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The Altman Code - Robert Ludlum

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The Altman Code - Robert Ludlum

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    On the north bank of the Huangpu River, giant floodlights glared down on the docks, turningnight into day. Swarms of stevedores unloaded trucks and positioned long steel containers forthe cranes. Amid the squeals and rasps of metal rubbing metal, the towering cranes lifted thecontainers high against the starry sky and lowered them into the holds of freighters fromacross the world. Hundreds streamed in daily to this vital port on China’s eastern coast,almost midway between the capital, Beijing, and its latest acquisition, Hong Kong.

    To the south of the docks, the lights of the city and the towering Pudong New District glowed,while out on the swirling brown water of the river itself, freighters, junks, tiny sampans, andlong trains of unpainted wood barges jostled for position from shore to shore, like traffic ona busy Paris boulevard.

    At a wharf near the eastern end of the docks, not far from where the Huangpu curved sharplynorth, the light was less bright. Here a single freighter was being loaded by one crane and nomore than twenty stevedores. The name lettered on the freighter’s transom was The DowagerEmpress; her home port was Hong Kong. There was no sign of the ubiquitous uniformed dockguards.

    Two large trucks had been backed up to her. Sweating stevedores unloaded steel barrels, rolledthem across the planks, and set them upright on a cargo net. When the net was full, the cranearm swung over it, and the cable descended. On its end was a steel hook that caught the lightand glinted. The stevedores latched the big net to the hook, and the crane swiftly lifted thebarrels, wheeled them around, and lowered them to the freighter, where deckhands guided thecargo down into the open hold.

    The truck drivers, stevedores, crane operator, and deckhands worked steadily on this distantdock, fast and silent, but not fast enough for the large man who stood to the right of thetrucks. His sweeping gaze kept watch from land to river. Unusually pale-skinned for a HanChinese, his hair was even more unusual—light red, shot with white.

    He looked at his watch. His whispery voice was barely audible as he spoke to the foreman ofthe stevedores: “You will finish in thirty-six minutes.”

    It was no question. The foreman’s head jerked around as if he had been attacked. He staredonly a moment, dropped his gaze, and rushed away, bellowing at his men. The pace of workincreased. As the foreman continued to drive them to greater speed, the man he feared remaineda looming presence.

    At the same time, a slender Chinese, wearing Reeboks and a black Mao jacket over a pair ofWestern jeans, slid behind the heavy coils of a hawser in a murky recess of the loading area.

    Motionless, almost invisible in the gloom, he studied the barrels as they rolled to the cargonet and were hoisted aboard The Dowager Empress. He removed a small, highly sophisticatedcamera from inside his Mao jacket and photographed everything and everyone until the finalbarrel had been lowered into the hold and the only remaining truck was about to be drivenaway.

    Turning silently, he hid the camera inside his jacket and crab-walked away from the brilliantlights until he was wrapped again in darkness. He arose and padded across the wood planks fromstorage box to shed, seeking whatever protection he could find as he headed back toward theroad that would return him to the city. A warm night wind whistled above his head, carryingthe heavy scent of the muddy river. He did not notice. He was exultant because he would bereturning with important information. He was also nervous. These people were not to be takenlightly.

    By the time he heard footsteps, he was nearing the end of the wharf, where it met the land.Almost safe.

    The large man with the unusual red-and-white hair had been quietly closing in, taking aparallel path among the various supply and work sheds. Calm and deliberate, he saw his targettense, pause, and suddenly hurry.

    The man glanced quickly around. To his left was the lost part of the dock, where storage andseagulls found their haven, while on the right was a pathway kept open for trucks and othervehicles to go back and forth to the loading areas. The last truck was behind him, headingthis way, toward land. Its headlights were funnels in the night. It would pass soon. As hisprey darted behind a tall pile of ropes on the far left, the man pulled out his garotte andsprinted. Before the fellow could turn, the man dropped the thin cord around his neck, yanked,and tightened.

    For a long minute, the victim’s hands clawed at the cord as it tightened. His shoulderstwisted in agony. His body thrashed. At last, his arms fell limp and his head lolled forward.

