Rogue Agents – Chapter Two
Enjoy Chapter Two of Rogue Agents, the newest spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which came out on June 29. You can read the Prologue here and Chapter One here. And if you decide to buy Rogue Agents, here are the links on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and GooglePlay.
April 24, 10:35 p.m.
James McClain drove his red Mercedes-Benz 450SL hard and fast through Boulevard de Lucerne. It was a cool evening, with the temperature hovering around fifty degrees, and he had raised up the hardtop. The corner of his eye scanned the edge of the grove bordering the Ottawa River for any deer or other animals about to scurry across the street. The roadster glided on the wet asphalt while the engine roared through the quiet night.
He was the original owner of the Mercedes, which he had bought when he was stationed in West Berlin during the long, treacherous years of the Cold War. He was a field agent, just fresh off The Plant—the Canadian Intelligence Service training facility. He had discovered his love for German cars and German women and brought back home a unique specimen of each category, the roadster and his future wife, Martha.
The Mercedes was very dear to his heart, as it had saved his life on more than one occasion. Once, counterintelligence officers from the Ministry for State Security of East Germany—Stasi, as it was more commonly known—hunted McClain through the streets of East Berlin as he was helping with the defection of a KGB agent. The Mercedes had survived a volley of AK bullets and an exhausting hour-long chase before McClain had gotten away from the Stasi agents.
He eased up on the gas pedal as he came to Chemin Robert Stewart and turned left. A four-story complex of luxury condos appeared to his left, while a row of million-dollar houses stretched on the right side. McClain always marveled at the masonry skills involved in the magnificent look of the mansions in this highly sought-after neighborhood. Backing on the private, eighteen-hole Rivermead Golf Club, a few steps away from the nature trails along the river, and a short drive from downtown Ottawa across the river, the neighborhood was home to some pretty influential people. People like Quan Van Tran, the CIS Director General of Intelligence, South Asia Division.
Quan—whose name meant “soldier” and was pronounced like “Kwan”—was a first-generation Canadian born to Vietnamese parents. Saved from the clutches of death by execution in the last few days of the Vietnam War, Quan had grown to become a fiery patriot, putting to shame many Canadians whose families had lived in Canada for as long as the nation’s history. Quan had been a smart, efficient, and brave field agent all over Asia and the Arabian Peninsula for over two decades. Then a stray bullet to his left leg had ended his clandestine operation career one fateful night off the shores of Thailand and left Quan with a slight limp. Quan did not turn to drinking, did not quit, but refocused his energies and his skills to become the youngest man in the history of the CIS to hold the powerful position of director general.
A quiet, reserved man, confident of his own abilities and of the men serving under his command, Quan rarely sought assistance from other divisions within the service—unless there was a national emergency or an operation had gone sideways. Which made tonight’s meeting even more interesting, since Quan had reached out to McClain, inviting him to his house to go over a matter so important and sensitive that it could not wait until tomorrow and had to be discussed outside the CIS Ottawa headquarters.
After a couple of right turns McClain was on Rue Félix Leclerc, the street circling most of the neighborhood. The beautiful houses had red brick or natural-looking stone facades, and the street was well lit by fancy decorative street lights. A relatively new neighborhood, most of its houses were built in the last ten years. The trees were still young, but what the front yards lacked in mature vegetation they more than made up for in manicured lawns, elaborate driveways, and cobblestone pathways.
McClain parked behind Quan’s black Lincoln Navigator on the street and made his way up the four steps leading to the main entrance of the house. A large bronze planter was neatly placed near the wooden door with a thick, tempered opaque glass. A clematis plant had climbed over a trellis and was crawling toward the red brick wall and the door.
Before he could knock, a woman opened the door. “Welcome, James. Nice to see you again.”
It was Lien, Quan’s wife. She was dressed in a floral maxi dress and had wrapped a comfortable-looking maroon cardigan around her shoulders. She held a book in her left hand, still opened at the page she had probably just been reading when McClain parked out in the front.
“A pleasure to see you, Lien.”
“Come in, come in.”
McClain stepped inside the spacious hall and removed his dress shoes and his coat. Lien hung the coat in the closet next to the door.
“How’s Martha doing?” Lien asked as they came into the living room.
“She’s doing well, thanks for asking. Are those new?” He pointed at the dark brown leather couches that matched perfectly with the maple hardwood floor and the beige walls.
“Yes, a gift from Jen and Chrissy for Christmas. Quan’s kept complaining about his bad back, and they got worried about their father. The couches are supposed to be orthopedic. They’re so comfortable.”
