The captain of the North Korean freighter watched the barometer with growing concern. The wind was already gusting to thirty knots, driving a hard rain against the bridge. His ship rode restlessly in the choppy waters of the Yellow Sea and he ordered the helmsman to bring the bow closer to the wind. The fishing vessel was three hours overdue and there was still no sign of her. He could see nothing through the deteriorating weather but he knew that soon the seas would begin to roll and their mission would be in peril.
He would have abandoned the mission two hours earlier, had it not been for the security officer who stood behind him, watching his every move. He was a mindless, political hack who knew nothing of the sea and cared nothing for his men or his ship, but the captain knew a bad report could cost him his command and, perhaps, his freedom. To transfer cargo in this weather, in these seas, was insanity but the choice was not his. He also knew full well, that if the cargo were damaged or lost, it would be better for him to follow it into the sea. And so he stood and watched, and waited.
There was a stillness among the crewmen. They were an experienced crew and they did not voice their fear, but he could see it in their faces. They did not like being dead in the water with a storm coming in. The wind, moaning through the steel winch cables was like the howl of a Kraken, waiting for them in the dark. As if things were not bad enough, they were blind. Their ancient radar equipment had failed only an hour out of port and the technician did not have the parts to fix it.
The captain rechecked the ship's position. He knew that the storm closing in on them was not their biggest problem. His real concern lay to the south where a typhoon was steadily working its way across the Pacific. He had calculated there would be ample time to reach port before it hit, but that had been three hours ago. The radio operator stepped onto the bridge and handed him a printout. The typhoon was moving west-northwest and was now tracking directly for Manila. It would be a close thing. If the typhoon held its forward speed they would avoid the worst of it. When it crossed Luzon it would lose some of its strength, at least for a while. Once it entered the warm waters of the South China Sea, there would be hell to pay for any ship in its path.
Suddenly, a cry came up from the aft watch. Lights off the port quarter. The captain turned to the first mate and told him to prepare to take on cargo. The captain watched warily from the bridge as the fishing vessel came alongside. There was nothing he could do but keep his bow into the wind and hold his ship steady against the storm. Everything else depended on the skills of another captain, and the vagaries of the sea. He did not envy the task.
The smaller vessel came alongside and the hawsers were cast. His men rotated the davits out over the rail and the sound of the winches filled the ship as the lifting hooks were lowered. On the smaller vessel a hatch cover was lifted and, inch-by-inch, a pallet rose out of its hold. It held a rectangular shape, about the size of a refrigerator lying on its side, and was covered with a green canvas tarp. As soon as the pallet cleared the deck of the fishing vessel it was manhandled aft.
The crewmen struggled to secure the twin hooks, which were slamming against the hull of the freighter as it rocked unevenly beside them in the turbid water - an ominous drumming in the dark night that gripped the hearts of the seamen like an icy claw. The rain and wind tore at them and it was all they could do to keep their footing. Suddenly the ship lurched and one of the hooks slammed into the group of waiting men, sending two of them sprawling across the deck, and casting them into the sea.
The deck crew scrambled to save them as the pallet slipped precariously along the wet deck. The captain of the fishing vessel shouted orders above the din. The men looked up at him angrily, but they did not disobey. They threw a flotation ring over the side and returned to their work. One of the crewmen had been helped back on board. The other was surrendered to his fortune. The men knew the danger they were facing. They knew delaying to save one man's life in these seas could cost them their ship. They cursed the weather and returned to their task. There was no time to think about it.
Finally, the hooks were secured and the men guided the pallet as it inched its way upward toward the deck of the freighter. As soon as it had cleared their heads, they ran to release the hawsers, anxious to get free of the hulking vessel that loomed over them like a leviathan.
Without warning, an enormous wave hit the small vessel broadside. Had they been on the open sea they would have rode over it like a cork, but they were only a few feet from the hull of the freighter and the wave lifted them and slammed them into the side of the larger ship like a toy. The wooden hull strakes cracked and the air was filled with the ominous sound of groaning metal, and the cries of terrified men. Seawater began to spray through the cracked hull of the fishing vessel and below decks, the engine crew struggled to wedge timbers against the damaged strakes. Above them, the pallet slammed into the hull of the freighter and the cargo shifted as the restraints started to give way. The men on the freighter had no time to worry about the fate of the fishing boat, as they struggled to keep from losing their cargo to the sea. It took every ounce of their strength, but they finally managed to swing the pallet on board and lash it to the deck.
Below them, the smaller vessel rolled violently sideways and the sea washed over the gunwales and began pouring into the open hatch. The small vessel tried to right itself but she was pinched against the hull of the freighter and too much water had run into her hold, disrupting her center of gravity. She was listing badly. Another wave hit and she was slammed again into the hull of the larger vessel, this time crushing the deckhouse and spilling the captain onto the deck below.
