"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 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 operations—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.