“How’s Jen’s and Chrissy’s medical practice?”
“It has its ups and downs, but mostly it’s well. There’s always people getting sick, right? The government is changing the health care coverage and some insured services. It’s not very clear what it means, but we hope it’s not too much trouble.”
“Tell Martha I love the dragonfly she made for us.” Lien pointed at the stained-glass sun-catcher hanging by the large bay window across from the black stone fireplace. “Does she have any new pieces? A friend of mine is interested in buying one or two.”
McClain shook his head. “Her arthritis has been quite bad over the last few weeks, so she hasn’t done much. But I’ll let Martha know about your friend.”
“All right, I won’t hold you any longer. Quan’s upstairs in his studio. Would you like some coffee? Tea?”
“I’ll have some tea.”
“Too late for black. Something herbal.”
“Vanilla red bush?”
“That sounds great.”
“All right. I’ll bring it up in a couple of minutes.”
Lien dropped her book on the couch next to the fireplace and walked to the kitchen through a set of French doors.
McClain headed to the staircase to the right of the kitchen and made his way to the second floor. He knew his way around the house, since he had been here a couple of times, most recently for Quan’s sixty-fifth birthday back in December. Quan’s studio was in the far end corner of the hall, secluded from the rest of the house and especially the kitchen and the living room. McClain cast a quick glance at Quan’s family photos hanging on the wall. Quan’s and Lien’s wedding picture. Graduation day with Jen, then three years later with Chrissy. Pictures from Jen’s wedding.
He knocked gently on the door. Quan’s strong voice came from inside. “Yes, come in.”
Quan was sitting behind his large antique mahogany desk reviewing a thick report. The desk was strewn with folders and papers, but there still seemed to be some sort of order among the chaos. The papers were set in a semicircle pattern around Quan’s small empty glass and a half-full bottle of Macallan Scotch Whisky.
“McClain, welcome, welcome.”
Quan stood up and hobbled to meet McClain near the door. They exchanged a strong handshake. Quan was smaller than McClain, with thin shoulders, and walked with a hunch. He was dressed in a dark blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and black pants. Quan had embraced his receding hairline, and the gray hair around his temples and at the back of his head was cut very short. He was clean-shaven and his reddish face had crow’s feet around the eyes, a deep crease on his forehead, and thin wrinkles along his thin lips. But his small grayish eyes were alive and full of energy as he peered at McClain with a look of appreciation mixed with impatience.
“Thanks for coming right away. Please take a seat.”
Quan gestured toward two overstuffed armchairs across from his desk. They matched the set of couches downstairs, and McClain was certain they were a part of the same Christmas gift from Quan’s daughters. He sat on the armchair closer to the window and threw a glance outside at a glowing street light and the dark expanse of the golf course.
“A drink?” Quan said as he pointed to his desk. “I’ve got this superb twenty-one-year-old Macallan. It’s rich, smooth.”
McClain shook his head. “I’d love to, but I have to drive back.”
Quan shrugged, then poured about two fingers from the bottle into his glass. He picked up a green folder from his desk, then stumbled into the other armchair. He laid the folder on his lap and took a quick sip of his whisky, as if to gather his courage before starting the conversation.
“What is this all about?” McClain asked.
He had never been a fan of chit-chat, especially when time was of the essence. Quan had approached McClain in the parking lot of the CIS headquarters about four hours ago, but had not given him any details. He had only said it was urgent and of great consequence.
Quan looked at McClain. His eyes carried a sense of hesitation, but he offered a small nod. “I don’t really know how it happened, James. I’ve . . . I’ve lost two agents.”
McClain frowned and his body went limp. He sat up straight. “Lost as in they’re dead?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure. That would be the best-case scenario under the circumstances.”
“I’m not following.”
Quan leaned forward and handed his folder to McClain. “Let me explain. Isaac Schultz and Park Min-joon. Two of my best field operatives in Beijing. Schultz is of Hebrew descent but was born and raised in China. Fluent in Chinese and Japanese. Park is from South Korea, speaks Chinese like a native, and has strong ties to the military and secret services of both Korea and China. Both naturalized Canadians, Schultz and Park were trained at The Plant and graduated with excellent marks. They’ve been working in South Asia, mainly in China, over the last seven years.”
McClain nodded and flipped through the first couple of pages of the folder. Two photographs of the agents were clipped to the records of their files. Schultz was tall and broad-shouldered, with reddish-blond hair and an explosion of freckles on his cheeks and his chin. Park was of smaller stature, black-haired, with thin lips and a scar stretched along the right side of his face, by his ear.
