Central District, Hong Kong
Don't look around. They could be anywhere.
He felt a drop of sweat slide down his forehead and come to rest on the tip of his nose. He started to slap it away, but then it occurred to him that they might see him and think he was trying to send a signal to some invisible partner, and then they would kill him.
He didn't know how it would come, but he imagined that the last thing he would hear would be the distant report of a sniper rifle, or the close-up thwick of a suppressed pistol, or maybe he wouldn't hear anything at all. Maybe he'd just feel the prick of a needle in his shoulder or his leg or his back, and then moments later he would feel the tightening in his chest that would signal the discovery of his treachery and the end of his life.
This is ridiculous. No one even knows I'm here. Certainly not the authorities.
He glanced around at the throngs of white tourists and Chinese locals.
Why can't I just blend in?
The thought passed as soon as it started. Because he knew that what his paranoia was telling him was true.
He knew that it wouldn't matter if he looked like the other Chinese on the street. It wouldn't matter if his doppelganger was walking on the opposite sidewalk.
They know. And they're watching me right now.
He trudged along the path he'd been given-- a right turn here, a long walk down a sidewalk up there, then another turn-- feeling every eye on the back of his neck.
His name was Shin Zhou, and he wasn't a man for irony, so it never occurred to him that even paranoiacs get watched sometimes.
For him, that day was today.
Just not by the people he thought.
Shin Zhou walked and ruminated, a tall, broad-shouldered American man
in sunglasses and a baseball hat moved comfortably among the crowds
half a block behind him. To the untrained eye Brock Street could
have been just another tourist flitting from a fruit vendor's table
to a plate-glass window, his eyes never focusing on the rumpled
little Chinese man a block away.
But somehow the CIA surveillant always had Shin Zhou in sight.
As he turned from the window and continued up the street behind Shin Zhou, he glanced across the street and saw another member of the team, a veteran surveillant named Roger Alden. He checked Shin Zhou again, then turned his head back incrementally toward Alden-- only to realize he couldn't see him anymore.
He shook his head and laughed to himself, thoroughly unsurprised. Alden was the ultimate gray man, easy to miss and impossible to remember. He'd been doing surveillance for the Agency since the bad old days-- or was it good old days?-- of the Cold War, when Brezhnev ran the show, Yuri Andropov was the KGB Chairman and Vladimir Putin was nothing but a spy-in-training. Alden was currently the "three" in the surveillance package, walking across the street from the target so he could take the point if need be.
Street noticed the little Chinese man stop and check a street sign, then-- hesitantly, maybe inadvertently-- glance around before continuing. Street looked away from Shin Zhou and tapped his push-to-talk button twice.
Over his flesh-colored earpiece he heard team leader Frank Armour say, "Street's got him in sight, continuing on Lambeth Walk."
Street watched Shin briefly disappear around the Bank of America Tower and clicked his PTT button. "Passing BOA, momentarily out of view."
He continued down the sidewalk, almost enjoying the sunny day until Armour's nasal whine interrupted his reverie.
"Street, get your ass in gear. Don't let him out of your sight."
Brock Street had been a professional surveillant for six years. He had been part of a joint Agency/Mossad team following a Hamas financier on the streets of Beirut for several hours until an Israeli missile could reduce him to smoking ruins. He had trailed a Taliban commander in Kabul five weeks after 9/11 so that a rendition team could pick up the one-eyed zealot and send him off to...well, Street didn't know exactly where he'd ended up, but he knew it was somewhere Brock had no intention of ever visiting.
And now he had this whiny little Headquarters fuck telling him how to suck eggs? Over a middle-aged Chinese amateur with sweat stains all over the back of his shirt? He clicked the button.
"You mean we're not out here on a Sunday walk, Armour?"
"Hold your panties, Frank. Back in view."
Street watched as Shin turned right at the next block.
"Turning right at Murray," he said quietly. "Approaching Shane's position."
The disembodied voice of Shane Lee floated in his ear. "Roger that. I'm in position."
Ahead, Shin Zhou passed the plate-glass window fronting a huge electronics store.
A Korean-American clad in a flashy suit and wearing $1000 Ray-Bans stood on the other side of the window and watched Shin pass. He pretended to browse for another moment, then headed for the front door.
The son of an American mother and Korean father, Shane Lee had grown up looking almost as Caucasian as he did Asian, which left him out in the cold with both groups in school. The Koreans called him ko-jaeng-i, which meant "nosey" but was really just slang for "whitey," while the white kids told him to go home and eat his rice. He grew up wanting nothing more than to just be able to fit in somewhere, but it wasn't till he hooked up with the Agency that he finally got the chance.
Now, with his skills as a surveillant, he could fit in anywhere, especially on the streets of Hong Kong. Nobody noticed him as he moved through crowds here, nobody ever caught his eye and then did a double-take, nobody even knew he was there unless he wanted them to.
Which was just how he liked it.
As he exited the store, he glanced to his left to see Gabriel and Amira cross the street and head down an alley, away from the action.
Shane pushed his PTT. "Shane's got the eye."
Shane watched Shin wait at the red walk and cross to the left.
"Rabbit is continuing on Chater," he said into the PTT. "Turning left to Jackson Road."
"Stay with him," said Armour in his ear. Man, he hated that dude's whiny voice.
"On him," he said.
He quickly crossed the busy intersection to stay with the target. From the corner he watched as Shin Zhou trudged up the street and turned into an alley.
"Rabbit is transiting the alley," he said.
"Don't let him disappear," Armour said in his ear. "Take him to Gabriel and Amira."
He made his way up the street and reached the entrance to the alley. He glanced down to see that the target was barely a third of the way through the narrow passageway. He leaned against the wall outside the alley and waited.
He looked around and his eye fixed on a gorgeous piece of Chinese tail who sauntered up the street past him. She caught his eye and gave him a long look, then lightly shook her head and continued up the street.
"Heading to Second Wife Village?" he called out to her in Chinese.
She stopped and turned on her heel long enough to shoot him an angry glare. "Jealous?" she responded.
He gave her a half bow and a sardonic grin. She rolled her eyes.
"When you're rich enough to have an ernai, then you can talk to me," she said with a smile.
He clapped a hand over his heart as she turned and walked away, then checked his watch and frowned.
It's been too long. He turned and looked down the alley.
He hustled down the alley, the fear already rising in his throat. He clicked the PTT button twice.
"Out of view," Armour repeated to the group. "Where?"
"Through the alley," Shane panted. "I'm behind him."
"Dammit, Shane," Armour said through his earpiece. "Find him. Anything happens to him, we're all screwed. You know where he's going."
But when he burst out of the alley and looked frantically in both directions-- an unnecessary maneuver, given that Armour was right, they knew exactly where the target was heading-- Shin Zhou was nowhere to be found.
I'd sat at this Starbucks on more occasions than I cared to remember, but they'd just recently added outdoor seating, which made it far easier to do surveillance while still enjoying a grande latte. Death before discomfort!
I listened as Street passed Shin Zhou off to Shane. It faintly annoyed me how good-looking Street was. I had gone to clubs with him on a couple of occasions, and he was one of those guys women just fell over themselves trying to meet. I mean, I'm good-looking too, but nothing like him. I'm more of the tall, dark and sardonic type. He was a Greek God.
I knew that once he was out of Shin's view, he would take off in a fast-paced walk so he could move to the next street and parallel Shin, in order to keep him in the "bubble." Unlike Hollywood's ridiculous idea of a surveillance operation, we'd never send one guy out to follow somebody. It's just too easy to get caught-- burned, in the parlance of surveillance teams everywhere. Instead, we tried to keep a bubble of watchers around the target, always keeping him in sight and surrounded at enough of a distance that he wouldn't be able to notice us.
I sat with a newspaper in front of me and my favorite tiny Latina, a Mexican/American named Amira Martinez, to my left. Like all surveillance teams, we varied our looks depending on the number of people available. Amira and I were playing a couple out for an early morning coffee.
Not a huge stretch from the truth.
But at the moment we were the "two," waiting for Shin to get far enough ahead so we could take the eye without putting ourselves at risk of being seen.
Amira was clacking away on her laptop, which looked to be almost as big as she was. We had a tech team set up around the area as part of our surveillance op and her job was to collate the data and figure out whether the Chinese were watching us watch the Chinese guy.
"Where we at?" I asked her.
"Really, college boy?" she responded. "They didn't teach you how to use grammar correctly at Harvard?"
She may have been petite, but nobody ever called Amira soft.
"It was Yale," I answered.
"You done busting my balls yet?"
"For now." She clicked a few buttons on the laptop. "Looks good. No signal spike in the area. I think we're alone with Mr. Zhou."
"I think it'd be Mr. Shin," I said. "Hey, Rosie Perez, didn't they teach you how to speak Chinese names in whatever ghetto colegio you went to?"
She snapped the laptop shut and shot me a wicked grin. That grin was the reason I had fallen for her in the first place-- and damn if she didn't know it.
"Oh, Papi," she said, "you don't want to travel down that road."
Despite her never-ending river of smack talk, I could see that her face was still a little wan, probably a remnant of the stomach bug that had kept her locked in her room the last couple of days.
"All kidding aside," I said, "I'm impressed you're out here."
"What do you mean?"
"You know, the stomach bug?" I said. "I thought you might beg off and stay in your room."
"Oh," she said, her voice flat. "Right."
"Something you're not telling me?"
She glanced up at me, a shadow crossing her features.
"It wasn't exactly a stomach bug," she said.
She didn't respond.
"Well, what was it?"
"Really?" she asked. "I gotta lay out for you that it was female problems?"
"Female problems?" I asked, quailing on the inside. "You're not--"
She shot me a look, her mouth an "O." "Uh-uh," she said. "Not that kinda female problem."
"Ah." Thank God.
But then a burst of static and Shane's breathless pronouncement that he'd fucked up and lost Shin Zhou came over our earpieces. We looked at each other and stood up. We knew that if Shin Zhou was still on the route we'd given him, he'd be coming our direction, but not right past us.
"Time to get in position, I guess," I said.
"I think so," she answered. "Sounds like Mr. Shin Mr. Zhou got away from the hotshot."
We headed up the street toward Shane's position, and I clicked my PTT. "We're moving toward his last known," I said. "We'll find him."
"Do," snapped Armour.
A moment later I saw him, dragging his ass up the street, heading right toward us.
I grabbed Amira and pushed her against the wall.
Before she could say anything else, I leaned in and kissed her. She was surprised, but put her arms around my neck and kissed me back.
I pushed her against the wall so we were out of Shin's way. He shuffled past us, his eyes never alighting on the kissing couple to his right, and then he moved on past.
As he crossed the road ahead of us, I pulled away and grinned at Amira. "You're welcome."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Nice catch. But did you have to stick your tongue halfway down my throat?"
"We got him," I said into the PTT. "Past us onto Collins."
"Yes, we could all hear," Armour said drily into our ears. "You have the eye?"
"Could you two get a room please?" Street's voice came over the earpieces. "I could hear you slurping over the earpiece."
"We're coming to your room," I said. "Did you leave the bed clean?"
"I left you a little present," Street replied. "Just look under the--"
Armour broke in. "That's enough chatter. Back on the rabbit."
Amira and I exchanged a look as we took off after Shin Zhou.
"Back on the rabbit," I whined in my best imitation of Armour's high-pitched nasality.
She giggled girlishly and slapped her hand over her mouth.
"You really are terrible," she said.
"Armour's a pompous asshole," I answered, "and he deserves to be mocked every now and again. It's obvious he thinks he's tracked for the seventh floor. And I think he got some work done."
"Look at him," I answered. "He looks like a middle-aged monkey. You telling me he's never gone under the knife?"
She just looked at me and shook her head. "Haven't you heard the stories about him?" she asked.
"I know you think he's just a desk jockey," she answered, "but I heard that he had to get a bunch of plastic surgery after an operation in the field went south on him."
"I doubt it."
"Seriously," she said. "A lot of people consider him a hero."
"He'a pompous douche."
"He is that," she answered. "But he's a competent guy. And vindictive. It's not smart for you guys to mock him."
"What's he gonna do?"
She gave me a sideways look. "Whatever he has to."
Ahead at the corner, I saw Shin drop to a knee and tie his shoelace, also taking what he probably thought was a furtive glance around. We'd seen everything from surveillance targets-- the aforementioned tie of the already-tied shoelace, the map pull and accompanying 180-degree spin, even rabbits who walked into alleys and hid in corners hoping we'd blunder into their path.
So Shin wasn't nearly as smooth as he thought he was, but he was just smooth enough to catch Amira. I stepped into a doorway and hid myself from view, but she got caught in the spotlight of his gaze.
She turned and glanced into a store window, but we both knew she'd been seen.
As Shin continued up the sidewalk, I stepped out of the doorway.
"You gotta split off," I said. "He saw you."
She nodded. "I'll see you back at the hotel later?"
"Count on it."
I headed up the sidewalk after Shin while Amira turned and disappeared into the crowd heading the other direction.
got the eye
I said into the PTT. "He
"Roger," said Armour.
I had to hustle to catch up with him, but I kept him in my sight as he passed another intersection and slowed a bit.
"He's approaching the alley," I said into the PTT.
"Follow him to the alley, but do not go in," Armour said. "We can't risk him seeing you and getting spooked."
"I'll try not to step on my dick," I muttered without pushing the PTT. Then I pushed it anyway.
entered the alley, his heart pounding with trepidation.
This is it.
He knew that if someone noticed him in the next thirty seconds, it would all be over. He would be arrested, sent to Beijing, given a show trial for public consumption and then shot in the back of the head. And his family would receive a visitor at their door wearing the uniform of the People's Liberation Army and bearing a small brown envelope.
Inside the envelope would be a receipt for the cost of the bullet used to end his life.
He glanced over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, then made his way through the alley, which was deserted and littered with trash. About halfway down he stopped and checked behind him, then in front, to just to verify he was alone. He stood in front of the only unbroken wall on the block.
He pulled a note card out of his pocket. On the front side was a map, on the back a photo.
Of the section of wall right in front of him.
He counted up three bricks from the ground and one over from the middle, then reached down and poked at a brick with a corner missing. It wobbled in its spot.
the alley," I said into the PTT. I leaned around the corner and
saw Shin Zhou poking at the bricks at the drop site. "He's at
"Roger," said Armour. "Stay where you are. And stay out of sight. We cannot risk him getting spooked."
I didn't reply, mainly because I didn't want to say something obnoxious and piss him off.
Instead, I just waited.
Zhou stuck his finger in the missing corner and pulled at the brick.
It slid out noiselessly and fell on the ground with a soft thunk.
Not like the sound an actual brick would make.
He reached down and picked it up. It was light, made of papier-mache, just as he had been told it would be.
He turned it over.
In the back of the "brick" was a hollowed-out area. Inside the hollow was Ziploc bag. Inside the baggie was a cell phone.
And a black bag stuffed with gleaming, uncut diamonds.
He let out a long breath and smiled.
He pulled the baggie out and stuffed it in his pocket. From another pocket he pulled out a cigarette pack. He glanced down inside it, just to make sure. There were no cigarettes inside-- just some sheets of paper rolled up like a papyrus.
He slid the cigarette pack in the back of the fake brick and bent over to put the brick back in the wall.
Then a shadow fell over him and he felt, just for a moment, the softest prick in his side, like someone had poked him with a finger.
A heartbeat later he felt his insides give way and collapse, and suddenly he was drifting, falling from the sky, his eyes wide open as he dropped to the ground and his last few breaths of life burst from him in shocked, useless puffs.
And though he wasn't a man for irony, Shin Zhou couldn't help but appreciate the fact that it wasn't a bullet or a syringe that finished him, but a razor-sharp knife thrust into his side, then ripped upward and through half a dozen different vital organs.
Nor could he help but appreciate that it wasn't a PLA thug who gently took the diamonds from his pocket, removed the brick from the wall to retrieve the cigarette pack and then stood over him and watched as his life pumped out on the ground underneath him. Nor was it a Ministry of State Security spy, or even an enemy, really-- but a familiar face, one that he had once thought of as friendly.
One he thought he could trust.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City's Benito Juarez International Airport is always busy, even at midnight. Amira Martinez knew it would be packed.
In fact, she was counting on it.
Ten years after the disaster in Hong Kong that had led to the dissolution of their team, after Gabriel had been forced out of the Agency along with the others and had disappeared down the rabbit-hole of rumor-- RUMINT in Agency terms-- that claimed he had become some sort of black market entrepreneur, Amira found herself ducking through the crowds in the second-largest airport in Latin America, her eyes constantly moving and checking out the surroundings for possible threats.
She'd done a three-hour surveillance detection route on the way to the airport and was pretty sure she was clean, but she couldn't stop thinking about the Eyes Only message she had received from Frank Armour a few hours earlier, the one that had made her shake uncontrollably in the communicator's office.
Street disappeared in Moscow. Martinez probable next target. Come home. Armour.
She hadn't even gone back to her apartment. Instead, she'd grabbed the go-bag she always kept in her office, the one with a light disguise, some clothes and travel gear-- and a new identity, complete with a fresh passport, driver's license, credit cards and a roll of cash. She'd left her true-name IDs in a pouch bag to be sent back to Washington, but for the night she was Angie Maldonado. She just had to get on this flight, and then she was home free.
She took one last glance around, then ducked into the restroom.
One last thing to do.
She hurried into a stall and locked the door behind her, then waited for five minutes before she made a move.
No one came in, so she changed clothes-- the skirt and blouse she had worn to the Embassy went in the trash and were replaced by jeans and a loose shirt. But before she put on the new clothes, she pulled a pad from her bag and strapped it around her waist, then pulled on the jeans and shirt.
A quick check in the mirror and Angie Maldonado, expectant mother, hustled out to get to her gate.
Cuaron had been working for the Centro de Investigacion y Seguridad
Nacional, also known as CISEN, for ten years and had kept his eye on
more than his share of American diplomats. For while the Mexican and
US governments officially cooperated on everything from
counter-narcotics to anti-terrorism, the Mexican services didn't
really trust their neighbors to the north and considered them a valid
target for surveillance and occasional intel collection.
This night he was working undercover in the airport, dressed like a cowboy complete with boots and a hat, keeping an eye out for misbehaving gringos or possible drug traffickers, when his phone beeped. He checked it to find an email from his boss.
Se parece que una "diplomatico" de la Embajada Americana tenga planes operacionales esta noche. Buscala en el aeropuerto.
It appears that an American "diplomat" is operational tonight. Watch out for her in the airport.
Attached was a photo of a petite, pretty Latina. When Cuaron saw it, his eyes widened in surprise.
I just saw this woman.
He ran through his visual, nearly-photographic memory to remember where he'd noticed her. It took a moment, longer than he expected, but then it hit him-- she'd been heading to the bathroom near Gate 32, the Washington, DC, flight. And she looked panicked.
He shot off a quick email back to the boss and headed down the terminal to see if he could spot the woman.
He moved quickly through the terminal and arrived at the gate to find the flight loading. He pulled aside a young woman who worked for the airline and asked to see the manifest. After a bit of resistance, he finally got his hands on the list and checked it against the email.
But Amira Martinez was nowhere on the flight manifest.
And it never occurred to Cuaron that the downcast, pudgy pregnant woman he saw dragging her suitcase through the terminal might have been the petite American he was looking for.
As Amira made her way through the terminal, she noticed Cuaron rushing toward her. She also remembered seeing him before-- the cowboy hat was memorable, even in Mexico City.
She ducked her head and stared at her cell phone as he passed, so close she could smell the cheap tobacco coming off his secondhand shirt. She knew that smell intimately-- all of the CISEN operatives she'd worked with smoked the same nasty shit, and the odor hung off of them the way it hung off the cowboy passing her in the hallway.
Dammit. They're looking for me.
She kept her head down and headed for Gate 44. Her flight to Los Angeles was due to depart in an hour or so.
At the gate she moved to the most crowded row she could find, and of course a young Mexican in jeans and traditional poncho quickly moved aside and let her sit. She buried her face in a magazine and hoped her alias and disguise were good enough.
Cuaron gave up on the manifest.
If she changed her name, she probably changed her appearance too.
He stalked around Gate 32, glaring at every young female he could find for the telltale signs of a disguise-- a hairline that didn't quite match, maybe a slight color difference, eyes that didn't match the hair-- but all he got were a bunch of dirty looks from women who thought he was checking them out.
After he'd seen everyone he could find in the gate, he leaned against a wall for a moment to think.
What am I missing?
Cuaron was known to his colleagues as el sabueso, "the hound," because he never gave up on a search. Once he got his nose into something, he chased it until he caught it or got run over trying.
He took quick stock of his assumptions about the young woman-- and realized that his first mistake was probably in his assumption that she was taking the Washington flight.
He sprinted to the monitor to see what other US flights were leaving in the same general time frame.
Air Flight 492
yet boarding, but the rich cabrones
in business class sure seemed to think it was about to
Angie Maldonado watched grumpily as a line of dandies in suits with
briefcases jockeyed for the right to board a second and a half before
Another minute or two. She knew that pregnant women and families with children would be first, no matter what the businessmen might think.
Like nearly every other young woman in the gate, Amira had her head buried in her cell phone. However, unlike the other women she constantly checked both directions using her peripheral vision.
She heard a commotion from the hallway and glanced up, along with nearly everyone else in the gate.
She watched as the man in the cowboy hat, sweaty and red-faced, pushed his way through the crowd at the gate and forced his way past the airline employees.
"There is a young woman here I need to find," she heard him say in Spanish to one of the desk attendants.
She stared at the floor as the ambient sound in the gate faded into nothing but the beating of her heart.
From the corner of her eye she watched the man in the cowboy hat make his way around the edge of the room and look at every female, his circling gradually drawing him closer to her.
Then she heard it. "We'd like to begin boarding for anyone who needs extra time, particularly families and pregnant women."
She got up, careful to turn her body away from the man in the cowboy hat, and slouched her way toward the jetway entrance.
She was almost there, maybe ten feet from the door, when she heard the man's voice behind her.
"Stop right there."
She pretended not to hear him and kept moving.
"You, the pregnant woman."
She looked up to see an airline attendant looking at her with a sympathetic look on her face. The woman pointed behind Amira.
And Amira started to cry. If you'd asked her at that moment, she'd have undoubtedly said it was fake, something she ginned up to fool the airline attendant into helping her. But deep down she knew it was also real, a natural response to the sudden stress of the last few hours.
She stumbled forward and put her arm out for the airline attendant, who quickly moved to catch her.
"I don't feel well," she said. "I just want to get to my seat so I can rest."
"He just wants to look at you," the attendant said.
"Please," Amira said. She leaned in to the attendant and whispered, "He's lying to you. He works for my ex-husband, and he's trying to make me go back to him. He will beat me if you let him take me back."
"Make her turn around," said the man in the cowboy hat. "Bring her to me."
Amira could feel the attendant's spine straighten.
"This is not the right woman," she said. "She's sick and in pain. I will take her to the airplane."
He started to protest, but the attendant just ignored him. She put her arm around Amira and led her to the jetway.
The man in the cowboy hat started after them, but a phalanx of attendants got in his way and prevented him from following them into the jetway.
Amira could still hear him protesting as she boarded the plane, and she couldn't help but smile.
The attendant helped her to her seat, then turned to leave. Amira put her hand on the girl's arm.
"Yes, ma'am?" asked the attendant, turning toward her.
"Thank you," Amira answered.
The girl just smiled and headed back to the front of the plane.
Amira waited until she disappeared, then got up and headed for the bathroom.
minutes later the plane ascended in the dark past the 24,000-foot
level and turned toward Los Angeles.
And then it exploded.
Without warning it disappeared in a massive fireball that quickly expanded to fill the sky. News reports would later say that the fire could be seen as far away as El Paso. Some people would say they thought it was the mid-air detonation of a nuclear weapon.
The conflagration flamed on for a few minutes as it fell back to earth, but after a while it burned itself out, and there was no sign that the plane had ever been there.
Nor were there any survivors.
I could already tell that today was gonna suck, and it was really pissing me off.
I was sitting at my favorite cafe in the world, a little sidewalk spot overlooking the Adriatic on the gorgeous Croatian island of Hvar. After Armour got me tossed from the Agency, I needed a place to set up shop, and I picked Hvar because it had everything I wanted and needed-- a private airport to get in and out quickly, boat access to move merchandise to an infinite variety of locations both Western and Eastern, and sun. And the Adriatic. There's nothing more soothing than those azure waters and the gorgeous European girls sunbathing topless next to them.
I came to this cafe almost every morning I was in Hvar-- the village nestled between the marina and the rolling hills overlooking the sea-- so I could enjoy a moment or two of peace in an otherwise decidedly messy life.
But today I was being watched.
I spotted the cute little redhead as soon as I sat down. She parked herself at a table a little ways down the sidewalk and pretended to bury her nose in a book. She was obviously American, which was the first thing that made her stand out-- Americans didn't often make it to my little corner of paradise, which was much better known by the Euro party set than by overfed and self-involved American tourists. She was also obviously trying to pretend like she wasn't watching me.
Now, don't get me wrong-- it wasn't that unusual to see a cute young thing checking me out. In the ten years since the disaster in Hong Kong, I had actually aged pretty well, though my partner Garcia liked to give me shit about the gray peeking through the hair over my ears. Despite the pressures of our work, I actually still looked pretty young.
And I was free, not rotting in Federal prison or still slaving away for assholes like Frank Fucking Armour. No more paperwork. No more artificial pressures. No more politics. Just work-- and profit. Lots and lots of profit.
But that freedom and profit came at a cost, the most important of which was my identity.
Since Armour had drummed me out of the Agency a few years before, I'd earned my living on the edges of the gray world, providing a whole shitload of services to people and companies-- and sometimes governments, though they'd never admit it publicly-- that couldn't or wouldn't rely on the normal channels.
In the real world-- unlike the world promulgated by cheesy cable TV shows-- the Agency doesn't issue a burn notice for one of its own, even for a former employee who got fired under dubious circumstances. Normally a "burn notice" is for someone who repeatedly tries to sell the Agency bogus information, to alert other Stations around the world that a fabricator is on the prowl and prompt them to burn all the intelligence based on that person's information.
But for people like me-- intelligence operatives who get bounced from the Agency under a cloud of suspicion that they went over to the dark side, regardless of the amount of information the Agency may or may not have to support the claim-- they prepare a special kind of Hell. In my case, they revoked my passport and put me on the no-fly list, so I couldn't even travel back home under my own name. But worse than that, the Agency made it clear to me that they considered me a national-security threat, a non-American who was only still free because they couldn't summon up enough evidence to sustain a criminal indictment.
In the ten years since I walked out of the Old Headquarters Building for the last time, I had lived in between the real world and the gray one, hiding out in places like Hvar, always watching over my shoulder for Uncle Sam and his spike-lined butterfly net.
I wasn't living the supposedly glamorous life of the international spy; I was a remora, attached to the underbelly of the great leviathan that was the world-wide intelligence industry, forced to fight for the scraps that were too small for the NSA and CIA and other agencies-- foreign and domestic, if those terms really meant anything anymore-- to notice or care about.
In my almost-decade as an independent businessman, I'd become something of a matchmaker-- "AdultFriendFinder for the violent and pathological," as Garcia liked to say. I hooked up providers of off-book services with those companies or banana republics or small-time dictators who needed help moving weapons, mercenaries, money, lawyers-- and in one incident I wasn't particularly proud of, even a load of stolen exotic animals.
Whatever the client needed.
Another downside to my constant presence near the flank of the international intelligence community was the fact that I was always navigating rocky shoals, having to be careful to avoid being shaved off by a particularly sharp piece of coral. I had a near-constant stream of enemies and not-quite-enemies circling me, waiting for me to make a mistake so they could pounce. And not all the enemies were of the law enforcement variety-- I knew of several other mercenaries who coveted my connections and wouldn't hesitate to push me over a cliff to get at my business.
One misstep and I knew I might find myself face-down in a bay somewhere-- or worse, in an orange jumpsuit with silver bracelets, in proud possession of a one-way ticket to Gitmo.
I'd been to Gitmo with the Agency and I certainly didn't want to go back as a guest.
But more than anything else, I just wanted my name back. It's not so much that I wanted to go home-- though I did, and had traveled in and out of the US on alias passports on multiple occasions-- but mostly I just wanted the Agency to acknowledge that I hadn't done anything wrong. Something had gone bad in Hong Kong, but it hadn't been me. The fact that they could so easily end my career and hang me out to dry also told me that they'd stop at nothing if they decided I was an even bigger threat.
So when I saw the striking young woman sitting a few tables away, the sunrise glinting in her red hair in a particularly attractive way, and I noticed her trying not to look my way, I felt the familiar tingle on the back of my neck, and I knew she was there for me.
redhead's name was Alice Henley, and she had been sent to the US
Embassy in Zagreb on Frank Armour's orders. She worked out of a
special office that foreigners weren't allowed to enter and she
answered to the Chief of Station, not the Ambassador.
And Gabriel was right about her. She was there for him.
She sat at the cafe, sipping coffee and trying to remember not to alternately stare at the target across from her and the gorgeous azure waters of the Adriatic just off to her left. Before she'd come to Croatia she'd never seen water that color. Now she was obsessed with it.
She glanced back up at Linden and noticed that he had picked up his copy of The International Herald-Tribune. Next to it on the table was a copy of Le Monde.
On the front page of both were photos of the smoldering wreckage of Latin Air Flight 492. The IHT headline read "Disaster Over Mexico: 300 Dead."
Alice sucked in her breath as she read the headline. Linden glanced over his paper at the sound, so she quickly looked down and took a sip of her coffee. She almost thought she saw him grin.
I couldn't decide whether I should be offended or delighted. They sent me a newbie! They had to know that wouldn't end well, right?
Time to watch the redhead play.
Without warning I stood up, dropped some Euros on the table, then turned on my heel and walked away from the cafe.
Alice nearly choked on her coffee. She reached into her pocket and frantically scrabbled for some Euros. Her fingers finally closed around a bill, and she pulled it out and put it on the table.
As she walked away, she glanced down and realized she'd left a twenty.
Ahead she watched Linden turn a corner and head into a picturesque plaza, where he disappeared into a crowd. She sped up to a near-jog in an effort to keep him in sight.
But as she turned the corner, she realized he was gone.
"Shit!" she muttered to herself. She took a panicked look around and felt herself start to hyperventilate.
Stop it stop it stop it STOP IT!!!!
She took a deep breath and forced herself to slow down. She looked ahead, toward a grocery store at the end of the plaza, and saw Gabriel look out from behind the corner. He gave her an impish grin and disappeared.
She took off running toward the corner.
stepped back behind the corner and stifled a laugh. This
is just too much fun.
I ducked into the grocery store and put my back to the wall, then waited.
A moment later the redhead sprinted around the corner, her face a spasm of panic. She whizzed right by the grocery store-- within two feet of me.
And kept on running.
I stepped out of the store and waited until she was near the end of the block.
Then I whistled. Loudly.
Alice heard the whistle and stopped. A bead of sweat dripped off her nose as she whipped around to see Linden standing back at the corner, a big shit-eating grin on his face.
"Oh, I hate you," she muttered.
She stumbled forward and started to run.
Linden took off around the corner and disappeared.
Alice sped up and broke into a sprint.
She came around the corner-- to find a completely empty plaza.
"Fuck!" she screamed.
Then she heard a low whine.
She looked up to see Linden putt into the street on a Vespa scooter. She started after him, but he sped up and pulled away. He bounced over a curb and headed toward a nearby street.
She looked around for anything that could help her catch him.
A half block over she saw a local driving his own Vespa toward the street.
She sprinted off toward him.
looked over my shoulder to see the redhead running toward a surprised
Vespa-riding local, then laughed out loud as she accosted the local
and knocked him off the Vespa, then kicked into gear and putted
The local jumped up and chased her, but she dropped him with a vicious kick to the chest.
That was good information for me. She clearly wasn't a true pro just yet, but she was ballsy and knew how to take care of herself. Not a bad-looking baby spy.
I kicked my bike into gear and putted off, a big fat grin on my face.
"You ready for the slowest chase ever?" I yelled over my shoulder at the redheaded baby spy.
We putted at the same low speed on a cliffside highway above the deep blue waters of the Adriatic, me never pulling away but the redhead never getting any closer. I cruised past a sign that read "Stari Grad" and turned left, toward the seaside village.
Alice couldn't help but stare at the beautiful water over the cliffs. She kept Linden in sight, but she'd pushed the Vespa to the red line on her way out of Hvar and hadn't gotten any closer, so she just made sure not to lose him.
He had to stop eventually. Right?
She entered the seaside town of Stari Grad and cruised past the port, which was dotted with fishing boats. She saw Linden's Vespa turn into an alley; she steered into the alley behind him and saw that she was closing the distance a little.
Linden shot out of the alley and darted into a nearby warehouse. Alice came out of the alley just as he disappeared. She gunned it and headed for the entrance.
She buzzed into the entrance, looking wildly around for any sign of Linden.
Which distracted her from the makeshift barrier erected from planks and barrels just inside the entrance.
The Vespa slammed into the barrier, flipped over and slid away. Alice flew ass over teakettle through the air and slammed on to the concrete floor with a loud "Oof!"
She rolled over and over and over until her momentum finally gave out and she lay there, face up, dazed.
A moment later, she became dimly aware of someone staring down at her.
She forced her eyes open to find a tough-looking Latino with a buzz cut standing over her and pointing a pistol at her face. Alice raised her hands in surrender.
Linden stepped into view.
"What do you think, Garcia?" he asked. "Shoot her?"
"It'd be kinda loud in here, sir," the Latino named Garcia responded. "I'd say just cut her throat and toss her in the Adriatic. Lotsa bodies in there."
Alice rolled her eyes.
"Very funny," she said. "Now, do you two comedians mind if I put my hands down? I really need to rub the sore spot on my ass."
Linden and Garcia exchanged a look, then Linden grinned.
"She's funny," he said to Garcia.
"A real smartass," Garcia answered. "I like smartasses."
"That's because you're a smartass," Linden said.
"Maybe we could keep her in a cage, like a pet."
"A pet that makes us laugh?"
"Something like that."
"Seriously," Alice interjected. "Can I--"
But Garcia cut her off-- by kicking her viciously in the head and sending the world to black.
Alice felt a train running through her head. Lights blinked intermittently and every sound felt like the horn from a supertanker.
She slowly, painfully, opened her eyes and started to shake the cobwebs from her brain, but a sharp pain in the back of the head cut that off.
After a moment, she realized she was cold. And that she couldn’t move her arms or legs. And that there was something acrid choking in her throat.
She glanced down and was horrified to see that she was clad only in her underwear. But that wasn’t the really bad news.
No, the really bad news was that her hands and feet were bound, tied to the hard wooden chair she was sitting on. And the thing causing her to choke was the cloth tied around her head and forced into the back of her throat.
And then she looked up and saw Linden sitting a few feet away, pointing a gun at her.
Linden nodded, and the Latino named Garcia stepped in front of her.
Who are you? she thought. Nobody had prepared her for Linden having a partner.
Garcia pulled the gag from her mouth and let it hang. He stepped back around behind her, and she heard the click of a pistol being cocked and felt a cold circle at the base of her neck.
“Garcia convinced me that before we kill you and drop you in the ocean, we should ask you some questions first,” Linden said.
“There’s no reason to kill me,” she croaked, and realized upon speaking that her throat was dry and parched.
“What do you want?” Linden asked.
“To go back in time and never make this fucking trip,” she answered.
No smile from Linden this time.
“Too late,” he said. “And I’d recommend you cut the comedy before we get impatient. Who are you?”
“I’m nobody,” she answered.
A snort from behind her. “No shit,” Garcia said.
Alice twisted her head to try and shoot him a look, but he caught her cheek and forced her to look at Linden.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “You’ll want to keep your eyes forward.”
“Right,” she answered.
“So again I ask, who the fuck are you and why are you here?” Linden asked.
“I’m just here to deliver a message,” she answered.
“Then deliver it.”
Alice swallowed. “Armour wants to see you.”
She noted with a pang of fear that Linden’s expression immediately turned even harder than it was before. He leaned forward and gave her a long look.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you said Armour wants to see me,” he said.
“But if I thought that was what you said,” he said, talking over her, “I’d probably just follow Garcia’s advice and cut your pretty throat. The fish in this region love eating incompetent little CIA spooks for dinner. Especially the ones who work for that son of a bitch.”
She swallowed, trying to get the taste of cloth and fear out of her throat. “He said you might not be thrilled to hear from him.”
Linden shot Garcia a look. She half-turned and saw Garcia give him a small shrug.
“What does he want?” Linden asked.
Now he laughed out loud. Garcia joined in.
“A meeting? With us? You’re kidding, right?”
She shook her head. “No ‘us.’ Just you.”
“What makes that asshole think—“
“He told me to tell you that he has a proposition for you,” she interrupted. “He knows there’s bad blood.”
At this Linden snorted.
“He knows there’s bad blood,” she continued. “But he says he can offer you what you want more than anything else.”
“A date with Angelina Jolie?” Garcia cracked. He got quiet on a look from Linden.
“When and where?”
This was from Linden, and it was delivered quietly, thoughtfully. Alice heard Garcia move around her, come between her and Linden.
“Sir, that’s not a good idea,” he warned. “You know you can’t trust anything he says. Let me fillet her and toss her in the sea. That’ll tell Armour everything he needs to know.”
She was chilled by how calmly he said that, how matter-of-fact he was while talking about ending her life.
“Um, you don’t have to kill me to send a message to him,” she said nervously. “I can—“
“Shut up,” Garcia said without turning around. She shut up.
Linden stood and paced around for a moment, and Alice began to worry that he was genuinely considering feeding her to the fish in the beautiful azure waters outside.
“He wouldn’t have said that unless he has something,” he finally said. “I know we can’t trust him, but we need to see what he has to say.”
He stepped around Garcia and knelt in front of Alice.
“When and where?” he asked again.
“Tomorrow in Paris,” she answered.
He shook his head. “Tell him Rome, in two days,” he said. “Four p.m. at the Colosseum. We'll find him there.”
“Just you—" she started.
He turned on her. “That’s not up to you or Armour,” he interrupted. “He wants me, he gets my crew.”
“So I’m a crew now?” Garcia cracked.
“You’re not helping,” Linden said. He turned back to Alice. “Tell him to come alone. Anybody else shows up, I’ll do the other thing I want to do more than anything else.”
“What’s that?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
Linden just smiled.
He walked to the front door of the warehouse and disappeared outside.
Alice turned her head fractionally to watch him walk away— which is why she didn’t see Garcia’s pistol-whip coming.
The pistol butt crashed across the side of her head and sent her back to the darkness of la-la land.
Frank Armour hated jet lag.
The Director of the National Clandestine Service had flown in on an overnight flight from Reagan to Rome because his security people didn't want him to be there any longer than he had to.
"Sir, Linden is a dangerous man," his security chief Mason had told him. "If you fly out a day early, we can't be certain he won't be able to find you."
"Then what do I have you for?" Armour had asked him. But in the end he'd bowed to his security guy's judgment and come just in time to get ready for the meeting-- though he'd left the security man himself back in DC. Armour preferred to move through the world unseen, not trailing a phalanx of bodyguards.
Unfortunately, his early arrival guaranteed that he'd be jet lagged when he faced down Gabriel Linden for the first time. Nothing ever really made Armour nervous, but he wanted to be at his best when he saw his old friend, because he knew it would probably be ugly.
Armour came out of his bathroom wearing the Intercontinental Hotel robe, having just enjoyed a long, warm shower in an effort to shake out the cobwebs. He ran a hand down the long, thin scar that ran along his left cheek of his otherwise preternaturally young face. It wasn't naturally young, of course-- Gabriel had been right about Armour and his plastic surgery. Frank had come back from the operation that made his career with serious wounds to his face-- among other places-- and he'd needed to have the surgery done just to make his face presentable to the career bureaucrats who prowled the halls at Langley but recoiled at the thought of blood or violence. Those were the ones Armour hated the most-- the ones who could send young men and women in the field out on operations that could easily get them injured or killed, or could give an order to send a missile hurtling from a drone aircraft into a wedding party to kill one terrorist, but who couldn't be bothered to spend more than a few days away from Washington, too addicted to the idea of power and their proximity to it to even think about going out in the field or getting their precious $3,000 suits dirty. Armour was a career field guy, and he hated most of the desk-bound bureaucrats who worked for him.
In contrast, Frank loved the Intercon-- it was one of his favorite hotels in the world. First-class travel was one of the nice things about being the DDO, as he was known inside the Agency. Prior to the reorganization of the US Intelligence Community after 9/11, his current position had been known as the CIA's Deputy Director (Operations), and old Agency hands hated the reorganization and the CIA's attendant loss of centrality and power even more than they hated the Russians and Chinese, and never stopped using the old terms as a collective middle finger to the new structure. So despite the new official title, most of the spooks who worked for Armour still called him "DDO."
As he came out of the bathroom, he heard a discreet knock at the door. He checked the clock-- ten A.M, too early for the girl he had ordered. So that must mean--
"Room Service, Mr. Armour."
Armour crossed the room and opened the door. A swarthy, mustachioed waiter stood outside with the usual rolling tray. Armour always liked to have food when his young female guests came over. He was a civilized guy, after all.
"Good morning, signore," said the waiter. "I have the breakfast you ordered."
"Excellent," said Armour. "Please put it over there somewhere." He motioned to the far corner.
Armour reached into the briefcase on his near table, ostensibly to find some cash for a tip. Instead, however, he grasped the Glock 9-millimeter pistol he always carried and turned toward the waiter with the gun in his hand.
To his annoyance, however, he turned to find that the waiter was already pointing a gun at him.
"Uh-uh, sir," said Garcia behind his fake mustache. "You'll want to put that down before you hurt yourself."
Armour rolled his eyes and shot Garcia a wry look, but turned the gun around and put it butt-first on the table.
"Nice to see you, Garcia," he said. "Been a long time."
"Not nearly long enough, sir."
Armour laughed. "I assume Gabriel feels the same way?"
Now it was Garcia's turn to smile. "Actually, he's been praying for your safe arrival."
fought through the usual late-summer Vatican crowd, covered in
perspiration. He was pretty sure he felt a drop of sweat roll off
his balls and settle in the crotch of his underwear.
He pushed through the crowds of tourists-- the fat Americans, the groups of Japanese marching around in a tight little group like a bunch of penguins-- and finally entered through the front of St. Peter's Cathedral.
He could practically feel Garcia's eyes on him. He didn't know exactly where the obnoxious little prick had positioned himself, but he knew how Linden and Garcia operated, and so he assumed that Garcia was on overwatch, probably with a sniper rifle. He didn't know how they'd pull it off, given that the Vatican is one of the most heavily-guarded places in the world, but they kept surprising him, so he assumed Garcia was around somewhere.
He looked around the cathedral, which was also filled with tourists gaping at the priceless art and gilded altars. It took him a moment to get his bearings, then he headed toward the back of the cathedral as he'd been directed.
