AT LIFEBOOK SERIALIZATION
Part five of Spengler’s spy thriller which pits China’s Ministry of State Security against the CIA in a deadly battle of wits.
Chapter 10: D’Aguilar Street
Paul wished he could talk to the old man now. His masters were sending him to find the Holy Grail of computing on the Chinese Mainland, except the quest was more Monty Python than Wolfram von Eschenbach. The girl at the repair shop in Tsim Shah Tsui was wrong, as wrong as it gets. It could be the intelligence coup of the century. Yeah, right, he thought. And I could be the long lost heir to the Imperial Throne of China.
The $100,000 had arrived in the diplomatic pouch and had been checked into a locker at the Topfit Gym in Sheung Wan. Paul had received the key from the courier in a brush pass and retrieved the bag. He transferred it into a backpack. He had rented a motor scooter from the headwaiter at a Cantonese restaurant on Des Voeux Road, one of several the delivery boys used for takeaway orders. He arrived early at the strip of bars on Lan Kwai Fong where the woman from the repair stall had told him to loiter, to check for surveillance. He walked the scooter up the hill from the foot of D’Aguilar Street where the pedestrian zone began, through the crowd of not-yet-besotted expats, ignoring the barkers who tried to elbow them into the drinking establishments that crowded central Hong Kong’s entertainment district. A couple of Western girls passed and beamed toothy smiles at him. He smiled back and moved on. The Schnurrbart was a German pub reconstructed with Teutonic thoroughness on the wrong side of the world, serving German draft beers, strudel and pig’s knuckles. He noticed but the flow of Saturday night revelers, nothing that looked like Chinese muscle – just inebriated expats and a few Chinese yuppies.
Paul left the scooter on the sidewalk outside and sat at the bar, the gym bag on his lap, and sipped a Pilsner until a few minutes after eight. He paid for the beer and turned left out of the bar, walking the scooter back down the hill on D’Aguilar towards Wellington Street. He donned a helmet, mounted the scooter, ignited the motor and waited at the corner. A woman in jeans and sneakers, her head in a kerchief, walked up the narrow sidewalk slowly and stopped beside him. It was the same Silk Road face he had met in Tsim Shah Tsui. Paul handed her the second helmet and whispered sharply, “Get on!” She climbed onto the pillion and placed the helmet over her head. Paul gunned the bike’s little engine and dashed past the cruising taxis on Wellington Street, veering left to Lyndhurst Terrace and left again on Hollywood Road. The woman wrapped her arms around his waist as he wove through traffic, bearing left on Arbuthnot Road, and then right on Upper Albert Road. They passed the Hong Kong zoo on the right as they climbed into Midlevels. Robinson Road was quiet and Paul slowed down to legal speed. He steered the scooter into a parking garage and dismounted, leading the woman quickly up a flight of stairs. They left the building through a service entrance on Conduit Road and crossed the street to another building where the Agency kept a small apartment.
A dozen red roses nestled in a vase on the coffee table. Paul went to the small refrigerator and took out two splits of champagne. “You open yours and I’ll open mine, and we’ll toast our new acquaintance.” The woman looked around fearfully and said nothing. “The room is clean,” Paul said. “And there’s no video of us coming.” “How do you know?” the woman asked. “I disabled the video system myself,” Paul replied.
Cautiously, she twisted the cork out of the split of champagne, and held it to her mouth, and then laughed. “I hadn’t expected this sort of welcome.”
“Those are just the amenities,” Paul said. “Here’s your present.” He fished a plastic sack out of the gym bag and removed from it ten stacks of $100 bills. “Do you have something for me?”
“I have to go to the bathroom to get it,” she said.
A minute later she returned with a micro memory card. Paul took a burner phone out of the gym bag, inserted the drive, and a video played. “I am Deng Yongmin, Professor of Computer Science at Peking University and director of the National Quantum Computing Laboratory. I received my PhD at Carnegie-Mellon University and was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University before returning to China. I have published in Transactions on Evolutionary Computation and several of my lectures in English, as well as Mandarin, are on YouTube. I am the inventor of an algorithm that allows conventional computer programs to run on quantum machines at many thousands of times the speed. China now can decipher the most complex American cryptography. Samples have already been provided to you. I want resettlement in the United States and $50 million.”
