A Time for War

A Thriller

Michael Savage

St. Martin's Paperbacks

1
 
 
Sausalito, California
“… killing all thirty-eight Navy SEALs on board.…”
Jack Samuel Hatfield slapped off the alarm on his clock radio. The words hadn’t quite registered as he blinked to clear his vision, tried to make out the luminous red numbers. He pushed the black hair from his high, strong forehead, dragged a hand across tired eyes.
“You’re late, champ,” he smiled, as Eddie bounded toward him from the foot of the queen-sized bed. The four-year-old gray poodle, all tongue and forepaws and big brown eyes, usually woke him up a minute or two before the six A.M. alarm. Jack dug his fingers behind the dog’s ears and Eddie drew back his head and jerked approvingly.
Jack ended their morning ritual by pulling a well-worn chew toy from the drawer of his night table and flinging the toy to the floor. Eddie followed, landing on the rubber steak with a single, mighty leap and a whimpering squeak from the steak.
“Lie back and think of England,” Jack told the chew toy. Then he groaned. He hadn’t been awake two minutes and already England was back on his mind. Eddie had landed on the rubber steak like the full weight of Britain’s blinkered bureaucracy had landed on Jack, who was still banned by the British Home Office from entering the United Kingdom, along with terrorists and criminals. Normally it never crossed his mind, but he had a lead for a story he was writing on the smuggling of illegal Chinese medicines. The lead was in London and London was off-limits.
Jack stood up, his body automatically adjusting to the gentle sway of the forty-ton Sea Wrighter. The cast-off bedsheet buried Eddie, who pulled his toy to safety and continued gnawing.
Jack Hatfield, Jack thought, the defrocked talk show host and the last truly independent journalist in America, hounded by the il-liberal left and defamed worldwide, needs coffee. But he still headed to his office-cum-video-editing station in the converted lower-deck stateroom before he made it to the kitchen. He clicked on the radio and started going through his e-mail.
“… Prince William and the lovely Princess Kate will be touring.…”
He turned off the radio.
“They probably spent sixty seconds on the Navy SEALs,” he muttered, “but they’ll spend a full five minutes on the vacation plans of royalty.”
Every day he wondered, was his profession dead now? How about now? News channels were afraid to report anything that their audience might whine about, never mind topics that could scare them. Changing people’s minds was serious, vital business, and nobody had the guts to do it anymore. Jack had received regular death threats when he was hosting his cable news talk show Truth Tellers, but they had never discouraged him. Instead, it had taken all the resources of a giant to swat Jack down, back when he posed one simple, rhetorical question to the panel on his show:
“How would you feel if Muslim extremists got hold of a nuclear weapon?”
Within hours Media Wire, the leftist radical watchdog group funded by reclusive, Austrian-born billionaire Lawrence Soren, had organized a smear campaign. They had been looking for a hook on which to hang Jack like a slaughtered bull. He was labeled an Islamophobe and the liberals gleefully piled on with the kind of manic indignation only aging hippies and ignorant youth could muster. By the time Soren was done, Truth Tellers had not only lost half of its sponsors but Jack was out of a job. And he was barred from the United Kingdom, due to his “radical and provocative statements” that were deemed “a threat to public security.”
Eddie trotted into the office, the chew toy in his mouth. He lay down and sank his teeth into it.
Now Jack was freelance, but San Francisco had been quiet for weeks. The most promising story was the smuggling …
His phone rang. The caller ID said it was Max.
“I don’t care if it’s good or bad,” he said into the phone, “as long as it’s news.”
“It’s one of yours,” she said, “so it’s news.”
Maxine Cole, twenty-seven years old, was a triathlete of Somali descent who’d moved to the United States when she was a kid. She’d spent her teens in the projects but got herself out by teaching herself how to shoot network-quality video. She’d managed to keep her street sense and her fearlessness, too, and the result was a coworker who could keep up with Jack in any situation, no matter how dangerous.