    As the truck passed on the right, the wood dock shuddered. Hidden behind the mountain ofropes, the killer lowered the corpse to the planks. He released the garotte and searched thedead man’s clothes until he found the camera. Without hurrying, he walked back and retrievedtwo of the enormous cargo hooks. He knelt by the corpse, used the knife from the holster onhis calf to slash open the belly, buried the points of the iron hooks inside, and sealed themthere by winding rope around the man’s middle. With alternating feet, he rolled him off intothe dark water. The body made a quiet splash and sank. Now it would not float up.

    He walked toward the last truck, which had paused as ordered, waiting, and climbed aboard. Asthe truck sped away toward the city, The Dowager Empress hauled up her gangway and let go herlines. A tug towed her out into the Huangpu, where she turned downriver for the short journeyto the Yangtze and, finally, the open sea.

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    PART ONE.

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    Chapter One.

    Tuesday, September 12.

    Washington, D.C.

    There was a saying in Washington that lawyers ran the government, but spies ran the lawyers.The city was cobwebbed with intelligence agencies, everything from the legendary CIA and FBIand the little-known NRO to alphabet groups in all branches of the military and government,even in the illustrious Departments of State and Justice. Too many, in the opinion ofPresident Samuel Adams Castilla. And too public. Rivalries were notoriously a problem. Sharinginformation that inadvertently included misinformation was a bigger problem. Then there wasthe dangerous sluggishness of so many bureaucracies.

    The president was worrying about this and a brewing international crisis as his black LincolnTown Car cruised along a narrow back road on the northern bank of the Anacostia River. Itsmotor was a quiet hum, and its tinted windows opaque. The car rolled past tangled woods andthe usual lighted marinas until it finally rattled over the rusted tracks of a rail spur,where it turned right into a busy marina that was completely fenced. The sign read: anacostiaseagoing yacht club private. members only.

    The yacht club appeared identical to all the others that lined the river east of theWashington Navy Yard. It was an hour before midnight.

    Only a few miles above the Anacostia’s confluence with the broad Potomac, the marina mooredbig, open-water power cruisers and longdistance sailing boats, as well as the usual weekendpleasure craft.

    President Castilla gazed out his window at the piers, which jutted out into the dusky water.At several, a number of salt-encrusted oceangoing yachts were just docking. Their crews stillwore foul-weather gear. He saw that there were also five frame buildings of varying sizes onthe grounds. The layout was exactly what had been described to him.

    The Lincoln glided to a halt behind the largest of the lighted buildings, out of sight of thepiers and hidden from the road by the thick woods. Four of the men riding in the Lincoln withhim, all wearing business suits and carrying mini-submachine-guns, swiftly stepped out andformed a perimeter around the car. They adjusted their night-vision goggles as they scannedthe darkness. Finally, one of the four turned back toward the Lincoln and gave a sharp nod.

    The fifth man, who had been sitting beside the president, also wore a dark business suit, buthe carried a 9mm Sig Sauer. In response to the signal, the president handed him a key, and hehurried from the car to a barely visible side door in the building. He inserted the key into ahidden lock and swung open the door. He turned and spread his feet, weapon poised.

    At that point, the car door that was closest to the building opened. The night air was cooland crisp, tainted with the stench of diesel. The president emerged into it–a tall, heavysetman wearing chino slacks and a casual sport jacket. For such a big man, he moved swiftly as heentered the building.

    The fifth guard gave a final glance around and followed with two of the four others. Theremaining pair took stations, protecting the Lincoln and the side door.

    Nathaniel Frederick (”Fred”) Klein, the rumpled chief of Covert-One, sat behind a clutteredmetal desk in his compact office inside the marina building.

    This was the new Covert-One nerve center. In the beginning, just a few years ago, Covert-Onehad no formal organization or bureaucracy, no real headquarters, and no official operatives. Ithad been loosely composed professional experts in many fields, all with clandestineexperience, most with military backgrounds, and all essentially unencumbered–without family,home ties, or obligations, either temporary or permanent.

