Skip to main content

Book: Rapture

An action-packed sci-fi thriller ...

In the year 2067, followers of The Pure are vanishing from Earth. It’s rapture, as predicted in their scriptures. At least that is what the religion's faithful believe.

To conspiracy theorists, the disappearances are a nefarious government plot. To the government, they’re merely human foul-play. To Reiko Liebenstadt, a disgraced agent at the Federal Protectorate, the mystery is her obsession.

On the case that sank her career, she alone witnessed a Purist vanish from a canoe in the middle of a lake. Reiko’s investigation of The Pure leads her to a faraway world ravaged by disease and war. She uncovers the real reason she was chosen for the assignment, the hidden meanings in the prophecies of the scriptures, and the ultimate fate of those raptured.

The truth is far from heavenly.

Available at the Following Stores

Apple iTunes/iBooks
Barnes & Noble
Other Digital Stores

See the Goodreads Page for reviews and more purchase info.


Chapter 1

Year 2068, the province of California, the country of La República

Why fear death when heaven awaits? Pieta has never understood people’s clinginess to life, but she can still use it to her advantage. The threat of unprecedented obliteration is what will make this country bend to her demands like a yogi.

Pieta enters the elevator of her residential high-rise. Leaning the weight of her cardboard box on the handrail, she pushes the button for fifty-one. Soon, the door opens to the penthouse level. She hoists up the box and trudges to the stairwell with roof access.

The top of the building is barren, paved with a gritty material. No swimming pool, hot tub, or shiny barbecue. What a pity. From this height, San Diego sparkles, especially on nights when a breeze has evicted the smog. Pieta has seen much of La República, which encompasses the Americas and Europe, and this coastal city remains her favorite. However, the main reason she lives at the tallest residential building in town is practical: unobstructed access to the sky.

Lightning knifes through the clouds, followed by a thunderclap. Pieta frowns. The sky has an ugly migraine but is not crying. Yet. She prays that the weather not interfere with her task.

At least no one else is around. At 1:34 a.m., it’s unlikely any neighbor would be up. In this luxury building, most residents are too old to stay up past the ten o’clock news.

Pieta puts down her box and takes out the transceiver. She sits cross-legged, making herself comfortable. Power on. The screen rises up while the keyboard slides out. When the antenna sprouts to its full five-foot height, the bulb on the top blooms with metallic needles.

The screen displays the message, “Secure connection established.”

“My mission is stalled,” Pieta writes via the keyboard. “I have encountered great difficulties in obtaining the Project 46 database. It is not on La República’s network, thus my team can’t simply hack in and download it. The database is on isolated storage units, all tightly guarded. Theft would be difficult, and robbery would be unwise. My recommendation is to coerce the government into surrendering a physical copy.”

More text appears onscreen. “How?”

“Two options,” Pieta writes. “The first is to awaken the trojans we have on their networks and construct a botnet to launch crippling cyberattacks on industrial control systems. The second option is to threaten with nuclear weapons.”

“Which option is better?”

“I would choose option two. The prospect of massive destruction has greater psychological impact. People can go without lights, but they hate dying.” Pieta explains her proposal further.

Minutes pass. “Your plan will elevate our risk of exposure. If your identity becomes compromised, you will not be able to operate in La República anymore.”

“I am aware of the downside, but I can’t think of a better way to get the Project 46 database.”

“Your knowledge of the local landscape is superior to any of ours, and we trust your judgment. Hence you are authorized to proceed. Do you need additional agents in La República to facilitate your new task?”

“No. My present team is sufficient.”

“God’s breath. Dialogue end.”

“God’s breath,” Pieta returns the wish of divine blessing. “Dialogue end.” She puts the transceiver back into the box and stands up.

“Hey, whatcha got there?”

Pieta jumps, almost dropping her box. People rarely sneak up on her, but she was distracted. She turns around.

Cindy, of course. Forties, accountant, single, 24th floor, likes to do her laundry on Friday nights. “Did I startle you? I’m sorry.”

No matter how anonymous Pieta tries to be, there are always chatty types who engage at every chance. “No problem.”

“Fancy equipment in your box?” Cindy asks, her eyes loitering over it.

“It's nothing.” Pieta sets down the box, wondering what her neighbor saw. She reaches behind her back, where her silencer-tipped Sig Sauer 9mm pistol is lodged. A bullet would ensure Cindy never talks again, but leaving a corpse would be messy and disposing of a body would be a hassle. Alternatively, Pieta could push her off the roof, though any specter of suicide might prompt the HOA to cut off roof access. It’s never wise to create drama where you live. Pieta winces, frustrated by the lack of good options.

