The Hidden


China has declared a secret intelligence war against America and chooses Zambia to be its first battleground. Its state-of-the art surveillance technology has easily compromised CIA operations in Lusaka, and its assassins have brutally murdered two CIA case officers and a Chinese defector.


Dissatisfied with the CIA, the American president creates a new clandestine service staffed by businessmen with established networks overseas who can remain hidden below China’s radar. Griff Harkin, a 35-year-old former Army paratrooper and combat veteran, is its first recruit.


Griff came to Zambia hoping to sell Montana beef but ended up an advisor to the country’s largest tribe, the serendipitous consequence of saving the life of Ellie Alinani, a beautiful deaf clairvoyant, and the favorite daughter of the tribe’s Paramount chief. Griff recruits Ellie and his best friend, as well as a group of deaf street urchins, to spy on the Chinese; ignored and shunned by everyone, with a language few understand, the street-smart waifs are the perfect surveillance team.


Together, they discover that a team of psychotic Chinese organized crime killers called the Gang of Four, controlled by a megalomaniacal Ministry of State Security officer known as the witch, is behind the assassination of the CIA officers, and they are off and running.


Contending with the gang, drone attacks, murderous poachers, and Griff’s nemesis from the military, the threat becomes exponentially dire when they discover that China has built a secret bioweapons lab deep in the forest that is developing a new genetic weapon intended to decimate America.


Designed as an intelligence collection element, Griff’s team is forced out of their comfort zone when they must turn to aggressive direct action against the witch and her better trained, combat-hardened security officers. America’s future will be determined by the outcome.


Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 2010


Sergeant Griff Harkin of the 508th Special Troops Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division sat in the witness chair in the courtroom of the new Fort Bragg Courthouse, a key witness in the court-martial of Lt. Benny Lemieux.


Pointing at the defendant, the trial counsel began. “Sergeant, your testimony here today could very well sway the jury to find that man, Lt. Benjamin Lemieux, guilty of cowardice under fire. Are you aware of that?”


“Yes, sir. I am.”


“It doesn’t get any more serious than this, son. If the court finds him guilty, Lt. Lemieux could be executed. At the very least, he would be drummed out of the service with a Dishonorable Discharge. Are you aware of the serious consequences of your testimony, sergeant?”


“Yes, sir.”


“All right, sergeant. Please tell the court in your own words what happened during the engagement, but first, please tell the court, from your perspective, what the general situation in Afghanistan was at that time.”


“Yes, sir. The engagement occurred on September 11, 2009. That year was a big year for us. The 82nd Airborne, I mean. The president ‘surged’ troops into Afghanistan that year, and we were part of the surge. But the president also made it clear that he would begin to withdraw those troops a year later, so the guys were a little confused. By that, sir, I mean, it just seemed to be counterproductive because, once you tell the enemy when you are leaving, all he needs to do is wait. Right? So, morale was a bit low. The guys didn’t mind fighting to win, but they weren’t sure that that was what command was doing.”


“Thank you, sergeant. Did you have any direct conversations with Lt. Lemieux that would show how he regarded the situation in-country at the time?”


“Yes, sir. Lt. Lemieux was not shy about giving us his impression of the situation.”


“What did Lt. Lemieux have to say about the situation, sergeant?”


“Lt. Lemieux did not like to hear any talk about winding down or anything about reducing combat operations. He was commissioned in the ROTC program at Louisiana State University, and he had a five-year payback obligation. He didn’t plan on being a career military officer. He told us that his dad was a senator and that he was going into politics when he got out. But he complained that he would never get his captain’s bars in the time he had unless he commanded men in combat. He felt like his deployment to Afghanistan was his only shot, so he would have us saddle up and go on patrol at the drop of a hat. He was extremely aggressive about it.”


“So, you are telling the court that Lt. Lemieux was an aggressive officer, who wanted to join with the enemy, and that he was hoping that such action would win him a promotion. Being gung-ho is part of the job description for a combat leader in the 82nd Airborne. Isn’t that correct, sergeant?”


“Yes, sir. That’s exactly what we need, sir.”


“Well, I’m confused, then, sergeant. If being an aggressive combat leader is the norm, what is your complaint against Lt. Lemieux?”


“Well, it didn’t turn out that way, sir.”


“What didn’t turn out that way, sergeant?”