    But now that three major international crises had stretched the resources of the elite cadreto the limits, the president had decided his ultrasecret agency needed more personnel and apermanent base far from the radar screens of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Hill, or the Pentagon.The result was this “private yacht club.”

    It had the right elements for clandestine work: It was open and active twenty-four hours aday, seven days a week, with intermittent but steady traffic from both land and water thatfollowed no pattern. Near the road and the rail spur but still on the grounds was a helipadthat looked more like a weed-infested field. The latest electronic communications had beeninstalled throughout the base, and the security was nearly invisible but of cutting-edgequality. Not even a dragonfly could cross the periphery without one of the sensors picking itup.

    Alone in his office, the sounds of his small nighttime staff muted beyond his door, Kleinclosed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his longish nose. His wire-rimmed glasses rested onthe desk. Tonight he looked every one of his sixty years. Since he had accepted the job ofheading Covert-One, he had aged. His enigmatic face was riven with new creases, and hishairline had receded an inch. Another problem was on the verge of erupting.

    As his headache lessened, he sat back, opened his eyes, put his glasses back on, and resumedpuffing on his ever-present pipe. The room filled with billows of smoke that disappeared almostas soon as he produced them, sucked out by a powerful ventilating system installedspecifically for the purpose.

    A file folder lay open on his desk, but he did not look at it. Instead, he smoked, tapped hisfoot, and glanced at the ship’s clock on his wall every few seconds. At last, a door to hisleft, beneath the clock, opened, and a man with a Sig Sauer strode across the office to theouter door, locked it, and turned to stand with his back against it.

    Seconds later, the president entered. He sat in a high-backed leather chair across the deskfrom Klein.

    “Thanks, Barney,” he told the guard. “I’ll let you know if I need you.”

    “But Mr. President–”

    “You can go,” he ordered firmly. “Wait outside. This is a private conversation between twoold friends.” That was partly true. He and Fred Klein had known each other since college.

    The guard slowly recrossed the office and left, each step radiating reluctance.

    As the door closed, Klein blew a stream of smoke. “I would’ve come to you as usual, Mr.President.”

    “No.” Sam Castilla shook his head. His titanium glasses reflected the overhead light with asharp flash. “Until you tell me exactly what we’re facing with this Chinese freighter—TheDowager Empress, right?—this one stays between us and those of your agents you need to workon it.”

    “The leaks are that bad?”

    “Worse,” the president said. “The White House has turned into a sieve.

    I’ve never seen anything like it. Until my people can find the source, I’ll meet you here.”His rangy face was deeply worried. “You think we have another Yinhe?”

    Klein’s mind was instantly transported back: It was 1993, and a nasty international incidentwas about to erupt, with America the big loser. A Chinese cargo ship, the Yinhe, had sailedfrom China for Iran. U.S. intelligence received reports the ship was carrying chemicals thatcould be used to make weapons. After trying the usual diplomatic channels and failing,President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Navy to chase the ship, refusing to let it landanywhere, until some sort of resolution could be found.

    An outraged China denied the accusations. Prominent world leaders jawboned. Allies madecharges and countercharges. And media around the globe covered the standoff with bannerheadlines. The stalemate went on for an interminable twenty days. Finally, when China began tonoisily rattle its sabers, the U.S. Navy forced the ship to stop on the high seas, andinspectors boarded the Yinhe. To America’s great embarrassment, they uncovered onlyagricultural equipment—plows, shovels, and small tractors. The intelligence had been faulty.

    With a grimace, Klein recalled it all too well. The episode made America look like a thug. Itsrelations with China, and even its allies, were strained for years.

    He puffed gloomily, fanning the smoke away from the president. “Do we have another Yinhe?”he repeated. “Maybe.”

    “There’s ” remotely, and ” probably. You better tell me all of it. Chapter and verse.”

