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Authors: Sujata Massey

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BOOK: Girl in a Box
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The only thing the beauticians agreed on was my body. My figure was excellent, although I had what Mrs. Taki disparagingly described as
binyu
—small breasts. The women conversed about underwire bras for a while, and a couple of the girls raised their shirts to show off their own specific models, which could make Asian women look a bit more fashionably voluptuous. I was greatly relieved when the topic turned to shoes. I should be wearing high heels, not flats, so that I wouldn't look like such an overgrown schoolgirl. Well, the makeup would take care of that.

But first, the hair. A great deal of discussion took place, and everyone agreed that my hair would be straightened and then cut into a pageboy. Dora brought out a long piece of cardboard to which swatches of hair were attached, in different shades from the blackest black to an almost red-blond.

“Why not go with basic black?” I suggested, thinking that if I was going to look like a
kokeshi
doll, I might as well look like a traditional one. But my idea was quickly shot down. Not fashionable enough! Nobody in Asia had black hair anymore.

“Who am I to complain? It's only my head,” I grumbled as I was shampooed and towel-dried and the color process began. While I sat under an old-fashioned stationary dryer, one of the girls gave me an excruciatingly tickly pedicure, selecting a delicate pearl pink for the nail color, while another girl worked on my hands. The colored nails weren't going to last more than a week—and I had several weeks left before traveling—but I decided not to argue this point. I hadn't had my nails polished for as long as I could remember, and the result was pretty good.

I was out of the dryer, but still not ready to have my hair straightened and cut. My head was wrapped in a towel, and another towel was handed to me as I was ushered into a back room.

“Please undress,” Mrs. Taki said. “I will wait outside, for your privacy.”

“What's next, a massage?” I asked, half hopeful and half worried, in case the expense might qualify as something for the Defense Department's waste, fraud, and abuse hotline.

“Something different, I think.”

Something different turned out to be waxing. Dora shouted directions at an underling who waxed my brows, my cheeks, my chin, and my arms. I didn't argue, because I'd never seen a fashionable Japanese woman with so much as peach fuzz on her arms.

Dora ordered the assistant to pull the towel from my hips, and she gasped aloud.

“It's been a while since my last bikini wax. Sorry!” I didn't know why I was apologizing, but she was making me embarrassed.

“No problem, we take care of that. But—that thing! Those beads!”

Dora had been undone by my navel ring.

“They're pearls, actually. I can take the ring out, if it bothers you.”

“No, no, let everyone see. I want to show them the pretty little beads. Real pearl? How you get them in there? Maybe we can do this as a new service here!”

While Dora's lackeys ripped the remaining hair from my body, I tried to explain that navel rings had been popular for about the last decade, and that there were plenty of piercing salons around already.

After I'd gotten into my clothes again and been resuscitated with a cup of green tea, the women applied the straightening gel and sat me under a bubble dryer again. Then the solution was rinsed out, and my hair was washed and painted again with the highlights that Dora thought appropriate. After half an hour, I was placed before a mirror while Dora cut my hair at the exact point where neck met shoulder. The true test came at blow-dry time, and I was amazed to see my hair hanging perfectly straight in the Louise Brooks mode, and glinting like a piece of rare red-black silk.

I'd doubted that anything short of surgery could be done to change the shape of my eyelids, but I was amazed to see what Dora could do with a bit of concealer, four eye shadows, and both liquid and pencil eyeliners. My eyelid crease hadn't totally vanished, but it seemed to have receded under a wash of light golden color. The reshaped eyebrows enhanced the illusion; Dora had understood about the delicate, bird-wing eyebrows that Japanese women favored. In fact, the only thing I truly disliked about the makeup job was that I had to wear heavy foundation to make me look as if I had a paler complexion—something that was highly valued in Japan.

“The minute I wash my face, the illusion's gone,” I said as Dora's assistant wiped off the makeup with a damp cloth at the end.

“Ah, but you will always appear socially with makeup, from this day on,” Mrs. Taki said. “I think, for the sake of learning, you should do this every day in Washington. I will check you.”

It seemed like a lot of trouble to totally transform to the Japanese me while I was still in Washington. Still, recalling what Michael had said about cementing my cover, I didn't argue with her, and in fact made myself up again, in full. It took twenty minutes and didn't look quite as good as Dora's work; in fact, she redid my eyes, clucking as she worked.

