Volume 28, Number 1

The Chinese Wife

Margaret Karmazin

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or deceased, is purely coincidental.

She had no idea, of course, that her favorite Secret Service man was in communication with elements from the CIA. For that matter, she wasn’t even fully aware that the SS was connected to Homeland Security. The First Lady was not known for her brains, but rather her carefully constructed beauty, afforded her by the billions her husband amassed in his questionable dealings around the planet. She, traveling with her cousin, the Greek ambassador’s niece, had first met Richard in Italy at an embassy party and though the relationship had gotten off to a rocky start, eventually he divorced his wife and married Delphine.

“It seems like a dream,” she’d told her mother Tia at the wedding.

Her mother was forty-three when she had Delphine and right after, went into menopause. At the wedding, she was sixty-seven and not a “good” sixty-seven, but though her daughter’s money could now make her mother look twenty years younger, Tia had no interest in such things.

“Listen, manari mou, it’s not me I am worried about. My concern is you. My baby is in for a rough ride.”

“Oh, mother,” Delphine had said with irritation. “Please stop the fortune-teller routine. How can I be in for a rough ride? Even if he someday divorces me, I will be wealthy. I’ll be able to take care of myself.”

“He made you sign a prenup,” said Tia.

“A generous one,” said Delphine flippantly. She wasn’t normally like this, but her mother often brought the attitude out in her. She leaned down and whispered in Tia’s ear. “So see? So even if it doesn’t work out, all is good. What could go wrong?”

“Oh, my dear, dear child,” said her mother.

* * *

Twenty years later, she found herself married to the President of the United States. Each morning when she got up out of bed and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, her first words of the day were (in her charming accent) “What the fuck?”

She was not enjoying herself. Being on call 24/7, even if she stayed somewhere other than the White House, even in their fortieth-story Chicago penthouse, she was subject to interruptions she saw as extremely intrusive. Having to give speeches when she suffered from debilitating shyness and dry heaved several times before taking the mike, enduring the press watch her every move and quote whatever she said or remark on whatever she didn’t say, suffering disparaging comments about her appearance, not to mention being called a whore because way back before she met Richard, she’d done some risqué shots with a Danish photographer. And what it all was doing to her sweet Marissa, her delicate and very intelligent little girl on the autism spectrum and so sensitive to light, noise, chaos and everything else. All this was probably setting the child back a couple of years after all the hard work with those psychologists, specialists and tutors. Thankfully, Marissa was safely at a special school, guarded over by her own Secret Service agents and the school’s own extensive police system.

As for her marriage to Richard…well, what marriage? She rarely saw him alone. The only time was if they were in his bedroom together but when had that last happened? They each had their own room in the White House and even back in the penthouse. They hadn’t had sex for nine or ten months, and. should they try, Secret Service men were standing right outside the door. Anyway, Richard was up half the night frantically commenting on social media.

“Why do you keep doing that?” she asked him with unconcealed exasperation but he didn’t look up from his tablet to answer. She wasn’t sure he even noticed her presence except to ask for pudding.

She had certainly not signed up for this. Her mother’s face popped into her mind, Tia who had stayed who she was until her last breath, a little Greek woman dressed in perpetual black, hairs sprouting from her chin, hands turned into arthritic claws, black eyes dancing with loving amusement at life. How Delphine missed her. Her mother was the person she most enjoyed in the world, the only one she felt she could really talk to.

And now the only one who came even slightly close, other than her mother’s sister, Elena was Secret Service Agent Trevor Lemans. He was thirty-seven years old, born and raised in Ohio, mixed race and clean-cut as a Marine. Quite good-looking, though not exactly her type. She definitely had a type and Richard used to be it, though now he wasn’t. He’d let himself run to fat, and things she didn’t used to notice now seemed glaring. His soft, rather feminine hands and feet, his sagging rump, his pale irises, his frequent bad breath. The way he made a little smack sound when he opened his mouth. She thought she would go out of her mind.

“Ma’am,” said Agent Lemans, “Did you say you wanted more pudding? For the President, Ma’am?”

She looked up from the email she was writing to her cousin’s daughter who was at the moment in Italy studying Renaissance art. How she would love to be there now with the girl, sitting in a hillside villa overlooking a sundrenched valley instead of where she was inside this gilded cage. “Yes. We’re almost out. Get a dozen. Thank you for remembering.”

