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Read by Robert Petkoff
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Print edition ISBN: 9781785654916
E-book edition ISBN: 9781785654923
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First edition: May 2017
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This edition published by arrangement with Kingswell, an imprint of Disney Book Group.
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Every writer needs an inspiration.
And I found mine.
The foreigner’s chest was broad and powerful, and the arms that hung on either side had a solid, useful look about them. His torso tapered to his trim waist, underneath which his thighs bulged back out again. Crowning this impressive example of the human male was a square-shaped head, atop which sat a thick thatch of wavy, dark hair.
In truth, it all might have been too much, too action adventure–hero clichéd: this stunning physique with the square jaw and the perfect teeth, this man who seemed to have been ripped from the cover of a Victoria St. Clair romance novel.
Except of course there were the eyes. They were eyes that teased and danced and loved even when the rest of the foreigner’s demeanor was serious. They were eyes that had seen much. They were eyes that missed little.
So, yes, he was handsome. Some would say ruggedly so.
The foreigner was dressed in black tactical gear, a bulletproof vest providing a comforting embrace. Standing next to him, a head shorter and half his weight, was a man wearing the squared-off green uniform of the People’s Armed Police, the largest branch of China’s Ministry of Public Security. His shirt was tucked neatly into his belt in a way that suggested a perfectly flat stomach. His insignia marked him as a colonel. His name strip contained Chinese characters that are commonly translated into the Roman alphabet as “Feng.”
He smoked an unfiltered cigarette, its lit end glowing orange in the predawn dark. When he exhaled, the smell of cloves filled the air.
The men stood side by side on a small bluff. The foreigner’s binoculars were trained on a warehouse below them, a two-story painted steel structure with a flat roof and no windows. The only points of egress were the front door and a small hatch in the roof.
The building was almost conspicuously spare, like its owners had worked so hard to make it seem unremarkable that it actually stood out. There was no signage, no attempt at landscaping in the weed-choked lot that surrounded it. The parking area, which was covered in crumbling asphalt, contained a smattering of vehicles, mostly older. It was illuminated by a single floodlight on a pole. There was no sign of movement outside. Most days, very little happened there.
But every once in a while, something did. And on those days, the activity in that spare little building had come to the attention of the highest reaches of the United States government, half a planet away.
“Amazing, an operation like this being able to establish itself and yet going completely undetected,” the foreigner said, barely bothering to hide his irony. He spoke in smooth Mandarin, one of the nine languages he had mastered.
“Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight,” Colonel Feng said, his voice raspy. A wry grin barely formed on his thin lips before he stanched it.
“You would have thought someone would have noticed and started asking questions,” the foreigner said.
“You are assuming there is something worth noticing,” Colonel Feng said, then switched to English. “I believe there is an American saying about those who assume.”
“Yeah, I think it’s, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ ” the foreigner said.
Colonel Feng narrowed his eyes and took another drag on his cigarette. Beyond the warehouse, the Huangpu River rolled silently by. Beyond that—and all around them—was the city of Shanghai.
The foreigner did not need to be told that what is today the world’s second largest economy—number two with a bullet, some would say—really started in this historic city in east central China. Long ago, it was the first Chinese port opened to trade with the West after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars. More recently, it was where the Chinese Communist Party decided to begin loosening the reins on its economy, allowing the tight strictures of Marxism to slough away and be supplanted by the ruthless efficiencies of capitalism.
American financial success had a lot to do with that decision. So did China’s long-standing and ingrained sense of exceptionalism.
What has developed since that time is a complicated, delicate relationship between what are essentially the world’s only two superpowers. Each country is the other’s largest trading partner. Each country is heavily invested in the other. Each country’s economy would collapse if the other were to vanish. And yet each country perpetually thinks the other is trying to screw it over.
So there was symbolism there: a Chinese man and an American, standing side by side, at once inextricably aligned and yet at cross-purposes.
“Should be any time now, wouldn’t you say?” the foreigner said.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” Colonel Feng replied. “May I remind you that I am merely here in an oversight capacity, and that this unusual . . . collaboration, shall we call it? . . . is only occurring because of your government’s continued insistence about the nature of this operation. But my government categorically denies any knowledge of what you allege is transpiring here.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” the foreigner said. His face was impassive. But his expressive eyes had sparked. “And that’s why you’re here completely and totally alone, with no backup whatsoever. To provide oversight.”
“It seems we understand each other perfectly,” Colonel Feng said.
The clove cigarette glowed again. For a short while, neither man spoke.
What was about to occur had been set in motion two weeks earlier, with a single phone call between two powerful people.