Normally he wouldn't take direction from a rogue such as Linden, and particularly not from a wild child like Garcia, but this time he needed them, so he was willing to make an exception.
He found the concrete steps Garcia had described for him, and took them down to a quiet chapel not on any of the tourist guides. He checked behind him to make sure he wasn't followed, then slipped into the chapel.
It was plain and small, with a square altar at the front and a crucifix hanging over it. It was clean but private, and it felt like it hadn't been used in many years.
Armour stood quietly for a moment and took in the chapel, then started to turn around.
At that moment he felt a sharp point in the small of his back. He turned his head fractionally to see Gabriel clad in a priest's frock. He held a small cross to Armour's back, the bottom sharpened to a deadly point.
"Don't do anything stupid unless you want to speak with God face-to-face," Gabriel said quietly.
"What's the plan, Father?" asked Armour sardonically.
Gabriel smiled. "We walk and you confess all your sins."
led Armour through an underground passageway I had learned about when
I had done some work for the Vatican a couple of years before. It
was carved out of stone and was about as dim and baroque-looking as
you would imagine. I kept the sharpened cross-- a nice touch, I
thought-- at Armour's back the entire time.
Inside the passageway it felt like it could go on for miles, but I knew it was only a few hundred feet.
Armour glanced over his shoulder and shot me one of his patented smirks. "Really? A poorly-lit passageway underneath the Vatican? Isn't that a little cliched?"
"Aren't you funny?" I dug the sharpened cross in just a little deeper, and it was gratifying to see him wince. It occurred to me at that moment that maybe Garcia was right, maybe it would be simpler just to gut Armour here and now and leave him in the passageway for all eternity.
"How much farther?" he asked.
"For you? Not so much."
"C'mon, Gabriel," Armour said. "You can't possibly--"
Then he stumbled-- or seemed to. His half-fall forward pulled me off-balance, and he came around with an elbow into my cheek which sent ropes of lightning through my head and sent me stumbling backwards.
Sneaky old fucker.
Armour spun and reverse-kicked the cross out of my hand. He followed with a palm-first shot at my face, but I slid out of the way, caught him by the hair and drove his face into the 1,000-year-old stone wall.
Armour's eyes rolled up in his head and he slid down the wall, stunned.
crouched in front of Armour and slapped his face a couple of times,
finally bringing him around. When he came to, he found the sharpened
point of the cross glistening a couple of inches in front of his
face. I'd zip-tied his hands up so he couldn't try anything else.
"What's the plan, Frank?" I asked. "You gonna come with me without throwing another tantrum, or should I just go ahead and kill you now and leave your body down here for the next thousand years?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'd raise my hands in surrender if they weren't tied behind my back."
"Let's go," I said.
I lifted him up and frog-walked him down the passageway, making sure to ram him into the wall a couple of times.
A few moments later we reached a heavy wooden door.
"This go out?" Armour asked.
"You're really gonna make me walk out like this?"
I sighed and thought about it for a moment, then turned Armour around and shoved him against the door. "Did you come here just to kill me?"
Armour shook his head. "Believe it or not, I need you."
I laughed out loud at this. "Yeah, I don't believe you."
"Why don't you take these cuffs and let's get out of here so I can make you believe me?" Armour replied.
"Yeah, I know. One wrong move and I'll go cross-first into the light."
"Something like that."
I sliced the ties and we emerged into the bright light of the Roman afternoon, Armour's hands freed and the cross underneath my frock. We walked through the crowds, always staying a few feet apart. Armour found a bench and we sat down.
"You look good," Armour said. "The beachcomber life agrees with you."
"What do you want?"
"That's it?" Armour asked. "No catching up with an old friend?"
"We're not friends, Armour," I answered. "Maybe I thought we were once, but now I know better."
Armour let out a long sigh and looked away from me. "That was a long time ago."
"Not that long, Frank. Not that long."
"Things have changed, Gabriel."
"Yeah, I heard you finally got that promotion you always wanted."
"You seem skeptical," Armour responded.
I couldn't help but laugh at that understatement. "Let's just say I have a hard time believing they trust you to run operations," I said.
Armour looked at me, then away, then back again. "You know it could have been you, if you had stayed."
That stopped me for a second. Then another thought hit me. "Is that why you got rid of me? Because I was in your way?"
Armour shot me a condescending smile. "I did it because it was the right thing to do. There was evidence that you betrayed the Agency and that you were a danger to yourself and the other officers you were working with."
At this my fist balled up involuntarily, and for a moment I teetered on the edge of bashing him with it. He noticed and leaned away, putting his hands up in a defensive position.
But I wasn't ready to go there yet. I just clenched and unclenched my fists a couple of times before letting out a long breath.
"Frank, I'm starting to get bored," I said. "What do you want?"
"This will be somewhat ironic, I suspect, given what I just said, but I need your help."
I laughed again. "Yeah, right."
"No, Gabriel, it's true. The Agency needs you again."
"For what? Target practice?"
"Somebody's killing our officers."
That got my attention. "What are you talking about?"
Armour looked around to make sure nobody was near, then turned back to give me a long look.
"The first happened six months ago," he said. "One of our officers in Hong Kong was on the street and got knifed to death."
"And you know he was targeted? It wasn't random?"
"We thought it was at first," he answered. "According to the Hong Kong police, he was coming out of a bar at around 11 pm when it happened, though what they don't know is that he was in the middle of an SDR so he could go to an asset meeting."
"What about witnesses? Did anybody say anything?"
"Nobody saw exactly what happened," Armour answered, "but we got a look at the incident on the CCTV system the HK government uses nowadays. A figure in a hooded jacket came up behind him and slid the knife in, then walked away while our officer died. And managed to completely avoid showing his face to the cameras while he did so. There's not a single usable shot of him. He could be white, black, Chinese-- for all we know he could be Sasquatch."
"That takes some planning," I observed.
"Yeah," I couldn't help but agree. "Talent too."
Armour paused for a moment. "Then it happened again, two weeks later."
"Riyadh," Armour said. "Same M.O., except this time the killer was in a thobe and ghutra, like any Saudi male. It isn't publicly known, but the Saudis have installed a sophisticated CCTV system in their major cities. We helped them, actually."
"Did the cameras get the attack?"
Armour nodded. "Just like Hong Kong. Video shows our officer walking down the sidewalk, middle of the night. The guy in the thobe comes up behind him, slides in the knife, and that's all she wrote. He just keeps on walking and disappears, and his face never gets within sniffing distance of the camera."
"Since then it's happened at least twice more," said Armour.
"One of our officers in Moscow disappeared last month," he said. "We suspect he's dead too."
Armour sighed. He stood up and paced back and forth in front of the bench.
"Would you sit down?" I asked. "You look like Felix the Cat."
Armour shot me a look. "After all that, then came Mexico City."
That stopped me. "The plane?"
"Somebody's targeting us, Gabriel."
I considered this for a moment. "So you came to, what, warn me?" I asked him. I couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my voice. "I appreciate it, but I don't work for you anymore. And as I recall, you had a large part in that."
"Don't be an idiot," Armour said. "I've been tasked with finding out who's after us and why. And I need your help."
"Instead of one of your crack field operatives?"
"You could have been nicer to young Alice," Armour said. "She's my protege."
"If she's the best you've got--"
"She's not," Armour interrupted. "You are."
"You don't have me, Frank." I stood up. "So, look. This has been fun. But--"
"I didn't tell you who they got in Mexico City, did I?"
It was a well-timed and perfectly-placed shot, and it hit me like the mythical ice bullet right in the heart. I felt my insides go weak.
Armour just nodded.
I stumbled to the bench and fell on it, then buried my head in my hands. I felt my thoughts swim wildly, drunkenly, to places from my past I thought I'd never visit again.
first met as classmates, a few weeks after we'd entered on duty
together. We were part of the first post-9/11 Clandestine Service
Trainee class, which meant that we came in just as the "Global
War on Terror" exploded the intelligence budget and shepherded
in an era of overkill and brute force, an unfortunate departure from
the Agency's sixty-year focus on precision and foreknowledge.
During the Cold War, the CIA always operated at a personnel deficit in comparison to the main enemies, particularly the KGB and SVR, which typically ran nearly 20,000 officers at them around the world. The Agency, despite its reputation as all-knowing and all-seeing, rarely had more than a quarter of that total.
After 9/11, though, everything changed.
After that there were dozens of us tromping around in training, going through the motions of being spies in an effort to develop the talent and tradecraft to actually do it in the field. At one point one of my friends joked that our job consisted of eating, driving and writing, and he wasn't far off.
Amira and I didn't meet at first-- there were a couple of hundred of us, too many for all of us to know each other beyond a face and maybe a name. It seemed like half our classmates were hooking up with each other, and we were no exception. I ran through a couple of women in the class, younger girls really, just out of college and overwhelmed by the excitement and newness of it all. She seemed to prefer the older guys, the married men who had walked away from careers in search of something different or more interesting.
Then one day during a surveillance exercise, we literally bumped into each other coming around a corner. We stopped, took long looks at each other, then kept on plowing on our SDRs. I recognized her as one of "us" just based on her look and the determined way she was driving through her walk-- just like me.
And there was something there, even then. I started looking for her in the lunch hall, and I listened for her questions during the lecture sessions. But mostly I started keeping an eye out for her after hours.
Students from the class often hung out at a local bar that had cheap beer and was open late. The bartenders never said anything to any of us about being baby spies, but it was clear they had us nailed. How could they not? Week after week, Thursday and Friday nights a group of us 20 or 30 strong would pile in there, all about the same age, all keeping our eyes moving constantly as we sat and enjoyed our Cosmos or whiskeys or whatever- it was pretty obvious what we were, whether the bartenders realized it or not.
One Friday I finally found her in there. She sat at the bar, sipping her Long Island Iced Tea and staring off into the distance, a vision of dark-eyed Latin beauty in the swirl of activity around her. I went up to the bar and stood near her to order a beer.
She glanced up at me and grinned. "What's up, SDR guy?"
I laughed. "I knew you were one of us," I said.
She raised her glass to me.
"To walking our asses off," she said.
"And eating and writing," I answered as we clinked glasses and shared a laugh.
It was a mundane moment, really very prosaic in the grand scheme of things-- just two professionals-to-be finding a laugh in the shared misery of their line of work. Not unlike two lawyers joking about a particularly difficult judge or two doctors doing the same about the high cost of malpractice insurance.
But it also started something.
blew up a plane just to kill Amira?"
Armour sat down next to me and put his arm on my shoulder. It felt like snakes crawling on my skin.
"I'm good, thanks," I muttered and shrugged him away. He at least had the good grace not to make a thing of it.
"All we have is an encrypted email," he said. "It was intercepted by NSA and addressed to someone named Phoenix. NSA was able to decrypt it, and the part they got mentioned Amira by name and description. Also had her location and planned travel itinerary for that night."
He pulled a manila envelope out from somewhere inside his shirt and handed it to me. I took it but didn't open it. I wasn't ready to go along with whatever he was proposing yet.
"Who's Phoenix?" I asked.
"We've got a dossier on an assassin who uses that name," he answered. "We think the same guy did all the attacks. Everything we know about him is in the envelope."
I hefted the envelope for effect. It was skinny.
"Yeah," he said. "We don't know much."
"And this one guy's single-handedly going around the planet thinning your herd? Just like that?" I asked him.
He gave me a little half-shrug. "Something like that," he said. "The problem is, we don't know why, or who he's working for. The seventh floor tasked me to find out."
I could see where this train was headed. But I had to ask.
"And you want me to do your dirty work for you?"
"Who better?" he asked. "But trust me when I tell you that you're the last person I want to ask."
"Your confidence in me is inspiring."
He leaned back against the bench and gave me a long, searching look. "Does that surprise you?"
"You're not answering my question, Frank."
"I can't use anybody inside," he answered. "I can't trust anybody, because I don't know who's loyal to whom anymore."
"I thought that was your preferred method for operating."
He shrugged. "Believe it or not, I prefer to be surrounded with people I can trust." He paused for a moment. "You understand that's why I pushed you out, right? After Hong Kong I couldn't trust any of you anymore. One of you leaked details of the operation."
"None of us--"
He held up a hand. "I'm not saying one of you was a traitor, Gabriel," he said. "But somebody said something they shouldn't have said, or put something in an email, or made a comment to someone they thought they could trust, or maybe just used their cell phone when they shouldn't, and because of that Shin Zhou died."
"Interesting that Amira got to stay. And Street."
He shrugged. "They passed their polys, and there was no evidence against them. But you, on the other hand, there were all those strange receipts and cell phone bills that made you look very guilty of something. What do you want me to say?"
"I want you to tell me why I should even consider helping you out after everything that's happened."
"Because you're the only one who can do this," he answered. "Because somewhere inside the Agency there's a mole, someone who passed operational details and specifics about our officers to this Phoenix person, and that person got Amira killed. I thought you might want to be a part of bringing that person to justice."
I gave him a long look, trying to cover the swirl of emotions I was feeling. He was right-- I did want to find out what had happened to Amira, and I wanted to be a part of the solution. But the moment I let him know that, I would lose. He'd own me and he'd know it.
So I shrugged.
"I'm not so much into justice anymore," I said, trying to sound nonchalant. "I'm mostly into profit nowadays. Besides, your little courier said you could give me the thing I wanted the most. Helping you out doesn't qualify."
"Then maybe I can sweeten the pot for you, my capitalist friend," he answered.
"You'll pay me?"
He shook his head. "Better than that," he said. "If you help us, I've got White House concurrence to clear your record. You're not innocent, but neither are any of us."
"You're full of shit."
He smiled and pulled a phone out of his pocket. "I've got something to show you," he said.
He clicked through to the photos and gave me the phone. "Take a look," he said.
I flipped through several photos. They were all of me, all from airport security cameras while I came into or left the US.
I couldn't help but be impressed.
"That's a handsome devil," I said. "Who is he?"
"Well, in this one he's Brian Patterson," he said, indicating one of the photos. "In this one he's Leo Baskin."
"Okay, you've made your point," I said. "You're unhealthily obsessed with my travel patterns. So what?"
"Gabriel, I can give you your life back," he said. "A clean slate. No more hiding. No more having to use aliases to travel home. You'll be you again."
"The next thing you'll say is that you can get me my old job back."
He laughed. "Don't be ridiculous," he said. "Nobody could do that, and I'm not in the habit of promising things I can't deliver. But I can deliver on this. You help me out and find whoever hired this Phoenix person to kill Amira and the others, and you'll come off all the law enforcement lists, which could be very useful for someone in your current line of work."
I sat silently for a few minutes. To my vague surprise, what I felt wasn't elation or optimism. It was the subtle stirrings of anger at Armour's clear assumption that he could manipulate me into solving his problems for him.
"Don't case officer me," I said.
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"I assume you had one of your high-paid psychologists work up just the perfect pitch to get me on board?"
He shook his head. "I didn't need to, Gabriel," he said. "I know you. You want to come home. I want to get rid of the Agency's problem. It's a win-win situation I'm offering you."
I thought about for a few minutes. Amazingly, he didn't keep trying to persuade me. Like most case officers, he knew the value of silence in trying to get someone to come to the right decision.
After a bit, I got up.
"Don't contact me again," I said, and turned to walk away.
"Wait!" he called. "Gabriel!"
I stopped and glanced over my shoulder.
"When I have something," I said, "I'll find you."
Garcia couldn't believe they were thinking about getting into bed with Frank Fucking Armour.
He sat at a bar in Rome's Campo de Fiori District with Gabriel, both of them drowning their newest sorrows in some good German beer. Gabriel was already a little drunk, having been there an hour before Garcia showed up and having hit the bar's extensive liquor selection prior to having his first beer.
"Look, sir," Garcia said, "you know I'm in no matter what. But this is a terrible idea. You can't trust Armour as far as you can throw his sorry ass."
"They killed Ameeeera," Gabriel slurred.
Garcia rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know. And it's awful that the love of your life that you haven't seen in a decade is dead."
"Fuck you," Gabriel responded. "And it's only been nine years."
Garcia took a long swig of his beer. Idiot.
"A very cogent point," he said, "but it doesn't change the fact that Armour's a slimy piece of shit who would fuck you over just for the fun of it."
"He said he could clear my name," Gabriel muttered.
"Do you believe him?"
A drunken shrug. "Can I afford not to?"
Garcia didn't have a good answer for that. They sat in silence for a few minutes, Garcia sipping his beer and Gabriel staring into an empty bottle.
"You think we shouldn't do it?"
Up to now, Garcia had thought that Gabriel's mind was made up. But now it occurred to him that Gabriel really wanted his opinion. So he took a moment to collect his thoughts and swallowed another sip of beer before responding. Staring at the mirror hanging over the bar, he noticed that he was starting to get a little gray in the corners of his hair as well. Gotta get that taken care of, he thought.
"Sorry, sir," he said. "Look, I think if we're gonna do it, we have to go into it with our eyes open. He's offering you the brass ring, but there may be nothing but a big pile of shit at the end."
Gabriel nodded and slurped from his beer. "I know," he said. "But I still gotta do it."
"I know you do," Garcia said. "So what's the plan, then?"
"I was thinking we run a Brer Rabbit on this Phoenix guy," Gabriel answered.
"That's a three-man job," Garcia said. "Who's the bunny?"
Gabriel just looked at him, and horror began to dawn on Garcia as he realized who his partner was talking about.
"No," he said.
"He's the only one," Gabriel responded.
"He's the only one," Gabriel said again.
"What about Johnson?" asked Garcia.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Bailey?"
"Not available," said Gabriel.
"Dead. Popped by the Russians."
"Out of the game," said Gabriel. "Got himself married and has kids now."
"So the Big Daddy thing is literal, then."
"I guess so. He's fat and happy, not working anymore."
They sat for a few minutes in silence, each concentrating on draining their bottles of beer and contemplating their reflection in the mirror in front of them.
"So we're stuck with--" Garcia began.
"I'm afraid so," Gabriel answered.
"Well, shit," said Garcia. "What's he doing now?"
Lee had to piss like a horse.
A Russian racehorse. On steroids.
He sat alone in his 1993 Ford Taurus, a beater in a sea of beaters in the parking lot of the Admiral Benbow Hotel in Memphis, known as "Admiral Bimbo" to the locals because so many hookers used it to entertain their johns.
He was only a decade older than he'd been when he was the youngest participant in the Hong Kong debacle, but he looked like he was 60. His skin was sallow with a crusty glow, and his eyes were sunken and bloodshot. Even his hair had started to thin and go prematurely gray.
On the seat next to him were a pair of binoculars, a digital recorder, a notepad, a box of two-day-old Chinese takeout-- he thought it was General Tso, but he couldn't really remember anymore-- and, of course, his trusty flask.
He picked up the flask and took a long pull from it. He noticed that his shakes were getting worse. This time he actually spilled a couple of drops on his shirt.
"Fuck," he muttered to himself. He picked up the recorder and pushed the button.
"1614 Wednesday after-- no, wait, shit, it's Tuesday afternoon," he said into the recorder. "Tuesday afternoon, 1614. Admiral Benbow parking lot. Two hours since Subject entered room 218 with blonde female. No movement since--"
He was interrupted by the passenger door opening. Then a ghost shoved all his gear onto the floor and slid in next to him.
"Your car smells like shit, Shane," said Gabriel.
sat in a dive bar just off Beale Street. I sipped a beer, while
Shane was on his third whiskey. If anything, Shane's eyes had gotten
even more bloodshot in the hour since I'd re-introduced myself into
Shane kept glancing at me, like he was staring through a ghost.
"Ten years," he said. "Ten fucking years."
"You sound like the guy in 'Grosse Point Blank,'" I responded. "Ten years! TEN YEARS!" I sat back and grinned at him.
"What have you been doing all this time?" Shane asked. "Are the rumors true?"
Shane shrugged. "You know, that you've become a narco. Or a gun-runner. Or a human trafficker. Or that you never got fired and you're actually working as a NOC trying to bring down governments we don't like."
"Oh," I said, feeling a little sad at the world of possibilities implied by Shane's words flying by. "Those."
I shrugged. "None of that's really true," I answered. "Especially the part about not getting fired."
"So what is true, then?"
Another shrug. "I'm like you," I said. "An independent businessman."
Shane shot him a look, then shotgunned the whiskey. "I'm a PI," he said. "I chase down cheating husbands and look for bail jumpers. I own a 20-year-old Ford Taurus and my most important piece of equipment is my flask. How exactly are we alike?"
I took a sip of my beer before I answered.
"We're more alike than you think," I said. "We have the same set of problems."
"What problems?" Shane asked sardonically. "Besides cirrhosis and premature erectile dysfunction, I'm doing okay."
"I heard from Frank Armour," I said.
dead as he was inside, not much made Shane Lee mad anymore. But at
the mention of Armour's name, he saw red. He shrugged Gabriel's hand
off and stood up.
"You're consorting with that bastard?" he asked angrily. "I've got nothing for you if that's the case. You can pick up the drinks."
He turned and stormed toward the door.
About a step before he got there, a shadow fell over him and he felt, rather than saw, the presence of someone else.
Then he felt a hand grab him by the shirt collar. He turned to find Garcia smiling down at him. It wasn't a welcoming smile.
"What up, Shane?" Garcia asked.
hour later, I'd finished filling Shane in on my meeting with Armour.
"I still don't get what this has to do with me," Shane said. "I don't need my record cleared. I just got fired for incompetence. You were the one that got blacklisted."
At this I grabbed my beer and took a long swig, feeling my breath suddenly get caught in my chest. Shane leaned over and peered at me.
"You okay?" he asked. "You just went completely gray."
It was the worst day of my life. Let me tell you, if you've never had the chance to experience the sheer humiliation of being judged to be a liar and possibly a traitor-- by a panel of your peers, no less, not just one horrible person you can bitch about later over beer-- than you're missing out.
I sat in one of the dozens of conference rooms at Headquarters and listened as CIA General Counsel Paul Jacob read off, in the most dispassionate and phlegmatic voice I could imagine, the list of my supposed mis-doings.
"We can't be certain that Mr. Linden conspired with the enemy to murder the asset," he said blandly. "But we can't be certain that he didn't. And in that dilemma resides the central problem."
"Dilemma?" I snorted. My lawyer put his hand on my arm.
Jacob peered at me over his little round eyeglasses. Man, I wanted to shove those fucking things down his throat.
"This is not a court of law," he said and turned to face the panel. "The central issue is not innocence or guilt or a preponderance of the evidence. It's whether Mr. Linden can continue to be trusted with a security clearance and access to classified information."
He pulled a folder out and opened it.
"First piece of evidence," he intoned, holding up a clear plastic bag and showing it to the panel, "is a receipt, dated October 6, 2003, from the McDonald's Hong Kong Central District."
McDonald's? I thought. What's next, receipts for my porn?
The little gray lawyer reached into his expanding folder and pulled out a photograph. He held it up for the board. It showed a middle-aged Chinese guy in a flashy suit talking to the counter girl.
"This is Fong Shan," he said. "He's a plumber for the 2-PLA." He was referring to the 2nd section of the People's Liberation Army, their intel branch. He slid the photograph across the table so my lawyer Larry could take a look at it. "His job is to plug leaks that may come up. This photo was taken only a few blocks from the site of Shin Zhou's murder."
"So this quote-unquote 'plumber' happens to like Chicken McNuggets?" asked my lawyer sarcastically. "I'll be sure to phone the Washington Post."
"Check the time-stamp," said the little gray GC. "And check the time-stamp on the receipt in front of you."
Larry took a look at both the photo and the receipt, and I saw the slightest grimace pass over his face, like he'd eaten a bad egg roll or something.
I leaned over to him. "I've never seen those before," I told him.
He nodded and put his hand on my arm, then turned to Jacob. "This is hardly dispositive," he said.
Jacob nodded. "Alone, you're absolutely right," he answered. "But we also have witness statements."
"Statements?" I asked aloud, my mouth working faster than my brain. "From who?"
He slid three separate bound stacks of paper over to Larry. "The first is from Shane Lee," he said. "Now, Mr. Lee is not the most reliable witness, given that he's just been relieved of duty due to his inept handling of the surveillance on Shin Zhou. However, his testimony is backed up by that of two other witnesses."
Larry shot me a look. All I could do was shrug.
"Mr. Lee testified that he heard Mr. Linden tell Frank Armour and the rest of the team that he was splitting off from Amira Martinez and taking over the surveillance of Mr. Shin all the way to the dead drop site," Jacob continued. "This testimony was corroborated by Ms. Martinez and Mr. Armour. He also testified that Mr. Armour ordered Mr. Linden and Ms. Martinez to stay together, but that Mr. Linden unilaterally decided to send Ms. Martinez away and continue alone."
"What?" I nearly shouted. "That's not what happened!"
Jacob peered at me over his horn-rimmed glasses like a professor waiting to correct a spectacularly clueless student. "On the contrary," he said in the same toneless voice. "Mr. Lee's statement is corroborated by Ms. Martinez and Mr. Armour, both of whom stated that you took the decision against Mr. Armour's orders, ordered Ms. Martinez away and followed Mr. Shin on your own."
My mouth flapped open and shut like a guppy. "That's insane," I finally said. "Armour never told me to stick with Amira. Shin saw her, so she had to disappear. If he'd made her near the drop site, he might have taken his information and bugged out."
"I'm not arguing operational details with you," Jacob answered. "I am simply telling the panel what our witnesses had to say. They were agreed in their description of what happened. All of them testified that you sent Ms. Martinez away so that you could follow Mr. Shin alone."
He pulled out the bottom stack of paper and pushed it toward us. "Ms. Martinez and Mr. Lee also heard Mr. Linden's final exchange with Mr. Armour in which Mr. Armour told Mr. Linden to follow the target into the alley and stay close to him, to forestall the possibility of something going wrong. They also testified that Mr. Linden refused, again citing the same operational requirement that he just mentioned-- that the surveillance team should stay out of sight and allow Mr. Shin to finish the drop before moving into the alley."
I felt my mind swim as I listened to Jacob's words. "None of that is true," I whispered furiously to Larry the lawyer. He motioned me to wait and leaned forward, seemingly as interested in Jacob's words as the panel.
"Finally," Jacob said with the ring of finality, "Mr. Armour testified that when he arrived in the alley he found Mr. Linden standing over Mr. Shin's body."
I waited outside the alley, my back against the wall to avoid coming into view of Shin Zhou. I checked my watch.
"It's been a long time," I said into the PTT. "You want me to check on him?"
"Negative," Armour said. "I'm entering the alley now. You keep watch on the other end, don't let anybody come down here. I'll come to you."
I waited for a minute or so, then all hell broke loose.
"Gabriel, come here!" Armour practically shouted over the earpiece, loudly enough that I could hear his voice from the alley. "Now!"
I turned and ran into the alley to see Armour kneeling over the body of Shin Zhou. It was clear the old man was dead-- he was covered in blood and even from a distance I could see the jagged slash that ran down his side. Armour leaned over him, his shirt covered in blood, and slapped Shin's face, trying to wake him up.
Armour looked up at me, his face a rictus of anger and terror. "You had the eye!" he exclaimed. "You had the eye!"
I listened to Jacob finish reciting his so-called evidence, I
realized that something bad was going down here and I really might as
well have just stayed home. But the point wasn't driven totally home
until Larry the lawyer looked through the witness statements and
glanced at the McDonald's security photos-- and a look shot across
his face that I won't soon forget. My fault for hiring a 25-year-old
recent law school grad, I guess, but it wasn't like the Agency paid a
lot. And when they decided you couldn't be trusted, they wouldn't
lift a finger to help you, especially with legal fees.
"This is all bullshit," I whispered to Larry. "They're making this up."
He looked up from the documents and gave me a long look, a bit like a raccoon that wanders in front of your speeding car on the highway and the fearful glare it gives you right before you splat it all over the road, and I realized at that moment that I was completely, irretrievably fucked.
the panel was deliberating, a flunky came into the conference room
and tapped Jacob on the shoulder, then whispered in his ear. Jacob
nodded and turned to me. "Mr. Linden, you've been summoned."
I got up and followed the flunky out of the conference room and through the corridors of the Old Headquarters Building and to the exclusive elevator that serviced the 7th floor, the unassailable domain of the panjandrums who ran the Agency.
He led me into the 7th Floor Dining Room-- reserved for high-level administrators and guests-- and to a table in the corner. The only other person at the table was a man in a bespoke suit and a patch over his left eye. I immediately recognized him, as he was known to everybody who worked in China Ops-- Angus Castle, the chief of East Asia Division. Castle had been working against the Chinese since long before it was cool, back when Mao Zedong and his peasants were still planning the Cultural Revolution. He had been on the team that accompanied Richard Nixon to China in 1972; it was rumored he had served as Nixon's translator during his brief meeting with Mao himself.
As I approached the table, he stood and extended a hand. "Mr. Linden," he said somewhat formally. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure."
"No, sir," I said as we shook hands and sat.
"I'm glad to finally meet you," he said. "I've heard a lot about you."
"I'm sure it's all been good," I answered. "Especially with what's happening right now."
He waved at me as if to dismiss the thought. "It's a travesty," he said. "You and some other good officers are being railroaded."
I gave him a long look. "Then why don't you stop it?" I asked.
He smiled. "Did you know that I personally selected you for the mission in Hong Kong?" he asked.
That got my attention-- enough to distract me from the fact that he hadn't answered my question. "No, sir," I answered. "To be honest, I'm flabbergasted you even know who I am."
Another hooded smile. "Nonsense," he said. "Your work speaks for itself. You were an obvious choice."
I was at a loss for words. Luckily, he rescued me by sliding a business card across the table. On it was only a number: 202-684-8810.
"Can you memorize that number?" he asked.
I read the card and committed the number to memory, then slid it back across to him. "Done," I said. "What is it?"
"You'll know," he answered. He nodded to the flunky, who stood in the corner across the room and who now came to retrieve me. "Take care of yourself, Gabriel."
And with that our meeting was over. My mind whirling with questions-- not the least of which being what the fuck just happened?-- I followed the flunky back downstairs to my crucifixion.
been meaning to say thanks, by the way," I said to Shane back in
the bar. "It was your fucking testimony that really threw me
under the bus and finished me off."
He stared at me, his expression dull. "What testimony?" he asked.
"The statement where you said Armour told me and Amira to stay together but I told him to pound sand," I answered.
He was shaking his head even before I finished. "I never gave a statement," he said. "When they fired me, they asked me to talk to the general counsel and give my version of what happened, but I told them to fuck off. I mean, they'd already fired me. What was the point?"
I sat back on the barstool, my mind skittering through the new information that had suddenly been dumped in my lap.
"I told my idiot lawyer that all that shit they said about me in the hearing was faked," I said.
"I heard that Armour had it out for you," Shane said. "Maybe he faked it."
"But how would he get the counsel to go along with it?"
He shrugged. "No idea," he answered. "But you know how the Agency is. Once they decide you're a liability, the whole machinery starts working to get you out of the system as soon as possible. Maybe he just didn't want to know too much."
Garcia put his hand on my shoulder. "Boss, I'm sure we're all enjoying this trip down Memory Lane. I know it's making me laugh, making me cry, I want to see it again and again. But maybe we should get back on point?"
I shot him a look of death, but he just looked steadily at me until I nodded.
"Yeah, we should," I said. "Shane didn't give up his stimulating afternoon to sit here and talk about my fucked-up job history."
"So what's your plan?" Shane asked. "I know you talked to that asshole Armour and he convinced you to help him save his ass. You're pissed that they killed Amira, so you want to do it. I get all that. But what I don't get is what's in it for me."
I glanced at Garcia, who nodded. He'd been waiting for this part.
"Let's be honest," Garcia said. "Your life sucks."
"Hey!" Shane protested.
"Really?" Garcia asked. "You're gonna argue?"
"I've got my own company--"
"With no employees or cash flow."
"I've got my own place--"
"A one-bedroom apartment in the worst section of Memphis-- which, you may have noticed, is not exactly Paris."
"I've got a girlfriend--"
"She's a hooker and she charges you double her usual rate because you creep her out so much."
Shane slammed his whiskey back and finished it, then looked back and forth at the two of us.
"Man, I hate you guys," he said.
"We understand," I answered. "We hate us too."
Shane shook his head. "Fine," he answered. "My life is boring and shitty. So why should I help you?"
Garcia slid a thick envelope across the bar to Shane. "Half now, half when it's over," he said.
"Out of your pockets?"
I smiled. "Armour's," he said. "And if we need more he'll get it to us."
"You have a lot of faith in him," Shane said.
"No, I have no faith in him. But Garcia can be very persuasive when he wants to be."
Shane thought it over for a moment, then shrugged. "What the hell," he said. It wasn't a question. "I need to stop drinking anyway."
He took the envelope and put it away, then reached over the bar, grabbed the bottle of whiskey and poured himself a shot, which he promptly drained. "So what's my role in your plan?" he asked and burped, sending a whiskey cloud floating my direction.
I waved away the stink of his boozy belch and shot him a grin.
"You're the bunny."
Rio de Janeiro
I always loved going to Rio. The sun, the girls, the sense of fun and beauty intermingled, all of it I found intoxicating.
As an entrepreneur, I also loved the willingness of pretty much anybody in that city to look the other way when there was a buck to be made. It made it a remarkably easy city to work in. I had moved the aforementioned shipment of exotic animals right through the Porto de Rio de Janeiro, in fact.
Unfortunately, at least one of my colleagues also found Rio easy to love-- too easy. I had figured Shane might be a problem, that the alcoholic who sat across from us in the little Memphis dive bar wasn’t a right-headed reaction to a miserable world, but the avatar of a really troubled soul who might also seek refuge in whatever other vices he might encounter.
And if Rio has one thing, it’s vices. Holy shit, does it have vices.
The first day we arrived, I decided to keep an eye on Shane just to make sure he didn’t get in too much trouble. I tailed him at a safe distance-- close enough that a professional would have spotted me but far enough away to avoid getting caught up in his foolishness, should I choose not to. I watched him leave the Sofitel on Copacabana Beach-- my go-to hotel in Rio-- and head right for the water. He didn’t get in, though-- instead, he wandered down the sidewalk and openly gaped at the hot young cariocas playing volleyball and sunning themselves. I can’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure I actually saw the bulge in his pants rise while he was walking.
Later that night Garcia texted me from a hooker bar where he was shadowing Shane: "Bringin 3 girls home. R we paying him enuf?"
The next morning-- the morning of the operation, of course-- Shane was late. Garcia and I sat in my suite going over all the contingencies one more time as the minutes ticked by.
Finally he gave me the same look he's been giving me for a decade, the one that says Are you fuckin' kidding me?
"He's not gonna show, is he?" he asked.
"I'm going to get him."
I didn't even try to stop him.
Ten minutes later the door slammed open and he dragged our little Korean half-dressed into the room and slung him onto the couch.
"Balls-deep in pussy," Garcia announced as he sat across from Shane and fixed him with a death stare. "Just like I said."
"Can you blame me?" Shane muttered. "Brazilian pussy is the best." He tried to sit himself up and straighten his hair with only a modicum of success.
"He likes knives," I said.
"The guy we're going up against today, he likes knives," I answered. "He's stabbed like half a dozen Agency officers to death in the last three months. And they were sober professionals, not hungover idiots with liquor and vagina on their breath. So you might want to get your shit together if we want to have any chance of pulling this off."
That got his attention-- as it was meant to. He sat up, his eyes suddenly sober, and leaned forward.
"So you're floating me in front of this guy and his knives like a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog?" he asked.
"Oh, good," he answered. "For a minute there I was worried I should be terrified."
Garcia and I exchanged a half-satisfied look.
"Look at that," Garcia said. "He almost sounds like the old Shane."
"For the record," Shane said, "I am terrified."
I leaned forward. "Look at me," I said. It took him a moment to focus, but finally his bloodshot, red eyes made contact with mine.
"Everything's gonna be fine," I said. "I'll be ten feet away. Garcia's gonna have overwatch. When the guy gets close to you, we'll take him down."
"I hope so."
"We'd have done this alone," Garcia said, "believe me we would have, but we need two sets of eyes on the target. And we have to take him alive."
Shane looked back and forth at us, then gave a half-shrug and a nod. "What the hell?" he asked sardonically. "At least I had three Brazilian hookers for my final meal."
The plan was simple.
Shane was the bait-- Bre'r Rabbit in the briar patch-- and Garcia and I were the hunters.
In the envelope Armour had given me had been the two things Garcia and I would need to try and trip Phoenix: information for a Cayman Islands bank account that held $10 million for us to use for the operation and Phoenix' encrypted email address that was only reachable through Tor, the "hidden internet" on which the infamous Silk Road website had operated. I found an email server on the under-web that allowed for anonymous account creation and set up an address, then sent the killer known as Phoenix a message using the key words from the email NSA had decrypted, which NSA's computers had decided seemed to work as paroles to convince Phoenix that the contact was legit.
And I made an offer. "Need product," I wrote. "Delivery one week. I pray to Christ the Redeemer to forgive all your sins." To the bottom of the email I added a photo of Shane.
Six hours later, he'd responded. With terms.
"Product available," he wrote. "Cost 2 million, half due up front and rest upon delivery. Account information to follow upon concurrence with terms."
I emailed him back and agreed to his terms, and within fifteen minutes we had wired the first million to his account.
As I pressed the button to send the money, Garcia looked at me and said, "So in the internet age it's just that easy to hire the world's greatest assassin to show up to kill your fake target and wander into your trap?"
I shot him a look of my own. "I hope so."
Shane sat in the back of the taxi and tapped his fingers on the windowsill until finally the driver turned and snapped, "Pare, por favor!" After that Shane just bit his fingernails until they arrived.
The driver let him out at the foot of the funicular to the Cristo Redentor Statue-- "Christ the Redeemer" in English-- and he went inside. He bought a ticket, but before he boarded he found himself running to the bathroom where he vomited for five minutes, then cleaned himself up, bought a Coke to clear the taste from his mouth and then went to the train.
As he sat down, it occurred to him that, scared as he was, this was the first time he had felt anything other than boredom in years.
Boredom vs. abject terror, he thought. Tough call.
Shane got on the train in a crush of families and tourists. He didn't notice Gabriel get on behind him and ride up the mountain in the back of the car.
kept a lookout over the plaza surrounding Cristo Redentor,
comfortable in the knowledge that nobody
on the platform could see him.
He had found the perfect sniper's nest on a largely undeveloped hilltop that lay 1200 meters, or almost 3/4 of a mile, from the platform, and lay prone among the scrub brush and bushes with his eye up to his scope. The scope was attached to a suppressed, surprisingly compact .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifle. Garcia had started using the Magnum during an operation he and Gabriel had undertaken for Halliburton in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan a few years back, and had really grown to love it. The gun had an effective range of nearly a mile, so he felt comfortable that his current position was well within the weapon's tolerances.
He was clothed in head-to-toe camouflage, and the rifle was camo-colored as well. He had also put an anti-glare cover over the scope so he wouldn't give his position away. Finally, he wrapped some green duct tape around the handle to make it easier to grip.
He'd humped in the night before and set up shop on the hillside. He'd dropped his vehicle a mile away and carried a custom-built guitar case. The inside of the case had been designed to hold his camo clothing and his disassembled rifle.
Once he'd found his spot, he'd changed clothes and taken his position, then gotten a few hours of Army sleep in the bush. Now he was in position to support the operation as, he hoped, the fly in the ointment-- the thing Phoenix wouldn't be expecting.
He swept the plaza with his scope, searching for dangerous faces or anything out of place. But all he saw were families and tourists-- exactly what he'd expect to see.
After a few moments, he saw Shane emerge from the path leading from the funicular station to the plaza and the statue itself. Garcia zoomed in on him and noticed that he was the same shade of green as he'd been that morning at breakfast.
Guess a decade out of the field softened him up, he thought. No big surprise there.
He zoomed back out and took another quick look around for Gabriel. There. He saw his partner coming up the path as well, but he stayed far enough behind Shane that nobody would think they were together.
He watched as Shane took up a position on the far side of the platform and Gabriel moved with the crowd up to the plaza. He again swept for threats but saw nothing.
He looked back over to Shane-- and his heart leaped to this throat as he realized he couldn't find him. He searched the platform end-to-end, but there was no sign of him.
"Sir, I've lost Shane," he muttered into his mike.
"Shit," Gabriel answered. "Give me a second."
Garcia watched Gabriel hoof it up the stairs and disappear around the enormous statue-- and then came to the realization that Shane had probably done the same thing. Just as his brain made the connection, he heard the familiar click in his earpiece.
"I got him," he heard Gabriel say. "Behind the statue."
"Roger. Can you have him move out from behind it?"
"On it," Gabriel said. "Right or left?"
A quick sweep and: "Right. Clearer shot if anybody comes at him."
A moment later he heard Gabriel's voice again, but this time not directed at him. "Sir? Yes, sir. I think if you're looking for the best view, you might want to try over there."
And a muffled Shane: "Ah, thank you. I'll give it a shot."
A moment later Garcia saw Shane emerge to the right of the statue, then Gabriel to the left. Shane leaned up against the railing and looked down over the city, while Gabriel tried to disappear into the crowd maybe 20 feet away from the still-green Korean.
As he flicked his scope over the platform, Garcia also noticed that the crowd had grown larger.
happened next was later the subject of a lot of speculation and
reconstruction, but according to our best guess it went something
As I loitered on the platform, always keeping about 20 feet between myself and Shane, I noticed a Brazilian man come up to Shane and lean on the railing next to him.
I checked my watch. "Could be him," I said into the PPT. "Timing's pretty much perfect."
"I've got eyes on," Garcia said crisply.
The man stretched and engaged Shane in conversation. I wasn't close enough to hear what they were talking about, but I saw Shane laugh at something the guy said.
Problem was, I was so focused on Shane and the Brazilian that I never noticed the real threat.
The real threat was behind him.
As he watched Shane and the Brazilian, a man clad in dark jeans, a leather jacket, a backpack and a motorcycle helmet approached from behind. As he got to within a couple of feet of Gabriel, he slid a Fairbairn-Sikes double-edged fighting knife into his palm from a wrist sheath.
He stepped forward toward Gabriel. Meanwhile, the Brazilian man talking to Shane reached into his pocket.
"Shit," I said into the PTT. "Here we go."
"I've got a shot, sir," said Garcia. "On your call."
I reached into my pocket for the syringe I was carrying-- which was filled with a powerful but harmless sedative. The first option was to subdue Phoenix and knock him out so we could get him away from the platform and into the van we had waiting in the parking lot nearby.
The second option was on a hilltop 1200 meters away.
I took a step forward.
And that's when I heard the unmistakable BANG of a gunshot.
From behind me.
Phoenix readied the knife and watched Linden's head for any signs of situational awareness. But he got pretty much what he expected-- Linden was so focused on his own bait that he forgot to keep an eye out for other sharks.
He slid the knife forward. He wanted it to be quiet and clean, and he planned to walk away while the blood drained from Linden's back.
"What the fuck?" Garcia said to himself.
He swiveled the rifle to the left-- and saw the black-clad and helmeted figure behind Gabriel with a knife in his palm.