    Klein tamped down the ash in his pipe. “One of our operatives is a professional Sinologistwho’s been working in Shanghai the past ten years for a consortium of American firms that aretrying to get a foothold there. His name’s Avery Mondragon. He’s alerted us to informationhe’s uncovered that The Dowager Empress is carrying tens of tons of thiodiglycol, used inblister weapons, and thionyl chloride, used in both blister and nerve weapons. The freighterwas loaded in Shanghai, is already at sea, and is destined for Iraq. Both chemicals havelegitimate agricultural uses, of course, but not in such large quantities for a nation thesize of Iraq.”

    “How good is the information this time, Fred? One hundred percent? Ninety?”

    “I haven’t seen it,” Klein said evenly, puffing a cloud of smoke and forgetting to wave itaway this time. “But Mondragon says it’s documentary. He has the ship’s true invoicemanifest.”

    “Great God.” Castilla’s thick shoulders and heavy torso seemed to go rigid against hischair. “I don’t know whether you realize it, but China is one of the signatories of theinternational agreement that prohibits development, production, stockpiling, or use ofchemical weapons. They won’t let themselves be revealed as breaking that treaty, because itcould slow their march to acquiring a bigger and bigger slice of the global economy.”

    “It’s a damned delicate situation.”

    “The price of another mistake on our part could be particularly high for us, too, now thatthey’re close to signing our human-rights treaty.” In exchange for financial and tradeconcessions from the U. S., for which the president had cajoled and arm-twisted a reluctantCongress, China had all but committed to signing a bilateral human-rights agreement that wouldopen its prisons and criminal courts to U.N. and U.S. inspectors, bring its criminal and civilcourts closer to Western and international principles, and release longtime politicalprisoners. Such a treaty had been a high-priority goal for American presidents since DickNixon. Sam Castilla wanted nothing to stop it. In fact, it was a longstanding dream of his,too, for personal as well as human-rights reasons. “It’s also a damned dangerous situation.We can’t allow this ship … what was it, The Dowager Empress?” Klein nodded. “We can’tallow The Dowager Empress to sail into Basra with weapons-making chemicals. That’s the bottomline. Period.” Castilla stood and paced. “If your intelligence turns out to be good, and wego after this Dowager Empress, how are the Chinese going to react?” He shook his head andwaved away his own words. “No, that’s not the question, is it? We know how they’ll react.They’ll shake their swords, denounce, and posture.

The question is what will they actually do?” He looked at Klein.

    “Especially if we’re wrong again?”

    “No one can know or predict that, Mr. President. On the other hand, no nation can maintainmassive armies and nuclear weapons without using them somewhere, sometime, if for no otherreason than to justify the costs.”

    “I disagree. If a country’s economy is good, and its people are happy, a leader can maintainan army without using it.”

    “Of course, if China wants to use the incident as an excuse that they’re being threatened,they might invade Taiwan,” Fred Klein continued. “They’ve wanted to do that for decades.”

    “If they feel we won’t retaliate, yes. There’s Central Asia, too, now that Russia is lessof a regional threat.” The Covert-One chief said the words neither wanted to think: “Withtheir long-range nuclear weapons, we’re as much a target as any country.” Castilla shook offa shudder. Klein removed his glasses and massaged his temples. They were silent. At last, thepresident sighed. He had made a decision. “All right, I’ll have Admiral Brose order the navyto follow and monitor The Dowager Empress. We’ll label it routine at-sea surveillance with norevelation of the actual situation to anyone but Brose.”

    “The Chinese will find out we’re shadowing their ship.”

    “We’ll stall. The problem is, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to get away with it.”The president went to the door and stopped. When he turned, his face was long and somber, hisjowls pronounced. “I need proof, Fred. I need it now. Get me that manifest.”

    “You’ll have it, Sam.” His big shoulders hunched with worry, President Castilla nodded,opened the door, and walked away. One of the secret service agents closed it. Alone again,Klein frowned, contemplating his next step. As he heard the engine of the president’s car humto life, he made a decision. He swiveled to the small table behind his chair, on which twophones sat. One was red–a single, direct, scrambled line to the president. The other was blue.It was also scrambled. He picked up the blue phone and dialed.