“Bad back?” Cindy asks.

“Yes.” Pieta keeps her hand behind her back, sliding off the safety.

“Let me help you with your stuff.” Cindy approaches.

“No,” Pieta says, louder than she intended.

Cindy stops, her eyes enlarged.

“It’s not too heavy,” Pieta says extra nicely, punctuating with her best disarming smile. “But thanks.”

“Oh, okay.” Cindy relaxes. “The blood moon will appear soon. Don't you want to stay?”


“The total lunar eclipse. Isn't that why you're up here with your telescope?” Cindy glances at the box again.

“Oh, yes.” Pieta checks out the oversized moon. “But the weather may turn bad. I don't want my telescope to get wet.”

Cindy nods. “Gotcha. Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” Pieta heads back to the stairwell, relieved. I must be more careful next time. In her head, she begins planning for her most important mission since arriving in La República. The fate of her people rests on its success. That she’ll have to undergo a procedure that risks maiming her mind is unfortunate, but it must be done. If life has taught her anything, it’s that the best way to do something right is to do it yourself.

She is going to need a new body.

Chapter 2

“Señora Presidenta,” Ned says as he walks in, “our spy satellites have detected an anomaly in outer space.” He always appears calm, no matter the news. One cannot ask for a steadier hand in a chief of staff. The man doesn’t glance at the window, though the President’s Office has a fabulous view of Havana, the capital of La República.

Unlike Ned, Marisol Kaczmarek adores the vista. With sunset nearing, the centuries-old Spanish colonial architecture simmers in a golden glow. In the early 21st century, resentment against foreign mercantilist trade policies and fatigue from military conflicts abroad caused isolationism to rise in the Americas and Europe. When they combined into a super federation under the Unification Pact of 2028, the capital was set in Havana to balance the dominance of the United States. Great choice. Marisol reminds herself to savor the view more often.

“What is this anomaly?” she asks, casting aside a memorandum to meet Ned’s worried eyes.

“It seems to be a satellite in a geostationary orbit,” her chief of staff says. Ned is allergic to absolutes. Confidence is the province of the dumb, the ignorant, or the arrogant, he likes to say.

“Seems?” Marisol, in contrast, dislikes hedge words. Make a call and go with it—that’s her style.

“Well, the anomaly is always in the same spot above the North Atlantic, when it appears.”

She squints. “It disappears?”

“The anomaly has been undetectable most of the time, actually.”

“Maybe it’s aliens?” Marisol chuckles.

Still standing, Ned doesn’t smile. In his late fifties, he is a dozen years older than her but decades wiser. The man has been a trusted advisor since Marisol ran for her first public office as attorney general of the province of Texas. A sense of humor, however, is not what Ned is good at. “Our best guess is that the anomaly is a spaceship or a satellite, from either the Persian Caliphate or the Indian Commonwealth.”

Them again. Thinking about her nation’s enemies gives Marisol a headache. Following La República’s formation, the Asian countries combined into a commonwealth led by India. Chaos bloodied the Middle East, Africa, and Russia until the Persian Caliphate conquered them all. Some independent nations exist but don’t move the geopolitical needle.

Ned has been on high blood pressure medication since his forties, and today he looks like he needs an extra pill.

“Take a seat, Ned.”

There are two chairs in front of the president’s desk, all hand-crafted using wood reclaimed from an antique Cuban fishing boat. Ned always chooses the left chair. He adjusts the knot of his tie but doesn’t loosen it.

“How can a spaceship or a satellite disappear?” Marisol asks.

“It's probably there but undetectable due to stealth technology.”

“I thought we were ahead of the others on that, and we still haven’t achieved stealth for our spacecraft. How could they have surpassed us?”

“Perhaps our intelligence is wrong. After all, they don’t know about our killersat either.”

Marisol sips from her café cubano. That La República has a satellite armed with two thermonuclear missiles is a secret. Supposedly. “Can this anomaly be someone else’s version of our killersat?”

“It’s possible, although a weaponized satellite should have an orbit closer to Earth. A research or commercial satellite would have no reason to vanish. The most likely answer is a spaceship. In any case, it worries me that an enemy launched something without our knowledge and we can’t find it.” Her chief of staff is paid to worry for her, and that Ned is very good at.

