Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
April 28, 10:20 a.m.
Justin glanced at the clock in the bottom right corner of his laptop screen, wondering when the morning session would end. He had been able to follow the speaker—a renowned engineer from the French National Centre for Scientific Research—for the first five minutes as he covered the latest developments in nuclear fusion research. The man was quite animated as he spoke passionately from the podium of the large Nasreen conference hall, in the third floor of the hotel, and his PowerPoint presentation beamed onto three huge screens behind him. Once the engineer began to expand on the incubation period, particle size, and absorption rates, Justin was all but lost. He tuned out the speaker and nursed his coffee cup as he kept a close eye on Hong, sitting at the other table about ten feet away and across from Justin’s table.
Justin and Carrie—who was sitting on the other side of the conference hall near the exit and keeping an eye on Hong’s chaperone—had yet to make the initial contact with Hong. They had planned to approach him the previous evening at the reception welcoming the participants to “The Future of Nuclear Energy: Visions and Strategies,” a two-day conference hosted by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), a public entity of Abu Dhabi, one of the UAE’s emirates. But a delay in their flight had derailed them and they had not arrived at the Shangri-La Hotel until after midnight.
Their next chance to casually run into Hong without arousing the suspicions of the chaperone—who was most likely a member of the MSS—was the day after, at the breakfast event for the conference participants. Justin and Carrie attended as representatives from the Atomic Energy Institute of Canada, as Schultz and Park had done in the past, but Hong and his chaperone were a no-show. They came to the conference hall only a couple of minutes before the start of the morning session, looking tired and upset. They sat next to one another and kept to themselves but for the shaking of hands with the people at their table.
Justin had studied Hong’s file during the long flight from Ottawa. Schultz and Park had scheduled this meeting with Hong about a week before their disappearance, and their goal was to make an offer to Hong in Dubai. If he agreed to defect, they had been authorized to give Hong political asylum in Canada for him, his wife, and his two teenage sons. It was now Justin’s job to convince Hong to trust a complete stranger and agree to betray his country.
A defection in a sense was the final stage of an asset development for intelligence gathering. Once a person defected, there was no turning back, no change of heart, no second chance. An asset in development could decide at any time to stop providing intelligence to their handler and hope and pray their actions would go unnoticed by the authorities and the secret agencies of their countries. Sometimes they could even switch sides and become double agents, giving false reports to misinform and mislead their adversaries. While this was still possible in a defection scenario, its likelihood was very small because of the publicity that generally accompanied a defection, since defectors were branded as traitors by their home countries and kept under strict surveillance in the host country.
Convincing an asset to make the final step of defection was a long, tedious process, requiring a close personal relationship with the defector. It took time to build the trust and the ties to make possible the crossover. Justin had at the most a day and a half, so he hoped Schultz and Park were right and had laid carefully and correctly most of the groundwork.
Justin took a sip from his coffee. It was still hot, as he had just poured a fresh cup from a carafe at one of the tables at the end of the large conference hall. He liked his coffee hot, black, and bitter, as it helped keep him attentive at all times. He glanced again at Hong, then at the French engineer still rambling about vacuum vessels and concentration saturation. Another ten long minutes of boredom, then a faint round of applause and no questions or comments. All of the sixty or so participants seemed to be happy to go for a break.
The man sitting next to Justin turned to him and asked him how he had enjoyed the session. Justin shrugged, picked up his BlackBerry, and excused himself. He lifted up his shoulders and tilted his head while standing a few steps away from his table, feigning stretching his neck muscles. His eyes followed Hong, who made a beeline for the coffee tables. The chaperone stood up and caught up with Hong. They chatted for a moment while Hong was refilling his mug and helping himself to a Danish pastry. Hong frowned while getting an earful from the chaperone, who at some point even wagged his finger in front of Hong’s face. Then the chaperone left the conference hall, followed quickly by Carrie.
Justin took advantage of the small window of opportunity and walked over to Hong. The nuclear scientist looked dazed and shocked, holding in his hands his mug and his plate with the half-eaten pastry.
“Is it good?” Justin asked in a low voice, pointing at the pastry.
“Huh? What?” Hong replied in an absentminded voice.
“The pastry. How is it?”
Hong shrugged and took a small bite. “It’s all right. It’s good,” he replied in a thick accent.
Justin looked at his BlackBerry, then at the door. Carrie was going to send him a text message if and when the chaperone was to return to the hall.
“What delegation do you belong to?” Hong asked and peered at the badge hanging around Justin’s neck.
The nametag had twisted slightly and Justin’s name was not visible.
“I’m with AEIC. Like Schultz and Park.” Justin turned the nametag over. It identified him as Timothy McNally.
