H1 : The New Playing Field
The news from China over the next fortnight was that there was no news. Nothing at all unusual was happening, everyone was getting on nicely, the talks with their aliens were going well and all-smiles was the order of the day. Of course, the CIA had a completely different tale to tell, and we were fortunate enough to hear it via Sokar Frosch.
The Americans and the Russians were getting reports of explosions at chemical warfare and munitions plants all over China. Images of destruction from their surveillance satellites confirmed most of the reports. The lack of accusations and noises of outrage from Peking suggested that whatever was going on was a purely internal matter and the Chinese Government saw no reason to discuss it with outsiders.
Someone managed to email some pictures taken on the ground to a news agency in the West on the first Tuesday in December. They were images of the devastation at a weapons plant on China's south coast. The explosives experts consulted by television and print news companies were baffled. They concluded that the buildings and plant equipment had been pushed over by directional forces rather than blasted away from the heart of a bomb explosion. Government experts in Russia and the United States had drawn the same conclusion from military satellite images.
Naturally, we aliens were able to explain the phenomenon. Someone with a hralchiv weapon had been directing supersonic blasts at bits of the site and causing selective destruction. But, as Frosch had got his inside information by sneaking around at CIA headquarters and Mr. Sorensen had chosen not to discuss the matter with him, we kept our knowledge to ourselves.
A couple of days later, Frosch ran into Hathor at one of the North Road Mob's clubs. She was rather annoyed because everyone in our group had moved at least once since she and Bethan had disappeared off to China and she had not been able to find us. Frosch took her to a spare apartment owned by one of his companies for a meaningful discussion. Then he summoned the rest of us.
When Iktar, Tolshivar and myself had assembled, Hathor started to complain about a power struggle in China, telling us that each of three sides was trying to be tougher than the others. With some difficulty, Frosch got her to put the brakes on and tell us what had happened to Bethan.
"I think they call it a particle beam weapon," Hathor told us.
"And what happened?" Iktar asked.
"They led us into a trap," Hathor said indignantly. "We were in what looked like an ordinary conference room but they had built this weapon in the room above."
"Why did they kill her, though?" said Tolshivar.
"It was this power struggle," Hathor complained in a 'why don't you listen?' tone. "One side wanted to be sure they have a defence against aliens. Against us."
"What happened, exactly?" I asked.
"When they switched it on, Beth started to glow. Brighter and brighter. Then she just faded out. It was all over in about two seconds."
"Particle beams, eh?" said Frosch. "A bit fancier than a wooden stake."
"So what did you do?" said Tolshivar.
"I beamed out and got away from them. Right away," said Hathor. "I ended up in California. I just sat on a beach all night. Then I went back."
"Yes, we heard someone's been knocking them about a bit," said Frosch.
"I started with the building where they had the particle beam," said Hathor. "I looked at how they had set it up then I went to the ground floor and used Iktar's hralchiv to knock the walls away and make the whole building collapse. Then I went to places where they make weapons. The ones they admit and the ones they keep secret."
"How did you manage that?" I asked. "Or do you read enough Chinese to get into their files?"
"I used the Internet and Western security agencies," said Hathor. "And did some detective work."
"It must be a big disadvantage, coming up against an alien language like Chinese," Iktar remarked.
Hathor shrugged. "You just do enough damage to let them know it might be a good idea to assassinate whoever was responsible to stop the revenge attacks."
"Makes a sort of sense," Frosch murmured.
"Nobody in the West has tried to take you out?" Hathor glanced round the company.
"We don't stick around long enough," said Tolshivar.
"Are you still making No Jacket chase his tail?" Hathor directed the question to Frosch, who smiled.
"He does enough chasing of his own accord," he replied. "And we're going off the original ideas for contacting the Earthers."
I found myself wondering exactly what those ideas had been. They all seems very vague in retrospect.
"Have you heard about the European Union sessions to work out First Contact Protocols?" Frosch added to the visitor.
"I have been busy," Hathor told him with a grim smile.
"Well, we're cooling things around here while we see what develops," said Frosch, who seemed to have decided not to share the idea of selling our special intelligence gathering abilities to the CIA.
"Let them realize what they do not get any more?" said Hathor.
