Korea Strait

A Novel

Dan Lenson Novels (Volume 10)

David Poyer

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1

The tall American moved stiffly, but his gray, observant eyes never stopped as he came down the jetway. He wore civvies: slacks and sport shirt and light Windbreaker. He wore a stainless-steel diver’s watch, a heavy gold ring, and a wedding band with the traditional star and anchor. He carried a black briefcase, and a notebook computer was slung over his shoulder.

The huge concourse murmured with coughing and talking, the despairing screams of children, the human zoo-noise of thousands of other journeyers inchworming through baggage-dragging lines or perusing flickering monitors. The summer sun blazed through acres of vertical glass. Dan Lenson blotted his stinging eyes with the back of his hand. Every Korean on the 747 from Chicago had chain-smoked through the thirteen-hour flight. The concourse too milled with a blue murk through which people pushed, making the smoke eddy and whirl like the wakes of small boats in a crowded basin.

The customs agent looked up from the inspection table. He pointed to the sealed manila envelope in Dan’s briefcase. “Take out, please.”

The outer envelope was unmarked. It enclosed another, wrapping the contents in two layers of kraft paper. Dan had kept the locked briefcase wedged under his knees all the way from Washington, DC.

“Open, please.”

“Sorry, can’t. Classified material.”

He dug out the letter. Headed with the Department of Defense seal, it designated Commander Daniel V. Lenson, USN, a command courier, authorized to receipt for and carry classified material up to and including Top Secret to Pusan, Korea. He snapped his russet official passport, his orders, and his Navy ID on top of it. The agent examined the letter and the ID. He compared the photo with Dan’s face. Then reached for a stamp and nailed the envelope.

“Your computer. It is classified too?”

“That’s right.” Dan unzipped the carry case, opened it, and turned it to face him.

The agent didn’t ask him to turn it on. Maybe he saw shielded Compaqs with encrypted comm capabilities and classified hard drives every day. He just stamped a paper label and stuck it to the case beside the red-and-white Top Secret stickers. “One thousand Republic of Korea won for domestic air tax. Two thousand for terminal fee. Three thousand won, please.”

Dan handed over the limp colorful notes they’d issued him along with his travel orders. He got a receipt, closed and stowed the computer, the envelope, and the letter. Then headed out with the ebbing tide of jostling, chattering Asians, looking for the taxi desk.
 

Dan had spent most of his career at sea. Except during the Gulf War, when he’d been part of a Marine Recon team. He’d come out of that with a medal some thought was the only reason he was still in the service at all. Since then he’d commanded a destroyer in the Red Sea, then served on the White House staff. He’d hoped for another command after that, but things hadn’t gone well in the East Wing.

Sitting in the cab, watching the buildings go by, all concrete and glass and balconies and all exactly the same, he remembered his last talk with “Nick” Niles.

He and Admiral Niles went way back. But Niles was no admirer. Quite the opposite. He’d leaned back and gotten that look he always had when they butted heads. “Why is it that wherever you go, Lenson, things go to shit? Carrying the football for the president—even I thought there was no way you could screw that up.”

“I think I did all right, sir. The assassination attempt failed.”

The flag officer’s expression made it clear what he thought about that outcome. No president in living memory was so loathed by the armed services as the one whose life Dan had managed, at the last moment, to save. But all Niles said was, “Who do you think was behind it?” Then swiveled his chair and looked out his window at tombstones on a green hillside.

Dan had no doubt Niles knew. The guy was too smart, too well connected, not to. No, what he wanted was to find out how much Dan knew.

So Dan told him.

When Niles swung back, his heavy face was blank as polished onyx. “I don’t believe it. To think that . . . impossible. Not in this country.”

“Then why’d General Stahl resign?”

“Health reasons. Like the press release said.”

“I see. And the others?”

Niles waved it away. “Doesn’t matter. That’s all gonna get settled behind closed doors. Way above both our pay grades, Lenson.

“Question remains: What do we do with you? How about putting in your letter? That’d be the best thing. Like I been telling you for a while now. There’s your spine—they tell me you fucked that up on Horn. And you didn’t do it any favors jumpin’ out of that chopper either. Medical retirement. Full base salary. I know a guy over at Battelle. You can double-dip, make a good living—”

“If the Navy wants to fire me, Admiral, so be it. But I’m not resigning.”

“So we put you on the shelf. Then you go public about the stuff you’ve been involved in. . . .”

“I know how to keep quiet, sir. Most of it, no one’d believe, anyway.”

“True . . . I guess.” Niles sucked his teeth. Grimaced, in neither a smile nor a frown. Then leaned, and pushed the jar of Atomic Fireballs that was always on his desk forward an inch. “Want one?”