“Let’s assume this anomaly is a threat, can our killersat take it out next time it pops up?”

Ned's stooped posture flexes straight. “That … would not be advisable. Launching a nuclear missile unprovoked would lead to war.”

“I’m not saying I will blow it up. I merely want to know if we have the capability.”

“Maybe, but it won’t be easy. The killersat is designed to hit stationary targets on Earth, not a spaceship that evades.”

“We are launching a gen-two killersat soon, right?”

“Upgrades to the propulsion system have run into some snags, hence the next gen killersat won’t launch for another year at least.”

Marisol sighs, wishing the upgrades could come sooner, but these things should not be rushed. It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast. Having nukes in space is a game changer. Unless an enemy also has them.

* * *

Almost midnight, but Marisol is still in her office. She yawns as she clicks off the bossa nova instrumental drifting in the background. It’s about time to call it a night.

Ned scurries in. His tie is still on, but the neck loop is now loose enough to slip through a soda can. “Sorry to hold you up, Señora Presidenta. Two hours ago, the Defense Department received a message through its Class E channel saying that we no longer have control of our killersat.”

The Class E channel, protected by the best encryption La República has, is reserved for issues of utmost national security. Access to it is extremely limited.

“Who sent it?” Marisol asks.

“We don’t know,” Ned says.

Whatever drowsiness she had is as gone as yesterday’s dew. “Is this related to the anomaly?”

“We don’t have any evidence linking the two, but it’s possible.”

“And it’s taken two hours for the news to filter up to me?” Marisol asks, peeved.

“There were things Defense had to do first. Initially they thought it was a prank. When they pinged the killersat to run a diagnostic, the killersat refused.”

Marisol's stomach contracts.

“Our problem is bigger than that,” Ned says. “The message also says the killersat has been reprogrammed to aim its missiles at Paris. Defense has confirmed it.”

“That’s our third largest city,” she says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Can this get any worse?”

“The final part of the message demands that we turn over the Project 46 database.”

“Project 46? How do they know about it?”

Ned doesn’t reply, though his expression pretty much says that he has no clue.

“Regardless, we can’t turn over the database,” Marisol says. “Disclosing the existence of the project alone would be the biggest scandal in the history of La República. And telling our citizens that we surrendered the database to an unknown entity would destroy my administration.”

“Those problems would be mere pimples next to a nuclear wound,” Ned says.

“Maybe this messenger is bluffing.”

“Maybe. But we're facing a high magnitude risk, even if the probability is low.”

Marisol kneads her face. “What assurances do we have that they won’t launch the missiles anyway?”

“Little, but it’s unlikely. The value of Project 46 is premised upon our living population. The bottom line is that we have no armor while facing the barrel of a very large gun.”

“Our own gun, no less. The irony.” Marisol sighs. “Is there a deadline?”

“Forty-six hours from now.”

Marisol’s mind begins to spin. “Let’s call an emergency meeting of the top advisors. First, keep trying to get our killersat back. Second, make sure we still have control over the rest of our nuclear arsenal. Whatever security vulnerabilities we have, fix them. We can’t lose any more nukes. Third, we need to explore all options, including a strike on the killersat.” Her jaw clenches. “In the meantime, prepare for the worst. Get the Project 46 database ready for transfer.”

The prospect of bending to an enemy incenses Marisol, who has always prided herself on being tough. With a JD from Buenos Aires Law, the most elite school in La República, she started as a rookie prosecutor. She had to fight for every rung on the ladder. Her boss steered her away from the sex crimes unit because he thought she’d be intimidated by the perverts and the rapists. Her party’s power brokers questioned her strength to wrestle with the big boys. Her presidential opponent, a retired four-star general, questioned whether she had the cojones to make hard calls on national security.

In response, Marisol overcompensated. As prosecutor, she sought sentences that were harsher than warranted. As governor, she denied a clemency plea from a death-row prisoner despite having reasonable doubts about his guilt, all because she feared being seen as soft on crime. That was immoral, but morality is something politicians shed as quickly as a bad hairdo once they run for office. As president, she has confronted opposition with more assertiveness than diplomacy.

Yet now Marisol faces the possibility of capitulating to an enemy. An unseen one, no less. The mere thought humiliates her. “How would we turn the database over to the messenger?”

“I was about to get to that,” Ned says, “because it relates to their final demand.”