“It didn’t turn out that Lt. Lemieux was an aggressive combat leader, sir.”


“Okay, sergeant. I suggest you explain that to the court.”


“Yes, sir. On the morning of the eleventh, we were on patrol in the northeastern sector of the city. I was squad leader of the first squad, on the left flank. The lieutenant was in the center, with second and third squads, and the fourth squad was on the right flank. At least that’s how it looked on paper. In reality, the neighborhoods were just a tangle of alleys and rutted trails, so sometimes flank forces became point, or everyone got forced together in a clusterfuck when the alleys and trails emptied out onto little plazas—”


“Sergeant,” the judge interjected, “let me remind you that this is a military trial, and you are a non-commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States. I will not tolerate locker room language in this court. Have I made myself clear?”


“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”


The counsel stepped in to smooth things over. “Thank you, Your Honor. Okay, Sergeant Harkin, please continue, but with a little less color this time.”


“Yes, sir. Well, that’s what happened on the eleventh. When we started the patrol, my squad was in the countryside, but the rutted lane we were on angled into the town, and, the next thing we knew, we were in a built-up area surrounded by buildings. Just as my squad entered a tiny plaza, I saw the lieutenant and his men emerge from our right a couple of alleys over, and insurgents opened up on us.


“The platoon sergeant and my point man were killed outright, and the rest of us dived for cover. AK rounds were ripping up everything around us. I dove behind a little shop made of rusted corrugated aluminum, and it looked like Swiss cheese a few seconds later. All I could do was hug the ground and pray they didn’t aim any lower.


“I looked to my right, and I saw the lieutenant. He was behind a beat-up old truck that the insurgents raked with a couple of bursts. The shots went high, perforating the wall above him, and he freaked. He got a wild look on his face, dropped his weapon, and scuttled in a reverse crab walk until he hit the building. Then he sidled up to the wall and pushed his face into it, looking away from the attack.”


Harkin looked at Lemieux at the defense table, but Lemieux averted his gaze. “I called to him, but he didn’t respond. I kept calling, but he kept his face pressed against the wall. The last time I called, I told him that we needed to organize counter fire ASAP, or we would all be dead. He didn’t even look back. With his face pressed into the wall, he just waved his arm behind him in a leave me alone kind of gesture. Then he blindly scrambled against the wall until he came to a door, and he dived inside the building. That was the last I saw him until the engagement was over.”


“What happened then, sergeant?”


“Because the lieutenant was AWOL and the platoon sergeant was dead, I was the senior man left standing. I called for suppressive fire and made it back to solid cover. Then I ordered second and third squads to fire and maneuver towards the enemy while I did the same with the first squad. I got on the radio and called for the fourth squad to flank from the right, and in about fifteen minutes, we had the area cleared.”


“How many casualties did the platoon sustain, sergeant?”


“Four dead and five wounded. We got the wounded medevac’d by chopper ASAP, but two more died during surgery, sir.”


“When did you see Lt. Lemieux again, sergeant?”


“Just after the second chopper lifted, I turned around, and Lemieux was right there, like nothing had happened at all. He was all smiles and slaps on the back. He said we all did a great job and that he was going to write us up for a unit citation. Then he took me aside and told me that I did a ‘grand’ job. He said he was proud of me and that he was going to put me in for a medal as soon as we returned to base.”


“And what was your response, sergeant?”


“In the actual words, sir, or should I paraphrase?”


“In the actual words, sergeant.”


“Yes, sir.” Harkin looked right at Lemieux and said, “I told him to shove the medal up his ass, sir. I told him that good men died while he was taking his break and that that was what I was going to say in my after-action report. Then he got angry. He told me that shit rolls downhill and that if I took him down, he would make sure my military career was over. He said his dad had influence and that it would be a mistake to mess with him.”


Lemieux looked up from the defense table and locked eyes with Harkin for just an instant.


“I told him to go fuck himself.”


Great Falls, Montana, April 2020


In spy movies, the US government recruits its future intelligence officers during rituals of secret societies in Yale, or at swanky cocktail parties in Bonn, or at a seeming chance encounter with a former schoolmate at a sidewalk café in Beirut.


For Griff Harkin, it wasn’t nearly as romantic.