With no one at the wheel, the small vessel began to lurch and buck. The deck hands succeeded in releasing the aft ropes, but before they could move forward, another wave washed over the deck and threw them into the sea. The stern swung itself away from the freighter and lifted violently, sending its bow into the side of the freighter's hull. The freighter shuddered, as if staggered by a blow. The fate of the fishing boat was now sealed. The forward lines snapped and she rolled slowly over onto her side.
The men on the freighter stared in horror at the inverted hull of the fishing vessel, staining their ears against the moaning of the wind for the cries of the crew. They heard a few screams, and then nothing. A searchlight snapped on and swept over the debris floating below them, but there was not a man to be seen. Slowly, the stricken vessel slipped into the deep. The captain ordered a boat to be lowered but the political officer countermanded the order. He insisted the captain get underway immediately.
The captain delayed as long as he could, claiming he feared the wreck could still be lodged under his hull. They threw an inflatable life boat over the side and remained in place for another ten minutes, searching the dark waters with their powerful light, but they could do no more.
At last, the captain gave orders to get underway. He stepped out onto the deck and looked down at his cargo. A dark shape, that appeared to grow out of the steel deck like a malignant tumor. What was this thing that moved through the world in the darkness and killed the men and ships that bore it? Something evil. Something that would bring no good to the world. He ordered it stowed below, so he would not have to see it again. The mate asked if the incident should be entered into the ship's log, but the captain just shook his head and stared out into the darkness and the gathering storm. He whispered a quiet prayer for the crew and their captain, and then he called below and told them to give him everything the engines could take.
The tall man entered the building at ten to four in the afternoon. It was a marble and glass box of forty stories that would have seemed unremarkable in any Western city. Here, on the streets of Bangkok, it was an unwelcomed reminder of a fading culture. A monument to the relentless sameness of the new century. He crossed the lobby with long confident strides and smiled at the receptionist, a lovely Thai woman with the face of a porcelain doll and hands as delicate as a child's.
"Good afternoon, I'm Chuck Allan. I have an appointment with Mr. Juntasa."
She smiled back at him briefly and then glanced at her computer screen. "Would that be Mr. Annan Juntasa or Mr. Chalong Juntasa?"
"Annan Juntasa, please."
She picked up the telephone and waited for the connection. "Mr. Juntasa's 4 o'clock appointment has arrived."
"Thank you, Mr. Allan. Mr. Juntasa's office is on the twenty-fourth floor. The elevators are directly behind me on the other side of the mural wall. Would you sign in please?"
She smiled at him as he scrawled his signature and then she passed the magnetic stripe of his visitor's badge through a reader and handed it to him. As he walked away he pretended to clip it onto his suit coat, but instead, kept it in the palm of his hand. He paused and waited by the bank of elevators. A group of Japanese businessmen had been behind him at the registration desk and he waited for them to sign in and head for the elevators. He stood behind them and followed them into the car. As he entered, he stumbled and fell against one of the businessmen. As he did so, he unclipped the man's visitors badge and at the same time dropped his own badge at the man's feet. He apologized profusely, picked up the badge from the floor and handed it to the man, who smiled and bowed but said nothing. He clipped the businessman's badge on his own coat pocket. There would be no record of Mr. Kitagima leaving the building that evening. It would be written off as a computer glitch. When he exited the elevator he was greeted by another attractive Thai woman. She was a bit older than the receptionist but had the same sweet smile and she bowed slightly and asked him to follow her. As he walked down the corridor he checked for security cameras but found none. The woman led him into the room and introduced him. Mr. Juntasa stood, offering his hand.
"Hello, Mr. Allen. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Call me Chuck, please. In any case, the pleasure's all mine. Thanks for agreeing to see me."
"Would you like some tea, or something else to drink?"
"No thanks, I'm fine."
"Do you live here in Thailand, or are you just passing through?"
"I live in Hong Kong at the moment. I cover most of South East Asia from there."
"That's a lot of territory. It must keep you busy."
"Yeah, I spend a lot of time in airplanes."
"Tell me about it. Anyway, I understand you have a new ball valve design to show me. I have to tell you we're fairly happy with Kitz valves we've been using, but I'm always willing to listen."
Chuck opened his brief case and removed a stack of folded drawings. He nodded toward the drawing table. "May I?"
He opened the drawings and spread them out on the table. For the next half hour he went through the designs in detail, pointing out features and reciting benefits that he had committed to memory back at his hotel room. As Mr. Juntasa examined the drawings, Chuck looked around the office. The computer and mouse pad were on the left side of the desk. There was a document safe against the rear wall at the far left corner of the office. It was protected by a standard, ten digit key pad lock. A filing cabinet stood on the opposite wall, next to the drawing table. He checked the ceiling for surveillance cameras or motion detectors. The office was not alarmed but the document safe would be an issue. It was nearing closing time and he could see Mr. Juntasa was anxious to wrap it up and go home.
"Can you leave these drawings with me for a while, Mr. Allen? I'd like to discuss them with my engineering team when we have an opportunity."
"Of course. Why don't you keep them for a week or so and then I'll contact you to set up another appointment."
