Eddie Seng stood at the curb of Da Nang International Airport’s arrivals area, just as he’d been instructed. The awning of the modern facility shaded him from the midafternoon sun, but it made the muggy July day only marginally more comfortable in his light wool suit. An elegant black limousine showed up as expected and glided to a stop next to him. Eddie was familiar with executive vehicles and immediately recognized it as a Mercedes Maybach V12, the crème de la crème of exotic automobiles.
The uniformed chauffeur walked around the front of the car and opened a wide door. Eddie entered a resplendent interior and settled into a soft cream leather seat, wondering if he would get out alive.
A man in a black suit, sitting in the middle rear-facing row of seats, waved a metal detector over Eddie to check him for weapons, but he had followed instructions and was unarmed. In the rear seat next to Eddie, Zhong Lin, field agent for China’s Ministry of State Security, stared at him as the car pulled away. Instead of a suit, he wore a black T-shirt and pants, and his thin lips were creased with lines, the sign of a longtime smoker. For a moment, Zhong said nothing, merely appraising the person he thought was a Taiwanese traitor known as David Yao.
Eddie had, in fact, grown up in New York City’s Chinatown, learning Mandarin and English simultaneously from his parents. Because his normal accent was bland in both languages, he’d spent the past two weeks in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, getting accustomed to the local dialect.
Most of his career with the CIA had been as a deep-cover operative on the Chinese mainland, so playing a part was nothing new to him. However, he hadn’t been this close to an agent from the MSS, China’s intelligence organization, since his CIA cover had been blown and he was forced to escape back to the United States. As a wanted fugitive, he’d been sentenced to death in absentia, with his face well known to China’s authorities. If Zhong Lin even suspected who he was, he would be whisked out of Vietnam in shackles to Beijing for a swift execution.
His current disguise was meant to prevent that from happening. The real David Yao was a member of the Ghost Dragon triad, one of Taiwan’s most notorious gangs. Yao was suspected of being responsible for numerous extortion, racketeering, and murder plots, but his mutilated body had been found floating on the ocean by a U.S. Navy ship two weeks ago. When the CIA realized that his corpse provided the opportunity for Eddie’s current operation, they asked the Navy to delay notifying the Taiwanese authorities of the discovery.
Like Eddie, Yao had been in his mid-thirties, lithe and athletic, but they never would have been confused for brothers. Completing the disguise required a radical transformation of his face—widened nose, bulked-up chin, reshaped eyes, and an added mustache and beard, as well as fake tattoos on his arms and neck.
After a few moments, Zhong said, in Mandarin, “You have the information we need?”
Eddie didn’t betray his relief at not being recognized. “It’s confirmed. They’re making the exchange on a train. All of the seats have been reserved, so there won’t be any other passengers, and the crew are all Vietnamese recruited and paid off by the triad.”
“Somewhere between Da Nang and Hue. They’ll text me which train it is so I can meet it at the station to pick them up when they arrive.”
“And the Ghost Dragons have the memory stick with them?”
Eddie nodded. He’d originally opened the dialogue with the Chinese Secret Service by telling them what kind of data was stored on the USB flash drive, a piece of information very few people on the outside knew. The Taiwanese Ghost Dragons, who were enemies of the communist regime on the mainland, had carried out a daring heist to steal the memory stick from an MSS courier. Eddie was playing Yao as if he were a traitor not only to his home country of Taiwan but to his brethren in the triad as well.
“Why are you doing this?” Zhong asked him.
“You know why,” Eddie replied. “Five million U.S. dollars.”
“You won’t be able to return to Taiwan. Not after this. The triad will know who betrayed them.”
“I don’t want to. It’s been clear for some time that I will never rise to my proper rank in the Ghost Dragons. I plan to find a woman in Melbourne, Australia, and settle there.”
Zhong shrugged. “If you’re willing to sell out your country, I’m happy to pay.” He tapped on his phone. When he was done, he said, “Two-point-five million has been transferred to your account.”
Eddie checked and confirmed that the transfer had been made. “And the rest?”
“When we recover the memory stick.”