Chapter 3

The Federal Protectorate dwells in a hulking building that is essentially a cement block with tiny windows. Almost as impregnable as a prison, and nearly as ugly. Reiko Liebenstadt is fine with it, though. FPro, as La República’s top law-enforcement agency is popularly known, has been a target of saboteurs.

She and her fellow agents are sitting in a conference room with glass walls on all sides. The fishbowl, they call it. Outside, heavy clouds drape over the city of Oakland. Nonetheless, Reiko is all sunshine, ready with her stylus and tablet, eager to take notes when the daily briefing starts. Every day holds the promise of new cases, and every case holds the potential of redemption. Unfortunately, if the meeting is anything like the many before it, she’ll end up with nothing to do. At least nothing important to do.

Reiko joined the Federal Protectorate fresh out of college as a highly-recruited rookie with scintillating grades. She thought she would be on all kinds of sexy cases: domestic terrorism, organized crime, high-profile kidnappings. Despite never having handled a firearm prior to boot camp, she turned out to be a crack shot. Strength was never her forte, but she acquired fighting skills. Tussling with boys in mixed-martial-arts gyms since she was five meant she could hit and, more crucially, take a hit.

“Your problem is not the physicality,” FPro’s shrink said to Reiko at the end of her first year, speaking with a haughty European accent that sounded contrived. Her hair was pulled back in the tightest bun, not a single colored hair out of place on her aged face. “The problem is: your cognitive process is rigid. You insist on clear rules and everything fitting into tidy boxes. But life doesn’t work like a flowchart, especially not in law enforcement.” The butthole went on to fart more academic babble and suggest that Reiko would be better suited as an analyst. “A perfectly respectable job,” the sphincter added.

To hell with that rubbish. Reiko was sure she could be a fine FPro agent. She wanted to choke the shrink until her eyes popped like overripe tomatoes. But the last thing Reiko needed was to give her another excuse to downgrade the psych eval and write something like, “Agent Liebenstadt has temperament and impulse control issues.”

Four years later, Reiko made it to the Elite Tactical Squad, whose selection process had a 83% washout rate. A year of strong performance followed. Yup. Take that.

Then came the case that ruined her career.

In the two years since, Reiko has been known as the agent who fucked up, big time. And “fucked up” and “big time” in one sentence is enough to implode any agent’s career, especially a young one. Even if it only happened once.

Now Reiko is stuck chin deep in the sewage of FPro’s report-preparation purgatory, which has given her carpal tunnel syndrome. So much for her dream of becoming the next Elliot Ness. Still, she has to stay optimistic and ready, she tells herself. When (yes, it’s when, not if) an opportunity arises, she’s going to seize it like cat on tuna.

Into the fishbowl walks the boss of the missing persons unit. Ugalik is an Inuk who grew up among the glaciers of Alaska. He is wearing his typical well-worn suit, which should probably be retired to a thrift store, yet no one disrespects him, not even behind his back. There’s a reason for that.

Ugalik commences with housekeeping matters. When that’s done, the overhead lights dim. A large screen next to him brightens to show a photo of a Pacific Islander. “This is Tally Pahumolu. He is a Purist who disappeared from Catalina Island, a retreat owned by The Pure. The local police has conducted phone interviews with the island’s Purists, who all insist that he was raptured.”

The agent sitting next to Reiko groans. A high number of disappearances have been linked to The Pure since the religion’s founding in the early 21st century, but no “victim” has ever reappeared. The faithful insist the missing were raptured as prophesied in their scriptures.

“I assume the court refused to issue a search warrant,” one agent says.

“The police didn’t even try,” Ugalik says.

Figures. Due to the Religious Freedom and Privacy Act of 2038, investigation of any religion has been severely limited. The law bars intrusion into and surveillance of “sacred premises.” Catalina Island is one. To search such premises, the government needs a court warrant, which requires a “preponderance of evidence” that a crime occurred. The standard of proof is so high that a warrant is rarely issued. The Pure’s pricey lawyers have always successfully argued that being missing is not in itself a crime.

“Anyone here wants to take a stab at it?” Ugalik asks. The Federal Protectorate has discretionary jurisdiction over all domestic crimes. If FPro deems a case to be significant, it can take over the matter from the local police.

The fishbowl is as quiet as a real fishbowl. Surprise, surprise.