I turned at the sound of the gunshot-- and found myself face-to-face with the devil himself.
The figure in front of me was dressed like a motorcyclist, with helmet, boots and the well-known black-on-black combination, but he had a combat knife in his hand and was pointing it toward me.
At the sound of the shot, the crowd went berserk. Next thing I knew people were screaming and running past us toward the path and safety.
Not Phoenix, though. His head had turned a fraction at the gunshot, but he hadn't otherwise moved.
I slammed my palm into his wrist, which deadened his nerves for a quick moment and forced his fingers open. The knife dropped to the ground.
I followed it with an upward shot into his throat, hoping to incapacitate him and leave him helpless, but he was too good for that.
He swept my hand away, and followed up with an offensive move, rather than trying to break contact. He drove his knee upward into my groin, which doubled me over and left me gasping for breath. He grabbed me by the hair and punched me in the jaw, sending me sprawling to the platform.
He picked up the knife and stalked toward me.
"Taking the shot," I heard Garcia say.
"We need him alive," I gasped back.
Garcia grimaced, but settled the scope on the killer's arm.
He pulled the trigger.
There was no sound from the gunshot, but I could feel the round whiz past.
It winged Phoenix, catching him in the upper arm, spinning him around and knocking the knife out of his hand.
He grabbed his arm, and I heard him cry out, but it was muffled under the helmet.
He looked up toward the hillside, then took off running. He quickly disappeared into the rush of rampaging tourists.
I watched him go, then started to stand up-- only to find a hand waiting to help me.
"Obrigado," I muttered-- and my eyes went wide.
"No worries, baby," said Amira.
When the shot rang out, Shane ducked against the wall with the young Brazilian who had been hitting on him. Shane was trying to figure out how to say "I'm straight" in Portuguese when all hell broke loose.
Now he slumped against the wall and watched the roaring crowd-- his young Brazilian suitor among them-- run for the hills.
He pulled the flask out of his shirt pocket, opened it and raised it to the gigantic statue of Jesus.
"Guess it's just you and me, huh, big guy?"
Amira and I ran through the crowd chasing Phoenix.
"Where the hell did you come from?" I asked.
"Later," she said. "You see him?"
"Did he already get on the train?"
Then I heard Garcia's voice in my ear. "I've got him, sir," he said. "He's ahead of you, approaching the station."
"Roger," I said. To Amira: "Garcia says he's up ahead."
"Garcia's still around?" she asked. "On overwatch, I assume."
Then I saw a flash of black leather up ahead and pointed. "There he is!" I exclaimed.
Ahead I saw Phoenix shove into a terrified Brazilian family huddling against the crowd. He knocked over the young wife, who held a baby, and the father turned on Phoenix and started to yell.
Calmly, almost without breaking stride, Phoenix pulled a Glock 9-millimeter from the back of his waistband and shot the husband in the leg, just like that. The man fell to the ground, screaming along with his wife.
Phoenix sprinted past them and continued down the hill, the crowd now parting for him.
"He's heading for the train," I said.
"If he gets on, we'll never catch him," Amira answered.
But he didn't. He passed the funicular station and kept running until he reached the far wall at the edge of the hillside. He jumped the wall and kept going.
I grabbed Amira's hand and pulled her through the crowd. "Garcia, you got him?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," he answered. "Heading down a dirt path to the south."
We reached the wall. I lifted Amira up and then followed her over.
We landed on the hillside to see Phoenix heading toward the hillside, between a couple of boulders. As he ducked between them, he turned to see us pursuing him, and he pulled the pistol from his jacket and took a shot at us.
We ducked out of the way, but the shot was wild.
Phoenix took advantage of the extra space. He fled between the boulders and disappeared.
"Where the hell's he going?" I asked.
"Looks like he's heading for the cliffs," Amira responded.
"The cliffs? What cliffs?"
Garcia watched through the scope as Phoenix took a wild shot at Gabriel and Amira. He noticed that Phoenix really didn't seem too concerned about hitting them; it was clear the shot was meant to give him time to get away.
A moment later Garcia understood why. Phoenix burst out of the bushes next to the imposing, impossibly high cliffs and pulled a cord attached to his backpack.
Garcia's jaw dropped as he watched the backpack split open and a parasail wing unfold and lock into place.
"Holy shit," he muttered.
"What?" asked Gabriel over the earpiece. Garcia hadn't even realized his mike was on.
Then, from the earpiece...
"Oh," said Gabriel. "What the fuck is that?"
Just as Gabriel and Amira emerged from the brush, Phoenix gave them a little wave.
Then he dove off the cliff.
They rushed to the edge-- only to see him swoop upward and start climbing.
"You see that?" Gabriel asked into the PTT.
"I did, but I still don't believe it," Garcia answered. "Got eyes on him now. He must have picked that spot for the thermal."
He pointed the rifle at the still-rising wing. "You want me to drop him?"
"No!" Gabriel said. "You shoot him or that wing, it's game over and we have nothing. But can you watch him?"
"Roger that," Garcia said. "What's the plan?"
"Just keep me in the loop on where he's heading," Gabriel answered.
I grabbed Amira's hand and dragged her back into the brush.
"What's the plan?" she asked, unknowingly echoing Garcia.
"We're gonna catch the motherfucker," I said. "Garcia's got eyes on."
We ran through the thick brush and popped out at the brick wall. Over the wall we went, and then ran helter-skelter toward the parking lot for the Cristo Redentor site.
I led her to the white panel van we had taken for the operation. Yeah, I said "taken." When we picked it up off a side street in the Centro District it had been yellow. We were planning on using it as a mobile interrogation site so we could find out what we needed from Phoenix.
I unlocked the door. "This is me," I said.
She stepped back and laughed. "Uh, no," she answered.
"Why not?" I asked. "It's functional."
She ran around the van and continued down the lot. She hit a button on her remote and a Ferrari FF beeped a few cars away.
"Really?" I asked.
"What?" she said, all doe-eyed innocence. "I got upgraded. Points."
"Sure," I said as we got in.
She threw it into gear and squealed into reverse, then roared out of the parking lot. I just grabbed the Oh Shit handle and held on for dear life.
We fishtailed down the tight, curvy road that led down the mountain to the street below. She handled the car like a true pro, shifting between gears smoothly and weaving among the slower-moving cars-- that is to say, all the other cars on the road-- effortlessly.
She glanced at me.
"So let me get this straight," she said in her smartass voice, the one I knew so well. "You and your alcoholic Korean who weighs 145 pounds soaking wet were gonna force one of the world's great assassins into a panel van and drive him away? That was your master plan?"
I gave her a little shrug. "Gotta use what you got, Amira," I said. Into the PTT I said, "Garcia, you still got him?"
"Roger," he answered. "He's drifting to the south. I'm not sure he's totally in control of that thing right now."
"We're heading south," I said to Amira.
Another sideways glance. "And this is the grand plan now?" she asked. "We drive around like assholes while Garcia plays GPS with a guy floating around like a kite?"
"Pretty much," I answered.
I looked out the window at the sky for a moment, then turned back to her.
"So you want to explain to me how it is you're not dead?" I asked.
I watched her thoughts play out over her delicate features. I could always tell when she was weighing a lie, and I could see it here. A little twitch of the side of her mouth told me everything I needed to know.
"Not the time," she said finally. I couldn't help but be a little grateful that she saved me the trouble of getting pissed at her for lying.
Suddenly she accelerated, throwing me back into the seat. I looked up to see a tiny hole open up between a bus and a small Fiat and Amira steer us into it.
"Holy God," I muttered.
"Still can't handle strong women drivers, eh?" she teased.
"I'm just not ready to die."
She laughed out loud at this and we zoomed between the bus and the Fiat, setting off a round of horns as we blazed on through.
The immediate danger seemingly passed, I turned back to her.
"Does Armour know you're still alive?" I asked.
Again with the twitch and the long pause.
Finally: "Nobody knows I'm still alive, Gabriel, except you. And I guess Garcia. Hey, Garcia! Tell him I said hey."
I rolled my eyes and hit the PTT. "Amira says hey, Garcia."
"Roger that, sir." Professional, quiet, noncommittal. Garcia knew what I'd gone through trying to get over her.
"He still doesn't like me, does he?" Amira asked playfully.
"He's seen what Hurricane Amira can do to people," I answered.
She shot me a look but didn't say anything.
"Why do we have to keep the fact that you're alive a secret?" I asked.
"Focus, Gabriel," she answered. "We can talk about it later."
I pushed the PTT. "Garcia, how's our Icarus doing?"
"Flying too close to the sun, sir," he answered. I suppressed a grin. "Definitely flying south," he continued. "He's got control of the thing now and it looks like he's making for the southern part of the city."
I saw another tiny space roaring up at us and I closed my eyes.
A moment later I heard another blast of honks and opened them. We'd squeezed through yet another space that wasn't big enough for a bicycle, much less a car.
"Sao Conrado," I said.
Amira looked my way. "What?"
"Sao Conrado Beach," I said. "That's where he's heading. It's the landing spot for most of the paragliders here. It's the only logical place."
I pointed toward a highway exit sign. "That way."
She veered around a Toyota, setting off yet another round of angry horns, and exited the highway.
I looked out the window and into the sky. "There he is!" I pointed. "Stay with him."
She angled over and slid between two buses, which elicited-- you guessed it-- another angry honk.
"The traffic police are gonna curb-stomp you," I said.
"Gotta catch me first."
A half a block later I pointed toward a side street. "Turn down there," I said. "We'll meet his ass at the beach."
"You gonna waterboard him?" she asked playfully.
"With salt water," I promised.
heard bits and pieces of the back and forth as Gabriel either hit the
button or butt-dialed it.
He couldn't help but roll his eyes as he thought about Amira being back in their lives. Just like that, after all the misery Gabriel-- and, by extension, Garcia himself-- had gone through. It had been like years of detox, and now she was back.
He watched the killer they knew only as Phoenix drift south toward Sao Coronado Beach. His eyes were following him, but his brain was starting to process the events of the day in a parallel file.
Coincidental that she showed up just in time to save Gabriel's ass, he thought. And I thought she was supposed to be dead!
He was so lost in his reverie that he nearly missed it. Suddenly Phoenix' parasail jerked up and away, out of Garcia's vision through the scope. He pulled back and located him, then put the scope on him again.
"Uh-oh," he said.
have a problem," Garcia said in my ear. "He got caught in
I looked up to see Phoenix fluttering and darting away from us.
"Looks like he's getting carried toward the hills," I said. I looked at Amira. "We have to go up there after him."
"Gabriel, that's up in the favelas," she said. "People like us don't do so good in places like that." She paused. "Well, people like you."
I just gave her a long look. After a moment she shrugged.
"Okay," she said, "but you're not gonna have Garcia there to have your back."
"I'll have you, won't I?"
The parasail jerked back and forth with the sudden cross-wind as Phoenix tried desperately to get control. Phoenix looked down to see the huts of a favela rushing up at him.
He braced for impact.
We bumped and bounced as the Ferrari rolled up the pockmarked dirt road of the Favela de Canoa. A group of dirty, excited chidren ran alongside us, smacking the car with their palms and grinning and yelling at us. The favela was a monument to squalor, with wood-and-cardboard huts topped by tin roofs and streets full of animals, waste and mud. Driving in there in the car we were in seemed like an act of supreme hubris. I could only hope the gods didn't punish me for it.
"Not too many Ferraris come through here, I guess?" I asked. "But my white van woulda fit in perfectly." Amira just shot me a dirty look.
Ahead, I could see the parasail descending too rapidly as Phoenix struggled for control and lost.
Amira accelerated the car to pull out of the crowd and the kids fell back a bit. She punched the lock button.
"Bad juju, Gabriel," she said. "This is not gonna turn out well."
glider clipped the side of one of the huts and pinwheeled crazily out
of control. It bounced off another hut and slammed into the dirt.
It flipped, rolled over and skipped over the dirt before finally coming to a stop.
Phoenix lay there for just a second, letting the shock of the crash wash over him and get replaced by spikes of pain.
Then he shook his head, did a quick check to make sure nothing was broken, and untethered himself from the glider. He turned to see the Ferrari coming up the hill, so he took off running and disappeared between two of the huts.
I saw Phoenix unclip himself and take off into the favela. Amira pulled up next to the ruined paraglider and stopped.
"Stay in the car," I said.
"Don't give me that macho bullshit," she said. "You know I can fight as well--"
"In case we have to leave quickly," I interrupted.
I opened the car door and jumped out.
Garcia watched the paraglider bounce off one of the huts in the favela below and spin out of control. It disappeared into the tangle of huts and alleys.
Then he noticed Brazilian police and security officers coming up the hill toward the Cristo Redentor statue below him.
Time to go.
He quickly disassembled his rifle and put it back inside the custom-made guitar case. He'd gotten the idea for a guitar-shaped rifle case after seeing the movie Desperado while on contract in Mexico. He only wished he could fire the rifles from inside the case like Antonio Banderas.
He finished packing the rifle away and quickly changed his clothes. He hid the camo clothing in the case and headed back up the path toward his car.
I pulled my gun and headed toward the line of buildings. I did a quick check of the first alley I came to and found it empty, then ran down it.
I passed a group of rough-looking locals, all dressed in dirty t-shirts and jeans, all of whom stared me down as I ran by-- but none of them made a move toward me, so I kept running.
I ran past the edge of the next hut-- and about one foot farther, as Phoenix kicked out from behind the building and knocked my gun away.
He followed up with a punch, but I was ready and blocked it. I hit him with a quick punch to the stomach, then another.
I reached in to pop him in the throat, but he gave me a nice sidestep and knocked my hand away-- then followed with a head-butt.
With the helmet on.
It felt like I'd just gotten hit by a boulder. I felt the skin open up over my eye and blood drip down the bridge of my nose. I staggered back and tried to shake the stars out of my eyes.
I was just starting to realize how big a tactical advantage the helmet gave him. Besides the head-butt, he also only had to worry about protecting his body since his face was covered.
So I did what often do when confronted with an intransigent opponent with overwhelming tactical superiority.
I taunted him.
"Seriously with the helmet?" I asked. "What, you gotta protect your pretty face? I bet you're ugly as fuck. That's why you cover yourself up with the helmet, isn't it?"
Yeah, I know. Mature and engaging. Shockingly, he didn't respond, which disappointed me, so I decided to even up the playing field a little.
I deked at his throat and when he put his hands up to defend himself I shot a kick into his nuts.
He let out a serious grunt and stumbled backward. He tripped over a well-placed hole and fell on his ass.
I went after him, but he came up with a rock and bashed it into the side of my face.
Again with the stars.
I fell over into a nearby wall and slid to a seated position, my face hurting at the top and the bottom.
"Fuck you," I muttered.
He stumbled to his feet and ran away. I was at least gratified to see that he was holding his crotch.
Amira sat in the car, a 9-millimeter pistol in her lap, and bit her fingernails. She could not believe that after everything she'd been through, she was setting herself up to get murdered in a hillside favela in Rio.
Maybe I should call Mom, she thought.
She glanced over to the group of local youths leaning against a nearby hut. They ranged in age from preteen to maybe 30, and all of them terrified her. Watching them watch her with open interest and the presumption that she was theirs for the taking reminded her of the vecindario of her youth.
She saw all their heads turn to look at her at the same time. Without thinking about it, she lifted the pistol up and showed it to them.
In unison, they all lifted their shirts to show her that every single one was packing. A couple had 9-mils, while one dude showed her a TEC-9 assault rifle.
"Fuck me," she muttered.
She put the pistol back in her lap and raised her empty hands to show she wasn't a threat. A couple of them grinned and one burst out laughing, but they turned away from her and focused on something else.
A moment later, she figured out what they were looking at.
The helmeted, black-clad Phoenix tore out from between two of the huts on a 9-cc motorbike. He zipped past the Ferrari and headed down the hill.
Then Gabriel stumbled out from between another set of huts and ran to the car.
Garcia had parked the car in a copse of thick bushes a few hundred feet from a highway. When he departed from his sniper's nest, he had to cover almost two miles-- all of it offroad, all of it along hillsides, in an effort to avoid the roads and minimizing his chances of being seen.
As he crested the hill and headed down a path through the brush, he heard the unmistakable sound of police sirens. No surprise there, he thought. With an incident like the one that had just happened, he knew the Cristo Redentor platform would soon be crawling with cops.
But then it hit him-- these sirens weren't coming from the direction of the road up to the statue. They were in front of him.
It would make sense for the security forces to secure nearby hills and look for any signs of the presence of overwatch support or a sniper, but he hadn't expected them to get to his hill so fast.
He ducked into the brush and tried to get away from the path. That'd be the first place they'd check.
Then he heard voices and realized that they weren't far away.
Amira made a crisp three-point turn and we raced down the hill after the motorbike. I had to admire Phoenix' driving-- he wove in and between the gigantic potholes in the dirt and darted out of the favela and right into traffic. Two cars swerved to a stop to avoid hitting him and every car in the intersection laid on the horn to create a cacophonous symphony.
"He drives like you," I said.
"Shut up," Amira answered.
She followed Phoenix' path right through the scattered cars in the intersection.
"He's heading for the beach," I realized.
"Think he's got a boat?" she said.
"Unless it's a submarine."
I saw her roll her eyes, and it made me smile.
Then ahead I saw Phoenix turn his head ever so fractionally to find us in his peripheral vision.
"Watch out," I said. "He's got something in--"
I was interrupted by a quick series of rapid fire gunshots, one after the other-- BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! Amira's side mirror disintegrated into shards of glass and plastic, and one round centered the windshield and whizzed between us before exiting out the back window.
"Dude can shoot," Amira muttered.
"So can I," I said.
I leaned out the window and squeezed off a couple of shots of my own.
He was darting left and right, trying to present a tougher target. I waited, then led him just a bit and fired.
I saw a spark off the front tire rim and then the front tire...just blew. It exploded.
And after the first spark, as the tire disappeared and the rim started scraping along the concrete, it was followed by a whole shower of sparks.
The bike turned on its side and slid along for half a block. Phoenix jumped off it and slammed into the concrete. He rolled over and over, finally coming to a stop against a light pole.
Amira turned the car toward him, but he still had a half-block lead on us. He struggled to his feet, squeezed off a shot in our general direction, then stumbled down the nearest alley toward the beach.
"That way!" I yelled. "The beach is only a couple of blocks from here."
"Hold your panties, baby," she said. "I got it."
She skidded through a turn and headed toward the alley. She stopped at the end and we jumped out.
I could see Phoenix limping out the other end.
He looked over his shoulder and fired off a shot.
Garcia crouched in the bushes and waited. He could hear the voices of the security officers moving up the path nearby. Garcia spoke fluent Spanish, and while his Portuguese was limited, he could pick up bits and pieces.
"...espalharse, olhar para suspeitos..." he heard. Spread out, look for suspects.
He looked around at his location. Not perfect, but not bad. He was hidden in a marianinha bush, with its mix of green and yellow flowers and vines.
Then he heard the cops spreading out, picking their way through the bushes, and getting closer. He hunched down and waited.
A moment later the bushes swirled around him and a cop bumbled right into his lap.
Phoenix' shot was well-placed.
No, fuck that. It was perfect.
It wasn't aimed at me or Amira; instead, he shot at a wire holding up a wrecked metal sign above us. And holy shit, was it perfect.
It bisected the wire and sent the jagged piece of metal toppling down toward us.
I grabbed Amira and shoved her out of the way, then dove on top of her. The sign crashed to the ground behind us, sending shards of metal and sparks all around.
We kept our heads down until the smoke cleared, then I looked up. Unsurprisingly, Phoenix was gone.
"Holy shit," I muttered.
"Dude can shoot," she agreed.
"Let's go," I said. I grabbed her by the hand and lifted her off the ground. We ran down the alley toward the beach.
The cop nearly stepped right in Garcia's lap. His eyes went wide and he opened his mouth to call for help. He didn't make it, though.
Garcia shot his fist out and popped the man right in the solar plexus, cutting off his breath for the couple of seconds Garcia needed to grab him, flip him around and put him in a sleeper hold.
The man lost consciousness a moment later and his body folded up like a sleeper sofa. Garcia slid him to the ground and quickly trussed him with the duct tape from the rifle case. He ripped a long piece out of the camo shirt and tied it as a gag around the guy's head.
Then he grabbed the man's radio off his belt, picked up the rifle case and headed deeper into the bushes, down the mountain.
We burst out of the end of the alley to see that Phoenix had already crossed the huge four-lane road between us and the beach. The black-clad, helmeted figure was running through the sand, stepping over and past the startled sunbathers. Amira grabbed my hand and we darted into the street.
Cars buzzed by us in both directions as we Froggered our way through traffic. We got to the median and stopped for a breath.
"Lotta traffic," she said.
"You want to wait here?"
She laughed and dragged me out into traffic again.
Garcia was in sight of the car.
He couldn't actually see it yet, but he recognized the tree near which he had parked it. He had covered it with a neat little device he and Gabriel had come across while working on a project in sub-Saharan Africa-- a camouflage tarp that helped the car blend into its surrounding environment; in this case, another set of bushes. From a distance of more than 10 or 15 feet, the car was invisible.
Unfortunately, the Brazilian cop that was circling it was much closer than that. He walked around it and ran his hand over the tarp.
The cop lifted his radio. "Eu encontrei um carro," he said. I have found a car.
Then Garcia realized he was hearing it in reverb-- both from the lips of the cop himself and from the radio hanging from Garcia's belt.
The cop heard it too. He stopped and turned toward Garcia, who was hiding in the bush.
He put the radio back on his belt and pulled his gun, then advanced on the bush.
We zig-zagged our way through the second round of honking horns and what I usually thought of as the "OK" symbol-- turns out that's roughly equal to shooting someone the bird in Brazil-- and got to the edge of the beach.
Ahead of us, Phoenix took off his helmet and jacket, jumped into the water and began to swim. I could see a small speedboat bobbing in the water about 100 meters offshore. I could also see a long-haired figure waiting in the boat. Unfortunately, the boat was too far away to make out any features.
We ran across the sand to the edge of the water.
I fired a shot at the figure dragging himself through the water. I heard a WHING and a splash as it missed.
He got to the boat and climbed aboard. Strangely, the woman onboard didn't help him. He pulled up the anchor and got behind the wheel, never turning where I could get even a glimpse of his face.
I heard the engine roar to life. A moment later the boat turned and sped away.
All Amira and I could do was stand in mute anger and watch it recede into the distance and disappear around the corner of a nearby peninsula.
waited, tensed. The man approached-- and then his eyes lit on
Garcia. His eyes grew wide and he pointed the gun toward him.
"Saia lentamente!" he said. Step out slowly.
Garcia came out of the bushes, but he didn't come slowly. He rushed out and caught the surprised cop unawares. He snaked his hand out and caught the man right in the throat with the webbing between his thumb and forefinger.
The gun dropped as the man let out a throttled grunt and fell to the ground. He grabbed at his throat, his eyes widening.
Garcia knew the guy would be okay. He'd learned the maneuver during his days as a Navy SEAL, and he'd learned to modulate it after he crushed a guy's windpipe during an incursion into a suspected Syrian chemical weapons site. But he also knew that it hurt like hell and the guy would be sore for a week.
He duct-taped the man's hands and leaned over to his ear. "Stay still. You'll be all right," he whispered.
The cop shot him a strange look and tried to gurgle some words, but he still couldn't talk. Garcia patted him on the cheek and stood up.
He uncovered the car, got in and drove away.
It wasn't until he was a mile away or so that he realized he'd said the last words to the Brazilian cop in Spanish, not Portuguese.
Rio de Janeiro
Amira drove at a more reasonable pace back to the hotel. I sat in the passenger seat and stared glumly out the window, watching the lush hills and desolate neighborhoods of Rio wash by me, and finally I saw the beach and the American sex tourists and the beautiful local women in skimpy bikinis and I knew we were almost home.
I watched an American man-- 60 if he was a day, the white hair curling on his chest, his tiny Euro-style Speedo nearly disappearing under the overhang of his fat, hairy belly-- sitting under a tent with a carioca who couldn't have been older than 16, her curly black hair and bright blue eyes popping out from her honey-brown skin. Her bikini consisted of about 3.5 square inches of material and probably cost $500. I knew who had paid for it.
They sat under the tent, him probably afraid of melanoma and her determined to do whatever it took to keep him happy and keep the meager stream of coin coming in so that she could feed her mother, her five sisters and all their children, and they looked like a couple dreamed up by Escher to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the concept of couple-hood. I watched them go through their kabuki ritual that would inevitably end in a Viagra-fueled romp in his $400-per-night suite at the Copacabana Palace, and I felt sad.
I realized after a moment that it was probably just the letdown of an operation gone wrong. Most operators will tell you that the adrenaline buildup prior to an operation is a high they never forget, but the chemical dump after-- particularly on one that goes badly-- is the worst low they can ever imagine.
Today it led me back to the first question that had popped in my head when I saw Amira standing over me at the Cristo Redentor Plaza.
I glanced over to see that she was already looking at me, clearly expecting the questions to start.
"I thought you were dead," I said.
"You're supposed to be dead."
"So are you."
"Funny," I answered. "I know why I'm alive. What I don't know is how you are. Armour told me you blew up in the Mexico City crash."
"That's what he was supposed to tell you," she answered.
"So he lied to me?" I supposed I really wasn't all that surprised, but I was disappointed that Amira was part of it.
So her answer surprised me. "No."
I just stared at her.
"Seriously," she said. "He thinks I was on the flight. Everyone does. That was the point. I knew somebody was coming for me, and I needed to disappear."
The attendant helped the pregnant woman she knew as Angie Maldonado to her seat, then turned to leave. Amira put her hand on the girl's arm.
"Yes, ma'am?" asked the attendant, turning toward her.
"Thank you," Amira answered.
The girl just smiled and headed back to the front of the plane.
Amira waited until she disappeared, then got up and headed for the bathroom.
She slid uncomfortably down the aisle, her bag on her arm, turning to squeeze past a caballero straining to put his Botoxed girlfriend's Gucci bag in the overhead storage and the abuela crossing herself with furious abandon at the thought of a transcontinental flight.
Amira looked like she was prematurely airsick. One of the flight attendants noticed her and nudged another, pointing out la chica verde, the green girl. "Probably pregnancy sickness," said the second flight attendant, a mother herself who had sympathy for the poor pregnant thing.
As soon as Amira was inside the bathroom, she was miraculously healed. From her bag she pulled a hairband and a baseball hat, along with some other supplies.
When she exited the bathroom fifteen minutes later, the flight attendants long gone to check on other passengers, Amira was no longer the pregnant and sick Angie Maldonado.
Now she was dressed in the gray uniform of an Airport Operations Specialist, complete with an orange vest and a badge that identified her as Sol Adelina. She wore large black glasses that obscured half her petite face and even had a horrific black mole-- a facial tumor, really-- on her cheek. Somehow, she even looked shorter.
She carried a clipboard and loudly smacked on a stick of gum. She did not have the shoulder bag she'd carried into the bathroom.
She pushed her way through the boarding passengers, her Spanish a flat and affectless mutter, until she reached the door and exited, leaving the airplane behind.
I looked at her incredulously. Suddenly I was disturbed even to be sitting in the car with her.
"So you knew they were gonna blow up the plane?" I asked.
She just shot me a sideways look, but didn't respond.
"So you knew, and you didn't do anything to stop it?" I continued. "You let 300 people die to cover your tracks? Man, I knew you were cold-blooded, but that's over the top even for you."
Suddenly she jerked the steering wheel over and screeched to a stop next to the road, then turned on me, her anger welling up like a quick Caribbean storm.
"Are you fucking insane?" she demanded. I had forgotten how loud she could be. "What kind of monster do you think I am?"
I shrugged. "I guess the kind of monster who lets a planeload of passengers die," I answered.
"No, you idiot!" she said, her voice high and cracking. "I didn't know they would go after the plane. I just knew they were coming for me and I needed to disappear. So I disappeared. I had no idea the plane would blow up behind me."
I gave her a long look, not totally convinced.
After a moment she rolled her eyes, threw the car back into gear and headed for the hotel.
We rode the rest of the way in silence.
When Garcia got back to the hotel, he found Shane sitting on the floor, shirtless, curled around a bottle of whiskey. Garcia rolled his eyes as he passed the hammered, blubbering mess and poured himself a finger of whiskey in a water glass, then came back over.
"I thought you were done drinking," Garcia said.
"I was," Shane slurred. "I hadn't had a drink in weeks until you assholes showed up."
"You were drunk when we found you!"
"It was a stressful day."
"You're a pussy," Garcia said.
Shane started to reply, but when he sat up the bottle rolled away, and he got distracted by the chase. He finally picked it up and took a long swig, letting out a satisfied sigh as he swallowed.
Garcia watched it all dispassionately, with only a head shake to mark his displeasure.
came into the room to find Shane tonguing a bottle of whiskey like it
was a Brazilian whore and Garcia watching him with a look on his face
that I knew well. I had been on the receiving end of it many times
myself. He met my eyes and gave a little shake of the head.
Shane looked up and saw Amira, and his eyes went wide. "Amira?" he slurred. "But you're dead!"
"That's what they tell me," she answered. She crossed the room to the bar and poured herself a glass of Scotch.
"We gotta talk," Garcia said to me.
I nodded. "We do."
I nodded again and we headed toward the bedroom, but Amira stepped in front of us and wouldn't let us pass.
"No way, boys," she said. "We're in this together now. What affects one of us affects all of us."
"Fuck you," Garcia said and started to push past her. But she grabbed his arm and refused to let go. He tried to pull away, but she clung on to him like a barnacle and wouldn't let him pass.
I couldn't help but laugh, which really didn't make Garcia any happier. He shot me a look of death.
"She's stronger than she looks, isn't she?" I said.
"So it's like that, is it?" he shot back.
"What does that mean?" Amira asked, her eyes flashing.
Garcia looked at her, then at me, then at her again, then rolled his eyes and pulled away from her. But he didn't go to the bedroom. Instead he crossed to the couch and sat down.
"Here's what I don't get," he said. "We contacted Phoenix in alias, by email. He agreed to the contract. Hell, we paid him half up-front! Then he showed up and came at Gabriel. Oh, and then you show up and save Gabriel's ass, and then you chase the guy halfway across Rio."
"I don't hear a question," she said.
He downed his whiskey. "What the fuck are you doing here?" he asked. "And what the hell happened on the platform today?"
"You really don't get it, do you?" she said.
"Clearly I don't."
"Gabriel was always the target," she said. "Phoenix just needed to get Gabriel out in the open. It's too hard to get at you in your normal environment, so he waited until Armour made the obvious move and brought you into this so he could get a clear shot at you."
I stared her in the eyes. "What do you mean, I was the target?" I asked. "Why would this guy want to kill me?"
She downed her whiskey in one pull. "Armour didn't tell you, did he?"
"Tell me what? What the fuck?" I asked. Now I was starting to get pissed too.
"Not so funny when you're the one she's fucking with," Garcia said, and it was my turn to shoot him a look.
"Of course he didn't tell you," Amira said. "That rat bastard."
"The officer Phoenix killed in Hong Kong?" she asked. It was Roger Alden."
That snapped my head back and caught my attention. "What?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. "Riyadh was Ross Ballard."
"Holy shit," I whispered.
"Brock Street disappeared in Moscow a few weeks ago," she finished-- it was the coup de gras. "Then me."
I don't know how I got there, but a moment later I found myself sitting on the edge of the couch, and if my face looked anything like the one Amira was reflecting back at me, then I looked like shit.
"They're coming after..." I muttered.
"Yeah," she said.
"They're coming after who?" Garcia asked.
"Hello?" he said, the irritation creeping into his voice. "They're coming after who?"
"They're coming after us," Amira answered him when I didn't.
Ross Ballard stared at himself in the mirror and tried to ignore the fact that his fake mustache was hanging at what seemed like a right angle to his nose. He adjusted the mustache and added a little extra adhesive to make it stay up.
It's not even the right color! he thought. How many black-haired men have red mustaches?
But as he looked at himself, he didn't see a black-haired man. He saw a mustachioed redhead with a wig that hung over one ear while not reaching the other.
I look ridiculous.
But it didn't matter. Twenty minutes before he'd gotten the call from his Chief of Station, who told him there was a walk-in claiming to have explosive information, and he wanted Ross to handle it. For a first-tour officer only six months out of training, it was a plum opportunity-- bad wig and mustache or no.
What the fuck. Time to go.
He gave the wig one more tug and headed out.
Ten minutes later he found himself sitting across the table from a small, middle-aged Chinese man with sunken eyes and a worried expression on his face.
He looks like he hasn't slept for a week.
"So what can I do for you, Mr. Shin?" he asked in Mandarin.
The man looked back and forth, his eyes never really settling on Ross'. He let out a long sigh and leaned forward.
"My brother, he work for the Ministry of State Security," he said in English.
Ross leaned forward, a classic maneuver used to indicate active listening. "That's interesting," Ross said, trying to keep his voice even. "But what does that have to do with the US Embassy?"
Shin picked up his water glass and took a sip, his hands shaking. He put the glass down and looked at Ross.
An hour later, Ross rushed out of the walk-in room and ran back up to the Station, his face ashen and his fake mustache falling off his face, forgotten.
sat around the living room, all staring at one another. The whiskey
bottle was on the table between us. Garcia finished his glass and
"So what happened?" he asked.
"Shin told Ross that he had information about a CIA officer who was spying for the North Koreans," Amira answered.
Garcia frowned. "How would some Chinese dude know something like that?"
She shrugged. "Shin told Ross that the North Koreans declared the case to the MISS so that the Chinese could help them run it. A lot of the meetings happened in China."
"So who was the American?" Garcia asked.
"We didn't know," I answered. "Shin wouldn't give it up to Ross. He said he wanted a million dollars in diamonds, and he gave Ross enough information that the American had supposedly passed to the Koreans that the seventh floor decided to give it to him."
"Dead drop," I said. "We set up a counter-surveillance run for him and followed him to make sure nobody else was on him. The biggest concern was that he was a dangle. We left the diamonds for him in an alley and he was supposed to replace them with documents giving us the traitor's name."
"And what happened?"
"I lost him." This was Shane, suddenly sounding surprisingly sober.
"You lost him?" Garcia asked him pointedly.
Shane just smiled, his eyes distant.
"Okay, so Shane lost him," Garcia said. "And then what? Just a blown mission?"
"The worst blown mission ever," I said.
had the eye!"
As Armour screamed that at me for the third time, I realized that he was losing it. I leaned over and grabbed him by the arm.
"Frank, we have to go," I said. "We can't be here when the cops arrive."
"They gutted him, Gabriel," he answered. "Like a fucking fish."
His face and shirt were now covered in Shin Zhou's blood, and I could see why. There was so much blood on the ground and wall it looked like a horror show. I could hear sirens approaching in the distance.
"Is the information here?" I asked.
"It's gotta be," he answered.
I knelt by the brick and pulled it out.
"It's empty," I said.
He buried his head in his hands. "This was our only shot," he said. "Now we'll never know."
"We're out of time," I said. "We can talk about this later. For now we have to get the fuck out."
He looked up at me, his eyes vacant. He nodded distantly. "Yeah, sure," he said.
I pulled him up by the arm and we headed down the alley away from the approaching sirens.
I shrugged. "We never got the information, obviously. It was gone, the diamonds were gone, and whoever killed him disappeared without a trace."
"Who do we think it was?" Garcia asked.
"We always thought it was the MISS," I answered. "Or maybe the 2-PLA. But now I'm not so sure."
Amira stood up and started to pace. "It looks like we were all wrong," she said. "The traitor is using Phoenix to tie up all the loose ends."
"No wonder Armour wants him caught or killed so bad," Garcia said. "He probably worries he's next."
We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. Time just stopped as we thought about the implications of what had happened in Hong Kong a decade before and in Rio earlier today.
"What a fucking disaster," I muttered.
"So what do we do now?" Shane asked. I noticed he wasn't slurring anymore. I guess the day's shitstorm had sobered him up.
"We disappear," said Amira.
Both Garcia and I shot her looks of surprise, then glanced at each other. I could tell we had the same thought: find Phoenix and squeeze him until he talks.
"Yes!" Shane agreed. "She's right, Gabriel. The only way to stay alive is to disappear."
Silence again for a few moments.
Finally, I said, "No."
They both looked at me in dismay. I raised a hand to ward off their counter-arguments.
"We have to find out who Phoenix is," I said. "Then maybe we can figure out who he's working for."
"Yeah," said Garcia. "Because we can find him and beat it out of him."
"Gabriel, leave with me," Amira said. She came over and knelt on the floor in front of me, now totally ignoring the other two.
"That's why I came looking for you," she said, then stopped. She glanced around, as if suddenly feeling the weight of the looks she was getting from Shane and Garcia. She grabbed my hand and pulled me off the couch, away from their eyes and ears.
Garcia shot me a look of betrayal as we walked away.
"That's why I came back," she said when we had a few feet of space. "To go away with you. We have to disappear. We'll be safer together."
I looked at her for a moment, and then it hit me.
"Armour came to you first, didn't he?"
She looked away. Then nodded.
"He came to see me a few weeks ago, after Roger got knifed. He just wanted me to watch my back," she said. "Then he warned me after Brock disappeared and told me to come in so he could protect me."
"And we know how that ended," I said. "With a blown-up airplane and 300 people dead. But you still alive."
I saw the anger flash in her eyes, then the betrayal. "You're never going to let me forget that I walked away from that, are you?"
"It's just lucky for you," I said.
"Yeah," she said. "Lucky for me. Tell my nightmares that."
Silence for a moment.
"Did Armour say anything about Phoenix?"
She shrugged. "Not a lot. Just that he's supposedly North Korean."
"Well, that seems important," I said. "Explains why he's the one trying to kill us all. Is he acting on behalf of the Koreans?"
She shook her head. "According to Armour, the Agency thinks he struck out on his own. Used to be an assassin for the regime, his job being to keep dissenters in line or eliminate them. But now he's out on his own, working for money."
I thought about this for a moment, and the longer I thought about all she knew, the madder I got.
"It's nice to know he told you all that," I said. "He didn't tell me shit. Just sent us into a bear trap without giving me any the smallest warning."
"He probably thought you'd walk away if you knew it all," she said.
"Yeah," I said. "Probably."
I turned on my heel and walked back over to the other two. Amira followed me, her look pensive.
"We're going to Paris," I said.
"Nothing like Paris in the springtime, huh?" I said.
"It's August," Amira answered.
"Nothing like Paris in the late summer, early fall, huh?"
She rolled her eyes at me for what seemed like the hundredth time since I'd announced my plan to go to Paris. I think at first she really did hope that it was my recognition of reality and that we would be using Paris as our gateway to anonymity and a life of aliases, obscure hideaway beaches and constantly looking over our shoulders. But I had other plans.
Tonight those plans including going to a seedy strip club in Paris' red light district.
We walked down the street together, our eyes constantly moving to assess for possible threats. We were in the Pigalle section of town, part of the 9th Arondissement. Not a terrible part of town, but not a great place to go at night...unless you were looking for trouble.
And tonight we were looking for trouble. Specifically, a dirty little strip club owned by an old friend of mine. Well, not a friend really. More like an enemy with whom I occasionally made common cause.
"Hey, friend, fifty percent discount for you and your girl there," said a seedy doorman in French as we passed a dingy strip club with nothing but "XXX" over the door.
"No, thanks," I muttered.
"A good time for you and your girlfriend," he said. "Come on in."
He opened the door and stepped aside to wave us in.
I looked at Amira. "Should we?"
She rolled her eyes. "You go ahead," she said.
"Could be fun."
"Hey, that's one of things you love about me!" I protested. I waved at the doorman. "No, thank you," I said.
"How about a few Euros for the trouble?" he asked. We just laughed and kept on walking.
"You ever miss me?" I asked as we walked.
She looked up at me, then cut her eyes away. "You wish."
"You're a hard woman to read," I said.
"That's one of the things you love about me," she answered.
We walked a little farther.
"You know, it took me like five years to get over you," I said.
"Of course it did," she said. "I'm kinda unforgettable."
I couldn't help but laugh.
"It was the same for me," she said. "When they ran you out of the Agency, it was the worst day of my life, since I knew I couldn't have you and the job both."
"Clearly you made the right choice," I answered with a sardonic grin.
She shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Famous last words."
We approached the club I was looking for and I angled us to the door. "This is us," I said. "Are you ready?"
She shrugged. "Sure."
Unlike the welcoming-- if depressing-- atmosphere of the previous club, this one looked shut completely down. Like the other club, it had a neon orange "XXX" sign above the door, but nothing else.
I rang the bell and we waited for a few moments.
Finally a slot slid open and I found myself staring at a pair of beady, Asian eyes I unfortunately recognized.
"Hun Lee," I said. "Good to see you, my friend."
"'My friend?'" I heard Amira mock quietly behind me. I couldn't help but laugh.
"Get me Chong Taek," I said.
"Chong Taek no here."
"Then we'll come inside and wait," I answered.
"You no come inside," the big Korean said.
"Then I'll call the gendarmerie," I said. "And tell them that you have at least three girls in there who are no older than 16 and at least four who were illegally trafficked from Russia or Eastern Europe. And that you've gotten them all addicted to heroin so they can't leave. And then we can hang out here until they show up and arrest all your asses and deport you back to Pyongyang. Does that sound good to you?"
The beady eyes narrowed, I hoped in fear but probably just in concentration as the big ox tried to figure out what I had just told him. Then the eyes blinked a couple of times, and I knew I had won.
"You wait there," he said, and slammed the slot shut.
crept along the edge of the rooftop. He moved like a cat,
comfortable moving around above the streets like a Latin Cary Grant.
He knew where all the cameras were and he moved to avoid them. A
couple of times he stepped away from the edge of the roof so that
he'd be out of their line of sight, then moved back as he continued
He wore a backpack and an earpiece. In the earpiece he heard Gabriel's voice: "...and deport you back to Pyongyang. Does that sound good to you?"
He couldn't help but laugh. He'd dealt with Hun Lee and knew the big Korean was stupid and a thug, the cheapest kind of criminal: the dime-a-dozen muscle that smarter and more important criminals used to keep their investments safe, their forced prostitutes addicted to drugs, and their enemies always looking over their shoulders. Even though the street muscle were the guys who brought the lowest reward for killing, they were the ones Garcia loved killing the most. And he was looking forward to having a shot at Hun Lee.
He reached his pre-appointed spot and knelt to listen.
Lee and another thick-necked piece of Korean muscle meat marched us
down a dirty hallway.
"This place is such a cliche," Amira muttered to me. She was right-- it looked like every strip club in every movie you've ever seen, with purple velour on the walls and thick carpet on the floor, cigarette burns and holes in the carpet and walls.
Hun Lee walked in front of us, while his meaty friend marched behind us. We came to a spot in the wall, and Hun Lee stopped.
"We just gonna hang out here?" I asked, mildly taunting him. He glanced back at me, a gleam in his lizard eyes, then pushed on the wall.