Her husband, who could have any snack in the world no matter its cost, had a “thing” for a certain kind of rice pudding from a nearby deli. If she didn’t stop him, he would down a quart a night, mindlessly shoveling the creamy, lumpy stuff into his mouth until he was in a sugar stupor. His blood glucose was just on the edge as it was. He kept a tiny dorm fridge in his bedroom to store the pudding containers.

As he was campaigning for President, Delphine thought about those puddings he loved and remembered a story her mother and aunt once told her.

* * *

“Long ago, there was a woman who lived in China,” Tia began. “Maybe in the Ming Dynasty, who knows? It gives more atmosphere to the story to say that, no?” She chuckled. “She was the third wife of her husband, a very rich merchant, and her life was miserable. The first wife was very angry that her husband took this new young and beautiful girl to be his plaything and companion and now never called her to his bed at all. She was not so jealous of Second Wife since that poor creature was timid and self-effacing and served basically as a slave to First Wife. Besides, Second Wife had grown ugly over the years, and she too was no longer requested by the husband. And now this intruder into their household was pregnant, and if she had a son, would soon surpass them all in the husband’s eyes since neither First nor Second Wives had yet produced sons. So First Wife harassed Third Wife whenever she could. She gave her spoiled food, ordered her to work outside in the rain, put insects and snakes in her bed and more. The final straw was when she caused Third Wife to trip on the stairs and lose the child in her womb. It was after this, that Third Wife lost her sweet, innocent nature and grew shrewd. Tia paused. “You go on,” she said to her sister, Elena.

“Third Wife was now very thin and showing the first lines in her tired face,” said Elena. “She knew of a servant two houses over who had a reputation for knowing the secrets of how to command nature.”

“Haha!” Delphine, who was a teenager at the time, laughed. “Like you, Mama?”

Tia smiled.

Elena continued. “Third Wife went to visit this servant, and they sat under a tree in the neighbor’s courtyard. Everyone watching assumed that Third Wife was seeking help for her condition—to heal quickly from the loss of her baby and soon become pregnant again. But Third Wife was not talking to the old servant about that. What Third Wife wanted was far different and to obtain this information, she had to give the old servant her best jade earrings, which were worth a small fortune.

“Third Wife now knew a secret—how to get rid of a person without violence, though it might take a while to accomplish.” Elena paused and said, “You finish, Tia.”

Tai look a sip of her retsina and said, “First Wife never knew why she was suffering so. Doubled over, she was, with stomach pain, trying to eat but spitting it back up, finally unable to keep anything down. Not much coming out the other end either. She wasted to skin and bones. Since her own mother had died of stomach illness, probably cancer though they didn’t know about that much then, she figured the same was happening to her. Since Third Wife was reserved and gloomy, First Wife had stopped thinking of her as a threat. Indeed, at the end, Third Wife was even kind to her, bathed her and helped her to the toilet. Up until that point, she had helped First Wife get her food down. Little did First Wife know that her seemingly meek helper was killing her by cutting up hairs in her food until they had formed a large ball inside her stomach.”

“It was with pleasure,” said Elena, “that little Third Wife saw First Wife to her grave and soon after the husband took a fourth wife, but Third Wife liked the girl and had no problem sharing her with the husband. They both gave birth to sons within two years and the now beautiful again Third Wife held the honorable position of a First Wife since Second Wife had no sons. The moral of the story is that sometimes a person has to do what she has to do for her own preservation.”

* * *

Trevor Lemans had not bargained for what he found himself involved in, either. He’d been practically ecstatic when he was accepted into the service and, after being assigned to the White House, even more so. To qualify, he had graduated from University of Cincinnati with a BS degree in criminology and earned his Masters from University of Maryland in same. Though he was in the top ten percent of his class, it was due to his father that he’d been accepted into the Secret Service. George Lemans, now retired at sixty-three, had been high up in the CIA. Trevor didn’t kid himself that his good fortune had happened because of his qualifications alone.

“We’re so proud of you,” his mother said when he joined the Service—and after he was assigned to the First Lady, she danced around the living room. But his father had remained mysteriously silent and Trevor wondered why. He would find out soon enough.

One evening after Trevor joined his parents for one of his mother’s delicious meals, his father took him into his office, closed the door and locked it.