Hong frowned for a split second when he heard the Canadian agents’ names. “Why aren’t they here?”
“Change of plans.” Justin dropped his voice to barely a whisper. “We don’t have much time before your handler comes back. We need to talk.”
Hong put his plate and mug down and crossed his arms in front of him. “How do I know you are truly who you say you are?”
Justin smiled. He’s careful. I like that.
“I have something for you,” Justin said. “Come to my table.”
Hong reluctantly followed two steps behind him. Justin had anticipated Hong’s reaction and had prepared a thin folder with a few pictures of Hong talking to Park during their last meeting two months ago in Beijing. Justin picked up the folder, held it close to his chest, and opened it just a hair so that only Hong could see its contents.
“Convinced?” Justin asked as he closed the folder and placed it back on the table.
Hong hesitated for a moment, looked around the hall, then gave Justin a slight nod. “What do you want?” His voice was low and nervous.
“We want you to make a decision. If you come with us, you and your family can start a new life in Canada, away from your current nightmare. New identities, protection, money, and most importantly, freedom.”
Hong pondered Justin’s offer. He looked at the folder, then at Justin, while the frown never left his face. His wrinkles seemed to multiply by the second and his eyes grew darker and gloomier. The man appeared to age by a few years within a few seconds.
“You have twenty-four hours to think about it,” Justin said in a soft voice. “Of course, the sooner you decide, the more time we have to plan your exit and that of your family.”
The last word brightened Hong’s eyes, which glinted with a spark of hope.
Justin read the sign and seized the moment. “My partner will take care of your ‘colleague’ so that he’ll not bother us. We’ll have complete privacy to discuss our strategy.”
Justin’s BlackBerry beeped with the arrival of a text message. He glanced at the screen: You have 30 secs.
“He’s coming back.” Justin looked over Hong’s shoulder. “What was he furious about?”
Hong’s chin dropped and he looked at the floor. “He’s suspicious of me and told me he’ll kill me if he notices something that does not feel right.”
Justin nodded. “Then we’ll be extra careful. I need you to go straight to the men’s washroom after the next session is over. Got it?”
Hong nodded. “Got it.”
Justin stepped away from Hong as his chaperone appeared at the doors. Justin sat at the next table and struck up a conversation with a German researcher, a blonde woman in her forties. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the chaperone talking to Hong. Their conversation seemed friendlier than earlier and Hong kept nodding, although he mostly avoided the chaperone’s icy eyes.
Carrie stepped inside the conference hall. Justin gave her a quick gesture with his head and they made eye contact. He smiled at her and Carrie smiled back. She came over and introduced herself to the German researcher as Sophie Bertillon.
“How are things going?” Carrie asked after they shook hands.
“Wonderful,” Justin asked. “This is a great venue. We learned some positive news and perhaps we’ll have even more in the afternoon.”
The German arched her left eyebrow. “But the lecture was so long and dry,” she said. “And some of the information was outdated and irrelevant.”
Justin smiled at her. Of course she had no reason to believe they were discussing something else beside the conference keynote speaker’s presentation.
A man dressed in a thawb—the traditional white robe of Saudi men—and a red-and-white-checkered headdress invited the participants to take their seats. The conference was going to continue with a presentation from one of the ENEC’s directors.
Justin returned to his table and tried to pay attention to the presenter. He was also dressed in a thawb, but his was golden, with elaborate black embroidery. The man was in his fifties, with a big bushy moustache and a strong baritone voice. Justin learned that the UAE was in the process of expanding its commercial nuclear power reactors and was close to completing its second power plant fueled by uranium at Barakah, about 185 miles west of Abu Dhabi, in close cooperation with a Canada-based corporation. The board executive gave an update on the progress, the billions of dollars flowing to the project and the billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity expected in return. Fascinating as it may have been, Justin tuned him out and returned to his long list of pressing tasks.
He used his laptop to log onto the CIS encrypted state-of-the-art security online server and accessed some of the files he had requested from the office. Justin was working on several fronts at the same time. He was trying to identify the best location for infiltration into North Korea across the Russian border. Some of the areas along the ten-mile border were too close to security installments and watch towers. A couple of points were known crossings used by local gangsters involved in drug and cigarette smuggling. Justin had sought the assistance of a contact within the FSB, Russia’s internal security and counterintelligence service. Yuliya Markov was an operative with whom he had shared more than one mission, a few months ago in Yemen and then in Russia. Hopefully, Markov would be able to find someone among the Russian border guards who could give Justin’s team a hand during their infiltration into North Korea. Justin did not want to fight Russian border guards or run the risk of being discovered by them before even crossing into North Korea. He needed to reach a workable compromise.
