Late one balmy summer evening in Pyongyang, an important Chinese intelligence general on his way to a secret meeting with Kim Jon-Il is assassinated in plain sight of a surveillance camera. The two shooters are wearing the uniforms of North Korean police officers.
Kim Jong-Il denies any knowledge of the shooting, but the Chinese do not believe him. As they prepare to attack, Jong-Il promises to unleash his nuclear weapons on downtown Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, plunging the entire region into nuclear war.
Kirk McGarvey, just off a difficult assignment that took him to Mexico City, has returned to his visiting professorship at the University of South Florida. A colonel in North Korea's intelligence service shows up in person, asking McGarvey to prove that North Korea did not authorize the hit.
It's the most extraordinary request McGarvey has ever received. He enters a dangerous international shadow world where almost nothing is as it seems. The puzzles lead him to a mysterious Russian ex-KGB multimillionaire whose specialty is expediting assassins for hire, to Pyongyang where he finds the wedge to open up a far-reaching plot so monstrous the entire world could go up into flames, and finally back to the one nation that potentially has the most to gain by such a war.
And the most to lose . . .
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About the Author
DAVID HAGBERG is a former Air Force cryptographer who has traveled extensively in Europe, the Arctic, and the Caribbean and has spoken at CIA functions. He has published more than twenty novels of suspense, including the bestselling Soldier of God, Allah's Scorpion, and Dance With the Dragon. He makes his home in Sarasota, Florida.
David Hagberg (1947-2019) was a New York Times bestselling author who published numerous novels of suspense, including his bestselling thrillers featuring former CIA director Kirk McGarvey, which include Abyss, The Cabal, The Expediter, and Allah’s Scorpion. He earned a nomination for the American Book Award, three nominations for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award and three Mystery Scene Best American Mystery awards. He spent more than thirty years researching and studying US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Hagberg joined the Air Force out of high school, and during the height of the Cold War, he served as an Air Force cryptographer.
Read an Excerpt
By David Hagberg
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 David Hagberg
All rights reserved.
At precisely midnight Huk Kim pulled back the covers, got out of bed, and checked to make certain that the sleep agent she'd given her Japanese roommate hadn't worn off yet. But the girl was totally out of it, and in the morning she would remember very little of what had happened after their dinner in the hotel's dining room two, and absolutely nothing after her head had hit the pillow.
Kim was a thirty-one-year-old, short, slightly built South Korean woman, and her movements were quick, almost birdlike as she tied a folded plastic trash bag around her waist with shaking hands, then dressed in dark slacks, a lightweight dark pullover, and sneakers.
She was frightened to the core, as she had been on the previous kills, but she had no way out, short of leaving her husband, something she couldn't even conceive of doing.
Checking a second time to make certain her roommate was deep asleep, Kim slipped out of her twelfth-floor room and made her way to the end of the deserted corridor, then downstairs to a service area at the rear of the hotel where deliveries were made each morning between four and seven. From there she was able to get outside without being seen, something that would have been impossible from the lobby.
The evening was pleasantly warm, and almost totally dark and silent. Other than the few lights around the hotel, and a few on the bridge across the river, North Korea's capital Pyongyang lay sleeping in darkness, only a pinprick of light here and there to hint that a city of more than two million people existed less than two hundred meters away.
She shivered. She loved her husband and the fabulous money they were making together, but she hated the work, doing it only for him. Assassinations were usually carried out at night so that the shooters could get away. After five hits in three years, Kim had learned to depend on the dark but she hated it.
Keeping to the deeper shadows, she moved across the driveway that led up to the single road circling the small island of Yanggak, then held up in the bushes and hedges to wait for her husband, and to watch for the policemen who traveled on foot in pairs.
Yanggakdo International Hotel was the city's only accommodation for unapproved foreigners, such as South Koreans or Japanese, and for everyone who came into North Korea in a tour group. No one was allowed out of the hotel or off the island after dark, and the road and two bridges leading across the river to the mainland were patrolled 24/7 by special police armed with short stock versions of the AK-47 assault rifle.
A dark figure darted up from the service driveway, and Kim eased farther into the hedges until she was certain it was her husband Soon, then she showed herself and he came across to her.
"Any signs of the cops?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"Not yet," she said.
They pulled on black balaclavas.
Soon was slender, but well-muscled with a square face and dark almond eyes that Kim had always found devastatingly attractive. They'd met six years ago when she'd been assigned as a brand-new second lieutenant to his South Korean Special Forces Sniper Unit outside Seoul. She always smiled when she thought about the exact moment she'd first laid eyes on him, handsome in his captain's uniform, self-assured, even cocky. She'd fallen instantly in love with him, and had told him so on the spot.
They began sleeping together that weekend, but regulations would not permit them to be married or to even have an affair. Two years later they resigned their commissions, got married in Chinhae, the small town on the south coast where she was born, and started to look for work, finding it almost immediately as assassins for hire by South Korea's Mafia.