I was expecting the bill to be high, but I still flinched at $480 at checkout time. “Includes all the cosmetics, such a bargain,” said Dora. Mrs. Taki, according to our prearrangement, paid for it all with her Visa card, as Michael had suggested. Dora and her staff believed that I was Mrs. Taki's American-raised niece being groomed for a return trip to meet the family in Japan.

“You are a great customer, Mrs. Taki. You bring me business all the time,” Dora said. “This beauty job, for this niece of yours, it is my honor. She looks cute now.”

“Well, not so bad,” said Mrs. Taki disparagingly, as any Japanese auntie would do when a junior relative was praised.

The two ladies bowed, and I bowed, too. Alone in the car with Mrs. Taki, heading back to Pentagon City via Washington Boulevard, I turned on the cell phone that I had silenced during the salon appointment. I was intending to phone Michael to let him know we were finally on the way back.

The phone's tiny screen lit up with a notice that I had a text message waiting. I pushed a few buttons and read something that could have come only from Michael.

EMRGNCY, it said in the terse shorthand he liked to use. CALL ASAP. SAY NTHNG 2 T, SEND HR HOME.

I read the emergency communication a second time, with a growing sense of dread. While I had been getting sheared and waxed and painted, something terrible had happened with our forthcoming campaign.

“Taki-san,” I said, deleting the message, “it seems as if Michael wants me to go to a meeting with him somewhere out of the office today. He suggests that you take the rest of the day off.”

“But today we were going to work on the application form. My plan was to help you get your photograph taken, since you look so nice today, and then we would finally complete the writing of the form.”

“Well, I guess we're going to have to postpone. What time are you coming in tomorrow?” I asked as Mrs. Taki turned the corner to Fifteenth Street. Thank God I'd checked the phone for messages before we'd both gone up.

“I arrive at one o'clock, just as usual.” Mrs. Taki seemed miffed.

“Great, I'll see you then. Oh, why don't you just stop here at the end of the block, it's rather congested at the entrance.” It was—but not with the usual emergency vehicles, like fire engines and police cars. There were four plain black sedans lined up, each with a male driver waiting inside.

Mrs. Taki let me out, and I hurried to the vestibule of the building, where a man in camouflage, with a long-range rifle strapped across his body, halted me.

“But I'm supposed to go upstairs. My boss is waiting for me,” I said, flashing my Department of Defense identification card. It didn't say OCI, but what it did say should have made him take notice.

“It's a secured zone,” he said like an automaton.

“Okay, okay.” I glared at him as I made my phone call, hoping that whatever the emergency state was upstairs, Michael's cell phone would still work.

He answered after the first ring. “Is Taki-san downstairs?”

“No, I sent her home. What happened?”

“I'll tell you when you get upstairs.”

“But they won't let me upstairs—”

“I'll come down, then. We should go out anyway to talk.”

When Michael arrived, he glanced at me shortly and said, “You look great.”

I'd almost forgotten my Japanese makeover. “Thank you.”

Michael walked in long, fast strides, his head down, so I had to both hustle and lean in to hear what he said. “There was a break-in when you were gone.”

“I was thinking something like that, when I saw that commando guarding the place. What happened?”

“You let someone in.” Michael started to cross Fifteenth.

I stopped short in the middle of traffic, outraged at the accusation. “No, I didn't. How can you say—”

“Come on, you'll get hit by a car.” He motioned me to follow him across the street, and there, in the shadow of another office building, with our breath frosting the air, he continued. “I'm sure it was accidental. Let me explain what probably happened.”

“Can we do it inside Starbucks or somewhere?” I was freezing.

“No,” he said shortly. “As you know, back at the office, we swipe our ID cards over the device on the right of the door frame in order for the door to open—and we're the only two people, save my boss at headquarters, with the cards.”

I nodded, following so far.

“When you went out to meet Mrs. Taki, someone was waiting in the hallway—most likely behind that file cabinet.” He was talking about an empty file cabinet that had appeared in the hall about a week ago; I hadn't thought much about it then, but now I was wondering. Our suite of offices took up the whole third floor. Who could have put the file cabinet there in the first place?

