Read an Excerpt
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
THE NORTH KOREANS
John Clark didn’t give a damn what anybody said—this was still Saigon.
He knew history, of course. Forty years ago the communists came down from the north and they took the place. They renamed it Ho Chi Minh City in honor of their conquering leader. To the victors the spoils. They executed collaborators and imprisoned unreliables and they changed the politics, the culture, and the fabric of the lives of those who lived here.
It looked a little different now, but to John it felt the same. The cloying evening heat and the smell of exhaust fumes mixing with the pressing jungle, the incense and cigarette smoke and the spiced meat, the buzz of the stifling crowds and the lights from the energetic streets.
And the sense of pervasive danger, just out of sight but closing, like an invading army.
They could name this city after his sworn enemy from the past, they could call it whatever the hell they wanted, but to the sixty-six-year-old man sitting in the open-front café in District 8, that didn’t change a thing.
This was still fucking Saigon.
Clark sat with his legs crossed, his shirt collar open, and his tan tropic-weight sport coat lying across the chair next to him because the slow-moving palm-frond fan above him did nothing more than churn the hot air. Younger men and women swirled around him, heading either to tables in the back or out onto the busy pavement in front of the café, but Clark sat still as stone.
Except for his eyes; his eyes darted back and forth, scanning the street.
He was struck by the lack of Americans in uniform, the one big disconnect from his memories of old Saigon. Forty-odd years ago he’d trod these streets in olive drab or jungle camo. Even when he was here in country with the CIA’s MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group), he’d rarely worn civilian clothing. He was a Navy SEAL, there was a war going on, battle dress was appropriate for an American, even one in country working direct-action ops for the Agency.
Also missing were the bicycles. Back then ninety percent of the wheeled traffic on this street would have been bikes. Today there were some bikes, sure, but mostly it was scooters and motorcycles and small cars filling the street, with pedestrian throngs covering the sidewalks.
And nobody wore a uniform around here.
He took a sip of green tea in the glow of the votive candle flickering on his bistro table. He didn’t care for the tea, but this place didn’t have beer or even wine. What it did have was line of sight on the Lion d’Or, a large French colonial restaurant, just across Huynh Thi Phung Street. He looked away from the passersby, stopped thinking about the days when twenty-five percent of them would have been U.S. military, and he glanced back to the Lion d’Or. As hard as it was to divorce himself from the past, he managed to put the war out of his mind, because this evening his task was the man drinking alone at a corner table in the restaurant, just twenty-five yards from where Clark sat.
The subject of Clark’s surveillance was American, a few years younger than Clark, bald and thickly built. To Clark it was clear this man seemed to be having issues this evening. His jaw was fixed in anger, his body movements were jolting and exaggerated like a man nearly overcome with fury.
Clark could relate. He was in a particularly foul humor himself.
He watched the subject for another moment, then checked his watch and pressed down on a button on a small wireless controller in his left hand. He spoke aloud, albeit softly, even though no one sat close by. “One-hour mark. Whoever he’s meeting is making him wait for the honor of their company.”
Three stories above and directly behind Clark—on the roof of a mixed-use colonial-style office building—three men, all lying prone and wearing muted colors and black backpacks, scanned the street below them. They were connected to Clark via their earbuds, and they’d picked up his transmission.
Domingo “Ding” Chavez, in the middle of the three, centered his Nikon on the man in the restaurant and focused the lens. Then he pressed his own push-to-talk button and answered back softly: “Subject is not a happy camper. Looks like he’s about to put his fist through the wall.”
Clark replied from below. “If I have to sit here in this heat and sip this disgusting tea much longer, I’m going to do the same.”
Chavez cleared his throat uncomfortably, then said, “Uh, it’s not too bad up here. How about one of us take the eye at ground level, you can make your way to the roof?”
The reply came quick. “Negative. Hold positions.”
Sam Driscoll chuckled. He lay on Chavez’s left, just a few feet away, his eye to a spotting scope that he used to scan to the north of the restaurant, watching the road for any sign of trouble. He spoke to the men around him, but he didn’t transmit. “Somebody’s grumpy.”
Several yards to Chavez’s right, Jack Ryan, Jr., peered through his camera, scanning the pedestrians on the sidewalk to the south of their overwatch. He focused his attention on a leggy blonde climbing out of a cab. While doing so he asked, “What’s wrong with Clark? He’s usually the last one of us to bitch, but he’s been like this all day.”
There was no one else on this rooftop other than the three Americans, but Chavez had been doing this sort of thing for most of his adult life. He knew his voice would carry through the metal air-conditioning duct behind him if he wasn’t careful, so he answered back as if he were in a library. “Mr. C’s got some history around here, is all. Probably coming back to him.”
“Right,” Ryan said. “He must be reliving the war.”
Ding smiled in the darkness. “That’s part of it. Clark’s down in that café thinking about the shit he saw. The shit he did. But he’s also thinking about running around here as a twenty-five-year-old SEAL stud. It probably scares him how much he wishes he was back in the groove. War or no war.”
Ryan said, “He’s holding up for an old guy. We should all be so lucky.”
Driscoll shifted on his belly to find a more comfortable position on the asphalt mansard roof, though he kept his eye in his optic, centering now on the man at the table. “Clark’s right. It doesn’t look like this meet is going to happen, and watching this guy through a ten-power scope while he drinks his liver into oblivion is getting old.”
While Sam focused on the subject, Ryan continued following the blonde as she pushed through the foot traffic heading north along Huynh Thi Phung Street. He tracked her to the front door of Lion d’Or. “Good news. I think our evening just got interesting.”
Chavez followed Ryan’s gaze. “Really? How so?”
Jack watched the woman as she turned sharply into the restaurant from the sidewalk and moved directly toward their subject’s table. “The meet has arrived, and she is hot.”
Chavez saw her through his own binos now. “I guess it’s better than watching another fat dude slurp gin.” He pressed the push-to-talk button again. “John, we’ve got a—”
Clark’s voice crackled over Chavez, because he had the command unit on their network and could override other transmissions. “I see her. Too bad we don’t have any fucking audio.”
The men on the roof all laughed nervously. Damn, Clark was grouchy tonight.
Colin Hazelton made a show of checking the time on his mobile phone as the woman sat down. She was an hour late and he wanted to indicate his displeasure, even if only passive-aggressively.
She fixed the hem of her skirt and crossed her legs, and only then did she look up at him. She seemed to notice the phone and his focus on it, then she lifted the sweating water glass in front of her and took a sip.
Hazelton dropped his phone back into his pocket and drank down half of his gin and tonic. He had to admit she was every bit as attractive as advertised. It was virtually all his control had said about his contact tonight. Statuesque and blond, with mannerisms that transmitted refinement and poise. Still, Hazelton was too pissed to be impressed. Not pissed at her, exclusively, but generally angry, and he certainly wasn’t in the mood to ogle his contact tonight.
That she’d made him wait a goddamned hour took even more of the luster off her splendor.
Before either spoke the waiter appeared. It was that kind of place, not like the dive bars and tea shops that populated the rest of this part of Huynh Thi Phung Street.
The woman ordered a glass of white wine in perfect French. Hazelton could tell it was her native tongue, but his control officer had mentioned this fact as well, between breathless comments about her almond eyes and her lithe body.
He assumed she was a former French spook, either DGSE or DCRI, although she also could have been from DST, which became DCRI in 2008. Virtually everyone Hazelton met with in the course of his work was a former intelligence officer, so this was no stretch.
She did not introduce herself, though he wasn’t surprised by this. He had, however, expected some contrition for her late arrival. But she didn’t mention it at all. Instead, she opened with, “You brought the documents?”
Hazelton did not answer her directly. “What do you know about the circumstances of the operation?”
“The client. Have they read you in on the client?”
She showed a little confusion now. “Why would they do that? The client is not relevant to my brief.”
“Well, let me fill you in. The client is—”
The woman held a slender hand up. Her nails were perfectly manicured, and her skin glowed with lotion. “When they don’t brief me, I take that to mean I am not supposed to know.” She looked Hazelton over. “You don’t appear to be new to this work, so surely you understand this.” Her French accent was thick, but her English was flawless.
He took another gulp of gin. “Sometimes it’s best to know.”
“Perhaps that is your philosophy. It is not mine.” She said it with an air of finality. She wanted to move on. “So . . . do you have them or not?”
Hazelton spoke slowly and softly, but stressing every word through a slur from the alcohol he’d been consuming all day, both here and in the lobby bar back at his hotel. “North . . . Fucking . . . Korea.”
No response from the Frenchwoman.
He said, “You did know, didn’t you?”
She did not answer. Instead, she replied, “You are very emotional, aren’t you? This surprises me. I know you were given a rush assignment, someone took ill and they pulled out and then you were called over, but New York should know better than to send in an emotional traveling officer.” Below the table, Hazelton felt the tip of her high-heeled shoe as it ran along his leg, just next to his ankle. There was a time in his life when this would have excited him, but that was long ago. This was work; he knew she was just feeling around to see if he had a briefcase. Soon he heard her toe thump his case, next to his leg.
She said, “Slide it to me, please.”
The big American just sat there. He drummed his fingers on the table. Considering.
He expected to see frustration on her face, but she was oddly cool about his delay. After several seconds she repeated herself with no change in tone. “Slide it to me, please.”
He didn’t know what he was going to do tonight. Would he pass the items or shred them and dump them in a river like fish food? The ramifications for each course of action had been weighing on him all day. But now a sense of composure came over him, and he heard himself say, “You know what? I didn’t sign on to this job to be an errand boy for a bunch of murdering psychos.” Then, “There is other work to be had without stooping this low.”
“I don’t understand,” the woman said, and while speaking she glanced into the street, a casual gaze. She looked bored, but Hazelton knew she was simply keeping an eye out for surveillance.
Hazelton waved his arm in the air angrily. “To hell with this. I’m out.”
The woman, by contrast, displayed no emotion. “Out?”
“I’m not passing the documents on to you.”
She sighed a little now. “Is this about money? If so, you will need to talk to New York. I have no authorization to—”
“It’s not about money. It’s about good and evil. That’s completely lost on you, isn’t it?”
“My job has nothing to do with either.”
Hazelton looked at the woman with complete derision. His decision had been made. “Tell yourself that if you need to, but you’re not getting these docs.” He kicked the briefcase loud enough for her to hear it.
