Although a burnt-out journalist has switched careers, seeing his best friend killed drives him back into the fray. Dodging attempts on his own life, the bourbon-drinking, Bible-quoting son of a white Mississippian father and Korean mother searches for answers in the heart of darkness known as North Korea. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from this gripping thriller, so timely it’s positively eerie. Full-length print and digital copies available. Now read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5 Part 6 and Part 7.

Chapter 17: Intruder in Dandong

Byon was supposed to be waiting for me in Dandong, but there was a message from him at the hotel front desk. He’d been enlisted to escort some visitors; I should stand by for further instructions. I headed for Arirang with my harps in my pockets, in the mood to make beautiful music with Mi-song. There was no sign of her.

I drank for a while with Father Paul. Recalling the latest news report about the circumstances of Kim Jong-il’s death, I couldn’t resist teasing the priest a little. “So do you think maybe Jong-il’s enemies got a Kim Il-sung double, somebody like you, for example, to stand there by the tracks and scare the Dear Leader to death?”

Father Paul gasped and blanched. “Don’t even joke about such a thing. Someone might overhear and report.”

I changed the subject and we had supper. Concluding that Mi-song wasn’t going to show up there, I called it an evening.

Back at the Renmin, I unlocked the room door  — carefully. Sure enough, someone was waiting for me. Fortunately it was Mi-song, in bed, the sheet pulled up to her neck. “I thought we’d better not be seen together, even in Arirang.”

I didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten into the room. Keeping the lights off, we talked about what I’d done in Hong Kong. I left out the part about the insurance company, since I knew there was nothing she could do and I figured she had enough on her mind.

When I mentioned Byon’s delay, she told me the new group of campus visitors included Maloof and two other men from the Middle East. Then we took care of another urgent matter.

About a half hour later there was a knock. Moving deftly and swiftly she took her things and hid in the bathroom. I went to the door, naked as a jaybird, and glanced to make sure the chain was set. “Who’s there?”

“Mr. Byon sent me,” someone said. The voice was low, masculine.

When I cracked the door, the guy jammed his steel-toed workman’s shoe in and applied a wire cutter to the chain.

“Son of a bitch!” All I had time to do as I heard the chain snap was run past the bathroom and dive over the empty bed. Crouching behind the bed, I heard him close the door and move toward my side of the room. Once there, with the aid of the low light filtering through the closed window curtain from the neon signs outside, he’d be able to get a clear enough look at me to aim the snub-nosed revolver he was now holding.

Behind him Mi-song emerged naked and silent from the bathroom. With a flying leap she crossed the distance between them and cold cocked him with the butt of her own gun. His head lolled as she picked him up from the floor and sat him in the desk chair.

It’s funny how odd sayings pop up in your memory at times of stress. “Everybody needs a chance to be told to sit down,” I remarked. “Old bluesman friend of mine used to say that.”

Standing behind him, she crossed her arms, looping the left one around his head to grab the right side of his jawbone and placing her right hand on the left side of his head. She twisted his head sharply to the left while simultaneously pushing forward. He showed no sign of life after that. To make sure, though, she reversed her grip and turned his head in the other direction.

I had to admire her handiwork. “You’re obviously good at what you do. Tell me, who’s the biggest notch you’ve carved in your gun belt — or is my security clearance not high enough to hear the answer?”

She laughed. “I will not tell you but perhaps you can guess if I provide a hint. Imagine whose life it would have given me the most pleasure to end and you will have your answer.”

I knew the answer immediately. “Kim Jong-il.”

“Sometimes it makes sense to give nature a push. He was ill for a long time and I grew tired of waiting for him to die. Toward the end of 2011 a story went around in Pyongyang circles that our father had appeared to him. Jong-il had told people close to him that he could not be sure whether he had seen the old man or only dreamed it. That was when South Korean intelligence put out reports that his mind seemed to be going. I calculated that another sighting could be just the thing to send him on his way forever.”

“Earlier this evening I was kidding Father Paul, suggesting he was the double who stood by the tracks. He didn’t much care for that line of discussion.”

“I should think not.”

“But he wasn’t the one, was he?”

“If he did not tell you so himself, it is not for me to say that it was he — although I can say that I had come to know that Father Paul hated Kim Jong-il as much as I did.”

“So, whoever the mysterious doppelgänger was, how did the caper work?”

“I persuaded . . . someone to dress up as Kim Il-sung in people’s clothing and wait with me beside the railway tracks outside Dandong when the Number One armored train came through from Beijing. Jong-il had been undergoing treatment there — secretly, but it was part of my job to know his entire schedule. We hid behind some trees until the locomotive passed us. Then the double stepped close to the train, posed as I’d instructed him and uttered a ghostly cry of ‘Woooooo woooooo woooooo.’ As I had anticipated, Jong-il was seated at his table with the window shade open, enjoying the scenery. Although of course the double’s cry was not audible inside the train, the overall performance had the desired effect.”

“Details?”

“Screaming for his bodyguards, Jong-il keeled over from a heart attack, according to a an intelligence report I later received. He just managed to tell them what he had seen. They pulled the emergency cable and sent in his doctor. The train screeched to a halt and the bodyguards leapt off to investigate — but we had driven away.”

I snorted, and then burst out laughing. “I love it. And that’s the heart attack that killed him.”

Smiling impishly, Mi-song nodded. “No one else had seen the apparition and investigators could not find any evidence, so they finally concluded that Jong-il had not seen anything real — he was hallucinating, as he had done earlier.”