The initiator of that phone call was a mystery to the foreigner. The receiver of it was a man named Jedediah Jones. He worked for the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, where his title was head of internal division enforcement. Sometimes he just used the acronym. Spy humor.
Just as the relationship between the United States and China was complex, so was the dance between the foreigner and Jones. The foreigner worked for Jones on a temporary, ad hoc, totally unconfirmed basis. If you were to look at only certain small sample sizes of the men’s interactions, you’d draw the conclusion that Jones valued the foreigner like a disposable coffee cup, and, likewise, that the foreigner trusted Jones about as much as a savvy consumer trusted the claims of late night infomercials.
Yet the truth was that they needed each other as much as their nation needed their service. And each had come to rely on the other for his unique set of skills, traits, and resources, many of which had already been called on to arrange this raid.
His cigarette now extinguished, Colonel Feng coughed twice. They were loud, barking coughs, and the foreigner briefly wondered if they were meant as a signal of some sort.
“You know, it’s very strange,” Feng said when his throat was clear. “You look a great deal like an American intelligence operative by the name of Derrick Storm, a man who freelances for a part of the CIA that supposedly doesn’t exist.”
“He must be a very good-looking man,” the foreigner said.
“We have a full complement of pictures of him, many of them quite explicit, owing to his romantic involvement with an agent of ours a few years back. Perhaps you’d like to accompany me back to my precinct and have a look at them?”
“Who doesn’t love looking at someone else’s explicit photos?” the foreigner said. “I’ll absolutely have a look. As soon as we’re done here.”
“It would, of course, be illegal for him to be in this country without having properly notified the authorities,” Feng said. “He would spend a long time in prison if he was caught.”
“Which is why I’m sure he’s not here,” the foreigner said. “I’m sure a man that attractive and intelligent wouldn’t risk a—”
Any further conversation was cut off when, from within the building, there came a low rumbling. It could be both heard in the air and felt in the ground below, which now shook gently.
“Excuse me. That’s my cue,” the foreigner said. Then he pressed a button to activate an open channel on his communication system and said one word into the microphone attached to his earpiece:
* * *
The first bullet sprang out of a muzzle that had an Alpha Dog 9 silencer affixed to the end of it, lowering the sound output by more than fifty decibels. What should have been a loud crack was reduced to more of a thump.
The target—the bulb in that single floodlight—stood no chance. Its shattering could not possibly be heard by any of the men inside. Not over the roar of the machines.
With the parking lot now plunged into darkness, the foreigner moved out, sprinting along the bluff then cutting down a path that had been carved into its side. He approached from the south.
Two other men, including the one that had put the lightbulb out of business, were coming from the east. Two more came from the north, where they had been hiding by the banks of the river.
These four were also foreigners, in China on tourist visas, officially unofficial. It was illegal for them to possess firearms. Everything they were about to do was probably illegal.
If anything went wrong, every single bureaucrat at the US Embassy would be able to claim ignorance without a trace of deceit. The ambassador himself was similarly in the dark. At that point, with no diplomatic protection, the men would be left to fend for themselves in the Chinese legal system.
Which was why nothing could go wrong.
And nothing would. The foreigner’s intelligence was solid. There was no sign the facility was guarded. He had been training his men for two weeks, so they knew its layout perfectly, having set up a mock version of it during their repeated dry runs. They would have it secured before the men inside were even aware what was happening.
Or at least that’s what the foreigner hoped.
Then a gunshot—this one loud, without a silencer to soften it— echoed off the bluff.
“Man down,” the foreigner heard in his earpiece. The voice was not panicked. More matter-of-fact. These were professionals.
The foreigner rolled before coming up into a low crouch, pausing midway down the path. They had decided to eschew night-vision goggles, which were bulky and had been deemed unnecessary to achieve their objective. The foreigner now cursed that decision.
Another shot. It had the distinct sound of a rifle. The velocity of its projectile was unmistakable.
“Fall back, fall back, find cover,” the foreigner heard one of his men saying. “Where the hell is this coming from?”
The foreigner held his position. He was brutally exposed against the side of the bluff. Only his dark clothing kept him hidden in the night.
The rifle went off again. This time, the foreigner was able to locate the muzzle flash. The prone form behind it was a dark smudge.
“Sniper on the roof,” the foreigner said into his watch. “Just hold tight for a second. I’ve got him.”
The foreigner quickly centered the crosshairs of his Swarovski Z6 scope on the part of the smudge that was shaped like the gunman’s head. It wasn’t much of a target, but it was the only one the foreigner really had.