The woman nodded. A countenance of calm. Her detachment was odd to Hazelton. He’d expected screaming and yelling. She just said, “This will complicate things. New York will be angry.”
“Screw New York.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to join you in your moral crusade.”
“Doll, I don’t give a damn what you do.”
“Then you won’t give a damn when I walk out of here and make a phone call.”
Hazelton paused, the strain of his work and the travel evident on his face. “Call him.”
“He will send someone to take that case from you.”
Hazelton smiled now. “He might try. But like you said, I’m not exactly new at this. I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“For your sake, I hope you do.” The Frenchwoman stood and turned away, passing the smiling waiter approaching the table with the wine on a silver tray.
Jack Ryan, Jr., watched it all through his camera from the rooftop across the street. He couldn’t hear the conversation, of course, but he correctly identified the body language.
“If that was a blind date, I don’t think they hit it off.”
Ding and Sam chuckled, but everyone stayed on mission. They watched while the tall woman pulled a phone from her purse and spoke into it, then began walking north.
Driscoll depressed his PTT controller. “Clark? Are we staying with Hazelton or do you want someone on the woman?”
Clark replied quickly. “She was after whatever is in that briefcase, so that case is now part of our mission. Still . . . I want to know more about her. One of you go with the blonde. The others stay put, eyes on that case.”
Jack and Sam took their eyes out of their optics and looked to Chavez, between them on the roof. Chavez said, “I’ll stay. You guys fight over it.”
Now Jack glanced to Sam, who slowly put his eye back in his spotting scope to watch the subject. “Go.”
Jack gave a big smile; it was the brightest light on the rooftop. “I owe you one, Sam.”
He was up and moving toward the fire escape in seconds, putting his camera into his pack as he walked through the dark.
Sam and Ding watched while Colin Hazelton drained the last of his gin and tonic, then gestured for the waiter to bring him another.
“What’s he hanging around for? He’s got another shitty date?” Sam asked rhetorically. Downstairs Clark was thinking the same thing. His voice was gravel, all annoyance and frustration. “Looks like we’re stuck here for a fourth round of g and t’s.”
The drink came and Hazelton let the waiter put it on the table in front of him. He said something to the waiter; all three Americans watching across the street thought he was asking for the bathroom, because the waiter pointed toward the back of the establishment. Hazelton stood; he left his drink, his coat, and his briefcase; and he headed to the back.
It was quiet in all three headsets for a moment. Then Ding said, “John? That look right to you?”
Clark understood what his second-in-command meant, but instead of revealing what he was thinking, he put it as a challenge to Driscoll. “Sam? What do you see?”
Driscoll adjusted his eye in his scope, looking at the empty table, the coat over the back of Hazelton’s chair, the briefcase on the other chair. He looked at the other tables in the restaurant, the well-heeled clientele seated or milling about. After a moment his eyes went back to the briefcase. He said, “If something was so important in that case that he refused to pass it to his contact, why would he leave it unattended at the table while he goes to take a leak?”
Clark said, “He wouldn’t.”
“Then the case is a decoy.”
“Meaning . . .” Driscoll had it in another second. “Hazelton isn’t coming back. He suspects surveillance on the front so he’s slipping out a rear exit.”
Ding confirmed this with “The old dine-and-dash routine.”
Clark said, “Bingo. I’m going to head through the restaurant and come out the back. It’s a north-south alley, but his hotel is behind us. You two stay on overwatch and keep an eye on the intersections to the north and south. Unless he can teleport, we’ll pick him back up.”
In the tea shop Clark dropped a few wadded dong notes on the table, paying for a drink that made his stomach churn, then he grabbed his jacket and headed toward the Lion d’Or across the street.
He’d just stepped off the curb when he saw something that made him pull up short. He backed onto the sidewalk, then looked around in all directions.
Softly he spoke over the communications net. “Ryan. Hold position.”
Jack Ryan, Jr., had been moving up Dao Cam Moc, but on Clark’s order he stopped. “Holding,” he replied. He turned toward the alcove of a closed electronics retailer and pretended to window shop.
“What’s your location?” Clark asked.
Jack looked down to his phone to a map of the area. Tiny colored dots displayed the position of the four men on the team, or more precisely, the position of the GPS tracker each man wore under the belt loop in the small of his back. Clark’s green dot was two blocks to the southeast, still in the open-air tea shop.
Ryan said, “I’m two blocks northwest of your poz.”
Over the earbud Clark explained himself. “I’ve got eyes on four unknowns on motorcycles approaching from opposite ends of the street. They look like a team.”
A moment later Chavez, who was still on the roof with his camera, transmitted. “Black Ducatis?”
Clark said, “Roger that. They came from opposite directions and have different clothing, but it looks like they are riding identical bikes and wearing identical helmets. No coincidence.”
Ding picked all four bikes out of the traffic below. It took him several seconds, because they were spread out. “Good eye, John.”
“Not my first visit. I know when something doesn’t look right around here. Jack, I want you to continue north of your poz. If he takes that alley all the way through the district you can get ahead of him when he comes out on Pham The Hien, but only if you double-time it. Watch for these bikers, don’t let them catch you eyeing the subject.”
Ryan was still pretending to look over a shelf of high-end cameras in the shop window. He felt the blood pumping through his heart for the first time on this trip. His boring evening was suddenly building in intensity.
Jack took off in a jog. “On it. I’ll stay parallel to the bikers and get to the mouth of the alley before Hazelton exits.”
Clark said, “Sam and Ding, do what you can to catch up to Ryan.”
“We’re en route,” said Chavez. “A minute to get off the roof, that puts us three minutes behind you, Jack. Keep it loose till we catch up.”
Colin Hazelton stepped out into the alleyway behind the restaurant and headed due north, his hands in his pockets.
He was well aware he’d just made a very costly decision. Costly because he wouldn’t get paid for his work over the past four days, and costly because he’d lose his job for his decision to abort. But also costly because he’d left a three-hundred-dollar sport coat and a four-hundred-dollar briefcase behind.
All bad news for a man in the twilight of his work life who was also sixty thousand dollars in debt, and in possession of few marketable skills other than spycraft.
But in spite of this, for the first time all day, Hazelton felt a sense of peace. It even occurred to him that, despite the valuable property he’d left in the restaurant, at least he’d skipped out on his fifty-dollar bar tab, so he had to factor in that small win.
He managed a half-smile.
But it didn’t last. He thought about the events that brought him here, to this dimly lit alley, to this decision, and his mood darkened to match the low light of his surroundings.
It had been a year now since Wayne “Duke” Sharps, director of Sharps Global Intelligence Partners, interviewed Colin Hazelton in his Upper West Side Manhattan office about a job in “corporate intelligence.” Sharps had made it clear to the ex–CIA officer that the work at Sharps Partners would be safe, low-key, and nonpolitical, but it would also require Hazelton coming to terms with the fact he would no longer be working for the United States. He would, instead, be working for a paycheck.
Hazelton pushed back at this, insisting he’d never do anything against the red, white, and blue, but to that Sharps replied, “We don’t operate against U.S. interests.” He laughed at the thought. “We’re not devils here at SGIP, we’re just not angels.”
That sounded fine to Colin Hazelton. He was ex-CIA after a career as an Air Force pilot. He bled red, white, and blue, yes, but the times dictated his actions. He’d made a string of speculative international investments in emerging markets, mostly in North Africa, and they had all gone belly-up during the unexpected events of the Arab Spring.
Hazelton needed the work, so he took the job.
And Sharps’s promise of apolitical corporate intelligence work had proven true. For the past year Hazelton had not thought twice about his assignments or his clients.
Until this week, that is.
On Monday Hazelton’s employer had rushed him to Prague to meet with a government official to pick up travel documentation for five individuals. There wasn’t much exciting about this sort of thing; as an operations officer in the CIA, he’d secured alias travel for hundreds of agents around the world. Even working for Sharps this was not out of the ordinary; Hazelton had been involved in moving highly skilled foreign professionals who’d been unable to obtain U.S. work visas into the States. He saw it as a good thing; he was subverting American bureaucracy, not America itself.
Normally it was part of his job to inspect the documents. But not this time; for some reason, when the docs were presented to him in Prague they were sealed in a laminated pouch and his instructions were to deliver the package to a contact in Ho Chi Minh City, and then to return to New York.
He assumed the five sets of documents were for five Czech professionals, and they would be heading to some other country via Vietnam, not the States, as that would be an odd connection from Prague. Hazelton guessed the travelers would be going to work in Japan, or Singapore, or maybe even Australia.
It was strange he wasn’t allowed to see the documentation, but he let it go.
That was until last night on the flight over from Prague. With an hour and a half till landing, the burly American polished off a gin and tonic and began securing items in his roll-aboard and his briefcase. The laminated package full of docs was stowed under the fabric lining of his carry-on, but as he moved a pair of shoes to make room for his jacket, to his horror he realized there was a small tear in the lining of the case. He’d been using the luggage since the late eighties, and the secret compartment had finally given out. He tried to fix it, but this only made it worse. It was a rookie mistake for a spook, and Hazelton was no rookie, but he had been drinking, and that, along with Murphy’s Law, had worked against him.
As he sat in his first-class seat he thought about going through immigration in Vietnam and he began to sweat. If his carry-on was searched at all he knew they would find his stash. But thinking it over quickly, he realized he couldn’t remember a single visit to Vietnam where his person had been searched. If he removed the documents from the hidden compartment and simply stored them in a money belt around his waist, he’d be fine.
But to do this he knew he’d first need to remove them from the large square laminate package.
Hazelton took the document package into the lavatory, sat on the toilet, and tore it open with his teeth. Inside he found five plastic bags, each one containing a passport, a driver’s license, some credit cards, and a folded letter. Despite a strong presumption he was not supposed to look, he began thumbing through the documents.
A flight attendant knocked on the door to the bathroom, telling him to return to his seat because the pilot expected unstable air ahead.
But Hazelton ignored her; all his attention was concentrated on the travel documents. He was not surprised to find the black diplomatic passports. They were not fakes, these were legit, although he assumed they had been altered somehow. He looked at each of the photos. Four Caucasian men and one Caucasian woman.
He couldn’t be sure if they were Czech just by looking at them, but where they were from was not the issue.
It was where they were going. The letters in each person’s possession were travel authorizations, given by the Czech government, allowing the diplomat holding the corresponding passport to travel to North Korea to work in the Czech consulate there.