And a door silently popped open. Amira and I exchanged impressed looks as Hun Lee led us into a dark staircase.
crouched at the edge of the rooftop. He pulled a small scope from
his backpack and pointed it at the building across the street,
focusing on a top-floor window.
Through the scope, he could see Chong Taek waiting in an office and looking out the window, though not in Garcia's direction. Chong Taek was just as seedy as his two muscle men, with beady little eyes that constantly shifted from one direction to the other, but he wasn't nearly as big. He wore a flashy, clearly expensive suit, all gleaming fabric and sharp lines.
Over Chong Taek's shoulder, Garcia saw the door open and the motley parade come in-- first Hun Lee, then Gabriel and Amira sharing the same bemused looks, then some other Korean widebody.
Garcia could clearly see Hun Lee's gun in a poorly-concealed shoulder holster, while the thug behind them just carried his pistol in his hand.
Taek stood in his office and looked out the window. I glanced around
and saw pretty much what you'd expect: a desk, a ratty velour couch
that probably had more semen on it than Monica Lewinsky's little blue
dress, and a couple of beat-up filing cabinets. I was pretty sure I
could see bloodstains on the floor. And maybe on the wall.
I looked over at Amira and saw that she was doing the same mental math I was. I sure hope they don't add our blood to the mix.
"Gabriel Linden," Chong Taek said. "Really? You think you just come here and visit me?"
He turned and peered at me, his face a mask of dim amusement.
"I am honored, old friend," he said.
"I brought you a new girl for the club," I said, and nodded toward Amira.
She shot me an indignant look. I just grinned at her.
Chong Taek circled her, like a dog sniffing a piece of meat, then looked at me and shook his head.
"She too old," he said. "You got anything better?"
"Hey!" she sputtered. I laughed and put my hand on her arm.
"We're here to do business, Chong Taek," I said.
dumped his backpack on the roof next to him and opened it up. It was
loaded with all the things he loved most in the world: a Glock
9-millimeter with suppressor, two extra magazines, and a gun-shaped
piece of plastic with a high-tension line hanging from it.
He pulled out the gun and screwed the silencer on, then put the pistol in the back of his waistband. He tucked the extra mags in his pockets.
Then he aimed the gun-shaped thing at the building housing Chong Taek's club. He pulled the trigger-- and with a soft WHOOMP, a grappling hook shot out of the launcher, flew over the street, and landed in the middle of the far roof. It dragged back toward the edge and caught on a brick outcropping, where it dug in and locked in place.
saw Chong Taek glance up at the sound of the soft THUNK coming from
the roof, but he didn't seem too concerned about it.
He grinned at me. "What you business here?" he asked in his usual Korean street bastardization of English. "Last time I see you, you say you cut my throat and throw me in river."
"Yes, Chong Taek," I said. "Business."
tugged on the line to make sure it was tight, then tied the other end
of the line securely around a brick chimney about five feet off the
roof. He pulled it again, verified that it was taut, then pulled a
small hook from the backpack, knelt and waited.
Then he heard Gabriel say, "Yes, Chong Taek. Business. I want to talk to you about Phoenix."
As soon as Garcia heard the word "Phoenix," he looped the hook over the line, ran toward the edge of the roof and jumped off.
He zipped down the line and headed for the window. As he got close, he lifted his feet.
I could see Garcia approaching over Chong Taek's shoulder, but the two idiots guarding us missed him completely.
The faces of the two idiots didn't change at my mention of Phoenix, but Chong Taek's did. He turned and stared openly at me as if I'd just lifted my leg and farted.
"Phoenix?" he asked incredulously.
And then Garcia smashed through the window.
He slammed into Chong Taek and knocked him onto the floor. He pulled his pistol from his waistband and pressed the silencer against Chong Taek's forehead.
"Hello, Garcia," said Chong Taek. "I wonder where you were."
Meanwhile, Amira ducked a wild punch from the idiot behind us, turned and drove her knee right into his nuts, which doubled him over. She grabbed the back of his head and drove it down into her knee, staggering him and leaving him shaking his head.
He recovered and swung again at Amira. She ducked this one too, then drove her little fist into his throat. He grabbed his throat, and she followed it with a punch to the stomach. She picked up the gun he'd dropped and bashed him over the head.
That did it. His eyes rolled up in his head and he slid to the floor.
While Garcia and Amira were taking care of their Koreans, I spun Hun Lee around, grabbed him by the neck and slammed his face into the wall, which knocked him out cold as well.
I picked up one of the multiple guns lying around the room and knelt next to Chong Taek. He looked up at me with that dim-witted stare that I always found so irritating, so I put the gun against his cheek.
"Time to talk business, my friend," I said.
Garcia and I dragged him to his feet and tossed him in his desk chair. I sat on the edge of the desk with the gun while Garcia and Amira tied up the two unconscious idiot thugs and propped them against the wall.
I leaned over Chong Taek.
"Tell me about Phoenix," I said.
At the mention of Phoenix, he got visibly uncomfortable. He glanced around the office, grimaced and generally did everything he could to avoid looking me in the eye.
"C'mon, Chong Taek," I said. "Just talk to me and we can get this unpleasantness over with."
He shook his head. "No," he answered.
I glanced at Garcia, who stood behind Chong Taek. He put his hand on Chong Taek's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. Chong Taek flinched. It was a gentle gesture, but the point was made.
Chong Taek hesitated for a few seconds, but I could see the gears slowly turning in his giant head. Finally he looked up at me.
"Phoenix dead," he said. "He die many years ago, before I meet you. He killed by CIA."
I shook my head. "Nice try, old friend," I answered. "Phoenix is very much alive. He's killed four of my friends in the last six months, and he took a shot at me last week."
At this Chong Taek looked surprised. "I no know anything, Gabriel," he said. "I out of service for a long time now. They don't trust me no more."
I looked up at Garcia, who shrugged. I gave him a little nod-- and he grabbed Chong Taek by the hair and slammed his face against the desktop.
The impact split Chong Taek's nose and knocked a tooth loose. Garcia lifted his head and held him up while I leaned in closer.
I could see his eyes rolling around in his head like a cartoon cat.
"I need to find Phoenix," I said. "Where do I start?"
To my surprise, Chong Taek burst out laughing. The force sent his loose tooth spinning out of his head. I watched it land on the floor at his feet. Meanwhile, Chong Taek kept laughing, tears streaming down his face. He reached up to brush them away and accidentally bumped his broken nose, which made him grunt in pain in the middle of his laughter.
We just sat and waited for him to regain control.
"Oh, Gabriel, you funny man," he said. "You no find Phoenix. Phoenix find you."
"What can you tell me about him?" I asked. "You have to know something."
He shrugged. "Even when I in Army, nobody say nothing about Phoenix. He work for Kim Jong-Il, he very bad guy. Big killer. Nobody know who he is or where he come from. All we know is he have special mission and make country proud."
"Somebody's go to know something," I said. "I mean, there's got to be information on the guy somewhere."
There was silence for a few moments as I watched the gears in Chong Taek's brain turn. I swear I saw smoke coming out of the back of his head.
"Should I shovel some more coal in?" I asked him. He just looked at me blankly. "Never mind," I said.
Suddenly his eyes widened. "There a file," he said.
"Government keep file on everybody," he answered. "There must be file on Phoenix."
Garcia and I shared a look.
"That does sound like the Koreans," Garcia said.
"Sure, sure," said Chong Taek. "There always a file. Even if you just a nobody from the villages, they got a file on you. They must have file on Phoenix. He important, big somebody."
"Where would they keep it?" I asked.
"Same place as all the files--"
He stopped himself and gave me a long look, then turned his eyes away. "No," he said.
"You were about to say the Ministry of Public Security, weren't you?" The MPS was the North Korean intel service, sort of a low-rent combination of the FBI, the CIA and the Gestapo.
"No," he said.
"Does your brother still work there?" I asked.
"No, Gabriel," he said. "You not put my brother in this. It too dangerous. Now you fucking with North Korean government. You get my brother killed."
I heard one of the idiot thugs stir against the wall. I glanced at Amira and nodded. She snapped a front kick against his jaw and sent him back to sleep.
"Now, where were we?" I said. "Oh, yeah. We were talking about getting your brother to help us--"
"No no no no no," he said.
"There's money in it, my friend."
As I knew it would, the mention of money immediately changed his bearing. He tried to look thoughtful, but on his lizard face the expression seemed more like befuddlement. Then again, nearly every expression seemed like befuddlement on the face of Chong Taek.
"How much money?" he asked.
"A lot," I answered. "I mean, it is business, isn't it? I wouldn't expect him to do this without getting rewarded." I gave him a sly look. "Nor would I expect you to help us without getting your own reward."
He leaned back against the desk and smiled stupidly at me.
"I see what I can do," he said.
room was dark, with only a silver of light coming in through the
slightly parted window curtains. Gabriel slept, naked and alone in
He grumbled and turned over, but he didn't wake up or notice Amira sitting on a chair next to his bed, watching him sleep. He rolled over to his stomach, his hands under his pillow.
She sat there, silent as the grave, her eyes on his face, her body not moving. You could have sat next to her in the dark and not known for sure she was breathing-- or even been totally aware that she was even there.
And still Gabriel slept.
Finally, after what seemed like hours at his side but was probably just a few minutes, Amira stood, just as silently as when she sat. She pulled off her shirt, folded it neatly and laid it on the chair, then unhooked her bra and put it on top of the shirt. She removed a Glock pistol from the back of her waistband and set it on the floor next to the chair, then pulled off her shoes and left them next to the gun. Finally she removed her pants and added them to the next pile on the chair.
She stood next to the bed for a few moments, naked and silent, her taut, athletic figure and small breasts breathtaking in the half-light coming in through the opening in the drapes. But Gabriel never noticed because he continued to sleep.
She lifted a finger and ran it along his cheekbone, exhilarating for a moment in the feel of his skin on hers, then slid her hand down to his shoulder.
Then suddenly, without warning, Gabriel flipped over, the gun he always kept under the pillow in his hand. His eyes were unfocused, still asleep, but his movements were smooth and clean, the muscles reacting on their own based on the memory of a thousand gun draws and learned self-defense maneuvers.
He pointed the gun in her direction, but she reacted with speed and aggressiveness and slapped it out of his hand. It clattered across the floor and slid away.
He reached for her, but she caught his wrists and forced him over onto his back, then landed smoothly on top of him, her legs straddling his stomach and his hands forced down to the bed above his head.
He thrust his knees upward, trying to dislodge her, but she wouldn't move. He got a hand free and let fly with a vicious open-handed slap.
But she saw it coming and leaned back, and his hand passed harmlessly a few millimeters in front of her face. She caught his wrist and used his motion and momentum to turn him over to the bed, forcing his face into the pillow.
He reacted instinctively, bucking his knees up again and again, and on the second thrust he drove her up and into the headboard.
She let out a grunt as her head crashed against the wood. He flipped over, holding the pillow, and suddenly he had the upper hand as she was pinned under him with the pillow over her face.
She struggled against him, but his weight was too much and she could feel the breath being choked out of her by the half-asleep man on top of her. She fought and screamed, but the pillow muffled the sound so that even she could barely hear herself.
She could feel the lightheadedness starting, and she knew she was only a few seconds away from coming face-to-face with the last flash of light she'd ever see.
She mustered her strength for one shot, one last chance to save herself, and she brought her fists together in a vicious double chop to his ribs, which loosened his grip and softened him a bit.
She could feel the air flood back into her lungs and she took a long, deep breath. She leaned up just a little and followed her chop with a resounding slap to the side of the head, which knocked him backward and off of her.
He scrambled to recover, but suddenly found himself on bottom again, Amira's hand on his throat-- not choking him but simply holding him down.
He was finally awake, and his widened as he realized who he was fighting with.
She smiled at his realization, then leaned down and kissed him hungrily, her tongue darting in and out of his mouth, her lips on his like the softest breath of air.
He wrapped his arms around her head and pulled her even closer, sucking on her tongue and pulling her hair until she let out a little whine of pleasure.
"I...can't...wait," she gasped and used her hand to slide him inside her. He felt her wetness for a moment, and then he was in. She let out a long, pointed gasp and dug her fingernails into his shoulders.
He used her hair to pull her head back and thrust upward inside her, and she cried out again and was quickly gasping for breath. He thrust up again and again, quick and explosive and she moaned over and over again.
He pulled her close to him and put her nipple in his mouth. Her eyes went wide and she let out a long, satisfied moan. This drove him to the edge, and he came in a quick, explosive burst, and then they were lying together, her head on his chest, both of them covered in sweat.
Their breath came in ragged chunks, their chests heaving with pleasure and exertion.
He glanced down at her, saw her looking back up at him, and they both dissolved into laughter. He pulled her face to his and they kissed again. This time, though, it was long and tender, a welcome reminder of their shared past and history together.
lay in the bed and listened to Amira's light snoring in the crook of
my arm. The sound of her sawing logs always made me smile, and I lay
there for a few minutes breathing in the sound. I sat up and watched
her finger move sleepily over the small white ceramic cross pendant
she'd been wearing since she came back into my life a few days
Even with the visceral pleasure of our night together-- and the bruises on my arm and neck to show for it-- I couldn't help but be conflicted as I lay next to her. I could already hear Garcia's tortured anguish in my ear: "You idiot! Ten years you haven't seen this girl and you jump in bed with her just like that?"
And the worst part of it was that I knew he wasn't wrong. Or wouldn't be, if I ever told him what had happened.
This was clearly a bad idea. The Amira I'd known a decade before was gone, replaced by a woman ten years and God only knew how many miles older, with a whole new set of experiences-- not all of them good. It was clear she was harder, less innocent, way more jaded than the cute little Latina I'd known and loved in an earlier phase of my life.
Of course, so was I.
The ring of my cell phone interrupted my reverie. Amira stirred and I grabbed the phone to keep from waking her up.
"Yeah," I said into the phone.
"Time to talk, Gabriel," answered Chong Taek.
"Okay, when and where?"
"Pigalle Cafe, one hour," he said. "You come alone. You no bring Garcia."
I laughed. "Keep your panties on, partner," I said. "You bring the info, I'll bring the money."
I hung up and put the phone away, then turned to see Amira looking up at me with a half-grin on her face.
"Time to go?" she asked.
I checked the clock.
"Not quite," I answered. She grinned and pulled me down on top of her.
Round Two was just as good as Round One.
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched Amira pull on her pants. She turned around and saw me watching and smiled.
"Whatcha looking at?" she asked.
"A sexy woman," I said.
She laughed and took her pendant from the table next to the bed. "Can you help?" she asked.
She handed it to me and I looped it around her neck. "Where'd you get it?" I asked. "It's beautiful."
"My father gave it to me," she said.
I fastened it and she stepped away, then turned and engulfed me in a hug. "I missed you," she said.
"I missed you, too."
"Garcia's jealous," she said.
"He can deal with it," I answered.
She laughed and helped me to my feet. "Time to see your buddy Chong Taek," she said.
"Color me thrilled."
I strolled up the street toward the Pigalle Cafe. I walked alone, but I wasn't lonely.
"No signs of anyone untoward in the cafe," Garcia said in my ear. He had overwatch and had positioned himself somewhere up high, his trusty sniper rifle at the ready.
"You get harassed by the cops?" I asked. I heard a snort in my ear.
"Oh, ye of little faith," he answered. "What makes you think they saw me?"
I couldn't help but laugh.
"We all know this is gonna go bad, right?" Garcia said.
"How 'bout I just start popping as soon as his big Korean ass walks in?" Garcia asked.
"Let's give diplomacy a chance to work," I answered.
Another snort, but no further suggestions.
I walked into the cafe and looked around. Besides a cute, bespectacled French girl in the corner, the place was empty. I picked a table toward the back, just close enough to the door that Garcia would have a shot if he needed one.
A couple of minutes later, Chong Taek and his two thick-necked thugs burst through the front door-- followed by a third.
"Shit," I muttered. "He's got an extra goon."
"On it," Garcia said.
I hope so.
The third goon took a spot near the door, as if to block anybody from entering and causing problems.
Chong Taek marched across the cafe and grabbed a chair. He flipped it around and sat facing me, his arms on the back of the suddenly-way-too-small chair.
"Coffee?" I asked.
"We no able to get file," Chong Taek answered.
"Why the hell not?"
A shrug. "Gone too long," he said.
He glanced up at the two goons flanking him. They each unbuttoned their jackets and showed me their pistols.
"You owe," said Chong Taek.
"For try?" I mocked him. "Listen to me, you fat fuck. You get--"
The two goons pulled their guns and swung them around toward me. So much for negotiation.
I jumped to my feet, kicked the table over and dove behind it.
The two thugs unloaded their guns into the wooden table, shredding it and sending wood chips flying into the air.
To his credit, Chong Taek never moved while they blasted away from over his shoulders.
The proprietors of the cafe screamed and headed for the safety of the back. The bespectacled French girl just sat quietly and watched.
The two thugs finally stopped shooting. The smoke from their weapons filled the small cafe, along with the acrid smell of gunfire.
Chong Taek stood and tossed his little chair aside. He marched over to the table and flung it against the wall-- and boy, was he pissed when he saw that I wasn't there.
He turned to yell at his goons--
-- but was interrupted by the dual BOOM of the two .357s that the cute bespectacled French girl fired, blowing the heads of the two goons apart. He stepped back but couldn't avoid being covered by the brain goo and blood from the two dead, headless thugs.
The third goon pulled a pistol from his shoulder holster and turned to fire it at the French girl--
-- before a single sniper round exploded the glass front and bisected his head, sending him to the floor and the gun skittering away.
Chong Taek looked around and saw that little French girl Amira was pointing both the .357s at him. He raised his hands in surrender.
I came around the corner of the bar and patted Chong Taek on the shoulder. Then I pushed down on his shoulder until he bowed to the inevitable and knelt on the floor.
"So it looks like things have changed," I said.
"You gon' shoot me?" he asked.
I pulled a chair over and flipped it around so I could sit in front of him, my arms folded over the back.
"Why you gotta make this so hard?" I asked.
He frowned. "I no like you."
"Yeah, I got that," I said. "For what it's worth, I don't like you either." I sighed. "But I need you."
"I no care," he said.
"Look, Chong Taek," I said. "Why don't we make a deal? There's still money in it for you."
"Your cousin still work for the Ministry?"
I looked at the two skeptical faces in front of me.
"We're going where?" Amira asked.
"It's the only way to get what we need," I said. "The North Koreans have a file on Phoenix. They have to."
"You're basing that assumption on the shit that lying asshole Chong Taek told you?" Amira said. "Gabriel, he tried to kill you-- twice!"
"Yeah, but he didn't mean it," I said. "He was just acting out."
"Are you insane?"
I shook my head. "Phoenix is on our scent," I said. "You said it yourself-- once he gets on to you, he doesn't stop until you're dead. So the only way to take him down is to figure out who he is, then connect him to whoever hired him."
"So we're going to Pyong-freaking-yang?"
I nodded. "It's the only choice," I said.
She shook her head. "This is nuts."
"So how we doing it?" Garcia asked. "The Miss Piggy?"
I grinned and shook my head.
"The Minnie Pearl?"
He thought for a second. "Oh, shit," he said.
"The Ethan Hunt."
"It's the only way."
He shook his head. "But for that we need--"
"Yeah," I said. "We need Shane."
He shook his head again. "Man, I was hoping we were done with him. He's completely unstable."
"Yeah, but he's the ace in the hole."
"Because he speaks Korean?"
He glanced at Amira. "And what about her?"
"Tech support," I said.
"Won't you need to speak Korean too?" he asked.
I grinned at him. "Already thought of it."
He gave me a long look, then shrugged. "I got overwatch?"
"Don't you always?"
Amira's phone beeped. She checked it, then let out a string of curses.
"What?" I asked.
"Your ace in the hole just bolted."
strode through the Gare du Nord with steam coming out of my ears.
Sun streamed in through the skylights above, bathing the Pierre-Jules
Cavelier statue representing Paris in a hazy red glow. But the
beauty of the scene didn't make me feel any better.
We had a deal, I thought. We had a DEAL!
"You see the rat bastard?" I asked via the PTT.
"Not yet," Garcia responded. "I'm on the north side."
"I'll head south," I answered.
I veered to the left and headed for the tracks-- then did a double take at the glimpse of a tall, blond American mirroring my movements across the terminal.
"Brock?" I muttered. But then he was gone.
"Garcia," I said, "I think Brock Street's in here."
"I'll find him."
"Okay, I'm moving down to look for Shane."
I knew it was a long shot we'd catch him before he left, but we had to try. If he got away, it would slow everything down and--
"Shane!" I came down the ramp for the Eurostar to Brussels, and who should I see getting on the train but my favorite Korean-American?
He turned and saw me, and blanched. He jumped onboard and disappeared.
"Son of a BITCH!"
I ran after him as the train slowly pulled away from the platform.
I bolted down the stairs, pushing my way through disembarking passengers and Parisians saying goodbye to their loved ones and ran for the train, which was starting to pick up speed.
I ran across the platform and jumped onto the steps. I dove into the train and the door shut behind me.
plopped down next to Shane, who stared at the window as Paris flew
"What up?" I said.
His head whipped around and his face fell. "What do you want?" he asked.
"I want you to keep up your end of our deal," I answered.
His lip trembled as he contemplated this. "I did," he finally answered. "I served as your bait in Rio and it almost got me killed."
I stared at him in disbelief. "It almost got me killed!" I said, trying to keep my voice down and failing. "You just sat on the platform and drank your whiskey!"
"It was a stressful day."
"It's always a stressful day," I said. "When are you gonna stand up and take some responsibility for yourself?"
He gave me a long look, then pulled his flask from a jacket pocket and took a pull from it.
"Is this your way of talking me back into your little plot?" he asked.
"I need you, yes," I said. "We can't do this without you."
Another pull from the flask. "Damn," he said. "I was hoping you'd tell me you didn't need me."
"Would I have chased down a train and gotten on without a ticket if I didn't need you?"
"Oh yeah," he said. "How are you planning on riding all the way to Brussels without a ticket?"
And of course, just at that moment a conductor came down the aisle.
I grabbed Shane by the arm. "Get off the train with me," I said. "Let's go and do this."
He looked at me for a long moment as the conductor drew closer. "You're gonna keep chasing me, aren't you?"
I nodded. "I don't have a choice. I need you."
"What do you need me for this time?" he asked.
"Monsieur, j'ai besoin de votre billet," said the conductor.
All I could do was give Shane a plaintive look. And all that little asshole could do was grin at me.
train station at Reims, France, is lonely in the middle of the night.
I stood alone on the platform, waiting for the return train to Paris and cursing under my breath.
"Coffee?" Shane asked when he came back from the bathroom, two paper cups in his hands.
came up empty, his search for the Brock lookalike turning up nothing.
When Shane and I arrived back in Paris a few hours later, he and
Amira picked us up at the train station and we headed back to the
"I know I saw him," I said.
"That's impossible," Amira responded. "Phoenix killed him."
"We don't know that," said Garcia. "Maybe he got the same warning you did."
A thought flickered in my brain, then disappeared. "Or maybe..." I muttered.
"Maybe what?" This was Amira.
"Maybe..." Then it came back. "Maybe he was the one who hired Phoenix in the first place," I answered. "Maybe he's the one with something to hide."
"Oh, shit." Amira again. "No, that can't be possible. Brock's not a traitor."
"Then why's he in hiding?" Garcia asked. "That's not how an innocent man would act."
"Then he's dead," Amira answered. "They just haven't found his body."
"So who did I see today?"
We sat in our hotel suite in Paris, the four of us, with a collection of maps and photos scattered around us.
"So what's the plan?" Shane asked. He looked better-- at some point since we'd talked on the train, he'd finally started to take things seriously, and I was cautiously optimistic that he'd be able to get through the next part without crashing and burning.
"This is you," I said, and passed him a photo. I clicked a remote and a DVD started up. "This is also you."
We watched the grainy, shaky video come up on the screen.
A snowy, blustery day.
Mountains in the distance.
A group of soldiers dressed in the drab brown uniform of the North Korean Army stood watch along a line of dirty villagers in torn, muddy clothing. The villagers were all on their knees with their hands behind their heads.
"This is a North Korean video that got copied and smuggled out by a fence jumper and delivered to an exile website in Seoul," I said. "This is from Yongjin, North Korea."
The camera turned to face the thin, stern face of the general in charge of the soldiers. I watched the others' reactions as they realized he looked as Caucasian as he did Korean. His eyes reflected his Korean heritage, but his hair was lighter and his facial features could have passed for American.
He held a gun to the head of the first villager in line, a woman not older than 20 who was crying silently but openly, the tears streaming down her dirty pale face. It was impossible to miss the long line of dead bodies lying in the snow, stretching out into the distance.
I paused the video on the general's face. "This is General Kim Yun Jin," I said. "He's Kim Jong Un's enforcer, the guy sent out by the Dear Leader or whatever the kid's called to clean up messes."
"Jesus," Shane muttered.
"Yeah," I answered. "He's a really, really bad guy."
I pushed the Play button. We watched Kim Yun Jin stare down the terrified young woman. He pushed the gun against the side of her head.
His expression never changed, even as he pulled the trigger and her head burst in front of him. The now-dead body toppled over into the snow, just another in the long line.
Kim Yun Jin just moved onto the next one, his face betraying no emotion whatsoever.
I paused the video again before he could pop another one.
"Here's the thing," I said. "Our new buddy Chong Taek tells me that Kim Yun Jin's mother was Korean, but his father was American. According to the official line, his father was an American soldier who raped his mother during the Korean War. The problem, of course, is that he's not old enough for that to be true. According to Chong Taek, the underground story says they met when she brought food to the soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone, and then fell in love."
"That's beautiful," Garcia said. "How does it help us?"
"Because he looks as white as he does Korean, the government doesn't let him out much," I answered. "According to Chong Taek, he's one of the most feared guys in North Korea, but most people have never seen him. He doesn't go to official events, he doesn't appear in photos, he doesn't show up in any official records. They use him to do things like we saw in the video, go out into the hinterlands and punish villages that piss off the leadership. Or do spot-checks in military barracks, that kind of thing. He goes in first, scares the shit out of the rank-and-file so they get their crap together before Kim Jong-Un makes the official visit for the cameras."
Shane looked at me with what appeared to be sheer terror in his eyes. "And I'm supposed to be this psychopathic Korean general? What am I supposed to do? Shoot innocent people in the street?"
I exchanged a look with Garcia, who pursed his lips in a stark reminder: I told you so.
I shook my head. "Not at all," I said. "You have to pass as Kim Yun Jin for about five minutes, just to establish our bona fides. Then you can sit in the corner and dribble whiskey down the front of your shirt."
"You know I'd prefer not to put you back on the 'X,'" I said, "but it's really the only way to make this work."
"You keep saying that."
I put my hand on his shoulder. "We're almost done," I said. "Once we get this file and figure out who Phoenix is, Garcia and I can do what we do and finish this."
I heard a distinctly feminine throat-clearing behind me. I shot a glance at Amira and grinned. "Garcia, Amira and I can do what we do," I said.
"Yeah, you better say that," she said.
I shook my head and turned back to Shane. "So that's where we are," I said. "We're almost done. Just this last thing."
He just nodded silently, and I turned my attention to Garcia.
"Just one piece left," I said.
He just shook his head and grinned. "Have you told them yet?"
"Told us what?" Amira and Shane asked at the same time.
The Yellow Sea
The Yellow Sea roiled and churned with a Category-2 storm. A huge cargo ship, the M/V Flower China, plowed through the dark waters, bouncing and rolling with the waves. The ship was covered stem to stern with giant containers from Maersk, International Shipping and others.
If one looked closely enough at the ship, maybe via a super-high-resolution satellite, one might have seen more than one crew member holding on for dear life or vomiting over the side. One might have even seen, had one had access to surface-penetrating radar or ultraviolet detection, a couple of containers with cocaine or stowaways hidden inside.
What one would not have seen, however, was any sign of me or any of my colleagues.
Unless one looked under the ship.
to the bottom of the ship was a small black submarine. A bit
primitive, used to carry contraband in and out of difficult places,
it was owned by an old partner of mine, a Greek smuggler named Niko
Popandreu. It was the exact color of shallow water at dusk and
nearly invisible unless you really knew what you were looking for.
The sub was tiny and cramped, just a step or two above the semi-submersible vessels used by drug dealers to move cocaine from the mangrove jungles on the Pacific Coast of Colombia up the western coast of central America to Honduras or Mexico. Those semi-submersibles were meant to be scuttled in the case of detection, even at the cost of the lives of the crew and the entire shipment, but this one was meant to survive. It had been through enough wars that I figured that it and Niko could be trusted to get us into North Korea.
Niko had used it to run bales of marijuana into Puerto Rico, bricks of coke across the Caribbean from the northern coast of Colombia up to Jamaica, and machine parts from Pakistan into the port at Latakia, Syria. Niko had a thriving business, and I had employed his services a couple of times to help me move illicit cargo from one port to another, and once he'd even helped me and Garcia get onto Kish Island in Iran on behalf of a client.
Tonight we hunkered down in his little black sub attached like seaweed to the bottom of a hulking container ship. I sat in the copilot's chair next to Niko, who waited with his hands tucked behind his head, his eyes closed. I would have worried, but I knew he was just marshaling his energy and concentration for the moment when he needed them most.
Likewise, Garcia was stretched out on the back bench, snoring loudly. Amira and Shane faced each other from two benches that ran down the sides of the vessel. Amira bit her nails and generally looked nervous, while Shane looked petrified. He didn't have his flask, which made me feel better about him, but I couldn't be sure he wouldn't dig it out at some point.
He sat back, tried to look casual-- and failed. He shot me a look.
"How much longer?" he asked.
"Twenty more minutes, son," I answered.
"Another few hours," Popandreu said in his Greek accent, his eyes still closed. "We ride ship to coast, past North Korean Coast Guard, then into Taedong River. After that, we separate and move up the river toward Pyongyang."
"You sound confident," Shane said, sounding hopeful for the first time in days. "I take it you've done this before?"
Popandreu let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, my friend!" he exclaimed. "No one tries to enter Pyongyang. This is suicide mission!"
He slapped me on the shoulder. "But at least is well-paid one. Isn't that right, Gabriel?"
I glanced back to see Shane's face fall. So much for his optimism.
"Don't worry," I said. "Niko's the best in the world at getting in and out of tough places like this. We've worked together, what, dozens of times?"
Niko shot me a look out of a half-close eye. "Something like that."
"And we've gone into tougher places than this."
At this he started to laugh out loud, but I shot him a look and he cut it off, turned it into a fake cough.
"Sure, sure," he said. "Tougher. Much tougher."
I gave Shane a reassuring smile, but he just shook his head and looked away.
silence was interrupted by a loud CRAAAACK! that echoed through the
hull of the sub. It woke everybody up, including Niko, who shot
upward and looked around in surprise.
"What was that?" asked Shane, his face ashen.
"We hit something," Niko answered. He flipped a switch on the control panel and turned on a screen in front of him.
"That's new," I said. "What is it?"
"Camera on hull," he said.
He moved a small joystick next to the panel and the camera view shifted around.
"There it is," he said. I peered at the dull, black-and-white screen, but could only make out wavy lines.
"What is it?"
"Underwater fauna," he said. "Sideswipe." He pointed at the screen. "See that?"
It looked like a giant shadow to me, but I nodded anyway. "Sure," I said. "It's a tree?"
"Something like that."
"How do we get around it?"
"We don't. We just hold on."
As if to demonstrate, he put his hands out and grabbed the nearest handholds. I looked around at everyone else and shrugged, and we all did the same.
A moment later we figured out why, as another long shriek echoed through the hull.
"Should we detach?" I asked.
Niko shook his head. "Can't," he said. "Best case, we feed fish."
"That's best case? What's worst case?"
"Caught by North Korean Coast Guard," he answered. "Then we go to gulag. Worse than death."
We held on.
A few moments of silence passed, then another short, harsh sound rocketed around the inside of the sub.
"That is worse," Niko said. "Not sideswipe."
I could hear Shane whimpering quietly, while the others just leaned into the wall of the sub and waited.
But still the water around us stayed silent.
Finally Niko let out a long breath. "I think we're through," he said. He checked the camera again. "Yes," he said. "Is clear."
I looked at it, but still just saw wavy lines and shadows. "If you say so," I said.
He checked the charts. "We should be approaching the North Korean customs checkpoint soon," he said.
We sat back and waited.
hour later we heard the China Flower slow above us, then slowly
cruise to a stop. For the first time in fifteen hours, the world was
"What now?" Amira asked.
"We wait," Niko said.
He turned over his shoulder and gave her a long glare, then turned it on me.
"I think I like your illicit cargo more than your illicit passengers," he said.
"You're not the only one," I answered.
"To answer your question," he said to Amira, "we wait while the crew clears Customs. Then they will be cleared to enter the port, and we will be past the Coast Guard boats. We will be able to detach and continue up the river."
"Sounds simple," said Shane hopefully.
Niko guffawed, and there was nothing I could do to stop him this time. "Simple?" he asked. "No, my little green friend. Nothing about it is simple. If it was simple, Gabriel would have done it himself."
"Oh," said Shane in a small voice.
"Don't worry, green one," Nike said. "The reason your friend Gabriel works with me is because he know I am only person in world who can make this plan work."
The homemade growler phone buzzed, and Niko picked it up. "Yes," he said. "Yes. Okay." He hung up.
"Good news?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Customs causing problems," he said. "Want to search ship."
"That's not a problem for us, though, right?" I asked. "I mean, they're not searching the bottom of the ship."
He shrugged. "If they put ship in drydock, they find us." He turned to me and grinned sardonically. "You like gulag?"
"No," I said. "I most definitely do not like gulag."
Another shrug. "So we wait."
"Why can't we go now?" Shane asked. "Why wait to see if they find us?"
Niko glanced over his shoulder at Shane. "Let me explain something to you, my green friend," he said. "Separation require perfect timing. Must separate at right time or we will be seen by Coast Guard boats and sunk. Or worse, arrested."
He turned back around. "So we wait."
And we waited. For five minutes as the time stretched out and I could practically hear the beating of Shane's terrified heart. For ten minutes, as I felt a ball of sweat bead up on my forehead and start to roll down. For thirty minutes. For an hour of the most soul-crushing worry in the densest silence I've ever experienced. No one said a word. We just listened for the sound of the ship starting again, or the ring of the growler that might indicate the Koreans had decided to put the ship in drydock first, or even for the sound of armed Korean frogmen ready to to zap us in our tight metal box with some super-advanced futuristic laser weapons. After an hour, even I was ready to believe anything could happen.
Then we heard it.
A grumble above us. The deep, low rumble of the ship's engines starting up.
And then we felt it-- the water churning around us and the boat moving above.
We let out a collective breath that could have powered one of the mythical Korean frogmen for a week's worth of searching.
I looked over at Niko, who still looked calm and phlegmatic, but gave up the ghost with a satisfied little smile.
"We good to go?" I asked.
"Depend," he answered. "Not sure yet if we go to port or drydock. But my contact not call with bad news, so I feel confident."
Then the growler buzzed.
I couldn't help but stare at it. Niko laughed at my expression. "Relax," he said.
He picked up the phone. "Yes? Okay." And hung up.
He sat silently for a moment, then turned to me. "Gabriel, please to help me detach the sub from the ship."
"Sure," I said. "Are we good?"
He shook his head. "Drydock."
I heard Shane let out an audible curse, and I saw from Amira's face that she was just as terrified.
"So what's the plan?" This from Shane.
"Boat move. We detach and run for river entrance," Niko said. "If Coast Guard no see us, we go to Pyongyang. But if Coast Guard see us, gulag."
He looked at me. "Now please," he said. "Take handle."
He pointed to a wheel in the middle of the ceiling. I grasped it.
"Turn to left," he said.
"Till we fall."
I gave the wheel a hard turn. It resisted at first, then slowly started to give.
"We're gonna die in a metal box," Shane whimpered.
"Amira," I said.
She put her arm over his shoulder and started whispering encouragement to him. He leaned in and tucked his head against her.
I kept working the wheel, which was tight and rusty and fought me the whole way. But finally I felt it.
The seal connecting us to the bottom of the ship gave way and suddenly we were drifting under the gigantic ship.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now we run like hell."
He pushed the ancient starter button on the control panel.
"Hm," he said to himself.
He pushed it again. Nothing.
And we continued to sink-- slowly but definitively heading down.
He pushed it again. This time I heard the catch of an engine, but it didn't turn over.
"With the money I'm paying you," I said, "can you please get this bucket of bolts fixed?"
"It work," he said. "Now quiet. I work."
He pushed the button again, working it gently, pumping it like you might a brake.
Then the engine coughed, then kicked, then finally turned over and caught.
"Ha!" said Niko. "I tell you."
The engine grumbled to life and suddenly we weren't falling, but moving forward. Slowly but definitely forward.
"I try something," Niko said. He jabbed a finger at the map he'd pinned up over the control panel. "Ship go this way to drydock. I stay under it to here." "Here" appeared to be where the bay narrowed down to the mouth of the Taedong River. "Then it turn, and I keep going straight."
"Sure," I said. "Whatever you think."
"I captain," he said. "I get us through."
We chugged along for ten minutes, Niko constantly checking the ancient sonar that gave him a vague and fuzzy readout of the boats in the area and maneuvering to stay under the ship. He had to stay far enough under to keep us from getting chewed up in the propellers, but not deeper than the sub's tolerances, which would have resulted in the pressure opening us up like a can of sardines.
The air grew heavy again, the smell of sweat and terrified anticipation hanging over us like a cloud.
"Okay," Niko said. "Boat turn. We go straight."
"What are the chances?" I asked him in a whisper. Shane's head was still buried in Amira's shoulder, and I didn't want to set him off.
Niko gave me another half-shrug. "We lucky," he said. "It night, sub dark, North Korean systems not so good. We might make it."
He angled the sub down a few degrees. "This risky," he said. "We at edge of boat tolerances, but ten feet more deep make us much harder to detect."
I glanced around at the rickety metal sub. I could almost feel the pressure starting to crush my chest.
"Watch out for leaks," Niko said. I couldn't tell if he was kidding or not, and I decided not to ask. Instead I just kept an eye out for water trickling down the wall or dripping from the hatch above.
"Here we go," he said. "Seven minutes to mouth of river. Color of water change, be darker, make it easier to hide."
Above us I could hear the gigantic container ship falling away, which meant that our cover was gone. It was just us and the water-- and who knew how many North Korean boats who would love nothing more than to catch an American spy mission into their cloistered little country.
What could go wrong?
The sub floated quietly through the dark, muddy waters. I watched Niko check the sonar and then make small course corrections-- left a few degrees here, right a degree or two there.
The rest of us just sat quietly. Garcia remained still in the back, his soldier's instinct and ability to rest on command keeping him in sleep mode for the time being. Amira kept her arm around Shane and her eye on me. Shane just rocked back and forth and bit his fingernails.
I watched Niko watch the sonar screen.
"Almost there," he said. "One more minute."
Then we heard it. From somewhere above us came a proliferation of mechanical sounds, like--
"Many boats moving," said Niko.
"Sound like yes."
He angled the sub down another degree. As he did so, I felt it shudder and I swore I saw some water droplets start to roll down the far wall.
"Is this safe?" I asked.
"Safer than gulag."
The boats moved above us, their propellors and rudders swirling the water as they circled.
I bit a fingernail and waited for the sound of a torpedo dropping or a frogman circling.
The tension deepened and I felt a drop of sweat on my ear. Or was it a drip from the ceiling in the moments before pressure-induced collapse?
"Sound getting quieter," Niko said.
"What does that mean?" That was Shane.
"Boats moving away," Niko said.
Shane's eyes grew wide. "They're not after us?"
Niko shrugged. "Not sure. But they going away from us. And we heading into river."
He angled the sub up a few degrees, and we felt a stir as we crossed out of the deep bay and into the shallow water.
It might have been the group of us letting out another breath of relief.
chugged up the river, the action and swirl from the bay disappearing
behind us. After the hours of stress, suddenly I was tired. But at
least I finally felt like I could take a breath. But just as I got
comfortable, Niko's voice broke through the haze.
"Saddle up, folks," I said as I stifled a yawn.
Everybody except Amira began peeling off their clothes to reveal black wetsuits underneath. Amira pulled a laptop from her shoulder bag and opened it on the seat next to her. She attached a portable charger and then connected a satellite phone to the USB port.
I watched her go through her initial checks. She listened for the familiar warble of the phone connecting to the nearest bird, but all I could hear was static.
"Not much signal," she said. "You can get sat signal in Pyongyang, right?"
"I hope so," I answered. "Our plan sorta kinda depends on it."
"You can," said Niko. "Once we come out of water, you will have signal."
"Probably doesn't help that you're trapped inside this tin can either," Garcia cracked.
Niko's cheeks turned red. Nobody insulted his baby. "This tin can," he said, "it save your worthless lives."
"Now, now," I said, trying to soothe him. "Garcia was just being his usual charming self." I shot Garcia a look. "Now say you're sorry, Garcia."
He muttered, "Sorry, Niko."
"Okay, everybody happy?"
Niko shrugged and kept driving, which was really good enough. I didn't look back again, but I could practically feel Garcia's eyes on the back of my neck.
Pyongyang, North Korea
A few minutes later, Niko brought us up. We broke the surface of the water right in the middle of the pitch-black Taedong River, which cut right through Pyongyang.
From what we could see out of the tiny portholes on either side of the sub, the city could have been empty. There were some lights winking on and off, but it certainly didn't look like what you'd expect to see in a capital city.
Niko checked his map. "We come close," he said.
He slowed the sub and brought it to a stop under a bridge, then turned and grinned at me. "We here," he said. "Now you go get killed on your own."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Thanks, my friend," I said. "We'll see you when we're done."
"Yeah, sure," he answered. "I'll be waiting with your friend here."
I turned to Amira. "You ready to go?"
She didn't immediately answer, but stared intently at her laptop screen. Then she picked up the phone and fiddled with the connection.
"Signal's weak," she said. "But it's improving. We should be in the green."
A curt nod. She was all business at this point. No chit-chat, no teary good-byes, not even any warmth.
"Okay," I said finally. "See ya when we get back."
She looked up and shot me a quick, tense smile, then turned back to the laptop.
I glanced to Shane and Garcia. "We ready, boys?"
"Ready to leave the pleasure cruise?" Garcia asked. "Never."
"Shut up," I said. "Let's go."
I stepped up on the bench and opened the hatch in the top of the sub.
"Time to go," I said. "Garcia, you first."
He pulled himself up into the hatch and wiggled out. A moment later he stuck his hand back down into the sub. I helped Shane up and Garcia pulled him through the hatch. Then I followed.
I climbed out into a black, cloudless night. I pulled myself up next to Shane and Garcia and we looked around and breathed in fresh air for the first time in nearly a day.
"There it is," Garcia whispered and pointed. I looked over to a small clearing on a hill overlooking the river and saw-- well, nothing. Just another spot of blackness.
But then I saw two quick flashes of light, pinpricks really.