"And add a few zeros to the amounts they'll end up paying us," Iktar said with a cynical smile.
"So I am not really missing anything?" Hathor returned the cynical smile.
"Nothing much is going to happen till we get Christmas and the New Year out of the way," said Frosch.
"Yes, of course. Maybe I will see you again in the new year. As the Americans say, the Chinese have got a few more lumps coming." Hathor drained her glass of blue liquid. "I like this." She beamed out with a smile for all of us.
We could tell that she had really gone, that she wasn't hanging around invisibly, listening to what the rest of us had to say when she wasn't there.
"They must be real head-bangers in China," Frosch remarked. "Killing off Beth and losing all those weapons plants must have cost them squillions of ... what?"
"Yuan," said Iktar.
"Whatever," said Frosch. "I mean, what sort of mentality kills off an alien without knowing what her pals can do in retaliation? And what sort of idiot gets someone as volatile as Hathor clearly is so totally pissed off? I mean, if aliens are here, they obviously have some serious technology. And you don't develop interstellar travel without coming up with some neat weapons along the way."
"Power struggles," said Iktar. "I dare you, I double dare you, I triple dare you. It can get out of control."
"I wonder if the Yellow Peril will have two Kalashnikovs to rub together by the time Hath gets bored with zapping them," said Tolshivar.
"Of course, this will affect our dealings with the Earthers," I said. "The news that they can kill us with particle beam weapons is bound to leak out. They're not going to rush to wipe us out, of course, but they're all going to want one, just in case. Seeing what Hath's done in China must have got the other world leaders seriously worried."
"A Particle Beam Weapon Race," said Iktar.
"Which makes it all the more important for us to stick together," said Frosch. "We need to let the Earthers know that if any more of us gets wiped out, we'll devastate their leadership."
"If they don't take all of us out at once, the survivors will take them out?" said Tolshvar. "Sounds fair enough to me."
"Hmm," said Frosch.
I could almost see the wheels going round in his head as he updated his plans and strategies in his mind.
"I think it would be a good policy to let the Earthers know they can get the benefit of our alien technology but no sight of it," Frosch said at last. "Let them be in no doubt we're selling the use of the technology, not the actual technology itself."
"That means we're not trying to sell something we don't have," I realized. "We're being incredibly honest and all we're selling is the use of what we have."
"But described in terms the Earthers will find easier to accept?" said Iktar. "Alien technology, not the natural abilities of the post-dead?"
"Yes, that's it exactly," said Frosch. "I'll have to write that down and learn it."
"Yes, I think that stands up," I said. "Even if it is an unusually honest way of looking at things."
"Right, you're not used to honesty from aliens," grinned Frosch. "Flim-flam, we got. Honesty? No chance!"
H2 : Sneaking Around With A Purpose
In spite of all the talk of nothing happening until the new year, General Frosch was still busily talking to representatives of the American security services. His contract with the CIA, I learned the next evening, was by no means exclusive. I visited the General's apartment in response to a phone call and found that he had agreed to do a job for a Karl Davidson of the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
I soon realized that Frosch was telling me about the job for more than strictly 'information only' purposes. He and Tolshivar both had other things to do and Frosch was looking to sub-contract the DEA job to me.
What had happened, he told me in the main room of his apartment, which had a good view of a growing skyscraper and its attendant cranes, was that the DEA had stumbled upon a drug operation by accident. Mr. Davidson was having some security problems. He wanted to follow up on the information but he was worried about leaks. Frosch had met the DEA agent in Washington and, knowing who Davidson was, he had offered the use of his special intelligence information gathering services.
Davidson had seen Frosch talking to Sorensen at a US Government function and the CIA-man had denied knowing Frosch. Davidson had drawn the obvious conclusion that Frosch was one of the in-crowd. His attempts to check further on Frosch had drawn a blank and Davidson had concluded that Frosch was out of the usual loops. The news that he was an alien, supplied by Frosch himself, had come as a surprise -- but not such a huge one in view of his CIA connection.
What was happening on the drug front was that the bad guys were harvesting cocaine from their coca plants in South America and then flying a raw product to Panama for processing into a concentrated, pure form. They were performing a preliminary extraction process in the producing countries but the real technical stuff was being done well away from where the drug originated. Frosch wanted me to find a laboratory for him.
