Jack Ryan, Jr., sat behind the wheel of a dusty Ford Taurus and rubbed a hand through his dark brown beard, trying not to think about his growing need to pee. The car sat parked for the fourth time in seven hours, and Ryan rested both hands on the steering wheel, staring into the darkness. Dallas, Texas, had a reputation for being muggy, even in fall, but this September night had turned out cool, allowing the two men in the Taurus to keep their windows rolled up most of the way and the AC turned off.
Just two years old, the dented Ford looked to be in much worse shape than it actually was. The Taurus was one of the few models that could be a police car, or, with a quick coat of rattle-can black and some judiciously applied dents to the doors and fenders, become a ratty beater that those same police would see as a meth fleet vehicle. Despite being in dependable shape mechanically, this particular car stank like bad cheese and dirty gym socks-blending well into this seedy South Dallas neighborhood.
A quick Internet search had revealed that the intersection not three blocks away was among the top five most likely spots in Dallas to get stabbed. There'd been no stabbings tonight as far as Ryan knew, but the night was still young. The sound of bottles breaking on pavement not too far down the street signaled that a cutting, at the very least, was a distinct possibility.
Ryan tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs and looked at his watch. His need for relief was going to reach critical mass in the next few minutes. He had a Gatorade bottle in the backseat, stashed there for surveillance emergencies, but he really hoped to get out and stretch his legs for a minute-even if it was behind a stinking dumpster that overflowed with pizza boxes in an alley littered with broken syringes and used condoms.
During the forty-two minutes they'd been parked between the back door of a Mexican grocery and a store that sold sewing machines-of all things-Jack had seen a half-dozen guys-all Asian-go into the Casita Roja strip club across the street. Over the course of those same forty-two minutes, he'd watched a homeless dude stagger by and vomit all over himself, a graffiti artist tag the back of the sewing-machine shop, and two hookers entertain clients as they stood against the rough brick wall beside the dumpster, accompanied by a halo of moths fluttering under the sad glow of a feeble streetlamp.
"If you could see me now, Mother dear," Ryan mumbled to himself, tapping the Taurus's armrest.
"You say something?" Bartosz "Midas" Jankowski asked from the passenger seat. Like Jack, he was bearded and wore a loose button-down shirt with short sleeves to cover the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield pistol tucked inside his waistband, as well as the loop of copper wire he wore low around his neck. Hollywood would have everyone believe the entire communication package, including the mic and radio, could be wrapped up and fit into the tiny bit of plastic worn inside the ear. Ryan wished it were that simple. There were tiny mics, but they still required a radio and some kind of power source. Campus members used a Profilo wire near-field neck-loop mic and a small flesh-tone earpiece. A house-built voice-activated intercom system obviated the use of a PTT switch. The whole shebang ran off a Motorola radio about the size of a fat deck of playing cards.
"Just thinking about this sexy life of a spy," Ryan said. "I'm going to need to take a leak in a few."
Four other sets of ears listened to the conversation over the encrypted net. Ryan had hoped Midas might admit he needed a relief break as well, to make him feel a little more human in his time of need. No such luck. Jankowski was relatively new to The Campus, but Jack had been on enough ops with the retired Delta Force commander to know he possessed a bladder the size of a watermelon.
"I went an hour ago," Domingo "Ding" Chavez's voice came over Jack's earpiece, gloating a little. "When I slapped the microphone up."
Chavez, a senior member of The Campus-and a former CIA officer-had made an educated guess about their target's next stop, and arrived in just enough time to stick a magnetic hi-gain microphone to the light fixture outside the doors of the Casita Roja. About the size of a matchbox, the little mic broadcast on the scrambled radio frequency of the team's net. It was surprising what useful intelligence could be picked up from people just before they walked through the door of an unfamiliar location. Even when alone, they sometimes just blurted out things to themselves.