Proving a case against The Pure would be a huge notch on any agent’s belt and certainly revive a moribund agent’s career. But—and this is a humongous but—all past investigations of The Pure have been futile. No Purist has been convicted of any wrongdoing. Accusations and intrusions have been met with lawsuits. The legal constraints aside, cases involving religious cults are turn-offs to FPro agents. Foul play is unlikely unless there is a corpse, which rarely happens outside of movies.

“Anyone?” Ugalik canvasses the crowd, grimacing slightly. Years ago he single-handedly killed several human traffickers, saving the lives of two fellow agents and taking a bullet to his knee. That ended the days of kicking down doors but earned him a promotion to the head of this unit. Despite the injury, the stubborn man has always insisted on standing up to give briefings. “No one?” he asks, resignation in his tone.

All agents are avoiding eye contact and staying mum. During Reiko’s tenure here, many cases involving Purists have come by, but no agent has ever volunteered to investigate them. Except Reiko. Ugalik never picks her.

Admittedly, getting on a case involving The Pure is hardly an enviable job, but solving the mystery is Reiko’s obsession. Besides, beggars can’t be choosers. It’s not like Ugalik will assign her anything good. If Reiko wants to revive her career, she has to get on a case, any case. Her arm rockets up.

“I guess I’ll have to assign someone to this case,” Ugalik mutters while ignoring her. He moves on.

The briefing over, Reiko stalks back to her cubicle, fuming more than a punctured radiator. On her computer screen is a long queue of reports she is to clean up. If there are holes in the reports, she is to do follow-ups to plug the holes. Bureaucratic reports are Swiss cheese; there are always holes. Once the reports are complete, she is to create summaries for management. And export data to analysts so they can manufacture more reports, preferably with colorful charts. Make it pretty is more important than make it right—something that applies to much of life, she has unhappily realized.

Screw this.

Reiko marches into Ugalik's office, which has an open door policy. “Hey boss?”

He keeps reading his paperwork as if it were a bestseller.

She clears her throat. “I want—”

“The answer is no, Liebenstadt.”

“Oh, pity. I was gonna ask if you wanted a handjob,” she deadpans. “Sir.”

There might be a split second pre-chuckle on Ugalik’s face before a scowl overcompensates. “I’m not giving you the Pahumolu case.”

“C’mon, boss. It’s been, like, two years. How long is it going to be?”

He flips a page.

“Two years is punishment a-plenty, sir.”

“Not enough for a screwup as big as yours.”

That accusation always stings, but Reiko ignores it, knowing that re-litigating the past is counterproductive. “I can’t redeem myself if I don’t get another chance.”

“If I put you out there and you screw up again, the director will have my head.” Ugalik softens a little. “You’ll get another shot when the right case comes along. 'Til then, be patient.”

“Pahumolu is an unsolvable case. What’s the worst that can happen? I come back empty-handed? What’s the harm?”

“You really want to know?” The boss leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “Close the door. Sit.”

Reiko complies. The padding on her chair might as well be cement. Ugalik never asked her to close the door before. His face is that of a school principal who’s about to suspend a student.

In sixth grade, Tommy Lee, a rather douchey kid in Reiko’s class, asked her to sponsor him for his charity run. She was like, no, and pointed out that he never ran during P.E. “Twat,” he spat. Reiko didn’t really know what the word meant but knew enough to send her palm into his nose, bloodying his face. Good technique. Hitting with her fist would’ve cushioned the force and hurt her knuckles.

The principal, saying that Tommy could’ve died, threatened to suspend Reiko unless she apologized to him and sponsored his run. Hell no. “Even though Tommy is a twat who’s lamer than a baby,” Reiko retorted, “he wasn’t gonna die. Puh-lease.” She added an eye-roll. The principal screamed at her, his face red and swollen like he got stung by ten thousand bees, and suspended her for a week. As if that was such a punishment. Reiko ended up helping out at her parents’ bakery, which she enjoyed doing anyway.

“What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room,” Ugalik says. “Got that?”

Reiko nods. She wipes her moist hands on her pants.

“Last year,” he says, “we officially classified sixty missing-person cases in La República as related to The Pure.”

“That sounds about right.”

“The real figure is much higher. Five times as high.”

Reiko’s eyes widen. “Three hundred?”

“Good, you can multiply. The Pure’s official membership roll is about three million. Sixty out of three million is a lot of folks vanishing every year. Three hundred is astonishing. And those numbers are only for our country. The Pure has global reach.”

Reiko is not slow. She knows why the government fudges the figures but lets her boss continue.