Michael continued, “You passed by, and as the door began to close, our lurker placed a small object between the door and the frame to keep it from completely closing.”

“That's a pretty detailed hypothesis.”

“I found a wadded-up paper in the door, just as I was heading out to pick up lunch,” Michael said shortly. “Right now it's been taken as evidence, and it will be undergoing a fingerprint and substance analysis. After that, you can see it for yourself.”

“I—I don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I really thought I was alone in the hallway, I mean, we're the only tenants up here…” I trailed off, feeling miserable.

“You know how the office is set up—the waiting room with the bathroom off it, and then our workroom, and the two back offices behind it?”

I nodded.

“Whoever came in probably started planting bugs in the waiting room while I was working in the back. When I went into the restroom, he or she took the opportunity to do the same thing in our workroom and possibly some of the back offices.”

“But it takes a while to figure out where to install a bug and then plant it.” At least it took me, a novice at the process, a while. “How long were you in the bathroom?”

“About fifteen minutes.” Michael's face pinkened. “I brought in a couple of the papers.”

Why men enjoy reading on the toilet is incomprehensible to me. But I wasn't going to push the issue with Michael, not on a day like today.

“Did they run past or something like that when you came out? I can't imagine you wouldn't have caught them—”

“I heard a scraping sound: the window going up. When I finally reached the workroom, the window was open. And you know we have that balcony.” He shook his head. “I hate balconies, they're like a carte blanche for entering and exiting.”

“What did the burglars take?”

“Not sure yet. Your computer was turned off—bravo. Mine was turned on, but after three minutes of idle time, it locks. So I don't know whether they got to it quickly enough to see anything. The guys working inside now are running all kinds of spyware sweeps.”

“What about all the stuff on paper?” I thought about my binder loaded with information about the store's profits, the various company executives, and the store layout.

“Your binder's still on your desk. You can examine it after security's finished sweeping for bugs.”

“My bugs?” I was momentarily confused, thinking about my drawerful of listening devices.

“Their bugs. Like I said before, it's likely that whoever came in intended to install spyware, cameras, and listening devices.”

“Jesus, Michael, how could Mitsutan know about us already? I haven't even applied for the job!” I felt helpless, angry, invaded.

“It might not be them.” Michael's voice was grim. “Look where we are, smack in the middle of the real world. Anyone with half a brain could have figured out we're more than a government think tank. And as you've seen, other agents come in to meet with me. People involved in other cases I'm handling might have reason to want to eavesdrop.”

“Your message to me said that you didn't want Mrs. Taki to come upstairs. Do you suspect her in this?”

“Not really.” Michael sighed, his breath rising like a plume in the cold air. “She's worked for the government for twenty-seven years. Still, there's no need for her to know what happened this afternoon.”

I felt some gratitude for what he'd just said; that I was the one, out of his total of two employees involved in the assignment, whom he trusted enough to give the details. “What are we going to do now? Can we ever talk to each other in the office again?”

“Not today. While I'm waiting for the techs to finish, I suggest you go somewhere in the neighborhood and have passport photos taken while that face is still perfect. You'll need one for the application, which we've absolutely got to get in the mail this week.”

I looked down at my Persian lamb jacket, which revealed a sliver of black T-shirt studded with silver beads. It was a great top, but not for an employment photograph. “I'll run home and change into a proper blouse first. But do you mean—you still want me to go to Japan?” I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering at both the cold of the late afternoon and my uncertain status.

“Of course.” Michael looked at me closely. “Unless this has spooked you, and you've changed your mind.”

“Yes!” Then I realized that this sounded wrong. “I mean, yes, I'm prepared to go. I haven't changed my mind.”

 

The experts determined that an attempt had been made to hack into the computers, but whoever had tried had left without getting anything. However, there were three bugs, all located in the areas where Michael and I worked together.

Michael phoned me with the news just as I was leaving the photo shop with a bag containing a sheet of tiny, identical images of an unsmiling, Japanese-looking me wearing a plain white blouse and pearls. The bugs were out, but he wanted me to come back to see where they'd been—and then to look through my folders.

My papers didn't look as if they'd been touched, though fingerprint analysis would tell for sure. The bugs had been placed in Michael's phone, but not mine; and in the chair rail near the conference table where we sometimes worked on translations with Mrs. Taki; and under the sofa where Michael and I read the daily papers.

