Her diary was missing. Deborah Chu stared at the empty bottom drawer of her bedside table. At first, she considered the possibility she might have mislaid the journal, but then she realized the lock on the drawer had been forced. There was no doubt the diary had been stolen.
Her unfailing routine—even when arriving home near midnight, tired from teaching an economics seminar at Georgetown University—was to climb into bed, pick up a Mont Blanc fountain pen, and watch blue ink flow onto the page. She would inscribe each entry, then secure the diary in the drawer.
The diary recorded her innermost feelings and a brief synopsis of the day’s events. But what terrified her was the fact that the diary documented her most shameful act.
Deborah’s thoughts focused on the faceless tormentor who’d made her life miserable for the past week. Objects were missing from the condo. The diary was the latest to disappear. The thought of anyone plundering her private memories and secrets was more upsetting than having her home sanctuary violated.
The following day she had new locks installed on her condo door.
Confirmation the thief wasn’t finished came the next day. She discovered an eye-catching Michael Kors red stretch wool dress was gone from her bedroom closet. Friends always assured her the dress complemented her petite figure to perfection. It cost two thousand dollars and was her go-to ensemble for those all-too-rare special dates.
The thefts aside, the intrusions heightened fears a thief could so easily access her home. This burglary forced her to realize there was no point in changing the locks. She was unable to decide whether her nagging fears were overblown or if she should notify the Fairfax County police. In the end, the mistrust of law enforcement instilled by stories told by parents and grandparents caused her to hesitate.
Deborah knew if she wasn’t safe here in the gated community at the Rotonda—in the heart of Tysons, Virginia, the pride of Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest communities in the United States— there was no place she would be.
Determined to overcome her fears, she thought about working out at the rec center. Impatient with that idea, she decided instead to head for the library and continue researching her book about China’s economy. Returning for lunch after a largely unproductive work session, she gaped at her home computer. An ominous appointment, Rendezvous on the River Styx, was entered into Thursday evening’s ten o’clock slot—just after her seminar would end. This latest was no prank. Was it a death threat?
She wandered aimlessly into the living room and collapsed in her favorite chair, holding her head in her hands. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She angrily brushed them away, struggling to face up to whatever these events foreshadowed.
Who would want to harm her or, worse yet, want her dead? Her romances were uneventful, except for a stupid affair with Congressman Blackwell, which was a thing of the past. She believed her life was ordinary, even praiseworthy. A habit of honest self appraisal forced her to admit there was one screaming exception, but no one could possibly know about that.
But, she now realized, with the diary missing, the thief knows.
Deborah forced herself to review her notes for the evening seminar, but the crisis of the thief’s intrusions kept invading her thoughts. Glancing at her watch, she rationalized it was too late to notify the police or do anything without risking being late for her seminar.
On her evening drive from the condo to the university, she glimpsed the image of a white vehicle several cars to her rear. The halo around headlights in the traffic on Key Bridge made it impossible to be certain, but Deborah worried she was being shadowed.
Once in her classroom, she felt safe. This was her domain, and, despite her diminutive figure, she reigned supreme, regal in a dark gray Alexander McQueen pantsuit. She concentrated on presenting a meaningful seminar for her students.
At the close of the discussion period, she wrapped up the session. “Work on your term paper forecasting China’s economic development over the next five years. Pay particular attention to the impact on US-China relations if growth continues to taper off. That’s it for tonight. See you next week.”
She packed up her seminar materials and laptop in her well-worn leather briefcase and headed out to the parking garage. The hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention as she scurried through the dark valleys between buildings, quiet in the aftermath of students escaping at the end of classes. Instinct made her worry someone was following her. She longed for a full moon to dispel her anxiety, but only a quarter moon peeking through a cloudy sky served to dimly illuminate her path.
Deborah walked by the football field and tennis courts, noting the contrast between the eerie quiet of the nighttime campus and the frenetic activity during the day and on weekends. Not recognizing anyone, she exchanged nods with a few students whose carefree laughter raised her spirits, however briefly.
The April air was damp and foggy, fragrant with the odor of spring mulch. She shivered from the chill and vowed to wear something warmer to next week’s seminar.
She crept cautiously through the parking lot, closing the distance to the faculty garage. Imagining she heard footsteps, she jerked her head to the rear, but there was no one in sight.
Walking alone in the deserted garage always made her feel threatened. Tonight, the feeling was worse due to her lingering
apprehension. She saw the ceiling lights were out at the far end where she’d parked her Benz, which added to the feeling of impending menace.
