reaching as high as 95 to 99% of the population. It had been like Europe's Black Death. Entire villages had vanished, then entire tribes of people, and finally, entire countries had died. Only the animals had prospered, and even then it was the scavengers that had done best. Such as the corporations. They moved in and simply taken over. The survivors were usually too weak and too desperate to care and had looked the other way as the corps looted the land of such resources as diamonds, minerals, a little oil, and timber. And just as it had been for virtually all of the 20th century, power in Africa came from the barrel of a gun.

But Africa was half a world away and not her concern. She couldn't change the past, and besides, she was only a couple of hundred miles from similar scenes of slaughter and greed. China had been tearing at itself for years, and had a body count almost as bad. After a while the hundreds became thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions. Reports had gone as far to say the Earth had lost a billion people in the past 40 years, most to famine, war, and disease. It was far to much to comprehend. One couldn't wrap their mind around such numbers, so you set them aside and got one with your life—which in Ling Ling's case meant e-mailing off an infodump on guns, armor, and corporate activities in a place where the unburied dead still far outnumbered the living.

Perhaps she'd go out for tea and noodles. A little lunch would do her well, get her mind off of things.

*beep* *beep* *beep*

Ling Ling spared her cellphone a glance. It was nearly noon, was Marta calling in to give her an update? She picked up the phone and hit the "talk" button. "Nihao."

"Miss Li?" It wasn't Marta, that was for certain. "This is Tang Juntao. There is a matter of great personal interest to you that I would like to discuss."

Ling Ling took a moment to inhale a lungfull of smoke. "What sort of matter?"

"It would be best if we discussed this in person."

Of course. Everyone felt they were the only who had problems and naturally Ling Ling had all the time in the world to hear about them. Smoke surrounded her as she breathed out. A call like this would come at a time when Marta was out.


Lei Fang was one half the of duo known as the "Lei Sisters," her partner being named Lei Xiang. A pair of fully wired street sams (although they preferred the term "wuxia"), they were both of average height, with athletic frames, dark eyes and long brownish-black hair, and honestly did look like sisters. Ling Ling used them from time to time, as they were part of her cadre of operatives she either subcontracted jobs to, or found jobs for.

At the moment Lei Fang had been brought in to be her bodyguard-for-the-day. Years of working with Marta made Ling Ling feel almost... well... "naked" without someone standing over her shoulder when meeting a client. Besides, experience had shown having a bit of muscle on hand helped keep negotiations running smoothly. And if Mr. Tang Juntao decided to make a fool of himself, well... the Lei Sisters did have a reputation for being able to kick ass and take names with the best of them.

Sitting in the private room, Ling Ling silent surveyed the scenery. The restaurant was posh enough, its menu offering a mix of French-Vietnamese cuisine, and although she could certainly afford it, it wasn't the sort of place she usually brought clients. She preferred a more low-key setting. A place like this would only distract the client, make them worry more about how the food cost than listen to anything she had to say. Besides, places like this also took a dim view to black-clad street sams wearing multiple pairs of handguns. And don't even think of their reaction to a fight.

Sipping at her tea, she glanced at Lei Fang and shrugged. She'd give Mr. Tang another fifteen minutes and if he didn't show she was taking Lei Fang out lunch somewhere else to make up for wasting her day. Jam's maybe. It was loud, raucous, and another place she'd never bring a client. But the food as second to none. She and Marta loved the place.

"Ahhh... I am so sorry to have kept you waiting."

Tang Juntao was tall and trim, with short black hair and a handsome, clean-shaved face. His features were a touch lean, his shoulders broad, his build showing evidence of regular workouts—probably in the company gym. Ling Ling was willing to bet he was an upgrade like herself. Upgrades did tend to have that fit look to them. His fashionable suit was carefully and expensively tailored, and simply screamed corporate wage-monkey. Even the rest of his accessories, cellphone, PDA, watch, all were of cutting-edge tech. Remaining motionless, Ling Ling smirked inwardly. She'd seen this type before. Upper-class executive gone slumming, looking for someone he could throw money at to solve a problem that had probably come about due to his throwing money at someone. Typical.

"These are for you." Ling Ling blinked with surprise as a smiling Juntao produced a large bouquet of flowers and laid them on the table.

"Ahh..." She looked the flowers over, not sure what to do with them. No one had ever done that before. Finally she nodded to Lei Fang, who swept the bouquet to one side. "Thank you."

