Rogue Agents – Prologue
April 6, 7:25 p.m.
If Peng had trusted his gut instinct and not left the safety of his bulletproof Mercedes SUV, the mission might have taken a different turn. But he could not afford to return to Shanghai empty-handed and in shame. His boss—Jaw-long, a high-ranking, powerful leader of the Communist Party of China Political Bureau—considered any failure or mistake on the part of his people a personal embarrassment. And he took draconian measures against all who dishonored his name, coming down upon them with wrath and fury. He lived up to his name, which meant “like a dragon.”
So Peng disregarded the clear signs the plan was going sideways. The first sign was that the weapons-grade uranium smugglers had changed the time and location of their meeting at the last moment. They were supposed to meet at six o’clock, but a phone call postponed their meeting to seven thirty. Last-moment changes in their trade meant trouble, usually for the party that had to be subjected to the change of plans.
The original venue had been an upscale neighborhood in the northeast part of the city, near the Diplomatic Enclave—also known as the Red Zone—which housed embassies, foreign missions, and official residences. The security presence surrounding the Diplomatic Enclave included local uniformed and plainclothes police, private security guards, and military contractors. The new location was a warehouse in a run-down section on the opposite side of the city, known as a den of all sorts of immoral, corrupt, and illegal activities. The six bodyguards Peng was bringing for protection would be insufficient, as his men would be utterly outnumbered and outgunned as they stood in the middle of the smugglers’ backyard.
His three-car convoy reached the first checkpoint—two cement barricades joined by barbed-wire coils placed at the mouth of a dark, narrow back alley. Four men in white robes and swinging AK assault rifles flanked their SUVs. Peng ignored the second sign of trouble: the apparent ambush into which the smugglers were dragging them. He stifled the premonition boiling in the pit of his stomach, the hunch that told him it was time to turn around and flee before the beginning of the bullets’ hailstorm. He grinned at two bearded guards who shone flashlights in their faces and checked their passports, but not their SUVs. They gave directions to Peng’s driver on how to get to the warehouse, then they gestured to the other guards to pull away the barbed-wire coils.
Peng rolled up his window but the putrid smell of raw sewage had already filled the Mercedes. He told his driver, Shan, to slow down as they entered the pothole-ridden alley littered with garbage. A group of men were selling vegetables heaped on two long tables on the other side of the alley, under a dim light bulb hanging on a small stake fastened to a wall. The two-story blockhouses were decrepit, and looked even more seedy and ghostly in the darkness swallowing most of the neighborhood. The area had no streetlights but for the occasional dim glow coming from a window. If it were not for the Mercedes’ headlights, they would have had serious trouble finding their way in the pitch-black night.
The back alley grew wider as they made a left turn and came to the warehouse entrance. A large military-looking truck and a small Toyota sedan were parked to the left side, by the gray metal door that was showing signs of rust at the bottom. A white truck and a black Jeep were on the right side.
Two gunmen were waiting for Peng and his crew next to the Jeep. They gestured with their AKs for the drivers to stop by the Toyota, then they called on Peng and his driver alone to come out of the Mercedes.
The third sign, Peng thought. Divide and conquer.
He reconsidered his decision to step into the snake pit but at this point it was already too late. Peng had no other choice but to face the smugglers, complete the exchange, and deliver the uranium to his boss the next day. He picked up the radio and told his men that he and Shan were going in to complete the exchange.
Peng sighed and took a deep breath. He ran his hands through his combed-back black hair and, against his better judgment, opened the door and stepped outside.
One of the gunmen—a young man with a three-inch-long beard, tiny gray eyes, and a menacing grin—gestured to Peng and his driver to follow him.
Peng nodded and did as ordered. Shan came after him, carrying a leather briefcase in his left hand.
The second gunman stayed back and kept them in the sight of his AK. A third man appeared from the Jeep and joined the second gunman. The third man had no weapons in his hands, but he was a large, muscular man.
Maybe he doesn’t believe he needs one, Peng thought, and suppressed a small smile. He carried a Glock 19 pistol in a hip holster and another one in an ankle holster. Shan was armed with a Beretta pistol in his shoulder holster and another Beretta was concealed in a false bottom inside the briefcase, underneath the stacks of cash. The gunmen had not searched them, believing they themselves had the upper hand because of their assault rifles. Peng grinned. It’s not always about the size of the gun . . .