“Pop quiz. What does the placement of the bugs tell you?” Michael asked

I thought for a minute. “Well, they're interested in who you're talking to on the phone, what we talk about together during our recap of the morning media, and what we're learning from Mrs. Taki's translations.” I thought some more. “Whoever bugged us must be interested in the Mitsutan project—not anything else you're working on.”

“It would seem that way, although I do use my phone to speak about those other areas of interest.”

“Doesn't the fact that we removed the bugs prove we know we're under attack? I mean, we could have kept them in place and spoken to each other in a way that didn't reveal anything—”

“Rei, I'm going to be at a meeting tomorrow morning at Langley about our security crisis, so I may have some answers for you by the afternoon. But what I'm thinking is that the folks who came in—there probably were at least two, to get as far as they did so fast—were a bit sloppy. They should have expected us to figure out they'd been there, because of that rapid departure through the office window.” Michael sighed heavily. “Anyway, I doubt it will happen again. We've got a guard, from this point on.”

“You mean, someone guarding us all the time?” I was unsettled by the idea of facing a gun-wielding Special Forces type before having my morning coffee—and dealing with his presence in what had been such a cozy little world.

“Outside our door only,” Michael said as if he'd read my mind. “Our work will remain confidential.”

“Whoever thought the finances of a Japanese department store would be a matter of national security?” I shook my head. “What a world. What a day.”

“At least you have your disguise in place. Did you manage to get your photos done?”

“Yes. They're not great.” I pulled out the sheet of tiny color pictures.

“That's because you didn't smile.”

“Japanese people aren't supposed to smile in official photographs. You should see my cousins' school graduation pictures, not to mention my aunt and uncle's wedding pictures—”

“Another thing that you know that I don't.” Michael paused. “Rei, I'm sorry I snapped at you about not watching the door. It was the kind of unfortunate event that could happen to anyone. I'm going to bat for you tomorrow; I don't want you to tear yourself up anymore over this.”

“Thank you,” I said, relief washing over me. “I'm just glad this day is coming to an end. After we're done tonight, I was thinking about going for a pint at the Irish pub over at Pentagon Row—have you been there?”

Michael shook his head. “I haven't. But there's no need to wait around. I'll release you now, if you want to go. It's almost six o'clock.”

“I meant,” I said carefully, “that I thought you might like to have a beer with me, at that place.”

“Rei, I thought you knew that I cannot fraternize with you outside the office.”

Michael's response was so severe that I found myself blushing. “How is having a beer after a hard day fraternizing?”

“If we see each other socially outside of work, I have to report the contact. Given our current situation—even though one contact is allowable without reporting—I'd feel duty-bound to report it.”

“But it's not—I didn't mean it to be—” I was aghast. My boss thought I was trying to pick him up! How could he think a thing like that, when I still recovering from a broken heart and was also ideologically opposed to sexual harassment, especially in the workplace?

I must have started sputtering some of the things that I was thinking, because Michael cut me off.

“I understand your intentions are well-meaning,” he said. “But the fact remains, if you and I—develop a friendship, things are going to be very, very difficult.”

“But we are already friends. Or so I thought—” I flashed back to all the mornings reading together, the shared lunches, the jokes mixed between the serious lessons in espionage. Michael was one of the sharpest yet kindest men I'd met, definitely the best boss I'd ever had. I ranked him with my mentor, the legendary antiques dealer Mr. Ishida, who was almost eighty, and someone with whom I'd often drank sake, without an eyebrow being raised by anyone.

“I won't deny that I like you,” Michael said, sounding awkward. “But if I were to declare I had a social relationship with you, any of the decisions I make regarding your housing overseas, your mode of travel, and certainly your financial compensation would be regarded with suspicion. Our masters might even reassign us away from each other. Permanently.”

I swallowed hard, not liking the turn of the conversation.

Michael spoke again. “I know it sounds strict, but there are sensible reasons for these rules.”

“I'm well aware of most agency regulations about social life.” I couldn't help feeling a flash of anger—the kind of anger I hadn't felt since all the personal questions I'd endured during my polygraph test. “Apparently, case officers can sleep with prostitutes and not have to report it.”

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