Chavez continued to rub it in. "I had me a few sips of a cold one while I was inside. Had to blend in, you know, go with the flow." He made no comment about the nude girls gyrating on the stage. His father-in-law, The Campus's director of operations, John Clark-a legend in the intelligence community-happened to be working overwatch on this op from the roof of a payday loan place halfway up the block with a good view of both the front door of Casita Roja and Ryan's Taurus. He was listening on the same net.
Ryan sighed. "Maybe I should go in and try to get a listen on what our guy's talking about."
"Negative," Clark said. "We have the tracker on his car and we're up on his phone. Right now we're just building patterns."
Chavez spoke through a barely concealed chuckle. "'Mano, a white guy like you would stand out in there."
Ding had a master's degree in international relations, but he could turn on his East L.A. accent at the drop of a hat.
"Hold up," Clark said. As the boss, his radio was primary and had the ability to override any chatter-which he frequently did. "Two Asian males coming out the main entrance now."
Jack threw his own monocular scope to his eye and got a good look at the two men. In their early twenties, with short cropped hair, both wore faded jeans. Loose white wife-beater shirts displayed arms and shoulders covered with tattoos. They loitered by the doors, each lighting up a cigarette. Ryan could make out the print of a pistol stuffed down the front of one guy's jeans, barely hidden under his shirt. The team had already identified several members of the Sun Yee On triad. Casita Roja was a strip club run by Tres Equis, a small cell of the Sinaloa Cartel known for the three figurative X's formed by a single bullet hole between the two dead eyes of their victims. Since the capture of Joaqu’n "El Chapo" Guzm‡n, factions of the cartel were becoming even more bloody-if more violence than that brought on by the Sinaloa was even possible.
It made sense that everyone in the club would be packing. The men out front spoke in rapid Mandarin-which to Ryan made them sound highly pissed about something.
Midas cocked his head to one side, listening. The Chinese men took a couple cursory looks up and down the street, saw nothing to alarm them, and settled in to smoke and joke. They finished their cigarettes, stood outside, and then talked for two more minutes before going back inside, as if on a time clock.
"I'm guessing those two are triad," Ryan said.
Midas gave a slow nod. "Sounds like these Sun Yee On assholes are into some heavy shit with Tres Equis. Prostitution, drugs, you name it. According to these guys, they're supplying the Mexicans precursor chemicals to cook up some meth. My Mandarin's a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure I heard 'red phosphorus' in there."
Clark concurred. "Thought I caught that." He wasn't fluent in Mandarin, but he'd been around long enough to pick up more than a few words and suss out the interspersed English. "Any mention of Eddie Feng?"
"Nope," Midas said.
Their target, Eddie Feng, was a Taiwanese national. Apart from being addicted to strip clubs and lap dancers, he called himself a reporter for a rag called Zhenhua Ribao-True Word Daily. This online journal specialized in juicy exposs about the secret lives of the political elite in the People's Republic of China. The ZRB was, at best, sensationalized click-bait. At worst, it was just plain fake news.
Gerry Hendley, CEO of Hendley Associates, the financial arbitrage firm and white-side face of The Campus's clandestine activity, would never have approved the unwarranted surveillance of a bona fide journalist. But Eddie Feng was more of an entertainer and propagandist. Feng did, however, appear to have stumbled on something going on with Taiwanese operatives and the PRC.
Jack had found the tenuous connection while comparing some chatter on an Internet forum for the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland. According to several U of M students, True Word Daily had run an article about the bombing of an unfinished subway tunnel on the outskirts of Beijing. There was a lot of detail in the article-at least the translation Jack read-details only someone familiar with the investigation or the person or group who did the bombing would know. Ryan happened to be privy to the same information in the form of a People's Armed Police transmission grab by Fort Meade. This Feng guy was getting too much right about events that would be embarrassing to the ChiComs to be blowing smoke. The PRC hadn't released anything about the subway bombing to the media yet. There was no chatter of it anywhere but for the NSA intercept-and Eddie Feng's article.