“What the hell, Dad,” said Trevor. “Are you afraid Mom will kick the door in?”

George did not smile. He knew how to make a person nervous by remaining silent.

Trevor, familiar with the trick, calmly seated himself on the loveseat.

“Son, you’re aware that for some time now, various investigative departments communicate. They didn’t use to.”

Trevor nodded.

“You are also aware that occasionally I’m still given assignments.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“You understand that if I share information with you, that if in any way it were to leak out, I could be in personal danger.”

Trevor felt a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach. “Yes,” he said warily.

“You understand that I have very high clearance.”

Trevor nodded.

“Do you understand that there have been times in the history of this country and probably many other nations where actions have had to be taken in order to guard and save the integrity of said governments?”

Trevor did not like where this was going. “I am not in the CIA,” he said.

“There are times, son, when someone not in the CIA might be needed. These people are called ‘assets.’”

“Please, Dad, no,” said Trevor. “I have my own people to report to. My career would be over.”

“I think not. If that were the case, how would we get assets to work for us? No, your career would not be over. You would be highly regarded by those in the know and taken care of.”

“I don’t like the sound of ‘taken care of.’”

“You are my son. I love you more than life itself,” said George. “If I thought you could not help us out, and that we could not protect you, I would never have brought it up.”

Trevor sat as silent as his father so often did. Finally, he said, “Spell it out. What are you talking about exactly?”

* * *

Delphine was lonely. She couldn’t talk about personal issues to anyone, including her husband. He just wasn’t interested. Not only that, she was having uncomfortable sexual feelings about Trevor, which puzzled her since she never went for that sort of man. She was still relatively young, just forty-five, and far from dead hormonally. A person who ate and exercised as strictly as she did usually had a good libido. Unfortunately, her husband had not been much interested in sex, other than to brag about it, for a good ten years. She could not remember the last time someone had rubbed or caressed her body other than her masseuse. Even that last time she and Richard had attempted sex, there was little touching. She gave him a blowjob, and he actually patted her head dismissively. It was humiliating.

And now here was Trevor, such a kind, good-looking young man. The other Secret Service agents, Gary and Mick, were rather cold, but not Trevor, who bought Richard’s pudding, ran the containers past the tasters and made sure the little fridge was stocked. He also brought Delphine the Belgian chocolates she craved, though of course she limited herself to just one per day, since she was expected to look like a twenty-year-old film star at all times. Even when she had a migraine, even when her IBS was acting up, even when, with each day, she hated her husband and her life more and more.

Richard was currently in Texas for some whooping yokel event. She had refused to accompany him, claiming she was ill. She was tired of red-faced, loudmouthed Philistines and fat, American, racist boors and longed for the tranquility of a European afternoon, sipping a glass of Chardonnay, watching tasteful, slim passersby, something one never did in this backwater of a country. She was tired—let’s face it—of championing Richard. She was tired of hearing his voice. Though he’d had high blood pressure since the election, had been prescribed Ambien for his insomnia and something for the blood pressure, and his doctor told him that he was exhibiting some mild arrhythmia, he would probably live into his nineties. Both of his parents had.

Of course, he would never permit her to divorce him while he was in office. She knew what could happen to her if she tried. Three more years of this hell—God forbid, seven? There seemed no escape.

* * *

Because he’d been working overtime recently, Orchid, codename for the First Lady, had seen to it that Trevor had Christmas Eve and Day off. As much as he wanted to see his mother, he dreaded the continuance of his and his father’s previous “talk.” Sure enough, when his mother announced she was “hitting the sack,” George gave Trevor the Look.

“The office,” he said and feeling as if weighted down with rocks. Trevor stood up and followed.

“I imagine that you have not failed to notice that the Electoral College has chosen an idiot for President,” he began. “He is seriously endangering our involvement in the Middle East, not to mention threatening our relationship with Israel. He has, more than once, insulted the President of China and refused to consider the subtle intricacies of their relationship with Taiwan. You simply do not cause an East Asian to lose face, and you do not insult your lenders. At home, he has caused old people to end up in bleak circumstances. He has brought about a situation where cancer patients cannot pay for their treatments. He has allowed anyone who wants to, to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. He has made pacts with enemies of the State. He has with these actions and many more, endangered the safety and wellbeing of American citizens.”