“The arrest of the state senator’s son?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “I read your report.” Jack had sent it to her for a few tweaks and some feedback. “Listen, Jack,” she continued, “for ninety-nine point ninety-nine-percent of the world, this report is going to be exactly what we expect from you. But I have to say this. I think you’re dialing it in. You’re not fully in it.”
Jack was silent for a moment. Then he said, “You’re right.”
“Just a tiny bit. Like I said, no one except me is going to notice. But I didn’t feel right, not saying something to you.”
“It’s just…”
“It’s just that it’s not the smuggling story?” she asked.
“Exactly. It’s a rich kid getting arrested for drugs. Meanwhile in China there are farms where bears are caged, lying on their backs with no room to move, with tubes in their abdomens to collect bile for so-called medicines. Some of the bears have actually committed suicide by starving themselves to death. And multiple smuggling operations are carrying the bear bile along with body parts from tigers and other endangered animals out of China to the rest of the world. I covered it on Truth Tellers until the network got too scared of offending their Chinese investors. Now I have a chance to break the story again and I can’t.”
“You have contacts in London, you can ask them to follow up on it, can’t you?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
“But it’s not the same.”
He didn’t reply. She knew him well. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his contacts to do a good job. He simply wanted to be the one doing it.
“I’m sorry, Jack.”
“Don’t be sorry for me, Max. I’m just frustrated.”
“Well then, get over it,” she laughed. She added gently, “And find a way to reconnect, OK?”
They said good-bye and hung up. Jack ran his fingers lightly over his computer keyboard. She was right; he needed to put his finger, not just a plug, back in the socket. He needed to recharge. And he knew exactly where to go to do that.
San Francisco, California
Standing just over five feet tall and “slight as a snowpea,” as her father put it, there was nonetheless something about twenty-six-year-old Maggie Yu that commanded the aisles of the Yu Market on Clay Street. It was partly her posture, erect and centered, creating a straight line from the top of her head to her feet. It was partly the serenity of her expression, her dark eyes never seeming to blink, her lips together in a relaxed line, her round face untroubled with lines or color other than the natural blush of her cheeks. And it was partly the unwavering focus she brought to the task at hand.
Maggie finished checking the inventory her father had brought in before dawn. There were fresh fish neatly arrayed on ice, vegetables harvested just hours before, sliced fruit he had cut himself and placed in plastic containers. The beverages, candy, and cigarettes had all been restocked, the floors carefully swept, and the mousetraps and fly strips cleared away. In her hand she held the clipboard with the receipts for all the goods, including the note he always left her—“I love you” he wrote in Cantonese on the topmost sheet before he went upstairs.
Taking a last look around, the young woman placed the clipboard on its hook beneath the counter. She removed the apron—it had belonged to her mother—checked herself in a hand mirror she had beside the baseball bat her father kept beneath the register, then unlocked the door and turned around the OPEN sign.
The century-old brass bell tinkled above the door. Maggie smiled as she welcomed her first customer, Mrs. Chan. The smile was sincere. Maggie felt blessed to be surrounded by three of the four things she loved.
One was her father. Johnny Yu had opened the grocery store in 1986, the year before Maggie was born. It was originally going to be named the Huangpu Market for the river where he used to sit as a boy growing up in Shanghai, his eyes on the ships that used to come and go—one of which, a freighter, eventually took him to his new home with his new bride. But Anita Yu did not want to be reminded of their old life: she insisted he name the grocery for his ancestors but also for himself and Yu descendants. He agreed that was a better idea.
Maggie’s mother Anita died fourteen months after Maggie was born. All Maggie remembered of the woman was the hole it left in her father’s life.
The second thing Maggie loved was the store itself. The checkout counter was straddled by a four-foot-tall dragon gate made of empty boxes of Chinese tea. It was held together by the flaps of the boxes, nothing more; it had survived the 1989 earthquake. There were three short aisles, each of which was lit by bulbs that reflected the contents: green for produce, red for condiments and spices, amber for grain. Small freezers and refrigerators lined the back wall. Mrs. Chan was pulling a bag of lime leaves from one of the freezers.