    Wednesday, September 13.

    Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

    After a medium-rare hamburger and a bottle of Taiwanese lager at Smokey Joe’s on Chunghsiao-1Road, Jon Smith decided to take a taxi to Kaohsiung Harbor. He still had an hour before hisafternoon meetings resumed at the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel, when his old friend, Mike Kerns from thePasteur Institute in Paris, would meet him there. Smith had been in Kaohsiung–Taiwan’ssecond-largest city–nearly a week, but today was the first chance he’d had to explore. Thatkind of intensity was what usually happened at scientific conferences, at least in hisexperience. Assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for InfectiousDiseases–USAMRIID–he was a medical doctor and biomolecular scientist as well as an armylieutenant colonel. He had left his work on defenses against anthrax to attend this one–thePacific Rim International Assembly on Developments in Molecular and Cell Biology. Butscientific conferences, like fish and guests, got stale after three or four days. Hatless, incivilian clothes, he strode along the waterfront, marveling at the magnificent harbor, thethird-largest container port in the world, after Hong Kong and Singapore. He had visited hereyears ago, before a tunnel was built to the mainland and the paradisaical island became justanother congested part of the container port. The day was postcard clear, so he was able toeasily spot Hsiao Liuchiu Island, low on the southern horizon. He walked another fifteenminutes through the sun-hazed day as seagulls circled overhead and the clatter of a harbor atwork filled his ears. There was no sign here of the strife over Taiwan’s future, whether itwould remain independent or be conquered or somehow traded off to mainland China, which stillclaimed it as its own. At last, he hailed a cab to take him back to the hotel. He had hardlysettled into the backseat when his cell phone vibrated inside his sport jacket. It was not hisregular phone, but the special one in the hidden pocket. The phone that was scrambled. Heanswered quietly, “Smith.” Fred Klein asked, “How’s the conference, Colonel?” “Getting

dull,” he admitted.

    “Then a small diversion won’t be too amiss.” Smith smiled inwardly. He was not only ascientist, but an undercover agent. Balancing the two parts of his life was seldom easy. He wasready for a “small diversion,” but nothing too big or too engrossing. He really did want toget back to the conference. “What do we have this time, Fred?” From his distant office onthe bank of the Anacostia River, Klein described the situation. Smith felt a chill that wasboth apprehension and anticipation. “What do I do?”

    “Go to Liuchiu Island tonight. You should have plenty of time. Rent or bribe a boat out ofLinyuan, and be on the island by nine. At precisely ten, you’ll be at a small cove on thewestern shore. The exact location, landmarks, and local designation have been faxed to aCovert-One asset at the American Institute in Taiwan. They’ll be hand-delivered to you.”

    “What happens at the cove?”

    “You meet another Covert-One, Avery Mondragon. The recognition word is ‘orchid.’ He’lldeliver an envelope with The Dowager Empress’s actual manifest, the one that’s the basis forthe bill to Iraq. After that, go directly to the airport in Kaohsiung. You’ll meet a chopperthere from one of our cruisers lying offshore. Give the pilot the invoice manifest.

    Its final destination is the Oval Office. Understood?”

    “Same recognition word?”

    “Right.”

    “Then what?” Smith could hear the chief of Covert-One puffing on his pipe. “Then you can goback to your conference.” The phone went dead. Smith grinned to himself. A straightforward,uncomplicated assignment. Moments later, the taxi pulled up in front of the Hi-Lai Hotel. Hepaid the driver and walked into the lobby, heading for the car rental desk. Once the courierhad arrived from Taipei, he would drive down the coast to Lin-yuan and find a fishing boat totake him quietly to Liuchiu. If he could not find one, he would rent one and pilot it himself.As he crossed the lobby, a short, brisk Chinese man jumped up from an armchair to block hisway. “Ah, Dr. Smith, I have been waiting for you. I am honored to meet you personally. Yourpaper on the late Dr. Chambord’s theoretical work with the molecular computer was excellent.Much food for thought.” Smith smiled in acknowledgment of both greeting and compliment. “Youflatter me, Dr. Liang.”

