In Good Company Chapter 1: All Good Things...
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<email@example.com>
Date: 25 May 2007, 2:28 am
April 8th, 2048, 9:15 AM (local time)
"Satellite intel confirms initial reports. It's not a defeat—it's a Goddamn rout."
"Jesus Christ," bureau chief Michael Pennant breathed. He opened his mouth to continue, but there was nothing to say. It was a crippling disaster, in a stroke negating years of tireless work, billions of dollars, and the optimistic, almost desperate hopes of the entire intelligence community.
His companion, Director of Intelligence Stanley Friedman, continued with a hollow voice. "Dhaka still stands, but the lines have disintegrated. The war is over. Bangladesh is lost."
"Have the Joint Chiefs been told?"
"Not by us, but I'm sure they know by now. Man upstairs will be calling soon, no doubt."
Pennant gazed up at the cold blue light of the fluorescent bulb humming quietly above until its intensity overcame him. He ran his hands down his smoothly shaven face and across his finely pressed shirt—thinking as he did so that while he had conducted his mundane morning ritual the centerpiece of his contribution to the Agency had undone itself.
The door to the briefing room opened and a woman carrying a laptop at her side walked briskly in. She was small, blond, and middle aged, with piercing blue eyes that brought the room's inhabitants immediately to life.
"Director," Friedman greeted her, somewhat surprised.
"Gentleman," Samantha Dowell acknowledged, cutting immediately through the formalities. "I have become aware this morning of a circulating rumor which has caused me a great deal of concern. I trust it is unfounded?" Her voice did not contain a great deal of optimism.
For a moment, both were silent. Eventually, Pennant shrugged. "I'm afraid they're true, ma'am."
The Director of Operations set her laptop on the conference table without opening it. She began to slowly circle the room. "How did this happen?" she asked, sounding, more than anything, irritated.
"The Burmese launched a major offensive about twelve hours ago," Friedman told her. "Once they got through, the line just broke. The Bengalese committed nearly everything they had to the front. What reserves are left are retreating as fast as they can, dumping weapons, supplies
everything." He shook his head. "No one saw this coming. The Burmese are
"Well supplied, at any rate," Dowell growled.
"If India had committed, we wouldn't be in this mess," Pennant spoke up angrily.
"India's involvement would have prompted a war with China," Friedman countered with equal vigor. "In any case, the Bengalese didn't want a Hindu army in their country."
"Yea? How about asking them now."
Dowell slammed her hand upon the table. "Enough. Leave revisionism to the historians."
"How should we proceed?" Friedman asked her.
"Obviously, we'll have to formally brief the White House. Before we do, though, I want to have something to give them besides a mea culpa. All the Congressional Committees that want a piece of us will be clamoring at the gates after this little catastrophe."
Pennant winced at this, but spoke his piece unabated. "We know the Chinese will take advantage of these events to the fullest. They fuelled this proxy war with considerable zeal. They seem to be intent on further isolating Thailand."
"Word from all bureaus suggest the Chinese have long sought to solidify their hegemony over the region by incorporating Thailand into their sphere of influence," Friedman agreed. "With the fall of Bangladesh, it will look ripe for the taking."
"Do we have any specific intel on this threat?" Dowel asked.
"Then we need some." She turned to face the Bureau Chief. "Pennant: who's your best man in Thailand?"
April 8th, 2048, 9:20 PM (local time)
Evening brought little respite to the oppressive heat of Thailand's capital, though Agent David Taylor was at least thankful for the sun's passage. It was the humidity that made it so unbearable, an invisible, suffocating gauze that was drawn constantly across the mouth and nose. A thick, almost tangible layer of smog that forever enshrouded the city combined to make the conditions almost unlivable. The locals seemed used to it and his colleagues seemed too enamored by the beauty of their surroundings to mind, but Taylor could only dream of a winter on the plains and pray for a change of station.
Sitting across from him was his subordinate, Miguel Guerrero, gently fanning himself with one section of the New York Times while reading another. On the cover of his makeshift fan was news of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia, though Guerrero was reading the sports highlights. They saw more than enough of real life on the job.
For his part, Taylor could do little to entertain himself. Besides his physical discomfort—periodically pulling his sweat drenched pants from the surface of his chair—he was nervous about the operation. In a country that was conceivably teeming with Chinese Ministry of State Security Agents, they had uncovered but one tenuous thread to lead to any of them. An employee at Government House had recently offered inside information on the back channels and her frequent travels to the city's slums and side streets suggested that she had found a customer. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that the buyers were MSS or representatives of any government at all. More likely the culprits were mere criminals, gunrunners and drug lords who thrived in great numbers in the depression that had crippled Southeast Asia for the last decade.
