"It seems with each book, this series gets better…"
Tanner Bodine stared at the three heat signatures on the thermal-imaging camera and cursed.
The idea was to not kill anyone tonight.
I should have known this mission was rolling along too easily. Not that there had been a damned thing easy about a HAHO, or high altitude, high opening, night jump into North Korea four hours ago. Now his team crouched behind an unfinished concrete wall in the one country no one should enter without an invitation.
Definitely no American.
If he and the other three Slye Temp operatives got caught while they were gate-crashing Pyongyang’s annual citywide April celebration, the fallout would be bad. Much worse than just having the US government deny knowledge of this mission.
Tanner’s team would be painted as nothing more than mercenaries trying to kidnap two North Korean physicists for financial gain. And the world would believe that lie, since Iraq was known to pay top dollar because their physicists got sniped all the time.
Tanner nodded at Dingo Paddock, who angled the thermal-imaging camera so that Nick Carrera and Damian “Blade” Singleton could also watch the monkey wrench shoved into their operation.
Who was that third figure following the two physicists at a covert distance?
All three continued across the empty plaza toward the first floor of a 330-meter-tall, pyramid-shaped structure that soared through the black skies above the Pyongyang skyline. The Ryugyong Hotel.
Or better known as the Hotel of Doom because it remained a giant, unfinished money pit, under construction for twenty-four years.
Twenty. Four. Years.
Who does that?
A leader willing to spend billions on a joke of a hotel while his people starved.
Tanner lifted the Velcro flap covering the illuminated face of his watch.
Twenty-two-hundred hours, five minutes. The physicists—the packages—were right on time. So where had they picked up a tail?
It wasn’t either of the two guards on duty at the hotel’s front gate.
Over the last two hours and ten minutes, each guard had taken turns making a casual pass around the area once an hour. The last patrol had included a smoke break in the plaza sixteen minutes ago.
Eluding the security to reach this point had been laughably easy for his team, but who would send their best personnel to watch an empty hotel?
Hadn’t some UK journalist just blogged about making it right past the standing guards a few months ago to get inside the hotel before daylight?
Yep, everything about this op had rocked along smoothly … until now.
But one uninvited guest to this party was not going to screw Tanner’s mission.
With temps hovering around thirty, he had to cover his mouth with a gloved hand to hide the frosted air when he gave orders. His throat mic easily picked up his whispered words. “You three enter by the second access point, secure the packages and head to the rendezvous location.”
If anything went FUBAR, Tanner had a backup plan, but the last thing he wanted was to divide his people. He’d volunteered to run this op because of his knowledge of North Korea.
Knowledge he’d earned as a member of Delta Force.
But the real reason he’d volunteered for tonight was to save a young girl his sister had grown up with, whose dying mother had been deported. Saving that girl hinged on a successful mission here.
Tanner added, “Give me a sixty-second head start to intercept the unidentified. We rendezvous and exit at twenty-two-thirty hours.”
“Roger,” echoed in Tanner’s ear. He lowered his night-vision monocular into place, leaving his other eye as the only body part exposed. He wore gray wool that blended in with the locals, just like the rest of his team, all custom-made clothes to cover the gear he needed for the op.
He pushed up slowly.
The roar of a cheering crowd in the distance drew his attention for a second. Lights glowed above where a hundred and fifty thousand citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, filled the May Day Stadium three kilometers away to celebrate the birth of their leader’s grandfather.
A packed house in the largest active stadium in the world.
That’s why this op had to happen right now while so many of the DPRK military were on show for their dictator.
That and the fact that the North Korea nuclear threat finally had teeth and their pit-bull leader was ready to bite someone this week.
Tanner lifted his Chinese Norinco rifle and moved carefully, melding from shadow to shadow. The team carried nothing that smacked of the US or South Korea. The suppressor on his rifle was Russian. Even their clothing was made without tags and with materials sourced outside the US.