The phone’s screen went blank as the virus wiped out its ROM memory. The handset burned in Paul’s hand and he set it down on the coffee table. “Slick,” Paul said. “Now we can’t ID the speaker with voiceprints or facial recognition.”
“I have proofs,” the woman said. Richetti waited. She withdrew a small wad of paper from her brassiere and unfolded it.
Date: 2018 March 23, 04:55 (Saturday) Canonical ID:2018HONGK03259_b
Original Classification: Secret Current Classification: Top Secret
Handling Restrictions – Eyes Only to Station Chief
Character Count: 13667
TAGS:CH – China (Mainland) | CS – Clandestine Services | PFE Personnel File Evaluation COGNITION
Enclosure: N/A or Blank – Type:TE – Telegram (cable)
Office Origin: N/A or Blank
Office Action: ACTION EA – East Asia Directorate
Archive Status: Electronic Telegrams
From: Personnel Central Intelligence Agency Markings: Classified
To: Head of Station Hong Kong| D/NCS of Operations | D/NCS Intelligence.
Subject: Richetti, Paul
Born: Shanghai, June 6, 1980
Joined Clandestine Services: Feb. 17, 2017
Subject is cleared for operational work only at entry level. His language skills and command of tradecraft are exceptional. However, he displays hostility towards authority, reluctance to follow orders and a propensity towards violence. He cannot be entrusted with agent management or senior operational responsibilities.
“Hey,” said Richetti. “I resemble that remark. Now you know who I am. Who are you?”
Chapter 11: Surely Some Revelation Is At Hand
“Deng Guang-Yin,” said the woman. “I am Professor Deng’s daughter.”
“The Bodhisattva goddess of mercy,” Richetti laughed. “You don’t look the part. What do you study at Hong Kong University?”
“Early modernists – Swinburne, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Auden.”
“Have a favorite poem?”
Guang-Yin’s eyes narrowed and looked into the distance as she recited:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
“And do I have the pleasure of speaking to the Anti-Christ?”
Guang-Yin laughed. “Some Americans think that China is the Anti-Christ.”
“I grew up in Shanghai,” Paul laughed. “China isn’t the anti-anything. It simply is. Where did you grow up?”
“In Beijing. I’m a faculty brat, an only child, like most of my generation.”
“What do you for fun?”
“I play tennis and do yoga.”
“What do you do with your friends?”
“I don’t have a lot of friends,” she replied. “Most people of my generation worry about getting on the fast track to success. We don’t have real friends. When you’re in first grade you look around and try to figure out whom you’re going to walk over to get ahead. You are given a brush and an inkpot, and you spend four hours a day learning the characters. If your parents are ambitious, you play piano or violin, or maybe learn gymnastics, and you get tutoring in math because in third grade, you’re going to take an exam that will put you on an academic track. Your schoolmates are your enemies. Every one of them is an obstacle in the way of the place you want. You memorize everything – how to solve every kind of mathematics problem, Chinese classics, Chinese history. Get up, study, eat breakfast, go to school, study, come home, practice, study, eat, study, go to bed. You don’t date and you don’t go to parties, at least not often. And when it comes time for the gaokao – the college entrance exam – if you’re ambitious, you spend months in a cram camp studying 14 hours a day. Your mother rents a room near the camp and makes food for you.”
“Why would your father risk a bullet to get to the West when he’s on top of the pyramid in China?”
“Because of me,” Guang-Yin said. She unbuttoned the cuffs of her blouse and rolled up the sleeves and turned over her hands. Symmetrical white scars ran in two neat lines perpendicular to her wrists. “I couldn’t stand it. When I was 17, I tried to kill myself. My father found me in my room and called the ambulance and tied tourniquets on my arms.”
“Why blame China for your problems?”
“My dad was educated in America. He liked it there. He would have stayed, but he had to come back to China when his student visa expired. He used to tell me about the West. We used to read English novels together. His favorite was Great Expectations. That’s what got me interested in English poetry. I couldn’t fit into the Chinese system. It drove me crazy and my dad never forgave them. He sent me to study in Hong Kong instead of the mainland. It’s more like a Western university and there are classes in English.”
Paul caught himself staring and fished for something to say. “What’s he like?”
“He’s the ultimate geek until you get to know him. He’s caring and sweet.”
“When do I get to meet him?”