"Ah," I whispered back. "Let's go."
One by one we climbed down from the top of the sub to the grass next to the water. Well, Garcia and I did.
He tumbled off the sub and landed ass over teakettle in the water with a splash. I grabbed him and lifted him up, spluttering like a cartoon character.
"You done?" I whispered.
"Sorry," he said quietly, but still too loud. "Just don't have my sea legs yet."
"You're on land, you asshole," Garcia whispered. "Now come on before we get caught."
The three of us clambered up the hill toward the dark void. As we got closer, slowly but surely the outlines of a van began to appear. When we got up the hill, we saw that the van had been painted a matte black so that it was almost impossible to see in the darkness of the night.
We got to the van to find a husky Korean, younger than us but not really young, waiting. "Are you the delivery man?" he asked.
"I brought the pizza," I said. He shook my hand.
"Chong Na," he said. "My cousin said you would be coming."
"Thank God you're here," I answered. "This is an intimidating place."
"You have no idea," he said. "Now let's get moving before we all end up in the--"
"Let me guess. The gulag?"
"You got it."
We climbed into the van, which was empty except for a driver. He grinned at me as I got in, but didn't say anything. As we pulled away, Chong Na pointed at him and said, "This is Kim Fong. He doesn't speak a lot of English."
"How do you speak so much of it?" I asked. "I didn't think most North Koreans got English classes."
He laughed. "Most don't," he said. "I worked as a translator in the Army, then for our diplomats in at the UN."
"How are you possibly related to Chong Taek?" I asked.
He laughed. "Distantly."
through Pyongyang at night was a surreal experience. As it turned
out, the city wasn't dark at all. We had simply made our landing on
the edge of town. Once we came into the city, I was surprised to see
a collection of attractive buildings much like you'd see in any major
city, along with the graceful Juche Tower rising in the center like a
brightly-lit middle finger to the rest of the world.
That didn't mean the city was bustling, though. Far from it. Our blacked-out van weaved through mostly-empty streets as we hid in the back and prayed we'd remain invisible.
"I think this is the weak part of the plan," I muttered to Garcia as Kim Fong roared up a side street to avoid getting exposed on the main thoroughfares.
"Really?" he said sardonically. "I thought it was floating into North Korea in a tomato can."
I couldn't help but laugh. "You've got to be nicer to the people we hire to help us," I said. "I think you really pissed Niko off."
A half-shrug. "He can live with it. We're paying him, what, fifty grand?"
"Something like that."
"I'll tell you what," he said. "If he gets us out of here safely and this cockamamie plan ends up working, I'll give him a big hug and tell him how much I love his shitty little sub. How's that?"
"I guess it'll have to do," I answered.
A moment of silence, then I looked at him and said, "Cockamamie?"
"My grandmother used to say it. It means--"
"Yeah, I figured out what it means," I said. "But you sound like your grandmother when you say it."
"My grandmother was a wonderful woman."
"I'm sure she was," I answered. "So are you."
He snickered. "Funny. But don't forget I'll be watching your ass through a scope, so you should really treat me better."
"You wouldn't let anything bad happen to me," I answered. "What would you do without me?"
"Get married, settle down, have a houseful of cute kids, live a long and happy life."
"Right," I said. "Like any woman would--"
"Problem," said Chong Na. The van began to slow.
"Traffic police," he said. "Quickly, lift the seat."
Garcia and I half-stood and pulled up on the seat. It came up easily to reveal a compartment underneath.
"Get inside," said Chong Na. "Hurry. The Korean one can stay out."
"Get in...together?" asked Garcia incredulously.
"Unless you want to die in a gulag," he answered.
"Right," I said. I lay down inside the tight space and closed my eyes as Garcia snuggled in next to me.
"No grabbing my ass," I whispered.
"Really, you're joking right now?"
He pulled the seat down and locked us into the darkness of the hidden compartment.
For the next few minutes, I concentrated on nothing more than keeping my breathing as slow and silent as possible. I tried not to think about the seat getting yanked open and the harsh glare of flashlights revealing our hiding place to the angry eyes of North Korean police. The darkness was complete, covering everything.
We could hear the sharp, staccato rhythms of Korean-- first Kim Fong, then an angry voice from outside, then Chong Na, sounding anguished.
"That doesn't sound good," Garcia muttered.
"Shut up," I whispered.
The conversation continued for another few moments, while I felt a drop of sweat roll down my nose and bloop onto the floor beneath me. The air in the compartment quickly grew stale and heavy.
Then we heard the back door open.
I held my breath, and I could feel Garcia tense as he did the same. We listened with bated breath as the Korean police poked around in the back of the van. We heard the cop clamber up into the back of the van and step over the seat as he verified that there was no one inside. Then I heard what sounded like a metal stick banging off the various pieces of plastic in the back of the van, obviously searching for the hollow spaces that a smuggler might use to carry hash, or coke, or pot, or cash-- or people.
Then it came down right on top of us. It made a different sound-- more of a hollow ring than the bang we had heard before.
Then it got quiet again, and we waited.
A few more quick bursts of Korean, and then the van started to move. Then the seat lifted up above us.
I shielded my eyes with my hand against the sudden burst of light -- and saw Chong Na grinning down at us.
"That'll be another thousand bucks," he said.
"We had to bribe the cop," he answered.
"You bribed a traffic cop a thousand bucks?" I asked. "Don't you think that's too much? Won't they be suspicious?"
He laughed. "No, I just gave him fifty," he said. "He thinks we're low-rent drug mules."
"The rest is for the heart palpitations."
"Whose heart palpitations?"
He laughed again. "Yours. I charge by the palpitation." He reached in and grabbed my hand. "Now come on, get out of there. We have things to do."
Na was pleased with their progress so far. When his uncle Chong Taek
had contacted him through one of their many cutouts to let him know
that this ko-jaeng-i needed their help and was willing to pay,
at first he'd been tempted to pass on the job. After all, there were
much easier ways to die than trying to break into Ministry of Public
Security Headquarters. But when the courier had told him how much
the American was willing to pay, then Chong Na's interest had been
Truth be told, he never thought they'd even make it ashore in that ridiculous floating death box of a sub, which had always seemed to Chong Na like an idea out of a Cold War movie. But they'd gotten into Pyongyang, and now they were his responsibility. And so far things had gone pretty well.
The fake traffic stop had made him and his uncle another thousand bucks, which would make everybody happy, and Chong Na knew now that he could probably take them for whatever he wanted. Those were his favorite types of clients.
Normally he worked on behalf of desperate North Korean families who wanted to get out of the country-- not American smugglers trying to get in. So this was an interesting challenge.
So far, things had gone pretty much exactly how he'd hoped. And there was much more money to be made.
We sat quietly in the back, still a little shaken by the close call with the traffic cop. It was a reminder of how fragile the whole enterprise was; we were always just one bad break away from complete disaster.
"We're here," Chong Na announced. I looked up to see a single two-story house next to an enormous pile of tree branches and trash.
"Nice place," Garcia muttered. "Good to see they keep it clean. Real pros." I nudged him with my elbow and he gave me a sideways look.
But then, as we pulled up to the house, two young Koreans scurried out of the front door. They each grabbed a piece of trash and tugged on it-- and suddenly two panels pulled apart like doors and opened to reveal a garage underneath.
I glanced over at Garcia, who suddenly seemed interested in a piece of lint on his shirt.
"Maybe you should give them a little more credit," I said quietly.
We moved from the garage to the house via an underground tunnel. Actually, calling it a "garage" might be doing it a disservice; it was more like a hangar. We parked in a corner next to a Korean Army jeep and I must have counted half a dozen motorbikes with different government markings on them.
"This is quite the operation," I told Chong Na as we walked downstairs to the tunnel.
"We have a lot of clients," he said. "It's important that we can provide a variety of services."
"What kind of product do you typically move?" I asked him.
He shot me a sideways look. "What are you, a cop?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Touche," I answered.
He grinned. "I'm just kidding," he said. "We move everything from cell phones to video games to people. Whatever clients need and whatever they'll pay for."
"Black-market cell phones are huge business here, my friend," he said. "They're hard to get on the legal market, and the government doesn't allow everyone to buy them at the approved stores. Plus they're blocked, so you can only call approved numbers, and nothing outside the country. So anybody who can get unblocked phones across the border and sell them for a reasonable price has a thriving business."
"Maybe I should get in on that," I said.
He smiled. "Maybe that's something we can talk about after we get this file you need."
He pointed down a deserted hallway. "You'll find what you need down there," he said. "I'll wait for you to get ready."
Shane and I headed to the back rooms, where we found Korean Army uniforms. I went in one room to change while he went in another.
When I came out a few minutes later, I found Chong Na also changed. He was wearing dirty, torn pants and shirt and his face was streaked with dirt and mud. And he was sporting a shiner.
"That looks painful," I said.
He smiled. "A little magic," he answered. "Theater makeup."
"It certainly looks realistic. I just hope nobody touches your face."
He shrugged. "No reason they should. Just keep them off me and we'll be fine."
Just then we heard a noise from the hall. I turned-- and caught my breath to see General Kim Yun Jin coming into the room.
"What do you think?" the General asked in perfect, Shane-like English.
I let out a low whistle. "Impressive," I said.
"His makeup guy's a genius," Shane answered. "Just a few bits here and there and it's like I'm a whole different person."
I gave him a long look, trying to figure out what they'd done. Finally it hit me: it wasn't that the makeup guy had given Shane a full makeover. Rather, it was a few light touches to accentuate Shane's half-Korean, half-Caucasian features to bring out the natural resemblance between himself and the rarely-seen General.
"That is some good work," I said.
"Maybe you pay us more, then," Chong Na said.
I shot him a look. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
He laughed. "Just checking. So is everybody ready?"
"Garcia?" I asked.
"Already in position."
"Then let's roll," I said.
"Oh, one more thing," said Chong Na. He pulled two Army ID badges out of his pocket and put them on our shirts. Mine had my photo and "Kim Na Hun," while Shane's had the general's photo and name.
"Who's Kim Na Hun?" Shane asked.
"Supposedly the General has a son," said Chong Na. "If the General is a shadowy figure, then his son might as well be Batman. Nobody's ever seen him."
"Supposedly he's a Caucasian," said Chong Na. "A figure of shame for the General. But he's also apparently a bit like Uday and Qusay Hussein-- into the finer things in life, like torture and occasionally murder."
"Yup," Chong Na agreed. "But perfect for Gabriel here."
"That doesn't sound like a compliment," I said.
He laughed. "It could be," he answered. "Now, are we ready?"
I glanced at Shane. "You ready, Dad?" I asked.
He gave a shaky half-shrug. "Sure."
"Then let's go."
It was a quiet ride to the Ministry of Public Security headquarters. Two of Chong Na's men rode in front, while Chong Na sat between Shane and me in the back. Chong Na positioned me on the passenger side, noting that I could more easily hide my face from the guards who would stick their heads in the drivers side window. Might as well save my unveiling as long as possible.
I was worried that Shane wasn't going to make it. If anything, the makeup and stress had made him more pale than normal, and he looked like he was ready to vomit at any moment.
He kept his shit together on the ride over, but I wasn't sold. I just hoped he'd perform when the chips were down and everything was going to hell around us. In fact, I was staking everything on it. I can't say I felt good about it, but what other choice did I have?
The streets were empty and quiet around us. It felt like a Potemkin city-- full of beautiful buildings and impressive architecture, but none of the bustling of life that you'd find in a real city. Like it was all for show.
A couple of blocks from the Ministry, Chong Na said something in Korean. The guy in the passenger seat tossed him a pair of handcuffs, and he put them on, securing his hands in front of him.
We approached the building's outer security ring, a gate surrounded by guards carrying AKs and collapsible batons. They all wore the shit-brown uniform of the Army and they looked like they were aching to beat somebody to death.
I glanced over at Shane. His face was Casper the friendly ghost white.
"You all right, Shane?" I asked quietly.
"Does it matter?"
"Not really, I guess," I said. "But I'm trying to be a leader here. Help me out."
He shot me a lopsided grin. "I'm okay, Dear Leader," he said.
"Then let's do this."
The Jeep pulled up to the hut. An angry-looking guard stepped out and stared down the car. Chong Na's guy rolled down the window, and the guard stuck his hand out, imperiously, Soviet-style.
For a moment it looked like we were going to have a big swinging dick stare-down, then Chong Na's driver gave the guard the up-and-down and said in Korean, "Stand aside. I carry General Kim Yun Jin and a prisoner."
And yes, in case you were wondering, I understood him. My favorite spy movie trope-- and one that Garcia and I joked about all the time-- was the international man of mystery who "spoke six languages fluently, including Chinese, Russian and Arabic." Those guys don't exist in real life. It's just too difficult and time-consuming to train one person in more than one so-called hard language (like Russian or Chinese), and while the State Department would take all the time needed to get its officers language-capable, the spy agencies-- particularly the CIA-- really skimped on language, preferring to send half-trained officers into the foreign field faster than their language skills would support. In my time with the Agency, I never knew anybody who spoke more than three foreign languages, and they were always grouped-- romance languages for the European specialists who studied them at the same time they were learning to drink tea with their pinkies out or a smattering of Asian languages for those who, like me, ate a lot of noodles. In my case, I spoke pretty decent Korean and a little bit of Chinese due to my time in Hong Kong and other Asian climes, plus a lot of dirty Spanish that Garcia had taught me over the years. But I never learned Arabic, and I can't speak enough Russian to order coffee.
When Chong Na's driver said what he had to say, the effect on the guard was almost comical. His eyes went wide and he leaned into the window, not aggressively but as if he wanted to actually see the Great White Tiger. He made eye contact with Shane and his eyes got even bigger.
"My General," he said.
"Do not speak to the General," said the driver. "Unless you want to visit Hwasong."
The guard went as pale as Shane at the mention of one of North Korea's most notorious gulags.
The driver gave him an arrogant, greasy smile. "You will learn better manners at Camp 16," he said.
His words had the desired effect. The guard stepped back and lifted the bar, then waved at us as we passed by.
"He's good," I murmured to Chong Na.
"He was a stage actor before he saw the error of his ways," Chong Na whispered back with a veiled grin.
We pulled up to the front of the building. A group of soldiers watched us, but kept their distance.
We stopped out front. I leaned over to Shane. "You ready?" I asked.
He gave me a long look, and over the moment we stared at each other his expression morphed from one of terror to one of harsh, cruel arrogance. He adjusted his hat.
"Ready," he said.
"Okay," I answered. "Let's do it."
I clicked the PTT in my pocket. "Monica, this is Rachel," I said. "We're heading in."
"Roger," I heard Amira say. "Joey, you in position?"
Then, from Garcia: "How you doin'?"
watched from the front seat as Amira sat on the hard bench and typed
furiously on the Linux laptop in front of her. As she had been on so
many missions before, she was tech support, which at the moment meant
she was working on overcoming the Ministry of Public Security
computer system. While the front end of the system was in Korean,
which she couldn't read, all the code behind it laid out in front of
her like an open book.
"I think this network was programmed by a monkey with a typewriter," she said.
"What's that saying about pride and the fall?" Niko asked. "The North Koreans are famous for traps and backdoors."
"So am I."
driver stayed in the Jeep while the guy in the passenger seat got
out and opened Shane's door. Shane got out and gave the bottom of
his uniform shirt a quick tug, a vain action and one familiar to
those around every general in the world. In that quick action Shane
sold himself as General Kim Yun Jin.
I got out the other side and dragged Chong Na with me. He put up a fight, cursing in Korean and spitting at me, but I mashed his face on the side of the Jeep and shoved him toward the MPS building.
"Stop fighting," Shane snapped at him. "The time for that is over."
Almost on cue he stopped fighting. I grabbed him and dragged him toward the door, a couple of feet behind Shane, who stood ramrod straight and commanded a surprising amount of authority.
I couldn't help but marvel at the transition. Five minutes ago he'd been sweating and shivering, but now he was the picture of a pissed-off general.
pounded away on the laptop, an involuntary snarl escaping her lips.
"Trap?" Niko asked amusedly.
"Nothing I can't get through," she answered.
But she found herself stymied. The security system built by the North Korean techs-- or, more likely, the Chinese techs working on behalf of the Koreans-- pushed her out and flashed up a red "ACCESS DENIED" banner.
slammed through the front door, sending it rattling as he barreled
inside the building. We followed, my pistol to Chong Na's back.
There were two guards at the front desk, and they looked as shocked and overwhelmed as the poor bastard at the hut.
The building was old, a little run-down. The style was straight-up 70s Stalinist chic, plain and functional but not interesting.
The guards watched in silence as Shane marched up to the desk and put his hands on it. The movement wasn't threatening, but it definitely delivered a point.
"I need an interrogation room," he said quietly. "Now." The power in his voice was breathtaking, and the guard closest to him took an involuntary step back.
The second guard took a look at Shane, then me, then Chong Na.
"Who is this, sir?" he asked.
Shane leaned over the counter, just slightly and just enough to make the first guard glance over his shoulder at the second one, as if to ask, What the fuck?
"Are you questioning me?"
The guard swallowed. "No, sir. Of course not. But I need to make a notation of the prisoner."
"Do you know who I am?"
Another swallow, as the guard watched his career-- and probably his life-- pass before his eyes.
"Yes, sir," he answered. "But I need information on the prisoner."
For the briefest of moments, Shane faltered, unsure of how to proceed. But then he straightened up and nodded.
"Fine," he said. "Some of my men caught him distributing illegal cell phones. We believe he's working with Americans or other capitalist spies and saboteurs to spread false propaganda among our people, and I need to interrogate him to find out how many others there are."
"Thank you, sir," said the first guard. He shot the second one a look-- shut the fuck up and let him go!-- and the second one nodded and made a note.
Then he stepped back to the ancient computer-- I think it might have been a Commodore 64 or an original Macintosh-- and began tapping, the keys emitting the loud clacking familiar to any 20-year-old terminal.
He nodded at me. "And him? Who is he?"
"You seem to be laboring under the impression that I answer to you," Shane said.
The guard shook his head. "No, sir, of course not. I just need the information for the computer."
"He's my son," said Shane. "Unfortunately, he looks very much like my father."
The guard looked back at me. "Your badge, please, sir."
I just looked blankly at Shane. I could understand Korean if it was spoken slowly and clearly, but my spoken Korean had a strong accent. I also couldn't read it for shit, but I supposed that didn't matter all that much at the moment.
"He doesn't speak Korean," said Shane. "His grandmother's curse."
"He doesn't speak Korean?"
Now Shane leaned over and went nose-to-nose with the guard. "I hope that embarrassing me pleases you, son. It will certainly shorten your career."
The brief show of confidence melted from the guard's face and he looked away.
"My apologies, sir," he said. "But I need to run his badge. It's protocol, sir."
Shane glanced at me, just an incremental turn. He flicked his finger toward my badge, like he was too pissed and important to be troubled to even turn all the way around.
I took my badge off and handed it to the guard, then clicked my PTT.
"Working on it," I heard Amira say. "One more minute."
I held my breath while the guard set the badge down next to the keyboard and started typing.
felt the sweat rolling off her nose.
"Almost there," she muttered.
She banged away on the keyboard, her fingers flying a million miles an hour over the keys. She ignored the sweat and the ache in the space between her wrist and her thumb that she knew was her tendonitis coming back from typing too much and she kept at it. Through one firewall, then another, then into a complicated subroutine and--
The guard typed the badge number into the computer. I waited for the beep that would signal our passage through...but it never came.
"It's not coming up," he said. "Sir, did your son get this badge from the security office?"
"Of course he did!" Shane snapped. "Now let us pass. You are damaging national security with your incompetence."
But this time the guard wasn't quite so intimidated. He held a hand up as if to ward off Shane's anger. "Something strange is happening here," he said, almost to himself.
I could almost hear the tide turning.
"What are you talking about?" Shane blustered.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Amira muttered to herself.
"Problem?" asked Niko. He seemed more amused than concerned, Amira thought distantly in the back of her mind, but she ignored the distraction and kept going.
"False victory," she said. She came to another security wall and quickly found a niche in the code that let her through.
She tapped her PTT.
"Almost there," she said. She heard a click-click from Gabriel, then words that made her blood freeze.
need to call the supervisor," said the first guard. He put his
hand on the phone.
"Absolutely not," said Shane.
Now the guard looked at him with a quizzical expression, his initial terror clearly gone, replaced by professional anger.
"Excuse me?" he asked.
The second guard picked up his AK and stepped around the edge of the desk.
"Clearly there is a technical malfunction," said Shane in a conciliatory tone. "Not worth holding up an important interrogation. Every moment we waste here is a moment this man's co-conspirators have to foment their dastardly plan or get away from our security services."
"I understand," said the guard. "But our supervisor needs to see this."
I tensed. This was it. If they called the supervisor, it was all over. The whole plan depended on getting through before they had a chance to get their bearings.
Then I heard it.
"Almost there..." from Amira. "There!"
"It will be just a moment," said the first guard. "My apologies for the--"
"Oh, wait," he muttered and looked down at the ancient terminal. He clacked on the keys for a moment. "It appears that it was simply a technical delay. The approval came through."
He motioned to the elevators. "The interrogation rooms are in the basement. Sadly all empty for the moment. Please use one at your leisure."
"Thank you," said Shane. "And I'll try to forget your lack of civility. Your attention to security has been noted."
"Thank you, sir," said the guard, but there was something in his tone I didn't like.
I pushed Chong Na toward the elevators, and we quickly boarded and hit the down button.
But as the doors closed, I could see the guard picking up an old-school corded phone. A red one.
As we moved down toward the basement, we all looked at the floor. Shane muttered to me quietly, under his breath, "How much time do you think we have?"
"Five minutes," I answered, just as quietly. "Maybe. Be ready."
The door opened and we looked up and down a hallway full of doors, each with a slat covering a viewing window. Waiting at the other end of the hall was another security guard. No cameras. Perfect.
"My General," he said, his head bowed in respect. "Please allow me to escort you to an interrogation room."
Shane shot me a look. I shrugged.
"Thank you," he said. "This one will work beautifully."
The guard came to open the room for us. As the door swung open, I drove the butt of my pistol into the back of his neck. He folded up immediately and I caught him before he could slide to the floor. I dragged him into the interrogation room, and Shane and Chong Na followed. The door clanged shut behind us.
"What the hell?" Shane asked. "Now what do we do?"
"Have you ever seen Ocean's Eleven?" I asked with a smile.
worked her way through the program protecting the security system in
the MPS building. She typed in a command-- and then broke out in a
Cheshire cat grin.
Because she found herself staring at the control page for the building's entire security system.
She popped up a set of four screens-- one for the cameras, one for the communications network, one for the elevators, and one that featured a digital map of the facility.
"I'm up," she said into the PTT.
fucking time," I said. "I'm moving."
I clicked an app on the screen of my iPhone that showed a floor map of the facility. A pulsing dot on the map reflected my position.
"I see you," Amira answered. "I've got the cameras and security systems."
On the phone I found the target at the far end of a set of hallways.
"The guard just called out," Amira said. "They're figuring out what to do. I'll let you know when they're on their way."
I crossed the hallway and glanced around the corner. Ahead was empty, so I headed down the hall toward the target.
I got to an intersection and heard steps ahead. I took a quick glance and saw a guard carrying an AK checking a door a few feet away. He turned and headed down the hall toward me.
I ducked back behind the corner and pressed myself up against the wall. I held my breath and tried to think quiet thoughts.
The guard passed the corner, no more than two feet from me. Keep moving, motherfucker.
I watched as his back retreated down the hall toward where I just came from. He turned the corner and disappeared.
guard's name was Kim Yow Fat, and he had walked these halls too many
times to really pay attention any more. He knew that any given night
he might hear the screams coming from the torture rooms, but tonight
the halls were quiet.
He came around the corner and saw a light coming out from one of the torture room doors. He came closer and listened.
"Tell us what you know!" It was an angry masculine bellow, followed by a smack and a loud grunt.
Kim Yow Fat slid the cover on the window up and peeked into the room.
He saw a limp figure tied to a chair, facing away from him. An old Army officer-- a general, from the stripes on his uniform-- stood over him, sweat dripping off his face and anger in his eyes. Kim Yow Fat saw an unfamiliar figure in a guard's uniform-- must be a new guy-- standing in a corner, just at the edge of his peripheral vision, and watching the party.
Another normal night in Hell's Basement, he thought as he closed the window cover and went back to his patrol.
the guard disappeared around the corner, I took a quick look at the
"About 50 yards," Amira whispered in my earpiece.
I headed up the corridor, which was as anodyne as you'd expect-- just white walls, tiled floors and a couple of closed doors. I slipped up the hallway, trying to keep from making any sound. I turned the next corner and passed a closed door.
Which opened, just as I passed it.
A guard stepped out, and of course his eyes fell immediately on me.
"You! Stop!" he said.
I stopped, then turned toward him and smiled. As his eyes took in my decidedly Caucasian features, his eyes went wide.
"Who are you?" he asked.
I smiled at him, pulled off my badge and reached it out toward him. But when he stepped closer to take it, I jammed the metal clip in his eye.
He reacted about you'd expect. As the blood coursed down his face, he dropped his gun, stumbled backward and slapped at his eye, trying to get the badge out.
He started to scream, but I clapped a hand over his mouth and grabbed the back of his head with the other hand. I slammed his head into the nearest wall, which stunned him enough for me to finish it.
I spun him around and locked my arm around his neck. With a sharp wrench to the left, I heard his neck break and his body immediately went limp.
A quick look in both directions, then I opened the door he'd just come out of and slid him inside, then checked my phone again.
Which made me shake my head. The blue dot was pulsing-- right on top of the target.
"Everything okay?" Amira asked from my earpiece. "You've been in the same spot for a while."
"Encountered a little resistance," I answered.
I opened the door again and slipped into the darkened room, taking care not to step on the dead body of the guard as I entered. I closed the door behind me and turned on the light.
"Oh, shit," I said into the PTT.
The room was full of computers. Wall to wall, I stared at cracked monitors, broken server racks, and dead laptops.
"There's a lot of computer equipment in here," I said. "Some of it's older than you are."
"Look for the new one," she said. "Remember, according to Chong Taek it's a standalone, used only to store files on."
I picked my way through the piles of crap that filled the room. I passed a cabinet stacked high with old paper files and assorted other junk and a pile of broken laptops.
"This is insane," I said into the PTT. "There's no way I can find it in here."
"Then get out," Amira answered. "It's not worth you getting caught and ending up in a prison camp."
"What's happening with the guards?" I asked.
"Not much yet," she answered.
"Keep me updated," I said. "I'll look until the last possible moment."
Then I stepped around an empty server rack-- and spotted a computer with a light gleaming. It sat on a table, alone and away from the non-working computers, and was attached to a power cable. No Ethernet, though.
"Jackpot," I said.
"You found it?"
"It looks like it," I answered. "Definitely functional, definitely a standalone."
I pulled a USB from my pocket and plugged it in, then turned the computer on.
"Is the USB in?" Amira asked.
"Okay, once the computer boots up, the program on the thumbdrive should bypass all the security protocols," she said. "Then you can find the file and upload it to my laptop."
"Got it," I muttered.
I watched a text screen-- could have been Linux, could have been DOS, could have been Esperanto for all I knew-- come up and lines of code flash by like little lightning bugs. Then the screen went dark for a moment. Then the file system popped up, complete with a search screen.
"First chink in the armor, Ted," I said.
"Um, Monica, do you have any idea how to spell Phoenix in Korean?"
closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat.
"Shit," she said. "How did we not think of that?"
"Every plan has a flaw," Gabriel answered.
"Yeah, but this is a big one."
"Can you get the answer?" Gabriel asked her.
"One second," she answered as she pulled up Google Translate on her laptop.
"We're running out of seconds," he said.
She ignored him and watched as the information she needed popped up on her screen.
"Got it," she said. "Sending it to you now."
I heard my iPhone ding at me and checked it. I had one new email. I opened it to find a string of Korean characters.
"No way to copy and paste," I said.
"Not this time," she answered. "This time it's Hulk Smash."
I hunted and pecked for what seemed like forever. Somehow I found the right characters and typed in the word.
A moment later the file popped up. Attached to the top was a close-up photo of a Korean man. I couldn't read any of it, but it looked impressive as shit.
"Damn, it worked," I said.
"Just hit enter and it'll transmit to me," Amira said.
"On it." I clicked the button that was in the usual "enter key" place and the thumb drive lit up.
"You got it?"
"Good copy," she answered. "Now get the hell out of there and let's go home."
Before I could leave, though, I had one more job to do. I pulled a second USB out of my pocket and connected it to another port. A box came up with some Korean characters in it. I figured one was "Yes" and one was "No," so I clicked the one that was usually where the "Yes" was. I saw the second USB light up, so I figured I had it right. I disconnected both USBs, put them away and closed the laptop.
"Rachel, they're sending out alarms," Amira said. "Why aren't you moving yet?"
"Moving now," I said. "Tell Ross to meet me near the stairs."
I headed for the door, turned off the light, and stepped out into the hall.
"On the move," I said.
But just as I stepped outside, a siren started to blare and red lights started to flash.
watched through a small, hand-held scope as a phalanx of soldiers
toting AKs poured into the building. Then he heard the blare of a
klaxon. He clicked his PTT.
"Monica, I think we have a problem," he said.
we have a fucking problem," I muttered. I sprinted back up the
hallway toward the other end of the basement level.
I came around a corner-- and ran right into the security guard who'd passed within a foot of me a few minutes before. We bounced off each other with matching grunts.
The guard shook his head and glared at me, his expression surprised and flustered. He swung his rifle at my head, but I side-stepped it. As it whizzed by my face, I grabbed it and bashed him across the nose with the butt.
He stumbled backward, blood flowing from a gash above his nose. I popped him in the face with two quick punches, then drove his head into the wall behind him. His eyes went blank and rolled up in his head, and I slid his body down to the floor.
I reached the elevators to find Shane and Chong Na waiting for me.
"Did you--?" Shane started.
"Not now," I interrupted. "We've gotta go."
Shane reached out to push the elevator button, but I grabbed his wrist. "Not the elevators," I said. "They shut it down and then we're fucked. C'mon."
We headed toward the stairs.
pressed her hand against the Bluetooth headset, trying to will it to
be louder and give her something. Anything.
"Is something wrong?" Niko asked.
"Not sure yet," she answered. "Just make sure this thing is ready to go. We may have to leave in a hurry."
He grimaced. "She not really built to move in a hurry. You ever hear anyone say, 'Run silent, run fast?'"
She shot him a look. "Just be ready."
rushed up the staircase to the ground floor. The sounds of men
pouring into the building drifted through the walls.
We got to the door to the lobby. I put a finger to my lips and quietly slid the door open partway.
"Crap," I muttered. There were 20 or so soldiers in the lobby, milling around, all armed to the teeth. They all looked pissed.
I pulled the door to, as quietly as I could.
But it still made a metallic clang as it closed.
of the guards heard a soft metallic sound and noticed the door click
shut. He pointed at it, his eyes wide.
"Sir! The door!"
En masse, the group of soldiers took off for the door.
We ran up the stairs. Just as we got to the next floor, the ground floor door opened and herd of soldiers started pouring into the concrete stairwell.
I grabbed Shane and tossed him against the wall as rounds starting zinging off the staircase rail.
"Keep moving!" I yelled at him. We raced up to the third floor and came to another door.
"This way," I said. I opened the door, and we ran into the next hallway.
Where I ran into a guard carrying a rifle.
I popped him in the kidneys-- once, twice, three times. The third finally caused him to let go of his rifle. As it clattered to the ground, I banged his head against a wall and knocked him out. We left him on the floor and continued down the hall, Chong Na slowing just long enough to grab the rifle.
"Some of these offices have balconies," he said. "Maybe we can get down that way."
"You take the six," I said. "I'll go first. Shane, you stay between us."
"Six?" Chong Na puzzled, then realized my meaning as Shane and I took off, leaving him to take up the rear.
I stopped at a closed door and kicked it open. We dashed inside a beautifully-appointed office, just as the staircase door opened behind us and a herd of guards started pouring into the hallway.
"Chong Na, can you hold them off?"
"I got it," he said. "Go."
Shane and I rushed across the office toward the window while Chong Na took cover in the doorway and squeezed off a burst of shots at the oncoming guards. His first couple of shots landed and took down a pair of guards at the head of the phalanx, while the rest dived behind the cover of walls and corners.
I found the window latch and flipped it up so I could open the window and glanced out and down.
"Shit, no balcony," I said. I turned and saw Chong Na pinned down behind the doorway.
"Stay here," I said to Shane. No worries there, as I was pretty sure I smelled his piss as I turned away and left him cowering against the window.
I dashed across the office and hid behind the side of the door. I leaned out and fired a couple of rounds, sending two more of the guards toward cover and slowing down their progress.
"Give me that chair," I said to Chong Na. He grabbed a heavy leather chair and slid it toward me. I slammed the door shut and jammed the chair under the handle, then we turned and ran back to the window.
"No balcony here," said Shane, "but there's one down below. One floor down."
We glanced at each other. "Best option, I guess," I said.
"We can't stay here," said Chong Na. "When they get through that door they'll cut us to pieces."
"Then let's go," I said. "Chong Na, you go first, then Shane."
"Okay," said Chong Na. He climbed up and slung his leg over the window, then disappeared into the darkness. I heard a grunt from below.
"You make it?" I called down.
"Yeah," he called back. "Bend your knees and roll. It's a hard fall."
"Okay," I said to Shane. "Your turn."
"No. You go," he said.
"I'll just wait here for certain death," he said. "It's like you said when you found me. My life sucks and I'm ready to die."
"Shut up," I said as the guards started banging on the door. The chair rattled. "We don't have time for this. We have to go."
He at least had the dignity to look ashamed. "Heights," he said.
"So you're more scared of heights than bullets and torture?" I asked.
I rolled my eyes as the chair started to move.
"Come on," I said. I shoved him up toward the window. He grabbed the ledge and hung on for dear life. I shoved again and he flipped over the edge, still grasping for the windowsill.
I watched him finally let go and tumble down. He landed on top of Chong Na, who put his arms up and awkwardly broke Shane's fall.
They both tumbled backward toward the edge of the balcony and banged against the concrete posts that encircled it, but didn't go over.
Behind me, I heard the chair bounce forward. I turned to see the door a few inches open and the first face poke through. I raised the rifle and fired at the soldier, and he disappeared.
Then I turned, hopped over the ledge and dropped down toward the balcony.
his perch on top of a nearby building, Garcia watched through his
scope as Gabriel jumped nimbly to the balcony below and flashed a
cocky grin at Shane and Chong Na.
"Asshole," he muttered and shook his head. He glanced up through the scope and saw the North Korean soldiers push their way into the office. He felt helpless. Normally he'd have his sniper rifle and would calmly pick off one after the other until he had to move, but tonight he was playing a slightly different role, with a different weapon which would give him only one shot, so he had to make it count. Premature rifle shots would compromise his location and his ability to make sure they got out.
For now, Gabriel and the others were on their own.
landed on my feet with a dull thud and grinned at Shane and Chong Na.
"Everybody okay?" Nods all around.
I glanced over the edge of the balcony and realized we weren't done yet.
"You're not gonna like this," I said. "But we're just on the second floor. We're gonna have to jump down again."
"I vote for staying here," Shane said. "How bad could the gulag really be?"
I ignored him and pointed at the next balcony. It was about ten feet down from us and offset by a few feet.
"That one," I said. "Chong Na, go."
He nodded, climbed up on the concrete rail, and jumped.
I glanced over. He hit hard and rolled over. I watched with concern for a moment, but then he popped up and motioned for Shane.
"Shane, go," I said. "Now."
"I'm not letting you die in fucking North Korea!" I said. "Now go! We're out of time."
I pushed him up toward the short wall. He took a deep breath, hauled himself up on the rail, and jumped.
Just as he disappeared, I heard the whine of shots coming from above and ricocheting off the wall. I also a grunt coming from below. I could only imagine how badly Shane had landed.
I turned and let loose with a spray-and-pray at the soldiers above, which sent them ducking behind the window, then ran at the rail and hurdled it.
Yeah, that's right. I hurdled the rail and jumped in the general direction of a balcony ten feet below, knowing that if I missed I'd probably break my neck on the ground even farther down.
I let out a long, surprisingly satisfying scream as I flew through the air.
I looked down to see Shane and Chong Na rushing up at me, their eyes wide with panic. I landed on top of them, and we all tumbled to the ground.
I heard Shane let out a loud grunt and scream, "Ow, shit!"
I looked over to see him grabbing his ankle. I rolled over and took a look at it while Chong Na grabbed a fallen rifle and took a couple of shots at the soldiers above.
"I don't think it's broken," I said. "Can you stand?"
"I think so."
I helped him to his feet and we limped over to the rail. I helped him over, and he dropped the last few feet to the ground. I could see him wince as he landed. I followed him, and then Chong Na.
We found ourselves in a massive, open courtyard. Chong Na pointed toward a street which ran behind the building.
"We need to get to the end of that road," he said. "My people will be waiting for us."
"Roger," I said. I clicked my PTT. "Joey, we're in the courtyard in back of the building."
"Gotcha," I heard Garcia say in my earpiece. "Get your ass in gear."
I put my arm around Shane and we hobbled toward the road. Then I heard it-- the sound of onrushing doom, though I didn't process exactly what it was at first.
Then I saw it and my heart sank. A convoy consisting of a long black limousine and two Jeeps came screaming around the side of the building and into the courtyard, blocking our path to the road.
We tried to hobble around it, but then the guards poured out of the building and surrounded us and just like that I could see our lives ending in work camps somewhere in the North Korean winterscape.
We stopped and put our hands up. As I let go of Shane, he stumbled and nearly fell, so I grabbed him and lifted him back up.
We stood there and waited. Will they just shoot us right here? I thought. Or will we get a show trial first?
After the longest moment of our lives, the limo door opened-- and I couldn't help but let out a gasp.
A strangely Caucasian-looking North Korean got out of the limo wearing, of all things, a housecoat and slippers-- but also a holster belt with two .45s.
He strode purposefully over to Shane and gave him a good up and down.
"You're supposed to be me?" asked General Kim Yun Jin in nearly perfect English.
watched the general approach through the scope, then opened the
pelican case on the roof next to him and pulled out the cylindrical
cone inside. He stretched back out on his stomach and aimed the cone
toward the scene below him.
general looked around at our sad little group, then pointed at me.
"And this one is supposed to be my son?" he said. "You look nothing like my son."
I gave him what I felt certain was a jaunty half-shrug. He responded by pulling one of the .45s out of his holster and putting it to Shane's head.
"I think I'll just kill you here," he said. "Then torture your friends to death."
Now it was Shane's turn to shrug. "As long as it's quick."
"For you it will be," the general answered. "For your friends, not so much."
"You speak impressive English," I said. "Where'd you learn?"
He shot me a glare. "Trying to slow your friend's death, are you?"
"Not really," I said. "I think he's looking forward to it, to tell you the truth. I was just curious."
The general gave me a long, quizzical look. I think he was trying to figure out if I was for real or not.
"My mother taught me," he said, finally. "I learned English before I learned Korean-- a fact my father never let me forget."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"He was a bastard," he answered. "But he made me the man I am today."
"Then I'm really sorry to hear it."
He cocked the pistol.
"Now then," he said.
Chong Na leaned over to me. "Garcia's around here somewhere, right?"
"Hope so," I muttered.
The general turned the gun toward me. "Maybe I should start with you," he said.
Just then there was a flash from a nearby rooftop. I watched with some distant amusement as the guards all turned to watch the rocket-propelled grenade hurtle toward the courtyard.
It hit the general's limo, which exploded and flew into the air. All the guards stared at the car-- as did the general.
I stepped forward, grabbed the second pistol from Kim Yun Jin's holster, put it to his head and pulled the trigger.
His brains exploded all over the guard nearest him and his lifeless body crumpled to the ground. I turned and popped the two nearest flunkies while Chong Na grabbed the first pistol and dropped two other guards.
The remaining guards looked around frantically for cover, but a flurry of bullets-- fired from afar with perfect accuracy-- thudded into their backs and they dropped, face-first, onto the ground.
I grabbed Shane and we headed with Chong Na past the smoking hulk of the limo. Conveniently, Garcia's RPG round had also blown a hole in the fence wide enough for the Hulk to get through. We clambered through and ran to the road.
An Army Jeep sped up and slid to a stop, and the passenger door opened.
"Get in!" yelled Chong Na. We hopped in and the Jeep sped off as another herd of guards poured out of the MPS Building.
Chong Na kept looking in the mirrors, but it quickly became clear that the road was quiet behind us.
"We have to pick up Garcia," I said.
Chong Na just nodded and pointed ahead. Garcia stepped out of the gloom and waved at us. The driver pulled over and he hopped in. He shot me a look.
"Joey?" he asked. "I think I'm more of a Chandler."
"Then next time you do the commo plan," I answered.
"Where are we heading?" Shane asked.
"You okay?" I asked. He looked like the stress of the evening had him ready to implode.
"Not really," he answered. "That guy was gonna kill me."
"I had him in my sights the whole time," Garcia answered.
"Lot of fuckin' good that does me," Shane said. "Now where are we going?"
"Back to the sub," I said.
"Uh, not exactly," said Chong Na.
He pointed at a line of Jeeps speeding toward us, cutting us off from the water. The implication was clear: there was no way we were making it to our extraction point.
"Shit," I said. I pushed the PTT. "Monica, it's Rachel. You have to leave."
"What? No!" Amira said in my ear. "I'm waiting for you here."
"We can't make it," I answered. "They've got us cut off. You have to get out of town before they find you."
"Listen to me," I interrupted. "You have to go. We'll catch up to you at the rally point."
"Trust me, sweetheart," I said. "This is how it has to be."
"But they'll catch you."
"We'll be fine," I said. "Garcia and I've been in worse situations before."
"Yeah, right," Garcia muttered. I shut him up with an elbow to the side.
"Now go," I said.
She clicked off.
Amira looked helplessly at her computer screen. She closed the laptop and turned to Popandreu.
"Bad news?" he asked.
"We have to go."
"But what about Gabriel and the others?"
She shook her head. He thought about it for a moment, shrugged and started the engine. As they began to dive under the murky waters of the Taedong River, Amira felt the tears roll down her cheeks.
we hit the outskirts of Pyongyang, the lights faded into the distance
and the streetscape quickly grew dark. Chong Na adjusted the mirrors
and motioned for the driver to speed up.
"They're dropping back a little," said Chong Na.
"Where are we heading?" I asked.
"Would any of you guys happen to be pilots?" he asked in return.
"I am," said Garcia.
"That's a relief," Chong Na said.
"Because otherwise we'd have had to drive to China."
Garcia and I exchanged looks. "Ah," I said. "Of course."
"So where are we driving?" asked Garcia.
"There's an airfield a few miles this way," said Chong Na. "The generals all keep their planes there."
Garcia raised an eyebrow at me.
"That's so ridiculous it might work," I said.
"I think we cornered the market on ridiculous tonight, sir," Garcia answered.
