The Altman Code
“Ms. Lynds has enough surprises and unsuspected allegiances to provide both tension and mystery until the last pages. Pull up a beach chair, slather on that sunscreen, and settle in to the latest Lynds/Ludlum gripping convolution where escape is the name of the game.”
— The Santa Barbara News-Press
When word reaches the president of the United States that a Chinese cargo ship is transporting chemicals to a rogue nation intent on creating new biological weapons, the president knows he must act quickly to obtain the proof he needs. Covert-One agent Jon Smith is sent to rendezvous in Taiwan with another agent who has acquired the ship’s true manifest. But before Smith can get the document, he is ambushed, the second agent is murdered, and the evidence is destroyed. Smith escapes with only his life and a verbal message — the president’s biological father is still alive, held prisoner by the Chinese for fifty years. As the mysterious ship draws closer to its end port, Smith is losing time in uncovering the truth about the vessel and its cargo — a truth that probes the secrets of the Chinese ruling party, a faction in Washington working to undermine the elected government, and an international cabal thrusting the world to the brink of war.
Tuesday, September 12th
There was a saying in Washington that lawyers ran the government, but spies ran the lawyers. The city was cobwebbed with intelligence agencies, everything from the legendary CIA and FBI and the little-known NRO to alphabet groups in all branches of the military and government, even in the illustrious departments of State and Justice. Too many, in the opinion of President Samuel Adams Castilla. And too public. Rivalries were notoriously a problem. Sharing information that inadvertently included misinformation was a bigger problem. Then there was the dangerous sluggishness of so many bureaucracies.
The president was worrying about this and a brewing international crisis as his black Lincoln Towncar cruised along a narrow back road on the northern bank of the Anacostia River. Its motor was a quiet hum, and its tinted windows opaque. The car rolled past tangled woods and the usual lighted marinas until it finally rattled over the rusted tracks of a rail spur, where it turned right into a busy marina that was completely fenced. The sign read:
Anacostia Seagoing Yacht Club
Private. Members Only.
The yacht club appeared identical to all the others that lined the river east of the Washington Navy Yard. It was an hour before midnight.
Only a few miles above the Anacostia’s confluence with the broad Potomac, the marina moored big, open-water power cruisers and long-distance sailing boats, as well as the usual weekend pleasure craft. President Castilla gazed out his window at the piers, which jutted out into the dusky water. At several, a number of salt-encrusted oceangoing yachts were just docking. Their crews still wore foul-weather gear. He saw that there were also five frame buildings of varying sizes on the grounds. The layout was exactly what had been described to him.
The Lincoln glided to a halt behind the largest of the lighted buildings, out of sight of the piers and hidden from the road by the thick woods. Four of the men riding in the Lincoln with him, all wearing business suits and carrying mini-submachine guns, swiftly stepped out and formed a perimeter around the car. They adjusted their night-vision goggles as they scanned the darkness. Finally, one of the four turned back toward the Lincoln and gave a sharp nod.
The fifth man, who had been sitting beside the president, also wore a dark business suit, but he carried a 9mm Sig Sauer. In response to the signal, the president handed him a key, and he hurried from the car to a barely visible side door in the building. He inserted the key into a hidden lock and swung the door open. He turned and spread his feet, weapon poised.
At that point, the car door that was closest to the building opened. The night air was cool and crisp, tainted with the stench of diesel. The president emerged into it — a tall, heavy-set man wearing chino slacks and a casual sport jacket. For such a big man, he moved swiftly as he entered the building.
The fifth guard gave a final glance around and followed with two of the four others. The remaining pair took stations, protecting the Lincoln and the side door.
Nathaniel Frederick (“Fred”) Klein, the rumpled chief of Covert-One, sat behind a cluttered metal desk in his compact office inside the marina building. This was the new Covert-One nerve center. In the beginning, just four years ago, Covert-One had no formal organization or bureaucracy, no real headquarters, and no official operatives. It had been loosely composed of professional experts in many fields, all with clandestine experience, most with military backgrounds, and all essentially unencumbered — without family, home ties, or obligations, either temporary or permanent.