They exchanged business cards and shook hands.
"Can you find your way to the elevators?"
"Sure, no problem. Thanks again for your time."
Chuck walked down the hall and entered the men's room. He knew it would be crowded with departing employees in a few minutes and he needed to work quickly. The lock on the janitor's closet was a common pin tumbler and he was able to pick it in less than thirty seconds. He entered the closet and relocked the door. His watch said four fifty-five.
He stood quietly and waited, listening to the sounds of toilets flushing and the ratchet of the towel dispensers as employees cleaned up in preparation for their commute home. He had observed the building for three nights from an adjacent roof top. The janitorial crew started work at five. Each team handled a five story section of the building starting at the highest number and working down. The crew responsible for his floor would start at the twenty fifth. It took approximately one hour per floor so he would have an hour to get it done.
Plenty of time, unless something went wrong. Something always went wrong. By five-fifteen the room had gone quiet and he slowly opened the door. He checked the stalls to make sure they were empty and then he removed a pair of overalls and a cap from his briefcase. He put the overalls on over his suit and pulled the cap down low over his eyes. It was a little uncomfortable but it would have to do. Finally he put on a pair of surgical gloves and pulled them tightly over his fingers.
Placing his ear against the door, he listened for sounds of movement but it seemed quiet. He cautiously opened the door and poked his head out. The office lights were all off except one. It looked like someone was working late and that would be a minor inconvenience. The occupied office was along the back wall with no direct line of sight to the corridor he was in, but there was no telling when its occupant might decide to leave.
He walked quickly down the hall to Mr. Juntasa's office and let himself in. As soon as he entered the room, he crouched and moved quickly behind the desk. It was locked, but desk locks are child's play and he had it open in less than ten seconds. He placed a small pen-light between his teeth and began a methodical search of the files. There were three file drawers in the desk and it was time-consuming work. In the end he came up empty. He pulled out the top drawer but there were no files in it. There was a stack of papers on top of the desk and he rifled through them, finding nothing. Next he moved to the credenza and examined each folder and went through the stacks of folded drawings. Again, he came up empty. Next he went through the filing cabinet, drawer by drawer. It wasn't there. That was the last of the easy options. Five thirty-four.
He turned to the document safe. He removed a small spray bottle from his pocket and squeezed a light mist of liquid onto the keypad. The Iodine/benzoflavone mixture would raise prints from a smooth surface but they were difficult to read. He didn't need to read them. He only needed to see which keys had been pushed. In a few seconds, faint blue ridges began to appear on four of the keys. Assuming a four digit code, he now knew the correct numbers, but not the sequence.
If each number were used once, there would be twenty-four possible combinations. If not, it was going to be a little trickier. He examined the ridges again. Three of them were more or less horizontal but the ridges on the number five were slightly tilted to the left. That would be the first key. The motion of the hand toward the keypad while pressing the first number would cause the finger to be slightly skewed upward toward the right for a left handed man. Five was the first number. If he were lucky, that would leave six possibilities.
On his fourth try the red light turned green and he pulled the door open. There was a stack of folders inside. He didn't want to remove them all but he guessed the straggler would be leaving soon and he didn't want to use the penlight if he didn't have to. He stopped for a moment and listened. The building was still quiet.
He checked his watch. Five fifty-two. Still plenty of time.
He removed the files and went through them one by one. His file was half-way down the stack. He examined the contents. Normally he would have photographed each of the pages and returned the file as if no one had touched it, but he couldn't risk a lamp with someone still on the floor. Instead he removed a manila envelope from his briefcase. It was already addressed and stamped. He put the contents of the file in the envelope and sealed it. He then removed some papers from a different file, placed them in the empty folder and returned everything to the safe in the same order he had removed them.
He stood and looked around the office, making sure everything was as he found it. Five fifty-six. As he started to open the door he saw the light go off in the other office and he crouched down behind the desk and waited. In a couple of minutes he heard the chime of an elevator arriving and he waited for the sound of the closing doors. Finally he stood up and exited the office. There was a mail slot next to the elevators and he deposited the envelope. It was a bit risky but better than being caught in possession of stolen documents. Besides, he enjoyed the irony of having a company personally mail him the documents he was being paid to steal. The elevator bell rang again as he passed the doors and he dashed to the fire stairs and onto the landing. The door closed with a click, just as the cleaning crew stepped out of the elevator. Two minutes past six.
There were people using the stairs above and below him, so he moved cautiously on the balls of his feet and kept to the wall. On the ninth floor someone opened the door just below him and he had to go back and wait in the hallway. There were cleaners working on the floor but no one saw him. At last he made it to street level. The door was alarmed but it was only a contact pad. It was designed to keep people out, not to keep them in. He detached one of the wires. Before opening the door he removed his overalls and hat and then walked out into the sweltering Bangkok night. He dropped the overalls and hat and gloves in a dumpster and walked calmly out to the street. Ten after six. He was slipping.