His smile having never left his face, Juntao sat down, flanked by two large men in stark black suits. Ling Ling ignored them. She'd also seen their type before. Many, many times before. "Miss Li, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Tang Juntao, and let me say, it is a great pleasure to meet you. Your pictures don't really do you justice."

Ling Ling carefully kept her expression neutral. She was dressed in her typical going-to-meet-a-client outfit. Black trousers, black jacket, dark blue cheongsang with gold trim, gold sash. Thick socks, black slippers. The outfit followed the curves of her body, and Juntao was doing a very bad job of not staring at the swell of her breasts.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Tang." She kept her voice pleasantly neutral as well. "How can I help you?"

Amazingly, his grin seemed to get wider. "Actually, Miss Li, I am her to help you... so to speak. You see, I am here on behalf of your father."

Her father? Ling Ling quirked an eyebrow. What could her father possibly want or need that he'd send someone like this in his stead? "Oh?" she asked, still retaining an almost casual air.

"Yes, Mr. Li Lianjie thought it would be good of us to get to know one another."

Ling Ling felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Juntao wasn't a client... he was an attempt by her parents to see she settled down. Settled down with someone to their liking. Someone rich, educated, Chinese... male...

"Before the wedding, you see."

It was only by great force of will Ling Ling didn't spray tea all over the table. Even the normally silent Lei Fang uttered a sort of strangled gasp. Wedding?!?

Buying time, Ling Ling produced her cigarette case, extracted one, and lit it. She drew in a calming lungful of nicotine, and then slowly exhaled, gazing at Juntao through a wreath of smoke. "Wedding? I'm sorry Mr. Tang, but I have no intention of marrying you." She paused and then decided to forge ahead, "I already have someone in my life."

"Oh yes... Miss Nys." Juntao didn't quite smirk at her obvious expression of surprise. "I'm sorry, but she is no longer going to be part of the picture."

Okay, that was it. No more "mysterious and inscrutable." Tang Juntao had just gone from annoying twit to grade-A threat. Her body tensed, and from the reaction of Juntao's bodyguards, Lei Fang was probably gearing up to leap across the table if she had to. In a small way, it was good Marta wasn't here. Juntao might be dead already. "What have you done with Marta?"

"So," Juntao continued as if Ling Ling had even spoken. "First I think we should enjoy a nice lunch right here. We can talk and get to know one another. And don't worry, your father has made the necessary arraignments."

Possibly the last thing anyone in the room, Ling Ling included, would have expected would have been for her to leap across the table, her hands reaching for Juntao's throat. Which is probably why she did it.

Waking up was far more disagreeable than going out had been. For starters, going out had been painless, waking up meant dealing with a headache, nausea, and muscles that kept twitching at random intervals. The whole back of her neck was tender, and her body spasmed slightly as she tried to reach back and feel for any damage. The only problem her arms wouldn't move. And it wasn't the after effects of the taser shot (or shots...) that was keeping her arms immobile... No... her arms were bound together!

Marta's eyes snapped opened. She was sitting in a soft and plush easy chair in an otherwise unremarkable hotel room. Her arms were bound behind her back, secured with cut-resistant plastic cord. The same cord was looped around her stomach and torso, eventually running to her ankles to bind them together as well. She was trussed-up like some sort of bondage plaything. Worse yet, she had been stripped down to her bra and briefs. Either someone was getting some sort of sick thrill from all this, or they were taking no chances.

A sound made her turn her head—about the only part of her body she could move. On the other side of the hotel living room there were two men. Both had the lean builds of men who lead athletic lives. Lives like the one she led. Lives that involved a great deal of violence.

They sat in chairs that looked for less soft than her own, staring at her with fixed expressions—and eyes that wandered slowly over every square inch of exposed skin. The way she was bound, she couldn't help to thrust her chest out, and although she wasn't as well-endowed as Ling Ling, she had more than enough to keep them interested.

"You're awake. Good. No lasting harm I take it?"

The voice has old yet firm, with an Australian accent to the English. Marta turned her head again, to see an aged man in a crisp suit sitting to her left. "Who...." she swallowed and tried again. "Who the hell are you?"

"Li Lianjie." He sat back and gave her an expectant look, as if the name should mean something. Then he leaned forward again. "I'm Li Ling Ling's father."

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