She remembered a recent course on women’s self-defense and recited to herself the instructor’s guidance: Keep to the center of the garage. Remain vigilant. Move with a purposeful stride.
Deborah added an old-fashioned metal key to the keyless entry electronic system when she learned from the demonstration how keys became a serious weapon if stabbed at an assailant’s face. She removed the fob from her purse and clasped it with the condo key thrust out through her middle fingers like a knife blade.
She pulled the door handle to initiate the Smart Key system. She heard the Benz unlock with a welcome beep. She relaxed as she opened the door. Deborah had done this a hundred times. Why should tonight be any different?
When she was part way into her car, she felt something brush her hair as it circled her head. She choked from the pressure on her throat.
Desperate for air, she dropped key fob, purse, and briefcase.
Deborah regained consciousness, aware the attacker was dragging her to a white van. She was forced through the vehicle’s rear double doors. When she fought to get free, her assailant slammed her head against the unyielding metal of the van’s side. The attacker threw her onto the vehicle’s floor, where she landed with an audible thud.
She could feel the plastic that covered the floor touching her bare thighs and knew her pants were being removed.
Her body convulsed as the lace thong ripped past her ankles.
The fear she experienced in her condo at the imagined threat was nothing compared to the trauma of the actual attack. She trembled violently.
“Don’t rape me.”
Deborah struggled to escape the predator’s iron grasp.
“Who are you?”
A terrifying silence was the only response.
With a burst of strength, she made a desperate effort to flee. She flipped onto her stomach and crabbed toward the van’s doors.
“HELP!” she screamed, but knew it was futile. There was no one to hear.
Fingers grabbed her hair and yanked her violently away from any possibility of breaking free. The attacker flipped her onto her back. Her eyes widened at the knife blade poised over her exposed neck.
She glimpsed her attacker’s face and gasped, “But, you’re…”
Hana Brown stood in the exact center of the giant blue exercise mat, her preparations complete for her Thursday afternoon unarmed combat class. Having bowed before countless sensei in countless dojos, she knew the importance of projecting dominance, strength, and leadership. She’d dressed for it in a white quilted judogi. A black belt girdled her slim waist. Her bare feet were anchored to the mat.
She knew she looked the part, broad-shouldered and nearly six feet tall. A jagged scar above her left eyebrow added character to her face.
Turning to scan those standing around the perimeter of the mat, she sized up a class of police cadets—mostly men, but a scattering of women. Fourteen faces stared back in silent anticipation.
In the moments before the class began, she sought to gauge each trainee’s strength and weakness. Did the nervous tension displayed by most participants betray inner fears, or did it portray the pre-event performance anxiety of the natural athlete? Her role was to reassure the one and unleash the pent-up energy of the other. Compensate for weakness, build on strength.
“My name is Hana Brown.” No visible reaction. Those cadets who cared to know about their instructor would have already looked her up.
“What is unarmed combat?” She always started classes with this question. The blank looks the query elicited never failed to amaze her.
The assembled cadets, for whom the course was required training, hadn’t given thought to a matter on which their lives could depend. The instructor knew they came expecting to see the acrobatics showcased in the movies and on TV. Some version of police kung fu.
A female cadet took a tentative step forward and coughed theatrically. Impishly cute and petite, she must have exceeded the department’s height requirements by barely a half inch.
Hana’s look invited a response.
“Unarmed combat is how we defend ourselves if we’re attacked,” the cadet said.
“Half-right. Focusing on defense is a risky strategy. Besides, how are we going to arrest the bad guys if we don’t go on offense?”
A hulk stepped forward, attracting the instructor’s full attention. He was a few years older than the other cadets. Blond, with a military-type buzz cut, his craggy face was guaranteed to intimidate the bad guys. Six-four, 240 pounds. A mountain of a man whose athletic shorts and sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulders left little doubt his bulk was all muscle.
His authoritative voice resonated in the large gym. “Unarmed combat is how we beat up on the bad guys before we arrest them. It’s self-defense with an attitude—‘us or them.’”
“Close enough for government work. What’s your name? And where are you from?”
“I’m Rambo.” The challenge in his voice was unmistakable. “I moved here from Philadelphia where I was a police officer.”
Hana wondered what Rambo did to fuck up so bad he’d been required to take classes at the Academy to join the Fairfax County Police Department.