“No, thanks.”

“How’s Blair takin’ all this?”

“She says however it turns out, she’s on my side.”

“Well, if you’re so fucking determined to stay in, maybe the best thing’s for you to drop out of sight. Submerge.”

“You’re punishing me. For what?”

Niles’s glance met his. “We’re not punishing you. We’re trying to keep you alive,” he said, very softly.

“What? I didn’t—”

“I’m not gonna say it again, or address why. We’re just gonna cut you orders someplace past the orbit of Pluto. And you’re going to go, and I won’t hear a peep until I ask for one.”

“If you want me out of DC, send me back to sea. Give me another ship.”

“That ain’t gonna happen. Ever, if I have anything to say about it.” They stared at each other, two wills locked. The admiral added at last, “But if you want to go back to sea—ever heard of TAG?”

Dan nodded. The Tactical Analysis Group was the Navy’s think tank, gaming and testing the three-dimensional tactical doctrine the fleet needed to fight at sea. Every line officer studied the naval warfare publications it produced.

“I’m gonna batten you down there till this blows over. That’s as far from the Pentagon as we can get you without getting NASA involved. Maybe you’ll even do us some good this time.”

Dan clenched his fists in his lap. Niles had been riding his ass for years. He was almost used to it. But at least he’d be back with the Navy. The blackshoes and the white hats, whose sacrifices hardly ever made the papers. Not Beltway Commandos like Niles and his ilk.

He was getting up when Niles added, “Just do me one fucking favor, Lenson. Wherever you go next?”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Try to keep everybody alive this time. All right?”

Dan stopped cold. He couldn’t help baring his teeth. “You bastard. Do you think I wanted that, I’ve ever wanted any of it?”

“But it keeps happening. Doesn’t it? You’re making a name, all right. As a dangerous guy to be around. Hear me? Don’t let it happen again.”

It had been all he could do to stand rigid until Niles had flicked his fingers, that familiar grimace of bored disgust printed across his broad dark face like a customs inspector’s stamp that said: rejected. “Now get the hell out of my office. And if I ever see you again, Commander, believe me, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

...

The driver braked with a screech of worn linings. Koreans boiled solid in the crosswalks. Fuck Niles, Dan told himself. Fuck Washington and everything that had happened there, ever. It had all been total shit, except for Blair. The taxi jerked forward and nudged an old woman, who turned on them. The driver wound down his window and they began berating each other.

He remembered another ride in a backseat, through wartime central Europe. And what a young Croatian had told him before she was raped and murdered.

If you run, you hit the bullet.

If you walk, the bullet hits you.

He pushed memories away and stared out as another overpass darkened the sky. The capital of the fastest-growing country in Asia was cupped by rugged mountains black as oil-smoke. Seoul looked as if it had been built by concrete contractors with Xerox machines. The streets were fronted with computer and fast-food stores with Western trademarks, and utterly thronged. The old folks were small and slight, but the young grew like weeds. Tall pale girls in cork platform shoes carried lavender parasols against the glaring July sun. Office apparatchiks hurried between them in gray suits and cropped black hair. Street vendors hawked bananas and noodles.

The Seoul Plaza was gleaming new, on a wide, newly paved street. He checked in, and asked if they had a guest named Henrickson.
 
 
 

He found his guys in the bar, in slacks and sport shirts not too different from his own. “One of you Dr. Montgomery Henrickson?” Dan asked.

Slightly built, almost boy-sized, Henrickson had a high forehead, a dark saggy mustache like a Civil War colonel’s, and hair too long to be regulation. Which computed, since he was one of TAG’s civilian staff. A PhD in operations analysis, he’d be either Dan’s boss or his second in command—what little instruction Dan had gotten hadn’t been clear on the exact relationship. Dan introduced himself and they shook hands.

“Just call me Monty. Not ‘Doctor,’ okay? Good to see you, Commander. Fast flight?”

“It was okay.”

The others had gotten to their feet, making it obvious they were either current or ex-military. Henrickson did the honors. “These are all the guys on Team Bravo, except for Captain O’Quinn. Rit Carpenter, our sonar guy. Ex-bubblehead—I mean, submariner.”

“I know what ‘bubblehead’ means. Dan Lenson, Rit.”

“Hiya, Commander.” A balding, muscular, thirtysomething, stocky but not pudgy, hairy arms bulging under a Kirin T-shirt, a firm brisk grip.

“Let’s just go by first names,” Dan said. He was used to it from the White House staff, and since they were all sorts—active, retired, civilian—it’d work to build the team. “Call me Dan. At least out of the office.”