North Korea? Hazelton had spent the last year doing corporate intelligence work for Siemens, for Microsoft, for Land Rover, and for Maersk.
Now I’m working on behalf of the most brutal and repressive regime in the world?
As he sat on the toilet, his shoulders slamming from one wall to the other with the turbulence, Hazelton decided these five individuals were nuclear scientists being snuck into North Korea. What the hell else could be going on? DPRK had been caught trying to move nuke experts before, and they had no major industry to speak of other than mining, which was handled almost exclusively by partners in China. He couldn’t be certain these were nuke scientists, of course, but he could damn well tell they weren’t Chinese miners.
And he knew this wasn’t some operation Sharps was running against the North Koreans. Duke Sharps wasn’t in the business of taking on despotic regimes for noble aims. He worked for money, there was money in getting brainpower into North Korea, so that had to be what was going on here.
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the bulkhead of the plane, still sitting on the toilet. “Son of a bitch,” he whispered to himself.
The fact Duke Sharps was shipping nefarious characters into the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea pissed Hazelton off, but the fact Hazelton was helping Sharps do it made him shudder.
Hazelton made it through airport immigration with the docs strapped to his midsection, and then an hour later he arrived at his hotel from the airport, salty remnants of dried sweat covering his body. He spent the afternoon in the lobby drinking, thinking about the money and the job and his need to make his financial problems go away, hoping against hope there was some sweet spot of inebriation he could find right as the time came to pass the docs off to the cutout here in Ho Chi Minh City so he wouldn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong.
Now Hazelton knew . . . a half-dozen Tanquerays at the lobby bar and three more at the restaurant—more than a pint of gin—this wasn’t even close to enough to washing away the stench of working for the North Koreans.
He’d balked tonight in the restaurant, refusing to give the docs to the gorgeous French spook, his cutout who would have taken them to the five travelers, probably lodged somewhere in the city. Then the French bitch had probably run off to tattletale to Duke Sharps, and now sixty-one-year-old Colin Hazelton found himself stinking drunk, staggering through a Third World back alley dodging whoever Sharps would send to find the dirty docs that Hazelton now held in a large money belt around his waist.
While he stumbled along he kept an eye out for any surveillance, but he didn’t really expect anyone on him for a day or two. He planned on walking a couple blocks through these back streets to the Kenh Doi, one of several brackish canals that ran through the city, tying his money belt around a loose brick, and then dropping the five sets of dirty documents into the water. From there he’d head to the airport, he’d be on the first plane back to the United States in the morning, and he’d wait to get fired by phone, no doubt by Duke himself.
He’d go back to flying planes for a living. At his age and with his lack of recent flying time he might be able to scrounge some work flying beat-up cargo props in the Third World. He’d die before he paid off his debt, but at least he wouldn’t be a bag man for the Asian Dr. Evil and his murdering minions.
Hazelton walked on. There had been a flurry of activity in the streets—this was District 8, full of French colonial architecture and active nightlife—but now he passed through the darkness in a commercial area near the canal. A restaurant worker carried garbage by him, and an old woman on a scooter putted through the alley.
As he made a left toward the water a pair of men on whisper-quiet black Ducati Diavel motorcycles rolled into the alleyway he just vacated, but he neither heard nor saw them, nor did he have any idea two more similar bikes were already positioned ahead of his route, and waiting for him to walk into their trap.
Jack Ryan, Jr., moved in the darkness, east on Pham The Hien. In front of him he saw Colin Hazelton appear from an alleyway across the street. Jack had expected him to turn to his left and head back to his hotel, but to his surprise the American in the white button-down shirt and loose necktie stepped into the road and began heading over toward Ryan’s side of the street.
Shit, thought Jack. He kept walking, looking away from Hazelton and taking care not to alter his gait. He wondered for a moment if he might have been burned, but Hazelton didn’t seem to pay any attention to him.
To Jack’s surprise Hazelton stepped onto the pavement forty yards in front of him, then entered another narrow, dark alleyway. This would lead him directly to the Kenh Doi, an east-west canal that served as the northern border for District 8, and from Jack’s study of the map of this district, there was nothing there but docks and houseboats and ramshackle apartment buildings.
Confused as to why the man wasn’t going back to his hotel, Jack decided he would walk on a few blocks and then try to move up a parallel alley.
Jack picked up the pace, took a second to orient himself with the map on his phone, and then he spoke over the net. “This is Ryan. I’ve got the subject. He’s moving north. Two blocks south of the water. Unless he’s got himself a dinghy tied up somewhere, then he’s going to run out of road here in a minute. I’m going to try to get ahead and see what he’s up to. I’ll move parallel to his—”
Jack stopped transmitting when, directly in front of him, two black Ducati bikes rolled out of the alley ahead and crossed the street. They were just a couple hundred feet behind Hazelton. Here in the quiet sector near the river they couldn’t hope to remain covert from a trained CIA veteran.
Nothing about this looked like a surveillance exercise by the men on the bikes.
“Ryan?” Ding called over the network. “Did you lose comms?”
“Negative, I’m here. But a pair of Ducatis are here, too, and they are definitely following Hazelton. Not sure where the others are. This looks too aggressive for surveillance. I think they are going to confront him.”
Driscoll spoke over the net now. “Unless they’ve got cars involved in the pursuit that we haven’t spotted yet, they aren’t planning on an abduction. This might be something worse.”
Jack confirmed, astonished that the stakes of this operation seemed to be rising with each moment. “Holy shit, this could be a hit.”
Ding broke into the conversation. “Hang on a second. Hazelton is supposed to be over here on a corporate intelligence job. His last op was for Microsoft. Nothing we’ve seen indicates he has any concerns about a lethal adversary. A hit would be one hell of an escalation.”
Jack saw the two other bikes now, entering Pham The Hien from the east and then racing past Ryan and separating. One turned into the alley that ran parallel to the east of Hazelton’s path; the other turned into the alley to the west, the one Ryan had planned on taking.
Jack passed the road Hazelton took. He just caught a glimpse of the first two bikers as they turned between a pair of long two-story warehouses that ran all the way to the water’s edge. He picked up the pace, thinking any confrontation would have to be soon, because Hazelton was running out of alley before the canal, and then he would have to retrace his steps back in this direction.
As he jogged to the corner to get a look between the buildings, he said, “I agree, Ding, but now four guys have him boxed in with nowhere to run. Something is about to go down.”
Now John Clark came over the line. “I’m getting the car in case we need to make a hasty exfil with Hazelton. Traffic is tight, though. It’s going to take me some time. Ding and Sam, get to Ryan’s poz on the double. Jack, you do not intervene, no matter what. You are unarmed.”
Jack replied softly now. He’d reached the corner and he was about to lean around to take a peek at what was going on. “Understood.”
Hazelton approached the Kenh Doi, a dense blackness fifty yards in front of him. There were a few twinkling lights of District 5 on the far bank, but there was also a group of warehouses there, without much going on at this time of the evening. And this stretch of canal, though nearly in the center of the city, had next to no boat traffic at night.
His plan had been to tear up the documents to the best of his ability and then drop them in the Kenh Doi. They would separate as they flowed downstream, and they would be rendered useless to the North Koreans.
But he knew that plan was shot now, because of the sound of finely tuned motorcycle engines behind him.
He understood the bikers were here for him. They made no secret of their presence. And they weren’t alone. He hadn’t seen any more followers, but the slow approach from the men behind him gave the distinct impression they were waiting for someone else to get into position.
Colin Hazelton was drunk, but he was still perceptive; after all, he had been doing this sort of thing for a very long time.
And just like that, his suspicions were confirmed. A pair of headlights appeared in front of him, one coming up the riverside path along the docks from the east, the other from the west. They turned in his direction and approached at a steady pace.
They had him and he felt he knew who they were. They were more of Duke Sharps’s men. That French bitch had had confederates here in town, and they’d swooped down on him not in days, as he’d anticipated, but in mere minutes.
The two bikes in front of him pulled up to within feet, and then they turned off their engines. The men kept their helmets on and their mirrored visors down. The pair behind had stopped twenty yards back, their soft motors reverberating confidently, announcing to Hazelton that he had nowhere to go.
He knew he was going to have to talk his way out of this.
Hazelton looked to the closest biker, taking him for the leader. He managed a little laugh. “Figured you wouldn’t be in position till tomorrow. I underestimated the hell out of you guys.”
None of the bikers spoke.
Hazelton continued. “Well done. New York sent you in early, I guess? They expected me to waver? I’m impressed. That’s what we used to call ‘anticipating surprise.’” He chuckled again, and repeated, “Well done.”
The closest biker climbed off his motorcycle, and he stepped to within arm’s reach. His mirrored visor gave the man the appearance of a robot.
Hazelton shrugged. “Had to make a stand. You get it, right? The client this time is the DPRK. I don’t know if you knew it, but Duke is in bed with the worst people in the world.”
The biker reached to his helmet and lifted his visor now. Hazelton was surprised by this a little—the man initially seemed content to keep himself masked—but Hazelton thought it possible the man was showing his face because they were acquainted. He knew Sharps hired a lot of ex-Agency assets, after all.
Colin Hazelton leaned forward a little to get a look at the man in the light, but as soon as he saw the face, he recoiled back.
He did not know the man. It was an Asian face. Hard. Cold.
“Oh,” he said. “I see.” Then he faked another little laugh. “You ever had one of those days?”
“Give me the documents,” the North Korean said.
Hazelton felt around on his body. He shrugged. “Would you look at that? I left them in a briefcase back at the—”
“The case was empty!” An automatic pistol appeared in the North Korean’s right hand. Hazelton knew little about weapons, but he had no doubt it was real. The pair behind him began revving their engines, and the other man in front of him stood up taller on his bike.
After watching the entire confrontation, Jack Ryan, Jr., pulled his head back around the corner of the warehouse. He dropped down on one knee, and he tapped his PTT button. “This is Ryan with eyes on. All four followers are around the subject, and they have him at gunpoint.”
Ding replied; it was clear from his breathing he was running. “So much for this being an easy corporate gig. Stay covert. We are on Tran Xuan Soan, about ninety seconds from you.”
Jack said, “If this is a hit, Hazelton doesn’t have ninety seconds.”