The first gunman pushed open the warehouse door. It rolled with a loud metallic screech, and they all walked in with a quick pace. The cement floor was dirty, and Peng felt grains of sand underneath his expensive Italian leather shoes. The warehouse was well lit by powerful halogen lamps hanging from the vaulted ceiling. A white, windowless van was parked against the barren cinderblock wall on the left side, with its rear facing the warehouse door. Three rows of wide shelves—loaded with wooden crates, barrels, and sacks—took up most of the space at the center. On the far end of the warehouse and to the right—about fifty yards away—there was an olive green Land Rover, and the small light inside the Rover’s cabin was on. Two silhouettes were visible: two people sitting in the driver’s and the front passenger seats.
The first gunman shouted at Peng to stop after he had taken about a dozen steps inside the warehouse. Peng looked around just as the man without any weapons rolled back the warehouse door.
“There’s the boss,” Shan said in a low voice in Chinese.
Peng did not recognize the clean-shaven face of the man in a white salwar kameez—the long shirt and baggy pants commonly worn by men in Pakistan—and a white prayer cap. Two guards were walking two steps behind him, carrying AKs in relaxed low ready position, the muzzles of their rifles pointing down. The man walked with a proud gait, trying to conceal a slight limp in his right foot. He stopped about six feet away from Peng and examined Peng’s face with his small black eyes. A moment later, he said, “Welcome to my country and my home.” His English had a thick Pakistani accent.
Peng gave him a small nod but kept his face unsmiling. “Where is Wajid?” he asked in a stark tone that conveyed more than curiosity and that demanded an explanation.
“My name is Mehmood,” the man replied in a booming voice that matched Peng’s tone and filled the entire warehouse. He took a step forward, spread out his arms, and added, “I amin charge now.”
Peng said nothing. His eyes focused on Mehmood’s guards. They had raised their weapons a few inches, in response to their master’s growl. Peng took a deep breath and thought carefully about his next words.
“We have the money,” he said in a calm voice as he pointed at Shan, who lifted up his briefcase.
A million dollars was inside the briefcase. The rest of the agreed-upon payment of ten million was in two extra-large duffel bags in the second and the third Mercedes. Peng was not going to bring all the money along before he had seen and confirmed the uranium was in the warehouse.
“And we have the merchandise.” Mehmood cocked his head toward the van. His voice had lost some of the earlier thunder.
Peng nodded and walked toward the van.
Mehmood led the way, but he kept a close eye on Peng. Both men distrusted each other. Mehmood’s guards had formed somewhat of a circle around Mehmood and Peng. Shan was staying three steps behind Peng.
“Here’s a sample of what you requested.” Mehmood turned a latch and opened the van’s rear doors. “Two pounds of U-235, highly enriched uranium, straight from the Khan research lab.”
Peng stared at the silver metallic briefcase that had a large yellow stain on the side. It was about two feet long and one foot wide, with four wheels and a retractable handle. He thought about one of Mehmood’s words: sample.
“I didn’t come all the way here for a sample,” he said slowly but firmly, with a stern headshake. “Wajid promised me fifteen pounds of uranium, not two.”
Mehmood’s face remained calm. “There were some complications. The nuclear physicists helping us from inside the lab are asking for more money, so they can bribe guards and other facilitators in this trade. There will be a delay, but this should be enough to prove to you our abilities to deliver on our promises.”
“Check it out,” Peng told Shan.
Shan reached slowly for his left side pocket and pulled out a Geiger counter. It was a small yellow device slightly larger than a smartphone. He walked toward the van and pointed the device in the direction of the suitcase. A crackling sound came from the device. The sound grew louder and the counter’s clicking became faster the closer Shan got to the suitcase. He read the numbers on the LCD display of the device and gave everyone a quick nod. “We’re still good,” he said in English. “Radiation, but in low levels.”
Mehmood nodded and gave Peng a triumphant grin.
Shan popped open the suitcase and continued his inspection.
Peng pondered his options. He could complete the exchange and return home with the two pounds, but he doubted Jaw-long would be pleased with that result. Even if he did, Peng would have to come back to Pakistan in a matter of days or weeks, when it would be even hotter and muggier than now. He hated this place, its hot weather that made him sweat constantly, its dirt and sand—and the flies, the flies that were everywhere, attracted by the garbage that was also everywhere. No, he could not go back without the entire shipment. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he wants all the money and also wants to keep the uranium and sell it to another buyer. Peng knew there were other players in the black market interested in a shipment of that size, which was sufficient to make a one-kiloton nuclear bomb with the explosive energy of 1,000 tons of TNT. It would be about five times more powerful than the two jets that had brought down the two towers of the World Trade Center.