"What, search every building big enough in Panama?" I suggested when it was my turn to talk.
"Not quite," laughed Frosch. "We can narrow things down a lot. But it really needs someone who can drift around unobserved, especially into basements with a rigidly controlled access."
"So you give me a list of addresses in Panama City and I wander round till I find a coke factory?"
"They're not operating in Panama City, but that's the general idea," Frosch said with a nod.
"What's the pay like?"
"It's all on commission. The bigger the coke factory, the more that doesn't get to the US, the bigger the payment. But we're talking serious amounts of cash. We'll probably split a hundred grand."
"They don't use pounds in the States, Preth. So what do you reckon?"
"Sounds very do-able," I decided.
"Another thing we get out of it is some documentation which will stand up to close scrutiny. Passports, driving licences, stuff like that."
"More stuff to lumber around with our credit cards?"
"Proof of identity if someone thinks you're a dodgy customer. And if you want a hotel room abroad for some reason and you can't convince the locals you're Mexican or Colombian or whatever, it helps to have a passport. And if you want to hire a car to move some heavy stuff around. Or just keep stuff reasonably secure."
"It's obviously a good idea or you wouldn't have got the stuff," I acknowledged.
Frosch gave me the smile of a general appreciating intelligence in one of his subordinates.
Of course, when I got back to our apartment with a bulky envelope of briefing material and personal documents, Iktar wanted to know what the lists and the maps were in aid of. And before I knew it, I was second-in-command of our expedition and she'd taken over. Her reason for taking charge was simple -- she had practical experience of doing the type of job needed and I didn't. And when she got going on the planning side, I had to admit that letting her take the job over made a lot of sense.
About the only thing that we didn't settle before we retired for the night was the money side of things. I wasn't sure whether Iktar expected to get one-half of my share of the hundred grand or whether she thought that she was getting one-third of the total pot. But all things, I knew, would become clear in time.
Frosch had provided me with a temporary base, which was more than big enough for two, in neighbouring Costa Rica. It was located just a couple of miles from the border with Panama. The villa had a view of the sea and it offered modest comforts for secret agents. We reached it in the early hours of Sunday morning, local time, and Iktar was all ready to get on with the job in Panama within an hour of our arrival and without waiting for the General to arrive with her personal documentation.
Frosch had given me a printed list of three dozen buildings, which fitted a profile supplied by Karl Davidson, the DEA agent. Iktar cut the list in half and we set off on our travels. This was the A-list. If we found nothing, Frosch had told me that he would bring a B-list with Iktar's passport, etc.
Iktar and I drifted around on our independent missions, passing through walls and floors, and generally keeping a lookout for a processing and packing centre for bulk white powder. We each assumed that the other had found the secret processing plant when we met again at about breakfast time, Costa Rican time. Wrong!
I held a brief phone conversation with Frosch -- all highly coded, of course -- and he let me know that Tolshivar would be paying us a flying visit shortly with lists and documents. There was something in his tone which made me think that the A-list turning out to be a total bust was a major point in his favour.
I was the one with the useful half of the B-list. The drug factory was hidden under the fourth building. Just being thorough, I checked out the rest of them as I had plenty of time in hand before I was due to rejoin Iktar. Another of the buildings was the home of a software counterfeiting racket. The rest seemed to be fairly innocent.
Now that we had a target, Iktar put her intelligence gathering plan into action. We lurked, we watched, we photographed people and we followed those whom Iktar decided were the bosses, and we used a small van as a meeting place and somewhere to store equipment. The whole exercise seemed rather a waste of time to me but Iktar was enjoying herself and she mentioned that being able to supply all this detailed information would prove to the American DEA agent that Frosch's organization was staffed by professionals.
All the sneaking about was fairly new to me and quite interesting. I knew that we were not likely to be doing it for long enough for the job to turn into a chore. And so I followed Iktar's lead and tried to be thoroughly professional. The collection of notes and pictures grew over the next few days and Frosch seemed highly delighted with what I sent him by coded email.