Two young men waited inside that building, ready to defect to the US and trade what they knew of Project Jigu-X.
Translated, it meant Project Earth.
Did the head Nork behind Jigu-X really believe that name would camouflage his true plans? Live on in your dream world, buddy.
Tanner placed one careful step after another. No one could know that his team was extracting the two physicists and delivering them to the US. Plausible deniability wasn’t an option. There could be no connection whatsoever to the US government.
The State Department had cashed in on a debt Sabrina Slye—the head of Slye Temp—owed another government agency to get this job done off the books, so to speak.
Sabrina could have backed out by claiming she owed the DEA, not the State Department, but she’d never leave the US exposed if she could prevent it. The op had a thirty-percent chance of success and Sabrina wouldn’t ask anyone to go. In fact, she’d planned to run the op herself, but Tanner had convinced her to let him take point.
Nick, Dingo and Blade had volunteered next.
Sabrina accepted the job, but only after the State Department agreed to do a favor for Tanner once he handed over the two physicists.
Tanner had told his mother he had a plan to save Martina. He would belly crawl over hot coals to fulfill his end of this deal and then he’d use the State Department’s pull to cut through red tape for what he really wanted.
The silence sharpened his senses. Tanner skirted the weak lighting and hugged pooled shadows.
Get the package, get out, echoed in his mind.
Entering North Korea had been fairly simple.
Exiting would be a challenge even with transportation waiting on them a half mile away.
He hoped it was actually there when he arrived.
The two egghead physicists in this doomed hotel better be able to provide proof that North Korea had finally developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a long-range missile. If so, they would live in anonymity in the US by entering the equivalent of a super secret WITSEC program. They’d never see their home country again, but where they were going would be Utopia compared to life here for anyone other than the elite.
The leader of this country had the ultimate zero-tolerance policy when it came to defectors and anyone accused of espionage, so Tanner hoped the two eggheads would follow orders and keep up.
He’d protect the physicists at all costs, but he couldn’t allow his team to be captured. Capture meant execution for all of them.
He paused near the main entrance, then continued on to one of four access points his team had located and stepped through the opening of an unfinished window. Inside, he wove through a forest of scaffolding set up for the workers and stopped short of the vast, circular lobby.
The ceiling was hundreds of feet up.
Light from a half moon dodging clouds struggled to filter through empty space covered with glass walls.
Not enough light to bother his night vision.
Just enough to sneak around inside without it.
On the far side of the unfinished room, two figures huddled together. They were dressed in the dull colors of poor citizens who lived in portable cabins outside the hotel and worked as supplementary labor alongside the military who were building this fiasco. Intelligence reports had stated that locals would help the physicists reach this point, which appeared to have happened.
If the local people who’d played a role in this defection were discovered, they’d be executed or sent to a prison camp that made hell look like a tropical vacation.
Why would people here risk their lives to help?
He could understand the physicists’ motivation. Who wouldn’t want to defect to a country where they ate regularly as a minimum?
These two claimed they didn’t want blood on their hands.
Scientists with a conscience.
What was the world coming to?
Tanner tamped down bitter memories of one female scientist who sure as hell hadn’t possessed a conscience.
He held his position as he swept the interior visually, searching for that third bastard. His team would enter from behind the physicists, which prevented anyone from surprising them. Dingo and Nick would pull the packages out of sight without making a sound while Blade covered their six.
That initial tingle of warning riding Tanner’s neck since the minute he’d seen the third heat signature clawed at him harder. Where are you?
Moving from right-to-left as silent as a ghost, a figure circled the outer perimeter of the lobby.
He was heading toward the physicists.
Tanner mirrored that movement on this side of the lobby, keeping track of the physicists as well as the unidentified.
In less than a second, two of his team coalesced from the shadows and grasped the defectors, vanishing from sight.
So far, so good.
Tanner eased near the empty space where his men had been only seconds ago, until he was between that spot and the exit point.