Instead of turning onto the freeway, the Mercedes headed toward a private section of the airport.
“Where are we going?” Eddie asked. “You’re supposed to drop me off at the train station.”
Zhong smiled. “You didn’t think we’d leave you to warn your brothers that we’d be ambushing their exchange?”
“I told you, I’m through with them.”
“That’s what you told me. But why should I believe someone who has already lied to his comrades?”
The car stopped next to a Eurostar AS350 helicopter, its rotors spinning to life. Next to it was a second chopper full of black-clad men armed with assault rifles and carrying coils of rope.
“I know you have experience with the Taiwan Army,” Zhong said, “so you’re coming with us to make sure we get that memory stick.” The agent plucked Eddie’s phone from his hand and waved a detection wand over his body, checking for communication devices. The absence of telltale chirps satisfied him that Eddie wasn’t bugged.
The helicopter took off as soon as they were on board, with Eddie stuck between two Chinese agents in the back and Zhong next to the pilot in front.
“What are we doing?” Eddie asked over his headset.
“You’ll understand when we get there,” Zhong said. “How much are the Americans paying for the flash drive?”
“The Ghost Dragons wanted a hundred million, but the Americans negotiated down to half that.”
“Fifty million? Not bad, since there are only two potential buyers, us and the Americans. And, of course, the triad didn’t make us a similar offer. You better hope the data on that drive doesn’t fall into the hands of the Americans.”
Eddie feigned fear at the threat. “But what if the Ghost Dragons have copied the flash drive and are able to sell the data to the Americans later?”
Zhong shook his head. “Not possible. That drive has special encryption. It can only be read by mainframe computers kept at secure locations in China. If they try to read the files on the memory stick, it will automatically erase itself, rewriting the memory so the data can never be recovered. In fact, I hope the Ghost Dragons have tried to read it. My problem would be solved.”
“Then why do the Americans want it?”
“Because they have the only other computer system in the world that might be able to read it. But it’s currently located at the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade. As long as we obtain the memory stick before it gets back to the United States, we can be assured that it hasn’t been compromised.” Zhong turned and looked at him. “That’s why you’re coming along on this raid. If the memory stick isn’t where you say it will be, there is no limit to the pain you will experience until I find out where it is.”
Eddie gulped, his eyes wide with feigned fear.
“Do you wish to change your story?” Zhong asked. “I’ll be forgiving if you do so now instead of after a failed mission.”
Eddie shook his head vigorously. “I swear that the exchange is taking place where I said it would.”
Zhong held up Eddie’s phone. “You’d better hope the text comes through.”
The helicopters sped low across the mountainous jungle, paralleling the train tracks winding along the coast. A few minutes later, they both set down in a valley clearing.
As soon as the eight men exited, including Zhong and Eddie, the helicopters took off again.
Eddie looked around in confusion. It seemed like they were in the middle of nowhere.
“This way,” Zhong said.
They hiked through the tropical forest for ten minutes until they reached a slope, where Eddie could see the ocean. The train tracks far below disappeared into a tunnel.
“That’s our destination.” Zhong pointed at the mouth of the tunnel.
Now the coils of rope made sense. Trying to get on board the train by helicopter would have telegraphed their approach from miles away. Dropping down quietly onto the roof of the train when it exited the tunnel would be much stealthier.
“Do I at least get a gun?” Eddie asked as they marched toward the tunnel opening.
Zhong gave him a grim laugh. So did the other men. They kept walking.
If Zhong returned to Beijing empty-handed, Eddie was sure Zhong and the rest of his men would face a firing squad for their failure. The memory stick they were trying to recover and keep out of American hands held the names of every Chinese spy currently operating in the United States.
The squall arrived earlier than Luis Navarro expected. The forecast had said it wouldn’t hit until after sundown. Wind buffeted the front window of their 90-foot-long vessel, lashing it with sheets of rain. Visibility was limited. He looked behind him toward Negros Island, but he could no longer see the city of Dumaguete. The GPS unit said their destination of Dapitan City on Mindanao was still thirty miles away.