Clark barked over the net now. “And if that’s a hit you aren’t stopping it unarmed. I’m en route with the car. Three to five minutes back.” Through the transmission Jack could hear Clark honking his car horn at traffic ahead of him.
Ryan’s impulse was to run headlong into the alley, but he knew Clark was right about his chances if this turned into a real fight.
But Jack had an idea. “I don’t have to engage, John. I can try a diversion.”
Clark replied quickly. “You are on your own, son. Use extreme discretion.”
Ryan did not acknowledge the instructions; he was already looking at the map on his phone, formulating a hasty plan of action. He pulled his camera from his backpack and took a few breaths to ready himself.
The North Korean biker leveled the gun at the American’s chest. He did not say a word.
Hazelton raised his hands slowly, panic welling within. “There is absolutely no need for that. I’m no threat to you. Let’s keep this civilized, at the very least.” The American looked around him. Through the fear coursing through his body he realized he’d put himself in a terrible situation. Had he not been three sheets to the wind he knew he never would have wandered down a dark street like this, especially while harboring concerns someone was after him.
Of course, had he known DPRK agents were on his tail, no amount of alcohol would have caused this breach of tradecraft.
The North Korean pulled the hammer back on his pistol. Hazelton stared into the black hole of the muzzle, not quite past the disbelief of what was happening. He’d never faced a gun, he’d never faced any real danger in his career other than an incident once when he was roughed up by street hooligans in Denmark, hardly comparable to his present circumstance. His mind was overcome with the terror of the moment, but he did retain the presence of mind to know he was beaten. With a cracking voice he said, “Money belt. Around my waist.”
Just then the door to an apartment building opened twenty-five feet from Colin Hazelton’s left shoulder. Two women stepped out carrying large bags, and they immediately glanced up at the men in the middle of the little street in front of them. The North Korean turned his pistol in their direction, and they screamed, leaping back inside the building.
The North Korean heard a shout behind him, his man there alerting him. He looked up and saw the burly American running past them up the street, lumbering toward the water.
He fired up his bike, preparing to take off after the American; the other bikers revved their engines as well.
“Hey! Hey!” someone shouted in English a half-block behind at the corner of a corrugated tin warehouse. All four bikers turned to look and they saw a young white man with dark hair and a beard. He held a camera up in their direction. “Everybody smile!” The camera flashed a dozen times, strobing the men in the dim alley.
The two bikers closest to the cameraman throttled their engines and burned rubber as they turned around on the street, then began racing toward the white man with the camera. The leader and the man with him went off in pursuit of Hazelton and his money belt.
As he accelerated, the lead North Korean stuck his pistol back into his jacket, then reached to his waistband and pulled a long stiletto from a sheath.
Colin Hazelton hadn’t broken into anything more than a light jog in nearly thirty years, but the adrenaline in his body put enough spring in his step to get him down to the river in twenty seconds. Here he made a right on the path, the two bikers close on his heels. He thought about running across the dock and diving into the water, but he knew nothing about the current and he felt sure the younger men after him would just fish him out soaking wet, or else drown him there and take his money belt. So he raced along the path for a block, then made a right up into another dark and narrow street.
The bikes approached confidently; he could hear that the throttles weren’t having to work very hard at all.
“Help!” he shouted to the apartment buildings around, his eyes scanning balconies and windows, desperate to find anyone who could save him. He thought about the gun behind him and wondered at any minute if he was going to take a bullet in the back of the neck. He knew he just had to get into a public space, but he also knew the area. He had several blocks to go before finding any sanctuary of community.
Domingo Chavez and Sam Driscoll sprinted through the darkened streets of District 8, closing on the gray GPS beacon on their map that represented Jack Ryan. Ding glanced down at the electronic map for the first time in thirty seconds, making sure they made the correct turn off the two-lane street, when Ryan’s voice came over his earpiece.
“Ding, you guys have me on GPS?”
Chavez responded, still looking at the dot on the map. “Affirmative. Looks like you’re running.”
“Damn right I am! Two armed bikers on my six.” Chavez could hear the roaring engines through the warren of apartment buildings off his left shoulder.
“We’ll catch up with you.”
“I need one of you to go for Hazelton. He took off to the water. He’s not over here to the west, so try to the east.”
Ding called to Sam as he ran on. “You go for Ryan! I’ll grab Hazelton!”
Colin Hazelton never stood a chance. The lead North Korean biker raced up behind the big, aging American, positioned his flat stiletto down by his side, and then thrust his arm out, stabbing the man from behind, once under the left shoulder blade, then quickly on the right side in the same place.
Both of Hazelton’s heaving lungs began deflating almost instantly, and blood pumped into the damaged organs. He ran on a few feet, no reaction in his stride to what he thought were just punches into his back, but soon he toppled over in the middle of the dark street, gasping. The bikers slowed and stopped, then both men dropped the kickstands on their Ducatis and climbed off, quickly but still casually. They stepped over to the wounded man, who was now trying to crawl away, and they knelt over him.
The leader began feeling through Hazelton’s pockets and then his shirt, finally laying his hand on the money belt hiding there. He yanked the hem up over the man’s corpulent midsection, used his stiletto to cut free the sweaty and bloody white Velcro money belt, and he quickly checked it to make sure the documents were inside. There was blood on one of the passports, but everything was there.
Hazelton lay on his side now, and he reached up for the documents weakly, his right arm extending fully and the whistling wheezes out of both his mouth and the holes in his back changing in pitch as he tried to yell.
The North Korean biker knocked the American’s feeble grasp away and stood up, then he turned back to his motorcycle. His partner joined him, his handgun low by his side and his helmet turning in all directions as he scanned, making certain no threats appeared in the street.
They started their engines and turned back in the other direction to join the hunt for the white photographer.
Ryan was five blocks away now, still in the warren of darkened streets and parking lots around the apartment buildings here by the Kenh Doi. He wondered what had happened to Hazelton. He had done all he could for the man, but he feared it hadn’t been enough. He’d seen the two women step outside the apartment building and in so doing distract the bikers. To his shock Hazelton took off toward the water. Jack thought this to be a terrible idea, unless of course Hazelton had seen something that gave him no hope he’d survive the encounter with the armed men.
Or else he was just drunk and he freaked out and he went for it, decided he was smarter, stronger, and faster than he actually was.
Ryan was betting on the latter.
To give the American ex–CIA man a fighting chance, Ryan had darted into the alley, demanded the attention of the bikers, and flashed his camera as a distraction, then he turned and ran for his life, hoping to draw at least some of the men off the older, slower Hazelton.
That part of Jack’s plan had worked. As he leapt over a pair of aluminum trash cans on the sidewalk he could tell from the lights and noise of the two Ducatis on his tail that they were no more than fifty feet behind. They crashed through the cans just three seconds later, sending them and their contents flying. Jack leapt over a wooden pallet lying on the curb and then turned, flicking it up into the path of the bikers, but the pallet shattered against the bikes and didn’t slow the men down at all. He ducked around a tree in a planter, then changed direction again.
The Ducatis spun toward him and increased speed again.
Ryan worried the men might tire of the chase and just open fire, so he tried to keep his sprint erratic, moving from left to right, leaping over garbage or parked scooters or boxes on the sidewalk, racing around electric poles and switching direction unpredictably.
But the bikes stayed on him, he wasn’t going to shake them as long as he stayed on the road.
Sam Driscoll came over his earbud, yelling at Jack to stand still a minute so he could get a GPS fix on the map long enough to find him in the narrow alleyways. But Jack was hardly in a position to comply; he just kept running, ducking under low wires that hung over a narrow pathway next to an office building. He made a hard left, then took a flight of concrete steps that ran down to a parking lot alongside an apartment complex. The bikes took the steps down as well, and they closed to within feet of their prey.
The crack of a gunshot and the flash of sparks on the ground at the bottom of the stairs told Ryan the men behind him had been given the all-clear to use lethal force by whoever the hell was controlling them. Of course Ryan had no idea why these men were trying to kill him. He and his mates had stumbled onto something big here in their tail of Colin Hazelton, but Jack didn’t have time to think about it now. He had to get out of the line of fire.
A satellite dish stuck out from a second-floor balcony at the bottom of the long flight of concrete steps. It was eye level in front of him now, but if Jack wanted to grab hold of it he’d have to make a running jump of nearly fifteen feet. Jack leapt off the stairs, using the momentum of his run, the kicking of his legs in the open air, and his high position on the staircase to give him as much distance as possible.
His hands just grasped the metal arm of the four-foot-wide satellite dish, his legs swung out below him from the momentum as if he were an Olympian on the horizontal bar.
The two riders on their bikes raced down the staircase below him. When they reached the parking lot at the bottom of the steps, they spun around on their front wheels to face him. Their tires screeched in unison.
Jack’s legs had gone horizontal to the ground during his swing on the sat dish’s arm, but he was unable to kick high enough to climb up on the balcony. Instead, he swung back down, tried to pull himself up to take hold of the metal balcony railing.
Suddenly the mount for the arm gave way under the strain of Ryan’s weight, tearing off from the balcony railing and breaking free, attached only by a thick band of wiring.
Jack dropped ten feet to the steps below. The satellite dish fell part of the way with him but was then caught by the wiring. Jack landed well initially but then tumbled forward and down the steps, ending up dazed on his back in the parking lot, just twenty feet from the bikers.
Jack looked up at the armed men. The bikers glanced at one another quickly, as if to marvel at their luck, then one man raised his pistol.
But before he could fire a bearded man dressed in black appeared on his right at a sprint, slamming into him like a linebacker making a tackle in the open field, and knocking both the rider from his bike and the gun from his hand.
The second helmeted man on the other Ducati spun his arm around toward the movement, but the bearded man—he was clearly a Westerner—swung his backpack off, hurled it overhand, and it connected with the biker’s firing arm, knocking it down. A gunshot ripped through the night, the entire parking lot exploded with an instant of light, and the biker fell back onto the pavement. He rolled quickly to his knees, but before he could stand the bearded man was on him, kicking him once in the visor of his helmet. The padded ballistic plastic absorbed the impact, but the blow torqued his neck back and he fell hard onto his back, slamming his head onto the unyielding surface of the parking lot and knocking him out cold.
Sam Driscoll was glad he was wearing his big Salomon boots this evening. Otherwise he was sure he would have broken his foot on the helmet of the prostrate man in front of him. Still, the top of his foot hurt like hell from the impact.