Shan completed his inspection but did not close the suitcase. He stepped away from the van and returned to his position.
“Where is the rest of the uranium?” Peng asked.
Mehmood’s eyes narrowed as he fixed Peng with an angry gaze. “This is all we have. I explained we have had complications—”
Peng cut him off with a swift draw of his Glock. He kept his pistols loaded with a round in the chamber, and he pointed his Glock at Mehmood’s head.
“Give me all the goods or I’ll blow your brains out.” Peng spat his words.
Mehmood’s guards were caught by surprise. They scrambled to raise and cock their AKs. More gun shuffling came from behind Peng, along with the familiar sounds of hammers cocked and weapons readying to fire. Peng did not blink or turn his head to the sides. Shan should have pulled out his Beretta and had his back. And as long as he held the master of this ragtag group at gunpoint, the guards were not going to shoot without his order.
“Calm down . . . everybody calm down,” Mehmood said in a wavering tone. His eyes bounced around as he seemed to assess the situation and make a decision. “No need for guns or shooting in here.”
Peng kept his stretched hand steady, holding the pistol about two feet away from Mehmood’s head. “I want all the uranium,” he said slowly, stressing each word as if Mehmood barely understood English. “All of it.”
Mehmood offered a shrug. “This is the entire package, our shipment. We have nothing else to give but our lives.”
It was Peng’s turn to make a decision. He kept his eyes glued to Mehmood’s face and tried to read the Pakistani. He found no visible clues that the man was lying. But it was not enough.
“We will search the warehouse,” Peng said. “Order your men to stand down.”
Mehmood shook his head. “You’re calling me a liar? You come to my home and you think you can treat me like this, like a piece of garbage?”
Someone slid their feet on the rough cement right behind Peng. Then came a metallic click, not a hammer cocking but a hollow sound, as if an AK steel buttstock was banging against another metallic object, like a pistol or a magazine. Peng’s eyes veered off Mehmood’s face for a fraction of a second.
It was a fraction of a second too long.
Mehmood threw his hands and body against Peng’s right hand holding the pistol. A round went off. It echoed like a cannon in the tense air of the silent warehouse.
The attack caught Peng by surprise. He felt a blow to the left side of his face as Mehmood hit him with a mean right fist. Peng’s Glock was still in his hand, but Mehmood’s vicious grip had taken hold of his wrist. The Pakistani’s fingernails were cutting deep into his skin, as Mehmood was trying to pry the pistol from Peng’s hand.
They fought over the Glock for a few moments, pushing and shoving each other. Then Mehmood jammed an elbow into Peng’s ribs and Peng struggled for breath. Mehmood was larger and heavier than he. Peng’s fingers were still around the pistol, so he pulled the trigger. The bullet struck somewhere in the warehouse’s ceiling.
A short rifle burst came from behind them, followed almost instantaneously by two pistol shots. Then three loud thumps like heavy sacks falling to the ground.
Peng assumed a guard and Shan had exchanged fire.
“Shan, Shan,” he shouted.
There were no more gunshots, but he heard some shuffling of feet very close to him.
The guards won’t shoot me as long as we’re still fighting.
Mehmood threw another fist, but Peng ducked. He let go of the Glock and slipped his hand away from Mehmood’s grasp. He twisted his small body behind Mehmood and hooked his right arm around Mehmood’s neck. Peng placed his left hand at the top of Mehmood’s neck and put him in a chokehold.
“Stay back, stay back or I’ll kill him,” Peng shouted at a guard who was just two feet away.
The guard nodded and did not take another step. Peng kept his hold around Mehmood’s head, but did not press tight against the man’s carotid arteries. He was not trying to cut off the blood flow and incapacitate the man. He just wanted to use Mehmood as a human shield and get his guards to drop their weapons.
Mehmood tried to shake him off. Peng pulled him toward the van, trying to hide behind Mehmood as much as he could, to make himself a smaller target. Two of Mehmood’s guards still had their AKs pointed at him. A third guard was sidestepping to Peng’s left, looking for the right moment to jump at Peng. And Shan was lying on his stomach with his left arm twisted underneath him and a pool of blood around his head.
“Stay the hell back,” Peng shouted.
Mehmood let out a heavy groan and moved his head slightly to the right. His jaws snapped as he tried to bite Peng’s forearm. His attempt failed, but he succeeded in relieving some of the pressure. Peng felt his solid grip loosen up. Mehmood raised his shoulders and reached back swiftly with his left hand. He went for Peng’s left-hand fingers and began to peel them off his head.
