Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that I have a beautiful sequel to DRAGONFLY GIRL. The bad news is that the publisher did not want to continue with the series.
Yet, the book exists. It’s called ACADEMY ONE and is the story of what happens to our heroine, Kira, when she agrees to work as a spy inside a laboratory in Russia. Let’s just say, that things do not go to plan. Like, she ends up on Volkov’s private plane, heading out to a place called Academy One. And this place, this “school” or “academy’ or whatever it thinks it is (Kira thinks it’s like a jail for smart kids) is where you ever want to go….
But let’s not have me talk about it. Let’s let Kira do the talking. For my lovely wonderful readers, here is chapter one of ACADEMY ONE, the sequel to DRAGONFLY GIRL
Chapter One: A Pair of Earrings
There is no law except the law that there is no law.– John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist.
Because I don’t know the language, I let a man poke a device into my ear that translates Russian into English in real time.
I’ve never met this guy before.
We’re in the back of an S-class Mercedes, the soft comfort of its interior as foreign to me as the city of Moscow. I can feel the vibration of the road in the man’s touch and I can smell his fingers, too. Their dark tobacco scent is woody and dry.
I’ve been in this city for five weeks, sleeping in a derelict house. It’s a place where people arrive then disappear, like a hotel or a prison. Any time of day you find them sprawled out on the filthy furniture that fills the rooms, or clomping up and down stairs looking for a toilet that works. I sleep in a camp bed in a closet. It smells like mice because there are mice. They nest behind the walls. These July temperatures make the closet into a furnace but I’m safe there.
I’m not safe in this chauffeured Mercedes or with this guy, so creepy. He works with calm precision, a pair of specialized tweezers pinched between his forefinger and thumb. He lowers the tiny translation device deeper into my ear canal, sending stinging pinpricks into my jaw so that it feels like I’m swallowing them.
“Shhh,” he says, as though I’ve spoken.
In the seat in front of me is the driver. He glances back from time to time in the rearview mirror but says nothing. He has rust-colored hair and a complexion as though he’s been burned. I stare at the back of his neck because I have to stare at something to keep my head still.
“Ow!” I say, raising my hand to protect my ear.
The man sighs. “I can stop, you know,” he says. “No one is making you do this.”
Every nerve in my body wants to push him away from me. We roll to a red light and I have to stop myself leaping from the car. I can almost feel the relief of it, wrestling my way out the door, my feet on the hot pavement, running. But I don’t have to do anything so dramatic. I don’t have to run. Like he says, I can so no. I can simply refuse the translation device. I can refuse the entire deal.
Except I can’t.
“How long—?” I say, then stop myself abruptly. Talking makes it worse.
“Shhh,” the man says gently, adjusting his position again so that he can work on my ear. “Look outside. It’s a beautiful day.”
Through the window I see sunlight pulsing against the chrome of other cars, the temperature soaring as noon approaches. Mothers set up sun parasols to protect their babies. City fountains fill with barefoot kids seeking relief from the sun. Meanwhile, we glide south within the cool protection of the Mercedes’ air conditioning.
“The labs where you’ll work are brand new,” says the man. “We are very curious about what goes on inside them.”
All of Moscow is either being built up or torn down. Jackhammers pound. Cranes swing. But the car is a fortress against the noise, too. I’m protected from every discomfort except the delicate assault inside my ear.
“How did you end up so alone? No one championing you?” the man asks. His voice is low and deep and sad, as though he pities me.
I don’t like him saying that, that I’m so alone. It hurts in a different way than my ear, which is ringing with pain now as the tweezers scrape the tender sides of my ear canal. I pull in a breath, let it go, press my palms over my thighs to keep them still, feel the sweat like a stream of tears running down the inside of my dress.
“You must have someone who cares for you somewhere, or once did. What about your parents? You’re old enough for a man, I suppose.”
My father has been dead for more years than I remember, but I have a mother at home in America. She will be watching the news reports, listening for the telephone, wondering where I’ve gone. And why. Oh, she knows I’m in Russia. She knows that much. But she doesn’t know about this man beside me. He’s my boss, my “handler”. Whatever you call it. He’s the person I report to and I don’t even know his name.
The man sits back, exchanging the tweezers for another instrument that he fishes out from a plastic sleeve. I release the long breath I’ve been holding, then gulp in another, unready to relax.
“I’m not the guy you have to worry about you know,” he says, angling the new tool.