This, however, was not what troubled him most about the operation. The mark herself was an enigma; she was as slippery as an eel, shaking their tail more than once by dint of what he had come to judge as counter-espionage training. She appeared to be Thai, but her background check was spotty at best, full of inexplicable holes and false credentials. It was possible that she was herself an MSS plant, but the brass had ordered them to keep their distance until they could ascertain something concrete.
The hotel receptionist kept looking over at them, which did little to alleviate his uneasiness. When the man turned to talk with a guest, Taylor pulled his concealed mike surreptitiously closer. "Any change?" he asked quietly.
"The ground floor light is still on," his man upstairs reported. "Can't make out any movement."
"Acknowledged," he replied just before the receptionist threw him another hostile glare.
He turned around to peer out the window, studying the scene outside. It could have been any street in Bangkok: low lying tenements and barred up shops set against the glittering background of the city center—a ubiquitous juxtaposition in Thailand. Directly across from the hotel was a private flat where their mark was meeting with her contacts. The contacts were different each time, usually Chinese nationals, always proxies. It seemed thoroughly professional, which gave him hope that this was indeed the real deal, but there was as yet no evidence that this was anything but common malfeasance. The Thai government was notoriously venal.
A gentle vibration in his pocket stirred him from his contemplation. Pulling out his cell phone, he checked the caller ID and raised his eyebrows in surprise. "It's Langley," he said, almost to himself.
Guerrero looked up with narrowed eyes. "What could they want?"
He finally answered, bringing the phone to his ear. This should be good, he thought. "Yes?"
"Agent Taylor?" The voice was female.
"Yes ma'am. May I ask who I'm speaking to?"
"Agent, this is Samantha Dowell."
Taylor silently mouthed the word "Shit" to his companion. "How may I help you, Director?" Guerrero dropped his newspaper and leaned closer in.
"What's the word in Thailand on the war?"
There was no need to specify which. "The local news is reporting a major battle at the front," he said. He stood up to walk to the bathroom, out of earshot of the increasingly curious receptionist, leaving a frustrated Guerrero behind. "There is some talk that the Burmese have made a push towards Dhaka."
"It's worse than you know. The Bengalese army has disintegrated—there's nothing left. Dhaka is being shelled as we speak. War's over, Taylor."
For a moment, he was speechless. It seemed far too sudden for a reversal of such magnitude. "What position does that put us in now?"
"As I'm sure you realize, this is a worst case scenario for Thailand. We've known for some time now that the Chinese would look to Thailand if Bangladesh fell to complete their dominion over Southeast Asia. We still have no specific intel on the nature of the threat, however."
It did not seem like a deliberate shot at him or his team, but he felt stung nonetheless. "What would you like us to do, ma'am?"
"I understand you are following a promising lead."
"Yes ma'am," he said, dissembling his own misgivings. "We're tracking her right now."
There was a pause. "Now? Right now?"
"She's meeting clients with suspected MSS ties as we speak."
Another pause. "I want you to pick her up ASAP," she ordered eventually. "And whoever she's meeting with."
"Ma'am, we've yet to confirm anything concrete on this woman. It's possible that intervention at this point would compromise the operation."
"Agent, there's a lot of pressure at home for solid intelligence." Code for political meddling. "It's a risk we're going to have to take."
"Yes ma'am. We'll contact you when we have her."
"Very good, agent." She hung up.
Taylor left the bathroom to rejoin his colleague, who stood up as he approached. "What was all that about?"
"Orders straight from the top, Miguel," he said, taking his seat as if he had no worry. "We're bringing her in tonight. Time to finally find out who in hell this woman is."
It was not long before his surveillance team announced movement. "The light just turned off, sir," his man reported. "I think she's coming out now."
"Understood. Stay in position to pick up her contact." He turned to Guerrero. "Time to go."
They exited the hotel and lingered on the concrete patio, their eyes on the door across the street. Taylor immediately felt himself sweat again in the balmy heat, but in the excitement of action he did not greatly mind. He was nervous that all his efforts would soon lie in tatters, but the impending satisfaction of his curiosity brought him some measure of comfort.
Taylor scanned the opposite side of the street and soon found what he was looking for: a dark blue sedan parked about halfway down the block with two shadows barely discernible behind the windshield. "Red, I want you to stay about fifty meters behind us while we track the target," he said into his mike.
"We're not picking her up right away, sir?" the agent asked, sounding confused.
"Negative. There are too many people about, it could get too messy. We'll follow her to her apartment, take her there."
Guerrero took a step closer to him. "Are you sure that's a good idea, sir? She's lost us before."
"Then we'll just have to be careful, agent."
