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400 NM east of Socotra, Indian Ocean. Captain Rafe Rafehausen slammed his S-3B into the break and thought that he'd done it badly, out of practice, the move both too sudden and too harsh, and beside him he heard Lieutenant jg Soleck give a grunt. Rafehausen had an impulse to snarl and overcame it; he was the CAG and he didn't fly enough and the kid was right—he should have done it better. Although, as he knew from the weekly reports, the kid's landing scores were the worst on the boat.
"Gear one, two, three, down—and locked—flaps, slats out—hook is—down—read airspeed and fuel, Mister Soleck—"
The jg muttered the fuel poundage and airspeed, which Rafehausen could have read perfectly well for himself, of course. He supposed he was trying to communicate with the much younger man, who seemed mostly terrified of him.
"Not one of the great breaks of all time, Mister Soleck."
"Uh—no, sir—but good, sir—considering—"
Rafehausen lined up dead-on, said "Ball" when he caught the green, and took the LSO's instructions almost unconsciously, now into his groove and operating on long and hard-won experience. He caught the two wire, rolled, lifted the hook, and let a yellow-shirt direct him forward.
"Nice landing, sir."
Rafehausen smiled. "Little rough, Mister Soleck. Practice makes perfect." He slapped the lieutenant jg on the shoulder. "Weeklies tell me you need some practice yourself." He would have walked away then, but he saw the kid blush and look suddenly stricken, so he put the hand more gently on his shoulder and walked with him over the nonskid that way, shouting over the deck noise, "Don't take itwrong, Soleck—we all get into slumps! Hey, how about you and me do some practice landings together sometime?"
He debriefed in the det 424 ready room, which was his for the moment only because he'd borrowed one of their aircraft, and then made his way to the CAG's office. He wished, often, that he was a squadron officer again—no stacks of paper, no wrangles with personalities and egos. Now that it was too late, he knew that when you were a squadron pilot, you were having the best that naval air offered; Soleck didn't know how lucky he was. What came later—rank, status, command—were compensation for not being a young warrior with a multimillion-dollar horse and a whole sky to ride it in.
"Another urgent p-comm from Al Craik, Rafe," a lieutenant-commander said as he sat down. "Same old shit— ‘Request immediate orders,' et cetera, et cetera."
"What's the medical officer say?"
"Even in nonflight-crew status?"
"Negative. MO says the man ‘needs to heal and overcome trauma, period, and don't ask again.' Another month, maybe."
Alan Craik was a personal friend, and Rafehausen wished he could help him. Craik had been flown back to the carrier with part of one hand shot off and so much blood gone that the medics thought they'd lose him; now back in the States, he was recovered enough to be itching to return to duty. But not enough to serve.
"Send Craik a message over my name: The answer is no, and don't ask again for at least two weeks."
Unimak Canyon, Aleutian Archipelago.
"Depth is 200 meters and steady."
"Steady at 200." The Chinese captain, standing by his command chair, turned and looked toward sonar station three, the towed array whose passive equipment had most reliably tracked the American. His crew had scored more contact hours on an American ballistic missile submarine in the last four days than any submarine in the history of the Chinese Navy. No moment of that time had been easy.
Even when he knew where the submarine would be, it was almost invisible.
Even trailing it by a mere four thousand meters, it was almost inaudible.
He dared not close any more. His own boat, the Admiral Po, was a killer, slow but sure—the best his service had to offer, but too loud and too old, and no amount of pious mouthing to the Party would change the fact that she leaked radiation from her reactor compartment. Her condition affected the crew, destroyed morale, made retention of the dedicated specialists vital to the service nearly impossible.
He was going to change that. He was going to follow an American ballistic missile sub, a "boomer," from her base near Seattle to her patrol area, wherever that was. And he was going to take that information home and shove it down the throat of the Party until they paid the money to make his service the equal of her rivals in Russia, Great Britain, and, most of all, America. Because when he had the patrol area where the most precious eggs in the American nuclear basket rested, he would bury the army and the air force.
"She's turning to port."
"All engines stop!" Drift. Every time the American maneuvered, Admiral Po had to drift. He couldn't take the risk that the Americans were executing a clearing turn to get their passive sonar on their wake. Twice the boomer had done just that, and he had waited, knuckles white, drenched in sweat as the two submarines passed in silence. He couldn't risk detection. Detection would imperil not only the operation but also its source, a faceless spy whose radio transmissions told him where to pick up the boomer near the American west coast and when.
Admiral Po's secret friend. Jewel.
"Passing 340 relative and increasing engine noise."
Two men in a darkened ballroom. Each can track the other only when he moves and makes a noise. Where is he? Where is he going? How fast is he moving?
Omnipresent—Is he behind me?
The sonarman, his best, watched his three screens, touching buttons and waiting for the computer to analyze tracking data. Passive sonar was an imperfect sensor that had to detect emanations from the target; only active sonar sent out its own signal and listened for the reflection. Sonarmen on passive looked for certain telltale "lines": auxiliaries, reactors, propeller wash. They hoped for a specific signature that could be reliably assigned to the target, and not, say, a passing whale or a fishing boat on the surface. When they had a library of such noises, they became better trackers, but this endless game of follow-the-leader required constant analysis and perfect guesswork. The cream of the sonar team had been at their stations since they entered the difficult undersea terrain of the Aleutian chain—three watches. The captain hadn't left the bridge for more than an hour in four days. Despite air-conditioning and high discipline, the bridge stank of sweat and shorted electrical power, a faint ozone smell that never left the Admiral Po. The captain thought it was the smell of leaking radiation.
"Nine knots and still increasing, turning hard to port. I think he's diving, as well. I'm losing the track in his own wake." The man sounded exhausted. That was not good; the excitement had kept them going through the first bad moment off Kodiak Island. Now that, too, was gone.