    “Not at all. I wonder whether you could possibly join me and some of my colleagues from theShanghai Biomedical Institute for dinner tonight. We are keenly interested in the work of bothUSAMRIID and the CDC on emerging viral agents that threaten all of us.”

    “I’d very much like that,” Smith said smoothly, giving his voice a tinge of regret, “buttonight I have another engagement. Perhaps you are free some other time?”

    “With your permission, I will contact you.” “Of course, Dr. Liang.” Jon Smith continued onto the desk, his mind already on Liuchiu Island and tonight.

    Covert One 4 - The Altman Code

    Chapter Two.

    Washington, D.C.

    Wide and physically impressive, Admiral Stevens Brose filled his chair at the foot of the longconference table in the White House underground situation room. He took off his cap and ran hishand over his gray military buzz cut, amazed–and worried–by what he saw.

    President Castilla, as always, occupied the chair at the head. But they were the only two inthe large room, drinking their morning cups of coffee. The rows of seats at the long tablearound them were ominous in their emptiness. “What chemicals, Mr. President?” Admiral Broseasked.

He was also the chairman of the joint chiefs. “Thiodiglycol–”

    “Blister weapons.”

    “–and thionyl chloride.”

    “Blister and nerve gases. Damn painful and lethal, all of them. A wretched way to die.” Theadmiral’s thin mouth and big chin tightened. “How much is there?”

    “Tens of tons.”

    President Castilla’s grim gaze was fixed on the admiral. “Unacceptable.

    When–” Brose stopped abruptly, and his pale eyes narrowed. He took in all the empty chairsat the long table. “I see. We’re not going to stop The Dowager Empress en route and searchher. You want to keep our intelligence about the situation secret.”

    “For now, yes. We don’t have concrete proof, any more than we did with the Yinhe. We can’tafford another international incident like that, especially with our allies less ready to backus in military actions, and the Chinese close to signing our human-rights accord.” Brosenodded. “Then what do you want me to do, sir? Besides keeping a lid on it?”

    “Send one ship to keep tabs on the Empress. Close enough to move in, but out of sight.”

    “Out of sight maybe, but they’ll know she’s there. Their radar will pick her up.

    If they’re carrying contraband, their captain at least should know.

    He’ll be keeping his crew hyperalert.”

    “Can’t be helped. That’s the situation until I have absolute proof. If things turn rocky, Iexpect you and your people to not let them escalate into a confrontation.”

    “We have someone getting confirmation?”

    “I hope so.” Brose pondered. “She loaded up the night of the first, late?”

    “That’s my information.” Brose was calculating in his mind. “If I know the Chinese andShanghai, she didn’t sail until early on the second.” He reached for the phone at his elbow,glanced at the president. “May I, sir?” Samuel Castilla nodded.

    Brose dialed and spoke into the phone. “I don’t care how early it is, Captain. Get me what Ineed.” He waited, hand again running back over his short hair. “Right, Hong Kong registry. Abulk carrier. Fifteen knots. You’re certain? Very well.” He hung up. “At fifteen knots,that’s eighteen days, give or take, to Basra with a stop in Singapore, which is the usualcourse. If she left around midnight on the first, she should arrive early in the morning on thenineteenth, Chinese time, at the Strait of Hormuz. Three hours earlier Persian Gulf time, andevening of the eighteenth our time. It’s the thirteenth now, so in five-plus days she shouldreach the Hormuz Strait, which is the last place we can legally board her.” His voice rosewith concern. “Just five days, sir.

    That’s our time frame to figure out this mess.”

    “Thanks, Stevens. I’ll pass it on.” The admiral stood. “One of our frigates would be bestfor what you want. Enough muscle, but not overkill. Small enough that there’s a chance she’llbe overlooked for a time, if the radar man’s asleep or lazy.”

    “How soon can you get one there?” Brose picked up the phone once more. This time, hisconversation was even briefer. He hung up. “Ten hours, sir.”

    “Do it.”

