Enjoy Chapter Four of Rogue Agents, the newest spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which came out on June 29. You can read the Prologue here, Chapter One here, Chapter Two here and Chapter Three here. And if you like what you are reading, here are the links to buy Rogue Agents on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and GooglePlay.
April 25, 9:05 p.m.
Justin got out of the taxi at the corner of Elgin and Wellington Streets. He took in the Langevin Block, an impressive four-story structure built in the Second Empire style from olive sandstone and polished granite and completed in 1889. Across from Parliament Hill, the Langevin Block had been the home of Canada’s Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office since 1975.
Justin had called McClain five minutes ago to inform him of his exact time of arrival. McClain had told him the meeting was taking place in room 307-S, Prime Minister Joseph Williams’s private office on the third floor in the Centre Block. Justin had never been there, and a large tall man from Williams’s security detail waited for him by one of the side doors of the building.
They climbed the stairs at a brisk pace and walked fast through the large corridors, ignoring the curious looks of a couple of aides passing by in the other direction. The guard and Justin stopped in front of the door of the prime minister’s office. The guard gestured toward the door, then turned around and left. Justin took a deep breath, then rapped quietly on the door.
A man about Justin’s age but dressed in a navy blue suit opened the door slightly and gestured for him to come in. Justin immediately felt uncomfortable and out of place. I should have listened to Anna and dressed in business casual for Theo’s party. But at least there are no holes or tears in my jeans. He stepped inside the office and stood by the door next to the man in the suit.
Prime Minister Williams was sitting behind a sizable light mahogany desk—the centerpiece of the room, flanked by two large Canadian flags. An avalanche of folders and papers had covered every possible inch of the desk’s top, unlike in the photos of the meticulously clean workspace Justin had seen on the pages of newspapers. Williams was listening attentively to someone on a corded phone and nodding occasionally. He was dressed in a black suit and white shirt but no tie.
McClain was sitting across from Williams on a burgundy leather sofa along the wood-paneled wall with elaborate designs and underneath a large portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, the Father of Confederation. Another man whom Justin recognized as Raphael Gauthier, the Minister of Public Safety, was reading a thick folder resting on his lap as he sat in an armchair to the right of McClain.
Williams gave Justin a slight nod and pointed at an empty seat on the sofa. Justin sat next to McClain while the man in the navy-blue suit sat in the other armchair. McClain handed Justin a manila folder that was labelled TOP SECRET. Justin opened it and read the first page. The classified document provided an abbreviated report of a CIS unauthorized operation in North Korea, which had resulted in the capture of two Canadian agents. Their names were not in the report but the suspected location where they were being held was at a site near Prison Camp 37 in North Hamgyong province.
Williams said, “All right, Jack, you do that.” He waited for a moment while he ran his left hand through his silver hair. “Of course, of course, I understand. Inform me of your decision. Yes, you too. Take care.” He sighed and the frown on his forehead grew deeper and wider. Then he placed the phone handset on the receiver.
“Mr. Hall, a pleasure to meet you.” Williams came around his desk and shook Justin’s hand. “You know Mr. Gauthier, and this is my National Security Advisor, Mr. Foster.”
They exchange pleasantries and handshakes.
“I’ve heard excellent things about you, Mr. Hall,” Williams said in a pleasant voice as he reached for one of the folders on top of his desk. “Your skills brought home Mr. Duncan safe and sound after his long and terrible captivity in Nigeria.”
Justin nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
“Some people are unhappy with the turn of events, but as far as I am concerned you did a very fine service for our country.”
Justin said nothing but kept his eyes fixed on Williams’s face.
“And your operation this week in Syria resulted in the elimination of two terrorist leaders while entailing no Canadian casualties or collateral damage caused by us, unlike in the event of a drone strike. Excellent job.”
“Thank you, sir,” Justin said, truly pleased by the compliment.
Williams moved the folder to the side. “Now, the other reason why I’ve called you here is because our country needs your services again, this time to deal with a new, even more serious crisis.”
Justin nodded and waited.
Williams groped around the desk for his glasses, lifting and shifting papers around, then found them and settled them at the bridge of his long, narrow nose. His black eyes now looked bigger and more serious than before as he looked at Justin from behind his thick, round glasses with a horn-rimmed frame. “McClain, do you want to fill in Hall about the details?” Williams asked.
McClain took the next few minutes to update Justin on the situation on the ground. He talked about the most recent operations of the two agents and how they had tried to entice North Korean nuclear scientists to give up that country’s atomic bomb program. He mentioned the scheduled meeting with the North Korean army colonel who never showed up, the raid on the safe house in Seoul, and the bomb explosion in the safe house in Beijing.