Four days after our arrival, at seven-thirty a.m. on the second Thursday of December, I received a very short email message. Decoded, it read: B-Day, which was American for Bust-Day on the drug processing factory. Iktar still had a few loose ends to tie up and she put us into overdrive to get everything tidied up. And then, just after nine o'clock in the morning, we found ourselves with a totally unexpected bonus on our hands.
"I wonder if Frosch has a C-list," Iktar murmured to me when we were safely away from a second, unsuspected, processing laboratory. If anything, this one was slightly larger than the first one.
"Why do they need two labs almost in adjoining streets?" I said.
Iktar shrugged. "I'd have said they belonged to rival organizations if we'd not watched the same people visiting both of them."
"Should I take that as meaning you're also baffled?"
"I suppose so. What are we going to do now?"
"I know what you want to do," I said with a laugh.
"We could, couldn't we?" Iktar said with a cheeky smile.
"Easily," I returned.
"I'll get the van, Preth," Iktar said, her smile broadening. "While you give General Frosch the good news about Lab Two."
At the first laboratory, we had watched one of the senior members of the drug ring load a whole heap of cash into a large safe, which was the size of a couple of phone boxes. We have the ability to transport a certain amount of material around with us when we move invisibly from place to place. Emptying the safe required nine trips by me and eight by Iktar.
Iktar had been planning to empty the safe just ahead of the raid by the Panamanian anti-drug authorities and the American DEA, which would close down the drug factory. And then I had come up with the idea of leaving some lumps of metal inside the lock to jam it. Iktar had then decided that robbing the safe would be our reward on finishing the intelligence-gathering job.
Back at our base, in Costa Rica, we used the extraction method to move the money, unseen, into our villa. I took the van back to its lock-up when it was empty. I returned to find Iktar building a pyramid with bundles of notes.
"You're enjoying that, aren't you?" I said.
"Yes," said Iktar, her tone asking, 'Why not?'
"Are you going to show that to Frosch? Or are we keeping quiet about it?"
"I haven't decided yet. Are you going to give me a hand?" Iktar tossed a bundle of $1,000 bills to me and put on a questioning expression.
Frosch seemed confident that the DEA and the locals would be able to handle two raids instead of one. When the General arrived at our base for a sit rep -- a situation report -- just ahead of the raids, he boggled at the pyramid of US currency. "Where did you get that?" he demanded.
"We pulled off a safe job," laughed Iktar. "One belonging to the blokes you sent us to spy on."
"Us?" said Frosch. "I don't remember any us at the operational briefing," he added with a look of reproof at me.
"Point number one," I told him firmly, "Iktar's on the team so no breach of security was involved. And point number two, she helped you find two labs."
"True." Frosch admitted.
"That's got to be worth a double fee," I added.
"I guess it has," said the General. "I only hope you've not set up some unfulfillable expectations for the future. Like this DEA guy asking for some more action from us and expecting to get a double result."
"Life is full of little disappointments," said Iktar. "And we're probably better off out of it. Life, Frosch, we're better off out of that," she added in response to a frown from the General.
Frosch put on a smile of quiet personal acknowledgement.
"Do we know why there are two labs?" Iktar added. "All we could come up with was that if one gets busted, no one's going to suspect there's another on the doorstep."
"Pretty much what my DEA guy thinks," said Frosch. "Okay, there are no last minute problems?"
"None since our last checks," said Iktar. "The workers are still making pure coke and packing it up. And the Boss hasn't tried to put any more cash in his safe."
"Maybe we can check out his safes at his office and his house when the raid goes off," I murmured to Iktar as Frosch produced a mobile.
Frosch made a brief call consisting mainly of 'yep' from him, and put the mobile away. "The master plan is to tell the troops on the ground that they're going to bust a counterfeiting operation then give them the targets at the last minute," he told us. "There's an East Team and a West Team and they think they're going to converge on the same target. They haven't been told they have separate targets."
"Routine security," said Iktar.
"And we start knocking doors down in about half an hour," Frosch added. "See you in due course."
"Let's get ready to bust a few more safes, then," Iktar said to me when Frosch had beamed out..