    Liuchiu Island, Taiwan By the green glow of his combat watch, agent Jon Smith read the dialonce more–2203–and silently swore. Mondragon was late. Crouched low in front of the razor-sharp coral formation that edged the secluded cove, he listened, but the only sound was thesoft surge of the South China Sea as it washed up onto the dark sand and slid back with anaudible hiss. The wind was a bare whisper. The air smelled of salt water and fish. Down thecoast, boats were harbored, motionless, glowing in the moonlight. The day tourists had left onthe last ferry from Penfu. In other small coves up and down the western coast of the tinyisland, a few people camped, but in this cove there was only the wash of the sea and the

    distant glow of Kaohsiung’s lights, some twenty kilometers to the northeast. Smith checkedhis watch again–2206. Where was Mondragon? The fishing boat from Linyuan had landed him inPenfu harbor two hours ago. There he had hired a motorcycle and driven off on the road thatencircled the island. When he found the landmark described in his directions, he hid the cyclein bushes and made his way here on foot. Now it was already 2210, and he waited restlessly,uneasily.

    Something had gone wrong. He was about to leave his cover to make a cautious search when hefelt the coarse sand move. He heard nothing, but the skin on his neck crawled. He gripped his9mm Beretta, tensed to turn and dive sideways to the sand and rocks, when a sharp, urgentwhisper of hot breath seared his ear: “Don’t move!” Smith froze. “Not a finger.”

    The low voice was inches from his ear. “Orchid.”

    “Mondragon?”

    “It’s not the ghost of Chairman Mao,” the voice responded wryly. “Although he may belurking here somewhere.”

    “You were followed?”

    “Think so. Not sure. If I was, I shook them.” The sand moved again, and Avery Mondragonmaterialized, crouching beside Smith. He was short, dark-haired, and lean, like an oversizedjockey. Hard-faced and hungry looking, too, with a predator’s eyes. His gaze flittedeverywhere–around the shadows of the cove, at the phosphorescent surge of the sea on thebeach, and out toward the grotesque shapes of coral jutting like statues from the dusky seabeyond the surf. Mondragon said, “Let’s get this over. If I’m not in Penfu by 2330, Idon’t make it back to the mainland by morning. If I don’t make it back, my cover’s blown.”

    He turned his gaze onto Smith. “So you’re Lieutenant Colonel Smith, are you? I’ve heardrumors. You’re supposed to be good. I hope half the rumors are true. What I’ve got for you isdamn near radioactive.” He produced a plain, business-size envelope and held it up. “That’sthe goods?” Smith asked. Mondragon nodded and tucked it back inside his jacket. “There’ssome background you need to tell Klein.”

    “Let’s get on with it then.”

    “Inside the envelope’s what The Dowager Empress is really carrying. On the other hand, theso-called official manifest–the one filed with the export board–is smoke and mirrors.”

    “How do you know?”

    “Because this one’s got an invoice stamped with the ”–the personal Chinese characterseal–of the CEO, as well as the official company seal, and it’s addressed to a company inBaghdad for payment. This manifest also indicates three copies were made. The second copy iscertainly in Baghdad or Basra since it’s an invoice for the goods to be paid for. I don’tknow where the third copy is.”

    “How can you be sure you don’t have the copy filed with the export board?”

    “Because I’ve seen it, as I said. The contraband isn’t listed on it. The CEO’s seal ismissing.” Smith frowned. “Still, that doesn’t sound as if what you’ve got there isguaranteed.”

    “Nothing’s guaranteed. Anything can be faked–character seals can be counterfeited, andcompanies in Baghdad can be dummies. But this is an invoice manifest and has all the correctsigns of an interoffice and intercompany document sent to the receiving company for payment.It’s enough to justify President Castilla’s ordering the Empress stopped on the high seasand our boys taking an intimate look, if we have to.