It happened on a Tuesday morning. It wasn’t even a particularly nice day. In fact, it was overcast and threatening to rain. He had just returned from Zambia the evening before. He had been working there for the past three years, and after too many hours in the sky and a bad case of jet lag, he needed to get outside for a while.


He was hiking the Colter Trail along the Missouri River, just north of town, when a guy riding a mountain bike, coming from the opposite direction, skidded to a stop in front of him and said, “Hey, you’re Griff Harkin, aren’t you?”


Griff had never seen the guy before in his life, but the guy obviously knew who he was. “That’s me! Have we met?” He looked at the guy questioningly—he had a friendly, open face; clear blue eyes; close-cropped dark hair; and a sturdy build layered with serious muscle.


“Nah,” the stranger said, “but to tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve known you all my life.” Griff was puzzled, and the stranger added, “Look Griff, I’m not going to bullshit you, and there is no cool segue for how to say this, so I’m just going to tell you straight out. I’m a senior American intelligence officer, and I have a proposal for you, but it will take most of a day to discuss it. Are you interested in hearing what I have to say?”


Bursting out with a laugh, Griff said, “C’mon! Who put you up to this?” He wagged his finger in the stranger’s face. “I’m thinking this smells a little bit like that skunk John Wesley Harvey.” Griff looked over the stranger’s shoulder down the trail as if his great friend might materialize from behind a boulder. “Where is that SOB?”


As if having expected Griff’s reaction, the stranger smiled. “No, Griff, nobody put me up to this. I’m telling you the truth. But if you didn’t believe that one, you’re really going to have trouble with this. Your government needs you, Griff. Really.”


Griff shook his head. “Ah jeez, c’mon. Nobody really says that sort of thing.” He walked around the stranger’s bike to continue his hike. “Tell that skunk Wes that payback’s a bitch, and to expect it when he least expects it. See ya!”


As he walked away, the stranger raised his voice just a notch, reciting the following facts: “Griffin Patrick Harkin. Five-foot-ten, hundred and eighty-five pounds. Social Security Number 516-44-4062. Born July 19, 1985, at 10:24 am in St. Peter’s Hospital, Helena, Montana. Sergeant, 82nd Airborne Division, Task Force Diablo, Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan. Awarded the Bronze Star with V device for heroism under fire, September 11, 2009. Shall I continue?”


Griff stopped cold, his mind racing to figure out the angle. He turned around and spoke hesitantly. “All that stuff is pretty easy to find out, a lot of it was in the local papers, and Wes knows all of it, except for the time I was born. Hell, I didn’t even remember that until you just said it, but that doesn’t mean you’re who you say you are. What’s your name?”


The stranger grinned again, shook his head, and held out his hands as if to say, I’m a spy. Do you really expect me to give you my name? But then he gave in. “Fred Jones.”


“Fred Jones? C’mon! Okay, ‘Fred,’ do you have any ID?”


“No, I’m sorry.”


“A bullshit name and no identification. Do I look stupid to you? I don’t believe a thing you’re saying.”


Fred nodded knowingly. “Would you believe me if I could impress you?”


“Impress me? What? What do you mean, impress me? Is that some kind of a threat?”


“Not at all. Look, I get it. If I were you, I wouldn’t believe me either, but you gotta understand, Griff. Anyone can provide official-looking ID with a fake name. Didn’t you have a fake ID in high school? That doesn’t take any talent. But what if I could tell you something about yourself. Something that only one other person in the entire world knows. Would that buy me a little credit?”


“Credit? What? What are you . . . what are you talking about . . . Fred?”


“Well, Griff, I told you I’m an intelligence officer and that I feel like I’ve known you all my life. Then I said that I have a proposal for you. Now I claim that I can tell you something about yourself that only one other person in the entire world knows. What does that suggest?”


Griff looked down at the ground while his mind raced. Then he looked up at Fred. “It sounds like you’ve been studying me for a while. But why?”


“We have to know who we’re dealing with, Griff. It’s what intelligence is all about.”


“And you say you know something about me that would impress me? Like what?”


“Let me explain, Griff. In the spy trade, what I’m trying to do is show you my bona fides—to prove to you that I’m for real. But I don’t want to hang everything out there and then have you just storm off down the trail. So, I’d like to make a deal with you.”


“A deal? What kind of a deal?”