Quan had stopped talking, so McClain raised his head. “Go on,” he said.
“Last year, the agents began an operation to turn North Korean scientists or members of its armed forces into double agents. We have very little accurate intelligence about the true nuclear capacities of North Korea. While we believe that they can launch a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, the range and the reliability of such an attack are uncertain. There’s always a sharp warmongering rhetoric from Pyongyang, so we are trying to separate fact from fiction.”
McClain nodded. He was familiar with the general situation in the Korean Peninsula. Divided along the 38th Parallel after the end of the Second World War into a communist state in the north part and a pro-Western state in the south, the area still remained quite volatile and a powder keg. North Korea repeatedly threatened the South and its allies with complete annihilation.
McClain dropped his gaze to the folder, then looked up at Quan so that he could continue his explanation.
Quan took another sip of his drink. He licked his lips, then said, “North Korea carried out two underground nuclear tests last year. Its Musudan missiles have a range of about 2,500 miles. If they’re moved to the Sea of Japan, all of South Korea and Japan are within their reach. Earlier this year, we received reports of such movements of missiles. The South Korea-US Combined Forces Command raised their threat level to WatchCon 2, the highest level in peacetime.”
He sighed and began to scratch at his chin.
“What happened?” McClain asked.
“Schultz and Park were scheduled to meet with an army colonel in South Korea ten days ago. He approached them through a series of mutually trusted contacts in the Chinese Ministry of State Security. The recent political infighting at the top level of the Political Bureau of North Korea’s Communist Party threatened to spread down the ranks and spill over throughout the army. We had high hopes the army colonel would agree to provide actionable intel and even defect to our side. But he was a no-show.”
“Was he setting a trap?”
Quan shook his head. “I’m not sure. Schultz and Park reported to their HQ in Beijing and were expected to take a flight out of Seoul on the next day. They never made it.”
A light rap came from the door. “It’s me,” Lien said. “The tea’s ready.”
She waltzed in with a silver tray in her hands, which she gently placed on the glass-top coffee table between the two armchairs. “Sugar and cream on the side,” she said to McClain. “Honey, do you need anything?”
Quan shrugged, then raised his glass toward Lien. “Thanks, I’m good.”
“Okay, enjoy.” Lien said and closed the door.
McClain glanced at the tea’s steam rising from the cup. The delicious aroma of vanilla was very tempting, but he decided to wait for a minute or two before picking it up. “What do you think happened to the agents?”
Quan closed his eyes for a moment and let out a sigh. “I’m still determining the severity of this situation. After Schultz and Park missed their flight, they went incommunicado. We attempted to reach them on their secured cellphones, but they were off the grid. I dispatched a team of agents to the Seoul safe house, but it was empty. Not in disarray, and there were no signs Schultz and Park had left in a hurry or were in trouble. Not as far as we could tell from the safe house.”
“When was the last time you heard from the agents?”
“They called in to inform me that the colonel never made it to the meeting. They called four hours after the scheduled time, as per our established protocol.”
McClain frowned. “The colonel doesn’t show up, then the agents disappear. Not a coincidence.”
“No, it’s not. I had another team look over the files and the reports of their operation. I sought the assistance of the British Secret Intelligence Service, since we’ve run joint ops in China and South Korea.”
“And what did the British say?”
“They had no intel until three days ago. Then they heard some chatter coming from a North Korean military installation, a camp near the demilitarized zone, about five miles from the border with South Korea. The chatter seemed to indicate the North Koreans have a trusted source of intel about Western ops in South Korea. Then the next day, the safe house in Seoul was turned upside down.”
“North Korean State Security operatives?” McClain asked.
“Yes. Thankfully, my team had cleared the safe house of all sensitive materials. So there was no damage to our current or planned missions in the country. But yesterday, a bomb exploded at a safe house in Beijing, killing one of my agents. Another one is in critical condition.”
“Again, no coincidence.”
Quan nursed his glass. “Absolutely not. Schultz and Park had set up that safe house and used it as one of their main bases of operations.”
“And you have more bad news?” McClain said in a flat voice.
“Unfortunately. I have a couple of old friends at the NSA and pulled in some favors. They repositioned one of their recon satellites to listen to conversations inside the North Korean military installation and some of their bases. You can guess what they heard.”
McClain’s frown grew deeper and wider and he leaned back in his seat. “Park’s name came up, along with Schultz’s.”
Quan’s nodded. “The worst-case scenario. My two agents captured by the enemy and giving up intel as a result of torture.”