The night was windless. And he was fifty yards away, roughly at the same elevation as the height of the roof. In daylight, the foreigner could have decided which eye socket he wanted to shoot out. In darkness, it was still an easy enough shot.
The foreigner squeezed the trigger. Through the scope, he could see the prone body go lifeless.
“Got him,” the foreigner said into his watch. “What’s our medical report?”
“Hit in the vest,” came a wheezing voice. “Hurts like hell”—large gasp—“and I can’t goddamn breathe”—large gasp—“but I’ll be fine.”
“Can you still do your job?” the foreigner asked.
“Hell yes, sir.”
“Good,” the foreigner said. “We’re running out of what little time we had to begin with. Let’s move in.”
“What if there’s another sniper up there?” one of the men asked.
“Pray he has lousy aim,” the foreigner replied.
Without further delay, he descended the bluff, arriving at the lone door to the warehouse at the same time as the men from the north, one of whom was carrying a two-man battering ram.
Only one man came from the east. The other, the one who had been shot, was still out there somewhere.
Wordlessly, two of them gripped the handles of the battering ram.
“One, two,” the foreigner said.
The “three” came out as a grunt. The men strained at the handles. The steel door dented, but did not give.
“Again,” the foreigner said. “Aim a little closer to the handle.”
He resumed the count. This time, the word three was followed shortly thereafter by the sound of metal breaking.
“One more time,” the foreigner said.
What little further resistance the door could offer was almost gone. The foreigner gave it one final kick, and it gave way.
They entered a large space with their guns raised. It was brilliantly lit from above by rows of fluorescent lights protected by cages. But the light was less impressive than the sound: When operating at full speed, Heidelberg offset printing presses make a hell of a racket.
It was loud enough that the half dozen men inside, who had ear-muffs to protect them from the roar, had not heard the melee outside. They were too focused on the paper running through the press in a speedy blur, staying hyper-attuned to any miniscule adjustments they needed to make in ink levels or paper alignment.
They were not, in fact, aware anything was amiss until the foreigner located one of the red emergency cutoff switches on the far wall and yanked it up, immediately severing power to the press.
As it rolled to a stop, its output came into better focus. It was sheet after sheet of US twenty-dollar bills faked to absolute perfection, with the signature 75/25 cotton-linen blended paper, the raised feeling of the green ink, the security ribbon threaded inside, the tinting that only appeared at an angle. These were no slipshod knockoffs sliding out of some hack’s Hewlett Packard. These were totally indistinguishable from the genuine item, created in almost precisely the same way the US Mint printed legal tender, with metal plates created by a forger of exceptional skill.
Arrayed around the side of the warehouse were other tools of the counterfeiter’s trade: a platen press for embossing, an industrial paper cutter, a counting and banding machine.
It was an extraordinary operation, the largest of its kind in the world. Once the press was calibrated properly and running at top capacity, it could spew out fifty million dollars an hour. There were shrink-wrapped stacks of faux greenbacks sitting on a pallet in one corner. In another, massive rolls of blank paper awaited ink. The only real logistical issue for the crooks behind it was finding ways to spend the money.
The foreigner would have been forgiven for stopping and gawking. It’s not very often you see a fortune in cash being created in front of you.
But the foreigner was not there to sightsee. As his men subdued the printing press operators, who were dutifully raising their hands and then allowing themselves to be zip-tied, the foreigner moved quickly to a small hutchlike office that had been built in the back corner of the rectangular building.
Covering his fist with his sleeve, he punched one of the windows. Its single pane shattered immediately, allowing him to reach around and unlock the door.
He threw open the door, but when he took his first step in, he heard a loud hiss, then felt a stinging somewhere below his waist. He looked down to see a dart sticking ominously out of the side of his buttock. Three more darts had just missed and buried themselves in the far wall.
Booby-trapped. The office had been booby-trapped. Their intelligence had not indicated any such threat. And, really, who used a dart? A dart wouldn’t hurt anyone, unless it was . . .
Poisonous. The foreigner grabbed the dart and yanked, hoping he had extracted it before the toxins could enter his bloodstream. He examined the tip quickly and found, to his surprise, only his own blood. There did not appear to be any other substance.
Which explained everything. It must have been meant merely as a nonlethal deterrent to prevent lower-level employees from snooping where they didn’t belong—and punish them if they tried.
The foreigner put those thoughts aside and entered the office. This was the real focus of his raid. It was not enough to merely destroy the printing plates and disable the presses. Jedediah Jones had been quite explicit that the foreigner also needed to find evidence of who was behind it.