"Come to 270 and make revolutions for three knots."
"270 and three knots. Aye."
The captain rolled his head slowly to the right and left, banished all thought of angry response from his mind, and settled slowly into his command chair.
"He's drifting. He will complete the turn as a clearing turn before running the Unimak channel." The captain didn't feel anything like the certainty he projected, but it was a skill that came with command.
"270 and three knots, Captain."
"All engines stop."
Two of the sonarmen played with the bow sonar, a much weaker engine than the powerful towed array behind them. The tail could be deployed only at low speeds, and certain maneuvers like rapid turns were not possible while it was deployed, but it was their only tool for following the American. The bow sonar had intermittent contact at best. He could hear the two murmuring to each other about the noise that the ocean was making, pounding on the island due north of them. Background noise, a white noise that would cross most of the spectrum, all of the "lines." They were murmuring because sonarmen had a superstitious respect for their opposite numbers, afraid that loud conversation would be heard by the opposing specialists. No one knew how good the American sonars really were, but four days had taught the captain that they were not as good as his worst fears, and their tactics showed that they were cocky.
That still left a lot of room for them to be very, very good.
"350 relative! Range 3500 meters and closing!"
It was eerie, having his prediction fulfilled like that. He had tossed it off, based, yes, on some experience. But mostly to steady the bridge crew. The bastard was coming around toward them, and quite fast now that his engines were driving him again.
"Take us down to 255 meters, bow up."
"255 meters, bow up, aye." The Admiral Po began a very slow dive, aiming to get her metal bulk through the deep isothermic layer that would reflect most sonar and greatly hamper passive detection. The captain looked down at his knuckles on the collision bar in front of his command seat and gradually willed his hands to relax.
In the darkened ballroom, there are long, velvet curtains that hide sound if you can get behind them.
"000 relative, 3000 meters and closing. Speed five knots. Vector 190."
The boomer suddenly appeared as a digital symbol on the command screen, with her course and speed displayed next to her. The distance between the Admiral Po and her quarry seemed very short, and the captain wondered if they were about to change roles.
"Try to put the bow sonar up in the layer."
"Bow up, aye."
This was a tricky maneuver and one that couldn't really be accurately gauged for success. It required that the planesman adjust the pitch of the submarine so that her bow sonar was actually above the acoustic layer, allowing that sonar to listen to the enemy while the rest of the submarine's metal hide was hidden below the temperature gradient of the layer. The problem was that you never knew for sure that you had it exactly right; the acoustic layer was simply a metaphor for the invisible line where two different layers of water with different temperatures met. It couldn't be seen, only sensed, and only sensed as a relative gradient. The bow might be in the layer or meters above it, depending on luck and skill and local variations.
He's bow on to us right now. The American, with his infinitely superior equipment, was in the best position he could ask to detect Admiral Po.
"Nothing on the tail."
"Bow sonar has contact, 010 relative, 2500 meters and closing. Speed five knots. Vector 180."
He has us. Or he will turn away.
The captain turned to the planesman.
"Well done. Very well done." The bow sonar report indicated that the bow was, indeed, above the layer. But how far? And how reflective was the layer?
He watched the symbol on the bridge screen, the only visual input that mattered, willing it to continue its turn to port.
"020 relative, 2700 meters. Speed six knots. Vector 160."
Deep breath, long exhalation.
"Make revolutions for three knots. Hold us at 255 meters and pitch for normal."
"Aye, aye." That pulled the bow back under the layer, making them blind, but he had to move or the American would get too far away. Simply avoiding detection was only half the game.
"Helmsman, three knots for the center of the channel."
He cast an eye at the chart and decided he had a safe amount of water under his keel, even in these treacherous seas.
"Depthfinder off, aye."
Ahead, perhaps well ahead if he stuck to his six knots, the American would be entering the channel already. The captain calculated quickly; the American would be well over six thousand meters ahead when they were back in the deep water on the other side of the channel, but the captain thought that the risk was worthwhile, and he was a little distracted by the obvious adulation of the bridge crew and his own internal buzz of triumph. He had outguessed an American boomer captain. His crew had reacted well. He was worthy.
"Center of the channel."
He waited patiently, following the channel on his chart while thinking over the last set of moves, trying to guess the next. His eyes actually closed twice. Minutes trickled by. He hated letting the American have so much time undetected, but he couldn't risk anything in the narrow channel.
"Bow sonar has possible contact, range 7000 meters, bearing 000 relative."
He snapped fully awake.
The man looked anguished. The data were too sketchy. He needed a longer hit, or a second and third hit in quick succession to get a vector and speed.
Seven thousand meters was too far ahead, and too far for the bow sonar to make contact. Unless he was going very fast. It had to be a false contact—a seamount, or a boat. Or another submarine. He struggled with the possibilities as his own boat continued to creep down the channel.
"All engines stop. Planesman, bow above the layer."
The Admiral Po seemed to hold its breath.
"Possible contact, range 7000 meters, bearing 000 relative."
The image returned on the command screen.
"Vector 000. Speed twelve knots."
The American was racing away. He would be clear of the channel in moments; indeed, given the vagaries of passive sonar, he might be free now, and increasing speed.
"Make revolutions for four knots. Retrieve the tail." It was useless in the channel, anyway. The American was surely too far away to hear its telltale 44dB line as the bad bearing in the towed array winch screamed.
Were they detected? He didn't think so, couldn't think so. This had the smell of a standard operating procedure, a routine to lose hypothetical pursuit. If so, it was crushingly effective.
"Towed array housed, sir."
"Very well. Make revolutions for six knots."