“Well, if I can tell you something that I should have no way of knowing unless I am who I say I am, you agree to meet with me so I can explain my proposal to you. And I’m not talking about a grounder here, Griff. I’m talking about knocking the ball right out of the park. If what I tell you doesn’t truly impress you, we part ways, no harm, no foul. What do you say? What do you have to lose? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”


Griff knew he was hooked, and he realized that he felt exactly like he did just before his first parachute jump. Dread mixed with excitement and curiosity. Scared, but needing to know what awaited just beyond that open door. He whispered the paratroopers’ motto to himself—“All the Way!”—then gave Fred his answer.


“Deal! But only if it’s out of the park.”


Fred winked. “Ready?”




“You and Ms. Ellie Alinani, the Royal Livingstone Hotel. Victoria Falls, Zambia. The Falls Suite. Room service for two. Champagne, prawns, and chocolate mousse.”


Griff’s jaw literally dropped. Nobody knew that he and Ellie, the daughter of the paramount chief of the Bemba, one of the prominent tribes of Zambia, had become a couple. Absolutely nobody. For Christ’s sake, it just happened less than two days ago when Ellie surprised him with a kiss while they were in Devil’s Pool, at the apex of Victoria Falls. There was no way that this stranger, standing on Colter Trail in Great Falls, Montana, could have any possible way of knowing, unless . . .


Griff thought for a few seconds, then said, “You say your pitch would take most of a day?”


Fred nodded.


Griff shrugged his shoulders. “How about tomorrow?”


Beijing, China, 2020


The Mandarin table lamps were hand-painted. Jasmine blossoms on a rich red background topped with warm, golden shades. They signified royalty. Their muted light was meant to bring a touch of elegance to the space, but the shadows they cast appeared to make the snakes move. All three of them. One on the north wall. One on the east wall. One on the west wall. They hung down on silk scrolls as wide as a man, eight feet long, and commemorated the zodiac sign of Xi Jinping, the President of China.


Director Wang, the chief of China’s foreign intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security, had been to the president’s private office many times before, and on each of his visits, he’d marveled at its awkward size. Almost large enough to be called a suite, but not small enough to be intimate. He couldn’t understand why the builder hadn’t chosen one or the other.


He figured the answer must be technical because the space wasn’t a regular, run-of-the-mill room. It was a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. A room-within-a-room built to be impervious to electronic surveillance. Especially the American variety. It was lined in dark Cuban mahogany and well-appointed with elegant furniture and art, but no matter how you dressed it up, it was still a SCIF.


Wang was accompanied today by Chief Ba, his director for Operation Terraform, the ground-breaking MSS operation in Zambia. It was Ba’s first visit to the president’s private office, and she oohed and aahed at everything she saw. She was particularly impressed with the snake scrolls. Wang just thought they were creepy.


Wang and Ba sat on the sofa along the west wall, snake at their backs. A coffee table bridged the gap between them and the sofa along the east wall, where the president would sit.


As they awaited the president’s arrival, Wang studied his colleague. She resembled an old crow. Tall, thin, and bony. In the twenty years he’d known her, she had never looked well. She had scraggly black hair, large black eyes, and a long, pointed nose. Her colleagues called her the Witch behind her back, and office gossip had it that, at sixty-five, she was still a virgin. Wang couldn’t blame them for the nickname, but he had the highest confidence in her operational capabilities.


Ten minutes after their arrival, the soundproof door opened with a hiss, and the president entered.


The undisputed leader of China’s 1.4 billion people, Xi held the top three positions in the country. General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party—the top dog of the country’s only political party. Chairman of the Central Military Commission, making him commander-in-chief of China’s two-million-strong military. And president-for-life.


The man. The supreme dictator. The Core Leader.


He had no political opposition. He had no term limit. He had no constitution. He was a law unto himself. In this meeting, he was acting in his capacity as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.


Xi studied his two guests for a moment and said, “Director Wang, over the years, you have provided me with first-rate intelligence for our worldwide projects. I’ve been singularly impressed with your reports about the United States. Even when they were not one hundred percent correct. But I know that intelligence is not an exact science and that the Ministry of State Security has always done its level best for the motherland in all of its endeavors.”


Wang and Ba shifted in their seats, not knowing where this conversation was leading. Was this the end of the line? Had they done something wrong? Had they missed something in a major report?