“When you approve his request. Then you can give him the good news in person.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Guang-Yin giggled. “I’m not going to grow up! In China, you are supposed to grow up when you turn six. Before that, you can run wild, but then you are the slave of the brush and ink. I want to do wild things and indulge my passions.”
Paul laughed. “You seem to have given a great deal of careful consideration to being wild and crazy. Give me an example.”
“All right,” said the woman, and took hold of his lapels. “Will you kiss me?”
“Because I’m scared, and I need a friend, and I can’t find a friend in the whole of China.”
They kissed, and more.
It was dark when Paul awoke. Guang-Yin slept in a curl with her back towards him. He had dreamed of the Foyou flea market in Shanghai that he used to visit as a young boy. The stalls were set into the ground level of two-story buildings. The tables piled with cheap bric-a-brac rose high in front of him because in the dream he was still small. In the back of one of the stalls a darkened room beckoned. He walked into it and the room became a dark tunnel, and he followed the tunnel to the end. There he saw a marble statuette of a ballerina, the elegant arms rising over the swanlike neck in the fifth position, the eyes hollow and empty. The high Magyar cheekbones and sharp chin of the statuette were those of mother. “I must go home and tell Mami,” Paul dreamed, but, still dreaming, remembered that his mother was dead. Awake, he felt very cold despite the ceramic heater that pushed hot air into the small room. He wrapped himself in the blanket and let his thoughts wander. What you feel is also evidence, and must be treated as evidence. Put your emotions on the cold white slab of the laboratory and dissect them, he recalled.
“We’ll leave separately,” Paul told Guang-Yin after she awoke. “Take the lift to the basement, turn right and right again, and follow the exit signs to the service entrance behind the hotel. No-one will bother you.”
“But what is going to happen?,” Guang-Yin said. “I’m afraid. You have to help me, Paul. I have no-one in the world but my dad and you.”
“I’ll be in touch.” He gave her a burner phone with the battery and SIM card removed and said: “Don’t put this together until you’re in a public place, preferably a crowded one. There’s one number in the memory. Send a text in Chinese – any text – to that number, and I’ll text you back with a time for a meeting, here, within a few hours. Then remove the battery and SIM card. Remember to remove both. Move to another location sometime later to check for a text. Is all that clear?”
She nodded. “Promise me you will help us!” Guang-Yin pleaded.
Paul put his arms around her. A lonely tear made its way down her cheek and she drew him close and kissed him. Paul got to the safe house in Midlevels early, put a bottle of Dom Perignon 2009 in an ice bucket, and arranged a dozen red roses in the cheap ceramic vase he had bought from the florist. Guang-Yin had texted him that morning and he set a meeting for 1 p.m.
At the door there stood a Guang-Yin quite different from the student in jeans and tennis shoes. She wore a crimson Shanghai Tang qipao and Manolo Blahnik stilettos. Her hair was clasped high in a French bun. Paul kissed her on the check and led her into the room. She squeezed his hand hard and gave him a look half joyful and half imploring.
“You look like Diaochan in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, who made the moon herself shy away for fear of comparison,” Paul said. He wasn’t impressed; he had grown up with Chinese girls, including some from wealthy families, and knew how they vamped themselves up when opportunity presented. But he wanted Guang-Yin to believe that a knight-in-shining-armor had fallen for her.
“Diaochan was a nasty schemer who made all the men fight over her!,” Guang-Yin laughed, holding fast to his hand. “I’m more like Heine’s lotus flower, the shy one who opens up only to the moon.” Paul knew the poem. Someone’s done their homework, he thought to himself.
“Now I see why your superiors think that you are crazy and irresponsible,” Guang-Yin purred. “Here you are spending your government’s money on expensive champagne!”
“Don’t mind that,” Paul answered, “This is my treat.” He filled two flutes and gave one to the woman. “What shall we talk about?”
“I’m scared, Paul. I am afraid they know about us and they are following me. I did exactly what you told me to do – I went to the Sheung Wan MTR station and put the SIM card and battery in the phone to text you, then I waited hours and went to Tsim Shah Tsui to get the answer. I was afraid you wouldn’t answer me. Forgive me for taking your time but I had to know you were listening.”
“You’re the most important thing in my life, Guang-Yin,” Paul smiled. “I’ll never have anything better to do. We don’t want to send signals too often just in case the big data program at Ministry of State Security is looking for a pattern, but we’re perfectly secure as matters stand. No-one in Hong Kong knows about you except for me and the station chief, and nothing has been said by any electronic communication. So there’s nothing to worry about.”