She had been trained for urban warfare assassinations, but killing enemies of South Korea was a completely different thing than killing rival businessmen or gang leaders, or lately, important politicians. She hated every minute of it, but loved her husband more.
Soon pointed two fingers at his eyes and then through the hedges at a pair of figures slowly approaching along the path on the other side of the road, and Kim's stomach did a slow roll.
There had been no possible way for them to bring weapons here, so before Soon had agreed to take the hit he and Kim had spent the better part of a week cooped up in their apartment doing research online, finally coming up with a plan that could work if they ran into no snags. She'd tried to talk him out of it, arguing that if anything went wrong, if they made even one mistake, they would pay with their lives.
"I don't want to lose you," she'd pleaded, but he'd laughed and took her in his arms.
"Not a chance," he'd whispered in her ear.
When the police reached a spot directly across the road, they suddenly stopped. Kim and Soon remained absolutely motionless. One of the cops lit a cigarette, the odor of cheap tobacco wafting on the slight breeze, then they continued down the path.
Kim and Soon crawled through the hedges, careful to make no noise. Keeping low, they raced across the road and onto the path directly behind the cops.
She'd been trained in the Army for this part too, though in practice she'd never had to use her skills for real. This time was different and she thought that she might be sick to her stomach at any moment.
One of the cops, sensing something, started to turn when Soon reached him, jammed a knee in the man's back, and reached for his head.
Kim hit her target a split instant later, jumping up, slamming her knee into his back, and yanking his head back, breaking his spine and his neck. He collapsed without a sound.
Soon was dragging his target into the brush between the path and the river, as Kim rolled off her target and looked at his face. He was just a kid, probably a teenager, and he was still alive, but paralyzed from the neck down, making it impossible for him to breathe. She reared back, turned away, and threw up, a buzzing inside her head, the path and the road spinning out of control.
When she looked back, the kid's eyes were still open but he was dead, and she was able to get a grip on herself.
Soon came back to her. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"He wasn't dead."
Soon glanced at the boy's face. "He is now." He grabbed the cop's arms and dragged his slight body into the brush where it could not be spotted from the path or the road, or even from one of the windows in the top story of the hotel. No boats were on the river at this time of the night so it was unlikely that the bodies would be spotted from that direction.
Soon started getting undressed, and Kim pulled the balaclava off her head then took off her sneakers, her slacks, and dark pullover. She untied the plastic bag from around her waist, opened it and stuffed her clothing inside. Soon was already stripping the cop he'd killed of everything but the man's underwear. The uniform, belts, cap, shoes, and the AK-47 all went into the bag. He gathered the edges and blew air into the bag, inflating it like a balloon and sealed it with one of his shoelaces.
When he was finished he helped Kim with hers.
It was just past 12:30 A.M. when they slipped into the river and started swimming toward the city, the current weak, but the water cold.CHAPTER 2
Cold had seeped into Kim's bones by the time they reached the mainland, and she needed her husband's help to climb the steel ladder and pull the plastic bag out of the water. They were in a narrow park just off Otan Kangan Street, the main thoroughfare along the Taedong River that wound its way through the city. Trees and rosebushes and many statutes of the Dear Leader and his father Kim Il Sung, plus heroes of the war against the Americans, dotted the park.
Nothing moved on the broad avenue nor on the bridges they could see to the north. Even the two fountains in the middle of the river that by day shot geysers nearly five hundred feet into the air had been shut down. Electricity had always been a major issue in the North and it was getting worse, so at night cities went dark and silent.
Bad for the people, but good for assassins, Kim thought.
She and Soon opened the plastic bags and quickly dressed in the cops' uniforms. The Russian-designed, Chinese-made AK- 47s were fully loaded with thirty-round magazines, but there was no spare ammunition nor had the cops carried pistols.
They tied the bags out of sight on the top rung of the ladder leading two meters to the river, so that in the unlikely chance someone passed this way in the next hour their clothes wouldn't be discovered.
"Ready?" Soon asked as he slung the rifle over his shoulder.
She nodded, and they headed north along the river, keeping in the park for now.
Their destination, the Chinese Embassy, was nearly three kilometers to the north, near the Floating Restaurant and the Taedong Gate, which nearly five centuries ago was the main entrance into the walled city. China had been allowed to move its embassy out of the diplomatic area of Munsudong, and into the historical section of the city by Kim Jong Il as a show of friendship.
They had studied detailed maps and satellite shots of the city, and when they had arrived here with the Japanese tour group thirteen days ago they'd kept their eyes open. Twice on the conducted tours they had actually driven past the embassy. Both of them knew at least this section almost as well as if they had lived here.