The next task on his list was Quan. Justin was troubled by the determination of the CIS director to eliminate his agents without giving them an opportunity to explain themselves and their actions. Justin was not having doubts about his orders and his mission in North Korea, but he was hoping to find some evidence in the files to justify a stay of execution.
Thus he had asked McClain to provide him with a higher level of security clearance, so he could review all the files related to operations run by or tied to Schultz and Park over the last year. There was a mountain of reports and notes, as the two agents were true worker bees and liked to document their actions very thoroughly. And then there was a web of agents reporting to Quan as their director, and Justin had obtained access to their reports as well. He had cast an immense net, not wanting to miss anything, since this was a matter of certain death for the two agents.
The third item on Justin’s agenda was becoming familiar with half of his team. Earlier that morning, McClain had confirmed that the SIS—better known as MI6—were going to provide their assistance with the mission. Their operatives— Reginald “Rex” Phillips and Evelyn “Eve” Davis—were going to meet up with them in Vladivostok, Russia, in two days. Rex was a skilled sniper, having joined the ranks of MI6 from the Special Air Service (SAS), one of the special forces units of the British Army. Eve spoke Korean like a native and had a great sense of orientation in pretty much any type of terrain. Justin was hoping to convince Hong to meet them near the Korean-Russian border and drive them to the camp where the agents were being held captive. The MI6 contact that Rex and Eve had used eight weeks ago during their stint in North Korea had vanished without a trace. MI6 believed he had been killed or captured by the wide network of North Korean secret agents.
Justin sighed as he looked at Eve’s classified file on his laptop’s screen, then reached for his mug. He frowned as he founded it empty. Justin clicked a few keys on the keyboard and locked the laptop. Then he walked to the table, where he refilled his mug. He took a long swig, enjoying the hot liquid that was perking up his senses. Then he walked back to his table.
He plowed through the reports while only occasionally glancing around him and at the speaker. His back was against the wall so no one could sneak up on him. There were no cameras in the conference hall and he was holding his laptop near his chest. The only set of eyes he had to worry about were those of the two men sitting to his left and right. But they were completely absorbed in the presentation and were oblivious to pretty much everything else taking place around them.
A round of applause signaled the end of the speech. Justin logged out of the server and feigned attention while the ENEC director took a couple of questions. Then he dismissed the participants for lunch.
As the stream of people began to slowly make their way toward the door, Justin’s eyes followed Hong and his chaperone. They were the first ones to leave their table, and the chaperone seemed to insist they get out of the conference hall as soon as possible, even if it meant elbowing their way through the people already ahead of them. Justin gestured to Carrie, who nodded back as she also hurried her pace to keep up with her target.
* * *
Carrie hated this part of the job: seducing Shin, the chaperone, to have dinner with her up in his room on the fortieth floor of the Shangri-La Hotel. It was like enticing a snake to come and crawl onto your bare chest. She had never liked this whore-like tactic, and had almost failed the class on sexual seduction and honeypot techniques back on the training course at The Plant. “I will kill for my country and I will die for my country, but I will not become a whore for my country,” were the words Carrie had shouted at her instructor at the time. And now she had agreed only to convince Shin to take her to his room and then slip a concoction of sedatives into his food or drink, which would cause Shin to be incapacitated for the rest of the day. The next morning he would wake up without as much as a headache, but by then Justin and Hong would have sealed their deal.
She hurried to catch up to Shin and Hong, who were marching with a fast pace down the cream-colored marble corridor, seemingly headed toward the men’s washroom. Shin turned his head and gave Carrie a stern glare with his piercing black eyes, as if he was wondering why she was following them.
“Hey,” Carrie said with a smile and a nod as she walked past them.
She stopped near a window and looked at her image in the reflection on the glass. She fixed a few hair strands for a moment, then looked at Shin, who was standing alone by the door to the men’s washroom.
“I think you were at my conference, the one on nukes’ energy,” Carrie said and took a couple of steps in Shin’s direction.
Shin nodded. “I saw you too, and you were looking at me.”
His accent was thick and his voice was strong.
“Where are you from?” Carrie advanced another few steps. She was now about three feet away from Shin.
“I’m from Korea.”
“Oh, South Korea?”
Shin frowned. “No, not South Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the true Korea.”
Carrie arched her eyebrows. “Fascinating,” she said in a genuinely surprised tone of voice. “I’ve never met anyone from DPRK. We don’t hear much about you but I can see that the men from there are so . . . so handsome.” She gave her tone a playful twist.