At six knots, the Admiral Po was one of the loudest leviathans in the deep. Her second-generation reactor could not be made really quiet by the addition (and in some cases, the slipshod addition) of the best Russian quieting materials from the third generation—isolation mounts, for instance. The captain hated to go above four knots in an operational patrol. He felt naked.
They roared along the channel, a painful compromise, too loud to avoid detection, too slow to catch the American if he was determined to go fast.
"How did we miss him going so fast? I make no accusation, understand. I need to know."
"Captain, he is not much noisier at twelve knots than at six. Even the cavitation noise is, well, muffled. He is very quiet."
No submarine should be so quiet at twelve knots.
In Severomorsk, they had told him about the "steel Sierra," the Russian submarine that would do these things. That had been twelve years ago, before the Soviet Union rolled over and sank. Clearly the American boats could do the same. His antiquated attack boat had just fallen even farther behind, because the ability to run fast without cavitation, the designer's dream since the 1960s, placed the new American boomer in the fourth generation.
He timed out the channel's length on his own watch. The second he was sure he had depth under his keel, his voice rang out.
"Make our depth 300. Turn to port heading 270. Make our speed two knots."
Turning gradually broadside to the expected vector of the target, exposing the length of the towed array to get the maximum signal, diving to avoid an unexpected ambush.
Time gurgled by down the hull.
The captain was a thorough professional and he didn't quit. He searched in ever-increasing spirals for twelve hours, sprinting and drifting, risking detection and flirting with disaster if the American sub was lurking in the deep water just north of the channel. But he took such risks only because he already knew the answer: His opponent had raced down the channel and into the deep water and had vanished to the north.
Sleepless, grimy, sweat-stained, he rose from his command chair and addressed the bridge crew.
"This is not a total loss, comrades. We have unprecedented sonograms on the American; we know that he was headed north. We know more about their patrol routes and procedures than any boat in Chinese history. And they have no idea that we're here."
"Do we go north, then, Captain?" asked his first officer.
"No. No, we return to our patrol area, study our sonograms, and wait."
Until Jewel gives us the next one, he thought. But Jewel was too precious, and he couldn't say that to the crew.
The submarine set a course for the waters off Seattle.
The gleaming new S-3 sagged a little, turning on final for the carrier; his break had been weak, and he knew that no self-respecting LSO would give him an okay on any part of this trap so far. Now he was in the groove but chasing his lineup like a nugget, all of his motor coordination sluggish and unresponsive, like a bad hydraulics system in an old airplane. His brain knew where his hands should go, but his injured hand lagged and the signals seemed to move too slowly, too jerkily, and the plane, like a horse that knows that the hand at the reins is weak, seemed to fight him.
He eyeballed the lineup, called the ball in his head, and tried to recapture the flawless rhythm that he had once had at this game. One mile, six hundred feet, one hundred and forty knots. He knew the numbers, but the response seemed to lag and he wanted to blame the equipment, wanted to suddenly press a button and have all of those reaction times and skills come flooding back, and then he jerked physically to realize that he was there, the deck was THERE. . . .
His angle of attack was too steep, tending to sag at the very end and fighting his near-stall speed for altitude; the plane had nothing to give him; his correction was too late, and the immovable laws of physics and mathematics grabbed his plane and flung it into the back of the ship, just a few feet above the neat, white lettering that said "USS Thomas Jefferson." A brilliant orange-and-white explosion obliterated his control screen—
—and he picked up the joystick in his good, strong right hand and smashed it through the wallboard of the living room, screaming his frustration at the top of his lungs.
"Fuck! FUUUCK! Jesus FUCKING Christ!" He was roaring with anger, sweat and failure dripping from him, and the shards of a piece of expensive computer equipment broken by his own stupid rage prodded him to a sicker, meaner level, as he thought of what he had become with one wound—two fingers shot off his left hand in Pakistan and he was half what he had been. Less than half.
There was a small irregular hole in their rented living-room wall. "Fucking stupid JERK!" he shouted. His face left no doubt whom he meant. He threw the shattered remnants of the joystick across the room, where they left a nick in the paint on the wall under the stairs. He clenched his hands, savoring the awful feeling of the missing fingers. A noise distracted him.
His son was standing on the stairs, terrified by a side of his father he had never seen, never should have seen.
"Oh, my God, Mikey!" Alan said, his voice bruised from shouting.
Mikey stood, whimpering, looking afraid. Afraid of his father, the hero. Alan took a step toward the stairs and Mikey bolted for his room, and the front door opened, and there was Rose, beautiful and healthy in her flight suit, the poster child for women in naval aviation. She stopped as soon as the door opened; he could see in a heartbeat that she saw it all, knew it all.
He threw himself into an armchair he didn't like, facing a television he hated. He hated the room and he hated the house. It might have been better if it had been his own house, but this was merely a place they had found in the hectic last days of the Shreed business, when Rose had been temporarily attached to the Chief of Naval Operations, and then he had got hurt. The house was too small and too mean, but it was what she could find in one day. And he hated it.
Now, she came into the room, trying, he knew, to mute her own joy at feeling good about herself and her life, going down to Pax River to fly every day, preparing to get her heart's desire by going to Houston.
She kissed him lightly on the top of the head and went into the kitchen, and seconds later she was back.
"You know"—and she kept her voice light—"you could have done something about dinner."
"Because I don't do anything but sit here on my ass all day? Right!" He shot up and headed for the kitchen. Upstairs, the baby started to cry. "And shut that kid up!" he shouted.
It was as if he hated her, too. As if hurting her, the thing he valued most in the world, was the only way to express his rage. She wouldn't have it, however; she had a ferocious temper of her own, and she could be sweet Rose, forgiving Rose, good-wife Rose for only so long. Grabbing his arm from behind, she spun him halfway around and shouted, just as loudly as he had, "That's your kid up there! If you don't like him or me or us, get the hell out!"