He’d been running full out for five minutes, with only a couple breaks to slow in order to check Ryan’s GPS locator on the map on his mobile phone. Now that both threats were down and Ryan was safe, Sam kicked his foot out to shake away the pain, picked his backpack up off the ground, and began looking for some zip ties to restrain the two attackers.
“Thanks,” Ryan said, still looking at the men on the ground.
Sam wasn’t reveling in his handiwork at all. Between gasps for breath he said, “Asshole shot my backpack. The camera and spotting scope belonged to the company, but the tablet computer in here is mine. Took a round right through the screen.” He looked to Ryan. “You gonna buy me another?”
Ryan had his hands on his knees; he was still heaving from the action of the past few minutes. He managed a laugh. “Sure, man. I owe you an iPad. If you want I’ll throw in—”
Ding Chavez’s voice came over the network now. “Clark? Hazelton is down and critical! I need wheels. Now!”
As one, both Jack and Sam hefted pistols off the pavement, left the two unconscious men where they lay, and leapt on the downed Ducatis.
Sirens filled the air in the distance as they began racing back to help Chavez.
Seconds earlier, Ding Chavez rounded the corner of a building at a full sprint only to find a large man crawling in the middle of a dark and otherwise empty two-lane street. He recognized the white shirt and bald head of Colin Hazelton, and he raced over to him. “Come on, Hazelton! Let’s move!”
Ding tried to help the man back to his feet, but Hazelton could not put weight on his legs.
Ding heard the hissing sound of air leaving the man’s lungs. The back of the ex–CIA officer’s shirt was soaked in blood. It took another second to find the wounds, but through tiny tears in the shirt his fingers felt the damaged flesh. Ding ripped Hazelton’s shirt open, exposing the man’s back and the pair of small, deep slit punctures below his shoulder blades.
“Shit,” Ding said. He knew all about deep injuries to the torso. Holding pressure on these two holes would do nothing for Hazelton, because he was bleeding internally, and his deflated lungs were far away from the surface wounds on the skin. They were behind the rib cage, spurting blood and functioning at ten percent efficiency at best. Ding needed to seal the holes and try to reinflate the lungs.
While still on his knees in the middle of the dark street, he reached into his backpack and retrieved a tiny black pouch. It wasn’t much, just a personal first-aid kit that each man on the team carried with him at all times. From it Ding pulled a pair of occlusive dressings, ripped them out of their packaging with his mouth. He used his forearm to wipe blood away from the sucking wounds, then he affixed a dressing over each hole. He pressed them firmly on the skin, knowing he needed to completely seal the breach before he could do anything else.
Chavez rolled the man onto his back. He saw Hazelton’s eyes were open and unfixed. Hurriedly he performed rescue breathing, more commonly known as mouth-to-mouth, trying to get enough lung function going to keep the man’s blood oxygenated.
He stopped only long enough to shout over the commo net. “Clark? Hazelton is down and critical! I need wheels. Now!”
Clark responded quickly. “I’m on the way!”
“Are you clear of the opposition?” Clark asked.
Ding started to reply in the affirmative, but he looked up when a single headlight appeared far up the street. It wasn’t moving, but he heard the revving engine of a finely tuned motorcycle.
“Negative,” he said. “At least one of the bikers is back. Probably trying to figure out how help showed up so fast.” Ding could run, but he didn’t want to leave Colin Hazelton here in the middle of the road. The man needed attention this second. Without someone to keep his heart beating he wasn’t going to make it more than a minute.
Jack Ryan, Jr., came over the net. “Jack and Sam coming to you with bikes and guns. Find some cover till we get there, Ding.”
But Ding stayed right where he was in the middle of the road, continuing the rescue breathing, a valiant attempt to keep Hazelton’s heart beating.
The motorcycle lurched forward and began heading up the street in his direction.
After five breaths Ding transmitted while listening to Hazelton’s mouth for sounds to confirm the man was still breathing on his own. “Biker heading my way. I don’t know what this guy’s going to do, but if I run, Hazelton’s dead.”
Clark said, “I’ll be there in twenty seconds.”
Ding watched the approaching headlight. It passed under a street lamp at the intersection three blocks away. In the light he saw a black Ducati and the biker was holding something out in front of him, pointed at Chavez and Hazelton in the middle of the road.
Ding spoke softly, a twinge of resignation in his voice. “Ten would be better.”
Chavez was unarmed. His mission had been to ascertain just what a former mid-level CIA exec was doing here in Vietnam. Moving through the country with firearms didn’t seem prudent, considering the threat matrix.
It was clear now, however, that had been the wrong call.
The bike raced up the street, approaching the intersection at speed; the rider kept his pistol out in front of him, aiming it at Chavez.
He fired, a flash of light and the gun’s recoil snapped it up. Chavez could only drop low to the pavement, tucking over Colin Hazelton. He felt the round pass just high.
Another shot sparked the pavement just to Ding’s left. He began chest compressions now, but he felt sure that as the attacker closed on his bike, the next shot would find its mark.
Ding saw the pistol level again, and he saw no way out of this. He was about to take a round.
A gray four-door sedan raced into the intersection from the east, its headlights off and its engine screaming at full throttle. The man on the Ducati sensed the movement on his left and turned to look a half-second before impact; he pulled his gun arm back in and tried to turn the motorcycle, but before he could take any evasive action at all he was flattened by the sedan. Sparks and wreckage arced into the air, smoke billowed in all directions at the point of impact.
The biker was crushed under the sedan. His helmet bounced down the street. Ding was reasonably sure there was no head inside the helmet, but he could not be certain. The impact had certainly been violent enough.
Chavez winced but immediately went back to giving Hazelton mouth-to-mouth.
The sedan came to rest just as Ryan and Driscoll appeared behind Chavez on the two Ducatis. They climbed off the bikes, helped their teammate to his feet, scooped Hazelton up by his arms and legs, and then carried him to the sedan.
John Clark waited behind the wheel. His airbag had deployed and his windshield was cracked across the entire length of the glass, but the vehicle remained operational.
Sam climbed in front, and Jack and Ding pulled Hazelton into the backseat with them. Clark took off before the doors were closed; behind them sirens neared and flashing lights reflected off wet streets and the window glass of apartment buildings.
Clark called out to the men behind him, “Anyone hurt?”
Ding said, “Just Hazelton.”
“Is he going to live?”
Ding made eye contact with John in the rearview, and he shook his head. But he said, “Let’s get him to a hospital.”
The intimation was clear from the tone in his voice. Nobody was going to save Hazelton at this point, but they had to try.
Driscoll was already on the phone to his organization’s Gulfstream jet. “Sherman, Driscoll. En route to airport, ETA twenty-five mikes. Four pax in total. In extremis exfiltration, negative contraband. Negative injuries. Threat condition red. Confirm all.”
Over the phone Adara Sherman, the transportation and logistics coordinator for the team, repeated everything back to the operator in the field and let him know the aircraft would be ready for them when they got to the airport.
The men were quiet for a moment, the main sound in the sedan coming from the heavy breathing of exhausted men and the chest compressions Chavez continued on Hazelton’s thick torso, as well as the soft wheezes coming out of the wounded man’s mouth and nose. Foamy blood had formed on the ex–CIA man’s lips, and this told Chavez the internal bleeding in the lungs was as bad as he’d feared.
Ding had called this one correctly. Hazelton wasn’t going to make it.
As Chavez looked down at the man he was surprised to see Hazelton’s eyes open. Beneath a thin wheeze he made another sound, like he was trying to form words.
Chavez leaned over closer. “What’s that?”
Hazelton tried again. “Sh . . . Sharps.”
Chavez nodded quickly. “We know. You were working for Duke Sharps. Do you know who attacked you?”
Hazelton nodded emphatically, did his best to speak again, but just a pathetic croaking rasp came out of his mouth.
His arm reached out and began flailing around the backseat.
Ryan figured out what he was doing. “He wants a pen. Hurry!”
Driscoll found a pad and pen in the glove compartment and he passed them back. Ding held the pad for Hazelton, who took the pen and began furiously scratching with it. It was too dark to discern the writing here in the sedan, but Ding was able to see that all the blood on the man’s palm was also smearing the page.
In fifteen seconds Hazelton stopped. The pen fell from his hand and his head lolled to the side.
Ding put two fingers on the man’s carotid artery. After a half-minute he said, “John . . . to the airport.”
“Got it,” said Clark, then he turned at the next intersection. No use wasting time on a hospital drop-off now.
Chavez collapsed back in his seat, the dead man lying across his and Ryan’s laps. For the past ten minutes Chavez had worked as hard as he could to save the man, even risking his life to do so. Now he was wasted and worn out, both mentally and physically, from the strain of his efforts.
Ryan took the pad and held his flashlight’s beam up to it. “Fucking chicken scratch.”
Clark said, “Let’s worry about that when we’re wheels up.”
Veronika Martel took one more glance into her rearview mirror before turning her two-door Hyundai through the gates of the safe house. She’d checked the traffic behind her one hundred times during her drive; it was hard enough to do in the dark, but since the rain began a few minutes earlier, identifying any vehicles that might be following her had become all but impossible. Still, she told herself she was clean, she’d seen not a hint of a tail during her circuitous drive from central Ho Chi Minh City to Thu Duc, so she pulled up the drive of the two-story villa with little concern for her operational security.
A gravel parking circle sat to the side entrance of the villa and she took advantage of this, turning around to position her Hyundai so it was facing the road and ready for a fast escape. Martel was aware of no specific threats, but she was operational, and this sort of tradecraft was second nature to her.
It had been an hour and a half since meeting with the American at the Lion d’Or in Ho Chi Minh City. Thu Duc was only a dozen miles from the city center, but she’d been running a long surveillance detection route, stretched even longer by her control officer’s orders to take her time.
She sat in the Hyundai in the parking circle, listening to the rain on the roof of the vehicle. She could have gone inside the villa but she decided against it, since going inside would have entailed being around others, making small talk with people who were neither friends nor family while she waited for a call from her control officer. Martel had no interest in this. She wasn’t particularly friendly, and she most certainly could not be characterized as chatty. So she sat alone, enjoyed the patter of rain on the roof, and focused her thoughts.
North Korea. Christ.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the headrest.
Have you really fallen this far?