“There’s something else,” Guang-Yin said.
“Tell me about it.”
“You are only my second lover. There was a boy in Beijing when I was 18, but we were just kids fooling around. This is new for me Paul and a little overwhelming. But I have to know my feelings for you.”
Paul came over and kissed her.
“Help me with the zipper? And be careful. It’s really expensive.”
Chapter 12: The Assignment
“Your job,” said the chief of Hong Kong station, “is to familiarize Deng Guang-Yin with the exfil procedure. Make sure she has locations, procedures and code words committed to memory. Drill her until she really knows it – civilians under stress will forget their own names. You will conduct remote surveillance and monitor the progress of the operation until the woman and her father have left Beijing, at which point you will come back to Hong Kong. You don’t rate an operation of this importance or operation of any kind. You’ve been in Clandestine Services for less than three years and this might be the most important thing that the China Division has done, ever. Exigent circumstances put you in the middle of things, but don’t confuse a lucky accident with a promotion. If it were up to me you’d spend the next five years practicing dead drops and brush passes before you got near a live asset. If this ends well you can count on a promotion with my personal recommendation. If it doesn’t, your downside is, you’re dead, or an anonymous prisoner in a State Security dungeon, which probably is worse. So try not to screw this up, Richetti, and for Chrissake don’t embarrass me, or I’ll have your scalp.”
They were sitting in the front seat of the station chief’s car with white noise pouring out of the speakers, in case a car with a directional microphone was tailing them.
“No, Ma’am,” said Richetti. “What are we doing, and when?”
“We’ll take them out of Beijing by truck to Xinjiang and from there overland to Kyrgyzstan. There’s a new Beijing-to-Urumqi highway, and it’s a straight drive of about 40 hours. From there, our networks on the ground will take over the exfil. You don’t need to know about that. Your job is to prep them for the meet with the truck drivers and check that they get on their way. You keep a safe distance and observe the handover to the Uyghur guides who will take them out of the country. Then you come back to Hong Kong and do whatever twenty-somethings with time on their hands do.”
Back at his apartment, Paul turned on his laptop, and found quickly what he wanted, in an academic paper entitled, “Hyper-realistic face masks: a new challenge in person identification.” It read:
In several high-profile criminal cases, offenders have used hyper-realistic face masks to transform their appearance, leading police to pursue suspects who look nothing like the offenders themselves (e.g., different race or age). In other settings, airline passengers wearing hyper-realistic masks have boarded international flights without the deception being noticed. Such incidents are likely to become more common as hyper-realistic masks become easier to manufacture. These developments have potentially far-reaching implications for security and crime prevention.
That next morning Richetti took the rapid transit line across the bay to Kowloon. He joined the crowds waiting to board the new bullet train to Shenzhen. The journey to China’s technology hub used to take an hour, including long queues through mainland customs. With a Hong Kong identification card and a thumbprint, a traveler could pass immigration in seconds, hop on the train and step off in Shenzhen eight minutes later. Paul took out the Huawei smartphone he had bought for cash from a shop in Sheung Wan and photographed some of the passengers. A young man with a briefcase sat with a can of soda at the station snack bar. A commuter, Paul noted, and photographed him a dozen times from several angles. When the commuter left, Paul tipped the soda can into his shoulder bag and followed him out of the station to the Hong Kong branch of a Chinese company that made knockoffs of French handbags. Late the same afternoon, he staked out the building, waited until the same man left and followed him back to the station.
Back in his apartment, Paul removed the soda can from his bag with kitchen tongs and set in on the table. He found the jar of fine powder in the kitchen cupboard and retrieved a soft brush from the bathroom, and dusted the can until a thumbprint showed clearly. He applied a short length of transparent tape to the print and transferred it to a square of glass. Fixing the phone on a tripod, he photographed the print using the high-definition black-and-white function of the Huawei Mate 10’s Leica camera. He downloaded the photographs to his laptop. The day before he had found a website that promised:
On a bad hair day, you might wear a wig. Now, on a bad face day, you can wear your own face. We produce a 3DPF – three-dimensional photo form – that elevates the powers of standard 3D printing, and combines them with 3D modeling. We use photos and facial impressions of the subject and amalgamate the two to create an exact replica and 3D mold of the subject’s features. Precise skin coloring, pores, even ocular blood vessels and irises appear on the finished mask.