He stood in shadows to the side of the path, out of sight unless that third figure also wore night vision. Tanner hadn’t seen any headgear.
Keep coming this way for your special welcome, you bastard.
The unidentified was heading forward at a quicker pace. Five-foot-five, maybe five-six, light build and quiet as a ninja mouse sneaking past a cat. At six-three and just over two hundred pounds, Tanner should have no problem containing that scrawny vermin.
Tension ran along the tight muscles in his neck.
He froze every muscle, waiting for the intruder to pull even with his position. At that point, he could cold cock the sucker and leave him laid on the floor, none the wiser about what was going on when he did wake up.
If the little guy fought him, Tanner’s only other option would be to snap his neck.
Boot heels scuffed over grit and concrete near the main entrance, dividing Tanner’s attention with a new threat entering. Dammit.
The ninja practically flew toward the team’s exit point.
Tanner released his weapon to hang from the dummy cord hooked to his vest. He lunged and caught the ninja, hooking his arm around a body that weighed little more than a big kid’s. His captive made a soft squeak a second before Tanner covered his mouth. The speed the guy had been moving forced Tanner to spin to handle the momentum. The minute Tanner lifted his captive off the ground, the ninja stilled.
This guy’s cheek skin felt too smooth to grow whiskers.
Was it a boy? Hell, he didn’t want to kill some kid.
If Tanner left him unconscious, what would the guards do to him?
He moved his arm up for a better grip and bumped into … breasts.
Are you shittin’ me?
His ninja was a she?
Who had he pissed off in a former life for this bullshit? He couldn’t leave her here unconscious and vulnerable to male guards who might abuse her, but neither could he leave her to spill her guts about the physicists.
Boot heels slapped the floor where the guard walked from the entrance to the center of the vacant lobby area.
Leaning to his left, Tanner took in the guard who carried a Type 56 assault rifle, a Chinese version of Kalashnikov’s AK-47.
Seconds were ticking off the clock for meeting up with his team.
He slowed his breathing to where his chest barely moved. The woman in his arms did the same. She breathed in sync with him.
Another guard entered. Dammit.
The first guard turned around, saying something in clipped Korean to the second one. Tanner could grasp enough Korean to get the gist of what they were saying, but the guards spoke too low for him to hear.
Whatever they’d discussed ended with one heading to the far side of the building and the second one turning in Tanner’s direction.
No point in going halfway when things turned FUBAR.
Taking down the guard or getting out of the building silently wasn’t going to happen with this woman in his arms.
Tanner turned sideways and eased backwards into a pocket of black created by a support beam. He angled his body to shield his captive.
Why? Because of his damned ingrained instinct to protect a woman. As long as she didn’t try to kill him.
If she stayed quiet, the guard should pass by without noticing them. But that warm little body of hers was pressed against the front of him, and his body was noticing her soft curves.
Not the time for Big John to wake up.
What the hell was this woman doing here? Following a boyfriend?
Had Shin Pang or Jae Har, the physicists, told a girlfriend goodbye?
That would have been stupid. But geniuses were not known for their common sense.
Tanner sorted through ideas for what to do with her and kept coming up with nothing his conscience would accept. First, they had to escape discovery.
That might have been a possibility until the guard heading his way flipped on a small penlight.
You son of a bitch.
The beam swung left and right in front of the guard’s feet as he moved closer.
Tanner’s ninja tensed.
That damned light swept to the left and paused on a pile of construction debris. When it did swing back to the right, the light would land on Tanner and his ninja.
Toss aside his ninja and go for the guard?
Sure, that’d work. And for his follow up act, he’d pull a helicopter out of his back pocket.
Every second thumped in tandem with Tanner’s heartbeat. Blood pounded in his ears.
He had no other choice. He’d wait until the very last moment before the guard’s light reached him then he’d drop the woman and go for the guard.
If his ninja remained quiet when her feet touched the floor, Tanner might just pull this off.
If not, they were both dead.