Veronika Martel was thirty-eight years old, an employee of Sharps Global Intelligence Partners of New York City. Duke Sharps had headhunted her after she left DGSE, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, French foreign intelligence, where she had spent more than a decade working as a case officer in embassies in the Middle East and Europe.
Now she was based at Sharps Partners’ European satellite office in Brussels, but her work in the corporate intelligence field took her all over the globe. In the past six months she’d served on operations in Mumbai, in Osaka, in Moscow, and in Madrid.
And now Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City was unfamiliar turf for her, but Veronika went where New York told her to go, and this assignment was similar to ops she had done in Europe. Or at least it had been until her contact this evening made the unilateral decision to derail the operation by not handing over the documents he’d been tasked to bring with him from Prague.
She’d reported him to her New York control officer immediately—she wasn’t going to take the blame for the op falling apart. New York told her to head back to the safe house, but to take her time doing so, while they did what they could to rectify the situation.
Short of arranging a street mugging to get the package from Hazelton, she didn’t know what the hell her control officer in New York could do about it, but she did as ordered.
As she sat with her eyes closed her phone chirped, the sound louder than the pattering rain on the roof of the Hyundai. “Oui?”
“This is control. I’m connecting you to a local agent.”
Local agent? As far as she knew, Veronika Martel was the only Sharps employee in the area other than the pretentious bald-headed American who had ruined her evening.
There was a delay on the line, then a heavily accented Asian voice came over the speaker. “I have the package. I will be arriving at your safe house in five minutes.”
She felt certain the man was North Korean. Not a local agent, but an interested party in her mission nonetheless. She knew better than to ask any questions.
“I’ll be here,” she said.
The man quickly asked, “Was he alone when you met with him?”
“The contact? I only presume so. It was not in my brief to establish whether or not he had any coverage on him. Why do you ask?”
“Five minutes,” came the non-response to her question, and the line went dead.
Veronika climbed out of her little Hyundai and walked up to the front door. She had a key to the villa, she’d been living here for several days, but she knocked on the door nonetheless, as per the arrangement. She waited for a moment on the porch, then heard the door unlock from the inside.
She was met by a North Korean. He was one of three security men who had been watching over the occupants of the safe house. Again, not Sharps employees, but interested parties in the operation. The three men had kept their distance from her, and she from them. This one said nothing at the door, she was certain he spoke neither English nor French, and he left the entryway, heading back into the living room.
Veronika folded her umbrella and hung her coat, then she stood alone, looking out the window at the rain, waiting to see headlights in the driveway.
Her plan was to avoid the others until the package arrived, but after a few minutes she decided that as much as she didn’t want to get into a conversation with anyone right now, it was her responsibility to check on the subjects of her work here in Vietnam.
She walked into the living room and found the three security officers standing along the wall behind four men and one woman, who sat on sofas and chairs. These five were all Caucasian; they looked straight at her as she entered the room, their faces illuminated by candlelight. Even in the amber glow Martel saw the apprehension in their eyes.
She felt obligated to make some remarks to calm the group down. In English she said, “Everything is in order. I am waiting for a visitor to arrive, and then we will proceed.”
Before anyone spoke, there was a knock at the front door. The three security men looked up and started toward the entryway, but Martel waved them back into their places and went herself.
She opened the door to find a man in a black motorcycle jacket. He was Asian; she assumed he was North Korean like the others, but she sure as hell was not going to ask.
The man carried a folder in his hand. He held it out and said, “You saw no one?”
She took the folder. “You already asked me this. What is wrong? What happened?”
She looked past him and into the parking circle. Two men sat in the rain on motorcycles. A third bike, presumably belonging to the man in front of her, was parked alongside them.
The North Korean stepped into the entryway and shut the door. “The American had men with him. We were not notified of this.”
“Nor was I. As I said before, it wasn’t my job to identify surveillance.” The man did not seem satisfied with her answer, so she added, “Call New York if you’d like to make a complaint about my performance.”
The North Korean’s nostrils flared. Martel presumed he wasn’t accustomed to being spoken to like this, but she couldn’t care less. She ignored the man’s glare and began looking through the folder. Inside she found five smaller manila folders. Opening them one at a time, she fanned through five complete sets of documents: EU diplomatic passports. Czech diplomatic assignments to Pyongyang. Credit cards bound with rubber bands.
She returned to the living room; the North Korean in the black jacket followed behind. Veronika looked at the photo page of each passport and each visa, and she took her time to match the documents to the five sitting in front of her. They sat quietly, nervously waiting for her to say something, but she did not rush herself.
All the documents looked perfect, except for the last of the passports. The cover appeared to be stained with red ink. Martel ran a thumb over the embossed cover and she realized the color was no stain, as it came off easily.
Looking at her thumb, she saw it was fresh blood.
Mon Dieu, she said to herself. These men had taken these by force from the American agent.
She glanced up at the North Korean. His eyes remained on her—surely he had seen her notice the blood. She thought he was enjoying her discomfort.
“Everything is in order,” Veronika Martel said. The North Korean left without another word, and within moments she heard three motorcycles firing up and driving off.
Martel put the documents on a table and moved a lamp closer. To the entire group she said, “Your flight leaves at nine-thirty a.m., arriving in Pyongyang at eleven thirty-five. I’ll go over your legends with each of you, and then you should try to get a few hours’ sleep. I will wake everyone at six.”
The one other female in the house, a redhead in her forties, stood up from the sofa and approached. Her Australian accent was obvious. “Would you mind it if I spoke to you in private?”
Veronika Martel just shrugged and moved into the kitchen. The woman followed. She was much shorter and a little heavier than Martel, and the lighting here did her no favors. Martel thought the redhead looked as if she hadn’t slept in days. It had been rough for all five of the Australians, she knew, as she had been with them all week.
The French intelligence agent said, “What can I do for you, Dr. Powers?”
The Australian closed the door all the way. She spoke softly. “Look. I . . . we agreed to come. The money was incredible, obviously, but it seemed like an adventure, you know?”
“What is your question?”
“I left a family behind back in Sydney. Six months’ work, and I’m back home. That’s what was agreed on.”
Martel put a hand out on the counter, strummed her perfect nails on the tiled surface.
Dr. Powers continued, “I . . . I just want to make sure the terms promised me are honored.”
Martel made no attempt to whisper. “Dr. Powers, my job is to facilitate your clandestine travel safely from Sydney to Pyongyang. Nothing more. Whatever agreement you have with the DPRK, it is between yourself and the DPRK.”
Powers looked to the door to the living room nervously. “I don’t trust them. They watch over us like we are prisoners. They won’t answer my questions. I just thought . . . you are working with them. Can you help me? Maybe just ask them to be a little more forthcoming about the arrangements in place. Please?”
Martel took her hand from the counter next to her and placed it on the smaller woman’s shoulder. With a little smile she said, “Doctor. I understand.”
The older redhead looked relieved. “I knew you would.”
“I understand that the fact I am female and I have round eyes, to you, means I should be more sympathetic than the North Korean men acting as security here. But nothing could be further from the truth. They have use for you, I do not.” She lowered her hand and headed for the door. “When you get to Pyongyang, I’m sure your concerns will be alleviated.”
Powers all but shouted, “Do you have any idea how ridiculous that statement sounds?”
Martel was unfazed by the redhead’s anger. “I didn’t agree to work for the North Koreans. You did. Your decision is made, and you would do well to make peace with that decision, because they are not going to allow you to change your mind at this juncture.” She returned to the living room without another word.
As she passed out the documents and went over the individual legends for each of the five, she let herself wonder what would happen to these Australians. Working with the North Koreans certainly would be fraught with legitimate concern, but she expected all five of them to fulfill their contract with Pyongyang and to return home much wealthier than when they left. It was, of course, illegal work, and they were being paid with this in mind.
Martel knew very little about what these five would be doing for North Korea, but even so, she wasn’t worried about this operation from any sort of a moral standpoint. It wasn’t as if these people were nuclear scientists or rocket scientists. They were geologists, that was all. No threat to anyone, certainly, even if they were working for the North Koreans. No, this was just some industrial commercial and diplomatic subterfuge, nothing dangerous.
And then she paused for a moment, thinking about the blood on the passport and the annoying American who had no doubt shed it. If the North Koreans were willing to use violence in a foreign nation to secure the travel of these geologists, perhaps the stakes were higher than she thought.
She pushed the misgivings out of her mind, a skill she had developed and honed over her intelligence career.
Right now she just wanted to get these five on the nine-thirty flight tomorrow morning to Pyongyang, to sanitize the safe house, and then to go home.
Nothing else mattered to Veronika Martel.
The dented gray sedan carrying the four Campus operators and the body of ex–CIA officer Colin Hazelton pulled into the hangar of the fixed-base operator at the far east end of Tan Son Nhat airport just after one a.m.
The sole aircraft in the hangar, a sleek, white Gulfstream G550, had already been unplugged from its APU by the ground crew, who had conspicuously disappeared as the car approached the loading stairs.
As the men climbed out of the vehicle an attractive woman stepped out of the office of the fixed-base operator. Her blond hair was pulled into a neat bun, and her generic flight attendant’s uniform was perfectly pressed.
Adara Sherman was officially the flight coordinator for the Campus G550, but this was just one of her many duties. She also provided security to the aircraft, organized every bit of travel for the operators in her organization, dealt with customs issues, and performed other duties as required.
Clark stepped up to Sherman as soon as he climbed out from behind the wheel. “Good to see you again.”
“You, too, Mr. Clark.”
“What’s the situation?”
“We’re fine. Customs is dealt with, the ground crew and office personnel are giving us some space.”
“I assume that cost a small fortune.”
“Discretion comes cheaper here than in some other places. Can I help with the body?”
“We’ll handle him. Just let the flight crew know we needed to be out of the country an hour ago, so anything they can do to expedite will be appreciated.”
Sherman headed for the stairs.
Driscoll and Ryan carried the body of Colin Hazelton onto the plane while Clark and Chavez stood guard at the entrance to the hangar, making sure no personnel from the FBO or the airport made the mistake of taking a peek into the hangar during this critical moment of exposure.
Adara had already placed a body bag on the floor of the cabin. The presence of several ready-to-go body bags in the cargo hold of the G550 was a grim reminder to the operators of The Campus that the work they did was high stakes, but this was the first time one of the bags had been put to use. Hazelton’s body was zipped inside, then he was placed into a hidden compartment built between the rear bulkhead and the cargo hold. It was specifically designed to hide a full-sized man, but it was just barely large enough for this role. Each of the operators had tested it out, and it had even been used operationally to hide one of the men during immigration and customs inspections.