This was just another job, Kim kept telling herself. A Russian living in Tokyo had sought them out through a Mafia connection they'd done business with in Seoul. He was called Alexandar but they'd never actually met him. He was only a voice at a blind number in Tokyo, and an encrypted address on the Web. But for each of the other two jobs they had done for him, he'd paid his fees to their Swiss bank account within minutes of their agreement; half to start with and the other half on completion.
Six months ago they'd assassinated a Japanese senator in Tokyo, Soon hitting him with an MP3 Heckler & Koch Room Broom through the open door of the van with stolen plates that Kim had been driving. The senator had just emerged from a taxi and was entering an apartment building in Ginza to see his mistress. The hit had been made relatively easy because of Alexandar's spot-on intel. Three hours later they were aboard a JAL flight to Seoul, sipping champagne, the weapon they'd used wiped clean and left behind.
Three months ago they'd flown to Paris under false passports, and hit South Korea's ambassador to China while he was attending a conference of Far East ambassadors. That job hadn't been so easy, because the man had been surrounded by fellow diplomats and staff most of the time. And whenever he moved between the venue and where he was staying at the Hotel Continental, he was accompanied by security.
Again, however, Alexandar's intel made all the difference. The ambassador was fond of expensive call girls. Soon was able to tap into the hotel's switchboard, and on the second night when the ambassador asked for a call girl to come to his room, Soon intercepted the girl, claiming he was the man who had called for a prostitute, while Kim in a blond wig and revealing dress had gone to the ambassador's room where she fired one silenced pistol shot into his head.
The only flaw in the assignment was the call girl. Soon said he had sent her away. But later in an e-mail Alexandar congratulated them for disposing of the woman, who would have been a dangerous loose end.
Now making their way through Pyongyang's dark streets on their third assignment for the Russian, she thought about that night in Paris. It was the only time since they'd been together that they'd argued. She'd told her husband that she was disappointed and frightened of what they were becoming.
"The army trained us to be snipers," Soon had told her.
"To kill the enemy," Kim had shot back angrily. "Our ambassador to China was not our enemy."
He'd tried to be patient with her. "We're not politicians. We're shooters. That's what we do." He'd laughed. "Don't think so much."
She'd been infuriated and the argument had lasted the better part of the week, until he'd worn her down, and she'd finally stopped thinking so much.
The payoff for each of the other two hits had been $400,000. But for this one he'd offered twice as much. After a full week of trying to come up with a way for them to make the kill and then get out of the country with their lives intact, Soon had made a counteroffer of $l.5 million. They needed the extra money because the assignment would be next to impossible.
Kim had been proud of her husband for cleverly getting them out of the assignment without upsetting their employer. Alexandar was hiring contract assassins, not suicidal fanatics. But within the hour they got confirmation from their Swiss bank that $750,000 had been deposited to their account, and Soon would not be stopped, although he promised that with their payoff they would have enough to get out of the business.
"We'll be able to retire, maybe buy a small house on the sea, help your parents and your brother. Maybe take vacations to the Riviera — real vacations."
"If we survive," she'd warned.
"You worry too much."
Maybe not enough, she thought as they hurried across the broad avenue and down one of the branching streets just south of the Taedong Gate. The farther they penetrated into the city's downtown, the weirder it got for Kim. Nothing moved. It was as if a plague had wiped out everyone. She was used to Seoul, which like every Western city never slept. But here no sirens sounded in the distance, no dogs barked, no late-night revelers staggered up the street on their way home from a party. At this moment she even wondered if birds sang during the day. She couldn't remember hearing any during the two weeks they'd been here. That was impossible, of course, she just hadn't been listening.
Three blocks from the river they ducked into the doorway of the Democratic Workers Bank, housed in a squat, five-story building, dark at this hour of the night. Kim's heart was in her throat, they were so close to disaster, and she could taste her fear on her lips as if she had been sucking a copper coin.
The Chinese Embassy was across the street in a broad three- story building behind a tall iron fence. The structure had once housed an insurance company, but now its roof bristled with antennae and satellite dishes. No guard was at the entry, but closed-circuit television cameras were mounted atop the fence next to the gate and at the corners of the building.
A few lights were on in the upper-story windows, and they could hear an engine running somewhere behind the building. The Chinese were generating their own electricity.
From their vantage point they were at an angle to the gate, with a shooting distance of less than forty meters. It would be impossible for them to miss at that range.
Kim shrank back into the deeper shadows. She wanted to be anywhere else than here. She had pleaded with Soon to give the money back to Alexandar, but he had refused.
"He accepted our terms, and now we're obligated."
It was a few minutes before two when a Mercedes Maybach was scheduled to arrive and take Chinese Ministry of State Security General Ho Chang Li to a meeting with Kim Jong Il at the president's palace. They were to shoot him to death before he made the meeting.
Excerpted from The Expediter by David Hagberg. Copyright © 2009 David Hagberg. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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