“The problem is,” he says, “we can't figure out why so many damn Purists are disappearing.”

“Our hands are tied.”

“Exactly.” Ugalik points at her. “When there is a problem, people want an answer. If the government has no answer, there is a vacuum. What happens when there is a vacuum, Liebenstadt?”

“Shit fills it, sir.”

Ugalik nods with satisfaction. “That’s right, agent. Conspiracy theorists will argue that our enemies or, worse, our government is abducting our citizens. And people will believe those shit answers because?”

“Shit answers are better than no answers at all.”

“You’re not as dense as I thought. That’s why we gotta be discreet about them numbers. If the truth leaks out, La República will be bursting with shit of Hollywood proportions.” Ugalik’s eyes narrow. “You don’t want to live in a country filled with shit, do you?”

“No sir. Absolutely not. There’s already enough shit in my life.”

“Neither do I.”

Reiko coughs. “What if … the missing were raptured?”

“Do you believe that?”

“To be fair, I can’t rule it out.” Though agnostic now, Reiko was partial to religion as she grew up. Her adoptive parents were Universalist Quakers. She has always liked the Quaker idea that there’s the Divine in every person, accessible without the need for a formal structure or an intermediary. Rapture seems like a swell concept.

Ugalik grunts. “Even if rapture was real, the government wouldn’t want to publicize it, would it? Our society would collapse if everybody sat around and waited for the lift to heaven.” He taps his desk. “This is why I can’t assign you the Pahumolu case.”

“I still don’t understand.”

He sighs. “Do I really have to spell it out for you?” 

Chapter 4

Pieta knows exactly what to do. The gym of The Expat, a swanky business hotel in Havana, is the place to do it. Many people would go to bars and clubs. In her opinion, those are inferior places to shop for quality meat.

First of all, such flesh bazaars are noisy. Flirting is easier when yelling is not required. Second, bars are filled with obnoxious drunks. No need to make a job more unpleasant with men burping beer-flavored words. Third, and this is the key reason, the hunter must think like an economist: supply and demand. The best chances of success arise in a savannah with many antelopes and no other lionesses. Female lions hunt for the pride. The males partake in the bounty after the females kill the antelopes.

Gyms, specifically weight rooms, are ideal savannahs. Once you get away from the cardio machines, the prey to predator ratio is nearly perfect. Men love weight rooms. They pump iron until blood engorges their veins and hardens their muscles. They grunt as if the loudness proved the size of their cocks. When the weightlifting is finished, they strut around spent like they ejaculated, but are never so tired they can’t admire their physiques in front of mirrors. Muscled men are essentially peacocks showing off their plumage. Though the “cock” in peacock refers to the male bird, the word is especially apt for that species.

Let the hunt begin.

Pieta floats into the gym. Soon the prey notice her. The polite ones cast furtive glances, whereas the bold ones use their eyes to take her measurements. Although she isn’t exactly hot by the usual standards, it's easy to leverage what she has. All she needs are some clever makeup, a tight crop top, and a flirty attitude.

The bench press in the center of the room is the best place for attention. Pieta racks up a ten-pound plate on each end of the bar and stops. Using her best damsel-in-distress pout, she glances around the room.

Her plea quickly baits a man in his late forties. He is tall, handsome, and all the clichés of a romance novel. Boasting a classy trim of salt and pepper hair, he is the kind of man who will command quiet authority when he’s in a dark suit. Perfect. He smiles, and Pieta reciprocates demurely. He comes toward her, and so does another male. Uh-oh. Cockfight. A glower from Mr. Perfect halts his rival, who backs away so meekly that if he had a tail it’d be tucked between his legs.

“Hi there,” Mr. Perfect says, his voice weighty with masculine gravitas. He motions at the bench press. “You need another pair of hands?”

“That obvious?” Pieta says with fabricated embarrassment. “I think I’ll need a helper—”

“A spotter.”

“Yes, a spotter.” She doubles her abashed expression. “Do you mind—”

“My pleasure. You should never bench without a spotter. Good safety habit.” He nods at his own sage advice.

“I know … I just hate asking people. It’s such an imposition.”

“Not at all.”

“Thanks.” To reward him, Pieta lies down on the bench and opens up her legs.

Mr. Perfect’s eyes dart to her crotch and linger there for 0.5 second longer than what would be socially appropriate. “What’s that?” he asks, staring at her tattoo, a swirl with her belly button as the center.

“It’s an ancient symbol for purity.”