Donnie Wenck was a communications technician, gangly, younger than the others, redheaded, shyly enthusiastic. His hand was soft and wet-cold from the beer he’d just set down. “South Carolina, right?” Dan asked, catching a familiar accent.

“Yes sir—I mean, Dan.”

Henrickson pointed with his head. “And this is Teddy Oberg. Teddy’s kind of our all-around guy. Pretty much handles himself in just about any situation.”

Oberg looked reasonably fit. His dirty-blond hair was tied back. His bleached blue eyes were steady on Dan’s. He wore jeans and running shoes. “You a runner, Teddy?”

“Could say that, Dan.”

“Well, maybe we’ll get a jog in. Good to meet you all.”

Henrickson snagged the waitress, a tired-looking woman with heavily made-up pockmarks, who asked if he wanted a beer. Dan ordered a Coke, then sat back and looked them over as he sipped it, fighting jet lag and the yearning for sleep. Counting his upbrief at TAG and then the flight, he hadn’t slept for fifty hours.

They looked like average American guy types, but a TAG team was a highly skilled bag of active-duty officers, senior enlisted, civilian analysts, and the occasional reservist. Two teams, Alfa and Bravo, took turns deploying from the home base in Virginia.

Team Bravo was in Korea to conduct SATYRE 17—Surface Antisubmarine Tactical Readiness Evaluation, with the Y just to make a cool acronym. SATYREs were huge multinational exercises. Surface ships, subs, and maritime air from the U.S., the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Australia would be involved, operating first separately and then together. The first week would be individual exercises, tuning sonars and sharpening antisubmarine, maneuvering, and communications skills. The second week would build teams, several surface and air units combining against one submarine. Phase Three would be a full-scale coordinated exercise in the Sea of Japan, Red versus Blue. Team Bravo would manage and monitor the play, deconflict any dangerous situations, make sure tactical and environmental data got recorded throughout the exercise, and take the results home for evaluation.

Dan’s new commanding officer back in Little Creek had made it clear none of them were to take sides or even express an opinion in the field. He’d said the ships they rode would perceive them as “graders.” But they weren’t, not really. No one could tell who’d “won” even the simplest ship-on-sub play until all the data was laid out on the big light tables. Even then, it would take months of analysis before useful guidance emerged.

“ASW’s still an art, not a science,” Captain Todd Mullaly had said. “Always has been, maybe always will be. Too many variables. What doesn’t work will get them killed if there’s a real torpedo in the water. What does work, we’ll put out there for the COs to think about. Who ‘wins’ a SATYRE isn’t important. The data is. That’s your job, to make sure all your track information, bathymetry, and tactical decisions get into the logs and tapes. Aside from that, depend on your guys. If they weren’t good, they wouldn’t be at TAG.”

Carpenter said, not meeting Dan’s eyes, “So . . . somebody said you had Horn.”

“That’s right.” He waited for the rest of the interrogation.

“With the girls on it?”

“That’s right.” Along with everything else, Horn had been the first male-female integrated warship.

They exchanged glances. Carpenter said, “So, you must have stories. Lot of hanky-panky going on, I bet.”

“Some, yeah—but not as much as you’d think. One of those ‘girls’ died saving her shipmates. I took her Silver Star down to New Orleans and gave it to her three-year-old. It won’t replace her mom . . . but it was all I could do for her.”

They looked away, and he tried to relax. They hadn’t meant anything by it. They were just old-line Navy and probably would never get used to women doing guys’ jobs.

Wenck said, “Y’all hit some kind of old drifting mine, right?”

“Something like that.” That was the cover story.

“Guess you did a lot of antisub ops.”

“The usual. Predeployment workup. JTFEX. But then mostly MIO in the Red Sea and Gulf.”

“Maritime intercept. Boarding and search.” Henrickson sounded doubtful. “Any shallow-water ASW?”

“Not too much on that deployment. But I’ve done it on previous tours. The Arctic, North Atlantic, the Med, the Gulf.”

“How about here in WestPac?”

“I’ve operated in the South China Sea. A multinational antipirate task force.”

“Any ASW there?” Henrickson said casually.

“Look, I get the picture. You’re asking if I’ve got the level of antisubmarine expertise you need in the guy who’s basically going to be conducting the exercise.”

“What? No, we weren’t—”

“Sure you were. So I’ll tell you. I’ve had a solid grounding in destroyer ASW. I know ops analysis. I’ll learn what else I need to fast as I can. But yeah, this is my first time out with a TAG team, so let me know if I’m headed for shoal water. They tell me you’re the best in the business or you wouldn’t be where you are. So I’m going to count on that.