The third thing Maggie loved was the Chinese population of San Francisco. Today the community had over a hundred thousand citizens nestled between the Financial District and Nob Hill. The citizens were vibrant and resilient, hardworking men and women devoted to their families, their neighborhood, and their nation. They were patriots with affection for their ancestral land but a fierce love for their current home.
Sadly, there were also some—the fewest in number and certainly the least in moral character—who exhibited the kind of selfish ambition that tore the community apart a century before in a series of wars fought to control criminal activity. These people troubled Maggie. She saw them every day when they came into the store—usually young men, usually buying cigarettes, chips, or soda. They always looked out the door while they stood at the counter. There was something itchy about them, restless, as though they were about to do something or were preparing for something to happen to them. Eyes roving, shoulders rolling from time to time like a fighter before a bout, fingers texting or flexing or making gestures to other malcontents … but never at rest.
They just seemed ready to take. Not from her or her father; shoplifting was too small. Besides, the locals knew she was ready for them and there were security cameras behind the counter—one of the upgrades Maggie had succeeded in negotiating with her father. These misfits preferred to steal cars or electronics outside the community, so as not to embarrass family. They sold drugs or laundered currency to those who were not Chinese.
Until today.
The bell jangled again. A Chinese man entered the store as Mrs. Chan was leaving. He was in his early thirties and she had not seen him emerge from the black SUV double-parked outside, but there was no doubt it was his. The smoky windows were like his smoky sunglasses: secretive, out of place. He removed the glasses as he approached. He wore soft, tan gloves. It wasn’t cold enough for that, not even on a chilly winter morning. The man was sharp, from the even lines of his buzz cut to the strong set of his square jaw to the rigid creases in his tan suit. He was short, only about five foot six, but the way he stood when he reached the counter, with his shoulders drawn back and his feet close together, made him seem taller.
“I would see the owner of this shop, please,” he said, glancing about the store.
“My father is not here. How may I help you, Mr.—?”
“Lee.” The man regarded her, his eyes very still. “You can help by telling your father I wish to speak with him.”
Maggie did not believe his name was Lee; that was the equivalent of Smith or Jones in America. His schooled, noncolloquial English reinforced the woman’s impression that he was not from around here. She guessed he was a Chinese national; his severe bearing, his neutral identity with personal nuance drilled away, suggested a military background. And he obviously wasn’t here to sell her father anything: he wasn’t carrying a tablet, a briefcase, or even a cell phone. Protection? she wondered. That was the enterprise of local thugs who knew better than to come here. Besides, the shop was on a block of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. Shakedown money from all of them wouldn’t pay for a week’s worth of gas in his Escalade.
“Dad will be here in about three hours,” Maggie told him. “If you want to come back—”
“My business cannot wait.”
She smiled pleasantly. “I’m afraid it will have to.”
The shop seemed unusually quiet, the street sounds more remote than usual. The man had barely moved since approaching the counter. Now he took a step forward. Several candy bars fell as he pressed against the child-high shelves in front of him. When he spoke, his voice was soft but firm.
“Call him, please.”
Maggie continued to smile. This man—these men—whatever they wanted, it had been thrust on them. Something urgent.
“There are two things I can do for you,” Maggie said, raising her voice. “I can give my father a message or I can sell you something. Which would you like, Mr. Lee?”
Lee smiled faintly; it was barely noticeable, but Maggie saw it. She knew he was about to grab her; she knew it from her twenty-two years as a fighter.
The fourth thing Maggie loved was kung fu. She had been training since she was four years old, first with their neighbor who held a black belt in the Nabi Su form, then at a martial arts school that practiced Jeet Kune Do, the hybrid style developed by Bruce Lee. She had earned her black belt before she turned fourteen. The essence of both styles is that energy comes from the ground, from the air, from the world around the martial artist, who gathers it in his center and drives it forward. The attack often comes in a variety of animal styles, whose offense and defense were studied and adapted by the ancient Chinese. In the split second that the man smiled, Maggie planned her attack. She knew she had the size advantage—in kung fu, smaller is faster. She knew she had the counter to work with, to use as a barrier or maybe she could double him over on it. And she knew that she had quiet skills while he had pride and arrogance—the worst hobbles a person could have in a fight.
