Authors: Peter Grimsdale
COUNTDOWN TO WAR
Chinese–North Korean Border
The wall of wire stretched 880 miles. It was twelve feet high, supported every hundred yards by a concrete post that split into a Y near the top to make a double row of razor. The message was clear: do not cross.
Kovic wished he hadn’t.
He watched the border disappear under them, barely visible in the darkness, the condensation on the inside of the Sea Hawk’s windows already freezing. Olsen, the lead Marine, pressed the mic close to his mouth, his face a sickly green from the instrument lights.
‘Maybe you’ll start the next Korean War.’
Olsen’s look said all he felt about the CIA.
This was supposed to be the Station Chief ’s big play. ‘Do this right,’ Cutler told Kovic, ‘the White House’ll be calling to congratulate you in person.
s our biggest coup since Bin Laden.’ How many times had he heard
one? Cutler was new to the region, impatient to make his mark, China just a stop on the elevator to Langley’s seventh floor. ‘It’s all fixed with Beijing, they’re right behind us. First ever Sino–US covert; too bad we can’t tell the world.’
Kovic knew the Chinese would have vetoed that. They preferred it backstage. Beijing had pitched in, giving them the forward position with refuelling for the helo and arranging for a power cut to black out a corridor thirty miles into North Korea ten minutes before they hit the LZ.
He picked at the ice on the window beside him. A piece slid away exposing the dark nothing below. A few wisps of low cloud flashed by. The Sea Hawk bucked as it swung hard left, slinging the
Marines out of the flimsy picnic chairs they’d brought along for the ride. The pilot let out a whoop.
‘Go easy, Tex. This ain’t the rodeo.’
Kovic had wanted this done with his own assets hand-picked out of Shanghai, but the Chief vetoed that. ‘
s expecting John Wayne; he sees a bunch of Chinese riding into town, he could panic.’ What did Cutler imagine this was, a meet and greet? With all their kit on plus the amount of light they’d be shining on him, their man wouldn’t even see them; they might as well be Klingons. But Cutler wanted it his way, never mind if it was the best way, and that meant Marines.
‘Ten minutes to LZ,’ came Tex’s voice over the headset.
A sudden updraught silenced him and tossed them all out of their chairs again.
‘Hey, Mr Pilot – you want my breakfast all over your nice clean chopper?’ shouted Faulkner.
‘This joyride better be worth it,’ said Olsen, looking at Kovic.
‘You bring my boys back in one piece,’ Garrison, their commander, had warned Kovic when he heard he’d be leading the mission. He had reasons for saying so that neither of them ever wanted to go over again.
Kovic gazed at them. Even in their body armour, they all looked too young to be there, though he knew that he was, by their standards, middle-aged. The trouble with experience was you knew all the things that could go wrong.
He decided it was time to put them in the picture; Cutler had insisted he wait until they were airborne. He flicked on his mike.
‘Listen up, guys, this here
wrote the Dear Leader’s entire missile launch protocol, source code – the whole shebang. He is
man behind North Korea’s nuke capability. Defectors don’t come much higher up the food chain than this.’
Hype didn’t come easily to Kovic. His default mode was blunt truth, in a plain wrapper, no ribbons or bullshit, but he needed these guys enrolled.
‘Fuckin’ A, man!’ Deacon, the baby of the group and the noisiest,
was the first to react, as if to make up for his youth. ‘We goin’ make his-sto-ree.’
‘That’s the plan, bro,’ nodded Kovic, hoping it would be the right kind of history.
Eight hours earlier he had watched them step out of the Sea Hawk at the base outside of Xian, all tough guy banter and rap star swagger, and thought to himself how foreign they appeared – another reminder to him of how used he’d gotten to China. They looked every inch an invasion force, standing guard over the machine like they’d just put down in Mogadishu, eyeing all-comers as if they were hostiles, even the ground staff preparing to refuel. The Chinese weren’t big on manners, but if you wanted the place to work for you, you needed to show some respect.
‘He’s a high value catch so you treat him good, make him welcome,’ Kovic added, knowing that after six months on pirate deterrence in the South China Sea they needed to reset their attitude. The six of them packed themselves into the Sea Hawk’s cramped airframe, encased in all their kit: high molecular polyethylene helmets, ballistic plates and fleeces under their tunics, an M4 and a Beretta M9 each – typical Marine overkill – plus the new-issue four-tube NV goggles. Deacon and Kean were playing with theirs, like kids at Christmas. Tex the pilot had brought a customised M79 grenade launcher with the barrel cut so short it looked like a musket out of
Pirates of the Caribbean
‘I can’t shoot for shit, so this kills everything in a ninety-yard radius without I even open my eyes.’
‘Yeah, he shoots better with his eyes shut, dontcha, Tex?’
Kovic kept it simple, just a pair of two-barrel NV goggles and his Sig Sauer P226 with a Nightforce scope, suppressor and five or six clips.
Deacon admired the P226, still nodding in time to whatever was coming through his earbuds. Faulkner was absorbed in a game on his phone. Kean was curled up like a cat, out cold – though it didn’t stop him from farting, which he did often.