I go rigid as he adjusts the device millimeter by millimeter. His breath is rhythmic and warm against my neck. I can smell the coffee he drank this morning, the greasy egg he had for breakfast. I press my feet hard into the floor of the car, curling my toes inside my sneakers, enduring another bullet of sensation, precise and excruciating. He makes a sharp move and I yelp like a puppy.
“Done,” he announces, slowly withdrawing the instrument.
The pain in my head pulses like a second heart. In all the James Bond films, I’ve never seen Bond struggle so with the gadgetry dreamed up for him by the intelligence community.
But James Bond is pretend and this is all very real.
“You have small ears,” the man says, as though my ears are a disappointment. “You have to expect a little discomfort.”
He touches my face again and I start like a rabbit. He angles my jaw one way, then another, shining a light inside my ear.
“Many of us at the Agency question the wisdom of putting a child – any child, even one with your remarkable abilities – in harm’s way. If they’d taken a vote, you wouldn’t be here now.”
I say nothing. The throbbing in my ear takes up all of my attention. There’s a kind of hum, too, like a piece of electronics – a monitor or speaker – that has been left on.
“No one would call you a coward for refusing,” he says. “It’s a challenging job, not something you can put on your resume either.”
I miss home. I miss my mother. I’ve had to get along in an expensive city with no money. Try being this poor, I want to say to the man next to me. Then talk to me about ‘challenging’.
“Get a lawyer. Argue you had no idea you were divulging secrets to a foreign power—”
“I wasn’t divulging anything—!” I begin, the anger suddenly ballooning inside me.
He holds up his hand to silence me. “A good lawyer and they’ll drop the charges, I imagine …”
I am aware that a “good lawyer” might change the stakes for me. But over four thousand children are in jail in America right now, by which I mean adult jail, and they all had lawyers. And how am I going to magic up this money for a lawyer?
I try not to think about it too much, this course I’m on, this path to freedom. But some nights, lying on the mattress in the unmoving heat of that awful closet, fear comes at me like an ocean wave I have to swim through or drown.
“How old are you again?”
I just turned eighteen. He knows this already.
“You could walk away. Walk awzt right now.” He makes a popping noise with his lips, then sweeps his fingers through the air as though dismissing someone unseen. When I saw nothing, he shrugs, “Well, I’ve done my best,” he sighs.
He doesn’t understand. I’ve been promised so much: medical care for my mother, financial help so she won’t lose the house. Freedom. I don’t want to remain a suspicious person, a girl nobody trusts or wants near them. And I can’t bear my mother fall deeper into debt, losing her home, losing everything.
“It feels like there’s something stuck,” I say, touching my neck. My throat feels tight, like I’ve swallowed a ball of lead.
“Move naturally. It will soon settle.”
I open then close my mouth, feeling little jolts of electricity tingle down my neck. My hearing is distorted. I can only hear through my right ear, which has already transformed in my mind to my “good” ear. The ear with the device in it hums faintly as though a current of sound has been trapped inside.
“It’s like I’m underwater.”
“Well dear, that is because I’m speaking English.” He rolls his eyes as though I’ve missed the entire point of the device. “Try this: Vy menya ponimayete?”
A penetrating computer-generated voice shoots straight down into my head causing me to jump in my seat. In flat, robot speak without inflection, I hear, Can you understand me?
It hurts more when the voice booms, but I can hear it. Perfectly.
The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pair of silver earrings in the shape of hearts.
“This is the brain of the whole contraption.” He says, jiggling the earrings in his palm. “These communicate with each other and with the device in your ear.”
I take the earrings from him. The little hearts are surprisingly heavy.
“I don’t have pierced ears,” I say.
“You’ll take care of that.
We ride in silence. I look out the window. The man speaks to the driver, who has said nothing the entire trip and says nothing now, but hands back a tray on which there is a sandwich, some fruit in a cup, and a brownie, just like the ones you get in America. I’m being rewarded like a kid at the dentist, getting a lollipop for being good.
I can’t pretend I don’t want it. Over the past weeks I’ve been so hungry I’ve curled into my closet at night in the derelict house and tried to sleep away the cries from my stomach. I’ve pilfered rolls at the markets, checked the trash cans behind food stores.
Now I’m being handed a tray of food of my own. I eat silently, ravenously, even though chewing hurts. There’s a brownie in plastic wrapping, a brand I remember from back home. I don’t want the pain to interfere with my enjoyment of such a delicacy, so I pocket it along with the earrings.
The man says, “My driver is going to drop you at the side of the road. You will get out of the car and tug down your dress as though it’s been riding up around your hips for the past half hour. This is in case we’re being followed. Or if one of the cameras picks you up.”