The CIA had used this technology for years, and it was no surprise that it had reached the public domain. Several websites offered to design hyper-realistic masks and generate them on 3D printers. Paul found one in Japan amenable to a rush job. He sent the photographs of the Shenzhen commuter via Whatsapp, and the website charged his debit card $5,000. The 3D-printer instructions came back in an email attachment the next day. He’d have to add the eyebrows later, but a good hairdresser could see to that.
A couple of minutes’ search found the next item he was looking for, in the South China Morning Post:
In one of the biggest organized cheating cases in China’s history, more than 120 university students used fake fingerprints to get into the test room and take the gaokao for high school graduates who had paid thousands of yuan for the service in Henan province in June 2014. The organizers bribed invigilators (inspectors who watch for cheating while the test is being conducted) to help the university students, who wore membranes with the candidate’s fingerprints, to enter the examination room and take the exams for the candidates, according to a report by China Central Television.
A few calls later, Paul had the phone number of Great China Higher Education Services, with an address on Connaught Road, a ten-minute walk from his apartment. He found the small building and walked up three flights to a dingy office where a middle-aged man with a large paunch was watching a Chinese soap opera on a small-screen television. HK$2,000 changed hands and Paul waited while the man transferred the photographic image of a fingerprint onto a latex membrane.
He walked up the hill to a Cantonese restaurant on Des Voeux Road and found the headwaiter. “I need to borrow one of your motorbikes for a couple of hours. Same rate as usual?” The restaurant kept a couple for the delivery boys, but it was still early and dinner orders wouldn’t come in until later in the afternoon. The head waiter made something on the side and Paul had an anonymous mode of transportation. He rode to an industrial park in the New Territories. At the back of a squat cement building, he found the nameplate: “Hong Kong 3D Printing Services.” An old man was watching a soap opera behind the counter, and a boy of no more than 18 sat in front of a laptop next to a 3D printer. “Do you speak Mandarin?,” Paul asked, Most Hong Kong Chinese speak Cantonese, a dialect with no more in common with the official language than German has with Italian. The boy did. “I need to print out a silicon mask from a CAD/CAM file.”
The boy said: “We do not do that kind of work. It is forbidden on the mainland – every 3D printing company must register with the authorities. We are not registered there but we do not want to get into trouble.” The old man asked him to translate and the boy repeated what he had said in Cantonese. “Go away!” said the old man in English. “No trouble.” Paul took out an envelope and counted out twenty thousand Hong Kong dollars – not quite $3,000 American. “By tomorrow morning,” Paul said, “and this much again.” The boy shook his head, but the old man shouted in Cantonese. “Forty thousand more,” said the boy.” Paul replied, “Thirty, or I take my business somewhere else.” The old man and the boy shouted at each other a bit more, and then the boy took Paul’s cash and memory card.
The taxi dropped him on Connaught Road across from the Macao Ferry. Paul walked up an alley towards Des Voeux Road and bought a burner phone at an electronics kiosk, and called the number that the professor had given him after dinner at the Nassau Club. A plummy English voice answered after several rings. “Felix Krull sent me,” Paul said. “Indeed,” said the plummy voice. “Be so kind as to take the next Number 4 tram passing Pottinger Road after 4:30 p.m.” The call ended. Paul pried open the back of the phone, removed the SIM card, and burned it with his lighter. He added the pieces of the phone to the trash of a vegetable stand. On Des Vouex Road, he found a public computer at an Internet café. He spent an hour studying medical photographs of self-inflicted wrist wounds.
The corner of De Voeux and Pottinger overflowed with homeward-bound locals at 4:30, and he had to time his entry into the tram queue carefully to squeeze aboard at the appointed hour. Paul and an elderly man in a cloth cap and tweed jacket were the only Westerners on the tram. It emptied and filled again at the Central Rapid Transit station, and the boarding passengers pushed the old man against him. “How may I be of service?” said the plummy voice. Paul replied, “I need a handgun.” “Neptune II at 11,” the old man said, and got off at the next stop.