‘Hey, Kovac.’ Faulkner glanced up, waving a half-eaten Hershey
Bar. In his enormous baseball-mitt hand it looked like a matchstick.
‘This make you homesick?’
He shook his head. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his taste for American candy, and a lot of other things American too. He thought about what he could be eating now, like the special prawns with abalone at Mancun’s. If home was anywhere now, it was Shanghai. Everything he needed was there, everything in the world: imported or knocked off , in the malls and the movie theatres and along the sidewalks, where every kind of delicacy could be found, in delicious, steaming dishes. And then there was Louise, neither American nor Chinese, whom Shanghai had unexpectedly brought into his life. What was she doing now – apart from wondering where the fuck he’d gone this time?
Faulkner bit off a chunk of chocolate, talking as he chewed.
‘So, Jason Bourne, how come you sitting in a Hawk full of Marines, ’stead of jumping across rooftops somewhere?’
It was a good question. He could easily have passed on this one. His infil clearance had expired, he hadn’t used a weapon since Afghanistan, he was out of shape plus he had plenty going on in Shanghai. Every bone in his body had told him to stay away, but he knew he needed to make some sort of show for Cutler if he was going to stay in his post. They hadn’t exactly bonded. ‘Watch your back,’ Krantz on the desk back at Langley had warned him, ‘Cutler’s looking to China to make him King of the Hill. Stroke his dick a little, on account of your résumé’s got a bit more meat on it than his.’
It was true, Kovic had done more than his share of hot postings: in Lebanon disrupting Hezbollah, in Liberia to sting an arms dealer, a stint undercover in Grozny posing as a Chechen returnee, two long tours in Iraq and then Afghanistan. His colouring and pronounced cheekbones meant he could pass as local pretty much anywhere from Vladivostok to Venezuela. Shanghai was supposed to be a reward, ‘a chance to reinvent yourself ’ Human Resources had claimed. The first two years he’d hated it, struggling with the language and trying to crack the mysterious codes by which China
operated. Now he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. If he had any say in it, he would die in the East – though not in North Korea, and not tonight.
Price, the tall quiet one, chipped in.
‘If this screws up, who we call?’
Olsen shut him up. ‘Hey, kid, no one’s gonna screw up, okay?’
It was about time Olsen spoke some sense. He and Kovic knew full well that if they did screw up, they’d be on their own. This one was a deniable. The others didn’t get that, but who could blame them? They were serving soldiers with rules to play by. In the CIA rule one was don’t get caught, because no one will come for you.
‘It gets to daylight, we outta here, man,’ said Price. ‘Package or no.’
Kovic nodded. As they got closer to the LZ some bravado was wearing off . Sometimes the ones who looked the toughest had got boot camp confused with the gym.
‘For sure. But no package, no bonus,’ said Faulkner.
The talk of money woke Kean up.
‘No bonus means I gotta do ’nother tour, or the old lady’s lawyer’s gonna have my ass.’
He’s more concerned about his alimony payments than getting his balls blown off by the North Koreans, thought Kovic: easier to fear the devil you know. They’d all volunteered like good patriots, but it was the money that fired them up. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that the fabled spec-ops bonus was discretionary, down to some anonymous bean counter in the bowels of the Pentagon.
‘And I ain’t gonna get no Chinky tail tomorrow.’
‘Ain’t that why your old lady’s got her lawyer on you in the first place, on account you can’t keep it zipped up?’
‘Yeah, baby! They don’t call it The Beast for nothin’!’
Kovic smiled. A million Pentagon directives on the use of appropriate language and these guys were using the same terms his father had. It must be true what they said, that travel narrowed the mind. When he had once dared to warn Cutler about some xenophobic slight, the Chief looked at him over his glasses. ‘We’re not here to make friends, Agent Kovic, we’re here to get even.’
That was US foreign policy in a nutshell, and from the mouth of one who had made a career out of missing all the big and ugly shows. Kovic despised desk jockeys like Cutler, who in turn was threatened by Kovic’s field record. That was what irked Cutler most about him, Kovic figured, and explained his need to remind him who was boss. And God help you if it was an election year.
Kean was in full flow now, spurring on the others.
‘At Susie’s Bar in Ningbo they got these twins—’
twins, jerk-off . They just all look the same to you. They show you a girl and her grandmother you’d think they was twins.’
‘At least I don’t gotta
‘Deacon, you’re a virgin, man! You don’t even know where to put it.’
Another ripple of laughter shook the picnic chairs.
‘Enough already. Change the channel, will ya?’
‘Hey, Kovic: I been wonderin’ – do they really got them straight pubes?’
Olsen gave Deacon a look that silenced him. There was a lull. Tex was slowing down. He turned briefly and gestured at the ground.
‘Whoo-yeah! Santa and Rudolf twelve high!’
Snow. The supposedly state of the art meteorological imaging from Fleet Command had confirmed clear skies. They might as well have gone with Pyongyang TV’s weatherman, whose forecast had to be approved by the Party. Wouldn’t you know, thought Kovic: this job just keeps on getting better and better.
What he didn’t know then was that the snow would save his life.