As soon as our part of the job was over and the raids on the drug processing factories were in progress, our orders were to head for another operational base on the outskirts of Spanish Town, which lies on Jamaica's Panama- and Colombia-facing south coast. The DEA team wanted us to make the villa in Costa Rica available as an emergency headquarters.
Frosch was looking enormously pleased with himself when he joined us in a somewhat more modest holiday villa than the one on the mainland. Iktar had recreated her pyramid, which had grown as a result of further raids on coke barons' safes, in a bedroom at the back of the house. Our money-mountain was a bit of a monster and she had taken me seriously, for a while, when I had pretended to worry about the strength of the room's floor. Frosch found the structure absolutely fascinating.
"The thing that occurs to me," I said while Frosch was watching the pyramid closely, as if expecting it to start performing tricks, "is we could extend your deal with the DEA."
"Exactly how much is there?" Frosch asked, not interested in anything other than the pyramid.
"Thirty-one point six million," said Iktar.
"It sure ain't peanuts."
"I've never actually seen that much cash in the flesh before," Frosch said slowly.
"No, I suppose you just see numbers on a monitor as you move your fortune about between your off-shore accounts." Iktar gave him one of her cynical smiles.
"Have you been spying on me?" Frosch directed an indignant look at Iktar.
"Might have," she returned, converting the tone of her smile into 'provocative'.
"If you two would kindly belt up," I said, "I'm having some important thoughts, here."
"Like what?" Frosch kept his eyes fixed on the money.
"Do you want to count it?" said Iktar.
"Some of the notes are new," I said loudly, drowning out any reply from Frosch. "In what look like bank of issue wrappers. And cash in bulk is a bit inconvenient. Which is why Frosch uses off-shore accounts instead of suitcases under his bed. Hence the growth of money-laundering as a service industry."
Iktar retired to the bar which we had set up in the main bedroom. She began to mix drinks as Frosch gave me his attention, sensing that I might just have something to say which was more fascinating than a small hill of US currency.
"So it occurred to me that the best thing to do would be to turn the cash over to your DEA contact, Frosch. Give him a chance to test it for fingerprints and any other forensic stuff he fancies, and check out the new notes and see if their numbers tell him anything useful about where they were issued and where they went next."
Iktar handed me a blue drink and gave Frosch a shot of neat Pernod.
"And while they're doing all that," I added, "they can pay the same amount to our bank account. Which lets them keep the notes when they've finished with them and launders them into clean, electronic money for our benefit. What do you think of that?"
"It's brilliant," said Frosch. "Who thought that up? Ik?"
"Looks like if guys like Preth associate with criminal masterminds like you, Frosch," Iktar said with a smile, "something useful rubs off."
"Yeah, doesn't it just?" said Frosch. "I like this idea. And the DEA guy will love it. We take away the means for producing pure drugs from the crude stuff. But we don't do anything about growing the plants and collecting the crude crop, so the little guys on the ground still get paid. But the big guys have no purified product so they don't make any money. Even worse, strolling off with their ready cash means we take away the profits from other deals so they can't pay their bribes schedule. And if they're not making any money out of cocaine, there's no point to being in that business."
"Or alternatively," I said, "losing their laboratories and squillions of dollars in profits gets them really, really pissed off and really, really violent."
"We can always offer Uncle Sam our personal assassination service for drug barons," Iktar pointed out. "Let the bad guys know that the life of a master criminal isn't going to be all that long."
"Are we talking about draining the life out of them or shoving a hand grenade in their underpants?" said Frosch.
"The hand grenade is an easier message to understand," said Iktar. "And you can put the pin in someone else's pocket to throw suspicion on them."
"As long as we don't run out of drug dealers," I mentioned.
"If we do, we can always diversity," said Frosch.
"Jobs for Uncle Sam in Iraq?" I prodded.
"And Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, the Golden Triangle, anywhere the poppies bloom," said Frosch.
"China," said Iktar.
"Maybe we'll let Hathor take care of China," said Frosch. "It's pretty much her personal domain."
"And who's going to want to launder a pile of Chinese cash?" Iktar said dismissively.
"I guess I'd better have words with my DEA guy," said Frosch.
"We'll look after the money," said Iktar. "And if you're quick, we won't have spent too much of it by the time you get back."