McClain continued his explanation, and Justin’s mind began to play him flashbacks from six years ago when he had ended up in the deepest, darkest cells of Iran’s most brutal prison. That long week in Evin Prison in Tehran was a nightmare he would never forget. The jailers fed him moldy bread and foul water but put him on a healthy diet of daily beatings. Justin was allowed to go home only after complicated negotiations, the intervention of Williams’s predecessor, and an exchange of favors.
“I want you to lead a team of elite CIS agents in this mission,” Williams said when McClain was finished.
Justin nodded. He had wanted to speak up and volunteer for a rescue mission, but he did not want to interrupt McClain.
“It’s a mission like nothing you’ve done before,” Williams said in a low but steady voice. “Not only because of the location but also because of the purpose of this mission. It’s something extremely dangerous—and frankly, it’s something no leader ever wants to order done to his people, brave agents who have given so much to their country.” Williams sighed. “Hall, you will go to North Korea to put an end to the agents’ sufferings.”
Justin understood Williams’s order but still a small part of his mind refused to believe he was being dispatched to eliminate two agents of his own agency. His face remained calm but his voice wavered a bit as he asked, “Pardon, sir?”
Williams’s shoulders slumped, and he removed his glasses and tossed them on his desk. He massaged his temples with both hands as if to fend off a headache. He paused for a long moment then said, “I know, Hall, it’s not the order you expected. But it’s the only possible option at the moment and under these circumstances.”
Justin unlocked his tightened jaws to object to the claim that the agents’ fate was sealed and the only possible mission was an authorized kill. But before he had a chance to say a word, Foster let out a low cough. Williams noticed it and made a hand gesture for Foster to speak.
Foster said, “As we know, the Communist Party and its leaders have a stranglehold on North Korea and its people. They rule with an iron fist. The army and the secret services of that country control pretty much every aspect of the people’s lives. They have no freedom of any kind; they cannot watch foreign television and their Internet access is heavily restricted. They cannot even travel to the capital without permission. The communist propaganda has brainwashed them into worshipping and bowing down before their leaders. They aren’t allowed to think or do as they like. Now the men are being forced to wear the same hairstyle as their leader. They are starving, as the famine of the nineties showed, when over three million of the twenty-two million population of the country died. Now food is rationed or lacking altogether. Yet, North Korea’s army is the fourth largest in the world and they spent one-third of their national income on their army.”
Justin nodded and wished Foster would move along and tell him something he did not know. Anyone with a computer and Internet access and ten spare minutes could learn these facts for themselves after a simple Google search.
Foster exchange a glance with Williams, then looked at Gauthier before he pushed up his metal-framed glasses, which had slid to the tip of his nose. “I didn’t mention the extraordinary network of informal spies, but we estimate that one in three people regularly monitors and reports to the government about the activities of their relatives, neighbors, and friends. In this situation, a rescue operation is tantamount to suicide. The agents are held in a well-protected location, near a maximum-security prison camp, a short distance away from hundreds of soldiers. A prison break would require a large team—at least a dozen men—which would make a stealthy insertion and a clean exit very difficult if not impossible.”
Justin frowned and swallowed hard. Foster’s words made sense and gave a fair assessment of the situation.
“What makes this particular case even worse is the fact that we’re not completely sure about the integrity of our agents,” Gauthier said as he leaned forward in his seat. “They were not cleared for an operation inside the territory of North Korea. Their safe house in Seoul was found clean and tidy. No signs of a struggle there or anywhere else, and nothing to indicate the agents were kidnapped or forced to cross the border.”
“Are you saying they’re defectors? Traitors?” Justin asked in a loud, gruff voice that sounded like an open accusation.
Gauthier was not expecting Justin’s reaction. At first he looked confused, then annoyed at the interruption. He rubbed his bushy gray-and-black goatee and narrowed his small gray eyes. “Eh, no, I am not saying anything like that, Mr. Hall. The facts, the evidence shows that Mr. Schultz and Park at the moment are giving sensitive information to our enemies. We have to put an end to this flow of intelligence that’s crippling our mission, threatening our security, and costing the lives of our agents.”
Justin fell back on the sofa. A heavy burden was laid on his shoulders. He knew Isaac Schultz personally. They had been good friends at The Plant and had graduated the same year. They had never worked together, because they were posted to different areas of the world, and had since lost touch. But there was no way, absolutely no way that Isaac Schultz would betray his country and go rogue inside North Korea.
He thought for a quick moment about the implications of having a personal connection with one of the missing agents. I’m sure McClain knows about it, and thus the prime minister and everyone else is aware of that piece of intel. Perhaps that’s why they selected me for this mission. Schultz’s betrayal of his country is also a personal betrayal.
Foster said, “Regardless of how or why our agents ended up in the hands of the North Korean army, the undeniable truth is that we have a considerable leak of intelligence. The agents could be willfully cooperating with the North Koreans—a possibility which I wish I could dismiss—or they could be tortured to reveal what they know. I believe the latter is the situation we have in our hands.”