But now that three major international crises had stretched the resources of the elite cadre to the limits, the president had decided his ultra secret agency needed more personnel and a permanent base far from the radar screens of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Hill, or the Pentagon. The result was this “private yacht club.”
It had the right elements for clandestine work: It was open and active twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with intermittent but steady traffic from both land and water that followed no pattern. Near the road and the rail spur but still on the grounds was a helipad that looked more like a weed-infested field. The latest electronic communications had been installed throughout the base, and the security was nearly invisible but of cutting-edge quality. Not even a dragonfly could cross the periphery without one of the sensors picking it up.
Alone in his office, the sounds of his small night-time staff muted beyond his door, Klein closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his longish nose. His wire-rimmed glasses rested on the desk. Tonight he looked every one of his sixty years. Since he had accepted the job of heading Covert-One, he had aged. His enigmatic face was riven with new creases, and his hairline had receded another inch. Another problem was on the verge of erupting.
As his headache lessened, he sat back, opened his eyes, put his glasses back on, and resumed puffing on his ever-present pipe. The room filled with billows of smoke that disappeared almost as soon as he produced them, sucked out by a powerful ventilating system installed specifically for the purpose.
A file folder lay open on his desk, but he did not look at it. Instead, he smoked, tapped his foot, and glanced at the ship’s clock on his wall every few seconds. At last, a door to his left, beneath the clock, opened, and a man with a Sig Sauer strode across the office to the outer door, locked it, and turned to stand with his back against it.
Seconds later, the president entered. He sat in a high-backed leather chair across the desk from Klein.
“Thanks, Barney,” he told the guard. “I’ll let you know if I need you.”
“But Mr. President — “
”You can go,” he ordered firmly. “Wait outside. This is a private conversation between two old friends.” That was partly true. He and Fred Klein had known each other since college days.
The guard slowly recrossed the office and left, each step radiating reluctance.
As the door closed, Klein blew a stream of smoke. “I would’ve come to you as usual, Mr. President.”
“No.” Sam Castilla shook his head. His titanium glasses reflected the overhead light with a sharp flash. “Until you tell me exactly what we’re facing with this Chinese freighter — The Dowager Empress, right? — this one stays between us and those of your agents you need to work on it.”
“The leaks are that bad?”
“Worse,” the president said. “The White House has turned into a sieve. I’ve never seen anything like it. Until my people can find the source, I’ll meet you here.” His rangy face was deeply worried. “You think we have another Yinhe?”
Klein’s mind was instantly transported back: It was 1993, and a nasty international incident was about to erupt, with America the big loser. A Chinese cargo ship, the Yinhe, had sailed from China for Iran. U.S. intelligence received reports the ship was carrying chemicals that could be used to make weapons. After trying the usual diplomatic channels and failing, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Navy to chase the ship, refusing to let it land anywhere, until some sort of resolution could be found.
An outraged China denied the accusations. Prominent world leaders jawboned. Allies made charges and counter charges. And media around the globe covered the standoff with banner headlines. The stalemate went on for an interminable twenty days. When China finally began to noisily rattle its sabers, the U.S. Navy forced the ship to stop on the high seas, and inspectors boarded the Yinhe. To America’s great embarrassment, they uncovered only agricultural equipment — plows, shovels, and small tractors. The intelligence had been faulty.
With a grimace, Klein recalled it all too well. The episode made America look like a thug. Its relations with China, and even its allies, were strained for years.
He puffed gloomily, fanning the smoke away from the president. “Do we have another Yinhe?” he repeated. “Maybe.”
“There’s ‘maybe’ remotely, and ‘maybe’ probably. You better tell me all of it. Chapter and verse.”
Klein tamped down the ash in his pipe. “One of our operatives is a professional Sinologist who’s been working in Shanghai the past ten years for a consortium of American firms that are trying to get a foothold there. His name’s Avery Mondragon. He’s alerted us to information he’s uncovered that The Dowager Empress is carrying tens of tons of thiodiglycol, used in blister weapons, and thionyl chloride, used in both blister and nerve weapons. The freighter was loaded in Shanghai, is already at sea, and is destined for Iraq. Both chemicals have legitimate agricultural uses, of course, but not in such large quantities for a nation the size of Iraq.”