“Please, Dad, I am no traitor.” Trevor was appalled at what might be coming.

“You would not be a traitor. You would simply be helping some unsung heroes save this country.”

“No,” said Trevor.

“All we need you to do is keep an eye open and supply us with certain information. Someone else will perform the actual deed.”

“I took an oath!”

George went on as if he hadn’t heard him. “All you personally are expected to do is to observe the target and tell us when he is likely to retire to his bedroom while at the White House, what medications he takes and what time he actually goes to sleep. Is he likely to leave his room during the night? You have two more days on night shift and then you move to second, right?”

“How do I know this isn’t something just you want done?” said Trevor. “That there is no one else involved. You’ve been ranting about the President since he first ran for office. You personally hate his guts.”

Without a word, George pulled a cellphone from his pocket, pressed in a number and handed the thing to Trevor.

Confused, Trevor put it to his ear. A man instantly began speaking. His voice was deep, and his accent recognizable as Midwestern. Trevor was positive he recognized this voice. “You have more backing than you could imagine, Trevor,” the man said.

Trevor felt exposed, terrified. How many people besides this important man, if it was whom he thought it was, and his father knew about his potential involvement in this?

“I- I really am not interested in-” he said, but the man interrupted.

“We’ll talk later face to face. For now, you are to observe the target’s habits and timings. I’m sure your father has explained. Does the target snack in his room, and if so what does he eat? His medications are especially important. We believe he doesn’t touch alcohol. We will expect a full report.” He clicked off.

“Who was that?” Trevor asked, sweat breaking out on the back of his neck.

“No names,” said his father. “But I’m sure you know the voice.”

* * *

Delphine could see that Richard was showing the strain of his position. With his unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise, his face was bloated, and his body gross. She could hardly bear to look at him dressed, let alone naked. As her disgust was mounting, Aunt Elena called from Athens where she now lived in a small home for the aged.

“Listen, child, are you aware of the new story circulating? I read it online in that British newspaper, what’s it called … ah, my old brain. Your Richard, that poutsokefalo …well, the story goes that he kept this gamiola, a model he met on a business trip to Brussels. This was around the time you had that second miscarriage, remember? You came here to recuperate? Tia, God bless her, cooked like a crazy person to put fat on your bones. Anyway, the bitch is telling all.”

How had Delphine not known, and why on earth had she ever imagined that a man who cheated on other wives … how could she have kidded herself that he’d be loyal to her?

The entire world was laughing at her for so much now. Her old modeling work, Richard’s ridiculous, unfulfilled promises, his boasting and lies, his endless crazy comments on social media and now this? People literally spit at him when they passed by in the Presidential cars. She simply could not bear it.

The Chinese wife came to mind. Would such a thing actually work or was it an old wive’s tale? Would she burn in hell if it did? But surely this was hell, how and where she now lived!

She thought so hard about the Chinese wife that she could see the woman in her mind, going about her business through dark-wooded hallways, wearing her jewel-colored, embroidered silk robes and hiding her tiny scissors inside her sleeves.

Delphine had been baptized Greek Orthodox and instructed in that religion, though at puberty, her mother and aunt stopped sending her to church and began training her in their ways, which today would be hard to label, though “wise women’s traditions” might suffice.

The two women had lived connected to other worlds, communicating with the dead and other entities on other planes. In some cultures, they might have been called shamans. Being able to see possible different futures, they believed in one’s right to take action in this world to prevent more evil from happening.

She asked herself, would I be doing what I’m thinking of doing just for myself or would I also be doing it for others? The more she considered it, the more she was convinced she would be doing countless people a favor. What she had never admitted to Richard was that she did not support most of his political stances, that she definitely approved of a woman’s control of her own body and reproduction, of equal rights for gay people, of good public schooling and above all, she wanted to protect the environment. That above all.

“Sometimes it is preferable to keep one’s opinions to oneself and then just act quietly,” her mother once told her.

With shaking hands, she got down one of her several expensive hair pieces made from European hair to match her own expertly colored pale blonde, clipped chunks from it and painstakingly cut those up into tiny pieces, which she enclosed in a jewelry box intricately carved from jade.