All agreed that the person who customized the compartment had done so with no plans to put it to personal use.
Hazelton had no complaints, however.
When all were on board and the hatch sealed, the pilots began taxiing toward the tarmac. Slowly at first, but soon they began expediting their departure off the nearly empty runway, and they were airborne in minutes.
Shortly after leveling off, Adara served the men coffee, juice, and water. Clark sat alone up at the bulkhead, and here he called Gerry Hendley, the director of The Campus and the owner of the jet. While he drank coffee, Clark carefully filled him in on everything that had happened.
Soon the entire team converged around the teak table in the center of the aircraft, and together they inspected the note Colin Hazelton had scribbled seconds before succumbing to his wounds. Both Clark and Chavez wore reading glasses, but even with their corrected vision it was hard to make out the writing. It was clear there were only four words in total on the page, one word alone, and then below it, two more. Then, at the bottom, four more letters had been scribbled, badly, almost one on top of the other. The wide blood smear across the chicken scratch only added to the difficulty of discerning Hazelton’s penmanship.
Chavez said, “The first word is four letters, but it’s completely obscured by the blood. Not a clue. Below it, there are two words. The first one looks like . . . is that ‘skata’?”
Clark said, “That means ‘shit’ in Greek.”
“You speak Greek?” Ryan asked, surprised.
“No, but I had Greeks working for me in Rainbow. Working for me causes a man to cuss, I guess. I heard that one a lot.”
Driscoll turned the sheet his way to look it over, and he leaned even closer. “It’s not ‘skata.’ I think it’s ‘skala.’”
After everyone looked again, Chavez and Ryan agreed with Driscoll, and Clark gave in to majority rule. “Okay, ‘skala.’ Sounds like a proper name. Central European, maybe?”
Ryan was already at his laptop Googling the word while Adara Sherman refilled his bone-china coffee cup next to him. With excitement he said, “Got it! It’s a town in Poland.” Then, with a voice less enthusiastic, “Wait. It’s also a town in Bulgaria. Shit. There’s one in Ukraine, too. Another in the Faroe Islands.”
Driscoll mumbled, “Well, damn. That’s not very helpful.”
Chavez said, “It might be a person as well. I knew a Hungarian Army captain with that surname, back in CIA. He died in a helo crash fifteen years ago, though. Clark, you know anybody named Skala?”
Clark shook his head. He was concentrating on the next word now. “What’s that? Four letters? Looks like ‘IATA.’ All caps.”
Ryan Googled that as well. “International Air Transport Association. Might just be a coincidence.”
Sherman was pouring orange juice for Chavez. She hadn’t said a word during the conversation, because no one had asked her opinion. But she glanced at the page and said, “Prague.”
The four men turned to look up at her, so she clarified. “Sorry. It’s the ICAO airport code. That’s Václav Havel in Prague. Czech Republic.”
Ding said, “I thought the Prague airport code was PRG.”
Sherman smiled. “You are thinking of the IATA code that’s used commercially, what you see on your ticket or when you book a flight. The ICAO is what pilots use.”
Ding looked at her doubtfully, but Clark buttressed her claim.
“Hazelton was a pilot. He was ex–Air Force and held a multi-engine private pilot’s license.”
Ryan said, “Skala could be a Czech name. Maybe if we go to Václav Havel Airport in Prague and start looking around for a guy named Skala, we will get lucky.”
Clark said, “For now we are heading back to D.C. The first item on our agenda after returning is to sit down with a certain someone and find out everything she knows about this. After that we’ll decide how we are going to proceed.”
Clark held the note close to his face to look at the last scribble, down at the bottom of the page. After a few seconds he nodded, then tossed it on the table. “Hazelton’s last note tells us there is trouble ahead, boys.”
The others looked the note over. It was clear to all of them.
Sam took the words out of the others’ mouths. “I hate those guys.”
The Gulfstream flew northeast toward the dawn, the four men in back trying to catch as much sleep as possible because to a man they expected the events of the previous evening were merely the beginning, and more trouble lay ahead.
One year earlier
For as many of the twenty-eight years Choi Ji-hoon could remember, he had been surrounded by those who told him he would someday lead his nation. Most of those people were sycophants, though he’d never heard such a term. He knew these people only as unimportant. Still, he believed them. He believed them because his father, the only person who mattered, had told him the same thing. Choi Li-hung explained to his son, Choi Ji-hoon, that someday he would die, and when that happened, young Ji-hoon would replace him to become the Supreme Leader of North Korea.
Ji-hoon’s father promised his son he would rule, but he did not reveal to his son that he had absolutely no faith in his ability to do so. Choi the father thought his son to be weak and lazy and not exceptionally smart, and he considered him the biggest sycophant of all. By the age of twenty-two, young Ji-hoon had become a party official, and his one duty involved traveling around North Korea commissioning works of art to commemorate historical events in the nation. Ji-hoon turned this job into a vehicle by which he could suck up to his father. Every single painting and statue Ji-hoon ordered created was of Choi Li-hung, a blatant way to curry favor and earn his succession.
But Choi the father felt he had no choice. He did not want to bequeath his nation to one of his brothers; they all had sons of their own and Li-hung refused to allow his nephews to lead the DPRK for the cynical reason that by doing so he would decrease his own legacy to future generations. His other children were all daughters, and it was out of the question a woman would lead North Korea.
This left succession to Choi Ji-hoon. The weak and lazy one was the only heir suitable to reign over the nation. He knew his son would not be a good steward of the DPRK, but in the end continuing the authority of the bloodline, and therefore his own immortality, was more important to Choi Li-hung than the lives of the twenty-five million citizens under his rule.
Choi Li-hung did little to prepare his country for his son’s reign. His one nod to his son’s incompetence was his insistence that Ji-hoon take power with six of Li-hung’s advisers as his personal council. These men had been with Li-hung throughout his twenty-year rule; one of them, his foreign minister, was a brother. Li-hung knew putting remnants of his regime in his son’s administration was no substitute for a competent Supreme Leader, but he thought it might save the nation from the utter destruction Ji-hoon might cause on his own.
And then it happened. When Choi Ji-hoon was twenty-seven years old his father died, and he became the Supreme Leader of North Korea. At first his six advisers effectively ruled while Ji-hoon reveled in his newfound power—power brought on not only by his job title, but by the fact his father was no longer around to scrutinize his every move. Ji-hoon spent money even more lavishly than he had before; new statues and paintings all bore his own face now, he commissioned parks and sports stadiums and monuments in his name, and he smuggled in luxury goods by the shipload, even while famine raged across the rural reaches of the DPRK.
But Choi Ji-hoon changed in the months after his ascendency. He grew less interested in debauchery and more consumed by a paranoia brought on by all the attention on him. On the one-year anniversary of his father’s death, Choi Ji-hoon decided he needed to assert his own authority, to exert more control over all matters of state.
Nothing to him was more important than his relationship with the military, because they held the key to his survival. While his father had been called “Dear Leader” by his subjects, Choi Ji-hoon demanded to be called Dae Wonsu, or grand marshal, signifying him as the commander of all armed forces in the nation. Although he’d spent no time in the military other than a four-week “white-glove” program for the sons of party leaders, his biography was quickly rewritten, claiming him to be a bomber pilot who’d safely crash-landed a crippled aircraft on a highway to save his crew, and a Special Forces paratrooper who had led thirty-three covert missions into South Korea to rescue North Koreans kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.
These exploits were taught in schools, songs were written about the events, and television and radio documentaries featured interviews with his supposed fellow soldiers and airmen.
That every bit of the Dae Wonsu’s military history was bullshit was never uttered by anyone who knew the facts, because those who knew the facts also knew that the fiction was more important than the facts, and maintaining the fiction would be done at the expense of the lives of anyone who disputed it.
Ji-hoon’s father had been no dove—hardly. Li-hung had killed tens of thousands of his own countrymen through executions and imposed famine, and he brought the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war multiple times by firing artillery on South Korea. But Choi Ji-hoon distinguished himself by becoming even more hawkish. He pushed for the purchase and development of new weapons systems and he ordered provocative training operations on the border. He test-fired missiles that flew over the sovereign territory of his neighbors and his Korean Central Television station broadcast threats to South Korea, the United States, and Japan on a near-daily basis.
Ji-hoon’s muscle flexing did not just take place on the world stage. As he grew into his role over time, he exerted more and more domestic power, and he took that power away from the six men his father had left behind. Any pushback by the six was seen as a direct menace to his reign, and Ji-hoon’s growing paranoia about threats at home and abroad all but made it inevitable he would eliminate his council of advisers.
Within a month of this decision five of the council had been executed for myriad imagined crimes against the state. Getting rid of the sixth man, however, had proved more difficult. Choi Sang-u was Ji-hoon’s uncle and a seventy-year-old diplomat who had served as his father’s foreign minister. After his father’s death Ji-hoon made Sang-u ambassador to China, a step down from the nation’s top diplomat but still an important posting, especially considering China’s close relationship to North Korea. The two nations were allies, though less so now, because China had been frustrated by young Ji-hoon’s saber rattling. The last thing China wanted or needed was a destabilized Korean Peninsula, after all, so China’s relationship with its neighbor had cooled precipitously.
Other than some trade with China and a few other nations on a much smaller scale, the economy of North Korea was effectively closed. Ninety-five percent of all goods produced in the nation were created by state-owned firms.
Still, China was the North’s largest trading partner, and China had no greater industrial influence than in the mining sector because it had long been known by the Chinese that North Korea’s real value lay under its dirt.
Everything changed in the relationship between the two nations when a group of Chinese geologists working in North Korea revealed they had found deposits of valuable rare earth minerals in the mountains in the northwest of the nation. The North Koreans had hundreds of mining contracts with the Chinese, together they dug coal, iron, silver, and nickel, but this rare earth find was exceptional. The geologists dug test mines and their proclamations became more and more optimistic.
Finally it was decided by the Chinese that the world’s largest find of rare earth minerals, some 213 tons in all, was likely buried near Chongju, under the rolling hills of Pyongan-bukto Province near the coastline of Korea Bay.
The Chinese state-owned mining company was given rights to develop the deposits for twenty-five years, the paperwork was signed, and they began building up the infrastructure in the area necessary for the work.