Wang could have sworn that the snake over the president’s shoulder moved.


“Last night, I watched a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. It focused on Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who was considered to be one of Japan’s greatest strategists. He was the man who painstakingly planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like you, director, as a younger man, he was stationed in the United States, where he developed a unique understanding of the American people and their capabilities.


“He was against the idea of going to war with America, but when Prime Minister Tojo declared war, he did his level best to ensure that the attack was successful. And it was. Spectacularly so. Despite the mission’s success, however, Yamamoto’s doubts continued, and he stated, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.’ In the end, he was proven correct.”


Xi paused for a moment, making sure that Wang and Ba were fully attentive, then stated, “I am about to make a decision that will forever change the dynamic between the two most powerful countries on earth. It is a decision that could lead to war, and I want to ensure that I do not miscalculate. I know the Ministry’s position regarding our enemy. I’ve digested all your reports, statistics, and graphs. I know you have given me your best estimates. But today, I want you to forget the formalities and protocol. Forget rank and title and, like Yamamoto, just tell me from your gut what you believe. Can you do that for me, Director Wang? Can we beat America?”


While his face was calm, Director Wang’s brain was going a mile a minute. Surely, the chairman had already made up his mind on whatever he had planned. What if Wang’s answer was contrary to that decision? On the other hand, if Wang stuck with the party line, the chairman would not be happy. He had already said as much. The clock was ticking, and each second that passed made him look indecisive.


Wang willed himself not to look at the snake behind the president. No sense getting spooked by that paper monster when a flesh-and-blood one sat before him. Rather, he looked the president directly in the eye and nodded his head solemnly. And then, on the spot, he decided he would tell the chairman the unvarnished truth. Damn! He cursed the day he got this wretched job. Just showing up for work could get you killed.


“Comrade Chairman, our respected military philosopher Sun Tzu said, ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Our nation has spent decades building and honing its capabilities—capabilities specifically designed to take advantage of American vulnerabilities. We know ourselves. And we know the enemy. Of that, I am certain.


“I know that America was once a great power, but I believe that now it is lost. I believe Americans are so violently polarized that they no longer agree on anything. They have negated the word united in United States. Their cities burn while their leaders hide.


“In America today, knowledge and facts have been replaced by fairy tale belief systems that bear little resemblance to reality. Conspiracy theories run rampant. The US educational system no longer educates, which means most Americans are ignorant of the world and their role in it. Each new generation becomes a little more ignorant than the last. And they are blissful in their ignorance.


“Because they no longer know their country’s history, they don’t respect its past, nor its ideals. Americans have become both mentally and physically soft and spoiled. They want their government to provide for their every need, but without making any personal sacrifice.”


He paused for a few seconds in thought, warming to his task, and resumed.


“America is a living contradiction. It claims to be the most powerful country on earth but has not decisively won a war since World War II. Worse, it cannot understand why that is so. It is a country that makes amazing scientific discoveries but can’t maintain its crumbling infrastructure. It boasts of its exceptionalism and its singular importance on the world stage but has become increasingly isolationist and irrelevant to its allies. It is a dying empire mired in arrogance, corruption, and decay. As one of our enlightened party leaders said recently, America is ‘just a shooting star in the ample sky of history.’ I believe America is the past. We are the future.”


The president raised his eyebrows and looked wide-eyed at Wang, then threw himself back against the sofa, grinning and clapping his hands in delight. “That was wonderful, Director Wang. I knew you and I were on the same page. I only wish I had taped this conversation so I could steal it from you to use before the standing committee. Well said. You are a man after my own heart.”


Wang blushed and, following the age-old habit of self-deprecation, shook his hands in a negative gesture. “No, no, no, Comrade Chairman. Not at all. I’m just a common man. You are too kind, Comrade Chairman. Don’t be so kind.”


The snakes didn’t seem so menacing to him now.


“Well, Miss Ba.” The president turned his attention to the Witch. “That is a hard act to follow, but I’m sure you’re up to the task. Give me your best assessment of the CIA, and then a brief description of the most significant achievements of Operation Terraform.”


Contrary to what the president said, Ba didn’t think that Wang’s act was tough to follow at all. In fact, she thought she would have said it better. Besides, nobody in the world—not Wang, not the president himself—knew her subject better than she did.