Captain Garcia ordered the first mate to cut back on the throttle. The smaller escort boats on either side slowed to match their speed. The officers manning the deck machine guns on both boats looked miserable in the downpour.
“What are you doing?” Navarro demanded. “Don’t slow down.”
The first mate looked to Garcia, an old salt who obviously wasn’t used to his orders being countermanded. “Inspector, if we stay at full speed in these conditions, we could be swamped.”
Despite being younger and more compact than the captain, Navarro wasn’t intimidated. “The chief of the Philippine National Police has put me in charge of this mission and I order you back to full speed.”
“You may be in command of the mission, but this is my boat. Do you want to make it to Mindanao or not? If the chief of the PNP were here, I think he’d want to live.”
“You know who we’re carrying,” Navarro said.
Garcia nodded. “And I want him off my boat more than you do. So let me do my job.”
Navarro grumbled but didn’t push it further. His country’s reputation for sunken vessels was well known. With a population of over one hundred million scattered across the seven thousand islands comprising the Philippines, a vast amount of commerce and transportation was done by water. Dozens of boats and ships went down every year, many of them in storms just like this one.
He couldn’t afford to alter the plan for this operation. Their prisoner, Salvador Locsin, was the most wanted man in the country, the leader of a splinter cell of the New People’s Army, a communist insurgent group dedicated to overthrowing the democratic government of the Philippines. Talks between the government and the rebels had dragged on for years, and Locsin had grown tired of the stalemate. His terror campaign had targeted important officials and government facilities, causing dozens of deaths and destroying several buildings. How he was funding his efforts was still a mystery, but Navarro intended to find out as soon as they got him to a secure interrogation room.
Thanks to an anonymous tip, he’d been captured in a raid in Kabankalan City. However, with thousands of rebels on Negros Island loyal to him, getting him off the island had proven perilous. The first attempt to transport Locsin back to the capital of Manila was by air, but the rebels mounted a failed attack at the airport, damaging the plane and killing three officers in the process.
The decision, then, had been to fake another attempt at flying him out from a different airport on the island. At the same time, Locsin was taken by road to Dumaguete, where three boats were waiting. There were fewer rebels on Mindanao, so flying him off that island was thought to be much less hazardous.
The walkie-talkie on his belt squawked. The voice was panicked. “Senior Inspector Navarro, you need to come down here right now!”
“What is it?” Navarro replied.
“Officer Torres is dead.”
When he heard the news, Captain Garcia, who had seemed wary but calm about the storm, looked at Navarro with fear. He stepped next to the first mate and inched the throttle forward.
“I’m on my way,” Navarro said.
Navarro took the stairs two at a time down to the hold. The fishing vessel had been modified by the police force as a prisoner transport. In place of the freezer where mackerel or tuna might have been stored, tiny barred cells had been installed with only enough room for a prisoner to sit on the steel bench.
When he reached the hold, he saw Torres sprawled on the floor in front of one of the cells. His head was cocked at an unnatural angle, his eyes wide and staring. Two other officers stood behind him.
Navarro stalked forward, enraged at losing another man. “What happened?”
The older officer glanced nervously at the cell, then looked at Navarro. “Torres was going to use the head. I guess we weren’t paying attention because, the next thing we knew, he was on the floor with a broken neck.”
Navarro looked at the sole prisoner on board. Salvador Locsin sat on the bench with his eyes closed, smiling beatifically. Ropey biceps strained at the sleeves of his shirt, the veins in his forearms looking as if they were about to explode from under the skin. His black hair draped across his forehead, where it mingled with the beads of sweat trickling down his face.
Navarro, furious, stared at his men and jabbed a finger in Locsin’s direction. “Didn’t I warn you not to get too close to his cell?”
“But he looked like he was asleep when Torres got up,” the younger officer protested. “How could he break someone’s neck through the bars?”
Navarro walked over to the cell, stepping between Torres’s legs. Both of the officers brought their weapons up to cover him.
“You’re going to answer for that, Locsin,” Navarro said.
Locsin replied in an unfamiliar dialect of one of the over one hundred and seventy languages native to the Philippines. Navarro knew only the country’s two official languages, English and Tagalog.
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