And then, after one year of hard but productive work, Choi Ji-hoon ordered his uncle, the ambassador to China, home for consultations. He explained to his uncle that the newfound wealth the Chinese had promised was all very well and good, but the Chinese had something that was even more important to North Korea than wealth.
Ji-hoon’s uncle was confused. “What do they have, Dae Wonsu?”
“They have the technology we need.”
The uncle brightened. “Yes. All the newest drilling equipment has been brought in already. The computers that maximize productivity are being installed as we speak. When the mine goes on line next year we will—”
“I am not talking about mining technology, Uncle. I am speaking of missile technology.”
“Of course. The Chinese have been reluctant to share with us their expertise for mid-range and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. I want the expertise. I want North Korea to develop its own domestic long-range rocket industry, and China is the key to this.”
Ji-hoon’s uncle nodded slowly, looking off into space as if he were intrigued by his brilliant nephew’s scheme. “Are you saying we only continue the rare earth mining partnership if China supplies us with ICBMs?”
Choi Ji-hoon said, “Exactly that, Uncle.”
The uncle had known his nephew for his entire life. That he had to couch his words carefully to him, just as he had his brother, was still odd, but he knew what was good for him. “I think this is wise and shrewd diplomacy on your part, Dae Wonsu. I only wish the Chinese shared your brilliance. I am afraid that the Chinese diplomats are unrealistic, and they might jeopardize the lucrative mining operation if they refuse our reasonable request.”
Ji-hoon waved the comment away as if it were a trifling concern. “You have excellent relations with the gang-jae.” It was a derogatory word for Chinese, akin to calling them Chinks. Ji-hoon’s uncle fought back a wince. “You must see that they do not refuse, Uncle.”
The negotiations happened in Pyongyang; several of China’s top leaders came, hats in hand, ready to offer almost anything to continue the rare earth mining contract with North Korea.
When Choi’s negotiators explained the Chinese contract would be invalidated if they did not provide the DPRK with a ballistic missile manufacturing center, including the materials and the expertise to run it, the Chinese went home to Beijing, spoke with the Central Committee in secret, and returned. They offered more food, more money, more conventional weaponry, marine military technology on par with China’s own Navy. They offered expanded trade rights, and better terms on China’s processing of the rare earth minerals after extraction. They offered high-profile diplomatic official visits by the Chinese leader to increase North Korea’s cachet on the world stage, and they extended invitations for Choi to come to China as a guest of the president.
But Choi had not been raised in a manner conducive to producing a diplomat. He’d been given virtually everything he wanted since birth; those around him knew crossing him could be punishable by death. He was therefore a truly awful negotiator. He was intractable, inflexible, and impatient.
Choi rejected it all. He wanted the means to deliver a nuclear device to the United States. In his mind it was the only way to be safe from attack and assassination.
China refused to allow the DPRK access to the technology to create their own long-range ICBMs. It wasn’t that China was trying to protect the United States, far from it. It was simply that China realized what North Korea would do once they had the most dangerous and most valuable bargaining chip in international affairs. They might or might not use the device, but the death of millions of Americans in nuclear fire was of lesser concern to the Chinese than the certainty that the ostracized pariah North Korea would exercise their newfound power on the world stage recklessly and threaten the region.
The destabilization of the Korean Peninsula was hardly in China’s self-interest.
One month to the day after the negotiations for the Chongju mine began in Pyongyang, the Chinese were notified that every Chinese national at the mine had seventy-two hours to leave the country. The executives of Minmetals and Chinalco, China’s state-owned mining operators, tried to reason with the North Koreans, but no North Korean official dared read any flexibility in Choi’s demand where none existed. The Chinese at Chongju rushed out of the country, leaving much of their equipment behind, though the Chinese geologists and engineers had done a remarkable job getting as much of it out of the DPRK as possible.
The open-pit mine went dormant overnight despite Choi’s demand to the director of the government’s mining arm, Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation, to keep the mine open and operational.
The truth was the North Koreans had neither the equipment nor the know-how to operate a rare earth mineral mine on their own. On top of that, the Chinese had taken their generators with them, and the power lines into Chongju were inadequate for the operation.
The director of the mining concern explained all this calmly and carefully to Choi Ji-hoon, and this candor benefitted him greatly.
He was only thrown into a labor camp. He wasn’t executed.
There was one more piece of fallout from the Chinese rare earth mine negotiations. Choi had decided that his uncle, North Korea’s ambassador to China, had not been an honest broker in the affair. He held him personally responsible for the breakdown in negotiations with the Chinese, although it was Ji-hoon’s own uncompromising demands that had doomed the negotiations.
His uncle, his father’s brother, a man who could have ruled the DPRK had the cards been dealt differently, was relieved of his position and thrown into the internment camp at Chongjin in the northeast of the nation.
President of the United States Jack Ryan stepped out of the Oval Office while slipping on his suit coat. He passed through his secretary’s office and entered the adjacent cabinet room as he fixed his lapel and straightened his tie. In front of him he found a dozen men and women already waiting for his three p.m. meeting, and they stood as he appeared, but he waved them back to their seats quickly as he sat down at the head of the table and reached for a cup of coffee already positioned there for him.
His wife, Cathy, wasn’t crazy about his afternoon cup, but his blood pressure had been so good during his last checkup he’d successfully negotiated five ounces of black Jamaican light roast five days a week.
And Ryan was especially proud of this diplomatic coup.
He looked around to confirm the attendance of the usual suspects for most meetings involving national security: Secretary of State Scott Adler, CIA director Jay Canfield, Director of National Intelligence Mary Pat Foley, National Security Adviser Joleen Robillio, and Secretary of Defense Bob Burgess all sat near Ryan at the northern end of the table and, farther away, more men and women of the military, intelligence community, and Department of State sat with papers and tablet computers in front of them.
Also in attendance was Arnie Van Damm, Ryan’s chief of staff. Arnie wasn’t a national security official, but he, more than anyone else, had the President’s ear, and he had the President’s stopwatch. He had a lot of control over who got face time with Jack Ryan, and for this reason Ryan wanted him in important meetings of national security so Arnie could have an understanding of the stakes and give those involved in any crisis the access they needed to the Chief Executive. Ryan had heard of other Presidents being slaves to the agendas written up by lesser chiefs of staff, with the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies for the year getting more attention than an undersecretary of defense on a day when a world crisis loomed.
Ryan did his share of low-priority meet-and-greets, but he had no problem shooing away the Girl Scouts when he needed to give his attention to an impending catastrophe.
This meeting had been on the schedule for a few days; originally the topic had been a series of aggressive troop movements in Russian-held Eastern Ukraine, but Ryan had been given the heads-up this morning that the troubles in Central Europe would have to take a backseat today in favor of an even more pressing crisis. Ryan caught himself wishing the problems he faced on the world stage would all line up and approach in single file, but he’d been involved in government work for decades, and he knew emergencies preferred attacking simultaneously along a wide and coordinated front.
Ryan had learned through experience that good leadership meant staying versatile, flexible, and ready to put out fires as they flared, and the last-minute changeup that had been called for in today’s meeting was just one more example.
He’d also learned to do his homework; he wasn’t walking into this meeting unprepared. He’d spent most of the last hour reading through National Intelligence Estimates and briefing books and even some raw intel on the crisis du jour.
Intelligence intercepts had determined days ago that North Korea was fueling a long-range rocket, a version of its most advanced ICBM, and moving it to its launch pad. They were clearly prepping to launch, likely for a test because their earlier launches of the device had all been unsuccessful. This new test had, quite understandably, caused concern at the White House, and Ryan had been boning up on the North Koreans’ technology before the meeting.
As soon as Ryan sat down he said, “I got word the agenda for today’s meeting has been changed, so I guess that means the DPRK launched.”
SecDef Bob Burgess nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Ryan sighed. “Give me the details.”
“Colonel Richard Ward from DIA will brief us, Mr. President.”
A tall, thin Army colonel in his forties stood up at the far end of the table. In his hand he held a laser pointer and in front of him was a folio with the seal of his organization, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Sitting next to Ward, a female DIA major controlled with her tablet computer the map and graphics on a large plasma screen on the far wall. The screen showed the entire Korean Peninsula at first, but quickly it zoomed in on the DPRK.
Ward said, “Good afternoon, Mr. President. At twenty-two hundred hours yesterday North Korean time, some six hours ago here in Washington, the DPRK launched an Unha-3, or Galaxy-3 rocket from their Dongchang-dong Launch Station in the northwestern part of the country. This facility is also known as Sohae Satellite Launching Station.”
The screen next showed the hundred-foot-long rocket. “As you are aware, sir, the DPRK claims the Unha-3 is a space launch vehicle, and while this is technically accurate, it is merely an expendable carrier rocket and therefore virtually identical to the DPRK’s most advanced but as yet unproven ICBM, the Taepodong-2.”
Ryan did know all of this. The colonel seemed a little eager and earnest, not intentionally patronizing his President but perhaps unaware of the fact Ryan made a point to know as much of this material as possible as part of his job.
Ryan waved a hand. “Right. Any sat launch over there is just cover to test an ICBM. The Unha-3 is more than big enough to carry a nuke, and the range estimates say it could deliver a payload as far as Northern California.”
“That’s correct, Mr. President. If the North Koreans have successfully managed to miniaturize a nuclear device. We haven’t been able to confirm they have perfected the technology yet, but we suspect they have. The Unha-3 carries a hundred-kilo payload, and you can pack a lot of power into a hundred-kilo device if you have mastered the technology to miniaturize it.”
“Or if you have stolen the technology,” Ryan said.
The colonel nodded, though he looked a bit off balance by the comment, because it wasn’t part of his briefing.
“Please continue, Colonel Ward,” the President said.
The screen now showed a graphic representation of the launch, and the separation of the first stage of the rocket/missile. “We had a number of sensors in place to track the launch. Measurement and signature intelligence assets. From this we have put together what happened after the rocket cleared the launch pad. The first stage burned for approximately two minutes, burnout took place at one hundred twenty kilometers altitude over the east coastline of North Korea above the city of Tanchon, and there was good separation. The second-stage burnout occurred at three hundred fifty kilometers over the Sea of Japan. The rocket then apparently malfunctioned before third-stage separation, there was a catastrophic failure, and it crashed into the Sea of Japan, eighty miles west of Sapporo.”