She sat ramrod straight, perfunctorily cleared her throat, and confidently declared, “Comrade Chairman, the CIA is broken. It lost its raison d’être when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and over the following decade, it steadily lost personnel and funding, forcing it to close stations and bases overseas. It drifted hopelessly until September 11, 2001, when it latched onto counterterrorism as its primary mission. In doing so, it abandoned the one area that provided value to the US president that no other American national security institution could duplicate. Its ability to recruit and run networks of foreign spies. Rather, it transformed itself into yet another tactical counterterrorism unit. A feat accomplished by simply hiring special operators directly from the military. But when the War on Terror fizzled, it found itself redundant to the elite military teams.


“Now, desperately wanting to get back into the spy game, it has neither the personnel nor the skills. Its management knows that our technology can easily track its case officers under embassy cover, but it is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It can’t admit it is obsolete to its boss, the president of the United States, because he loathes it. Such an admission would be tantamount to suicide.”


President Xi nodded his head vigorously.


Taking his approval as her due, Ba continued. “As we hoped, it did what it always has. It trained a new generation of case officers and deployed them as diplomats. When they arrived in Zambia, we were ready for them with Operation Terraform.


“Using Huawei as commercial cover, we transformed Zambia, technologically speaking, from a primitive backwater into a twenty-first-century surveillance state, patterned after our state-of-the-art project in Xinjiang to control the Uighurs. The CIA, however, has not even begun to understand the extent of its problem. It publicly acknowledges the dangers of CCTV to its clandestine officers, but the threat is much more complex. It’s not about a few cameras; it’s about us controlling the entire system.”


“Excellent!” breathed Xi.


Ba rushed on, eager to display all her achievements. “China designed, built, and equipped the country’s entire telecommunications sector, Comrade Chairman. We own it! Its data center. Its technical university. Even its eGovernment services. All ours. The next generation of Zambian telecommunications specialists? Ours. But we’ve rigged the system so they will never reach the technical level to actually run it or even question our protocols.


“We own Zambia’s central security system too! We’ve installed cell phone trackers and thousands of CCTV cameras with facial and gait recognition technology. At highpoints in Lusaka, we’ve installed our new 360-degree, 500-megapixel cameras that can identify individuals in a crowd of thousands in mere seconds. We have flocks of AI-enabled ‘dove’ mini-drones that look and fly just like the local birds at our disposal.”


She paused a second for breath, her eyes glittering with excitement, and continued triumphantly. “Knowing how the Americans love to use hotel rooms for meetings, we made a point of surreptitiously installing hidden cameras at the check-in desks of all the hotels frequented by foreigners.


“But what ties these systems together, Comrade Chairman, the pièce de résistance, is our WAMI[1] technology. Wide Area Motion Imagery. It is a truly magical capability.”


The president focused his attention even more intently and shifted his weight forward, his eyes locked on Ba, his fists clenched as if ready to smite the enemy.


“We mounted our WAMI system on small civilian planes that circle the capital, recording all movement. All movement, Comrade Chairman, in the entire city. An area of eighty square kilometers. The system enables one analyst to identify and track numerous targets in real-time, while another goes ‘back in time’ to see what those same targets did an hour ago, two days ago, a week, a month ago, identifying all the locations the targets visited and all the routes used.


“In Lusaka, the CIA has only seven case officers. All working out of the embassy. All under diplomatic cover. Identifying and tracking them was child’s play. We have followed them for months and have compromised every one of their cases.


“As Comrade Chairman is aware, one of those cases is a young MSS traitor working in the Chinese embassy. He is being handled by two CIA case officers, one male and one female. All three are under complete and constant surveillance, 24/7, while we await your orders.”


Concluding with an attempt at a pert smile, Ba folded her hands on her lap.


Xi was full of praise. “Operation Terraform is a masterful operation. You have both gone above and beyond the call of duty on this one. By the end of the day, you will both be awarded Meritorious Service Medals. I will pin them to you myself. Now, we must take the operation against the CIA to the next level. And we will accomplish this skillfully and with little risk because I have learned one indisputable and exploitable fact about our enemy: America is paralyzed by ambiguity.”