Across the street their mark, whose face had become so familiar to all of them in the past weeks, finally emerged from the flat and began walking west; thankfully, in the direction of her home. "It's go-time, guys," Taylor said into his mike.
He and Guerrero began their pursuit, keeping a comfortable distance and about a dozen people between them and their target. She moved quickly, forcing them to push past many in the crowd to keep pace. It was a staple tactic of counter-espionage: a cursory glance behind her could quickly identify those struggling to follow. She did not turn, however, and Taylor could only hope her haste was for another reason. He ordered Guerrero to cross and follow parallel to their mark.
It did not take long for their surroundings to morph into the opposite side of Bangkok. Taylor was always shocked by the lack of transition between abject poverty and the bounties of capitalism that Thailand had so eagerly and successfully embraced. Having walked no more than three blocks from the hotel, they had left behind the squat concrete slums and were now amidst one of the city's many steel and glass corridors—endless stretches of offices, condos, and skyscrapers that soared almost beyond sight. The depression had not affected Thailand half so much as its neighbors; in fact, Western interests had brought the country to new heights of prosperity. Indeed, the scene could have been from any American city: suspended high above were luminous billboards advertising Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz. Even many of the faces that passed by were foreign, great masses of refugees, investors, and those simply looking for opportunity in the burgeoning new economy. In one of history's great ironies, Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid colonization, was the now the West's last bastion in the region.
The change in scenery presented an increasing challenge to Taylor and his companion. The crowds began to thicken and he intermittently lost sight of his target. "You got eyes on her, Blue?" he asked Guerrero as she was obscured once more by bobbing heads and lumbering bodies.
Guerrero, looking briefly across the street, said, "She's about thirty feet in front of you."
Worry began to seep into his mind. It was difficult to tell if she was actually heading back to her apartment. Her routes were circuitous and forever changing, and often she would not even end up back at her home. He began to wonder if sacrificing speed for discretion had been the right choice.
A piercing wail suddenly blasted from above. The effect on the throngs was as a pebble in the pond; a brief ripple soon overcome by sheer mass. People reversed directions almost mechanically and were soon flowing in a single direction, all with such smoothness as to think sirens were not blaring over their heads.
Taylor swore into his com. "It's a Goddamn bombing drill!" The Thai government, understandably nervous about its proximity to China in view of its Western slant, had instituted a program of irregularly scheduled bombing drills to prepare its people for what was viewed to be an inevitable confrontation. "Blue, do you have a visual on the target?" he yelled above the cacophony of the sirens.
A brief pause. "Negative, sir." People were pouring out of shops, restaurants, and hotel lobbies to join the flood of humanity. The crowd became, in an instant, an impenetrable mass of bodies.
"I can't get to her," he yelled, trying without success to push through the throng. Several people around him stared at him curiously as he screamed seemingly to himself. "Red, move ahead to the terminal ahead of us." The city's subway stations doubled as its bomb shelters, and the one down the block was hopefully the destination of their mark.
Taylor continued desperately to get ahead of the crowd, but it was impossible. People were packed tightly on the sidewalk, shuffling slowly ahead with admirable determination. There was a great deal of quiet complaining amongst them, many decrying the uselessness of this increasingly frequent exercise, others frustrated at the interruption of their evening. It was all good natured grumbling, however, even humorous; there was no genuine dissent or attempt at disruption. It was generally accepted as a part of life, even approved as a measure of preparedness. Even now, Taylor could not help but appreciate the mentality of those on the precipice, of those to whom constant danger was normality.
Just as he was prepared to accept defeat, his earpiece crackled to life. "We got her, Silver," Red called in. "By the subway entrance."
He silently breathed a sigh of relief. "Come around and pick me up," he ordered. "Blue; sit tight."
The street was still congested with vehicles trying to find parking, but with nimble driving Red soon had the car on the curb next to him. He fought his way towards it, elbowing several people out of the way, and for the first time came face to face with the woman he had tracked tirelessly for over three weeks. He got in the back, sandwiching her between himself and an agent at the opposite end. "Hello," he greeted her with a smile. She did not reciprocate.
"You're Americans, aren't you," she asked instead.
"Red, get us off the road," he commanded the driver, ignoring their guest. Thai police patrolled the streets after the drill to ensure compliance. If they were discovered in such a state by local police there would be uncomfortable questions.
"You people are CIA, aren't you?" she pressed. Her English was impeccable.
Taylor looked at her inquisitively. "That's quite a conclusion to jump to." He studied her face carefully now that he was finally close to her. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties. Her features were very fine; her skin was smooth and tanned and complimented very well her straight black hair. Prominent cheekbones highlighted her most remarkable feature: deep, charcoal eyes that gazed back at him without fear.
"I knew someone had been tracking me," she told him. "Now I know who."