Logic said this woman would do anything to avoid discovery, because she’d be accused of spying for the Americans if she were caught with Tanner.
The guard’s light bobbed over debris and pieces of piled-up scaffolding. He stood close enough for Tanner to smell the strong odor of nicotine clinging to his gray wool uniform. His nose was flat on the end.
Somebody hit you with a frying pan, Flat Nose?
Tanner’s muscles were drawn-bow taut, ready to spring into action.
A high-pitched voice crackled from the guard’s radio. Flat Nose stuck his flashlight under his arm. The beam bounced as he listened to the rapid chatter Tanner could barely understand. Something about ... intruders.
Had someone seen his men?
Only if Har or Pang had made a mistake.
Very possible, considering Tanner was holding an unknown woman in his arms.
She trembled, but didn’t make a sound.
Tanner held his breath while the rattle of scrambled words streamed from the guard’s radio. He picked up that more soldiers were on the way and some reference to shutting down the exits in the city. Sweat trickled along the inside of Tanner’s collar in spite of the freezing temperature.
Would a division of ground soldiers flood this building and surrounding area any minute?
The second guard who’d searched the other side of the building marched to the center and called out to Flat Nose. After a quick exchange of words, Flat Nose joined his buddy by the door and they walked outside.
Tanner let out a breath.
His ninja did, too, at the same time, as if their cardiovascular systems were linked.
Now. What to do with her?
He’d used up six minutes. Time to make a decision. His limited Korean would only confirm that he was American, so he said nothing as he eased his hand from her mouth, waiting to see what she’d say.
She whispered, “They know you are here for Pang and Har. They know about the defection. We must hurry.”
He arched an eyebrow at her that she couldn’t see. Perfectly spoken English in an angel’s voice, albeit with a Korean accent. Who the hell was she?
“What do you wait for?” she hissed at him. “More soldiers will come. Pang and Har have been betrayed.”
If she knew about Har and Pang’s defecting then Tanner was losing time hiding that he was American. “Who are you?”
“You must hurry or—”
Did she think this was some damn game? “Explain who you are or I’ll leave you unconscious to face the soldiers alone.” He wouldn’t do that to a woman, but threatening anything less was wasting precious seconds.
She turned rigid as his mama’s broom handle and derision saturated her words. “I should expect no more from your kind.”
Just how much did she know about this op? “I’m not military and you don’t know what you’re talking about. Time’s up.”
She got the message. “I am Soo Jin. I perform research in the same center as Har and Pang. I know you are here to take them to the US to defect in exchange for information on the Project Jigu-X.”
This woman clearly knew something, but in this country she could be working for any side. “What was transmitted on the soldier’s radio?”
She warned, “You waste time. When your people die, it will be your fault.”
Tanner grabbed her by the throat, keeping her back to his chest. “If you’ve set us up, I’ll kill anyone responsible for harming my men.” He squeezed his fingers.
She struggled against him. “Stop. I ... came ... to help.”
He eased his grip. “Why?”
Her words rushed out wrapped in fear. “I am part of the network that is helping Pang and Har escape. I came to warn them and show you the way out of the city, but if you do not hurry your men will die ... if they have not been caught already.”
Was she telling the truth?
He put her down and yanked her arms behind her back, holding them with one hand, and keyed his throat mic to transmit to his team. “The package has a leak. I repeat, package has a leak. Hold position.”
Dingo’s voice came back. “What’s wrong, mate?”
“They might be expecting us. Where are you?”
“Sixty yards from wheels. We haven’t seen any movement around it.”
Tanner considered her words and told Dingo. “Send someone to recon, but don’t touch it.”
“Stand by.” Dingo and the rest of the team were half a kilometer away.
Tanner itched to move out, get out of the center of the damn city, but the op had major flaws right now. The minute he left this building, he had to know for sure where he was going and what he was doing with this captive. There was still time to make the transport, if it hadn’t been compromised.
Could he unload this woman somewhere between here and meeting up with his team without leaving her in a vulnerable position and without leaving a leak that would sink his mission?
She’d spill her guts to the soldiers the minute she was caught. Why? Because she was a woman and a scientist.
That combination had already screwed him once. Literally and figuratively.
“Where are your men?” she asked just loud enough for the sound to have substance.
“Where do you think they are?” he countered.
She drew in a breath and released it in the long, exasperated sigh someone used when counting to ten. “I heard that a truck is waiting for you next to the metro station where Kyonghung crosses Ponghwa.”
She was right, which didn’t weigh in her favor since only a few people back home were supposed to know that detail.
Tanner hadn’t liked the setup for traveling hidden in a transport truck since hearing about it, but the only way out of Pyongyang was through a smuggling operation.
He asked, “How do you know so much about what’s going on?”
“Pang and Har belong to a secret underground group working to smuggle our people out of here. I help by passing messages that are in code, but ...”
“You broke the code,” Tanner finished.
“Yes. Their boss was dragged from his office at our lab an hour ago. Soldiers demanded that he tell them where Pang and Har were. I did not know if he knew, but he started crying and said Pang and Har wanted to defect. He offered to tell them everything. One of the soldiers bragged that he had better tell what he knew and they would compare it to the information they already had. He made it sound as if he knew more about this escape than Pang and Har’s boss. Someone has betrayed them.”
That could be you, darlin’.
She twisted to look over her shoulder and Tanner finally saw the face his ninja hid inside a hooded shirt. This was no kid. She had to be in her mid-twenties. The face turned up to his was more oval and narrow than the rounder shape he’d expected. She had a wide mouth instead of a puckered one, a narrow nose and sharp cheeks. In fact, the only thing that hinted at Korean in her blood was her exotic gaze that was too light to be brown.
Amerasian. A beauty.
But now he understood why she’d said US military as if she’d been sucking on a lemon. US soldiers had fathered a lot of kids in Asian countries. In Korea, mixed blood with other Asians was a step down from pure blood, but Amerasians? They weren’t even considered part of the Korean population. She hadn’t been simply abandoned by her father.
He’d marked her as an outcast in a country where she’d have no human rights.
How had she ended up working in a laboratory? And why take a risk to come here and help a Korean?
She must have sensed his suspicion and pressed her case. “What are we waiting for?”
“To hear back from my man.”
Seconds were ticking away with every thump of his heart. He had to decide which way to roll with her, because the minute he stepped from here all discussion would end. “Why are you here?”
“You need me.”
Like hell. “How do you figure that?”
“I know the city.”
“I do, too, darlin’. If that’s all you have, I don’t need you.”
“You know all the ways to leave Pyongyang?” she challenged with a gutsy load of irritation for someone in her situation.
Dingo reported, “Bad news, mate. Sandman got to our guide and the engine’s gonna blow.”
Shit. That meant their driver was dead and the truck was rigged with explosives.
Gunfire rattled in the distance. Maybe a few hundred yards away.
Dingo’s voice shouted in Tanner’s comm unit. “Shit. Taking fire. We’re moving.”
Decision made and he hoped he wasn’t wrong. Tanner yanked the woman around. “What’s the quickest way out of the city?”
“I will show you.” She told him where to send his men a kilometer north of their current position. “Tell them to wait for us next to a sculpture of a lion your size.”
More gunfire popped, sounding closer this time.
Heading toward the hotel.
Tanner relayed her directions to Dingo, changing her instructions at the end. “Wait for me somewhere you can see the lion sculpture. If I give you the go sign when I show up, then come out to join me. If not, you know what to do.” Get out of this city any way you can, Tanner finished silently in his mind.
Tanner released his ninja, aka Jin. “Head out, but know that I won’t hesitate to drop you with a shot if I see anything that so much as hints of a trap.”
“You will thank me before this night is over,” she muttered as she stepped past him.
Tanner kept that thought sealed behind his lips when the shouts of soldiers boomed outside the lobby entrance.
Jin was on the move, heading for the exit Tanner’s team had used.
Boots thundered over the concrete floor with soldiers entering the building just as Tanner stepped through the opening in the wall and picked up his pace.
The smell of hot oil and smoke permeated the air.
His ninja turned into a black slip of energy moving deftly past the temporary residences. She found passages Tanner had to turn sideways to get through and she changed direction every hundred steps to sweep around a building or blend into a wall of shadows.
Much as Tanner didn’t want to admit it, Jin moved with the stealth and cleverness he’d expect from someone on his team.
But she wasn’t on his team.
She pulled up short next to tires stacked in front of a rickety looking garage that faced a main highway. She tossed her arm back, waving Tanner to hide behind the tires that reeked of the stagnant water pooled inside them.
Tanner spotted what had stalled her progress.
Two soldiers stood with their backs to them, hiding behind a tuk-tuk parked along the curb on this side of the street. They used the banged-up, three-wheeled vehicle to shield their bodies and the rifles they held ready to use.
Tanner could see why she’d chosen this point to cross the two-lane street.
No lights lined either side of this stretch.
Nice and dark for making a run to the other side, if not for the soldiers waiting for someone.
Like his team.
If soldiers hid here, more would be all along this stretch of paved road if they’d been sent to watch and hunt for defectors.
Jin turned and made hand signals that he translated as wait here for me to distract the soldiers then you run across.
That couldn’t be right.
Did she think the soldiers would just let her pass by this time of night? Not a chance.
When he didn’t move, her forehead furrowed with a question then she waved him away and mouthed the word go.
He shook his head and slowly reached for her arm, drawing her back several steps until they had returned to the rear corner of the building. Once he had a sheltered position where he could watch the soldiers, he leaned close to her to protect his words.
A faint floral scent distracted him for a split second, allowing her an opening to berate him.
“If you know this city so well, you know that is the best place to cross.”
He ground his back molars and explained, “Wait here until I deal with them then I’ll wave you forward.”
“There will be more soldiers nearby who will hear any disturbance. I can distract those two while you run across. No noise.”
He studied her eyes, searching for the lie in her words. Was she waiting for him to step out then she’d raise the alarm for the soldiers to catch him? Or did she really mean to put herself at risk to cover for him?
He wasn’t sure which possibility was more disturbing. “What if they catch you?”
“They will not,” she declared, but he picked up on a smidgen of uncertainty in her words.
“But they might,” he argued.
“Then I will no longer be your problem.”
He asked her again, “Why would you take this risk?”
She looked away and shook her head then told him, “You are so stubborn. If we reach your men safely, I will tell you why.”
His gut was working overtime with figuring this one out, but until she gave him a reason to think otherwise he was going to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Your idea is too dangerous for you. Do as I say and we’ll both go together.”
Her head cocked to one side as she took his measure with her next look.
And the results are?
She didn’t share her assessment. Instead, she said, “Your men will trust nothing I tell them if you die.”
“You’ve got a point, Jin, but we’re wasting time here so follow my lead.”
“I am not the one who retreated and lost ground,” she chastised under her breath.
Saucy little pistol.
Tanner headed back toward the tuk-tuk, but slowed when one of the soldiers listened to his radio and replied in a low voice. He whispered something to his partner who nodded then they marched off.
Were they gone for good?
Tanner gave it sixty seconds then moved in, watching from side-to-side. Coast was clear. He waited beside the tuk-tuk and kept scanning the area as he waved Jin forward.
She reached him, did her own recon of both directions, and nodded before slipping around the little vehicle to cross the road.
Tanner had taken a step to follow when he heard, “Jeongji!”
Ice ran through his veins. He did as he was told and halted, turning to find a Nork bearing down on him with another Type 56 rifle.
That must be the weapon of choice tonight.
The minute this guy called in his buddies, this game was over.