Jack had taken his analysis to John Clark, who'd done some research of his own before calling Ryan into a meeting with Gerry-who'd okayed a more intrusive operation. Gavin Biery, IT director for Hendley Associates, would pull up Eddie Feng's bank records, phone history, and anything else he could hack into-which was, according to Biery, "every digital jot and tittle" there was on the man.
It turned out Eddie Feng had made a recent payment of two thousand dollars to a guy named Fernando Perez Gomez, a car dealer in South Dallas who the Texas Department of Public Safety Gang Intelligence database said had ties to the Tres Equis offshoot of Sinaloa-and a second two thousand dollars to a Sun Yee On triad boss, a recent arrival to Plano, Texas, from Taiwan.
The information was thin, but considering the underworld players involved, and the fact that Eddie Feng had somehow gotten his hands on the information about the Beijing subway bombing, Clark and Hendley had agreed to spool up a short operation and use Eddie Feng as an "unwitting agent." Feng would do the hard work, continuing to develop his sources and extracting information from them while they watched from afar and took notes. The Campus team would merely follow him during his investigation, see where he went, and who he met, and learn if he came up with any more useful intel from behind the Bamboo Curtain.
Biery had located Feng when his phone pinged a cell tower in Houston, but by the time the team had spun up and the Hendley Associates Gulfstream was in the air from Washington Reagan, Feng had already moved north. It didn't take him long, though, to get down to business in the Fort Worth-Dallas metroplex. In the past seven hours, the team had followed him to four different strip clubs. None of them were particularly high-class joints, but Casita Roja was definitely the worst. What's more, the club was located in an area of town where a couple bearded white guys like Jack Junior and Midas Jankowski stood out like . . . well, like bearded white guys in the barrio.
Ryan looked at the front door of the club, then back to Midas. "They say anything else useful?"
"Not really," Midas said. "Other than the meth ingredients, they mostly talked about girls and shit."
Adara Sherman, another member of The Campus's operational cadre who was conversant in Mandarin, came over the net. "One of them has a girlfriend who dances in this hellhole," she said.
John Clark spoke next. "Did the skinny one mention something about a Camaro?"
"He did," Adara said, obviously impressed.
"Damn," Ryan said. "Am I the only one who's not fluent in a bunch of other languages besides English?"
Ding Chavez, John Clark, Adara Sherman, and Dominic Caruso all answered back in turn.
Midas turned and looked at Ryan from the passenger seat, giving a little shrug in the darkness.
"Yep," he said.
"Looks like I need Rosetta Stone or a multilingual girlfriend," Jack muttered, reaching over the seat to grab the Gatorade bottle. He started to pop off and say something else, but he caught movement out the rear glass as he turned.
"John," he said. "You got a visual on our six? I've got movement out our back window."
Clark's slightly muffled voice came back a moment later, giving a play-by-play. Ryan could visualize the man's cheek welded to the comb of his suppressed .308 Winchester model 70, his eye peering through the reticle of a night-vision scope.
"Two Hispanic males," Clark said. "One female. Males have pistols tucked in their pants . . . One is carrying a cane or stick . . . Scratch that. It's a golf club . . . The males just left the girl standing at the wall. They're creeping your way, Jack, ten meters and closing."
"We're moving in from the west," Chavez said. He was in the crew-cab pickup with Adara, a little more than a block away.
Dom was parked farther out, five blocks up the street in the direction of the next nearest strip club with Hispanic or Asian ties. The location was another educated guess, since Eddie Feng had been working, more or less, along a zigzagging line of such places all day.
"Stay sharp," Clark hissed. "These guys are moving slow, tactical . . . Always a chance they could be undercover cops-hang on, the female decided she's coming with them now . . ." From the tone of his voice it was clear he remained on his rifle.
Clark exhaled fast, like a boxer taking a body blow.
"Shit! Not cops. Guy with the golf club just whipped the shit out of the girl."
"'Bout time to unass the car, partner," Midas said, drawing his sidearm.