“How good is the information this time, Fred? One-hundred percent? Ninety?”
“I haven’t seen it,” Klein said evenly, puffing a cloud of smoke and forgetting to wave it away this time. “But Mondragon says it’s documentary. He has the ship’s true invoice manifest.”
“Great God.” Castilla’s thick shoulders and heavy torso seemed to go rigid against his chair. “I don’t know whether you realize it, but China is one of the signatories of the international agreement that prohibits development, production, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons. They won’t let themselves be revealed as breaking that treaty, because it could slow their march to acquiring a bigger and bigger slice of the global economy.”
“It’s a damned delicate situation.”
“The price of another mistake on our part could be particularly high for us, too, now that they’re close to signing our human-rights treaty.”
In exchange for financial and trade concessions from the U.S., for which the president had cajoled and arm-twisted a reluctant congress, China had all but committed to signing a bilateral human-rights agreement that would open its prisons and criminal courts to U.N. and U.S. inspectors, bring its criminal and civil courts closer to Western and international principles, and release long-time political prisoners. Such a treaty had been a high-priority goal for American presidents since Dick Nixon.
Sam Castilla wanted nothing to stop it. In fact, it was a long-time dream of his, too, for personal as well as human-rights reasons. “It’s also a damned dangerous situation. We can’t allow this ship . . . what was it, The Dowager Empress?”
“We can’t allow The Dowager Empress to sail into Basra with weapons-making chemicals. That’s the bottom line. Period.” Castilla stood and paced. “If your intelligence turns out to be good, and we go after this Dowager Empress, how are the Chinese going to react?” He shook his head and waved away his own words. “No, that’s not the question, is it? We know how they’ll react. They’ll shake their swords, denounce, and posture. The question is what will they actually do?” He looked at Klein. “Especially if we’re wrong again?”
“No one can know or predict that, Mr. President. On the other hand, no nation can maintain massive armies and nuclear weapons without using them somewhere, sometime, if for no other reason than to justify the costs.”
“I disagree. If a country’s economy is good, and its people are happy, a leader can maintain an army without using it.”
“Of course, if China wants to use the incident as an excuse that they’re being threatened, they might invade Taiwan,” Fred Klein continued. “They’ve wanted to do that for decades.”
“If they feel we won’t retaliate, yes. There’s Central Asia, too, now that Russia is less of a regional threat.”
The Covert-One chief said the words neither wanted to think: “With their long-range nuclear weapons, we’re as much a target as any country.”
Castilla shook off a shudder. Klein removed his glasses and massaged his temples. They were silent.
At last, the president sighed. He had made a decision. “All right, I’ll have Admiral Brose order the navy to follow and monitor The Dowager Empress. We’ll label it routine at-sea surveillance with no revelation of the actual situation to anyone but Brose.”
“The Chinese will find out we’re shadowing their ship.”
“We’ll stall. The problem is, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to get away with it.” The president went to the door and stopped. When he turned, his face was long and somber, his jowls pronounced. “I need proof, Fred. I need it now. Get me that manifest.”
“You’ll have it, Sam.”
His big shoulders hunched with worry, President Castilla nodded, opened the door, and walked away. One of the secret service agents closed it.
Alone again, Klein frowned, contemplating his next step. As he heard the engine of the president’s car hum to life, he made a decision. He swiveled to the small table behind his chair, on which two phones sat. One was red — a single, direct, scrambled line to the president. The other was blue. It was also scrambled. He picked up the blue phone and dialed.
Wednesday, September 13th
After a medium-rare hamburger and a bottle of Taiwanese lager at Smokey Joe’s on Chunghsiao-1 Road, Jon Smith decided to take a taxi to Kaohsiung Harbor. He still had an hour before his afternoon meetings resumed at the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel, when his old friend, Mike Kerns from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, would meet him there.