Her custom was to select from each class the toughest looking, biggest man as an opponent to dramatize how anyone, even a woman who weighed 140 pounds soaking wet, could win in unarmed combat using the proper technique.
“Where’d you get a name like Rambo? The fictional Rambo was defiantly anti-cop.”
“They call me Rambo ’cause I’m the baddest mother around. If Hana Brown is a good name for a cop, Rambo can’t be too weird.” The hulk smirked at his riposte.
“You’ve got a point there, Rambo. Suppose we show the class how it’s done.”
“How do you want to play it?”
“For starters, you attack me.”
The hulk charged without warning. Incredibly quick. One instant he was standing still. The next he was on her. His fists hammered like pistons.
He anticipated her defensive maneuver and struck where she was moving rather than where she’d been. His ruthlessness caught her off guard.
Two blows landed—one on her stomach, the other on her left shoulder. He hit like a pile driver. Without her superb conditioning, the contest would have been over in an instant. Her gut pained. She gasped for air.
She evaded the brunt of the shoulder strike, but her left side was partially paralyzed. She spun away to give herself a few seconds to recover, knowing the former cop was not only big, strong, and fast, but cunning as well.
Aware Rambo would pursue his advantage, Hana drew on her years in the dojo facing world-class judo opponents in Japan and in tryouts for the US Olympic Team. Rather than continue to retreat, she spun back and executed a leg sweep. He fell for the trap. Her right leg caught the hulk behind his legs like a scythe as he pressed to finish her off.
Rambo flew into the air and crashed down on the back of his neck. A lesser man would have been knocked out from the force of the fall. Not the hulk. He vaulted to his feet and shook himself like a wet dog coming out of the lake.
He hesitated, circling the mat and eyeing her warily. He’d underestimated Hana, just as she’d earlier misjudged him.
The momentary pause was all it took for her to formulate a strategy.
She assessed Rambo as a boxer who knew the basics of judo and karate, but who was no expert. She determined to show him and the class what it meant to be ruthless.
Hana waited for the anticipated charge and let the overeager boxer get close enough to land another frontal blow. The blow’s force was weakened as she fell away from him. Executing a backward somersault, she grasped the hulk’s sweatshirt and pulled him forward over the top of her prone body. She kicked him sharply in the stomach, using his momentum to catapult him into the air like a circus performer. Two hundred forty pounds hit the mat with an audible thump.
Rambo started to repeat the maneuver of leaping to his feet, but he was stunned by crushing strikes to his neck and kidney. When he pivoted to protect his back, she smashed him in the solar plexus. The blows left the cocky challenger gasping for breath and unable to push himself up from the blue mat.
The victor stood erect, hiding her pain. Hana eyed her opponent carefully to make sure he was beginning to recover. More than a year had passed since she’d faced a student as determined as he was to be a badass. With a resigned sigh, she turned to the class.
“What you’ve witnessed, ladies and gentlemen, is unarmed combat with an attitude. Who’s ready to learn how it’s done?”
Hana and her dad walked under the bright red and gold Chinatown Friendship Archway and entered the five-block neighborhood that comprised the heart of the District of Columbia’s Chinese district.
They crossed the virtually deserted street, headed toward the Three Dragons Restaurant. The twilight sky shaded from azure blue to steel gray as an oppressive summer smog crept across the dingy buildings.
A black Expedition, lights turned off, appeared out of the haze, and sped toward them. The driver slammed on his brakes and spun the SUV so the right side faced them on the sidewalk. The windows were down. Automatic weapons poked out. Shots exploded.
Hana screamed “GUN!”
Her dad jumped in front of Hana, pushing her away from the line of fire. He was already turning as he reached for the .38 Smith and Wesson in the holster at the small of his back. A volley caught him in the head and chest. Spinning, he pitched into the gutter and landed face down. Red flowers bloomed on his back.
Hana’s world geared down to slow motion. The sensation of swimming in quicksand came with sensory overload. Her arms stretched futilely toward her dad. Projectiles punctured her left arm and side. Adrenaline brought immunity to pain from the graze that creased her forehead. Blood blinded her left eye. Falling to her knees, she inched toward the .38 snub nose revolver that had slipped from her dad’s lifeless fingers.
When she grasped the revolver, it turned into a tiny red dragon and bit her hand. Tears cascaded down an anguished face. She shrieked, but no sound came out. Repeated tries failed to shake off the red dragon. A gold dragon leaped from the sidewalk and sank its fangs into her chest. She flailed at the creature. A temple gong sounded. The dragons disappeared.