"Night's not over," I answered.
I leaned up and tapped Chong Na on the shoulder. "And what about you?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Is there space on the plane?"
airfield rose like an explosion of light from the darkness, as if the
complex had just been dumped at random in the middle of the
countryside-- just row after row of Gulfstreams, King Airs and
Falcons lined up next to each other like the toys of a particularly
neat and stupidly rich child. Most of the planes' wingtips were just
inches apart, with only portable fuel bowsers attached to
four-wheelers between them.
"Wow," Garcia whispered.
"Yeah," I answered. "I guess this is that big blotch of light that you always see on the night-time Google Earth photo of North Korea."
"This is an embarrassment," said Chong Na. "Our country is ruins, with people dying of starvation, and these pompous idiots can't wait to buy these ridiculous airplanes to show off how rich they are. One day the North Korean people are going to rise up and wipe them all away."
I glanced over at Garcia again. He just shrugged.
"What's the plan here?" he asked.
"We try to bullshit our way past the guards," Chong Na answered.
"And if we fail?"
"Right," Garcia said.
We pulled up next to the security gate. A fat little guard toddled out and stared at us through the rolled-up window.
The driver rolled down his window. "General Kim Yun Jin entering to use his plane," he said.
The guard just put his hand out. "Identification."
Shane handed his fake badge over the seat. The driver passed it to the guard, who looked over it, then made a notation on his clipboard. He handed it back, then leaned in and took a long look at me and Garcia.
"Who are they?" he asked.
"Security," Chong Na answered.
The guard's beady eyes narrowed and he looked back and forth, first at Garcia, then at me. He blinked stupidly as he looked at me, then glanced at Garcia again.
The moment dragged out. Then...
"Proceed. Slot 22."
The driver rolled the window up and we moved out. I let out a long breath. "Thank God," I muttered. "I thought he was gonna bust us."
"He did," Chong Na answered.
"He's calling backup right now," he said. "We need a new plan."
Garcia and I exchanged panicked looks. Then a devious thought crossed my mind-- at the same time I could see it pass through Garcia's.
"You thinking what I'm thinking, sir?" he asked.
"Time to rise up?"
The Jeep cruised past jet after jet as it headed toward that belonging to the late General Kim Yun Jin. As it turned the corner past the first row of planes, it paused for the briefest of moments, and if you'd been watching carefully, as no one apparently was, you might have noticed the back passenger door open and a shadow hop out and then disappear into the much bigger shadows left by the planes that were lined up oh-so-close together.
As it turned the corner, the faint sound of sirens drifted into the airfield and lights appeared on the horizon.
"This one?" Chong Na asked, his annoyance starting to show.
"Are you kidding? That's a piece of shit."
"Garcia, we have to be ready to taxi out in five minutes or the police will be here."
"If we're gonna steal a plane," Garcia said, "let's at least steal a good one."
"How about that one?" Chong Na pointed to a G-280 that hid like a shark between two older King Airs.
"No-- wait, yes!" Garcia exclaimed. "Can we get close to that one?"
ducked between the planes, looking to stay in the shadows and avoid
drawing the attention of the front gate guards. I watched the gate
for a moment, hoping against hope that Chong Na had been wrong and
things would stay quiet.
Alas, that's not how the world works.
A few moments after I got out of the Jeep, I watched all hell break loose in the guardhouse. Two guards came bursting out, one brandishing a shotgun, the other an AK.
I heard the Jeep squeal to a stop next to a plane a row over. The two guards apparently heard it too, because one jerked his shotgun toward the far row and they took off in that direction.
Time to fly, boys.
I stepped out of the shadows as they disappeared behind a row of planes. I ran across the open tarmac to the first fuel bowser. The bowsers weren't huge, probably just big enough to hold a few hundred gallons and fuel up a few planes before needing to be refueled themselves. Still, for us tonight they would do.
I pulled out Garcia's K-Bar standard Marine knife and jammed it into the fuel tank. I jiggled it around until I felt it penetrate all the way inside the tank, then yanked it out-- then had to jump out of the way as fuel gushed out and splashed on to the ground.
I climbed up on the four-wheeler and grabbed at the ignition, only to realize there was no key.
Son of a bitch.
I hopped off the four-wheeler and used the knife to pry open the plastic cover over the ignition. I found the ignition wire and sliced the plastic sheath, then did the same with the other three main wires. I wrapped the three wires together, then touched the ignition wire to it. I couldn't help but grin when the engine roared to life.
I put the four-wheeler into gear and drove it along the line of planes, making sure the fuel splashed out in a neat path running right alongside.
My head jerked up as I heard two quick gunshots from the vicinity of the Jeep. I also noticed that the sirens were getting louder and the lights closer.
Time to hustle.
I passed the end of the first line of planes and parked the fuel tank at the entrance to the airfield. I grabbed a fuel can from the cart on which the bowser rested, stuck it under the slowing flow of avgas and filled it as much as I could until the stream slowed to a trickle. I dumped a big pile of it next to the bowser, then ran back down the row and splashed the gas on the planes themselves.
At the end of the row, I dropped the can and pulled out a lighter that Chong Na's man had given me. I lit it and tossed it in the middle of the fuel puddle, then turned and headed for the direction of the fighting, for what I assumed marked the location of our plane.
The Jeep pulled up alongside the G-280 and Garcia climbed out the window and onto the roof. He inserted a flat screwdriver into the lock on the airplane door and started working on popping it open while Chong Na and the driver took position alongside the open doors of the Jeep.
A moment later the two guards announced their arrival by taking up positions at the far end of the line of planes and blasting away at Garcia.
The shotgun didn't have the range, but the AK did, and Garcia ducked as he felt the rounds zip past him and plink off the side of the Gulfstream.
"Kill them!" he yelled to Chong Na. "They hit the fuel tank and they'll be picking pieces of us up for the next decade."
"Doing the best we can," Chong Na muttered. He waved the driver across the open space to the other line of planes. The driver squeezed off a couple of shots and took off.
At least for the moment his run across the open tarmac distracted the guards and bought Garcia a few seconds. The two guards fired at the driver, but missed as he ducked behind the farthest plane.
Across the tarmac came the whoosh! of fire, and Garcia turned to see the first plane in the row burst into flames. He grinned and went back to work on the hatch lock. He heard a pop and felt it give, and pulled the hatch open.
"Okay, guys," he said. "Keep me safe while I get this baby rolling."
He leaned down into the Jeep, where Shane cowered in the corner of the seat.
"C'mon, Shane," he said. "Time to go."
But Shane didn't move. Garcia rolled his eyes and grabbed the recalcitrant Korean by the arm.
"Dude, seriously," he said. "You've got to come on, or you're gonna die."
He sniffed the air. "Did you piss yourself?"
"Okay, I can forgive you wetting your pants," Garcia answered. "But if you stay there, you die. We don't have time for you to curl into a ball and not move."
"Just go," Shane said. "Let me die."
"Are you insane?" Garcia answered. "Of course you are, what am I saying?"
He leaned over and grabbed Shane by the arm. Shane tried to pull away, but then his mouth fell open in surprise as Garcia lifted him off the seat and yanked him through the open window.
"Shut up. I'm gonna blow my back out lifting your ass up here."
Garcia lifted him up and threw him into the plane, then followed him inside.
On the ground, Chong Na fired off a couple of shots at the still-approaching guards, who ducked behind one of the planes and then came back shooting.
The shotgun-wielding guard came up from behind the plane wheel and fired at Chong Na's driver.
The blast caught the driver full in the chest and sent him flying backwards. Chong Na looked over to see him lying still on the ground, his body and face a mess of blood and gray.
Chong Na ducked back behind the door and fired around it. He heard one of the guards cry out and looked up to see Shotgun holding his arm. But he still kept coming.
Chong Na fired again, but heard his pistol click as it landed on an empty chamber. He pulled the magazine and reached to his belt for another.
But there was no more.
He looked over at the still body of the driver. His name had been Kim Chow, and he'd been with Chong Na since he was a teenager. Chong Na couldn't imagine what he would tell the boy's mother. But right now there was a pistol with bullets still in it laying next to the boy's body, and Chong Na needed that gun.
He glanced up at the plane. No sign of Shane or Garcia. He figured Garcia was busy trying to start the plane and Shane was probably sucking his thumb in one of the plush leather seats. No help there.
He leaned out and glanced at the guards. They had taken up position about halfway up the parallel row of planes, maybe 30 meters from where he crouched. He leaned back and considered his options. Finally he backed away from the door and moved around the vehicle, trying to hide behind the Jeep the whole way. Finally he found himself behind the driver's side door, which gave him about a 10-meter run to the pistol lying on the ground. What he needed was a distraction.
He got one.
Everybody's heads jerked up as the first plane in the far row exploded, sending a fireball straight up in the air. Chong Na used the moment to his advantage and ran for the gun.
He almost got there.
heard the first plane go up and then, just a couple of seconds later,
a burst of gunfire. I sneaked around the corner to see the two
guards advancing on two motionless bodies lying near the wheel bay of
the first jet in line. Both the shotgun and the AK were up and in
I sprinted right down the middle of the tarmac, pistol raised. I figured the two guards wouldn't hear me over the roar of the blazing plane a few meters away and the stress-induced beating of their own hearts, and I was right.
I popped the guy with the AK first. My first shot went right through the back of his head, the second into his back. He fell over forward and was still. The second guard turned in shock and tried to get the shotgun around, but he was at a tactical disadvantage and I put two in his chest before he could get off a shot. He fell over backward and didn't move again.
I ran past their dead bodies to find the driver blown to shit-- and Chong Na lying next to him with wounds in his arm and his side. I helped him sit up, which made him gasp with pain.
"You've got to come with us," I said. "The cops will be here in a no more than a minute or two."
He shook his head. "I have family here," he said through clenched lips. "People who depend on me."
I could hear the sirens, closer and closer. "We're out of time," I said. "I set up a welcome for the cops, but they're gonna get through eventually."
Then it hit me. After the first plane explosion, I hadn't heard another. "Wait here," I said.
I ran around to see what had happened-- and realized that the flame had gone out between the first plane, which was still smoldering and smoking, and the second, which was untouched.
"Shit!" I yelled. I saw that the cops were only a few hundred meters from the front gate. I ran back to Chong Na.
"Flame's out," I said. "We're out of time."
"You go," he said. "I'll deal with the cops."
"The only way to make it work," he said. "Now give me a gun and get the hell out of here."
I helped him to his feet and put the pistol in his hand. He limped around the corner toward the far line of planes. He stopped for a moment and gave me a little wave, then disappeared.
I watched him go, then ran over to the waiting G-280. I climbed up on the Jeep and clambered into the plane.
Shane sat on the floor in the corner of the passenger hold, staring out the window with a hollow, haunted look on his face. I stuck my head in the cockpit.
Garcia was holding a clipboard and flipping switches on the control panel in front of him.
"We about ready to go?"
He glanced up at me, then turned back to the panel. "I guess there's no time for a preflight."
"Not unless you want the cops to help you conduct it," I answered. "Speaking of..."
I leaned over and looked out the side window. The first police car was approaching the gate at a high rate of speed, followed closely by a long line of lights and screaming sirens.
"Time to go," Garcia said.
He eased the throttle into gear and the plane lurched forward, throwing me back into the wall behind me.
"Grab a seat," Garcia said.
I stepped back into the passenger hold and sat in the first row so I could watch the action at the front gate.
"Shane, buckle in," I said.
He didn't say anything, just blankly climbed into a seat and fastened his seat belt.
I watched the lights get closer and heard the sirens get louder and I wondered if we'd get off the ground in time.
The plane slid forward and headed toward the runway.
The first police car rushed the gate and burst through.
And then the world went white.
Na limped around the second row of planes and made his way toward the
front gate. It seemed like the walk took forever, like he was
walking into eternity, and maybe he was. The searing pain in his
side and his leg certainly made it seem that way.
Is it possible to die from injuries to non-essential body parts?
Of course he knew that if he didn't get medical attention he would eventually bleed out or become septic, but both wounds were through-and-throughs and he knew they were survivable. He also knew it didn't matter. He wouldn't survive this night. And he was surprised at how comfortable he was with that fact.
It's time, he thought. Time to strike a real blow against these people.
He'd never been much of a rebel, mostly just a guy who tried to make a buck wherever he could, but he figured that maybe it was time to scream into the darkness and hope he produced an echo that would shake the regime to its foundation.
He limped down toward the fuel bowser, which was parked in the middle of the gate opening. He lifted the pistol and pointed it at the bowser.
And then he waited. But he didn't have to wait long. Which was good, since the longer he stood there the more the shock wore off and the more his wounds ached.
The first police car burst through the gate. The driver must have seen Chong Na standing 10 meters away with the pistol raised, because he slid to a stop just inside the entrance. The other cars slowed and gathered around it.
And around the bowser.
Chong Na smiled at the surly cop in the first car. And then he pulled the trigger.
The first shot didn't do it. It just ricocheted off the fuel tank and disappeared into the night with a whang.
But the cops quickly realized that he wasn't shooting at them, and that the situation was much more dire than they realized. The first cop jammed the car into gear, spun his tires and squealed past the bowser and into the airfield.
Chong Na didn't hesitate for the other cars to follow suit. He ripped off three more shots in quick succession.
Chong Na smiled as he felt the heat rush up and overpower all his senses, and he threw his arms out and embraced the oncoming oblivion.
Garcia pulled the plane onto the runway as the front gate exploded, along with what seemed like half of Pyongyang's police cars. And then the explosions down the line started.
The fireball from the first explosion wasn't all that big, but it caught the remainder of the fuel on fire, and between all the police cars parked around the bowser and the line of planes, it sounded like the world's largest popcorn popper.
One after another the airplanes in the first row exploded, a line of fireballs rising in order.
And then through the fire, streaking toward the runway to try and block our exit, I saw the only police car to make it through the conflagration.
"Garcia, you see that?" I yelled.
"Yeah, I got him."
"Can you get around him?"
"Okay, I'll see what I can do," I said.
I jumped up and yanked on the hatch handle. It took a moment, but the hatch finally popped open to the inside and the air rushed in.
"Be careful!" yelled Garcia. "That hatch goes and we're fucked!"
I leaned out and pointed my pistol at the rapidly-approaching car. The passenger window rolled down and a cop pointed his own gun back at me. I fired at him first.
I missed, but the shot made him dive back into the car. I turned my attention to the driver.
The car was maybe 20 meters away, speeding toward our front edge, his intention clearly being to take out the front wheel and disable the plane.
"Getting close," warned Garcia.
I realized I only had one chance. I leveled the pistol at the driver and squeezed off a shot, then followed it up by hammering on the trigger until the gun went click.
It wasn't immediately clear if I hit anything. The car kept speeding toward us, the only clue that something was wrong being a slight wobble.
But then the car leaned over to the driver's side and the wind caught it. It flared, then the driver's side lifted up in the air and the car flipped. It spun out to the side and rolled and rolled and rolled.
The plane angled slightly to the right, eased around the still-rolling car and sped up as we headed down the runway. I slammed the hatch shut and locked it into place as the plane lifted off and the three of us told Pyongyang goodbye forever.
Amira stood at the window of the gorgeous luxury hotel suite and nervously chewed her nails.
They'd set the rally point prior to beginning the operation, part of a plan that included nearly every contingency. Amira had never really thought they'd need to invoke this particular contingency, but now here she was, chain-chewing her nails and mainlining Red Bull as she waited for Gabriel and the rest to return.
The long ride back in the sub had been slow torture, as over and over again Amira found herself staring at the sat-phone, hoping in a childish fantasy that maybe it would somehow ring, that the signal would somehow penetrate the millions of gallons of water and the steel case around her.
Niko had mostly left her to her worry, choosing to pilot the sub back almost entirely in silence. At some point Amira fell asleep on the bench and dreamed that the sub fell away from her body and she floated alone, weightless and powerless, the stress of the years' worth of lies and the daily double life of the spy melting away in the waves.
But then she'd woken up and it had all come rushing back to her: the message from Armour, the airliner, the shootout on the Cristo Redentor platform, the chase through the streets of Rio, Paris and finally the moment in Pyongyang when the sub had ducked back under the water and the satellite signal had been lost-- along with her only means to contact Gabriel.
After she had left Niko, she'd made her way to the rally point at the famous Hotel Lisboa in Macau, where she'd gone to the Presidential Suite to wait. It was a beautiful place to wait, but the passing of time was still miserable.
She looked out the window over the row of high-rise casino hotels that dotted the Macau coastline and she wondered if Gabriel was out there somewhere, or if she was destined to wait here alone forever.
Then came the knock on the door. She jumped out of the chair and had to stop herself from giving off a little squeal of joy, though she did give herself license to say "Oh, thank God!" She run-walked across the room and ripped the door open.
And then everything changed.
and I got to the Hotel Lisboa after a circuitous route out of North
Korea. We figured the Koreans would send their Air Force after us,
so I spent the first hour after takeoff staring obsessively out the
windows looking for any blinks or strange lights or puffs of smoke
that might signal the beginning of our last minutes on earth.
As it turned out, all was quiet. Garcia took the jet to almost 40,000 feet, which greatly reduced the chances that the Koreans could find us. We turned south and avoided flying over China or South Korea, then headed to Taiwan, where we knew a guy with a private airfield. From there we went on one of his boats to Macau.
We got to the Hotel Lisboa, dropped an exhausted and still-freaked out Shane in his room to rest and headed up to the Presidential Suite. I put the key card into the reader and opened the door.
"Honey, we're home!" I called. The words echoed through the suite until they were reflected back at me.
There was no response.
I glanced over at Garcia. He shrugged. "Maybe she's in the bathroom?" he thought aloud.
We came in and looked around. The room was immaculate-- and seemingly unlived in.
"Hello?" I called. Nothing.
We wandered through the luxurious living room and into the bedroom. No sign of Amira anywhere-- no bags, no trash, no sound, no nothing.
Until I got to the bed and found an unsealed envelope with my name written on it.
"Garcia!" I called.
He came hustling in. "What? Did you--?" Then he saw the envelope. "Oh, I was afraid it was..."
His voice trailed off, but the implication was clear.
"Yeah, me too," I said. "But it's just this."
"What does it say?"
"Well, read it!"
I opened the envelope and pulled out a plain white sheet of paper. Written on it was a simple message:
I have the girl. Terminal Maritimo Porto Exterior, Slip 12. Midnight. Come alone. No Garcia.
"Midnight," I said. "Just over an hour."
I glanced over at Garcia, who shook his head and looked away, then back.
"What?" I asked.
He shrugged. "You're going after her, I assume?" he answered.
He walked over to a chair by the window and sat down. "Why?" he finally asked.
I just looked at him, surprised and yet not surprised, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "You don't think I should go," I said.
"She's not our problem," he answered. "I know that a long time ago she meant something to you, but those days are over."
"She came to Rio to save my ass," I said. "We wouldn't be here without her."
"Maybe," he answered. "Fact is, we don't really know why she came. She did save your ass, I'll grant you that. But we don't know why."
"Maybe because she still cares about me?"
He just peered at me for what seemed like forever. "You want to risk your life on that proposition?" he asked. "Amira's always been the girl who's done things for her own reasons. For all we know, she could be working with Phoenix."
"But that's nuts!" I protested, standing up and pacing by the bed. "Why would she have saved me if she was working with the guy trying to kill me?"
"I don't have any idea," he answered. "But that's exactly the point. There's a lot of shit we don't know about what's going on. Her motivations are just the tip of the iceberg."
I fell back on the chair, the wind seeping out of me. "So you think I should just let her die."
"I didn't say that."
I shot him a venomous look. "Then what are you saying?"
"You know I'll follow you anywhere," he answered. "But you can't go alone into a situation you don't know anything about. How do we know she was kidnapped? She and Phoenix might be waiting for you on a boat so they can drop your ass in the middle of the South China Sea. You can't just go out to Slip 13 without me and think you're gonna walk out of there alive."
"So you're the indispensable man?"
He laughed. "Of course I am," he said jokingly, then turned serious. "It's not that. It's just that we're in a situation with a lot of unknowns. It can't hurt to have multiple assets on site when the shit goes down."
"And I assume you have a plan?"
He grinned. "As it turns out," he answered, "I just might."
I rolled my eyes. "Of course you do."
world was dark.
She didn't know how long she'd been out, and now all she knew was that she couldn't see, nor could she move her hands or feet. She fumed silently to herself.
How could I have been so stupid? How did I not see it?
She heard footsteps and her heart sank. She knew it was him, and she knew that time was running short.
Of course it was a boat.
I stood at Slip 13 at 11:59 and looked at the 20-meter yacht bobbing on the gentle waves, as peaceful-looking for all the world as if it were there for a party for China's richest and famous-est. But I knew that what waited for me aboard wasn't anything as pleasant as cocktails with a sloe-eyed beauty in a red dress or a jovial conversation over cigars with a Chinese investment banker.
The note hadn't exactly been clear about what I was supposed to do once I got there, so I just stood there and waited.
I didn't have to wait long.
A minute or two after I arrived, I saw a figure appear on the foredeck, mostly hidden in the shadows from the cabin.
"Did you bring any weapons?" it asked.
"No," I called back.
"Are you alone?"
"Of course I'm alone. I don't want you to kill her."
There was a pause of a few seconds, and for a moment I was afraid she was already dead. Then he waved toward the deck. "Come aboard."
I climbed up on the deck and raised my hands so he could see that I was unarmed and not a threat. But it didn't matter.
Before I could convince him of my harmlessness, he raised a gun and fired it at me. It was quiet and didn't hurt as much as I would have expected, but a moment later I felt my legs give out and I toppled over into the onrushing darkness.
Somewhere in the South China Sea
I felt the light more than really seeing it. In fact, I couldn't see anything, and all I could hear were voices in the distance.
"I must be alive," I said to nobody in particular. The words were slow, mushy.
"Why?" came a voice in the distance.
"Because I saw a light," I said, "and there's no way I'm getting into Heaven."
A laugh. Definitely human.
"Perhaps you're on your way to Hell."
"I'd think Hell would be more fun," I answered. "This kinda sucks. Which means it must be real life."
There was a moment or two of silence, and when the voice came back it didn't sound so amused.
"You're alive," said the voice. "For now."
"Fair enough," I answered. "Can you pull this stupid hood off my head?"
Footsteps drew close and the hood came off. The light was overwhelming, but after a moment my eyes adjusted and I looked around.
I was in a gorgeous stateroom, complete with a big-screen TV, a tricked-out bar and a bay window with a breathtaking view of the pitch black outside. I glanced to my left and saw a wall. I glanced to my right and gasped. Amira was on a chair a couple of feet away, also bound and gagged. And motionless.
"Dead?" said the voice. "No. Just sleeping."
I realized that the voice sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. "Are you Phoenix?" I asked.
A laugh. "That would certainly simplify things, wouldn't it?" The room was quiet for a moment, then I heard movement and the shadow came around to face me. And for the second time in thirty seconds, I gasped-- this time at a ghost from my past.
felt like a barnacle. He'd been hanging on the side of the boat for
so long that he thought his legs might have turned into a tail.
Getting to the boat was the easy part. The note left for Gabriel just said to come alone. It didn't say Gabriel couldn't bring a small digital tracker sewn into the hem of his pants. Garcia couldn't help the fact that the bad guy wasn't creative enough to think of that.
Garcia followed the yacht at a safe distance while it cruised a few miles out into the South China Sea, then set up outside visual range and dropped anchor. An old SEAL buddy hooked him up with a diver propulsion vehicle-- really just a set of handlebars with a small engine-- and a suit, and Garcia traveled the last mile or so to the yacht a few feet under the dark water, guided only by the sensor. When he found the yacht he ditched the dive vehicle and attached himself to the side using a sling that had been developed for the SEALs a few years before.
Then he hung there like a barnacle and waited for the shadow to make a mistake.
have to admit," I said. "I didn't see this coming."
Brock Street pulled up a chair and sat across from me. "You should have," he said. "After you nearly caught me in the Gare du Nord, I'd have thought you'd have put two and two together."
"I did," I said. "Unfortunately, I got five."
Brock laughed. "You were always funny," he said. "It's really too bad I have to kill you."
"Have to?" I asked. "Or want to?"
He shrugged. "At this point it's kind of all the same to me," he answered. "I never really liked you all that much."
"Now that hurts," I said. "I always thought you were a good guy."
"I am a good guy."
"Really?" I asked. "How can you be a good guy? I mean, with you being the Phoenix and all."
He laughed again. "What makes you think I'm the Phoenix?" he asked incredulously.
wasn't the only one waiting for Street to make a move.
On a black and darkened boat bobbing nearly half a mile away from the yacht, another shadow watched the action in the stateroom through a state-of-the-art sniper scope he'd acquired from an arms merchant in Istanbul.
The shadow couldn't help but be a little impatient. The longer Street left Linden alive, the more chance something could go wrong. As soon as he put Linden down, Phoenix would finish the job with a couple of well-placed shots and then put the whole exercise behind him. It was time to be done with this. He had other work to do.
But for now, he watched and waited. He was a patient man, and he could wait as long as it took.
"Seriously?" I demanded. "Why do I think you're the Phoenix? I mean, look at me!"
He shook his head. "I'm not the Phoenix, Gabriel."
That made my eyes narrow with suspicion. "You're not?"
"Of course I'm not. I'm not even fucking Korean!"
I had to think about that for a second. "Then why the hell am I trussed up like a deer waiting to be processed?" I asked. "And why is Amira--?"
"I'll let her go," he interrupted. "Probably. She was mostly just bait anyway."
Well, that doesn't sound good.
"The story's not so good for you, my friend," he said. "I have to kill you."
"Because if I don't, the Phoenix will kill me."
Garcia could only hear snippets of the conversation, but one piece came out pretty clearly: "I have to kill you."
Time to move, he thought. He reached up and grabbed the top rail of the bottom deck and lifted himself up so he could see what was happening.
The sudden movement in the corner of his eye caught Phoenix' attention. He aimed the rifle slightly to the right and saw Garcia poking his head up over the rail.
Now isn't that interesting?
Maybe Garcia could do his work for him.
He watched and waited.
"I have a private email account," said Street. "It's an encrypted account, on the dark web, not something you just find. But one day I do what I do to check it and I find a one-line email. It said, 'I killed your friends, and I'll do the same to you unless you kill Gabriel Linden.'"
"That's pretty clear," I said.
"I thought so."
"And no explanation as to why?"
He shook his head. "Phoenix is a man of few words."
He pulled a .22-caliber revolver from under his jacket and leaned closer in to me. "I really do feel bad about this," he said. "Even though you're kind of a prick, I always enjoyed working with you. But if it's you or me, well..."
"Then it's me," I said.
"Hard to argue with that logic," I said.
He opened the chamber and glanced inside.
"Got enough?" I asked.
"One'll do," he answered. He looked at me for a moment. "You're doing a good thing by dying," he said.
"How you figure?"
He shrugged. "You're Phoenix' main target," he said. "Stands to reason that once you're dead, Amira will be safe."
"That's assuming you trust the word of a North Korean assassin," I answered.
Another shrug, then he spun the gun shut, cocked it and put it to my temple. "Nice knowing you, pal," he said.
And then all hell broke loose.
Phoenix watched as Garcia burst through the door from the main deck and Street's head turned in surprise. As soon as he looked away, Linden ducked out from in front of the gun and rocked the chair back and forth to try and dive-- or fall-- forward into Street.
As soon as Street realized it was Garcia coming after him, he jumped up and engaged, but Garcia crashed into him at full speed and the two men went ass over teakettle into the wall.
Garcia stumbled to his feet first and kicked Street, who flipped over and grabbed Garcia's foot and twisted it, sending him spinning to the ground. With surprisingly quick reflexes, Street jumped up, grabbed his .22 from the floor and ran over to Amira. He put the gun up to her head and yelled at Garcia.
Well, that changes things, Phoenix thought. The girl dying was not part of the plan. He had something special in mind for her.
put the pistol to Amira's head and turned to Garcia.
"Always gotta be meddling when it comes to your boyfriend, huh?" he asked tauntingly. "Maybe I'll just pop her and him both."
I wiggled on the floor like a wrapped fish. "You said you'd let her go free," I said.
"That was before Loverboy over there decided to play hero," he answered.
"Look, Brock," I said-- and didn't say anything else.
A red dot appeared on Brock's chest. I started to yell at him to get down, or move, or something, but then there was the sound of glass breaking, and a thud, and Street stumbled backward, his eyes wide and his hand going to his chest. Then there was a pffff and he slapped at his neck, his face a mask of annoyance.
"Sniper!" Garcia yelled. He dove on the ground next to me and started untying me.
"You think?" I asked sarcastically. He just shot me a look and kept working on the ropes.
"Save Amira," I said.
He started to protest, but saw the look in my eye. "Stay down," he said. He grabbed Amira by the shoulder and pulled her chair over.
She crashed down onto the floor next to us, and finally came to. She stared at us fearfully, her eyes confused and anxious.
"What's happening?" she asked, her words thick with fear and whatever knockout drug Brock had given her.
"We're getting out of here," I answered.
She glanced down at our still-bound wrists. "We are?"
"In a minute," I said.
He pulled the ropes binding her wrists apart, and she absentmindedly started to sit up. Garcia grabbed her by the shoulder and pushed her back to the floor.
"Stay down," I said. "There's a sniper."
"On a boat?"
peered through the scope as the three heads bobbed up and down from
behind some piece of furniture that rose up in the front of the
window. He removed the magazine loaded with tranquilizer darts and
rubber slugs-- used to break windows so the darts could fly true to
their targets still intact-- from his suppressed sniper rifle and
replaced it with a magazine of .338 rounds that would be thoroughly
lethal. He slammed it home and racked the first cartridge into the
chamber, then put his eye back to the scope and his finger on the
For a moment a dark-haired head appeared, and he took aim, but then he realized it was the girl and pulled his finger off the trigger.
He watched and waited.
untied the ropes on Amira's wrists, then those on mine, then rolled
over and looked at me.
"So what's the plan?" he asked.
"There's a plan?" I responded.
"Hey, you're the guy who's always got a plan," he said. "Usually involving me lying on a hillside somewhere with a sniper rifle waiting to save your ass."
"So if we can't do that this time," I answered, "I guess that means we're fucked?"
"Well, you are," he said.
"Could you two assholes figure out what the hell we're gonna do?" Amira snorted.
Garcia and I exchanged a look. "I guess that's not an unreasonable request," I said.
I shot Garcia a look. "So how do we get out of here?"
He looked around and thought the question through. "Chances are, whatever boat Phoenix is on isn't anywhere near as big as this one," he said.
"Not unless he's on the Queen Mary."
"So if that's the case," he continued, ignoring me, "then we just need to get to the bridge and get this bitch in gear."
"Well, that should be easy," I answered. "But there's no internal door, so how do we get there?"
"It's up above us," he said. "We'll have to get out of this cabin and up one of the ladders."
I glanced around. "I'll go," I said.
Both of them stared at me with shocked expressions.
"You?" Amira asked.
"Yeah, me," I answered. "Is that so hard to believe?"
"Yeah," Garcia agreed. "I'll go. You stay with Amira."
I just stared back at them, first Amira then Garcia, knowing my mouth was hanging open. "Are you guys saying I can't do it?"
They shared a guilty look. "Not that you can't..." Amira said.
"Just that..." Garcia started.
"That you have to take care of me?"
A long pause, then a shrug. "I wouldn't have put it that way," he said. "But..."
"You know, fuck you both," I answered. "I'm going."
I looked back and forth at the windows on either side of us. On the other side of each was the deck, then a rail. I pointed to the left.
"I'm gonna dive through that one," I said. "Then I'll head up the ladder to the bridge. I should have cover."
Both of them looked at the wide-open five feet between us and the window. "Cover?" Amira asked.
"Well...some cover," I answered.
She shook her head. "Do either of you two idiots have a gun?" she asked.
"Sure," said Garcia.
"Give it to me."
"Why?" he asked.
"So I can shoot you both," she said.
As Garcia and I exchanged looks, she shot me another of her world-famous eye rolls.
"Seriously?" she asked. "I'm gonna give the two of you cover while you each go out the opposite windows."
I looked at Garcia sheepishly, only to see the same expression on his face. "That's a good plan," Garcia said.
"No, it's not," she answered. "It's just the best we've got."
watched the yacht through his scope and waited. Every few moments
he'd see a hand or the top of a head appear over the barrier in front
of them, but he hesitated taking a shot because he didn't want to
risk hitting the girl.
Then, suddenly-- action.
The girl came up from behind the barrier and started firing a pistol in his direction. He would have laughed at how pathetic it was, as he was hundreds of meters out of the gun's range, but then he saw flashes of movement in opposite directions. Momentarily distracted by the muzzle flashes and unsure which diver was Garcia and which was Linden, he turned his own rifle to the right and fired.
Amira poked her head up just over the table and fired off a couple of rounds, then ducked and kept shooting blindly. I took off to the right, while Garcia dove left. I took two steps and flung myself at the window, arms over my face.
As I smashed through the glass I felt the whing of the sniper's round and felt a pain in my lower leg. I flew through the window and went face-first into the rail, then fell to the deck.
"Ow," I muttered. I lay on the deck for a moment and hid behind the overhang of the lifeboat.
"You okay?" yelled Amira through the window.
"I'll live," I answered. I reached down and felt blood on the back of my calf. Just a scratch, though, nothing I couldn't handle. "Garcia make it?"
"I'm fine, thanks," she said. "Yeah, he's out the other side."
I quickly glanced around and took stock of my options. To my right was the foredeck and probably a bullet from Phoenix. To my left was a ladder that led up to the second deck and hopefully the bridge.
"Cover me!" I yelled; as I broke for the ladder, I could hear Amira's pistol firing off a few more rounds.
I dashed up the ladder, trying like hell to suck my body against the side of the yacht and stay hidden behind the outcropping to my left. I didn't hear the sniper take a shot, but I felt the air move around me as a bullet zipped by. I got to the top of the ladder and dove over onto the second deck. I lay prone on the deck for a moment, waiting for the whing of the round that would kill me.
But it didn't come.
I crawled to the nearest door and opened it, then dragged myself inside the bridge. The door on the far side opened and Garcia slid inside, a bloody streak on his arm.
"You get hit?" I asked.
He grimaced and shrugged it away. "Nothing a Band-Aid can't fix."
"Then you ready to light this bitch up?" I asked.
"Let's do it."
We dragged ourselves to the control panel and climbed off our feet, kneeling behind the panel to avoid poking our heads too far up.
"You know how to work one of these?" I asked.
He looked over the panel and let out a guffaw.
"What?" I asked.
"Searchlights," he answered. He hit a button and suddenly the world in front of the yacht was bathed in light. The water was empty as far as we could see.
I grabbed a joystick next to the button and pushed it forward. The lights moved in concert with the joystick and after a moment were pointing out away from the yacht.
And that's when we saw it.
It wasn't a huge boat, certainly nothing like the yacht, but there it was, bobbing on the waves like a tumor on the water. It was just at the edge of the range of the searchlights, maybe half a mile away. As our lights swept over it, I had to cover my eyes and turn away as the light reflected sharply back at us. Garcia did the same.
"Jesus!" he exclaimed.
Then the reflection disappeared as the boat suddenly kicked into gear and headed into a turn away from us.
"Let's go!" Garcia said. We stood up and he started working the control panel. A moment later our engines roared to life and we took off after the smaller boat. I could feel the triumph rising in my chest-- there was no way Phoenix could get away from us now.
had made the same calculation. As soon as he realized that Garcia
and Linden had gotten away, he'd shifted to Plan B-- really an
improvisation, if he was being honest with himself, but he'd thought
through all the contingencies and he was prepared for this one.
As soon as Linden disappeared up the ladder and his last shot missed, he'd broken down the sniper rifle and put it in the pelican case he'd brought for the job. Then he tossed the case over the side and jumped behind the wheel. He'd replaced the windshield with a special, highly-reflective glass to buy himself a few seconds at getaway time, and he started the boat as the yacht's high beams swept over him.
He accelerated into a sharp turn and pulled away from the yacht. He'd also replaced the engine with a little something special that carried a bit more kick, and now he used that kick to drive through the roiling waves and put some quick distance between himself and the yacht.
shit, look at him go," Garcia muttered.
"He must have customized the boat," I said.
We kicked the boat up a gear in an effort to scramble after him. As we took off, the door opened and Amira came in.
"He's going?" she asked.
"We're going after him," I answered.
"No!" she exclaimed. I turned in surprise to find her staring at me, her eyes wide with fear.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "We have him on the run."
"No, you don't," she answered. "Whatever you think you've accomplished, it's all part of his plan."
"His plan?" I asked. "What is he, Keyser Soze? Look, his big play was to pop us and Brock at the same time. But that failed, and now he's got us driving right up his ass. It's time we hunted him down and finished this thing."
She sat down on the edge of a bench along the back wall and put her head in her hands. "You'll die," she said thickly, and I realized it was coming through tears. "We'll all die."
"You got this?" I asked Garcia. He just nodded curtly, his eyes never leaving the water in front of us. We were starting to make up ground on the surprisingly-fast little boat, but it was still at the edge of the range of our lights.
I sat down next to Amira and put my arm over her shoulder. "He's not all-seeing and all-knowing," I said.
"But he is," she muttered. "He knew when I was gonna be on that plane, he knew how to draw you out to get a shot at you, and now he's just suckering us in so he can finish us off."
"You know," I said in a jovial voice, more in an effort to buck her up than as any sort of reflection of how I felt, "Garcia and I are pretty good too. So are you. Nobody can operate like Phoenix forever. Maybe his time is just up."
She shook her head. "He's too prepared," she said. "There's no way he's just gonna let you move in and kill him."
She turned and grasped my hands and squeezed them tightly. "Let's forget all this, Gabriel," she said. "Forget Phoenix and all the rest of it. Let's just go. We can disappear and nobody will find us. You know we can. This is about to go bad, Gabriel, I can feel it. Let's just go."
I looked at her for a long few seconds, and I could feel the desperation in her touch, see it in her eyes. I knew she really felt like this would be the end of us, that Phoenix was setting us up.
Maybe she's right--
-- but what about my life? My name?
"Sir!" exclaimed Garcia. His voice broke me out of my reverie, and I jumped up and crossed back to the control board to see the little boat right in front of us, floating aimlessly in the water. I turned and grinned at Amira, who was staring in surprise out the windshield. "See?" I said. "His luck has run out."
I turned to Garcia. "What weapons do we have?" I asked.
"There's an MP-5 in the room downstairs," he said. "Plus the pistol."
"Okay, then," I said. "Let's do it."
I took the pistol from Amira and checked the clip. "Still three rounds in here," I said.
"I bet there's additional ammo with the rifle," he answered.
I turned to Amira. "You stay here," I said. She just nodded, her face blank and tired.
I leaned over and kissed her, then turned to Garcia. "You ready to rock?"
"Let's do it, sir," he said. We bounded out the door and headed down to equip ourselves so we could board Phoenix' boat and finish him off for good.
kept watch over the boat with the MP-5 while Garcia lassoed it with a
rope and pulled it alongside so we could board. It was dark and
Once he pulled it in close, I covered him while he hopped onboard, then I followed.
"Too quiet," Garcia said. "He's gone."
It only took a couple of minutes to verify his suspicions. We quickly moved through the boat and found nothing. No weapons, no ammo, no Phoenix.
Just a smoking engine panel with a line of bullet holes in it. And a broken radio with its own matching set.
"I guess we know how the boat stopped," I said.
"Yeah, but why?"
A moment later we got our answer-- in the form of a blood-curdling scream from the yacht.
stood on the bridge and watched Gabriel and Garcia corral the
aimlessly-bobbing boat and pull it close to the yacht. She watched
them clamber aboard like a couple of kids playing at Cops and Robbers
with a slow-moving weight of dread rising in her chest. She was so
focused on them that she didn't hear Phoenix come up behind her and
slide a knife against her neck. She glanced down and saw that he was
dripping on the floor next to her.
"Don't scream," he whispered. "Where's your equipment?"
head whipped around at the sound of Amira's scream. I bounded back
toward the yacht, followed closely by Garcia. He grabbed my arm.
"Wait," he said.
"I know he's got her," he said. "Let's go together. One by one and he'll rip us apart."
We stepped up on the edge of the boat-- only to stop in our tracks as a burst of automatic rifle fire tore into the side of the boat and the water near us. We dove down behind the edge of the boat.
"Stay there, Gabriel!" Amira's voice boomed over the water. "I'm coming down."
I glanced over at Garcia, the breath coming from me in ragged bursts. "I'm gonna obliterate that son-of-a--"
"We'll get him," he said. "But if you go charging over the edge like the fucking Light Brigade you'll be dead before you even get to the yacht. We gotta see how this goes, then make our play."
So I just lay there, raging inside. As much as I wanted to dash across to the yacht and strangle Phoenix with my bare hands, I knew Garcia was right. There was no point in getting blown away before I'd at least had the chance to see it through.
Amira came to the edge of the yacht and started to untie the rope holding us together.
"Just jump over the edge and come on the boat with us," I stage-whispered to her. "We'll fight it out with him and finish this, and then we can disappear forever."
"He's got the sniper rifle on you," she whispered back. "If I make a move, he'll kill you."
"Amira, he's leaving us drifting out here with no radio," I said. "We'll die anyway."
I glanced through one of the bullet holes in the deck of the boat and realized she was crying. "We should have run away," she whispered back.
Then she dropped the untied rope and stood straight up. She put her hands to her neck, and I thought she was about to enact some sort of symbolic suicide. But then she extended her hand and lobbed something over the edge of the boat. It landed next to me with a thunk. I rolled over, picked it up and turned it over in my hand.
It was Amira's cross pendant.
"Remember me," she whispered.
Then she turned and headed back to the bridge, leaving us alone on the floating deathtrap. A moment later the yacht's engine roared to life and it turned in the water and pulled away.
We drifted through the night. For a while I lay on the deck on my back and stared up at the stars while Garcia worked on the motor to no effect. I held Amira's pendant in my hand, feeling some small pleasure from the weight of it on my palm.
"I could use some fucking help over here," he spat after an hour or so.
"You know, from out here the stars are really beautiful," I answered. "It's like a bunch of diamonds glittering against a black pillow."
He pulled his head out from under the engine and looked at me incredulously. "Seriously?" he asked.
"Yeah, seriously," I answered. "They're beautiful."
"You can stare at them until you die," he said, "or you can help me fix this fucking thing so we can get out of here and go find Phoenix before he kills Amira."
I rolled over and propped myself up on my elbow. "You think you can fix it?"
He rolled his eyes, and for a moment looked startlingly like Amira. "Oh, ye of little faith," he said. "It looks like he severed the fuel line when he shot it up. I think I can bypass it, but I need your help."
I slid over and held the line while he worked around it. A few moments later he said, "Okay, I think I got it. Let's see if we can get this tub started. Phoenix conveniently took the key when he left, so I've gotta hotwire it."
We stood and he touched the wires together. The engine coughed but didn't turn over.