Paul turned up at the cavernous bar in Wanchai twenty minutes early. A Filipino band belted out sentimental ballads at the decibel level of an artillery barrage. Several dozen Southeast Asian women nursed drinks around the enormous horseshoe of a bar and sidled up to inebriated tourists. Paul waited until a seat opened up at the bar and asked for a San Miguel. A couple of the ladies tried their luck with him; Paul chatted with them until they lost interest. He nursed the beer, ordered another, and finished it slowly. At midnight he climbed the stairs back up to Jaffe Road and took a red cab back to Sheung Wan. In the side pocket of his blazer he felt a bulge. He waited until he had closed his apartment door behind him to remove the small package wrapped in brown paper. He undid the string and removed a Model 418 Beretta. The gun was at least 30 years older than he was but well maintained. It rested in a chamois leather holster. The side panels had been removed, leaving a skeleton grip. The Brits still have a sense of humor, he chortled under his breath. There also was a second clip of .25 bullets. He raised the weapon; it weighed barely more than half a pound and would sink unnoticed into a front trouser pocket. He worked the slide a couple of times to check the condition of the spring, and dry fired it with an empty chamber. It would have to do. The little bullets had minimal stopping power, but a well-placed shot would shoot you just as dead as a .50 caliber machine-gun round.
Chapter 13: Lucky Star
Mustafa Özal left the Moldovan girl he had picked up in Tashkent at the hostel on Nandasi Street. She was a good cover for a spook posing as a scruffy traveler, and enthusiastic as well. Now she was sprawled on the narrow bed and snoring. He sent her a text saying that he’d gone for a stroll, and headed to the Erdaoqiao Market, across from the Grand Bazaar. He wore jeans, sandals, a three-day beard, and an old New England Patriots cap. He dickered with a souvenir vendor over the price of a toy oud, the Uyghur’s gourd-shaped lute, and bought a cup of ice cream made fresh on a pushcart. He passed the Erdaoqiao mosque and the small crowd of old men sitting outside smoking; then he crossed the market to the north end and passed the entrance to the Grand Bazaar on his left, turning right into Tianchi Road until he came to The People’s Hospital of Xinjiang on Longquan Street. A narrow alley branched off to the right and wound round back streets. There were more men in flat-topped Uyghur skullcaps and women with long dresses and headscarves here. Police presence was minimal and the few Chinese cops who passed him ignored him. Their concern was Uyghur separatists, and Uyghurs don’t set off bombs in their own back yard. He ambled through the narrow lane at the speed of driftwood. Five hundred meters from Longquan Street stood a squat office building painted in faded lime green with bars over the street-level windows. It displayed a brass plaque next to the door:
“Lucky Star,” Mustafa grunted to himself. “Now let’s go see Jabba the Hut.” At the top of the stairs, there was a large open room with desks and whiteboards, and a battered sofa facing an enormous television screen. On the sofa sat a fat man watching pornography. He became aware of Mustafa and jumped for the remote and stopped the video. “What do you mean coming here?” the fat man blurted. “Why wasn’t there a message? Were you followed?”
Mustafa said: “This is something special, Arzu. No electronic communications – total radio silence. No text messages on clean phones, no coded posts on message boards, no chalk marks on walls, no nothing. Everything has to be done personally, by a whisper. You’re finally going to earn your keep, Arzu. We’ve been paying a hundred thousand dollars a month into your Istanbul account for the past three years, and you’ve given us nothing of value.”
The fat man wriggled to his feed and shouted: “The ancient brotherhood of Uyghur warriors has put itself at your service, at risk to our lives and the lives of our children, and you call this nothing! We are jihadis, holy warriors and men of honor, preparing for the day when we will liberate our homeland from the infidel Han!”
Mustafa looked at the plasma television screen and back at the fat man. “That’s great, Arzu. That’s just great. You do just that. And now you have a worthy task before you,” Mustafa said. “The Americans need to bring two Chinese nationals out of Beijing and then get them across the border into Kyrgyzstan. You’re going to use one of your trucks coming out of Beijing to bring them to Xinjiang and then get them over the border.”
Arzu Samedi sank as far into the sofa as his bulk would allow. His pride, his stupid pride, Arzu reproached himself. It had happened when the Han police had given the 18-year-old Bayanchur’s body to his family without a head, after a Chinese sniper at the Torugart Pass put a 12.7 millimeter round through it. A few weeks later he had driven a truckload of washing machines into Kyrgyzstan, and stopped to get drunk at the Times Square bar in Bishkek, a long day’s drive from the border. Islam proscribed alcohol, and it was a matter of pride for him not to indulge in drink at home where the Han could laugh at him. What happens in Kyrgyzstan, though, stays in Kyrgyzstan. It was early and the bar was still empty. A couple of local businessmen with their concubines crooned Russian pop songs into the karaoke machine. Arzu drank Chivas Regal and stared sullenly at the big golden Buddha behind the bar. What an insult to Muslims, he thought, to place a pagan idol in a public place! Never mind that alcohol is proscribed.