"I might do just that!"
"Well, do it! We're all sick of tiptoeing around so you can feel sorry for yourself and stare at your wounded hand and think how bad the Navy's treated you. Get a grip or get out!"
And he raised his hand.
Mike Dukas came out of his shower, his heavy, hairy body pink except for the livid red scars along his collarbone. Seeing it in the bathroom mirror, he made a face—the first bullet he had ever taken, and it had been a doozy. He still couldn't lift his hands above his shoulders, and drying himself made him wince, and when he went out into the world he still had to wear a plastic harness that held his hands up in front of him so that he looked like the Easter bunny.
"Fucking George Shreed," he muttered.
George Shreed dominated his life now: He had taken the bullet capturing Shreed, and now he was paying for it in the paperwork that waited at his office—reports and explanations and assessments. "The thanks of a grateful nation," he said aloud and thought, Well, at least I don't feel as bad as Al Craik. Craik, he knew, was in a deep depression.
He needed a change, Dukas thought. God knows, he needed something.
Time was, he would have thought he needed to fall in love. He fell in love easily, hard, usually badly. This time, however, he didn't have the urge, as if scraping death's fender had warned him off the risk. Even now, there was a call on his answering machine that he had started to listen to last night and had switched off because he had recognized the woman's voice. "Hi, Mike," she had said, the voice a little breathy and too bright. "Hi, this is—" and he had turned it off because he knew who it was.
Sally Baranowski. CIA analyst, incipient alcoholic just out of rehab, nice, nice woman. They had almost had something going, and then he had got himself shot and she had got herself rehabilitated, and now, what the hell, what good was any of it? Half-dry, his back still covered with water, he wrapped the wet towel around his gut and stalked out of the bathroom as if he meant to punch somebody out, went to the answering machine and stabbed it with a stiff finger and said to himself, Don't be a schmuck.
"Hi, Mike— Hi, this is Sally!" A small laugh. "Baranowski. Remember me? Uh—I just thought I'd call— This is awkward as hell; I thought you'd be there. Goddam machines, you can't—"
He switched it off. She must be just out of rehab. How long did rehab take, anyway? Thirty days? He didn't want to get involved, was the truth. What he wanted was real work, a case, relief from the mind-numbing reports that filled his days. So far, his boss at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service wouldn't give him a thing; he'd been going into the office for a week, pounding out paperwork, kept out of action. Because he was "awaiting a clean bill of health," his boss said, which had nothing to do with his health and everything to do with the fact that he'd gone into a foreign country (Pakistan) without a country clearance and without adequate authorization, his boss said, and got himself shot up and had needed to be flown out by a Navy aircraft that was also there illegally. And, what the hell, the fact that they'd caught a major spy seemed to make no difference. And now Kasser, his boss's boss, wanted to know where the Chinese case officer was. Dukas could see himself spending the rest of his life writing reports related to his trip to Pakistan.
So, Dukas had said, let me go back to the War Crimes Tribunal, from which he was supposedly on six months' leave of absence as a favor to NCIS, but his boss had negatived that as "dodging the issue," whatever the issue was.
"Shit," Dukas said.
And his telephone rang.
"Dukas," he growled into it in his early-morning voice.
"Hey, man!" Dukas sounded to himself like a jerk—happy-happy, oh boy, life is great! Trying to cheer up Al Craik because he sounded like shit. "How's it going, Al?"
"Get me something to do, Mike. Anything!"
"That's a job for your detailer, Al."
"My detailer can't do anything; I'm on medical leave and some genius at Walter Reade wants to disability-discharge me. I'm going nuts, Mike."
"Yeah, well—you sleeping?"
"Sleeping—what's that? No, I'm not sleeping. I fought with Rose; I shouted at my kid—" His voice got hoarse. "Mike—I'll do anything to get my mind off myself. Scut work, I don't care."
This was Dukas's best friend. They had almost died together. They had been wounded together. Dukas's own helplessness made him somber. "I'm doing scut work myself, kid. Writing reports on what happened in Pakistan, closing the Shreed file." He sighed. On the other end, Craik made a sound as if he were being wounded all over again, and Dukas, relenting, said, "Come down to the office, what the hell. We can talk, anyway. Okay? Hey, you talk to Harry lately?"
Alan Craik was slow to answer. He muttered, "I don't like begging, Mike. But I'm going nuts. Last night, I— Rose and I had a fight, and I—almost—" He didn't say what he had done. He didn't have to; the tone of his voice said it all.
Then Alan snapped back from wherever he was. Mike heard the change.
"What about Harry?"
"Tell you later."
In the Virginia Horse Country.
A dark Ford Explorer turned into a gap in a wooden fence where a paved drive led away from the two-lane road. There was a line of oaks and more wooden fence along the lane, and up ahead a colonial revival house that needed paint. The wooden fence wanted attention, too, and the pasture beyond it was scraggy with tufts of long grass, and a horseman would have known that no animals were being pastured there.
The Explorer pulled up next to the house and a tall man got out. He waved at somebody by the stable block and trotted up the front steps, nodded at the hefty young man at the front door, and said, "Everything okay?"
"Bor-ing," the young man said. "He's upstairs."
"I'll talk to him in the music room." Balkowitz always talked to Ray Suter in the music room, which had no music but did hold an out-of-tune baby grand that had been pushed against a wall to make room for recording equipment. Balkowitz was a lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency; the bulky young man was named Hurley and worked for Agency security; the man out at the stable block was a local who took care of the place but wasn't allowed in the house. And Ray Suter, the man upstairs, had been George Shreed's assistant and was wanted by various people for murder, conspiracy to commit a felony, espionage, and perhaps corrupting the morals of a minor. The CIA, however, had him stashed away here, and what they wanted him for was information.