"Shit," he muttered.
"Should I lay down and look at the stars again?"
"Hold your horses, Hubble," he said. He touched them again. Again the engine barked and smoked, but again it refused to start up.
He dropped the wires and stomped away, muttering Spanish curses to himself. I picked up the wires and swiped them against each other-- once, twice, three times-- and to my surprise, the engine coughed, croaked, then roared to life.
I turned to Garcia and grinned at his surly expression. "I loosened it up for you," he muttered as he stepped back over to the control panel.
He put the boat into gear and we headed back to Macau.
Dawan Bay, Macau
"I think we're screwed," Garcia said as he piloted the boat through Macau's Dawan Bay, the sun just beginning to rise over the landmass to our right.
"Amira's gone, the file's gone, we've got nothing," he said. "I think it's time we went to Armour and told him we've reached the end of the line."
I sat on the edge of the rail and gave him a sour look. "I'd rather cut my own dick off than go hat-in-hand back to Armour," I said.
"Then what's the play?"
"Well, we could sit here and feel sorry for ourselves," I said, "or we could read the Phoenix file."
Now it was his turn to shoot me a look. "How?" he asked. "Phoenix got the file when he got Amira's--"
He broke off, then shook his head and grinned. "You have a backup."
"Contingency planning," I said.
"Well, I'm glad to see you've learned something in all our years together," he said with a cocky grin.
got back to the hotel and dragged a sleepy, drunken Shane from his
bed, then went back to the Presidential Suite to check out the file.
Shane sat between us as I opened the file from the USB. A moment after I clicked it, the photo of Phoenix popped up. Shane ran his finger along the screen as he read.
"His name's Colonel Kim Phong Do," he said as I took notes. "Under Kim Jong Il he was the guy they'd send out to kill dissidents. He traveled all over the world doing jobs for the regime."
"That explains why he can get around so easy," Garcia said. "He's probably got a dozen passports."
Shane ran his finger along the screen and read to himself, then said, "Apparently he was brilliant with disguises and at getting close to his targets. He was half-Korean, like that general that you killed."
"Hey, I was saving your ass!" I protested.
"Which you got in trouble in the first place," he responded. "Anyway, this says he had several surgeries to alter parts of his appearance, so I have no idea if this picture is current."
He ran his finger along the screen again. "Here's some details," he said. "He had one operation where he infiltrated an exile group and spent over a year working his way up through the administration so he could whack the leader of the group during a rally. He blew up a bomb while the guy was giving a speech and killed fifteen dissidents, including the leader."
He whistled. "He planted the bomb inside the podium and detonated it by a radio transmitter while the leader was speaking."
"So he's patient," I said.
"I think we can vouch for that," Garcia noted.
"Huh, this is interesting," said Shane.
"It says he often worked as part of a team with a younger assassin."
"A team?" I asked. "Doesn't that sorta go against the whole 'lone wolf killer' thing?"
Shane shrugged. "According to the file, he had a protege," he said. "An Argentinian who was conscripted by the junta in the 80s and, uh, seconded to the North Koreans."
"Is there a name?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Just that he was younger, often posed as Phoenix' child when they went out on operations. Apparently the idea was that Phoenix would train him so he could kill for the junta. But they ended up working together for several years, apparently on Phoenix' request."
Something about that piqued something in my memory, but it stayed in the shadows, just beyond where I could reach it. After a moment I shook my head.
"Like a graduate school for young assassins," I said.
But Shane wasn't listening. "Wow," he said.
"What now?" I asked.
"Up here in the corner it says his mission status is 'Incomplete,'" he said. He pointed at the bottom of the screen. "And down here it says that in the mid-90s he was sent on a long-term mission to infiltrate the CIA."
"What?" I asked. "Infiltrate the Agency?"
"Yup," said Shane. "Well, hold on." He touched a character on the screen. "His job was to lead the infiltration of the Agency, whatever that means."
"So was he the one who was trying to get in?" I asked.
Shane shrugged. "Not clear," he answered. He read a little farther, then: "Holy shit."
We waited for a moment while he read.
"I guess I see why his last mission was 'Incomplete,'" he said.
"He was killed," he said. "In 1998."
Garcia and I exchanged shocked looks. "But that's impossible," I said. "He's been trying to kill us for weeks."
Shane shrugged. "Just telling you what it says," he said. "He was in Seoul, on a mission to assassinate President Clinton."
"Dear God," I muttered. "These guys don't screw around, do they?"
He shook his head. "That's not even the holy shit part," he said.
He nodded. "A big piece more," he said. "It says here, and I quote, that he was killed by an American spy."
I shot Garcia another look. "Are we sure we have the right file?" I asked. "None of that sounds right to me."
Shane nodded and pointed to the text next to Phoenix' photo. "It says it right here," he said. "Colonel Kim Phong Do, codenamed Phoenix."
Garcia punched me in the shoulder. "Isn't that what Chong Taek told you?" he asked.
"First of all, ow," I said, rubbing my shoulder. "But yeah, he did. When we first asked him, he said Phoenix was dead."
"So who the hell's been out there trying to kill us?"
Shane put a finger to his lips. "You know, I think I remember hearing something about this," he said. "It was before I joined up with the outfit, but I think I remember hearing a story about there being a North Korean assassination plot against Clinton when he was in Seoul for some big international meeting. But then nothing ever came of it."
"I guess I see why," I said. "Does it say who the American was who killed him?"
He read through the file, then read through it again. Then he shook his head. "No," he answered. "Just says 'American spy.'"
We sat in silence for a little while, each lost in our own thoughts. Finally Garcia broke the silence.
"That's a lot of interesting shit," he said. "But how does it help us, really? I mean, now we know Phoenix' background, but either he's dead and somebody else is pretending to be him, or he's not dead and the file's fucked up. Either way, I'm not really sure what it gets us. It certainly doesn't get us closer to finding him and Amira."
I tossed his words over in my mind for a few minutes.
"That's not totally true," I said. "It explains why he's trying to kill us all."
"It does? How?"
"What if the North Koreans actually did infiltrate the Agency?" I asked. "Maybe this was what Shin Zhou was going to sell us a decade ago."
"Even if that's true, he's still dead," Garcia answered. "And we're back to square one. At this point I'd say our best bet is to take Amira's advice and bug the hell out. Phoenix thinks we're dying in the South China Sea right now, so we have a chance to get out before he can come looking for us again. I mean, we may have to spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders, but at least we'll be alive."
I shook my head. "That's not the immediate problem," I said.
"The fact that our knowledge is incomplete."
"What do you mean?"
"We need to see the Agency's file on the operation," I said. "We need to know who killed him and what happened. That might point us in the right direction."
Garcia gave me a long, searching look. "And how do you plan on reading the Agency's file on it?" he asked. "With your revoked security clearance? Or the burn notice they put out on you when you disappeared?"
I smiled. "Neither," I said.
"I'n gonna get my own protege," I said. I clapped Garcia on the shoulder. "But don't worry," I said. "You're still my main guy."
Alice Henley was dreaming of rain.
She'd had sex earlier that night, with a young Croatian named Vucic she met at a bar in Zagreb. She didn't troll the Zagreb nightscene a lot, but sometimes she needed the release, and between the everyday stresses of work and the "special duties" she'd been assigned due to Frank Armour's sudden interest in her career, she'd found herself at home earlier tonight pissed-off and horny. So she'd gone out looking for a local with some swagger, and she'd found one.
Now he slept next to her, snoring lightly and curled up facing away from her, which was just fine with her. Come tomorrow morning, he'd be gone and she'd never see him again unless she decided she needed to blow off some more steam and didn't want to venture down to one of the bars.
But she was a little surprised, after a night of athletic, steam-releasing sex to find herself dreaming of a slow, steady, gray rain pounding steadily off monochrome buildings and plain concrete sidewalks. It felt like a portent, but of what? Eternal boredom?
While she dreamed, she began to feel eyes on her. She stirred and rolled and grumbled, then felt cool air massage her naked skin. When she tried to pull up her covers, she found resistance. She yanked on them a second time, but still no luck.
She hoped Vucic wasn't hogging the covers. She wouldn't hesitate to kick his ass out of bed and not call him again. She hated cover hogs.
She opened her eyes to figure out where the obstruction was-- and nearly gasped when she found Gabriel Linden sitting on the edge of the bed. On the covers.
us?" I asked.
"No," she answered as she struggled to cover her chest with the sheet. She had nice breasts, but I wasn't interested.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'm not here to stare at your tits. We have business to discuss."
"What kind of business?" she asked in a choked voice. Her eyes were widening as she woke up and figured out how bad her situation was. She looked over my shoulder and noticed Garcia standing near the door, and her fear only grew.
"What about Vucic?" she asked and looked over at the local kid next to her. He was out for a while, as Garcia had put a sedative patch on his arm that would keep him in Dreamland.
"He's fine," I answered. "Just sleeping."
"What do you want from me?" she asked fiercely.
"Get some clothes on and we'll talk," I said.
few minutes later, Alice came out into the living room with Garcia.
Now she was wearing a bathrobe-- and, I hoped, underwear. I sat at
her desk with her laptop open and an empty chair next to me.
I patted the chair. "Come, sit," I said. Garcia took up post near the door.
"If I scream, you'll go to jail," she said.
"I appreciate you trying to bluff your way through this," I answered, "but we both know that if you scream Garcia will kill you quickly and silently and then he and I will disappear and nobody'll ever know how you died. Or why."
She didn't say anything for several moments, but after a bit she came over and sat next to me. "I really hoped I'd never see you two assholes again," she said.
"The feeling's mutual," Garcia answered.
I shot him a look and he raised his hand in surrender. I turned back to Alice.
"What we're asking of you won't take very long and we'll compensate you for your time," I said. "And we have no interest in harming you. So there's no reason why we can't work together."
She burst out laughing. "Compensate me for my time? You sound like you're trying to recruit me. Are you fucking insane?"
"Fair enough," I said. "Then do what we ask and we'll get out of your life. Hopefully forever."
"What do you want?" she asked.
"A piece of very old information that nobody will miss," I answered.
"What information?" she asked warily.
"I'll need you to log on to your remote network account," I answered.
"On the Agency system? Are you nuts? They can track that!"
"We'll make sure and knock you around a little, toss your place," I said. "That way you can say you were coerced."
She stared daggers at me for a long few seconds, then pulled up a Linux desktop and started typing. "I am being coerced," she muttered.
She entered the login screen and put in her username and password, then turned to me as the desktop opened. It was pretty much like I remembered, though the graphics were prettier, more up-to-date: a Windows desktop with a group of folders and a trash can.
"You guys haven't gone to Apple yet?" I asked.
"We just upgraded from DOS," she said. "What do you want me to look for?"
"Go to the search engine," I answered.
She pulled up a search client and verified her clearances, then turned to me. "You realize that there's like a 90% chance I won't have the clearance to see what you're looking for," she said.
"We'll take our chances," I said. "Search for Phoenix."
"What the hell is Phoenix?" she asked as she typed.
"Need to know," I answered.
She shot me a raised eyebrow. "Fuck off," she said.
The search engine did its thing, then came back. With one result.
Alice cocked an eyebrow and leaned in a little toward the screen. "Okay, that's weird," she said.
She pointed at the result, which just said "Phoenix (File- TS/RH)" and had a number after it. "You see that? The TS/RH?"
"It's Top Secret, Restricted Handling," I said. When she glanced at me I said, "I used to have a security clearance too."
"Okay, Mr. Security Clearance," she shot back, "then you know why it's weird. It's an RH file, that means only the people responsible for it can see it. I shouldn't be able to see it."
I looked up at Garcia, then back to Alice. "But you can?"
She nodded and clicked on the file. It opened.
"Yeah, that's weird," I said. "What does it say?"
She just shook her head. "You're not hearing me," she responded. "It's fucked-up that I can see it. It means someone's given me access to a file I shouldn't have access to."
"Why would they do that?" I asked.
"It means they, whoever they might be, want me to see it," she said. "Like maybe--"
"Like maybe they knew we were coming to see her," Garcia interjected. "Or at least figured we might."
I sat back in my chair, the reality of the situation flooding over me. "Shit," I said intelligently. "I was just thinking in terms of what we need to know."
"Somebody wants us to know something," Garcia said.
"Well, we should oblige them," I answered. I turned to Alice. "What we need to know is, who killed Phoenix?"
She was clicking through the file. "Uh, I found it," she answered.
"Yeah?" I demanded. "Who was it?"
She turned to me with the slightest hint of a grin. "You're not gonna like the answer," she said.
She was right.
Frank Armour walked out the back door of the US Capitol Building with his administrative assistant. He shot the cuff of his $3,000 Armani suit and put on Gucci shades against the mid-afternoon sun.
"Alma, you take the car back to Headquarters," he said to his assistant. "I've got a couple of people to see while I'm in town."
"Yes, sir," she answered. "You want me to take the briefing books?"
She took them from him and started toward the car, then turned back to him. "I hope you feel better, sir," she said. "We're glad you're back in the office."
He smiled. "Thanks. I'll catch up to you later."
He turned as she walked away and took in the sights of the Capitol Mall. He headed down the long, majestic staircase and angled around the Reflecting Pool toward the green space in the middle.
He was passing the Reflecting Pool when he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. He smiled, but didn't turn around.
I slowly turned Armour around so he was facing me. "Frank."
"Good to see you, my friend!" he said, his voice full of false bonhomie. "Could you let go of me?"
Slowly, reluctantly, I removed my hand from his shoulder and lifted the light jacket I was wearing to show him my pistol.
"So we bring guns to see each other now?" he asked.
"Frank, I would bring a tank to meet you if I had one," I answered.
He laughed. "It surprises me that you don't have one, actually," he said. "A man like you, with so many enemies and so few places to hide. Someone like you could really use an Army at his back."
"I've got one."
He laughed again. "I assume you're referring to Garcia?"
I smiled, but just with my mouth. No eyes.
"He's a very competent man," Armour noted. "It's good that you always have him there as a...how would you describe him? Your safety net?"
A raised eyebrow. "Sort of like the piano grinder and his monkey are partners?" he asked, flashing me a shit-eating grin that I wanted to wipe off his face with my Glock.
"He wouldn't appreciate you saying that."
A shrug. "As long as you control him, what he likes and doesn't like is of no concern to me."
"I don't appreciate it," I noted.
He smiled. "Gabriel, you're an international criminal wanted for at least murder and smuggling and probably fifteen other offenses," he said. "And you're here on false papers. With one yell I could have you hauled out of here and deposited in Federal prison and you wouldn't see the light of day until your little monkey was a broken old man. So perhaps it would behoove you to get to the fucking point before I get bored."
"Fair enough," I said. "I'm just here reporting in."
"I told you I'd find you when I had something," I answered.
A long pause. "Do you have something, Gabriel?"
"I have you."
He peered at me through his round little faux-hipster glasses, his Botoxed eyes barely moving. "What does that mean?"
"It means I know," I said. "I know you're the one running Phoenix."
He looked at me for a long moment, then burst out laughing.
"What?" he asked through chuckles. "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard."
"It very much is," he answered. "Where'd you come up with such a cockamamie idea?"
"We got his file."
At that he stopped laughing and turned serious.
"That insanity in Pyongyang," he said. "That was you?"
I just raised the corner of my mouth in a half-smile. He looked at me for a long moment, then began a slow, sarcastic clap.
"Well, bravo, Gabriel," he said. "Bravo. I was afraid that was you, but I was really hoping you were smarter than that. Way to stay low-key and off the books."
"Low-key really isn't our thing," I answered.
"You nearly started a war on the Korean Peninsula," he retorted. "The North Koreans threatened to come across the DMZ and kill our troops in retaliation. They went through an entire dissident network we had set up in the country. So now we're deaf and blind in North Korea thanks to you."
I shrugged. "You brought us into this," I said. "You knew we'd break a few rice bowls along the way. Hell, it's practically our signature."
He considered this for a moment, then sat down on the edge of the Reflecting Pool. He motioned for me to sit near him. I sat a couple of feet away, my hand on my pistol.
"So what did you find?" he asked.
"A little detail in Phoenix' file," I answered. "One that might interest you."
"According to his file in the Ministry of Public Security archives, he was killed in Seoul in 1998," I said. "By an American. A CIA officer."
"Really," he said. It wasn't a question. "That's very strange. Sounds like eyewash to me."
"I would agree," I answered. "Except that his CIA file confirms it."
"It also says that you're the one who killed him."
He didn't respond. The silence deepened between us, my accusation hanging in the air like a thickening cloud.
Finally he looked over at me, his face blank. "How'd you find his CIA file?"
"That's the really funny part," I said. "I'm pretty sure you gave me access to it."
I could see the edge of a grin creeping up around his mouth, but he stifled it. "And why would I do that?"
"That's what I can't figure out," I said. "But somebody gave your protege Alice Henley access to it just long enough for Garcia and I to see it. That seems like an unlikely coincidence."
I slid over a little closer to him and got in his face. "And this is intel work," I said. "There are no coincidences."
He considered this for a few moments. "From what you're saying, it sounds to me like Phoenix is dead and someone else is killing people in his name," he said. "But I take it you've drawn a different conclusion?"
I smiled at him. "You didn't really kill him, did you, Frank?" I asked. "You turned him. Or maybe he turned you. His file said his long-term mission was to infiltrate the CIA. Did he do that, Frank? Did the North Koreans recruit you in Seoul in 1998? Maybe he recruited you and now you're working together to kill everybody who was part of the operation in Hong Kong."
"That's quite a leap," he answered. "But just to indulge you, I want to hear what you think happened."
visualized myself standing in the alleyway in Hong Kong. I watched
as Shin Zhou entered the alley. He was alone. He looked back over
his shoulder and then headed toward the dead drop.
"As I recall," I said to Armour as we sat on the edge of the Reflecting Pool, "the purpose of that operation was to unmask a traitor. Somebody who was working for the North Koreans."
In the alley I watched Shin Zhou pick up his pace as he got closer to the site.
To Armour I said, "Shin Zhou and his brother were going to give us one of our own."
I watched as the middle-aged Chinese man got to the correct spot in the wall. He slowly, methodically counted three bricks up from the ground and one over from the middle, then jiggled the brick with his finger. It wobbled in its spot, making no sound. He flicked at it, and it fell on the ground. He picked it up and turned it over so he could examine it.
He removed a baggie from the brick. Inside the baggie was a small black felt bag and a cell phone. He glanced inside the black bag and a big smile crossed his face. From his pocket he removed a cigarette pack, which he placed in the brick. He leaned over to replace the brick when a shadow fell over him.
The shadow struck and Shin Zhou fell to the ground.
On the Mall, I looked at Armour, whose face was blank. "So his death protected somebody, didn't it, Frank?"
In the alley, as the blood spread out and stained the pavement beneath him, Shin Zhou looked up at the face of his killer.
Armour dropped the knife near the body and retrieved the cigarette pack from the brick. He also grabbed the small black felt bag from Shin Zhou's pocket and hid it away inside his own jacket.
He looked around for a moment, then put the radio to his lips. "Gabriel, get in here! Now! Holy shit!"
"Maybe his death protected you," I said.
Armour shook his head. "That's insane."
He stood up, threw his hands up in an exasperated motion, and turned back to me. "Hell, I'm beginning to think that maybe you're insane. Maybe all those years in the wilderness, all the paranoia and constantly looking over your shoulder have sent you off the deep end."
"Or maybe I'm finally seeing things clearly," I answered. "You manipulated us from the beginning. You set us up so Phoenix could take me out because you knew that's the only way you'd ever get me out in the open. Then you had Phoenix take care of Brock and Amira and get the file back."
He shook his head. "You've really got no idea what you're talking about."
Then he turned and made a break for it.
He didn't get very far, though, as we both heard a whing and a round came from somewhere and splashed into the Reflecting Pool. He stopped and put his hands up. I walked over to him, one hand on my pistol under my jacket.
"Garcia got overwatch?" he asked.
"Silenced sniper rifle?"
I just smiled.
To my surprise, so did he.
"You're so predictable," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
He shook his head. "Garcia's your security blanket, Gabriel," he said. "At this point he's saved your ass so many times he could just take up residence there rent-free."
Another condescending smile. "But you've gotten sloppy," he continued. "You depend on him to cover your mistakes. That's your Achilles heel."
"Okay, I'm getting tired of this," I said and used my free hand to grab Armour by the upper arm to turn him around and walk him out of the Mall.
He winced and knocked my hand away.
And the scales fell away from my eyes.
For a moment I was back on the Cristo Redentor platform, staring up at an assassin in a motorcycle helmet leaning over me with a knife while the crowds ran away in terror.
There was no sound from the gunshot, but I could feel the round whiz past.
It winged Phoenix, catching him in the upper arm, spinning him around and knocking the knife out of his hand.
He grabbed his arm, and I heard him cry out, but it was muffled under the helmet.
stared at him as it all fell into place:
The team getting killed.
Garcia's shot on the platform.
Armour's plastic surgery.
"You're him," I whispered. "You're the Phoenix."
"Master of disguise," I said. "Half-Korean, half-white. Plastic surgery to look more Caucasian. Working to infiltrate the CIA."
He stared at me for a long moment, then his mouth broke open into a wolfish grin. It was like watching the world's ugliest flower bloom.
"I'd say I did all right," he smirked. "Seeing as how I'm calling the shots for every US spy operation in the world."
He shrugged. "I met the original Frank Armour for a short time. It didn't go well for him."
I stood silently for a moment, the information running through my head at a dizzying pace.
"Good for you," I answered. "But now it's over."
"Yeah, Frank, it is," I answered. "Or should I say, 'Colonel?' There's no point in running. You know Garcia's got you covered."
lay on his stomach on the roof of an apartment building at the corner
of C and 4th Streets. He'd carried the .338 Lapua Magnum up to the
roof dressed as a maintenance man and slipped past a roving security
guard before taking up his position on the northeast corner of the
Now he watched the scene play out through the scope and listened to the conversation through an earpiece.
He heard Armour ask, "Does he?"
The tone made him look up from the scope. As he did so he noticed a glint off his rifle. He rolled away just in time as a bullet ripped through the air he'd just vacated and cut the gun in two.
He turned to see a hooded figure prone on the next rooftop pointing its own silenced rifle at him. Garcia pulled a pistol from his waistband and squeezed off two shots at the prone figure, then rolled behind an air conditioning duct as a stream of bullets thudded into the roof and plinked off the metal.
He rolled up and crouched behind the duct, then leaned out and took a shot at the hooded figure. He saw a tuft of red hair fly free as the figure took cover behind an outcropping and fired back.
Garcia popped off two more rounds. The first went high, but the second zinged within inches of the hooded figure and slammed into the wall nearby. The figure cried out and dropped the rifle, then jumped up and took off running.
Garcia shoved the pistol in his waistband and gave chase.
Armour's question had exactly its intended purpose-- it distracted me. I glanced up toward the rooftop where I knew Garcia was watching, just long enough for Armour to launch a roundhouse kick into my chest. It flung me backward over the edge of the Pool and sent me splashing into the water. I landed on my ass, my head underwater, and came up choking and spluttering just in time to see Armour take off running up the side of Capitol Hill toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
sprinted across the roof of the apartment building. He hit the edge
at full speed and flew through the air over the five-foot gap between
the two buildings. He landed hard and pitched forward, rolling over
and coming back to his feet. Across the roof he saw the hooded
figure go down a fire escape over the edge of the building.
I thrashed around in the water and came up over the edge of the Reflecting Pool to see Armour darting into the traffic of Pennsylvania Avenue. A Toyota Corolla swerved to avoid hitting him and slid to a stop in the middle of the road, while a sedan screeched to a stop on the other side.
Armour darted between the cars as the horns blared and the angry Corolla driver yelled out the window. I took off running after him, slid over the hood of the sedan and kept after him as he headed down the path toward Union Station.
reached the fire escape and stopped to peer over the edge, but there
was no sign of the attacker. He jumped over the edge, grabbed the
sides of the ladder and slid down.
Just as he hit the fire escape landing, the hooded figure stepped out from behind the ladder and barreled shoulder-first into him, knocking him over the edge of the railing.
Garcia grabbed the railing and held on for dear life as the hooded figure dropped the ladder to the bottom, hopped on and slid past Garcia on the way to the ground.
Garcia struggled for a moment, then pulled himself up over the edge of the railing and followed the figure down the ladder.
It took him a moment to process, but as Garcia slid down the ladder he could have sworn that the sound the hooded figure made when they collided was a grunt.
A feminine one.
chased Armour up Louisiana Avenue and watched him disappear into a
copse of trees next to Columbus Circle and across from Union Station.
I was about half a block back, but I figured I could outrun him
through the trees and catch him before he made it to the train
I entered the park and swiveled my head around to see if I could spot Armour-- which almost made me miss him and die when he stepped out from behind the first tree and swung a knife at me. I saw him in my peripheral vision and ducked out of the way just as the knife whistled past my head.
The thrust left Armour vulnerable; clearly he thought his best bet was to stab me in the neck before I could figure out he was there. I followed my move out of the way with a punch to his kidney. He let out a grunt and backed away.
"You're getting old, Frank," I said.
He assumed a fighting stance, with the knife held parallel to the ground and in front of his body.
"Not too old to kick your ass," he answered.
He feinted with the knife toward my face, which forced me to move to block it. The block left me a little open, and he slashed the knife across my upper arm. I felt the knife slice through my shirt and my skin, leaving a bloody gash behind. The pain followed a moment later.
"Ow!" I yelled.
"Now we're even," he said with a sly grin.
"Fine, we're even," I answered. "Now put the damn knife down and come with me."
"I don't think so."
ran down the sidewalk on a crowded side street, stepping around
pedestrians and jumping to his left to avoid a baby in a stroller.
Ahead of him, the hooded figure took a corner into an alley and
Garcia jumped over a pothole and angled into the alley, which was narrow and full of the detritus from a nearby construction site. He came around the corner-- and took a jarring shot to the chest from a two-by-four swung at full speed by the figure in the hoodie.
The momentum from the swing drove him into the wall behind him. He bounced off, grunted, and staggered toward the hooded figure. But before he could gather himself and take a shot at her, she was on him with a quick, brutal series of punches and kicks. She kicked him in the stomach, punched him in the face and snapped his head back against the wall.
He sagged to the ground, his eyes full of stars and his head full of cobwebs, while the red-haired woman in the hoodie ran down the alley. He saw her disappear around the corner as he struggled to his feet and staggered down the alley, but by the time he got to the corner, she was gone, a ghost in the crowd.
"Fuck," he muttered, then turned and bolted back into the alley.
swung the knife again, but this time I was ready. I deflected the
knife blow and caught Armour's wrist. We struggled over the knife,
and I pushed on Armour's wrist while he leaned into me and pushed
I pulled my right hand off the knife and punched his wrist, which knocked the knife away. Unfortunately, in doing so I lunged forward and left myself out of position, which gave Armour an opening. He took advantage of it by sweeping my legs out from under me, sending me to the ground on my back.
Armour wound up to kick me in the ribs, but I grabbed his plant leg and pulled it out from under him. He toppled over onto the ground next to me.
I flipped over and landed on top of him, but he slammed his legs up into a throw and used my momentum to send me flying over the top of him and onto the ground. I landed, rolled over and came to my feet.
He scrambled up, and we faced each other, each breathing heavily-- but him more heavily.
We circled each other for a moment, our eyes locked on the other's. I could hear sirens in the distance.
"Here come the cops," I said.
"You think that's a win for you?" he asked. "You're an international fugitive, here on illegal documents. I'm the Director of the NCS. One word from me and you'll be in the deepest hole in the American prison system."
He used the distraction of his words to take his shot, a quick punch to the side of my head. I ducked and he only got me with a glancing blow. I shook it off and punched back, catching him in the jaw and sending his head snapping back. He almost fell over, but reached down and used the ground to hold himself up.
I followed, ready to put an end to the whole thing, but he came back up and I realized too late he had a rock in his hand. He swung it will his strength and nailed me on the side of the head. The immediate blast of pain and sensory overload was followed by a flicker of white light and the realization that my legs were giving out under me. I slid to the ground, first onto my ass and then backward. My mind was weirdly detached as I watched Armour pick up the knife and stalk toward me, ready to finish me off.
He lifted the knife and grinned at me. "Fuck you, Gabriel," he said. "This is a long time in coming."
He got a couple of steps away-- then stopped. He looked up as if suddenly aware of something, then grimaced, turned and ran off into the woods and disappeared.
A moment later I heard footsteps approaching. I tried to sit up, but my head was wobbling. I finally pulled myself to a sitting position as Garcia appeared. He put his arm under mine and lifted me up.
"Time to go, boss," he said. "Cops are close."
"Armour got away," I said as he dragged me out of the park. "Did you get your guy?"
After a moment I realized Garcia hadn't answered me. I looked over at him and noticed that he'd gone red.
"What?" I asked. "What's wrong?"
"Did you get him?"
In a low voice, he said, "It wasn't a guy."
"What do you mean, it wasn't a guy?"
"Are you saying you got your ass kicked by a girl?"
"Shut up," he said. "You got yours kicked by Frank Armour."
"Hey, at least Armour's an international assassin," I said.
"If Phoenix' file is right, so's the girl."
"Okay, fair point," I said. "But still, it's like I got my ass kicked by Batman, and you got yours kicked by Robin. Y'know, if Robin was a girl."
He just shot me a dagger look. "This isn't getting us any closer to finding Amira," he said.
That shut me up. "True," I said. "Did you at least get a good look at her while she was beating you up? Anything we can use to find Amira?"
He gave me a sideways glare, then shrugged. "Not her face," he said. "She was wearing a hoodie and I never got a good look at her."
"You're just full of good news, aren't you?"
"I did, however," he said, a little louder, trying to talk over me, "see her hair."
"Damn," I muttered. "I was hoping it wasn't her."
"It makes sense," he said. "The file said Phoenix liked working with a protege."
I nodded. "That's exactly the word he used to describe her, too."
"What are you talking about?"
"In Rome, when we were talking, he described her as his protege," I said. "Now I know what he meant."
I stopped and pulled out my cell phone. "Hold on."
I quickly Googled "US Embassy Zagreb Croatia" and dialed the number. "Alice Henley, please."
"Just one moment, sir," said the switchboard operator. A long pause, then, "I'm transferring you to her office."
A couple of quick double rings, then: "Office of Balkan Affairs."
"Alice Henley, please," I said in my most officious voice.
"I'm sorry, sir," said the voice. "She's not available right now."
"This is Peter Duckworth at HQS," I said. "She's listed as the emergency contact for Alex Payne, and I need to speak to her. Is there a number where I can reach her?"
"No, I'm sorry," she answered. "She's out of the country right now. I'm not sure when she's coming back."
I hung up and looked at Garcia. "She's not in Croatia."
We sat on a nearby bench.
"So now what?" he asked. "If we're sure she and Armour are working together, what do we do? How do we use that to find Amira?"
I thought about it for a moment, then it hit me-- a distant memory from a previous life, dominated by the thought of a man in an eyepatch.
"As it turns out, I might have a way," I said.
"Let's find a pay phone."
I entered the Georgetown cafe to find Angus Castle waiting for us. He sat alone in the corner, a cup of tea on the table in front of him, a man almost invisible among the whirlwind of activity around him. He didn't move as we approached the table. I reached out and shook his hand.
"Good to see you, sir," I said.
"And you as well, Gabriel." He looked up. "Garcia."
"Long time, sir."
My head shot back toward Garcia. "You guys know each other?"
Castle smiled. To my greater concern, so did Garcia, though he avoided my eyes as he did so. "Why don't you two sit down so we can talk about it?" asked Castle.
We sat and I stared back and forth between the two men. "What's going on?" I asked. "There's nothing I hate more than being the third guy at a party."
Castle took a sip of his tea. "Do you remember the last time we talked, Gabriel?"
"Of course I do, sir."
"You'll recall that I told you to take care of yourself," he said. "But you chose not to follow my advice when you embarked on your new vocation as a privateer, so I decided to do what was necessary to protect my investment."
I looked back and forth between Garcia and Castle. "Sir, I think I'm even more in the dark than when we started this conversation."
"I suppose I shouldn't say my investment," he continued. "Really the Agency's investment."
"In what way?" I shot back. "The Agency cut me loose a decade ago."
He smiled and shook his head. "No, my friend," he said. "Armour cut you loose. The Agency has kept you much closer than you could ever realize."
He nodded toward Garcia. "For one, we sent you a watchdog to make sure that you stayed safe."
I whipped my head around to glare at Garcia. He gave me a mischievous grin that made me want to smack him upside the head. Instead I turned my head to peer at Castle.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "I don't understand what you're telling me. Garcia and I met--"
"I'm familiar with your origin story," Castle said. "But think it through for a moment."
As I sat at the table with Castle and Garcia, I walked through my memory like it was a dream, all fuzzy and oddly-colored.
Garcia and I originally met maybe eight months after I got bounced by the Agency. It wasn't a happy first encounter.
I had a meeting scheduled with a Chechen named Bashir Ayub, with whom I had made a deal to move some machine parts I had acquired from a contact in Colombia.
Bashir and I had agreed to make the exchange in a secluded cove on San Andres Island, a little bump in the ocean that technically belonged to Colombia but was located a few dozen miles from Nicaraguan waters. Garcia was working security for Bashir; I came alone.
Yeah, early on in my post-Agency career I might have taken more chances than I should have.
Anyway, I waited on a go-fast boat tied to a dock in a little inlet named El Cove while Bashir pulled up on a cabin cruiser named the "Mary Jane" and bobbed in the water next to me. Bashir stood at the edge so we could talk while a swarthy Latino controlled the wheel.
"Amigo!" Bashir called in a jocular voice, his hand raised in greeting. "Do you have my parts?"
"They're in the hold. Do you have my money?"
"Come aboard," he called. "Verify the money and then we can switch boats."
I hopped up on the side of my boat and stepped across to his. I was watching the Latin dude behind the wheel, trying to make sure he didn't make any sudden moves that might indicate bad faith on their part when something crashed down across my head and the world went black.
A little while later somebody dumped water on my head and I came to. I was lying on the deck of his boat with my hands bound behind my back and Bashir standing in front of me.
"Ow," I muttered. "So this is how you normally do business?"
"When my partners try to cheat me," he spat. "I checked the hold of your boat. Half the parts are missing!"
"Of course they are," I answered.
"So you admit you cheated me?"
"No, you idiot," I said. He responded by kicking me in the ribs, which elicited a grunt. I took in a breath and let the pain wash over me and then dissipate, then said, "They're close by. I'm just protecting myself. It's smart business."
"Does it seem like smart business right now, my friend?"
"What's your plan, Bashir?"
He grabbed me by the shoulder and hauled me to my knees. "My plan, amigo, is to shoot you in the head and dump you over the side, then take half the machine parts and all the money."
"Then why didn't you just kill me already?"
"I want to give you a chance to save yourself," he said. "Tell me where the rest of the parts are, and I'll let you walk away alive. Poor, but alive."
I started to answer, but the conversation was interrupted by a loud buzzing, like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes. I looked to my right to see a cigarette boat zooming up from the open sea.
"Friends of yours?" I asked.
"Shit," he muttered. He turned to the Latino guy. "Can you get us out of here?"
The Latino shook his head. "They're too close, sir. No room to maneuver."
Seeing Bashir distracted, I hobbled to my feet and made a break for it. I was about to dive over the edge onto the dock when I heard the loud report of a gunshot. I braced for Bashir's kill shot to rip through me and knock me overboard when I heard a following sound-- that of a body hitting the deck. I looked back to see Bashir lying motionless a few feet away.
The Latino moved more swiftly than anyone I'd ever seen. He swept across the deck, grabbed me and dove onto the dock. Behind us I could hear the roar of the approaching cigarette boat and the rat-tat-tat of the AKs. The Latino pulled me behind a large crate and we ducked down.
"Turn around," he said. I spun around and he slashed the rope binding my wrists. I turned back to find him pointing a gun at me. "You're not gonna shoot me in the back with this, are you?" he asked.
"Hey, you two were the ones who bashed me upside the head," I protested.
"That wasn't my call," he answered, but he flipped the gun over and handed it to me butt-first. "Let's deal with this."
I leaned out from behind the crate and squeezed off a couple of shots at the boat. The Latino did the same, and one of us hit one of the two gunmen and knocked him into the water.
"What exactly the fuck is 'this?'" I asked as we shot.
"My boss was trying to double-cross you," he said as he shot again. "And now these guys are trying to double-cross him."
We both fired again at the boat, and this time the second gunman ducked down, then came up firing. We both hid behind the crate, but he must have been the world's worst shot, because none of his rounds impacted. We came back up and fired again, and this time he slumped over the edge of the boat. The driver turned on a dime and the boat screamed off into the night.
I turned, gun raised, ready to make my escape, but the Latino was too fast for me. He turned and snapped my head back with a short punch to the jaw. And for the second time that night, I fell to the ground, unconscious.
I came to a few minutes later, on the cabin cruiser, heading out to sea. I looked up to see the Latino driving the boat.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Getting us out of here," he said. "With the money."
"Why didn't you just leave me back there?"
"I don't like double-crosses," he answered.
"Huh," I muttered, and more thinking aloud than really meaning to talk to him, I said, "Maybe we should work together."
"Why would you wanna work with me?" he asked.
I shrugged. "You saved my life," I said. "What's your name?"
He turned and gave me a look, then grinned and extended a hand. "You can call me Garcia, sir."
gave Castle a long, suspicious look. "So what are you saying?"
"Think back to your initial meeting," he answered. "Does any of it seem strange in your memory?"
I thought for a moment...and then it hit me. "The bullets," I muttered and looked up at him. "There were no impacts."
"They were blanks," I said, as I felt the cluelessness rise up and fade away like a veil of mist that had been clouding my eyes for so long. "They were blanks!"
"Like I said, I took care of the Agency's investment," said Castle.
I turned to Garcia. "So the whole thing was faked?"
Garcia gave me a little half-shrug.
"Bullshit," I said. "I watched Bashir die."
"Did you?" asked Castle. He inclined his head to the left, just an inch or so, and I looked over his shoulder to see someone standing by a car in a nearby parking lot looking very intently in our direction.
"Bashir?" I asked. "Seriously?"
"It was a group of Agency paramilitary officers," said Castle. "Your business was thriving, but you were being careless. We needed to get you some protection to keep you from getting yourself killed."
"Leaving aside the massive betrayal and deep-seated anger," I said as I glared at Garcia, "I still don't understand why the Agency cared about my business. You guys had cut me loose."
"Not entirely," said Castle. "The Agency sometimes needs to be able to move things to certain off-book recipients. Sometimes that requires someone with a certain ability to move in the gray areas. You had demonstrated, and you continue to demonstrate, the best natural ability to do that of anyone I've ever seen."
"But I haven't ever worked with the Agency--"
"Not knowingly," he interrupted with another hooded smile. "It's safer for everyone if you didn't know. Plausible deniability and all that."
I just sat quietly for a few moments and stared off into the distance, my thoughts a jumble. I had worked next to Garcia nearly every day since that abortion of an operation in the waters near San Andres, and I had come to see him as my friend, my business partner-- and yes, sometimes as my protector. To my mind, we looked out for each other, and while I always knew he had my back, I figured he knew that I had his as well. That was the nature of a partnership, not one guy suckering another into a faux partnership constructed to benefit an intelligence organization. But as that thought crossed my mind, it occurred to me that was exactly the definition of one type of partnership.
"So I've been your asset?" I demanded of Castle.
He flashed that mysterious smile one more time and lightly shook his head. "I wouldn't put it that way," he answered. "More like we've had a partnership that benefited both sides."
"Except that one side of the partnership didn't know anything about it."
A small shrug. "No relationship is perfect," he said. "But Garcia has kept you safe, the money's continued to roll in, and you've helped us in innumerable ways secure American national security and accomplish the goals you set out to achieve when you joined the Agency."
"What do you know about my goals?" I asked. "It's been well over a decade since I've thought more than 10 seconds about the goals I wanted to achieve when I joined the Agency."
"I'm not convinced of that," he said. "At heart, you're still a patriot."
"Mr. Castle, when you cut me loose and locked me out of the US, I stopped giving a shit about American national security."
"And how about Armour?" he asked quietly. "Do you still give a shit about him?"
"You know I do," I answered, just as quietly.
"Then regardless of how you feel about Garcia or our partnership, we need to work together one more time," he said. "Now tell me what you know about Armour and his work as Phoenix."
I just sat silently for a moment, trying to process all the new information. I realized he was right-- the only way I was finding and stopping Armour was with his help.
So I started talking.
I ran through what we knew-- Phoenix' mission to infiltrate the US Intelligence Community, Frank Armour's apparent encounter with Phoenix in Seoul and the operation in Hong Kong. When I finished, he sat thoughtfully for a few moments.
Finally he said, "I remember when that happened. I was working in the EA Front Office when we got information about a North Korean planned attempt on President Clinton's life. Frank-- the actual Frank-- was the guy we we sent out there to take care of it."
"Was he good?" I asked.
He nodded. "He was one of the best," he answered. "After the encounter with Phoenix, he-- well, Phoenix-- spent two months in a hospital in Singapore and then six months in recovery in California. Had to have facial surgery. It's where he got that scar on his face. Spent six months recovering and in therapy. The first day he came back to work, the entire Agency lined the halls and applauded him as he walked through."
"Yikes," I muttered. But Castle wasn't paying attention to me anymore.
"I remember that the White House and 7th Floor insisted that the incident remain a secret so as not to embarrass the South Koreans," he said. "It wasn't until a few years later-- after the Hong Kong operation, in fact-- that we began to suspect something might be fishy with the Frank Armour who came back from Seoul."
We sat in silence for a few moments, until I said, "We think he kidnapped or killed Brock Street and Amira Martinez, as well."
Castle shook his head. "Poor Amira," he answered. "She always looked at Frank like a father."
He kept talking, but I had stopped listening, because the last piece had just gone click in my brain.
My jaw fell open and I leaned back, rocked by the thoughts swirling through my brain.
I looked at Garcia. "She did, didn't she?"
He looked back at me, confused. "She did what?"
"Looked at Armour like a father. Y'know, like she was his child?"
After a moment I saw it fall into place for him too.
But then all the implications of my realization about Amira and her relationship with Armour began to slam into me like falling bricks, breaking and reforming my understanding of the world in fractious, shocking ways.
In my mind I watched the pudgy, fake-pregnant Amira board Latin Air Flight 492, guided by a young flight attendant. The flight attendant helped Amira to her seat and turned to leave, but Amira put her hand on the girl's arm. The attendant turned, Amira said something to her, and then she smiled and made her way back to the front of the aircraft.
Amira, meanwhile, waited until the young woman had disappeared around the corner to the jetway. I watched her face change-- no longer was the guileless, terrified young Mexican woman worried about being dragged off the plane into an uncertain tomorrow. That woman was replaced by the case officer that Amira really was-- in the form of a slight smirk, an acknowledgement that she knew she was smarter than those around her and could manipulate any situation to her benefit.