How he got talking to the American he couldn’t remember later, but before very long they were sitting in one of the tented booths on the bar’s back terrace with a bottle of Russian Standard in an ice bucket. The American spoke some Turkish and understood Uyghur dialect. He had a gap between his front teeth and wore Chinese imitation cowboy boots, a wide-brimmed leather hat, and blue jeans. He lit Marlboros with an old Zippo lighter and didn’t seem concerned about the rate at which he peeled 5,000 Som notes from a thick wad. A couple of Uzbek girls came over to their table. Marlboro Man bought them drinks and flirted with them in Russian and sent them off with tips.
Arzu opened his heart to the stranger. For a thousand years, his people had traded on the fringe of the desert and made a modest living between Turk to the West and Han to the East. When he was young the Han ruled with a hard hand but left the people to their modest lives. Then came the coal miners and the oil drillers, and the ancient Silk Road sprouted oil rigs and became tangled with oil pipelines and high-tension wires. Highways cut through the desert, straddled by refineries and power stations. And yet more Han came to Urumqi. They tore down the beautiful old Grand Bazaar and rebuilt it as a tourist parody. They ripped down the ancient alleys where tinsmiths and jewelers had honed their skills over centuries. They demanded that the children learn Chinese characters and study Chinese propaganda. And they trampled on the religion that the Uyghurs had held to for a thousand years, forcing the men to work on Muslim holidays and confiscating religious literature. If you tried to fight back, the Han butchered you; had he not buried his cousin’s 18-year-old son, decapitated by a Chinese bullet?
The American listened to his story, and asked crazy questions: Did he think that a Uyghur uprising was possible in Xinjiang? The Han had the province locked down so tightly that the Uyghurs were convinced that State Security knew how many times they farted after dinner. But Arzu wasn’t in Xinjiang, but in Bishkek, drinking good Russian vodka. Arzu was a storyteller, and he felt expansive, so he invented one. There was an ancient brotherhood of Uyghur warriors, Ardu whispered to the American, founded by Timur the Lame in preparation for his jihad against the Ming dynasty. When the hated Han came to Xinjiang and suppressed the East Turkestan Republic after the 1949 Revolution, Arzu continued, it went underground, its secrets and countersigns passed from father to sun. How many were still loyal to the brotherhood?, the American asked. That Arzu could not answer; every member knew only the members of his cell, and only the cell leader knew his superior in the invisible network. Did the brotherhood have weapons? There were many weapons left over from all the terrible wars of the past hundred years, Arzu continued. He personally knew of a cache of a hundred Russian pepesha submachine guns buried deep in the Taklamakan Desert with their drum magazines, and there were many more elsewhere, packed in Cosmoline and triple-wrapped in oilcloth. Arzu had heard stories of secret arms caches but never believed them, but since the American was buying the drinks, he thought it amusing to impress him.
The next day Arzu wobbled towards his truck with a hangover, and the American was sitting in the cab with a gym bag stuffed with 100 RMB notes. “What’s that for?” asked Arzu. “That’s to help the brotherhood of Uyghur warriors,” the American said. “If you can set up an overseas bank account, this will just be a down payment.” The news reports about China’s roundup of in-country CIA networks hadn’t appeared yet, and even if they had, Arzu couldn’t have read them on the censored Chinese websites. The Great Firewall of China kept out news that the Communist Party didn’t want the Chinese to hear. There was no way for Arzu to guess that a fiftyish official in Langley whose job was to manage now-defunct networks had to find another way to use his budget, or lose it and his job as well. The American had sent a coded cable to Langley; it arrived at lunchtime in the US, and by 5 p.m. the China Section had approved “Operation Timur,” in deference to the Scourge of Islam who died in a winter storm on the borders of China at the turn of the 15th century, before he could challenge the Ming Dynasty. A few weeks later the American stopped by the Langley office of the fiftyish official. “What do you make of your buddy from Bishkek?,” the head of China section asked. “I think we bought ourselves a carload of prime bullshit from this fat Uyghur,” Marlboro Man said. “I don’t believe in warrior brotherhoods or a buried cache of Russian grease guns. But there is something shaking. The one part of the story that fatso didn’t invent was about a young cousin who got his head blown clean off his shoulders. He seemed really worked up about that. What they can do for us is very unclear to me and whatever it is, we’re overpaying for it. If you ask me, it sounds like Our Man in Urumqi.”