“You want to make it look as though we’ve been…you know.” I look at him, then away quickly, feeling the blood rising from my neck. He’s old, with yellowing teeth and papery fat fingers. The thought I’d touch him is disgusting…but then, what other reason would I be here? In this expensive car with a well-to-do middle-aged man? I have to go along with the ruse.
God, I wish I were home. I hate everything about my life right now.
Every. Last. Detail.
He says, “Do you understand the instruction?”
The entire reason I’m useful to him is that I understand all sorts of complex and difficult subjects. That is, as long as they are science related. But he isn’t asking about my intellect. He’s asking if I can take an order.
“Yes,” I say, so embarrassed I can barely get the words out.
He clears his throat. “I can assure you I have no interest in anything but your safety, so do us all a favor and make me look like a dirty old man.”
He turns away, unscrewing the top of a bottle of water. He drinks in slow gulps, distracted. The car makes a series of turns, then pulls to a stop.
“Be prepared. We are certain you will to be approached very soon,” he says.
“When do I get to speak to my mom?” I ask. She doesn’t know the full truth and must believe what she hears on TV, all those news reports that say I’ve defected to Russia. And she thinks that the help she’s getting with bills is due to the generosity of Dr. Munn, the director of the Mellin Institute where I used to work after school. But it isn’t that. It’s part of the deal I made.
“How would I know?” he says. “Do you think the girls who spied on behalf of the French resistance got to speak to their mothers?”
He looks away as though done with me.
I step out of the car, feeling the heat even worse now that I’ve enjoyed the air conditioning. I pull my dress down, smoothing it across my thighs as instructed. I hear the Mercedes drive away and now it feels very quiet. I look around to see if anyone is watching me. There’s a section of green behind me, with a statue on a stone. A guy walking his dog on the others side of the street. A woman waiting for the trolleybus. I search for surveillance cameras but see none. The driver must have chosen this spot carefully. I read that there are a hundred and forty thousand cameras in Moscow. It takes skill to avoid them.
Oh, but here’s a mistake. The statue is not a statue. Its eyes just moved. If I hand it money, it’ll probably give me a flower.
I look up at the statue’s silvery face. It’s dressed like a male clown but beneath the baggy, sequined clown suit is a shape like mine.
“I don’t have any money,” I say, holding up empty hands.
She bends her lips into a little frown, squinting at me as though to say she knows this is a lie. Didn’t she see me get out of a Mercedes?
She glances at a box at her feet in which there are a few coins. Then she touches the box with the toe of her silver slipper and asks for money more directly this time, by rubbing her forefinger with her thumb.
Everything I own is in a tote bag hanging on my elbow: a Metro card, a small amount of money, my one pair of jeans, my two tops, my raincoat, plus the all-important earrings and my brownie. My American brownie.
“Are you hungry?” I ask. She glares at me, her make up and sparkles looking like an extra layer of hot skin in this heat, but she doesn’t say no. I dig through my bag for the brownie then hold it up for her to see. “I’ll split this with you,” I say. I speak in English and she probably doesn’t understand. Or maybe she’s reluctant to go halfsies with a total stranger.
I open the packaging, then divide the brownie and offer her the bigger portion. She remains frowning. She thinks I’ve got a bunch of cash from the man in the Mercedes. But it’s testament to how hungry she is that she takes her half of the brownie, storing in the metal cash box, before freezing once again and turning back into a statue.
I turn now and start walking. My sneakers are wearing out and my big toe rolls in and out of the hole in the canvas of my left shoe. I bend down to tie the laces tighter, then I turn and look again at the clown statue.
I’ve been poor all my life, but the way I live now is a different degree of poor. No clean water, no money for food. I have a feeling the clown isn’t far from this, either. But her situation is semi-permanent whereas I’m working undercover, waiting for the guy I will be reporting on to decide I’m a legitimate runaway and offer me a job. Our US intel guys are sure this will happen. Yes, I could be found out, but it’s unlikely that I will be. I’ll be hired to be in a Moscow lab. I’ll be paid. I might live in danger, but I won’t be hungry anymore.
“Ya proshu proshcheniya,” I say to the statue. I’m sorry. It’s one of a handful of expressions I know.
The clown nods, then speaks, the Russian words filtering through the device, arriving into my ear in an American sounding computer-speak that startles me.
“Better to work in a salon than on the street. Safer,” she says. It’s sisterly advice but spoken harshly, as though I am very stupid.
I want to protest that I’m not doing what she thinks I’m doing. I’m not a prostitute. But of course, I can’t say anything of the kind.
“Da,” I say. “Spasibo.”
She nods, then returns to her role as a statue.