After the flight attendant disappeared, Amira lifted her fat, ungainly body from the tiny seat, secured her shoulder bag and carried it back toward the rear of the cabin. None of the other flight attendants noticed as she pushed her way past the other passengers and slid into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
While everyone else was oblivious to what she did in the bathroom, in my mind I just moved inside with her and watched. First she pulled a hairband and a baseball hat from the bag, then a device the size of a paperback novel, boxy with a keypad and a small digital screen. She pushed a series of buttons on the keypad and the screen blinked, then the number "24000" appeared. She pulled a screwdriver from the bag and knelt down in front of the sink. She opened the cabinet, reached under with the screwdriver and removed a panel, revealing a hidden space under the sink. She reached up into the space and attached the device to the wall in the darkness, then put the panel back on and closed the cabinet. Then she stood, stared at herself in the mirror for a moment, and began putting on the disguise.
A moment later a very different person emerged from the bathroom and pushed her way off the plane.
And 24,000 feet later the plane exploded.
Then in my mind I flashed back to the Capitol Mall and the scene that played itself out on the rooftops nearby. While Garcia lay on his stomach and pointed his silenced .338 Lapua Magnum at Armour, a hooded figure pointed a similar rifle at Garcia.
As I stood on the roof and watched, Garcia rolled out of the way just as the hooded figure squeezed off a shot. I watched a spark fly from Garcia's rifle as the round bisected it. I watched the hooded figure get into a short gun battle with Garcia, then stand up and run away. And when the figure moved, I saw red hair flash.
The figure ran past me.
And I saw Amira's face under the wig.
didn't kidnap her," I said. "And she didn't get lucky and
escape an airliner bombing. She caused it."
Castle gave me a long look. "That's a very serious accusation, Gabriel," he said. "She's an active Agency officer."
"So's Armour," I said. "You didn't seem to have any trouble accepting that he's actually a North Korean spy who was sent to infiltrate the Agency."
"Fair point," he acknowledged. "But like I said, I've had my suspicions about Armour for a long time. But let's say you're right about all of it. Let's say Armour killed Shin Zhou in Hong Kong and stole the information Shin Zhou was going to pass, as well as the diamonds, and now he's killing off anyone who might have had access to the case and who might be a loose end. What's your plan, Gabriel?"
"That's what I was hoping you could help us with," I answered. "We need to find them before they disappear."
A raised eyebrow. "So now it's personal?" asked Castle.
I was about to answer when Garcia piped up for the first time. "No, sir," he said. "If they disappear, then we have to look over our shoulders every day for the rest of our lives."
Castle finished his tea and smiled at me. "Fortunately for you and our friend Mr. Garcia, I can be of a certain assistance in this case."
"But you'll want something in return," I said.
He acknowledged the truth of this with a half nod. "Nothing too complicated or onerous," he said. "Just keep doing your business and assist us from time to time. You'll continue making more money than Croesus, and now and again you'll be a mostly-unwitting implement of US policy."
I thought about his offer for a moment-- but then he dropped the hammer.
"Oh, and you'll need to keep working with Garcia," he said.
I shook my head. "I'm not ready to commit to that," I answered. "He and I are having some trust issues."
"Understandable," Castle said. "And unavoidable. But you'll have to admit that he's been a positive contributor to your business for the last decade."
"He's had his moments," I muttered.
"I felt certain he would," said Castle. "That's why I chose him for the job."
I thought about the adventures Garcia and I had gone through, and how he had saved my life more than once. As a sniper watching over me from above. As the muscle when a buyer needed to be intimidated. As the mechanic when the boat we were stranded on in the South China Sea needed to be repaired before we died of thirst.
Something about that nagged at me. I looked at Garcia, trying to see if his face would jog the memory. And it did...but not in the way I was expecting. Suddenly I was flooded with memories of Amira.
lay in bed next to each other and I ran my finger over the cross
pendant around her neck.
"My father gave it to me," she said.
Then I was on the deck of Phoenix' boat bobbing wildly in the South China Sea. I watched Amira unfasten the pendant and swing her arm toward the boat and I heard the pendant thunk onto the deck next to me.
"Remember me," she whispered, and then she turned and went back to Phoenix' side.
I pulled the pendant out of my pocket.
"You asshole," I said to myself.
"What?" Castle asked.
I turned to Garcia. "You have your knife?"
"Sure," he answered and handed it to me. I slid it along the side of the pendant and found a seam. I chiseled at it and popped the top off.
And found the tiny beacon hidden inside.
"They've been tracking us," I said. "I practically asked them to. I'm an idiot."
"So they've had an eye on where we were at all times since they left us floating in the China Sea," Garcia said. "They knew we were coming."
I stared at him as one last realization washed over me. "And they know where we've been," I said.
His eyes widened and he nodded. "They probably have a map showing exactly how we got from Pyongyang back to DC."
"You ready?" I asked.
"I get to come?"
"Let's see this through," I said, "and then we'll talk."
We got up and bolted from the table, leaving Castle sitting there staring after us, his unpatched eye awash in confusion.
"Find Alice Henley!" I yelled back at Castle.
reached the Escalade we'd acquired for our time in DC. Garcia jumped
behind the wheel and I got in the passenger seat. As we drove away,
I glanced at him. "Garcia's probably not even your real name,
"Might as well be," he said. "I've pretty much forgotten what my momma named me."
"It wasn't by chance 'Asshole,' was it?"
He glanced over at me and grinned. "Takes one to know one," he jibed.
Highway 7 near Berryville, VA
The bright red convertible was the only car on the road. It sped up the highway like a tear running away from a repentant eye. Leaves swirled around the highway in its wake in their own guilty dance. And the driver knew whose guilt was causing them to tango.
Amira felt the tears running freely down her face. A passerby wouldn't have noticed them behind her fashionably large and dark sunglasses, but they were balled up in her eyes, obscuring her vision. She ripped the glasses off her face and hurled them into the passenger seat and wiped angrily at the bastard tears.
She knew Gabriel would figure it out eventually. Part of her hoped he'd put two and two together before she and Armour left, because that part of her was ready to fight and die and finally get to embrace the sweet rush of oblivion.
Her whole life had been a lie, from the moment she had killed a soldier who tried to rape her in the woods near her tiny Argentinian village when she was 12. He had pulled her into the trees after encountering her walking home from school one afternoon. When she'd realized what he was after, she'd fought and screamed, but to no avail. He punched her in the side of the head, and the next thing she knew she was lying on the ground and her panties were gone. As he lifted himself up on top of her, she reached for anything she could find. The first thing her hand grasped was a rock. She brought it up to the side of his head so hard that she was pretty sure his heart stopped on contact. He collapsed and she shoved him off her, the proceeded to bash his head in with the rock until his face was unrecognizable and she was covered in blood.
The most indelible memory, though, was that as she stood over his lifeless body and obliterated face, she felt nothing. No fear, no pain, no guilt, no regret. Just a realization that she had done the only thing she could do, and that her life would be inevitably changed as a result.
The local guard captain was a friend of her father's, and instead of shooting her in the head, as most others probably would have done, instead he realized that she might have a fit in the military and conscripted her. Later she would come to realize that the captain had almost certainly saved her from death by doing so. Even if he had just left her alone and let her go on about her life, one day one of the other soldiers would have gotten revenge for his comrade by taking her back in the woods and finishing the job.
But the Argentinian military government, which was always on the lookout for talent, put her through a special program and turned her into a trained, methodical killer. Then they loaned her out to the North Koreans, who were looking for someone just like her to match up with their best assassin so that he could travel without drawing too much attention.
From the Phoenix she had gotten a master class in the skills of an international assassin. He'd taught her how to use a myriad of aliases and identities, and how to use them offensively, to get her closer to the target, rather than just using them to defend herself. He'd taught her about misdirection, smoke and mirrors, the stock-in-trade of those who make their living by getting close enough to someone to slide a knife between their ribs or a small dose of poison in their drink.
For the first two years she'd just been his cover, the adorable daughter who helped him gain entree into living rooms and salons across the word, always with the same end goal in mind. When she turned 15, he let her pull the trigger for the first time. It wasn't actually a trigger in that case, as the target had to be eliminated without making any sound to alert his phalanx of bodyguards outside the door. She had waited in the closet of his Paris apartment for hours until he came home from an event and came into the closet to change clothes. He had stood in front of his full-length mirror, just as they knew he would, and he admired himself in his finery. And when he did so, she slipped out from her hiding place and dosed him with a syringe full of Kolokol-1, the same substance used in aerosol form by Russian special forces teams against Chechen terrorists during the takeover of a theater in 2002.
In the concentrated form, the substance works as a short-term incapacitating agent, perfect for a 15-year-old girl trying to kill an older, larger man. She jabbed it into his thigh, pressed the plunger and watched him stumble around for a moment, his mouth open as if to scream but his voice silenced by the drug. In less than two seconds he was unconscious, and she used her knife to finish the job. It was messy, but then it was supposed to be, as his murder was intended to send a message to one group or another. She used his shower to clean the blood out of her hair and stuffed her bloody clothes in a backpack, put on a black bodysuit and climbed out the window. Phoenix had given her a specific route to get to the roof, and she followed it to perfection and found him waiting for her.
After that she became an almost even partner in the relationship, and eventually his lover. That ended, however, when he told her of his ultimate mission-- to infiltrate the highest levels of that bastion of evil, the Central Intelligence Agency. Then he told her his plan for her-- to likewise get inside the Agency and work her way up. That way the two of them could continue to function as a team, hollowing out the capitalist empire's main source of information from the inside.
They got their first opportunity during the mission to Hong Kong in 2003. Phoenix-- in his role as Frank Armour-- believed that Gabriel Linden was the greatest threat to their plans and the most likely to take control of the Hong Kong operation and screw it up. So he assigned Amira to distract Linden while he took care of Shin Zhou.
And a good thing, too, because when Phoenix finally got the information from the dead drop and read it, he realized that the North Korean MPS had shared enough about their mission with the Chinese MISS to bring the entire operation down. That had necessitated a meeting between Phoenix and his handler to discuss possible solutions to the problem. Eventually his handler had agreed to destroy the paper copy of the file, and Phoenix had put into place a plan to sever any loose ends on the Agency side. It had taken him far longer than he preferred, knowing that he was exposed as long as anyone from the operation was still in the Agency, but he did the best he could given his other responsibilities.
Linden had been the stickiest of all the wickets. Phoenix had moved to get him out of the Agency as soon as possible, but he always suspected there was a faction in East Asia Division that still considered Linden one of their own. So when he took over as D/NCS, he'd set in place a plan long in development but never really considered usable to flush Gabriel out and use him to drive Brock Street to ground at the same time, thus giving Phoenix a chance to find out what they both knew about him and then finish them off.
But then Amira had stumbled. She'd let her feelings get in the way and had come to Gabriel's rescue. That misstep would cost her dearly, as she knew that Phoenix would never forget it. She also knew that once they were safely out of the range of US national security, he would punish her for her failure to take care of Gabriel.
At this point, the only satisfaction was in knowing that the pig Brock Street was dead. He'd died hard, after many long hours of torture and interrogation to surface the extent of his and the Agency's knowledge about Phoenix and his operations. When Phoenix was done with his questions, he'd left Street to Amira and her knife, and a few well-placed incisions later, Street had bled out from the hole in his crotch where his dick used to be and died in a lonely warehouse with a scream on his lips. That pleased her, but even in getting her revenge against Street there was no joy, no warmth. Only tears.
But as she drove toward the inevitable ending of her story, she cried not because she was saddened by her fate. She'd accepted her violent and probably unhappy death the moment she cracked the rock over the soldier's head. No, she wasn't frightened to die.
She was afraid of seeing Gabriel die. And she was terrified of failing Phoenix.
She found herself crying because she truly loved Gabriel and wanted to do exactly what she had told him over and over-- run away together and disappear, out of Phoenix' reach and away from the whole dirty life. But he'd refused her, just like she knew he would, and the pull that Phoenix maintained over her dragged her back to him, over and over, no matter what he did or asked her to do. She'd known for 20 years that her life would end in close proximity to Phoenix. It was inevitable.
She took a long pull from a bottle of water and glanced at her rearview mirror. And gasped.
Roaring up behind her was a Cadillac Escalade. Garcia was behind the wheel, and Gabriel was in the passenger seat.
"Shit!" she exclaimed. She'd counted on getting away with Phoenix before Gabriel figured out how they were leaving. That way he'd be safe. Pissed off and betrayed, but safe.
But now things were different.
Her face hardened as she stepped on the accelerator and pulled away. Garcia followed suit and kept the distance close. She saw him coming around her and then watched as he tried to tap her left back side and push through her, forcing her into a spin to bring her to a stop. It was a common law-enforcement technique known as the Precision Immobilization Technique, or PIT, and one that Phoenix had taught her many years before.
She sped up as he darted toward her, and all he succeeded in doing was locking up the bumpers. He tried to drive her toward the shoulder, but she sped up and broke away. Her bumper ripped off and smashed to pieces around the Escalade.
She reached into the handbag on the passenger seat and pulled out her Glock. She twisted around and fired off a shot over her shoulder, but it went wide. It had the desired effect, though, as it forced Garcia to slow down and duck behind her, making her harder to PIT.
He didn't give up, though. A moment later she saw him pull up behind her again. And this time he pulled off the PIT perfectly.
She felt the car skid into the spin and avoided resisting it. At this point it was out of her hands and trying to yank her wheel back into the spin would probably just result in her flipping over.
So she let the car spin and prepared. As it came to a screeching stop, facing backwards in the road, she calmly aimed the Glock and put two perfect shots into the front left tire of the Escalade, which had stopped a few meters away. Then she jammed the transmission into reverse and red-lined the car backing up the road. She whipped the convertible into a tight turn and zipped away, leaving the Escalade on three tires behind her.
have to admit, I was nervous watching Garcia PIT Amira's convertible.
Though she had betrayed me more than anyone I could imagine--
including Garcia-- I still knew deep down that I loved her and didn't
want to see her hurt.
So you can imagine how disappointing it was to see her point the Glock at us when we found ourselves sitting in the middle of the road facing each other. Luckily she wasn't aiming at our heads-- just our tire.
We watched her pull away and looked at each other.
"What's the plan, boss?" Garcia asked.
"Boss, really?" I responded.
I rolled my eyes. "We don't have time to change the tire."
He shrugged. "What the hell? It's a rental."
He threw it into gear and we roared off after her.
reached the quiet little airfield on three tires and a rim, throwing
sparks with every rotation. As we arrived, I spotted the G-280
sitting in the middle of the tarmac. The convertible was parked
nearby, as was a sedan.
The plane's engines were running and as we approached the airfield it started to move, slowly at first but speeding up, toward the runway.
"Can you get me close to the plane?" I asked Garcia.
"For what fucking purpose?" he asked. "So you can die valiantly in front of Amira?"
"She'll let me in," I answered.
"You've lost your mind!"
"Maybe," I answered. "But I'm still the boss. Now get me close to the plane before we lose them forever."
He shook his head, but in disgust, not refusal. He sped up the Escalade and we roared through the gate and started to close the distance with the plane, shooting sparks the whole way.
"Again I ask, what's the plan, boss?" he asked derisively.
"Not sure yet," I said. "It's sort of a work in progress."
He snorted, but kept speeding up and aiming for the plane, which reached the end of the airstrip and turned to taxi just as we burst between the cars and turned to catch it as it taxied by.
The plane didn't stop at the end of the runway; rather, it just made a quick turn and headed up the concrete strip.
We drew closer and I rolled the window down. I leaned out the window and climbed up on the sill like one of the Duke boys. The plane sped up, but Garcia did a remarkable job pulling me close to the wing nearest the hatch.
I reached for the wing, but missed. "Closer!" I yelled down into the SUV. I could practically feel Garcia rolling his eyes, but he pulled closer, then swerved in as near as he could behind the wing. I stretched again, and this time I felt my fingers grasp at the back edge.
"One more time!"
The plane gave a little shudder as it started to lift off.
I leaped out the window, imagining the mess I was going to make when I missed and Garcia ran over me-- but somehow I managed to grab the outside edge of the wing and wrap my fingers around it. I pulled myself forward and lay there, my legs hung over the back of the wing and my face over the front, as the plane took off and aimed upward. The SUV turned away and swerved to a stop.
Oh, I am so fucked.
I struggled to hang on as the plane gained altitude and shimmied my way up the leading edge of the wing. One hand after the other, I thought as I slowly crawled up the wing toward the windows. I knew if it took me too long to get there the plane would be too high for Amira to open the hatch and I'd be screwed anyway.
But I got there, finally, to the fuselage. I looked in the window and saw Amira sitting alone in one of the plush leather seats, tears rolling down her face.
I banged on the window. She didn't move.
I hit it again, and this time she jumped. She turned, saw me staring at her like some crazy ghost-- the world's dumbest stowaway-- and jumped up like her ass was on fire.
The best thing about the G280 as far as I was concerned at that moment was that the leading edge of the wing was angled so the end where I found myself wasn't that far from the hatch, which opened a moment later to reveal Amira struggling to hang on-- and pointing a pistol at me.
"What the hell are you doing?" she shouted over the wind.
"Let me in!" I shouted back. "It's cold out here!"
But she reached down for me. I reached out for her. Our hands inched closer together-- and she grabbed my wrist. But I could tell almost immediately that there wasn't enough strength.
"I can't pull you in!"
"Then how the hell do I get there?" I shouted.
"You'll have to jump!"
"Just tell Frank to land," I yelled. "We can talk about this like adults!"
She just looked at me.
"Okay, fine! But if I die, it's on you!"
I pulled myself forward so that my feet rested on the front edge of the wing, then shoved myself out and toward the hatch.
I can tell you that the millisecond or two after I left contact with the plane felt like they lasted the rest of my life. I flew about two feet, and then the thousand-mile-an-hour winds got hold of me and blasted me in the wrong direction.
This is it, I thought. This is how you're going to die, you asshole.
But Amira never let me go. She grabbed my wrist with both hands and yanked me toward the open hatch, even planting her feet against the door as she pulled.
My free hand banged off the ladder, and I scrabbled for purchase.
Then I got it. My hand grabbed the edge of the hatch and held on for dear life. I pulled myself toward the opening, Amira still pulling with all her might, and then I flopped inside onto the floor.
Amira quickly stood up and slammed the hatch closed while I lay on the floor, feeling the life seep out through every pore in my body, breathing raggedly and cursing myself for my stupidity.
Then, despite myself, I started to laugh.
Amira turned and glared at me. "Really?" she demanded. "What about this is funny?"
"I'm not dead," I gasped between belly laughs. "That's pretty damn awesome."
"Not for long," she said as she dragged me to my feet and flung me into a soft leather seat. "Now sit."
I sat, my laughter finally subsiding as I remembered what she'd done.
"Everything okay back there?" Armour called from the cockpit.
"Go fuck yourself, Frank," I called back.
Amira shot me a look. "You just can't help yourself, can you?"
I shrugged. "Seems sorta pointless to keep bullshitting each other, doesn't it?" She looked away and blushed. "For example," I continued, "why don't we talk about how you've been sabotaging me every step along the way."
She slumped heavily into the seat facing me, always keeping the gun trained on my chest. "I saved your life," she said. "You don't have any idea how much that's going to cost me."
"Why should it cost you anything?" I asked. "You made up for it, I'd say, with that little trick with your pendant and taking your shots at Garcia. Who's fine, by the way, thanks for asking. What's a little PTSD among friends?"
She rolled her eyes and for a moment looked like the old Amira, the girl I'd fallen in love with so many years before. Then the sadness came back and pushed the old Amira away.
"I was a child," she said quietly.
"They gave me to him," she said. "I've been his since I was 16 years old. He's all I've ever known."
I thought about that for a moment. "Don't take this the wrong way," I said finally, "but that's such bullshit."
She jabbed the gun at me. "Fuck you, Gabriel!"
"No, fuck the 300 people you murdered on Latin Air 492," I said. "And for...what? I mean, when I thought Phoenix was after you maybe I could see the logic. It's still psychotic and terrifying, but you thought you had to disappear, so you created a definitive way of disappearing, but...if you knew that Phoenix wasn't coming after you, what was it for?"
"Brock Street," she said.
I just stared at her for a moment, then shook my head. "I'm sorry, what?" I asked. "Are we just throwing out random names of people we both used to know until one of us murdered them? Okay, I play...Roger Alden!"
She shook her head. "Don't be a dick," she answered. "The message that Armour sent me in Mexico City wasn't about Phoenix, it was about Brock. He told me that Brock had disappeared and that I was his next target."
"But Brock was just--"
"A rapist," she said. "And he would have killed both you and me if Frank hadn't gotten him."
"I'm sorry, a rapist?"
"You remember my female problems in Hong Kong?" she asked. "For a second you thought I was pregnant and you almost lost your shit?"
I blushed. "I wouldn't say I almost lost my shit, but whatever. Of course I remember. What happened?"
"Street came to my room the first night we were there, before you arrived," she said. "He was hammered, then he got me drunk and hit on me. I told him no, that I was with you, but he tried to force me."
She nodded. "He forced me down on the bed," she said. "He had my pants down and was on top of me, but I kneed him in the balls and knocked him off, then broke a bottle and forced him out of the room."
"Jesus," I said. "How come you didn't file a grievance against him?"
"Please," she said. "You file a grievance against an Agency man for trying to get some, you become 'that woman' and you never get a job again. And obviously the cops were out, given why we were there. But from then on I always had to keep an eye on him. And when he disappeared from Moscow, Armour and I knew he'd be coming after me. We figured he'd try to kill the rest of us in preventive self-defense."
I sat silently for a few moments, stunned by the revelations. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."
She ducked her head. "No reason you should have known," she answered. "But Street was a pig, hiding behind those blue eyes and that blond hair. And he deserved to die the way he did, bleeding out from his balls and screaming."
I thought about it for a few moments, then looked up at her.
"Here's the thing," I said. "You're acting like you didn't have a choice, like you never had a choice, like blowing up an airplane and killing 300 people to hide from Brock Street was your only option. Do you even realize how crazy that is? It makes me wonder if I ever knew you."
We sat silently for a few moments.
"I was there for you," I said. "Me and the rest of your friends. All you had to do was talk to me, and we would have figured it out."
"I tried," she said. "Remember? I told you we should run off together, just disappear and live the rest of our lives on a beach somewhere?"
"But why? Why save me? Why intervene at all? It's easier for me to understand that you and he have been a team for your entire adult life. I mean, you put your money on red or black and you take your chances, I get it. But then why step in at all? Why take the shot at him in Rio? Why not just let him kill me? He had me dead to rights."
She was silent for a long time, and when her answer came, it came in a whisper. "You know why."
I leaned over so that my nose was only a couple of inches away from the gun, and not much farther than that from her face. "Tell me why."
"Because I love you," she said. "You know that."
"Then let me go," I said. "Let's finish him and put an end to this. The world can be a good place for us. It really can."
She looked at me for the longest time, and I saw the smallest bulb of a tear bubble up in the corner of her eye, and for a moment I thought she was going to say yes.
But she didn't. After a few moments she shook her head. "I can't."
I started to ask what she meant, but then the cockpit door opened and Armour came into the cabin.
"Not so tough without Garcia here to protect you, are you?" he taunted. He walked between us, turned and popped me in the jaw, sending me sprawling out of my seat, my head banging against the bulkhead.
"Sorry about that," he said. "I need better self-control. At least that's what my therapist tells me."
"There's not enough therapy in the world to unfuck your brain," I said.
He laughed, then extended a hand. I took it, half expecting him to punch me again, but he just dragged me up and dumped me in the seat.
"I've always liked that about you, Gabriel," he said. "No matter how awful things are for you, you always maintain a sense of humor."
"What can I say?" I answered. "Life is funny."
He gave me a rueful smile. "Not always," he answered. "Has Amira told you the plan?"
I smiled. "Yeah," I said. "We kill you, dump your body in the Atlantic and disappear together."
He laughed. "Not exactly," he said. "But there is good news for you. When it's all over, you'll get a star on the wall at CIA Headquarters."
"Awesome," I said. "I always wanted to die a hero."
"Then this will work out well for you."
Amira blanched. "Frank, can I talk to you?" she asked.
They stepped away, always keeping the gun pointed at me, and I could hear them whisper at each other. I heard her plead and him refuse, then her step it up. It was hard to hear exactly what they were arguing over, but it wasn't hard to figure it out.
"Amira wants me to let you live," he said when they sat back down. "I'm not inclined to give you a chance to cause problems, but she convinced me that you'll be a good boy until we land. We'll leave you with the plane and disappear, and you can be the hero who nearly brought down the great Phoenix."
"As long as you're modest."
A hearty laugh. "Come now, Gabriel! No reason to be churlish. You have to admit, I do deserve a certain amount of credit. How many other intelligence officers have penetrated their main enemy and moved up the organizational ladder like I have? The Counterintelligence Center will write books about me for the next 100 years. I'll be up there with Penkovsky and Eli Cohen."
"More like Ames and Hanssen," I answered.
He smiled. "I understand," he said condescendingly as he patted me on the knee. "It's been a difficult few weeks for you. I know Angus Castle had the highest hopes for you."
I raised an eyebrow at that. "You knew?"
He laughed. "Of course I knew," he said. "You don't think I have my own network inside Langley? Castle thinks he's the greatest operator since Mata Hari, but he generally takes the obvious route to whatever solution he's going for. That's his Achilles heel. Or his Garcia, if you want to draw a parallel."
He smiled and stood up. "I'm going to check on the flight computer," he said. "We should be over the Atlantic soon, and then we'll see where the next step in the journey takes us all."
He headed to the cockpit. Amira watched him, her head turning fractionally away from me. I couldn't help but be amazed at the thrall he held her in. She was drawn to him like a child to her father, and it was killing her.
Unfortunately for her, I wasn't nearly as obsessed with him. As soon as I saw her eyes flick off me, I acted.
I reached out and smacked the gun out of her hand. It skittered across the floor and disappeared under a seat. She let out a howl and looked frantically for the gun.
I didn't give her the chance to find it. I lunged at her, driving my shoulder into her chest and knocking her out of the chair onto the floor. As I landed on her I heard the breath burst out of her and she let out a long noise, sort of a half-moan, half-sigh.
Then she drove her knee right up into my nuts.
Holy shit, that hurt. I felt a lightning bolt of pain run right up the middle of my body, then I briefly went numb and felt a blast of sympathy for Brock Street. She used my incapacitation to lean into me and shove me over. I rolled off her, grabbing at my now useless testicles and giving a moan of my own.
And suddenly she was on top of me, slashing at me with her fingernails and hissing like an alley cat. I lifted my hands and arms and tried to protect my eyes. I felt her fingernails dig into my arms and leave bloody rivulets in their wake.
"Ow!" I yelled. "That hurts!" I lifted her up and threw her into the side of the bulkhead. She banged off the wall and grunted, then came right back at me, her eyes wild and her nails extended.
I slapped her hands away and circled her. "What's with the fingernails?" I asked. "That's just dirty."
"No more playing," she said. "No more games."
"It was never a game," I said.
"Sure it was," she said. "You were just playing the wrong one."
"Nice to see that manipulating me comes so easy for you," I said.
"It wasn't easy," she answered. "But I did what I have to do. Just like we all do."
Then she punched me in the side of the head. She followed that up with another punch, this one to the jaw. It snapped my head back and brought tears to my eyes.
But then she made her mistake. She threw one more punch, again at the side of my head, but I put my hand up and caught hers. I twisted it around her back and spun her around, then shoved her into the wall. She let out a squeal as I banged her into the wall once, then again.
I drove her head into the bulkhead and slid her stunned body to the floor. I turned to head for the cockpit-- and ran right into Armour's shoe, in the form of a roundhouse kick to the jaw. It bounced me off the divider and sent me stumbling against a seat.
Armour threw another kick at my face, but I managed to duck out of the way and his foot sailed by. I reached up and slapped at his foot, which knocked him off-balance and gave me a moment to wobble to my feet. I shoved him into the divider, and when he turned around I punched him twice in the face, driving him backward into the bulkhead. I tried to end it, probably prematurely, by ramming his head against the metal wall, but he ducked my advance and slammed his fist into my stomach. For an old guy, he threw a hell of a punch.
It was like a stone slammed into me, emptying the breath from my lungs and doubling me over. Armour followed it by driving his knee into my face, which flung me over a seat and dropped me to the floor.
After the stars faded, I looked up to find Armour pointing a gun at my face. He just shook his head.
"All you had to do was be good, Gabriel," he said. "I really didn't want to kill you."
"Sure," I answered.
"Okay, that's a lie," he said. "I do want to kill you. I've actually been looking forward to it for a very long time. And even though I'm pretty sure it would have made Amira unhappy, I probably would have killed you when we landed anyway. So at least you have that going for you."
"Which is nice," I deadpanned in my best Bill Murray voice.
He grinned at me. "You're an oddly charming guy," he said. "For a gigantic asshole, I mean."
"Takes one to know one," I responded.
He shook his head and laughed, then cocked the pistol. "Nice knowing you, Gabriel," he said. I closed my eyes. I figured it would be easier to die if I didn't see it coming.
A shot rang out through the cabin. I waited for the flash of white and the eternal powering-down of my brain, but after a moment I realized I was still alive. So I opened my eyes.
Armour still stood in front of me, but he'd dropped the pistol. And there was a growing red stain on the front of his shirt and a confused look on his face.
"Huh," he said. Not much of a last word, but it was all he got. He toppled over against a seat, fell over it and then half on top of me.
With him out of the way, I saw Amira standing near the emergency hatch, the gun she used to kill the ghoul who dominated and ruined her life still dangling from her hand. Her eyes flickered back and forth from my face to the back of Armour's head.
"It's okay," I said. "He's gone. He can't hurt you anymore."
She shook her head and dropped the pistol. "I love you, Gabriel," she said.
Then she turned and pulled the release for the emergency exit. The emergency exit blew out of the plane with an explosive whoosh and immediately the plane jerked and the oxygen masks fell from above the seats. I felt the pressure pulling me toward the hole in the side of the plane.
I shoved Armour's body away, but I couldn't get there fast enough. Amira looked at me one last time, then threw herself out of the emergency exit. I got there in time to see her body cartwheel crazily into the side of the plane, bounce off and disappear into the void.
I didn't have time to mourn her, though I could feel the tears in the corners of my eyes. The plane lights flickered, then I heard a loud buzzing coming from the front.
I turned and rushed to the cockpit to find the control panel screaming at me and every light red. The oxygen masks hung from the ceiling. Not knowing any better, I sat in the left seat and put the mask on. I leaned forward and looked at the panel. I'd never gotten flight training, but I'd been in enough cockpits to know the basics.
8,000 feet. Airspeed 285 knots. Heading 45.
I pulled on the radio headphones over the oxygen mask.
"Hello," I said into the radio. "Hello, mayday, mayday."
"This is Frederick Tower," came a disembodied voice. "Who is this?"
"I'm in a Gulfstream heading--"
"We've got you, Gulfstream. Are you a pilot?"
"Not so much."
Silence. I could only envision a towerful of air traffic controllers and bureaucrats flipping their shit.
"I originated at--"
"Harry Byrd Airfield in Northern Virginia. Like I said, we've got your track. Where's the pilot?"
Another moment of silence. "Have you ever landed a plane before?"
Now the moment of silence was longer. "Okay, then we need to get you to--"
"Can you help me turn the plane around? I can go back to the airfield I came from."
"Is there sufficient fire and emergency support?"
"Everything I need," I answered.
Another moment of silence, then: "Gulfstream, we're not recommending that course of action. Protocol is to get you to an airport with wide runways and lots of fire trucks and ambulances in preparation for the worst-case scenario. We're gonna vector you to Andrews Air Force Base."
That sounded logical. But I had another plan. Of course I did.
There was only person I trusted to help me land this bucket of bolts, and it wasn't some tower monkey from Frederick. And of course I had no interest in going to Andrews with a blown-out emergency exit and a dead body on the plane. I wasn't in the mood to get the one-way ticket to Gitmo.
"Tower, there's gonna be lots of emergency support at the airfield. Can you just help me get turned around and get me in contact with their tower?"
"Negative, Gulfstream. You're an unidentified aircraft claiming to be flown by a non-licensed pilot, and you're tooling around the edges of restricted Washington, DC airspace. We've gotten you a couple of escorts and they'll help guide you to Andrews so we can sort this all out."
"I believe you should have eyes on them now, Gulfstream."
I looked to my left. About 50 meters away was an F-16. Stunned by its presence, I raised my hand in greeting. The pilot shot me a mock salute. I glanced to the right to see his partner also holding steady.
Okay, breathe. Think.
"Castle." I said this last out loud, not really meaning to.
"Say again, Gulfstream?"
"Frederick Tower, please call Angus Castle at the CIA. He can verify my identity and confirm that I need to go back to the airfield. It's a--"
"--a matter of national security?"
"So you've done this before."
I could almost hear his eyes roll. "Who should I say is calling?"
"Tell him it's Gabriel Linden."
"Copy, Gulfstream. Hold one."
I waited in silence for a few moments. Then: "Okay, Gulfstream, you've been cleared to return to Harry Byrd Airfield, escorted to landing by the birds on your wings. But if you're trying to pull one over on us, there's a waiting party there when you arrive."
Awesome. "Copy that, Tower. Now how the hell do I get there?"
"Are you flying now?"
I bit my tongue on the smartass reply, and said simply, "It's on autopilot."
"Let's start with that. Disengage the autopilot so you can take control of the aircraft."
I looked around for the autopilot switch and pushed it-- and felt the plane settle as the computer switched off.
"Okay, I've got control."
"Take the plane to heading 240. Can you do that?"
"Yeah, I've been in cockpits before. The flying isn't my big worry."
"What is your big worry, Gulfstream?"
Five minutes later I was down to 4000 feet and heading back toward the airfield. The last thing Frederick Tower did before letting me go (and, presumably, alerting every airspace-related agency in the government) was give me the radio frequency of the Harry Byrd Airfield tower.
I switched over to their frequency. "Harry Byrd Airfield--"
"Gabriel?" Relief flooded over me at the sound of Garcia's voice.
"You're a sound for sore ears," I said. "How'd you know I'd be calling?"
"Just a hunch," he said.
"Hunch or wild-ass hope?"
A moment of silence gave me all the answer I needed. Then he asked, "What happened? Where's Armour and Amira?"
I didn't say anything.
"Ah," he said. "Well, I guess that's the best-case scenario, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't say best-case."
"Right. You know what I mean. Where are you?"
"About 4000 feet, maybe 10 minutes out," I said. "I need your help."
"What else is new?"
Mentally I cursed him, but all I said was, "I have no idea how to land this flying deathtrap."
"That's okay, sir. We'll get you down."
"Of course, the one time I need you, you're not here," I said.
"The one time?"
"Shut up," I said. "And help me not crash."
few minutes later, the airfield was in sight.
Garcia had gotten me down to 1000 feet and had helped me get the
speed down to an acceptable level. As I looked toward the airfield,
I saw one ambulance and a tiny fire truck.
And like 15 police cars, lights flashing, with dozens of cops milling around.
"Garcia, what's going on down there?"
"It's a party," he said. "Every cop in three counties, plus a couple of unmarked sedans with some very special men in trench coats."
"Well, at least we got emergency support," I muttered.
"Oh, we got emergency support," Garcia confirmed. "We got emergency support out the ass."
"Well, hopefully we won't need it," I answered. "Let's get this fucking tub on the ground."
"You know you're behind the wheel of one of the most expensive luxury jets in the world, right?"
"Garcia, it mighta started out that way, but it's not gonna land like one."
A moment of silence.
"Well, you're lined up the right way, sir," Garcia said. "I've got you at 700 feet, coming in at 150 knots. So far so good. Now you need to put the landing gear down."
"Right, I knew that."
"There's a switch."
I looked around for the switch for the landing gear, and finally located it. I flipped it, and could immediately hear the whine of the gears.
"Good job, sir," Garcia said. "Keep reducing speed. Remember, angle the nose up just the slightest amount and apply five percent flaps. You're drifting a little high."
"Got it," I said. "Five percent flaps. Reducing speed."
"You're doing great, Gabriel," he said. "Just remember to apply the brakes when you land."
"I think that's the first time you've ever called me Gabriel," I said.
I focused on the runway ahead of me, wobbling and shaking a little but mostly staying where it was supposed to. I leaned forward in my seat and stared so hard out the front windshield that I didn't even feel the hands coming up from behind the seat and wrapping themselves around my neck.
watched from the tower as the G-280 floated in. He'd given Gabriel
the simplest guidance he could on how to land it-- basically Gabriel
would be crashing with style-- but now he saw that something was
The plane-- which up until now had been largely straight and more or less pointed correctly-- started to drift to the left, toward a patch of woods.
"Oh, shit," he said. "You're drifting! Gabriel, you're drifting! Gabriel! Gabriel?"
could hear Garcia's voice coming through the headphones, but I was
too busy fighting for my life to answer.
Somehow Armour hadn't died. Instead, he'd managed to drag his broken body into the cockpit and try to strangle me. One moment I was staring at the runway, the next I felt the life being choked out of me.
I flipped around in the seat to find him behind me, his shirt torn and streaked with blood, his eyes crazed, wide-open, staring at me with a hatred normally employed by ex-wives.
I tried to get his hands off my neck, but he was still strong. I struggled with the seatbelt for a moment, feeling myself starting to go light-headed, but then managed to unclick it. I stood up, pulling him with me and finally breaking his hold on my neck.
I came over the seat and fell on top of Armour, who scrabbled at me like a really motivated zombie. His skin was sallow, probably from the blood loss, but he still had some strength. He shoved my chest, trying to get me off him, but I closed my hands around his throat and banged his head against the floor until he stopped moving.
"Now stay dead," I ordered the body, then jumped back into the pilot's seat.
To see grass and trees rushing up at me way too fast to avoid.
dropped the radio handset and ran for the stairs.
He emerged onto the tarmac just as the plane hit the ground. Amazingly, it managed to mostly hit on the bottom, as opposed to the nose, but it slammed into the grass near the edge of the woods.
It bounced, skidded and slid like a Honda driven by a drunk on an icy night, skipping along until it slammed into a tree and finally was still.
Garcia sprinted across the tarmac, his mouth hanging open at the blown-out emergency exit and ruined body of the plane in front of him.
"Gabriel?" he yelled as he approached. "Gabriel!"
And then he heard it-- a long, aching wail from somewhere inside the plane.
As Garcia approached the plane, he saw the front hatch pop open and Gabriel's bloodied head poke out.
"Gabriel!" he yelled. "Are you all right?"
Gabriel kicked the ladder down and practically fell down it. He slumped into Garcia's arms and they limped away from the plane.
dragged me away from the plane in case it decided to explode-- not
an inconsiderable possibility given the way the rest of our day had
"What the hell happened?" he asked. "You looked like you were totally on target."
"Armour," I muttered.
Garcia shot me a baneful look. "So he kicked the shit out of you again?"
"Why don't you go ask his dead ass?"
He laughed, but it sounded hollow.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Did Armour kill Amira?"
I shook my head. "She jumped."
His eyes widened for a moment, then he controlled them. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know you loved her."
"It was always gonna end badly," I said. "Things always do."
"They don't have to," he answered.
"Is that your way of saying you're sorry?"
He didn't answer. We sat down on the pavement and watched the cops and men in blue suits swarm over the plane like a bunch of ants. A moment later one of them stuck his head out of the hatch.
"Did you say there's a dead body in here?"
"Yeah, in the cockpit," I answered.
He shook his head. "There's nobody here."
"What? Yeah, he's right there!"
"No, sir. Cockpit's empty. Are you sure he was in there with you?"
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," I muttered. I stumbled to my feet and limped toward the plane as fast as I could. Garcia was already on the radio.
"He's not dead," he said. "There's an injured man somewhere in the area. He should be considered armed and extremely dangerous."
We ran for the woods.
didn't take long for me to find him.
He was lying in the middle of the path in the middle of the woods. When he heard me limp up he tried to drag himself to his feet, but he couldn't do it.
"How the hell are you not dead?" I asked.
"You need to kill me better," he muttered.
I looked at the blood pooling under him and his pasty complexion, and I shook my head. "I'd say I did a pretty decent job this time," I said. "Well, me and Amira."
I sat down on the ground next to him.
"I'm the Phoenix," he said with a half grin. "What makes you think I won't rise from the ashes again?"
"Oh, I'm counting on it," I said, my grin bigger than his. "That way you can spend the rest of your miserable life in Supermax."
For the first time I saw him panic. "No," he grunted. "Please. I can't."
"How did you think this was gonna end?" I asked.
"With me as an eternal hero to the North Korean people," he said. "Maybe a martyr. But not rotting away in jail while Kim Jong-Un denies my mission and wipes me out of all the photos and history books."
"You know there's no glamour in spying," I said. "You chose a life in the shadows. And you dragged Amira into it with you."
"I didn't drag her," he said. "She came willingly. She was a born killer."
He reached over and smacked me on the foot. It was an oddly paternal gesture.
"As are you," he said. "I wish I'd gotten ahold of you when you were young. You and I would have made an unstoppable team."
I just looked at him incredulously. "Seriously?"
He shrugged, the movement making him cough. "Seriously," he said. "Now kill me so this can end the way it's supposed to. You'll be the hero who killed the Phoenix, and I'll be remembered in North Korea as the guy who beat the Americans."
"No chance," I answered.
"Please," he said. "Please."
I smiled at him. And then I raised my voice to the heavens and started shouting for help, even as he cried and begged me to kill him.
The story of the Phoenix ended the way all stories end in America nowadays: with talking bouffants on cable news networks arguing over the meaning of his crimes while photos of a shrunken, bespectacled middle-aged man being shuffled to and from the courthouse played on a loop in the background.
His trial was conducted behind closed doors due to the national security implications, so he didn't even get a national TV audience to pose for.
Wikileaks paid for his lawyer. He got life in prison with no possibility of parole and they tossed him in a cell at the Supermax prison next to the Unabomber. Some asshole on Fox News got a big laugh when he said that he hoped Julian Assange would use the same guy.
I had to testify in the trial, of course. The Agency intervened in an effort to keep me off the stand, but there was no way to make the case without me connecting the dots. So they worked out a deal with the judge and the Wikileaks guy where I could testify in a closed courtroom-- just the judge, jury, lawyers and Armour. After that my testimony was classified and banished to the deepest, darkest file room in Langley. For all I know it's sitting on a shelf next to all the stuff on the Kennedy assassination.
On my last day in court, I walked out and passed the next witness. A slight red-haired girl walked up the steps and smiled at me on the way in. We didn't speak, but it made me strangely happy to see that Alice had survived her encounter with the Phoenix.
I walked outside to find Garcia loitering on the courthouse steps. I hadn't seen him since the debacle at Harry Byrd Airfield and Armour's arrest.
"You look fat," he said. "You need to get back to work."
"Why, the Agency need to send some shit to a third-world dictator?"
He rolled his eyes. We wandered over to the steps and sat down next to each other.
"I shouldn't bang on 'em too hard," I