Peng realized Mehmood would slip out of his hold in a matter of seconds. Peng looked around for a weapon, anything he could use before it was too late. His eyes caught a glimpse of the suitcase and the two cylinders inside it. Yes, that’s it.
He pulled hard with his right arm, tightening the crook of his elbow on Mehmood’s throat, who let go of Peng’s left hand. Peng used that exact moment to reach for a cylinder.
As he turned slightly, he heard a gunshot and at the same instant he felt a piercing pain in his lower back. The bullet knocked him to his knees. Peng fell against the back of the van, his head slamming on the dirty floor of the van next to the suitcase.
He heard Mehmood’s huffing and puffing behind him. Peng raised his eyes slowly, feeling all his strength slowly leaving his body. He saw the cylinders still in the suitcase, just a few inches away from his bleeding face.
“You tried to kill me . . . me . . . you worthless scum.” Mehmood’s words exploded as he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “Now I’ll show you what happens to those who dare to touch me.”
Peng took a shallow breath and moved his right hand toward the cylinder. It felt cold against his fingers and heavier than he had thought, considering its size of about eight inches. He winced as he brought up his other hand onto the van’s floor and began to unscrew the cylinder’s cap.
“I will cut you up and feed you to the dogs,” Mehmood howled. “You will beg me to end your miserable life.”
Peng winced and ignored the pain shooting up through his body. He grinned as the cap came loose. He twisted it once again. And once more.
He heard heavy footsteps and knew it was time.
“Now you will pay, you son of—”
“No, you will,” Peng said.
He turned his head and looked at Mehmood’s dark, rage-filled eyes. Peng mustered all the strength left in him and threw a handful of the cylinder’s contents into Mehmood’s face.
“Ah.” Mehmood shrieked in pain. “Help, help me!”
He lifted his hands to his eyes as he tried to scrub away the burning radioactive powder.
“Now you will have a painful death,” Peng said in a low voice but loud enough for Mehmood to hear his words.
One of the guards raised his AK.
Peng looked straight at the gun’s barrel pointed at him.
A moment later, the guard fired a long barrage. Peng felt a bullet strike him in the chest. Then another bullet hit lower, closer to the right side. When the third bullet struck against his head, Peng was already dead.
April 6, 11:45 p.m.
Jaw-long stared at the two BlackBerry smartphones on his office desk, then at the fixed-line phone handset a few inches further, next to his laptop and a cold, half-drunk cup of tea with a saucer. Over an hour had passed since the time when the exchange should have taken place, but Peng had not checked in. Jaw-long had received no news. No news meant bad news, which in Jaw-long’s situation meant terrible news.
His first attempt to obtain the uranium from a Chinese facility had failed, and his men were almost caught in the act. If Plan B had now gone to hell, he would be forced to move on to Plan C. It was the option he disliked the most and which he hoped he would not have to use, even as a last resort. Plan C was dangerous and, if it backfired, Jaw-long might as well have signed his own death sentence. But he was in bed with a Saudi prince known for his ruthless ambition throughout the Middle East. Jaw-long had found himself between a rock and a hard place.
He swiveled in his chair and threw a quick glance at the photo hanging on the wall right above his head. It was a portrait of the Communist Party General Secretary and the President of China, Zhao Zheng. Once a mentor and a dear friend, Zheng had locked horns with Jaw-long over the economic direction of the new comprehensive reform in the country over the last few months. Recently, the bitter conflict had escalated into open attacks and character assassination, and Zheng had outmaneuvered Jaw-long at the last National Congress of the Communist Party, gathering sufficient support to be elected the party’s General Secretary. Still reeling from the crushing defeat, Jaw-long was forced to seek unconventional methods of regrouping, reinforcing, and regaining the lost support. A tried and true way of winning over the opposition was to shower them with lavish gifts, entice them with promises of position and power, and reward them with cold hard cash. American dollars in offshore bank accounts, beyond the authority of the all-controlling Communist state. Millions of dollars. Millions of dollars that were little more than spare change to a billionaire Saudi prince.
Jaw-long let out a deep, long sigh and thought of his family. If his deal with the Saudis was discovered, he would be killed or thrown in jail. Such fates Zheng had forced upon other opposition members, accusing them of bribery and abuse of power. Jaw-long’s son and wife would also be dragged in the mud over the charges, accused as collaborators and stripped of all privileges and powers that came with Jaw-long’s important position. Even in the best-case scenario his son would never be allowed to complete his university studies or find a decent job. His wife would have to quit teaching and move back to her family’s remote village at the foot of the rugged Qilian Mountains. No, Jaw-long had to make the deal with the Saudis work. He would have to set into motion the dreaded Plan C and go with the Canadian connection.