The belief, as widespread as it was unsubstantiated, was that this was one of the many offshoots of a group of Chinese businessmen known as the Shanghai Seven. If the story of modern Chinese economic might starts in Shanghai, the story of Shanghai itself cannot be told without the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party who were given the seed money, freedom, and directive to begin assembling a massive corporate conglomerate. The Shanghai Seven were supposed to propel China in its drive to overtake the United States and to show other Chinese how Western business was done.
The first part was a work in progress. The second part had not gone quite as well. Other Chinese entrepreneurs, the ones who had been self-selected and had succeeded because of their good ideas and hard work, turned out to be far more profitable. The Shanghai Seven, forever fat and lazy, turned out to be middling moguls, with more failed ventures than successful ones. They also had a certain penchant for criminality. Raised in the rampantly corrupt culture of the CCP, they slipped rather easily between legitimate enterprises and the underworld.
But knowing that and proving it were two very different things. And they had been too slippery—with the blessing and backing of the CCP—to have ever been caught at anything big enough that the Chinese authorities would have been pressured, by force of embarrassment or complaints from legitimate businessmen, to act.
The foreigner was moving quickly, knowing his time was short and getting shorter. The office was nicely—though not extravagantly— furnished and had a well-inhabited feel to it. This was an office that got frequent use, though the foreigner could guess it was not the base of operations for one of the Shanghai Seven. They would never allow themselves to get so close to an operation of this sort.
No, this was the workplace of a high-level lieutenant, someone trusted enough to run this operation and yet be deemed ultimately expendable should a scapegoat be needed.
The foreigner went to the desk in the middle of the room first. The side drawers contained a teapot, a liquor flask, and a variety of snacks. The lieutenant apparently liked to be well provisioned. The top drawer was a mess of pens, pencils, paper clips, and sticky notes—criminals needed office supplies too, it seemed. The foreigner was about to move on when a rainbowlike glint caught his eye.
It was a compact disc, nestled in a transparent jewel case. The foreigner grabbed it and stuffed it inside his bulletproof vest.
Then he moved on to a filing cabinet against the far wall. The first file folder contained not papers but cassette tapes. He pocketed those, too. Then he moved to the next file folder, which contained documents that the foreigner began photographing.
He was clicking as fast as he could, not bothering to look before he shot. There would be time later to determine whether any of this was useful or whether he was copying a criminal enterprise’s equivalent of a grocery list.
Then, suddenly, his time was up.
From outside, there was a new round of shouting. Through the office windows he could see a swarm of People’s Armed Police, in their green uniforms, pouring into the facility. They were yelling, though their agitation did not seem to be directed at the six pressmen who were sitting mutely in a row on the floor by their idle machinery; no, the orders were being shouted at the four men in bulletproof vests who were in the midst of destroying as much of the counterfeiting apparatus as they could.
The foreigner came out of the office just as Colonel Feng entered the warehouse, his lit cigarette leading the way. He was grinning broadly, deeply satisfied with himself, as he approached the foreigner.
“Colonel Feng,” the foreigner said. “I see you had company after all.”
“The sound of gunfire must have alerted this squadron,” he replied. “Aren’t we fortunate they happened to be in the area on a training mission?”
“Quite,” the foreigner said. He was moving closer to his men, who had formed into a small clump.
“But now that they are here, they are certainly capable of assuming jurisdiction over what turns out to be, much to our surprise, a crime scene,” Feng said. “On behalf of my government, I thank you for discovering this illicit enterprise.”
“Oh, you’re very welcome.”
“Now, I believe your work here is done. You will now turn over any evidence you have collected, including the phone you have been using to take pictures. We will make sure it is handled by the proper authorities and that the wrongdoers are prosecuted.”
“I’m sure you will,” the foreigner said.
He was, by now, next to his men. One of them had reached under his bulletproof vest to produce an object roughly the size of a shoe. Or at least it was until the man pressed two buttons and it instantly expanded to form a six-foot-by-four-foot barrier. The men crouched behind it, with their fingers jammed in their ears and their eyes screwed shut, as Feng looked on, more curious than threatened.
Then the foreigner said, “Deploy.”
Three things happened in quick succession.
First the lights went out.
Next there was a tremendous explosion, one with enough force to tear a large jagged hole in the side of the warehouse.
Finally, the blast wave reached Feng, knocking him off his feet and extinguishing his cigarette in the process.
By the time the dust cleared, the foreigners were long gone—and they had taken the evidence with them.
ONE WEEK LATER
We need to talk about your mother,” Derrick Storm said.
New York Police Department captain Nikki Heat holstered her 9mm and studied the man whom, moments earlier, she had mistaken for an intruder.
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- May 2, 2017
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