Balkowitz sat on a faded armchair that smelled of its age. He was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt and looked more like a Little League dad than a lawyer. When Suter came in—tall, pale, pinched—Balkowitz got up and waited for Suter to sit. Balkowitz's manner reflected his Agency's own ambivalence—polite and stern, unsure and patriarchal. Suter, to judge from his sour smile, knew all about it and rather enjoyed the situation. "You keep trying," Suter said. "A for effort."
"Ray." Suter spread his hands. "We know each other well enough. Call me Ray."
"I just want to apprise you of your situation here. Really, you know, if you'd get yourself a lawyer—"
Suter shook his head. "I don't need a lawyer."
"Your situation is serious."
Suter raised his eyebrows. "The food's good. Hurley plays pretty good tennis. Except for the lack of females, it isn't bad."
"Mister Suter, you've been charged in Virginia and Maryland, and we're holding off federal charges until, until—"
"Until I talk?" Suter laughed. "Don't hold your breath."
"I just want to impress on you the legal seriousness of—"
"You say that every time you come. I've told you, I think three times now, I've got nothing to say. You guys are holding me here without a charge; well, okay, I'm suspended from work, anyway. I assume that you want me to get a lawyer because you think a lawyer would tell me to bargain. But for what? With what?"
"If we file charges, you face twenty years to life on the federal issues alone."
"If you do. Right." Suter grinned. "Maybe you should file."
Balkowitz sniffed and reached into his pocket for a tissue. He was allergic to something in the room. "Mister Suter, we're holding off the local jurisdictions with some difficulty." He blew his nose. "Your relations with the young man, Nickie, um, Groski—if you'd be willing to tell us anything there—"
Nickie Groski was a computer hacker whom Suter had hired to hack into George Shreed's computers, but Suter hadn't admitted to a word of that. Instead, he said now, "What would you like to hear?"
"You were in the boy's apartment when the police broke in."
"I was, yes." Suter seemed pensive, as if what Balkowitz was saying was a little surprising.
"You paid the rent on that apartment."
"Maybe I felt sorry for him. Or maybe I'm gay. Is he gay?"
Balkowitz stopped with the tissue at his nose. "Mister Suter, we know you chased women all over the place."
Suter nodded almost sadly. "Maybe I'm bisexual. What is it you think I did with this boy?"
"That's what we want to know." Balkowitz got out a document, which he kept tapping as he talked. "If you agree to tell us about Nickie Groski and certain other things, then we're willing to—but you really should have a lawyer to help with this—"
Suter didn't even look at the document. "You'd like me to have a lawyer because then I'd be admitting I was ready to deal. But I'm not. No deal, Balkowitz."
They went around for another ten minutes, Suter seeming to enjoy it all the more as Balkowitz's nose ran and the lawyer's face got red. At the end, the man's patience ran out and he pointed a finger and said, "This is my last visit! You come partway to us or the shit will hit the fan out there!"
Suter gave his thin, acid smile. "I love the majesty of the law." He patted Balkowitz's shoulder. "Have you tried Allegra-D?"
suter went back upstairs and changed into shorts and took the time to scribble a note on a very small piece of paper, which he signed "Firebird" and stuffed into a chartreuse tennis ball in which he'd already made a slit. When he went downstairs, he told Hurley he was going to practice some serves, and he went out the back door and, passing the stable block, threw the slitted tennis ball for an old golden retriever to catch. The dog lumbered after it, caught up with it, held it down with a paw until he could get his old teeth around it, and then, tail wagging, carried it to his owner, the maintenance man.
Colonel Lao tse-Ku touched the place where the two sides of his collar joined at his throat. The gesture was unconscious, not quite nervous but certainly atypical—a last check of self before opening a door through which you can pass only once.
The door itself was quite mundane—gray, metal, the surface broken only by a small nameplate, information directorate. The man who held the door's handle, ready to open it, was inconsequential, too, a captain, balding, smelling of cigarettes, but seeming to share the muted panic that Lao felt in Beijing, where heads were rolling and careers were crashing to an end. Now, when the captain opened the door and stood aside, the slice of room that Colonel Lao could see beyond was no more impressive than the outside—yet, again, he checked his collar, wondering if his own head was the next to roll.
And went in.
The General was sitting at a desk of sleek, pale wood, certainly not government issue, the edges of its top slightly rounded, its proportions balanced and delicate. The door closed behind Lao; he braced, his eyes on the bent, bald head of the man behind the desk. Still, Lao's first glance had registered an elegant bookcase, a scroll painting that was either old or well-faked, a silk carpet. All where they were not seen from outside the door.
And, to the right of the desk and slightly behind it, a pale second man in civilian clothes who was smoking.
The General looked up.
"Colonel Lao tse-Ku, sir," Lao managed to say.
The old man smiled. "I know," he said softly. He raised the fingers of one hand off the desk. "Sit." The fingers seemed to indicate a chair to his left. Lao sat. The General looked at him for several seconds and then looked down at an open file on his desk, which he seemed to find more interesting than Lao. After several seconds more, the General glanced over his shoulder at the third man, but he made no move to introduce him.
"You have been called very suddenly from Africa," the General said to Lao.
Lao was confused, uncertain whether he should say something banal about the soldier's life or something enthusiastic about serving the nation, or—by that time, it was too late to say anything, and the General was going on. "You were ordered to Africa only a year ago."
This time, saying "Yes, sir," seemed best.
"You like it?"
What on earth could he mean? The old fox knew perfectly well that at his age and rank, a senior figure in intelligence, Lao wanted to be in a major capital or Beijing, not an African backwater. "The post has interesting aspects," he managed to say.