His driver had managed to get off the main street and was now driving fast down a nearly empty side street. Only a few laggards were still on the sidewalks, moving hurriedly to the nearest station. Well behind them a patrol car was urging people to hurry.
"And just who are you," he asked her with genuine interest.
He smirked. "Is that right?"
"You don't believe me."
She shook her head impatiently. "Who else would I be?"
Taylor found himself unable to look away from her eyes. In them he saw no deception, only a plea for understanding. At this point she had little to gain from lying when the truth was now just a phone call away. And he had to admit, the idea that they'd been tracking an agent of Thailand's National Intelligence Agency was intriguing.
"Black," he addressed the agent at the other end, "send her photo to our friends at NIA and ask them to confirm. Tell them we have her in custody."
The car turned up a ramp to a parking garage, coming to a stop in the middle of the near vacant lot, out of sight from the street below. The driver got out to patrol the area.
"Let's say you are who you claim to be," Taylor allowed after a pause. "What have you been doing?"
"I was a plant inside Government House," she began quickly, her nerves at last showing through her flurry of words. "I was given a feasible cover and some time to establish credibility. Eventually I put some inside information on the table to see who would bite."
He felt his nerves rise almost as much as her own. "Someone did."
"Yes. I was contacted by The Ministry about two days later."
Taylor allowed himself a moment to enjoy the feeling of vindication. "You met with an MSS agent?"
"Only once, the first time. I got a call on my home phone instructing me to meet him at a hotel room in Yan Nawa."
They had never tracked her to the Yan Nawa district; her primary meet must have been before they had learned of her actions. "What did he want?"
"Just what I offered. They wanted border information, patrol schedules. They were especially interested in port security."
"That's hardly actionable."
"True, they didn't give me anything. My people tracked them after our meeting, though, and intercepted a phone call made to the Chinese Consulate. He discussed our meeting and inquired about a money transfer from a Vietnamese company. It was assumed this was connected with our meet."
"A Vietnamese company?"
She nodded. "Lang Son Utilities was its name. We tracked it down, found out it was a private firm—which is of course illegal for a utilities company in Vietnam. And surprise, it was owned by Chinese investors."
"A front company."
"Yes. We tried to determine the origins or destination of the transfer, but Lang Son Utilities is no longer in existence—it just vanished."
"What have you been doing since?"
"Meeting with their functionaries, feeding them red herrings. I tried to elicit more, but they never knew anything and I could never reestablish contact with the agent. The op was about the be shut down."
"Is that all?" he asked her.
"Yes." She bore deeply into his eyes, as if trying to impress the veracity of all she had said upon him.
At length, the agent across from him hung up his phone after a brief exchange. "NIA confirms her as one of their own," he told Taylor.
"Jesus Christ," he exclaimed quietly, though after their conversation he was not truly surprised. He slowly shook his head and frustration crawled into his voice. "You know, we asked NIA about you. They told us they didn't have anything to give us."
"We are yet a sovereign country," she said fiercely. "We don't answer to you anymore than to the Chinese."
"You don't have the resources to follow up on a lead like that," he returned irritably. "Help us help you."
He climbed out of the car. The sirens had stopped and he could hear people yelling in the streets below. The patrolling agent gave him a cursory nod, signaling all was well. He called Langley and was quickly put through to Dowell.
"Agent Taylor," she said in greeting. "How goes the operation?"
"We have her in custody, ma'am."
"Good. Bring her in for questioning."
"Actually, she was quite cooperative. She provided us with intel on the scene."
"Is that right?" she asked, sounding slightly amused. "You find it credible?"
"I believe so, ma'am. She's an NIA agent."
For a moment there was silence, then he thought he heard faint shuffling in the background. "Confirmed?" she said at last.
"Hard to say."
"Alright, agent," she began with a sigh, "bring her in and debrief her. And do it quickly—NIA will be blustering for their agent back soon."
"I'll be in touch." She hung up.
Taylor was about to call his man back to the car, but reconsidered. "Hold for a second, Red," he instructed over the com. He walked briskly to the edge of the car park to the far side of a pillar, out of sight. Grasping the steel balustrade, he wrung it tightly in his hands to stop their shaking. Adrenaline still coursed through his veins even as his mind told him it was over; he felt his heart beat painfully in his chest. He delighted in being consumed by it.
He looked down at the scene below: it was a well appointed boulevard, a line of Oriental lamps dangling above plush cafes and small boutiques. They were all brightly lit, empty, and locked. People were slowly drifting back to the streets even though the drill had not entirely ended, emerging from underground to continue their lives. Shopkeepers returned to their businesses, lovers to their restaurants. As if nothing had happened.
"I'll be in touch," she had said. He wondered what she had meant.