    Besides, it’s a lot more ‘ cause’ than the rumors we had with the Yinhe, and if it is fake,it proves there’s a conspiracy inside China to stir up trouble. No one can blame us, not evenBeijing, for taking precautions.” Smith nodded. “I’m convinced. Give it to–”

    “There’s something else.” Mondragon glanced around at the shadows of the tiny cove. “Oneof my assets in Shanghai told me a story you’d better pass on to Klein. It’s not in the

    paperwork, for obvious reasons. He says there’s an old man being held in a low-securityprison farm near Chongqing –that’s Chiang Kaishek’s old World War Two capital,“Chungking’ to Americans. He claims he’s been jailed in one place or another in China since1949, when the Communists beat Chiang and took over the country. My asset says the guy speaksMandarin and other dialects, but he sure as hell doesn’t look Chinese. The old man insistshe’s an American named David Thayer.” He paused and stared, his expression unreadable. “And,hold on to your hat … he claims he’s President Castilla’s real father.” Smith stared.“You can’t be serious.

    Everyone knows the president’s father was Serge Castilla, and he’s dead.

    The press covers that family like a blanket.”

    “Exactly. That’s what caught my interest.” Mondragon related more details. “My asset sayshe used the exact phrase, ‘ Castilla’s real father.’ If the guy’s a fraud, why make up ayarn so easily disproved?” It was a good question. “How reliable is your asset?”

    “He’s never steered me wrong or fed me disinformation that I’ve caught,”

    “Could it be one of Beijing’s tricks? Maybe a way to make the president back off about thehuman-rights accord?”

    “The old prisoner insists Beijing doesn’t even know he’s got a son, much less that theson’s now the U.S. president.”

    Smith’s mind raced as he calculated ages and years. It was numerically possible. “Exactlywhere is this old man being–”

    “Down!” Mondragon dropped flat to the sand. Heart racing, Smith dove behind a coral outcropas shouts in angry Chinese and a fusillade of automatic fire hammered from their right, closeto the sea. Mondragon rolled behind the outcropping and came up in a crouch beside Smith, his9mm Glock joining Smith’s Beretta, aiming into the dark of the cove, searching for the enemy.“Well,” Mondragon said gloomily, “I guess I didn’t shake them.”

    Smith wasted no time on recriminations. “Where are they? You see anything?”

    “Not a damn thing.” Smith pulled night-vision goggles from inside his windbreaker. Throughthem, the night turned pale green, and the murky coral formations out in the sea grew clear. Sodid a short, skinny man naked to the waist, hovering near one of the statuelike pillars. Hewas knee-deep in water, holding an old AK-74 and staring toward where Smith and Mondragonhunched. “I’ve got one,” he said softly to Mondragon. “Move. Show a shoulder. Look likeyou’re coming out.”

    Mondragon rose, bent. He thrust his left shoulder out as if about to make a run for it. Theskinny man behind the pillar opened fire. Smith squeezed off two careful rounds. In the greenlight, the man jerked upright and pitched onto his face. A dark stain spread around him as hefloated facedown in the sea. Mondragon was already back down. He fired.

    Someone, somewhere in the night, screamed. “Over there!” Mondragon barked. “To the right!There’s more!” Smith swung the Beretta right.

    Four green men had broken cover and dashed away from the sea toward the inland road. A fifthlay sprawled on the beach behind them. Smith fired at the lead man of this outflanking group.He saw him clutch his leg and go down, but the two behind him grabbed him by each arm anddragged him onward into cover. “They’re flanking us!” Sweat broke on Smith’s forehead.“Move back!” He and Mondragon leaped up and pounded across the coral sand toward the ridgethat sealed the cove in the south. Another fusillade behind them said a lot more than three oftheir attackers were still standing. With a jolt of adrenaline, Smith felt a bullet searthrough his windbreaker. He scrambled up the ridge into thick bushes and fell behind a tree.Mondragon followed, but he was dragging his right leg. He flopped behind another tree. A freshfusillade ripped through leaves and small branches, spraying the air and making Smith andMondragon choke with the dust. They kept their heads down. Mondragon pulled a knife from aholster on his back, slit his trousers, and examined his leg wound. “How bad is it?” Smithwhispered. “Don’t think the bullet hit anything serious, but it’s going to be hard to

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