She also knew that she would only use her skills when it was her last resort—that was her training and she would never betray her sifus’ wisdom.
Just then her father appeared from the back of the store, accompanied by two women in white—mourning white. It was the death anniversary of Maggie’s mother; the jichen ceremony was going to begin in a few hours, and Johnny had been getting ready for it.
“Everything OK, Maggie?” he asked.
“Not really, Father,” she said. “This man wanted to speak to you—”
“Do I want to speak with him?”
“I don’t think so,” Maggie said.
Johnny fixed steady, unrelenting eyes on the man. “I don’t believe you are welcome here.”
The would-be attacker, denuded of all pride, took one look at Johnny and the two mourners. Maggie could see him calculating the odds in his head. He turned and hurried out of the store, the doorbell jingling on his way out. The street sounds were momentarily louder and the door slammed. There was a moment of silence followed by an angry squeal of tires. Then all was once again as it should be.
Maggie’s father reached her. He could see in her face that she was shaken. He put his arms around her. Outside in the white sunlight, a crowd was massing, talking, pointing down the street in the direction the SUV had been facing.
“I’m all right, Dad,” she assured him. He still smelled comfortingly of fish and cold dawn sea air.
He relaxed but didn’t let her go. “What happened?”
She told him. He listened without comment, but was concerned and clearly baffled. Then he picked up the phone and called the police. As soon as he put the phone down he turned back to the counter. He pressed his hands together, bowed, and said, “Thanks to you.” His remarks were directed toward one of the shelves, to a small spirit tablet nestled among the aspirin boxes. The red ribbon was inscribed with his wife’s name in gold and was suspended over a small round candleholder.
Then he hugged Maggie again. “It could have been so much worse,” he said.
A small group of onlookers collected in the street, though no one entered out of respect for the two. The arrival of a patrol car caused them to part as a pair of officers made their way toward the shop.
“Before I talk to them, there’s one thing you should do,” Maggie said.
“What is it?”
“That reporter, the one who helped when I found out about the Long Zai gang, when I was a kid?”
“Hatfield?”
“Yes,” she said. “Call him.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Something the man did told me why he was here, I think,” she said. “If I’m right, we may need more than the police.”
*   *   *
The black SUV ripped through the late morning traffic. Three Chinese men sat within it, all neatly groomed and well-dressed in light-colored suits and fawn-colored gloves. The cell leader sat in the back, fuming about the girl in Yu Market. The man who was not driving sat next to him.
“You have embarrassed us,” said the man next to the cell leader.
“You are not in a position to judge me—” he started.
“More importantly,” the other man cut him off, “you have embarrassed yourself.”
The cell leader, all of the fury he had swallowed in the grocery story raging forth, grabbed at the man next to him. “I didn’t want to cause a scene!” he shouted.
The other man punched him on his right cheekbone with the full force of his body behind it. There was a dull, ugly snap below the cell leader’s temple. The other man punched him again in the same spot. The cell leader shrieked. His jaw burst into pain. There was a moment of silence.
“You have no right to strike your leader,” he whimpered.
“You are no longer the leader,” said the other man.
The man with the broken jaw sat back with full realization of what that meant, and what would be coming next. Quickly he reached for the door handle of the moving car, but felt a knife tip in his ribs. His hand dropped. He was still.
*   *   *
The SUV was headed toward the Bay where an Angler V175 was waiting off Marina Green Drive. Every plan devised by Jing Jintao had an abort strategy. The SUV was disposable and untraceable, rented for cash with false IDs. Operatives, on the other hand, could not afford to be taken. The seventeen-foot, five-inch motorboat was their way out. The driver had phoned ahead to make sure the vessel would be ready to depart.