Justin nodded. He took advantage of a small pause and said, “Shouldn’t we at least give them a chance to explain themselves? Tell us exactly what happened? We can at least try a rescue mission.” He looked at Foster, then at Williams for a reply.
Williams shook his head. “We have spent the last two days going over many scenarios, and rescuing them was at the top of the list and the highest priority. But after the bomb explosion in Beijing, it has become very clear that a rescue mission is no longer on the table. Our agents are giving away secret intel.” Williams stopped for a moment, seemingly to organize his thoughts. He nodded to himself and said, “We could start negotiations for their release, of course, but the North Koreans have not officially or unofficially acknowledged their capture. If we admit the two agents belong to us, it will cause a scandal and a diplomatic crisis, causing irreparable damage to many other ongoing CIS operations in that part of the world.”
Justin opened his mouth but Williams stopped him with a hand raised in his direction. “I know what you are going to say and trust me, this is not about politics or about me heading a minority government that can collapse at the first hint of a scandal. It’s far from it. And this is different from your capture in Iran a few years back. You were carrying out a sanctioned operation in that country, you did not break under pressure, and the Iranians made it exceptionally clear they were looking for a trade. The North Koreans are notorious for never negotiating the release of captives, especially the ones they have not admitted to having.”
“This is extremely difficult, Justin,” McClain said slowly, and placed an arm on Justin’s shoulder. “We just want to make it absolutely clear that this operation is our last and only resort.”
Justin nodded but his hands were balled into fists. He let out a deep breath, then said, “How do you want me to proceed?”
McClain reached for a folder in the briefcase on the floor next to his feet. “Schultz and Park were working on developing potential assets among Korean nuclear scientists. One of them, a certain Hong Song-Ok, was the best candidate. Hong works at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which is the largest complex in North Korea. And the government is expanding its facilities and operations. Our agents met with Hong twice in China when he was travelling for conferences. He’s always chaperoned by an agent who’s better at chasing tail and drinking himself stupid than keeping a watchful eye on his man. Hong was on the fence, but our agents’ reports indicate a strong possibility Hong was going to defect and provide us with a trove of secrets about Korea’s nuclear program.” He handed the folder to Justin, then continued, “Hong is travelling tomorrow to Dubai for yet another conference. You’ll have to turn him and convince him to provide you safe travel within Korea, as we have no assets on the ground.”
Justin looked at the thin, pale face of Hong in the first page of the report. He was in his early fifties but looked much older, with a wrinkled and pockmarked face. His grin showed his uneven yellow teeth, and there was an overall sadness in the man’s appearance. “And the infil and exfil?”
McClain said, “The agents are held near Camp 37. It’s only five miles away from the border with China and about sixty miles from the border with Russia. Infiltration from Russia across the Tumen River that serves as the border between the countries is easier. The border is porous, the area sparsely populated, and your appearance will not attract much attention, considering you speak Russian and you fit in.”
Justin nodded. “A four-man team should be sufficient for a hit op. I will need Carrie and Nathan and another man, someone who’s also familiar with the terrain, in case the Hong option doesn’t work or something happens to him and then—”
Williams interrupted him. “The man earlier on the phone was the British Prime Minister, Jack Edwards. The British have two great MI6 agents who operated in North Korea over the last two months on reconnaissance missions and one of them speaks Korean. Edwards is still deciding on whether to support our mission, and if he says ‘yes,’ those two operatives would be the rest of your team, along with O’Connor.”
Justin held his tongue. He did not like the idea of working with agents of another service. Their skills and abilities may appear as great in their files, but he would be the one trusting them with his life in the middle of a hostile North Korea, surrounded by countless enemies. But they came highly recommended by Williams, and their knowledge of the Korean language and the terrain could provide the team’s winning card.
“As far as the details of the operation, that’s up to you to decide, Hall,” Williams said. “But you need to move fast. Meet with Hong the day after tomorrow in Dubai and then infiltrate North Korea as soon as possible after that.”
“Understood, sir,” Justin said in a strong, confident voice, although he had many doubts about the objective and the execution of the operation.
Williams said, “Gauthier and Foster will provide you any assistance you may need, but you’ll report to McClain on the mission’s progress.”
Justin nodded and looked at McClain, who gave him a small smile.
“Will do, sir,” Justin said.
Williams stood up. “Thank you, Hall, on behalf of our country.” Then he shook Justin’s hand.
Justin said goodbye to Foster, Gauthier, and McClain. He tried to look upbeat but he found it difficult. He was going deep inside a hostile country to kill two agents of his own agency whose only mistake was to fall into the hands of the enemy. He did not feel the mission was something he should be thanked for. But he had received his marching orders and he needed to make preparations.