I Was a Dressmaker for the CIA

Image: Andi Zeisler


Chen was late. Chen was always late. A steady rain ran across the Hong Kong harbor in waves, drenching the Kowloon ferry. I lit a cigarette and stared at the sky. Water ran down the back of my taupe Armani blazer and soaked the collar of my gray DKNY shirt.

They could make me sew the knock-offs, but they couldn’t make me wear them.

“Chandler?” It was Chen. He was wearing Levis made in Bulgaria and shipped through Bangkok. Two of the rivets were already coming off.

“Right here, Chen. Always rightfuckinghere.”

“The home office says we have a problem, which means you have a problem.” He was surly as always. “No way my hands are getting dirty here. If this goes wrong, I’ll have a cushy job at the hat store in Paris. You’ll have a pair of Jockey shorts and a gold watch — and I’m not all that sure about the watch.”

“Knowing you, they won’t be Jockeys at all — they’ll be red Y-front Fruit of the Loom with Uzbeki basting.”

“Can the jokes, Chandler.” He lit a cigarette and stared off into the river. “You know the poison-pill pouch sewn into the prom dresses?”

“Some of my best work,” I said.

“Horseshit. Remember Marta? Marta was at a school dance at the All-China Special Agriculture School. The biowarfare place. Somebody tipped somebody, and when she went for the pill, she got a handful of tulle. Tulle, Chandler! They tortured her for three days. I saw the photos. Tulle.”

“Breakaway tulle, Chen. I designed it myself. Tensile strength of cotton candy. Shoulda been no problem.”

“Right. Like there was no problem with the pistol pantyhose last month. Like there was no problem with the three gross of belt buckle ammo clips that got seized at the Ambon airport. Like there was no problem with the hidden microphone in the jade necklace. Ever listen to the tapes on that one, Chandler? All the swallowing you could ever hope to hear.”

“Unidirectional mikes. Electronics is not my department.” I looked at him closely. He had water dripping down his eyebrows. “Something else is going on here, Chen. This is not like Prague, is it? I saved your ass in Prague. Is that when you started hating me?”

“You reduce everything to relationships, Chandler. This isn’t about me; this is about you. This is about your hands shaking so badly they can’t hold a needle. This is about the heroin in your oversized thimble. This is about the microphone we found in the Florsheims.”

“I would never wear Florsheims. The arch is all wrong; the toes buckle. Don’t you see? It’s a setup.”

A shadowy figure moved out from behind a bulkhead. “I don’t think so,” said the soft voice I knew so well.

“Marta!” I said. “But I thought … Chen said…. You’re alive!”

“No thanks to your tulle,” she said. “I had to shoot my way out.” She turned to Chen. “Don’t kill him; he’s not worth it. Just give him a plane ticket.”

“And if he talks?”

Marta ran her fingers through her hair. “Ha!” she said. “Who would believe him? Mother Jones?” Chen laughed. The rain hit the high-rises on the far shore, making a sound like birds dying.