* * *

Trevor was having trouble sleeping and had lost seven pounds. He was also popping Zantac like candy. Surely “Orchid” would perceive his agitation. But then he noticed that she herself was behaving oddly. She seemed highly anxious to the point of jumping when he spoke to her. Had Gary and Mick noticed? They didn’t mention it. He monitored her more closely in addition to noting what his father and his father’s “friend” wanted to know. The President was usually installed in his bedroom by eleven PM, though awake and active till the wee hours. His medications consisted of Ambien, Coversyl, melatonin and aspirin. He didn’t think the President took all of these regularly as prescribed.

It was during this monitoring that he saw the First Lady doing something weird. He happened to observe her through the space between the doorframe and slightly ajar door into the President’s bedroom. The First Lady had called Trevor to ask if he would bring her a new charger for her cellphone since her old one was not working properly. Maybe she thought he would have to go out and buy one and had not expected that he already had several to choose from in his office. Whatever the case, something had stopped him from rapping on the door and caused him to stand and watch her. This was his last day of the two-week period of second shift, and two days hence he would begin night shift again, replacing Gary and some new guy.

* * *

“I’m glad you called,” said his father the next day. “Will you be able to meet this evening, say 13:00 hours? Franklin Park? Same place? We can talk while we walk somewhere and have a bite. Your mother is at her book club.”

The park in that area seemed deserted. Trevor stood in front of his father who immediately rose from his bench. As they walked, George said, “You look like you’re about to burst.”

During the last several hours, Trevor’s mind and emotions had been doing cartwheels. He wasn’t sure what he had observed actually meant, but he had an idea.

“She is chopping up hair and putting it into Midas’ pudding.”

“Hair?” repeated George.

“Yeah. I watched her. She was so deep into it, didn’t know I was there. She cut it up into little pieces, then opened about two containers of the pudding and mixed the hair in. Then she replaced the containers back in the President’s little fridge.”

“What pudding is this, Trevor?”

“Midas eats it almost every night. He binges on it.”

Their shoes hitting the pavement was the only sound for several moments. Then George said, “Well, well, well. A gift from the gods has fallen into our hands.”

* * *

Delphine’s nervous behavior grew more apparent. Now on the night shift, Trevor only saw her briefly if for some reason she got up in the middle of the night or was coming back from a social event. They were never alone, but in the brief glimpses he saw of her, she looked shell-shocked. He would not learn what happened until his father took him to see the man who had spoken to him on the phone that one time.

“I don’t want to meet him,” he told his father but George did not budge. The encounter took place inside a mud-streaked SUV that suddenly pulled to the curb.

The darkened passenger seat window rolled down an inch. “Get in,” said the same voice he had heard on the phone.

Stomach churning, Trevor climbed into the back seat while his father signaled goodbye and walked on. In the seat with him, to his amazement was his fellow agent, Gary. An older career-soldier type occupied the driver’s seat and to his right, exactly whom Trevor had imagined that voice belonged to. His heart thumped but he said nothing. The driver took off calmly, heading north.

“Nice to see you, Trevor,” the passenger said. “Good work on the pudding.” He chuckled.

Meanwhile Gary was ominously silent. Trevor shot him a look and saw that his face was set hard.

The passenger continued. “Gary confronted Orchid and forced her hand. She doesn’t know you were the one to report her behavior but probably suspects. You’ll be moved to another location and will not see her again. We tested the pudding and yes, it contains human hair, though not hers. Must be from a wig. Apparently, she was using an old Chinese method of getting rid of someone. Slow going though, and with the hair chopped up that tiny, I’m not sure it would do much. She understands she has no choice now but to work with us. Gary is on night shift now and will get the agent into Midas’ room after Orchid laces his pudding with Ambien. Not enough to look suspicious, just as if he took two doses by mistake. Once he’s out, the agent can take care of the rest. They will assume in the morning that he expired from cardiac arrest.”

The man turned to face front. He said one more thing. “You will receive a promotion. If you ever get the urge, you’re welcome to come work for us.”

* * *

Trevor, who was now guarding visiting Chinese dignitaries, saw the headlines and watched on his iPhone as the Vice President was sworn into office.

After the President’s funeral, the former first lady and her daughter left the country to return to her homeland. It crossed Trevor’s mind to wonder what they’d injected into the sleeping President and how they got it past the inevitable autopsy. He spent many a night pondering where they could have injected the man and decided possibly up inside the nose. That would be a good place.