“Can you maintain effective communications with them?”
“Not by any electronic means. But this is Central Asia. There are always travelers, merchants, truck drivers, and tourists crossing the border. After all, Xinjiang is supposed to be the gateway of China’s Belt and Road plan, so they can’t seal it off from the rest of the world. My question is whether we want anything to do with these characters in the first place.”
“What do you mean, ‘We,’ Paleface?” the section chief grinned. “My payroll is down by about a headcount of 50 in the past two years, thanks to the Ministry of State Security’s executioners. The Agency has money burning a hole in its pocket for China Humint. Maybe it’s money badly spent, but better badly spent than handed back to the Agency bean counters.”
“We’re rich,” Arzu had told his brother Muhemmet back in Urumqi. “The Americans are fools. I made up a story about a secret resistance network of Uyghur warriors, and they believed me. Took me seriously. I did not set out to deceive him, only to entertain him, but as he deceived himself, it is not we who cheat him, but he who cheats himself.” Arzu used the American’s cash to set up a business importing Halal food from Turkey and sent Muhemmet to Istanbul to set up a bank account to pay the Turkish vendors. Together they invented a list of cell leaders with code names, reserving the names “Genghis” and “Temujin” for themselves. With money in the Istanbul bank account, they opened Lucky Star trucking and hired some of their many relations as drivers. Arzu wasn’t a bad trader, and before long he found a shoe factory in an industrial park west of Beijing that wanted skins from Kyrgyzstan, and an electronics distributor in Bishkek that wanted rice cookers and washing machines from China. A first cousin once removed had attended university. Titularly a clerk at the office of Lucky Star, the boy spent the day inventing reports out of local news reports, bazaar gossip, and his own imagination, to be copied onto micro memory cards and sent across the Kyrgyz border for the benefit of the eager American waiting in Bishbek. Arzu became a man of substance, with a villa and a concubine. But he trembled sometimes at karma, which would come one day to claim all of the good things that had come to him by deception. This day had now arrived.
“It’s impossible!” Arzu sputtered at the American. “The trucks are searched and ID’s are checked. The border guards know my men by sight but if they see a stranger, especially a Chinese, they will take photographs and fingerprints and send them to the Ministry of State Security for verification. The Han will come down upon us and destroy us. You cannot ask this of me!”
“You know something, Arzu?” said Mustafa, and lit a cheap Hongtashan cigarette. He took a drag, winced, and ground it into the handmade carpet at Arzu’s feet. “You’re a fat lying piece of shit. We know exactly what goes on at the Torugart customs station. The Chinese border guards don’t search your trucks. They open the back and take a couple of smartphones or tablets which the drivers leave there for them. It’s real simple. You build a little compartment in the back of a truck with a ventilation system and a chemical toilet for your passengers, you stack the electronic junk you’re carrying in front of it, and you leave the same presents for the border guards in front. Once you get to Bishkek you rip out the compartment and stuff the back full of hides.”
Arzu couldn’t fight karma. “When is this to happen?”
“Very soon,” Mustafa said. “Prepare a truck. F*** this up, Arzu, and I personally will make you wish you were sitting in a Chinese jail with electrodes hooked to your gonads.”
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Next week: Chapter 14 – The Light Bulb
About the Author: David P. Goldman has written the “Spengler” column at Asia Times since 2001. His previous books include How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You. He has published extensively in major media including The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of American Affairs, The American Interest, First Things, Tablet Magazine and PJ Media. He has directed major research groups at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Cantor Fitzgerald, and received Institutional Investor Magazine’s award for research excellence. He consulted for the National Security Council during the first Reagan Administration and for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment during 2011-2013. From 2013 to 2016, he was a managing director at Reorient Group, a Hong Kong investment bank, and has published and lectured extensively about China. This is his first work of fiction.
“Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service and we’ll all give the same answer: Oswald Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” – Herbert E. Meyer, special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration.