Enjoy Chapter Five 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, Chapter Three here, and Chapter Four here. And if you like what you are reading, here are the links to buy Rogue Agents on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords and GooglePlay.
Military outpost fifteen miles north of Hoeryong
North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
April 26, 8:15 a.m.
Kim Jong-nam drew in a long puff on his cigarette and blew out the smoke slowly through his nose and his mouth. A thin gray cloud formed in front of his cold face, then a sharp wind gust carried it away. Kim tried to follow the vanishing spiral of smoke, but he saw nothing but the hill slopes and the valleys beyond the barbed-wire fence surrounding this remote outpost, about ten miles away from the prison camp.
His small gray eyes followed the Tumen River snaking at the bottom of the valley and separating these forests from those on the other side belonging to China. Kim wondered for a moment about the thousands of people who had tried to cross the river with hopes and dreams of a better life. Instead most of them had found death in the cold waters or the volleys of gunfire from soldiers chasing them like dogs. The ones who were caught alive were most often executed for treason, if the starvation and the daily beatings in prison camps did not kill them. And Chinese authorities routinely returned many of the escapees back to their homeland, considering them economic immigrants and not refugees, denying them asylum and protection.
The few that actually survived the ordeal had to live in constant fear about the fate looming over the family members and relatives they had left behind. Even if they were lucky enough to avoid the firing squad or the prison camps, they were branded as enemies of the state, and shame, misery, and humiliation would follow them for the rest of their lives. Their families and relatives deserve it, since they raised such fools. But that will never happen to my family. My wife and my daughters will never live in terror.
Kim took the last drag and flicked the cigarette butt into the bushes about four feet away. He did not worry about starting a fire. The ground and the plants were still damp from the long winter, which this year had dragged on longer than everyone had expected. He tapped the front pocket of his coat—a drab olive military trench coat that hung heavy on his small frame—and wondered whether he should smoke another cigarette. He was down to the last two Marlboros that a friend of a friend had bought in the black market fueled by shadowy Chinese and Russian characters. Then he would have to go back to smoking local brands like Gohyang, produced in the Paeksan Cigarette Company in Hoeryong. They were cheap but they tasted like crap. Americans may be evil but their factories make really good stuff. Smoking smuggled cigarettes was frowned upon and if caught, Kim might be subjected to some tongue-lashing from his superiors. But they were far away in Pyongyang, and he was the highest-ranking officer on this station and the man who ran the show.
Kim was smart enough to understand the politics of his country and to know when to keep his mouth shut. Which was all the time. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the old saying went. Kim allowed himself the occasional American cigarette or whisky, his only vices, but otherwise was extremely careful not to stick out, especially considering his job with the Ministry of State Security, the most powerful of the four intelligence agencies of the country. The MSS was under the direct control of the country’s Supreme Leader and responsible among other things for investigating domestic espionage and counterespionage activities. And today Kim was investigating the case of a nuclear scientist suspected of planning to defect to two Canadian agents, who had been caught and brought to his station.
Kim took in a deep breath and decided to save his Marlboros for the next time he felt the cigarette craving. He walked slowly on the dirt path toward the main complex station, once a large barracks that had been converted into a prison, which at the moment held twenty-one detainees. To his right, about a hundred yards from the prison, there was a small cinderblock barracks painted gray, with offices and dormitories for the station’s personnel and the soldiers, a total of forty people. Four Chaju ten-ton trucks were parked near the barracks. A little further away stood Kim’s beauty: a black Ppeokpuggi, an off-road vehicle, assembled in the country from Chinese parts. It handled the rough country roads very well and Kim was very proud of it.
“Good morning, Comrade Kim,” a soldier greeted him as Kim climbed up the five steps leading to the prison’s main entrance.
Kim nodded at the soldier, who began to march away in haste with an AK hanging over his left shoulder. “Where are you going?”
“Down to the camp.”
Kim stopped, turned around, and grabbed the soldier by the arm. “Why? Who ordered you?”
“Comrade Jang. He said he needed someone to examine a few files.”
Kim frowned and he felt his heart drumming in his chest. Jang was the commander of the prison camp, but he could not pull rank and order Kim’s soldiers around. Not without Kim’s knowledge and authorization. And the task of reviewing papers sounded quite routine to Kim, something one of the hundreds of Jang’s men could do very well.
“Go back to your post, patrolling the fence,” Kim ordered the soldier and pointed toward the west.
“But . . . what about—”
“I’ll handle Jang . . . if he is man enough to call me.”
The soldier grimaced, then gave Kim a quick nod and jogged up the hill.
Kim cursed Jang under his breath, pushed open the gray metallic door with peeling paint and rust marks around the hinges, and stepped inside the prison. The door creaked, and two soldiers huddling next to a wooden stove behind a small desk right inside the entrance got up and greeted Kim in a single voice.
He saluted the life-sized bronze statue of the Supreme Leader standing on the other side of the entrance as it waved and smiled at him. He nodded at the soldiers and continued down the long, narrow hall. Small windowless cells stretched along the length of the building. They had steel-plated doors and were simple eight-foot-by-eight-foot squares, each with a narrow iron-framed bed and a concrete floor with a hole that served as the toilet. There were no light bulbs, so prisoners would never know if it was day or night. Not that it would matter, since their fate was in Kim’s hands. If they confessed their crimes against the state and the people and provided him the intelligence and the answers that he and his superiors demanded, the prisoners could save themselves a great amount of pain and suffering.
Two soldiers were sitting on wooden chairs in front of the last two cells near the end of the hall. They stood up as Kim approached them.
“Good morning, Comrade Kim,” said one of them, the taller of the two.
Kim nodded. “How are they?” He nodded toward the cell to the right.
The number 19 had been scrawled on the door a long time ago. The black color had faded and the number was almost illegible against the brown, rusting door. One of the captured Canadian agents, Park Min-joon, had been held in that cell for the last three days.
The tall soldier said, “This one made no sound all night, since their transfer from the camp. Then he complained of chest pain about an hour ago. The doctor came and fed him a couple of pills. Now he’s sleeping.”
Kim glanced at the small viewing slit, covered by a shutter, in the cell door. “Did he say whether he’s getting better?”
“He didn’t say,” the tall soldier replied.
“And this one?” Kim gestured with his right hand at the cell across from Park’s and looked at the short soldier.
“He’s been singing for the last hour or so,” the short soldier said in an annoyed voice.
Kim flinched, then scratched his head. “Singing?”
“Yes. Songs about his god. Something about a shepherd and grace and other stories like that.”
“Huh. Well, his god is not going to save him from my hands. Bring him out to the interrogation room.”
Kim walked up ahead and turned left. The interrogation room was the only heated part of the building beside the soldiers’ corner at the entrance. Kim had instructed the soldiers to start the heating stove, as he was planning to spend the first part of his work day interrogating the Canadian agents, and perhaps a couple of the other prisoners who had been jailed for having political views contrary to the Supreme Leader and for criticizing his regime.
The room was about the size of four cells put together, and the black rectangular stove had begun to warm the room. Kim found the temperature still not to his liking, so he frowned and cursed the stupid soldiers. He stomped toward the pile of firewood behind the stove, picked up a couple of large logs and fed them into the mouth of the stove. He sneered at the meager fire inside the stove and cursed the soldiers again.
He retreated to a desk near the stove and removed his coat. He placed it carefully over the wooden chair’s back before sitting down. Then he began to roll up the sleeves of his gray woolen sweater. He did not want to get them dirty, and his interrogations tended to turn bloody more often than not.
The door opened and the two soldiers dragged in the other Canadian agent, who Kim knew was called Isaac Schultz. He was the one who was not wounded during the shootout at Kaesong last week. It had killed two MSS agents and the nuclear physicist working on the uranium mine complex at Sunchon in the South Pyongan province. MSS agents had given chase and had caught the agent and his partner Park and seized fifteen pounds of weapons-grade uranium in the back of their van. Now Kim wanted some answers about the whole affair and he was determined to get them. His superior in Pyongyang—a powerful and fearsome man he did not dare cross— had made it abundantly clear that Kim could not return to the country’s capital unless he had precise intelligence about the Canadian agents’ operations and their network of spies in North Korea.