Smith had been in Kaohsiung — Taiwan’s second-largest city — nearly a week, but today was the first chance he’d had to explore. That kind of intensity was what usually happened at scientific conferences, at least in his experience. Assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases — USAMRIID, he was a medical doctor and biomolecular scientist as well as an army lieutenant colonel. He had left his work on defenses against anthrax to attend this one — the Pacific Rim International Assembly on Developments in Molecular and Cell Biology.
But scientific conferences, like fish and guests, got stale after three or four days. Hatless, in civilian clothes, he strode along the waterfront, marveling at the magnificent harbor, the third largest container port in the world, after Hong Kong and Singapore. He had visited here years ago, before a tunnel was built to the mainland and the paradisiacal island became just another congested part of the container port. The day was postcard clear, so he was able to easily spot Hsiao Liuchiu Island, low on the southern horizon.
He walked another fifteen minutes through the sun-hazed day as seagulls circled overhead and the clatter of a harbor at work filled his ears. There was no sign here of the strife over Taiwan’s future, whether it would remain independent or be conquered or somehow traded off to mainland China, which still claimed it as its own.
At last, he hailed a cab to take him back to the hotel. He had hardly settled into the back seat, when his cell phone vibrated inside his sport jacket. It was not his regular phone, but the special one in the hidden pocket. The phone that was scrambled.
He answered quietly, “Smith.”
Fred Klein asked, “How’s the conference, Colonel?”
“Getting dull,” he admitted.
“Then a small diversion won’t be too amiss.”
Smith smiled inwardly. He was not only a scientist, but an undercover agent. Balancing the two parts of his life was seldom easy. He was ready for a “small diversion,” but nothing too big or too engrossing. He really did want to get back to the conference. “What do we have this time, Fred?”
From his distant office on the bank of the Anacostia River, Klein described the situation.
Smith felt a chill that was both apprehension and anticipation. “What do I do?”
“Go to Liuchiu Island tonight. You should have plenty of time. Rent or bribe a boat out of Linyuan, and be on the island by nine. At precisely ten, you’ll be at a small cove on the western shore. The exact location, landmarks, and local designation have been faxed to a Covert-One asset at the American Institute in Taiwan. They’ll be hand delivered to you.”
“What happens at the cove?”
“You meet another Covert-One, Avery Mondragon. The recognition word is ‘Orchid.’ He’ll deliver an envelope with The Dowager Empress’s actual manifest, the one that’s the basis for the bill to Iraq. After that, go directly to the airport in Kaohsiung. You’ll meet a chopper there from one of our cruisers lying off shore. Give the pilot the invoice manifest. Its final destination is the Oval Office. Understood?”
“Same recognition word?”
Smith could hear the chief of Covert-One puffing on his pipe. “Then you can go back to your conference.”
The phone went dead. Smith grinned to himself. A straight-forward, uncomplicated assignment.
Moments later, the taxi pulled up in front of the Hi-Lai Hotel. He paid the driver and walked into the lobby, heading for the car-rental desk. Once the courier had arrived from Taipei, he would drive down the coast to Linyuan and find a fishing boat to take him quietly to Liuchiu. If he could not find one, he would rent one and pilot it himself.
As he crossed the lobby, a short, brisk Chinese man jumped up from an armchair to block his way. “Ah, Dr. Smith, I have been waiting for you. I am honored to meet you personally. Your paper on the late Dr. Chambord’s theoretical work with the molecular computer was excellent. Much food for thought.”
Smith smiled in acknowledgment of both greeting and compliment. “You flatter me, Dr. Liang.”
“Not at all. I wonder whether you could possibly join me and some of my colleagues from the Shanghai Biomedical Institute for dinner tonight. We are keenly interested in the work of both USAMRIID and the CDC on emerging viral agents that threaten all of us.”
“I’d very much like that,” Smith said smoothly, giving his voice a tinge of regret, “but tonight I have another engagement. Perhaps you are free some other time?”
“With your permission, I will contact you.”
“Of course, Dr. Liang.” Jon Smith continued on to the desk, his mind already on Liuchiu Island and tonight.