She was not exactly telling the truth but she was not lying either. Shin was tall and broad-shouldered, with a clean-shaven face and high cheekbones. He was in his late thirties or early forties but still had all his hair, albeit some of it had turned silver, especially around his temples. His eyes were deep black and he had a high forehead and a small, narrow nose.
Shin shrugged, then cocked his head to the left. The undecided look in his eyes told Carrie he was still determining her true intentions with the compliment.
“And we Canadians are so straightforward,” Carrie said, still in the same flirtatious tone. “Why don’t we go for lunch and you can tell me all about yourself and your country?”
Shin looked toward the men’s washroom, then back at Carrie.
“Come on, your friend is a big boy and can find his way around the hotel.” Carrie stepped near Shin and gave him a slight nudge with her right elbow. “Let’s go get some room service. We have a little over an hour. That gives us plenty of time to enjoy our meal, our conversation . . . and more,” Carrie whispered slowly and softly in Shin’s ear.
She knew she was being very direct and was moving very fast. Maybe it was because she was out of practice or maybe her disgust for this part of the operation was getting the best of her. But she was counting on Shin’s reputation as a womanizer and on the prevailing belief in North Korea that everything in the Western world of capitalism is corrupt and degenerate, including the women and their sense of morality.
Shin peered at her incredulously. Carrie could tell what was going on in his mind as he measured her up with a lustful look.
“Sure, why not?” he said in a firm voice, his accent even more pronounced. “This way.” He gestured down the corridor and offered her his right arm.
Carrie took it without hesitation, although her stomach almost turned at the touch. She immediately felt dirty, like she was walking barefoot and had stepped into a pile of crap, with the gooey, smelly yuck now stuck to her skin. But she smiled and nodded at Shin as they made their way through the bright corridor and reached the six elevators.
The hollow ping announced the arrival of an elevator, and Shin played the gentleman and allowed Carrie to take the first step inside. She thanked him and held her briefcase with her left hand, close to her knees. Her SIG P228 pistol was inside the briefcase, loaded and ready, along with a pair of handcuffs. She hoped there would be no need to use either one, but she was prepared in case of any contingency.
Shin pressed the correct button on the elevator panel. He smiled at Carrie, a small, hesitant smile, but she returned a big, genuine smile. They reached the fortieth floor in a matter of seconds. The elevator doors opened and Shin again gestured for Carrie to walk in front of him. She thanked him again, stepped outside into the corridor, and waited for Shin. She knew his room number, but she feigned ignorance. Shin tilted his head to the right. Carrie nodded and followed him, staying one step behind him.
“This is my room,” Shin said as he stopped in front of a door.
He fished out a plastic card from his pocket and slid it into the electronic lock of the door. A moment later, the door snapped open and a dot on the lock turned from steady red to blinking green.
“It’s open.” Shin pushed the door a crack.
“Go ahead,” Carrie said.
“Ladies first.” Shin’s voice turned firmer and a notch louder.
Carrie nodded. “Since you insist.”
She took the first step, then realized the trap Shin had been setting for her. She made the mistake of turning her back to the North Korean agent for a split second. Before she could react, she felt Shin’s strong fingers wrapped around her neck.
“Who are you?” he said as he pushed her inside the room and shut the door behind them. “American agents? CIA?”
“I . . . I don’t know what you’re—” Carrie said as she struggled for breath.
She raised her right hand up and tried to slip her fingers underneath Shin’s powerful grip.
“Shut up.” Shin tightened his chokehold. “You lured me here with offers of sex but I know what you really want. Information. Intelligence. Who do you work for? Tell me or I will kill you.”
Carrie raised her shoulders and swung her body slightly to the left. She slammed her right fist into Shin’s groin. He bellowed in pain and eased his grip just a little. But it was sufficient for Carrie’s right hand fingers to slide underneath Shin’s arm. She pushed his arm away with all her strength, while at the same time she threw her left hand back at Shin’s face. She gouged at his eyes, scratching and tearing at his skin. Shin screamed and released his grip.
“You whore,” he shouted. “You’re dead.”
Carrie stepped away and turned around. Shin was blinking and flinching and shaking his head around like a madman. He stuck his left hand inside his jacket.
Carrie knew what he was going for. She lifted her briefcase and blindly groped for her pistol. Her trained fingers found its trigger just as Shin begin to pull out his gun. Carrie fired a single shot. The bullet struck Shin in his right eye, and he collapsed against the door, dead before hitting the floor six feet away from her.
Carrie took a couple of deep breaths and fell on the couch across the room. She looked at the pool of blood forming around Shin’s head, then reached for her BlackBerry. A couple of long moments passed while her call was being connected, then she said in a calm voice, “Justin, we have a situation.”