The General glanced at his file and then at the third man and then said, "You were sent there because you lost a battle with your rival, Colonel Chen. Isn't that so?"
This plain speaking caught him off guard. Although, when he thought about it, the General must know all about the savage struggles for supremacy within the service. He and Chen were on the same course toward the top, two of six or seven who might one day run all of Chinese military intelligence. And, yes, Chen had bested him this time and arranged to have him sent into darkness. Still, Lao said, "I did not question my orders, sir."
He heard the third man flick a cigarette lighter and in his peripheral vision saw a new plume of smoke from that direction. He didn't want to look directly at the man. Clear enough what he was.
The General had a round face made puffy with fat, so that his eyes seemed to have difficulty keeping from being squeezed shut by cheeks and brows. When he chuckled, as he did now, a thousand wrinkles came to life. Smiling, he said to Lao, "Chicks that pecked their way out of the same egg will fight for the dunghill when they have combs and spurs. Rivalry between you and Chen is quite natural. Necessary, in fact. Working together is often required; going where you are ordered is required; rivalry, too, has its uses. You lost the last battle. Now it is your turn." He leaned forward. "Colonel Chen has disappeared."
Lao made his face, he hoped, impassive; in fact, it looked wooden.
"Chen has disappeared," the General said again. "I want you to find him." Lao sensed the third man's movement, perhaps a gesture of a hand. The General frowned bitterly. "Finding him is of the highest priority."
The air of tension, then, the stories of rolling heads and ended careers, might have the loss of a senior intelligence officer as its cause. Even before he had received the orders to come to Beijing, Lao had got ripples of it in Dar es Salaam—somebody's inability to make a decision, the absence of a senior official from his office.
The civilian moved into the space by the General's desk and began to speak in a low, guttural voice.
"Three weeks ago, Colonel Chen went to northern Pakistan to meet with an American agent. He has not been seen since."
The man was tall, rather European in face—from one of the western provinces, Lao thought, feeling the dislike he couldn't avoid for those people, not "real" Chinese. He had rather long and unkempt hair, sallow skin; there was something uncouth about his rapid gestures and his rumpled clothes. His voice was hoarse and heavily accented. An odd type to be a power in military intelligence. Lao thought he must be a party hack.
"The meeting place was a peasant village," he went on. "At night. Chen took twelve special forces soldiers. Nine were killed outright; two have died since; one is not expected to live. We interviewed the people of the village. Typically narrow-minded and fearful, hard to get anything out of." He blew out smoke, made a chopping motion with the hand that held the cigarette. "Still. A few talked. There was shooting, they said. Then an aircraft came in and landed on the road below the village, then took off again." He took two strides toward the door, his big feet making thudding sounds right through the carpet, spun and started back, waving out of his path the smoke that hung there. "One fellow who runs some sort of hostel said he had a ‘Western' customer, who rented a bed and then disappeared. Caucasian, he said, didn't speak the language but had a computer that gave him some phrases. We found cartridge cases from Spanish and Pakistani ammunition, plus our own, of course." He blew out smoke and stood by the window, staring out. "Seven local civilians killed—we think by a shaped charge that Chen had brought with him. He blew a hole in an old tower, no idea why. Enemy inside, maybe. Doesn't matter." He turned back to the room and said, seeing some look on Lao's face, "No, hold your questions until I'm done.
"The aircraft. Karachi had had an emergency declared by an American naval aircraft the day before, but the aircraft never appeared. Went into the sea, maybe, they thought. Then, several hours later, an aircraft landed and took off from the village where Chen had been, and then an American naval aircraft exited Pakistani airspace while two American F-18s flew cover. Two of ours tried to engage and were shot down. The American carrier USS Thomas Jefferson was within recovery distance in the Indian Ocean.
"Probable scenario: The Americans flew a combat team in under Pakistani radar, using the fake emergency for cover if they were caught, landed the aircraft somewhere up near the village, and later picked up the combat team after they had killed Chen's men—and either killed or captured Chen and the American agent he had gone to meet.
"That is one scenario. Knowing American military doctrine, we did not find evidence of American special forces in the village. Ammunition casings were relatively few for so many men, and limited to shotgun, 9 mm, .41 Magnum, and—peculiar—.38 special. The .41 Magnum came from a Desert Eagle that was left behind. Scenario: The American agent brought his own shooters, either as a backup team because the zone was hot or because he feared Chen.
"The agent—now I am telling you facts so tightly held that you will be only the fourteenth person in China to know them—the agent was an American CIA official named George Shreed. He had been giving Chen good material for years. Vetted, checked, proven. He was supposed to have met Chen in Belgrade a day earlier, but he canceled that meeting and set up the one in Pakistan. Which fell apart into a lot of shooting. Only today are we beginning to learn that this Shreed had apparently fled the U.S. two days before, not using the escape plan we had given him, not using our considerable resources, not informing Chen. And he may have offered his services to the Israelis before he finally did contact Chen.
"Scenario: Shreed faked flight from the U.S., with the connivance of his CIA superiors, lured Chen to a meeting, and captured him with the help of a CIA team; they were then picked up by a U.S. Navy aircraft and flown to the Thomas Jefferson.
"Or: Shreed, who has shown signs of instability and whose wife recently died, had a mental seizure and set out to destroy his Chinese control."
He took out a wrinkled package of Pear Blossoms and tapped one out. "Or: We have no idea." He flicked the lighter, a cheap plastic one in bright peacock-blue, and lit the cigarette. He stared at Lao. "If the Americans have Chen, we will have been badly hurt. That is not your problem. If the Americans do not have Chen, then your problem is to find him and to bring him back. To fail to bring him back will be to fail the nation and its leaders. Unh?" He smoked, staring at Lao. "All right, ask your questions."