The soldiers held the agent by his arms and shoved him onto the chair across the table. Kim looked at the face of his enemy. Schultz’s lips and eyes were swollen and he had bruises and cuts along the side of his face, on his forehead, and near his ears. A couple of his front teeth were missing, revealing black gaps. The soldiers down at the camp had beaten him with bamboo sticks and had kicked him, so Schultz probably had other wounds all over his body. The front of his white shirt and black pants were caked with dried blood. But still Schultz had a small but defiant smile on his face, and he was already getting on Kim’s nerves.
“My name is Kim Jong-nam and I’m an officer with the Ministry of State Security,” Kim said slowly in a warm tone in English. He had learned it in elementary school and was told he spoke it rather well but had quite the accent. Kim had not practiced it very often and when he did, it was mostly with other North Koreans. English-speaking visitors were very rare in the country, and his line of work was not the ideal setting to have lengthy English-practicing conversations. “I’m in charge of your case and from now one you will communicate with me. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He looked at Schultz’s blue eyes and offered him a genuine smile. Kim truly wished the Canadian would cooperate so he could return to his family in Pyongyang.
Schultz kept his gaze on Kim, then winced. “What happened to Jang?” He slurred his words and his voice was hoarse and low.
“He and his men are no longer a concern. They are in the past, the same as the torture and the beating. Very shortly you will go back home.”
“Yes, but only after I’ve given you everything I know.”
Kim smiled and leaned forward. “Very good. We are coming to an understanding, Mr. Schultz. I like that. Now would you like something to eat? Or perhaps something to drink?”
“No,” Schultz said.
“Bring me two cups of citron tea,” Kim ordered one of the soldiers, the short one. “You’ll like it. Very good with honey. Now tell me: what were you doing in Kaesong?”
Schultz gave Kim a wry smile. “Will you believe me if I said we were there as tourists?”
“I wish I could. But unless your tourism involved purchasing some uranium made in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I would say you were trying to lie to me. And I don’t appreciate liars. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Schultz just stared at Kim.
“Let’s start at the beginning: how did you cross the border?”
Schultz began to shake his head but Kim stopped him with a dismissive hand gesture. “Don’t tell me you flew to Pyongyang, because your passports show no stamps. So how did you get into the country? Did you break through the fence? Did you get in by boat? Or did you bribe any of our border guards?”
Schultz winced as if a jolt of pain was shooting through his body. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again he seemed calm and collected. “Since you have my passport, you’ve probably noticed it’s of a diplomatic type. That means it affords me protection and—”
“It doesn’t afford you anything.” Kim cut him off in a stern voice. “You entered illegally into my country. You tried to smuggle nuclear material from my country. And you shot and killed two agents, colleagues of mine, and upstanding citizens of my homeland. You can be executed for these crimes. I’m offering you a very good trade: your life in exchange for some information. You don’t value your life?”
“You should contact my ambassador in Seoul, who can negotiate my release with your politicians or your Supreme Leader—”
Kim pushed back his chair and jumped to his feet. He slammed his fist on the table as he towered over Schultz. “Don’t you mention his name, you imperialist aggressor, you scum of a spy. You came here to fuel discontent among our peaceful people, to find renegades willing to betray their country and rebel against their loving leaders. But you failed, and you will rot and die in this very place if you do not tell me everything. Right now! Start talking, you scum!” Kim slammed his fist on the table again, and a fleck of spit flew out of his mouth and landed on Schultz’s face.
Schultz did not say a word but the defiant look remained stamped on his face. He showed no fear. He raised his hands, handcuffed in front of him, to clean his face, but Kim grabbed one of his arms. “You talk or I will pry the words out of your mouth.”