Gulls and pigeons scattered as the driver parked at the edge of the water, away from any security cameras. With Alcatraz poking through the morning mist beyond the sea wall, the three men emerged from the SUV. The last man to leave the car moved with aching effort, trying to keep his head upright. An empty water bottle clattered to the asphalt and rolled under the car. He left it. He had difficulty standing. The man was holding a wet handkerchief to the side of his face; it was the color of a rose petal, dyed by the blood trickling from his ear. He held the damp cloth gently. Any pressure, even the gusting wind from the Bay, caused him to wince.
There were two men in the motorboat. One of them reached up, took the injured man’s other arm, and lifted him down. The other men jumped in. They sat the wounded man in one of the five ash-gray vinyl seats then half swung, half fell into the other chairs as the Yamaha engine roared and the boat sped away. No one spoke.
The motorboat raced from shore, the men sitting still as statues despite the strong wind. No one ministered to the injured man, and each bump over a new wake caused him to wince.
It quickly became apparent to everyone but the injured man that they were not heading to the staging area in Sausalito but were steering out to sea. The two men who had been in the SUV swapped knowing glances. Their eyes met briefly, then turned away like illicit lovers.
Every plan crafted by Jing Jintao also had a diàn bèi—literally a funerary mat, something on which to cast one’s sins and misdemeanors; in colloquial usage, a scapegoat. These men had been with the Ministry of State Security for nearly a decade—four years in Beijing at the headquarters of the North American Intelligence Division; two years intensive training for deployment in the United States; three years in-country; and one year working directly for Deputy Director Jintao. They knew how he thought and how he worked. Failure was punished in ways that encouraged greater effort in others.
The operational hierarchy of the ten-man cell was always geographically divided. The leader went on the primary mission, his second ran the abort scenario, his third remained at the staging area. Activating the backup plan automatically put the second leader in charge. He had quickly and—judging from his blank expression—dispassionately made his decision regarding the injured man.
It was only when the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge blocked the sun and threw a deeper chill into the boat that the injured man realized they were going west. He stiffened more against that reality than against the wind. The hand holding the handkerchief tightened. The area around his right eye was red and swollen but his left eye held the horizon briefly, then took in the rigid backs of the other men in the boat—their stiff necks and turned faces an obstinate statement of exile.
His left eye turned back to the horizon. They were heading toward another boat. The motorboat had been least likely to attract attention and it was as disposable as the SUV. Now they needed speed.
When they reached the thirty-eight-foot Bertram, no hand offered to help the injured man climb out of the motorboat. He awkwardly leaned forward, propped himself on one palm, and half fell into the yacht. Hard pain coursed through his jaw. The other men stood and watched. He realized they were waiting for him to enter the closed cabin of the Bertram. He did, and sat. They followed him in but turned their faces away again.
The yacht started up and his stomach slid. The boat was built for rough water, they were going to drive it fast, and now he would suffer the embarrassment of seasickness as well.
He shut his left eye.
He saw himself looking across the counter at Maggie Yu, wanting to slap her, to get her to listen, and teach her respect—
Every person commits mistakes throughout life. Most of them are small and instantly recognized as such. Those are actually the worst because they are fresh on the fingertips, still palpable but beyond reach.
The grocery store was still vivid in his senses. The old wooden floors on which he had been standing, the smell of the fish on ice out front, the way the morning sunlight struck the pale flesh of Maggie Yu, making her seem so fragile—
You deserve whatever is coming.
He had momentarily forgotten one of the guiding principles of their work. During two years of schooling, Jing Jintao had stressed the concept of rennài—perfect patience. The marshalling of purpose, the veiling of the self, the anonymity they granted. That idea had been nudged aside by his sudden, urgent desire to please his superior, to bend this woman to his will. And because of his impatient desires, the presence of Johnny Yu and the other two women had startled him. Had made him afraid. Had made him run.
His eye remained shut as the yacht hurtled forward. The pain in his jaw kept his body present while his mind punished him by replaying those moments. There was nowhere to turn for solace, save the strangely comforting thought that he would soon be free of everything including the worst pain of all—the shame of failure.