“Huh.” He appears a bit confused, as if he’s trying to figure out what the symbol says about her.

Pieta grabs the bar and lifts it off the rack. As she lowers the bar, she sucks in lungs full of air, inflating her chest. She practices several reps under his encouragement.

They move on to other free weights while flirting. Pieta dispenses shy laughs and inserts flattering questions. That’s another thing about people, not only men: the best way to make others think you are a great conversationalist is to let them talk about themselves. Narcissism underpins much of human behavior.

It doesn’t take a tremendous effort to convince her mark that they should go for a swim at the hotel’s pool. “To cool off,” Pieta says coyly.

“Great idea.”

“I have two bikinis, one I brought with me on this trip and another one I bought yesterday—an impulse buy.” Her tongue darts out and glazes her upper lip. “I have a hard time stopping myself when I want something.”

He swallows.

“Would you mind helping me choose?” Pieta ends her question with a doe-like gaze.

A moment passes before Mr. Perfect regains his poise. “Ahem, my pleasure,” he says breezily.

* * *

Once they are in Pieta’s hotel room, she sneaks off into the bathroom. A brief time later, she opens the door a crack. “Close your eyes,” she coos.

“Why?” Mr. Perfect asks.

“I like to make an entrance. More fun this way.”

He chuckles. “Okay. I’m all about fun.”

That he is, for sure. “Please don’t laugh.”

“Don’t worry. I’m already picturing you looking perfect in the bikini.”

Yeah right. He’s probably imagining her without the swimsuit. “You’re just being nice to me. I’m coming out. Eyes closed?”


“No cheating.”

“I promise,” Mr. Perfect says without a hitch, his wedding band notwithstanding.

He is sitting at the edge of the bed when Pieta emerges with a pistol behind her back. One can never be too careful, especially with a person who is definitely a cheater. She gives him a peck on the forehead. His hands grope for her, only to meet her resistance. “No peeking,” she reminds him.

“Absolutely not.”

Pieta shoves him back onto the bed.

The middle-aged man giggles. “Oooh, you like to take the reins, don’t you?”

Oh yes I do. “You have a problem with that?”

“Not at all. I just wasn’t expecting it. You seemed so demure in public.”

“Mister, you have no idea who I really am.”

“And I can’t wait to find out.”

Pieta sits on top of his loins. “You like this?”

His cock grows another size. “I love it.”

“How about this?” She grinds the man’s crotch.

He closes his hands on her butt. “Oh Christ, you’re so hot.”

“Bitch, get ready for an out-of-body experience.”

Moaning, he arches up his hips.

Pieta swings her pistol forward, bringing it within inches of Mr. Perfect’s forehead. Blue light flashes out of the muzzle, and the man’s body snaps stiff. She checks his pulse. Still pumping. Good. Her pistol is set to make a typical person unconscious, but there are always outliers who don’t react well.

Time to pray. Pieta dismounts from him and stands up. Her eyes closed and feet planted, she swirls her upper body languidly, each successive circle smaller until it ends in the center point. She stills.


The next step is what she hates the most: the hookup, though not the kind Mr. Perfect hoped for. From the room safe, Pieta retrieves the headphones, the kind with oversized cups that hug the ears. She puts the headphones over the man’s head and flips its switch. Seconds pass. On the earcups, yellow lights blink to confirm that the neural probes have inserted into his brain.

 The headphones have a long wire that ends in a one-inch peg about the thickness of a pencil. She presses the peg against her forehead, whereupon a hole opens up to receive it.

Pieta dials the stun setting on her pistol to a higher level. With God’s breath, the procedure will work perfectly. She lies back on the bed, willing herself to relax. Inhale. Exhale. She points the pistol at her temple and pulls the trigger.


* * *

Pieta wakes up in Mr. Perfect’s body. She removes the headphones from her head—well, physically his head. The lights on the earcups have turned blue, indicating that the mind swap is successful. While Pieta’s consciousness has transferred to his body, Mr. Perfect’s consciousness has moved to hers.

“You take care,” Pieta says, patting her previous body. She stretches, trying to exorcise the lingering paralysis. What's that stench? She sniffs her hairy armpit. Whew. Definitely needs to clean up. She fishes in the pocket of her workout shorts and finds a wallet. “Hello, I am David Barrington,” Pieta says while examining the national ID card.

Time to work. Time to meet the most powerful person on Earth. Time to save Pieta’s people.

Assuming everything goes right.