"Can I investigate this village in Pakistan?"
"Yes. I warn you, it is still a hot zone; Pakistan and India are shooting over Kashmir. We will give you everything we found in the village."
"Get it done. Our country team didn't have the time or the skill for forensics."
"What about the American, Shreed?"
The man took another turn to the window and stood there with his back to Lao. The General, still smiling, sat looking at Lao. Finally the civilian turned and said, "Shreed is a brilliant man. He has been a productive agent for twelve years. Still, like any agent, he could be a double. Scenario: The shooting in the village was a cover; Shreed and Chen were pulled out, and now both are in America."
"Do you know that?"
"I don't know anything!" A hank of the man's coarse hair fell over his face, and he pushed it back with his free hand, hitting himself in the forehead as he did so, as if punishing himself. "The Americans are saying that Shreed is dead. They are having a funeral, trumpeting the death rites. Is that natural?"
"Do you think Shreed is dead?"
"Don't ask me! What do you think we want you for?"
Lao could see that the General was leaning his elbows on a file. The characters on the outside of the file were from an old code word. Ameri- can Go. Lao had heard the name whispered before. High-level material from Washington, sometimes political, sometimes espionage-related. So American Go was George Shreed. Lao wanted to laugh aloud. Chen had been running a penetration of the Operational Directorate in the CIA. No wonder he won every fight in Beijing.
The Westerner and the General talked about details for some minutes—Shreed, Chen, the reason why Chen himself had gone to Pakistan to meet with Shreed. Neither the General nor the civilian was being quite forthright, Lao thought. He wondered if he was simply being set up so that they would have a scapegoat. They talked almost as if he weren't there. He wanted to smoke, felt too junior to light up, although both older men were smoking hard.
"If Chen isn't in America but is dead or wounded—" He pushed himself in like a timid housewife at a fish stall.
"I would like to be ready to make a forensic examination, if I have to. If I find him. Fingerprints, DNA—"
The civilian waved his cigarette and growled, "Yes, of course," and muttered something about the files. The General nodded and separated the top three from the stack. Lao could see that he was reluctant, even now, to hand them over. "If you accept, then I suggest you take these with you—you will have an aircraft to fly you back to Dar es Salaam, plenty of time to read in an absolutely secure atmosphere."
"I won't go direct to Dar, General. I'll start in Pakistan."
"Good. Time is short." He hesitated. "These are the communications files that Chen used with Shreed." He put one file down on the desk. "Pass-throughs, cutouts, dead drops." He put down the second file. "Electronic communications, mostly the Internet—Shreed was a master of the computer." He put down the third file. "Communications plans for face-to-face meetings. Three places—Nairobi, Jakarta, and the village in Pakistan where the shootout took place. We consider that the Pakistan site is no longer usable; therefore, Nairobi or Jakarta—" He gave Lao a look.
"These are the original files from American Go? Or substitutes?" Lao was suddenly sharp. He winced at his own tone, imagined that he could be marched from here to a basement and shot, but he knew he was being used and he might as well be used efficiently.
The two exchanged a look. The Westerner wrapped a length of hair around his fist and twisted, gave an odd sort of grunt. "Substitutes," he conceded.
"I want the originals. I want the entire case, not three files." Lao threw caution to the winds. "If you want me to find Chen, I think I need to have everything Chen was working on."
The General smiled, the last gesture Lao expected. "I told you he was sharp," he said, talking to the Westerner as if Lao were not in the room. The General lit himself a Pear Blossom, lit one for the Westerner. Then he reached behind his desk and started to sort folders, old ones with red spines. Lao imagined hundreds of folders in the vast space he couldn't see behind the General's desk, all the secrets of the universe. He shook his head to clear it.
Then they went over some of it again, and the General handed several files to Lao and told him that the entire case would be sent to him in the diplomatic bag at Dar es Salaam. Lao said that he would rather work out of Beijing, and the General's eyes almost disappeared in a smile and he said that, of course, who wouldn't rather be in Beijing, but they wanted him to stay where he was. "For cover." They didn't know if Chen had associates who might smell a rat if Lao worked from the capital. And there were other elements in the People's Army and the Party who might try to interfere, for their own purposes—times were difficult—Lao's mind had caught on the expression "for cover"; you didn't need cover within your own service unless you were doing something fatally risky, he was thinking.
"So," the General said finally, "you will accept this responsibility?" He said it smiling, as if Lao had a choice.
"Of course," Lao said firmly, although he, too, knew they had passed the point of choice when he demanded the folders.
"The people will be grateful."
The third man made another of his chopping gestures. "The people will never know! We will be grateful, which is what matters." He began to cough.
"There is another matter, Colonel Lao." The General's aged geniality had vanished. "It actually falls under your responsibilities at Dar es Salaam—a Middle Eastern matter. I speak of the loss of face we suffered when the Americans shot down two of our aircraft and got their agents and Shreed out of Pakistan. We were made to look like children in this matter. We were humiliated in front of the Pakistanis. We will pay for this failure for years. Admittedly, we may have been too ‘forward leaning. That is not for me to say. But we have been tasked to register our anger with the power that interfered with us."
Lao had an armful of critically secret folders and was burning to begin his investigation. The idea that there was further business irritated him. "Yes, sir?"
"We are going to target a strike on one of their carriers. The one that was used in Pakistan."
The General opened yet another file and tossed it on the desk.
Lao had to change his grip on his stack of folders and put them on the floor. The Westerner was watching him now, as if judging him. "Yes, sir?" he repeated.
"USS Thomas Jefferson. We will hit her through surrogates. The Americans will get the message."