He didn’t know how long they had traveled; the throbbing around his eye socket seemed to go on for hours. He was only aware when they stopped. He heard the engine throttle down, felt the bouncing subside. He did not open his good eye to look but rather, dragged the handkerchief in front of it, holding it across both eyes with a cold, unsteady hand. Now time was measured in moments. Each breath felt like the dearest gift a man could have. Savoring them was, tragically, the very soul of patience.
Two men grabbed him by the arms and pulled him from his seat, out of the cabin into the salt air. His handkerchief slipped from his eye and he saw the skyline of San Francisco in the distance. He smelled a musty scent, like that of a dog come in from the rain. He heard throaty, clucking sounds and the splash of breakers. The men hoisted him up and he turned, saw a raw, sharp, high outcropping of rock. There were elephant seals on the crags.
They’re going to strand me here?
The movement sent a series of drill-like shocks through his head and, yelping, he clapped a hand on his jaw to hold it still. When he could focus his thoughts, he felt a sense of gratitude that they were going to give him time to make peace with his actions—
The man hit the water hard on his lower back. The impact folded him at the waist, his arms and legs shooting straight up as he went under. Water flooded his mouth, nose, and ears before he could right himself. As he flipped, the pressure of the cold sea shocked his wound, causing him to scream a strange, gurgling noise. His hands and knees came into contact with rough rock under the surface. He clawed at them until his face was above the surface. Through clogged ears he heard the muted barking of the seals, smelled their fur, the decay of their meals, their waste. He flopped on the slick rock, cried out as sharp edges punched his chest, then slid his forearms under him. He panted as he rested there. Behind him he heard the engine of the yacht, still idling.
Why are they waiting? To make certain I don’t drown?
A wave caught him and shoved him roughly along the granite, scraping his chest. It was a strong breaker, pushing him several meters. He was raw from neck to mid-waist and his knee tingled.
As his brain was processing the pain and he realized he had to get up on the rock to keep from being buffeted again, he was dragged back, into the water. The tickling sensation became a fiery ache, as though it were being yanked across a field of sharp stones. When his open eyes went under he was disoriented; he did not see the green-gray water of moments before but a murky red haze. It was joined by amber circles swimming around the edges of his eyes, by a flame that shot along the outside and inside of his left thigh, by a sudden intake of breath that filled his mouth with something foreign and metallic-tasting, that stuffed his lungs with a sense of spongy discomfort—
Located twenty-seven miles from the Golden Gate, the uninhabited Farallon Islands are a nature preserve with a large, seasonal seal and sea lion population that attracts Great White Sharks. The predators migrate there from as far away as Hawaii. Whales don’t bother them. Killer whales don’t deter them. The Farallon Great Whites feed well on mammal flesh and grow far beyond average, ranging from thirteen to nineteen feet in length. Gang members call the 141-acre wildlife refuge “The Pig Sty,” inspired by the Wild West practice of feeding murder victims to herds of pigs.
Drawn to the man by the trickle of blood from his ear, the shark pulled him from the rocky ledge. The dying man’s arms flailed spasmodically, involuntary tics as drowning and blood loss caused his body functions to shut down.
He was gone up to the waist in the second bite and all that remained after the third rending swallow were a few stringy shards of flesh, sinking bone fragments, and pieces of fabric. Even the bloody handkerchief was consumed.
In less than a minute the shark had moved on. The occupants of the boat had watched without expression. One of the men got out with a rifle and pistol. The boat would return later with a tent, supplies, and a small runabout; now that the mission was underway, it would be necessary to have someone stationed here full time. This was a place known to Jintao but not the others, who had only recently arrived. He had told the new cell leader that this would probably not be the last body that needed to be disposed of. A spotter would be needed to ensure that their actions were not witnessed. And, more importantly, to make sure that the final part of the plan was executed flawlessly. Every operation, especially one as ambitious—and deadly—as this must have a back door.
Once the man was safely ashore, the others sped away. Cormorants picked at the knots of sinew that bobbed on the foamy currents. When the black-winged birds returned to the shoals, all trace of the event had vanished—save in the memory of the four survivors. They would make sure that others heard of the ugly fate that had befallen the cell leader … a fate that awaited anyone else who failed.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Savage