He finished up the rest of his whisky in a big swig. He pursed his lips, then said, “I’ve asked the NSA to double-check and reconfirm. And hopefully they can establish Schultz’s and Park’s location. Then I’ll give my orders.”
McClain looked at Quan’s face. The man was visibly in pain, and every word he was saying seemed to hurt him more and more.
“I need another drink,” Quan said and struggled to get to his feet.
“I think I’m going to have one as well,” McClain said in a low voice. “I’ll take a cab home.”
Quan nodded. He found another glass inside a cabinet behind his desk by a large bookcase, and brought the Macallan’s bottle to the coffee table. He poured about three fingers into McClain’s glass and his glass.
McClain took a small sip of the amber liquid and felt the whisky’s instant warmth. “What orders?”
Quan paused for a long moment, holding the glass in his hand, but not bringing it to his lips. He heaved a sigh and spoke in a slow, tense voice. “Once we’ve determined the location where they’re being held inside North Korea, I’ll have to dispatch a cleanup team.”
He dragged the last two words and kept his eyes glued to his glass. His words had sealed Schultz’s and Park’s fate. The cleanup team’s mission was going to be the elimination of the two agents.
McClain pondered Quan’s words. He could see the dilemma clearly.
“It pains me, James, but I just can’t have two rogue agents revealing our agency’s secrets under torture. The North Koreans are breaking my men, slowly but surely, and we’re already seeing our operations threatened. Good agents are dying. I may not be able to save Schultz and Park, but I can save the rest. I will save the rest.”
McClain said nothing. Quan had already made up his mind. It was a heart-wrenching decision that a director or a team leader wished they would never have to make, but when the time came, they gave the order. It was established protocol, familiar to field agents and their handlers. And McClain knew where Quan was going with his line of reasoning.
Quan gave McClain an intense look. “You know what I’m going to ask from you, James. I wanted to discuss this with you in person, before submitting an official request to the director. My South Asia teams have been compromised and I don’t know yet the full extent of the breach and of the damage. Schultz and Park had vast knowledge of many operations throughout Asia. So the cleanup team has to be from another region, remote and separate from mine. Perhaps from your section.”
McClain kept his eye contact with Quan but did not give him any hint of what he was thinking at that moment. The truth was, McClain needed more information and more time to decide on a course of action. His initial reaction was that it would be suicide to send a team inside North Korea. The CIS and most Western intelligence agencies had no assets in the hostile Communist country. The cleanup team needed a clear infiltration plan and a solid exit strategy.
On the other hand, the need to stop the gush of intelligence was very real and urgent, even if it meant silencing Schultz and Park in order to save the lives of many other agents. But this situation was unique because of the fact that the agents’ initial mission had not been to infiltrate North Korea. That country was off limits to all agents operating in South Korea and other areas of South Asia. McClain was wondering how Schultz and Park had ended up in the hands of the North Koreans, and he also wondered why Quan was not interested that much in finding out those reasons.
“I gave Schultz and Park specific instructions not to cross the border with North Korea. This meeting and all other previous meetings with potential assets or defectors had taken place either in South Korea or China, never in the forbidden land,” Quan said slowly, as if he had read McClain’s mind.
“And you have no idea why or how they ended up in a prison up there?”
“I can make an educated guess that they were either following a lead—the promise of intelligence or other sensitive material from the colonel or someone he could have sent in his place—and decided to continue with their mission, in violation of my direct orders. Or maybe they were captured, and if that’s the case, the North Koreans know we’ll deny any connection to them. Schultz and Park know this as well, and they can’t expect us to risk more agents’ lives on a rescue mission.”
McClain cleared this throat. “But do they expect us to insert an assassination team, which of course will put the lives of more agents in harm’s way?”
Quan’s eyes turned into small, fiery slits. He placed his glass on the coffee table and spread his hands in front of him. “I didn’t want this and neither did they. But we’re doing what must be done and choosing the lesser of two evils.”
McClain nodded. “Yes, for us. If I were in their shoes, I would strongly disagree.”
“I wouldn’t pick this option either, but the choice has been removed from my hands.” Quan gave McClain a shrug, then added in a warmer voice, “Please take this operation under consideration. I will not make a recommendation to the director unless you give me your approval.”
McClain raised his glass and finished his drink. “Okay, I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“Thank you, James. I know I’m laying a heavy burden on you. I appreciate your help.”
McClain said nothing. He reached for his BlackBerry in his waist holster. “I’m calling a cab. And I’ll finish my tea before heading out.”