The sharp ring of one of the BlackBerry smartphones broke his train of thought. Jaw-long reached for the closest handset, before realizing it was the other one that was ringing. He frowned and carefully picked it up, as if it was going to burn his hand. He looked at the ID, shook his head, and drew back his lips. It was not Peng, but Enlai, the man Jaw-long had sent to investigate Peng’s disappearance and his silence. Enlai was already in Islamabad, serving as a shadow operative on behalf of Jaw-long, keeping an eye from a distance on Peng’s operation. Jaw-long had been trained in the ways of the secret intelligence and had served in the Ministry of State Security—China’s foreign intelligence agency—climbing to the top position in the Bureau of Counterintelligence, also known as the Sixth Bureau. Enlai had been one of his top operatives before he crossed over to become a private security contractor. Redundancy was entrenched deep into Jaw-long’s survival system.
“This is Jaw-long,” he said in a cold voice. “Tell me you’ve found Peng?”
A moment of silence, then Enlai said, “Negative, boss. Peng has gone off the grid.”
Jaw-long cursed under his breath. “Report,” he barked into the phone.
“The location of Peng’s meeting was in a hostile area, almost impenetrable. About twenty gunmen were guarding the warehouse. Still, I was able to follow Peng’s convoy. He entered the warehouse along with one of his men, leaving the other bodyguards outside. Shortly after that, gunfire erupted from inside the warehouse. Then the gunmen opened up on Peng’s bodyguards, killing everyone,” Enlai said in a cold, detached voice.
Jaw-long cursed again. He slammed his fist on the desk and kicked his feet furiously underneath it. The wastebasket flew across the room and the desk rattled as his feet smacked against its underside. He did not care about the death of his men. They were expendable and easily replaceable. The loss of the ten million dollars was a heavy blow. His situation was going from worse to unsalvageable.
Jaw-long tried to take a deep breath but he wheezed, his lungs seizing up. He coughed to clear his throat and paused to clear his mind. Finally he said, “Go on.”
“Two cars rushed from the warehouse to a local medical center. Before I proceeded to follow them, I saw a few bodies lying on the floor of the warehouse but I cannot confirm if one of them was Peng’s.
“At the medical center, one of the nurses told me a local man was admitted because of radioactive exposure. The doctors at the medical center are getting some help from experts from a hospital with decontamination procedures and the further treatment of this patient.”
Jaw-long frowned and felt the burning pain of a severe headache. Oh, this stress is going to kill me before Zheng or the Saudi prince lay their hands on me.
Enlai said, “Soon this will be all over the national media . . .”
“And then the international hyenas will dispatch their high-paid reporters.” Jaw-long’s voice dripped with scorn. And soon the Saudis will hear all about it. What a mess.
“What are my orders?” Enlai asked.
His voice had a rushed feel, and it echoed Jaw-long’s sentiment. They needed to do something very soon, before the Pakistani authorities discovered the radiation source and connected the dots.
“Erase all traces of our involvement,” Jaw-long said in a hurried voice. He pushed back his chair and jumped up to his feet. “Get rid of the dead bodies. Pay off and use any methods to cut off any ties of those men to us, to me. And find Peng.”
“I want updates every hour.”
“Yes. Anything else?”
Jaw-long ended the call and clutched his fingers around the smartphone. He wanted to throw it against the wall or perhaps aim it at Zheng’s photo and knock the smile off his pale face. But that would not resolve anything, and he would still be sinking deep in his quagmire. He needed to make good on his promise to the Saudis and deliver the shipment of uranium. Peng’s disappearance had made such delivery impossible. Jaw-long could ask for and most likely would receive more time, but he still needed to obtain the weapons-grade uranium. And without any money and running out of time, his only option was Plan C.
He hovered over his desk for a few moments, then reached for the other smartphone. He held it in his hand but hesitated to dial the number. He put it down, cursed under his breath, and paced in his office. He felt like a lion confined to a small cage, the wrath and the rage sizzling in his soul. Finally, he scooped up the smartphone with a swift gesture and tapped the keys before he could change his mind.
A woman’s voice on the other end of the call answered in a soft, sexy purr. “Hello, Jaw-long. How can I be of assistance?”
She put the emphasis on the last word, and Jaw-long felt a tingle run down his spine. He swallowed hard, then stumbled over his words. “The plan . . . we have to go with . . . Plan C. Engage the Canadians.”