Welcome, gentlemen. Please, make yourselves comfortable. I'm afraid Mei-Ling is picking out china patterns or planning a bridal shower or some such matrimonial matter this evening. Please feel free to avail yourself of coffee, cigars, cognac.

We have unusually unpleasant business to discuss, and I don't think a drop or two would be amiss. I'm pleased to say that everyone here can hold their liquor as well as they can their secrets.

I know these past few weeks have been difficult, dealing with this Johannesburg situation while Internal Security dogged our every move, but every one of you has been cleared. Spare me the looks, people, you heard me. Forbish is not the security leak inside the Department.

Pierre! Pierre, man. I know your history with Forbish, but if you do not take that knife away from Forbish's throat, I swear to God I will have you shot! And if you don't think I'd condone the killing of a man in a wheelchair, then you must have forgotten the many times I ordered you to do so!

Good man, Pierre. Good man. Give him some brandy, someone. And don't you start back in on him, Forbish. If he's willing to slit your throat, it simply means you've done a brilliant job as a decoy and magnet for suspicion.

I'm sorry I had to ask you to do that.

But hear me, gentlemen: Everyone here can be trusted. And we all must work together for the next few days, and work feverishly, if we are to prevent any further damage to the Department. All other assignments are now tertiary to what we're about to undertake. For the news is worse than I could have believed.

Gentlemen, we must operate under the assumption that Mei-Ling's beloved fiancé is in fact our adversary—my estranged and devious half brother, the infamous Paladiev.

For God's sake, someone say something. You are all mooning like poleaxed calves.

How do you think I feel? My avuncular fondness for her is no great secret, and for the first time, I saw her happy. Not merely content in her duty, or experiencing professional satisfaction, but happy. The man checked out instantly. Which, perhaps, should have made me suspicious but, well, you saw how she was.

Last year, Zurich's top man in clandestine cosmetic DNA–reassignment surgery was found decapitated in an Amsterdam whorehouse. Thanks to luck and the best scent-hounds in Europe, the Department found his head and was able to perform quasi-revivification for long enough to extract information from his mostly intact braincase. We discovered that the surgeon had recently performed a total facial reconstruction and genome transfer on a man who fits, within one decimal point, the exact genetic code of my brilliant semi-kin.

Two weeks later, Mei-Ling met the man we then knew only as "Seth."

My God, men, she's been this department's right hand since I found her on the streets of Shenzhen in 1992, at the age of 11! I thought she deserved whatever support we could give her. I can only blame myself for relaxing our strict policy of having the romantic partners of Departmental staffers liquidated after six months.

Which is why Mr. Bisson is here. Some of you know Mr. Bisson, and I'm sorry you have to see him again. His specialty has become less common since the heady 1970s, but his services are still quite useful to us.

We have three weeks until the wedding. In that time, we will support Bisson's effort to carry out a calculated, whirlwind seduction-and-assassination assignment. Of course, this is why the Department's in-house chef and pheromone expert are both here. They both owe me many favors. But no one outside this room is to know. Least of all Mei-Ling herself.

Bisson, you have your assignment. I have faith in your, shall I say, unorthodox skills and experience. It's said that the Japanese and Brazilian artists who trained you in the craft of physical love retired after you completed your tutelage, and that the Russians who schooled you in the methodology of murder fear no one but yourself.

But exercise caution when bedding Paladiev. You may be the world's most seductive catamite assassin, but I daresay his guard is never down at any moment. Not for one moment whatsoever.

And I warn you, Mr. Bisson: If Mei-Ling is hurt, hurt in any manner or fashion.... I'm glad we understand each other.

Now, gentlemen, to work! We have a wedding of sorts to plan.