Lao's heart pounded, and he thought, They'll kill us. "Has this been approved by the War Council?"
"This operation was planned by the War Council." The Westerner seemed less watchful, as if he had passed some test. "It is called Jade Talon. You will execute it. Use Islamic surrogates. I have appended contacts that we recommend."
Lao opened the new file with trepidation. The first item was a photograph of a Nimitz-class carrier. There followed a detailed analysis of the possibility of crippling a Nimitz-class carrier with a speedboat full of explosives. Lao looked up. "I don't believe this will sink a carrier."
"Sink? Probably not, although we want you to use several boats. But a nice big hole? Perhaps leaking radioactive material? Hundreds of dead sailors?"
"And how are these small boats to target a carrier?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel?"
"How are a group of Islamic surrogates in tiny boats supposed to find this carrier and strike it?"
"Jefferson will be off the coast of Africa for sixty days. We have a method to pass accurate targeting information."
"Is this my operation?"
"Absolutely. Only, do not fail. And make finding Chen your priority. Am I clear?" The General was no longer smiling.
"Perfectly clear, sir."
Lao picked up all the files and saluted and turned. The room wheeled as if he were dizzy, but his mind was utterly clear. He knew that he had been sent to walk a razor's edge.
• • •
"Does he know what this is really about?" the General said when the door had closed. The civilian snorted and shook his ugly hair. He lit another cigarette. The General sat back, hands folded. "He must have heard things."
"He doesn't know about the money. Nobody knows about the money."
"Perhaps we should have told him."
"No!" The hoarse voice was rude; the General's eyebrows arched a millimeter. "No. If he finds Chen, he finds the money. If he doesn't find Chen—" He shrugged.
"He is a good man," the General said. "There is no real chance for a speedboat to cripple a carrier, is there?"
"It sends a message. Either way. American public opinion is fickle. It might move the U.S. away from Africa. A lucky hit? It might damage the reactor and kill everyone on board. It might call into question the whole legality of placing a nuclear reactor on a vessel in international waters."
"But Lao? Whether he finds Chen or not, he loses."
The civilian shrugged again.
Over the Pacific.
"Craik and Dukas," Jerry Piat said to himself, jammed into the middle of the five-across seats in the belly of a 747.
He was traveling economy class to Jakarta. Jerry was just past having been a hotshot CIA case officer. He had always traveled well, first or business class on cover passports or diplomatic ones, and the reality of an economy seventeen-hour flight from Washington with a layover in Manila had settled into his bones. Being fired from the CIA means you have to travel like this, he thought. Even walking around the cramped aisles didn't help the swelling in his feet.
Booze cost cash and was harder to get in the back of the plane. It was claustrophobic, with kids screaming and their mothers trying to ignore them, couples chatting or fighting. Too much. Not Jerry's scene.
The flight kept him awake and gave him too much time to think. He kept thinking of the messages and the plan he was on his way to implement. Too Byzantine, he felt. Too complex. The plan of an analyst, not an operator. He didn't like Ray Suter, the desk-driver who had thought it up, didn't trust him, thought him a boob when it came to the street. He didn't like Marvin Helmer, Suter's henchman, who was some big hotshot in Seattle now, but whom Jerry remembered as just one more Ops Directorate cowboy. Jerry wanted revenge against the traitors who had brought George Shreed down as much as anybody, but he didn't like the Suter-Helmer plan—or the planner. Photographs, blackmail, and a smear campaign. Desk-driver shit. Like giving Castro an exploding cigar. Jesus. He shook his head, raised the plastic cup of wine to his lips, and hated the taste.
Fuck that. In Jakarta, he would make up his own plan. Anything could happen in Jakarta. He began to shut out the plane as he worked it through. He had twelve hours left in his flight. By the time he landed, he'd be ready to act.
"Dukas and Craik," he murmured to himself, and tasted the wine again and concentrated on a simpler plan.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright© 2003 by Gordon Kent
Posted October 16, 2012
After my usual problem of getting the characters all sorted out I then get completely emersed into the stories by Gordon Kent. He never hides anything from the reader. All the way from the ideas to the planning stages then implementation then the after action reports. You get to feel the whole story. Of course Craik can never get involved in usual skirmishes. Oh No, they have to be national or international insedences . Another good book by Kent. I recommend to anyone who likes military thrillers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
US Navy intelligence officer Alan Craik and friend NCIS Special Agent Mike Dukas recover from a shoot-out with traitor George Shreed. Craik lost two fingers and was shot in the collarbone, which has led to his driving his wife navy pilot Rose crazy, as he is a terrible patient.<P> Not fully recuperated, Craik persuades his superiors to send him to Jakarta to evaluate a plan involving Chinese agents. However, Agent Jerry Piat is also part of the assessment and he wants revenge for what Craik did to his idol, Shreed. Piat firmly gives credence to someone as heroic as his mentor who had to be innocent and thus set up by Craik. The Chinese agents see this as an opportunity also for what Craik did to one of them, Colonel Chen. Suddenly Craik is caught in the crosshairs of the CIA erasing evidence of Shreed's treason and a Chinese espionage team communicating with submarines off the American Pacific Northwest that could lead to a terrorist strike against an American aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.<P> If this novel sounds complex it is because HOSTILE CONTACT is a multi-layered tale that comes together as few can. The key to the return of Craik is the combining of modern techno spying with pre IT espionage smoothly consolidated into an action packed thriller that never slows down until the final convergence. The cast is strong and real whether they are heroes, counteragents, or even tertiary players. Gordon Kent provides the espionage thriller crowd with a superb the spy who returned to the cold tale that should turn Craik novels (see TOP HOOK and PEACE MAKER) into bestsellers.<P> Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 17, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 16, 2010
No text was provided for this review.