The president’s voice was scornful as he listed the enemy’s failings. “When the ‘Little Green Men’ invaded Crimea in 2014, all it took to paralyze America was for the troops to have no insignia on their uniforms and for Vladimir Putin to deny that they were Russians. For five years, America watched us build our Anti-Access Area Denial defense systems in the South China Sea. But all it took to paralyze it into inaction was for me to tell Obama that we had no intention of militarizing those islands. We have been stealing the Americans blind for years. Scientific secrets. Financial secrets. Defense secrets. But all our attacks are ambiguous cyber intrusions. So, the Americans are paralyzed. The whole world knew that the Russians invaded Crimea. The whole world knew that China was militarizing the South China Sea, and the whole world knew that we were stealing the United States blind, but there was no ‘smoking gun,’ so America was paralyzed.”


The Witch smirked and nodded.


“America has become a paper tiger, and I want to humiliate it. I want to reveal its impotence to the world. We will do this by unmasking the vaunted Central Intelligence Agency as a fraud and a failure. We’ll show that it can’t protect its operations or its people. You two will accomplish this in a manner that allows the world to know that China is pulling the strings, but with enough ambiguity to keep the US paralyzed. There must be no smoking gun.


“Miss Ba, my understanding is that most of the compromised operations in Zambia reveal American case officers working with the opposition movements against the Zambian president and other African leaders. Is that true?”


“Absolutely, Comrade Chairman.”


“Do you have video of these meetings?”


“Yes. Damning video, Comrade Chairman.”


“Excellent! Director Wang, Miss Ba, I want you to create a documentary with the video of these meetings and any other compromising technical coverage that you can stitch together without giving away our most prized secrets. You will need to co-opt the Zambian government in this endeavor. To the world, it will look like the Zambians themselves are responsible for investigating the CIA’s ineptness and abuses. Its manipulation of African opposition movements against the legitimate democratically elected governments. Play up its racist nature. Show white case officers suborning black Africans. Reveal its poor spy tradecraft. Show case officers bumbling around looking for surveillance, that sort of thing. Create a shitstorm!”


Director Wang was quick to answer. “Comrade Chairman, the Cuban intelligence service did something similar in the late 1980s. It created a six-part television series that extended the drama and embarrassment. Perhaps we could do the same.”


“Perfect! Yes, I’ll leave it to the both of you to make it unforgettable. Now, pay strict attention. What I’m about to relay to you transcends government. I address this matter not as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, but as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. As the Core Leader. Is that absolutely clear to you?”


It was as though all the air had been sucked out of the room. Wang was sure the snakes on all three walls were slithering and maneuvering for a strike. But both he and Ba dutifully replied, “Yes, Core Leader.”


“I know that you are familiar with the Chinese organized crime syndicate called the Big Circle Gang. What you are not familiar with is the fact that the leader of the syndicate in Zambia, Venerable Fu, is a senior member of the party. His clandestine mission is of the utmost importance. He, and others like him, bring in capital to offset the losses we’ve incurred in the trade war with the United States. Venerable and I have known each other for years. I trust him as I trust you.


“I’ve communicated with him recently. He informed me that he has a small team, nicknamed the Gang of Four, that he uses to conduct assassinations. By all accounts, they are exceptionally good at what they do, but they are also expendable. Do you understand?”


Wang could barely breathe. “Yes, Core Leader,” he managed once more.


“Miss Ba, I want you to travel to Zambia to handle this task personally. You will coordinate with Director Wang and Venerable Fu but not physically meet the team. Is that clear?”


In contrast to Wang, Ba seemed energized by the assignment. “Certainly, Core Leader!”


“Very well. Now, listen carefully. Regarding the case of the MSS traitor in Zambia, I order that the American male case officer be killed violently. I order that the Chinese traitor be killed according to the ancient tradition of death by a thousand cuts, and I order that the female case officer be killed with a new genetic weapon that is being tailored specifically for her. Miss Ba, get a briefing from our scientists on this weapon before you depart. I want all of these executions to point to us as the power behind the throne, shall we say, but with no direct smoking gun. Is that clear?”


With a conviction and eagerness Wang found slightly distasteful, she responded, “Absolutely. As you wish, Core Leader!”


What Wang understood that the Witch apparently did not was that operations at this level often did not go well for those involved. There would be too many witnesses. The members of the Gang of Four weren’t the only ones who were expendable.


[1] Wide-area motion imagery (WAMI). Wikipedia. Retrieved from