Hana writhed in the damp sheets. A hard chop with her hand knocked the clock radio to the floor. The ringing reverberated. But the haunting nightmare refused to dissipate. The finale of the dream was always the same. The temple gong brought an end to the scene of her dad’s assassination, which had transformed her life as it ended his. Most often, the ringing was the wake-up alarm on the clock radio. Tonight, she continued to hear the ringing.
She sat up in bed and saw Othello, paws on the mattress, staring with a look that, on a human, would have passed for concern.
Distracted, she scratched behind the Lab’s ears.
The lethargy refused to go away.
At the last ring, Hana fumbled the phone to her ear. “Brown here.”
The face of the clock radio recording the time stared up from the floor.
Hazy thoughts wondered why dispatch was calling past midnight.
“A gangbanger was killed in Bailey’s Crossroads. McNab named you lead detective. He says for you to get to Culmore Park on the double.”
Synapses fired, shocking Hana wide awake.
She couldn’t believe it—her first homicide since making detective.
Captain Brian McNab had granted her unspoken wish to be assigned something more exciting than the routine tasks she’d been receiving from Lieutenant Walter Krause, her immediate supervisor in Major Crimes.
Dispatch echoed the few details called in by the officer on the scene. A Vietnamese female was reported dead of a knife wound. The victim was found in Culmore Park by a nurse walking her dog after the evening shift at Fairfax Hospital.
Hana, the reigning expert on Asian gangs in the Fairfax County Police Department, was assigned most cases in Bailey’s Crossroads calling for a detective from Major Crimes. Washington still had Chinatown, but, since commercial development mushroomed from the Verizon Center sports complex, forcing up real estate prices, the Chinese community was being displaced by gentrification. Fairfax, starting with Bailey’s Crossroads, had become the residence of choice for Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians. One out of five of the million-plus Fairfax residents was Asian.
The medicine of a quick hot shower with an ice-cold finish shocked her awake. Now fully alert, she strode out of the bathroom, rubbing her towel vigorously through ebony hair.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Hana tugged on wide-leg pants. The pants were designed for practicality more than fashion. Grabbing her ankle holster from the bedside table she pulled it tight over her shin, adjusting the Velcro for a snug fit. She nestled Mike’s snub nose revolver into the holster, fighting a flashback to the evening in Chinatown. Her SIG SAUER P226 9mm was holstered on the right side of her belt, facilitating a strong-side quick draw.
She bent down and gave the Lab a quick hug.
“This is the big time, Othello. What I’ve been waiting for since Chinatown. A chance to show what I can do to honor Dad’s memory.”
Anticipating the chilly April night ahead, she opened the hall closet and pulled on a blue wool blazer, aware of the need to look professional to impress the media, who was sure to swarm the crime scene.
She raced outside, headed for her Toyota Camry. Hana jerked open the gray sedan’s door.
She was stopped cold by a note on the driver’s seat. Puzzled, she picked it up and read the message written in red ink.
Good luck! You’ll need it.
Deciding her priority was to get to the crime scene, she tucked the note into her blazer pocket. The mystery of how an intruder had bypassed the Toyota’s security system to leave the cryptic message baffled her but would have to wait.
She texted her next-door neighbor that she’d been called away on a homicide, asking him to look after Othello in the usual fashion starting in the morning.
Ray Collins grew up in the Midwest, attended Yale, and was drafted as an Army combat infantryman during his junior year. He married Betty Ann when mustered out of the service. Ray attended Princeton, where Betty Ann had twins (Jim and Ann) and he earned an MPA. Joining State as a foreign service officer, his first assignment was Manila, Philippines where Betty Ann had their third child (Nori). He became a Japanese language and East Asia specialist during his second assignment in Japan, where their fourth child (Susan) was born. On the Japan Desk at State, he did Japanese interpreting at the White House. Ray left State to focus on Head Start, child care, and other programs for vulnerable families. He was a resident Mid-Career Fellow and earned a PhD at Princeton and, for five years, was a non-resident Fellow at the Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy, a think tank within the Yale Child Study Center. Ray’s early publications focused on Head Start, child care, and policy toward children and families. Recently, he’s published on white supremacy’s resurgence and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. When not writing thrillers (THE GENERAL’S BRIEFCASE is being published by Köehler Books in June and MOTIVE FOR MURDER is being published in December 2023), Ray enjoys traveling and watching movies with Betty Ann, weight training at the Fairfax County rec center, and spending time with their four children and extended family.