“But right now, I’m going to get my head down for a few hours.”

Dan noticed Wenck glancing apprehensively behind and above him. He twisted to see a somber-looking, fiftyish white man with a nose like Richard Nixon’s and a scowl not too different either standing behind him, arms folded, listening.

“And here’s Captain Joe O’Quinn,” Henricksen said.

“Mister,” O’Quinn said, impassive. Correcting him, not angrily, just as a matter of fact.

“Joe, nice to meet you,” Dan said. The older man tilted his head and smiled faintly, looking him up and down.

Henrickson cleared his throat and studied his watch. “Uh—Dan—well, I know you’re short on sleep, but you might want to grab a quick shower instead. Maybe a shave. And get a uniform on. We’ve got the kickoff meeting over at CNFK at two.”

...

CNFK—Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Korea—was at Yongsan Army Garrison, surrounded by the city, like Central Park, Dan thought. A mix of brick two-stories dating from the Japanese occupation, according to Henrickson, and 1950s-era U.S. Army prefab housing and rusting Quonsets. The usual anchors, painted the usual gloss black, stood outside the naval headquarters, along with a bronze of a medieval Korean warrior. The conference room was upstairs, through a combination-keyed door. As Dan’s group trooped in, Asians and Americans were helping themselves to buns and coffee at a side table. Conversation buzzed in various languages. Dan, in short-sleeved khakis, laid his combination cap on a table that already held those of several services, of several nations.

“Commander Lenson? Hi, I’m Dick Shappell. Got the button for the SATYRE.”

Shappell was in khakis like Dan, but with aviator’s wings. His name tag had the COMUSFORKOREA staff insignia: the Korean flag, eagle, and crossed anchors, and his name was spelled out in Hangul under the Roman lettering. He blinked at the pale blue and white stars of Dan’s topmost ribbon. When he spoke again his tone was less brash. “Oh—Lenson! It sounded familiar when I read the clearance message, but I only just now—hell, it’s a real honor meeting you. Sir. Look”—he glanced at the wall clock—“I’m gonna kick off with the welcome, since the big boss is out of town just now, but I want you to meet a couple people first. Hey, Commodore!”

A stocky Korean in what looked very much like U.S. Navy khakis, but with different ribbons and rank insignia—three little silver flowers—turned from the side table. He was bigger than the other Koreans but still shorter than Dan. He wore heavy, square-framed, PhotoGray glasses. A black mole grew beside his left eye. A leather tag with crossed silver torches inside an anchor hung from his breast pocket. He had big hands, big fingers, which were just now turning a pack of cigarettes over and over.

“Commodore, Commander Lenson here’s in charge of the Taggers. He’ll be riding with you on the exercise. Dan, this is Commodore Jung—first name Min Jun—commander, Antisubmarine Squadron 51, Republic of Korea Navy.”

One of the oversized hands mashed Dan’s as heavy-lidded eyes noted everything about him. They too snagged on the Congressional. “Hi, fella,” Jung said. He smelled of mentholated tobacco and English Leather.

“Commodore. An honor.”

The Korean shook a cigarette out of the pack. They had silver filter tips. Dan said thanks, no.

“Ship driver,” Jung noted, looking at him still as he fit the cigarette into an ivory-colored holder and lit it with a gold Zippo engraved with a seal Dan didn’t recognize. “Annapolis ring. And some pretty impressive experience, if I’m reading your ribbon bar right.” His English was almost perfect, with a touch, Dan guessed, of California casual.

“Guilty.”

“First time on the peninsula? Or you been with us before?”

“First time here, sir.”

“Well, we’ll try to treat you right. Where are you in from, Dan?”

“Just joined the TAG group. Last assignment was in DC.”

“Where?”

“Well . . . the White House military staff.” He wondered if he should mention that, but no one had told him not to.

Jung smiled so radiantly that the mole almost vanished. “Excellent! They’ve sent us their best.” He turned to a willowy younger man who’d come up quietly behind him, and spoke rapidly in Korean. The younger raised an eyebrow, blinking at Dan. Jung gestured to him. “Commander Hwang, my chief of staff. Commander Lenson.”

They shook hands too, Hwang’s palm lying limp in Dan’s. The chief of staff smiled almost fawningly, but said only, “I am pleased to meet you, Commander.”

The lights flickered off, then back on. Shappell turned from the switch. Conversations cut off in midsentence. Men replenished their coffee cups, headed for seats.

The first PowerPoint slide went up, a yeoman began doling out briefing packages, and Dan pulled his new PDA out and began trying to figure out how to make notes with it.
 

Copyright © 2007 by David Poyer. All rights reserved.