Kim seized Schultz by the throat, his fingers digging deep into the man’s skin. Schultz struggled for breath and tried to resist by elbowing Kim. The soldier stepped forward and kicked Schultz to the side, throwing him off the chair.
“Talk or I will kill you, slowly and painfully, ripping you to pieces.” Kim leaned over the captive and yelled in his ear.
He stomped on Schultz’s back, and his boot formed a large smudge on the man’s shirt. Kim put his boot to Schultz’s head and leaned on him with his full weight. Schultz moaned and whimpered. But there was nowhere to go. Kim kicked Schultz, then shoved his head against the whitewashed wall, stained with other prisoners’ blood.
“Get up, get up, you wicked running dog,” Kim shouted and spat on Schultz.
The soldier hoisted Schultz in his arms and shoved him onto the chair. Schultz sighed and wheezed as he tried to get some air into his lungs. Blood was oozing from a cut running from the left to the right side of his face. Two wounds on his forehead had also burst open and a blood trickle was making its way along the side of his nose.
Kim said, “My actions are just a sample of what will happen and continue to happen to you until you talk and tell me everything about your informants, about all the traitors that are helping you plot the collapse of our socialist system. But the masses of the people are masters of our revolution and reconstruction, and we will not allow capitalist bastards to destroy it.”
Schultz said nothing. He let out a weak sigh and his face slowly began to resume its bold, defiant look.
Kim said, “You have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being stubborn and refusing to confess to what we already know. We have the human scum you had convinced to betray his country, and we are going to find all the other traitors that worked with him. And if you do not talk to me, I will get my answers from your comrade, that swollen-headed, loud-mouthed traitor.”
Schultz began to shake his head. “No, don’t hurt Park or I will—”
“What? You will do what?” Kim screamed.
The interrogation room door opened and the short soldier strode in, balancing in his hands a wooden tray with a white porcelain pot decorated with a blue-and-green flowery motif and two matching cups. Kim turned to the guard and stared at him with rage pouring forth from his eyes.
“The tea you ordered, sir?” the short guard said with a sense of insecurity and fear in his voice, especially after glancing at Schultz’s face.
“This bastard doesn’t deserve a cup of tea.” Kim spat out his words. “He deserves the whole pot.”
He clutched his fingers around the teapot handle, ignoring the heat that started to burn his hand. He swung the teapot around—tea spilled all over the table as the cover flew across the room—and smashed it against Schultz’s head. The spout caught him right above the left ear, carving a deep gash. The scalding liquid poured over the captive’s face and neck. The force of the blow knocked him to the ground, where Schultz writhed and screamed in agony.
“That’s where you’ll be, where you belong, eating dirt underneath my foot.” Kim jammed the heel of his boot on Schultz’s neck and pressed the captive’s face against the coarse cement floor and the pool of blistering hot water. “And while you take some time to rethink your position, I will have a little talk with our Comrade Park.”
“No, no,” Schultz shouted, and tried to grab Kim’s boot, but the man had already stepped beyond his reach.
“Enjoy your tea.” Kim spat in Schultz’s direction and headed toward the desk. He picked up his coat and put it on calmly and slowly while his eyes were focused on Schultz’s face, distorted because of his pain. Then Kim looked at the soldiers. “Bring the doctor to treat his wounds,” he told the tall soldier in Korean.
The tall soldier nodded and hurried along with the short soldier to pick up Schultz and take him to his cell.
Kim sighed as he stepped outside in the hall. He had truly hoped one of the captives would have started to talk and give away their secrets by now. I’ll need to change tactics if I am to show results to my superiors. Beatings and threats do not seem to work. Kim frowned and realized he might have to call the man he hated owing a favor, since he usually ended up paying a very steep price in return. Jaw-long was an influential man in China’s Political Bureau and had strong ties to political counterparts in Korea’s Workers’ Party and National Defense Commission, the top government branch responsible for all military and security policies. It’s like dealing with a snake, Kim thought, but it is better to keep an eye on the snake and watch its sharp teeth than turn my back and suffer the venomous bite.