She frowned as she picked up the dead hit man’s gun, looked it over and then showed it to me. “I wondered why he was carrying a revolver. Generally they are so noisy that he would have been at great risk of being apprehended before he could leave the hotel. However, this is a Russian Army OTs-38 Stechkin, a rare silent revolver. External silencers do not work properly on revolvers. The Stechkin uses a special cartridge. The propellant gases are retained inside its case, so that there is no flash or bang when the weapon is fired.”

“Retrograde ejaculation.”

“What?”

“Your description sounds like a diagnosis an older friend got. As a side effect from a prostate pill his urologist had prescribed, the guy’s semen wasn’t going out via the urethra but headed in the opposite direction, to the bladder. The doctor changed his prescription.”

“Where is your mind?”

Seeing the twinkle in her eye made me smile. When she quickly reassumed a serious expression and dressed, I followed suit to the extent of putting on my undershorts and t-shirt.

“Whether the previous attempt at the university was planned as a simple burglary or not, now they are determined to kill you. If it were not so important that you be there, I would discourage you from returning to the campus. General Ri’s agency is certain to infiltrate another first class agent into the campus to replace Min. Let us hope there has not been enough time for that. Meanwhile, at least Yu is there.”

She pulled my shoulder toward her and looked me hard in the face. “But I am wondering now what to make of Byon.”

“So am I. That note of his looks suspiciously like a setup.”

“Possibly Byon works for them. But he does not display the moves of a trained assassin. Perhaps he is innocent and what happened was that one of General Ri’s people saw the note that Byon left for you and took advantage of his absence. In any case, you had best be on your guard and find out as much as you can before someone tries again.”

No kidding. I didn’t say that, but I thought it. Three men trying to kill me earlier had all struck out. This had been the fourth attempt. For the North Koreans, apparently, it wouldn’t be over until the fat leader sang.

Maybe Mi-song read my mind. “Do you have any experience firing a pistol?”

“Not lately, but Joe’s father, the colonel, used to take us to a firing range. Seemed I was a natural. At the range they called me Hawkeye. Who knows? I might have grown up to become a card-carrying Second Amendment zealot if I hadn’t turned my eye to photography instead. But that was decades ago.”

“You had better carry this bloke’s weapon when you return to campus. I shall have it, and a Chinese cell phone, left at the front desk in the morning, the package disguised as spirits. The Posey campus is close enough to the border that you can receive a signal from the China side. That is how Ms. Yu and I communicate.”

She used a manicured fingernail to cut the plastic wrap sealing a box, containing a fifth of duty-free bourbon, that I’d just brought from Hong Kong. Then she removed the bottle, set it on the desk and slipped the empty box into the voluminous bag she carried. After cutting loose the remaining bit of door chain, to tidy up and hide the evidence, she placed all the chain and the wire cutter in the bag.

She handed me a pad and a pencil. “It is better to save your phone for backup. In due course you can use it to communicate with your editor, whose number you should write down so that I can program it.”

“Carry the gun with the hammer pre-cocked, the manual safety on. Here is how to disengage the safety before you shoot.” She showed me and then checked the cylinder. “It is fully loaded. You have five shots, with a range of up to fifty meters. Do you think you can manage if you must shoot someone?”

I nodded. “You already owned my heart, Mi-song. Saving my life puts a seal on it. If I live through the next few days, we need to plan on being together on a long-term basis.” I kissed her.

Extricating herself from the embrace she held me at arms length. She spoke tenderly, tears in her eyes. “Darling, with so much at stake, with the risk so great that evil will prevail, this is no time to plan for the future of a couple of mere individuals.”

“Don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

“What?”

“You watched Casablanca at another of Kim Jong-il’s palace movie viewing parties?”

“Yes, but this is serious.” She looked at the sitting body of the would-be assassin. “Please open the window and help me carry him over there.”

We heaved the body far enough to the left that it would land beneath someone else’s window. “The police will think he jumped or fell from the roof,” she said.

I closed the window and she headed out into the corridor toward the emergency stairs. As I locked the door and turned to pour myself a double shot, I could hear people below raising an unholy cry at the package the heavens had delivered.

Chapter 18: Middle Eastern Visitors

“I think we need to change your hotel next time you come through Dandong,” Byon said when we met the next morning. “Two men have died while you were staying here. One, last night, was ruled a suicide, a Korean guy who jumped off the roof. But the other, immediately before you left to fly to Hong Kong, was that British businessman you and I had just met at Arirang. He was murdered in his room.”

“That’s terrible. Who did it?”

“The Chinese police are saying they have no idea who, or why. But I don’t intend to stay here again, and I imagine you would also be more comfortable somewhere else — especially after your encounter with Min, the fellow you . . .” Byon looked embarrassed. “We still don’t know what that was about.”

Looking at his face I found no sign that the concern for me he’d expressed was anything other than sincere. In the end, though, you could never tell what someone else was really thinking.

“So what kept you away? Your note said something about escorting visitors. Anybody we know?”

“Dr. Posey’s financial advisor, Mr. Nodding, is one. I don’t know much about the others. They’re a group from the Middle East — a Lebanese and a couple of Iranians.”

“Why did Zack show up? He’d just come  for the Pyongyang meeting. It’s amazing he can spend so much time away from the job that pays his enormous salary.” As soon as I’d said it I reminded myself that I should be more sparing of my disapproval — try to learn from Reverend Bob, see the good in people like Zack even when they themselves didn’t make much effort to show that good.

Byon gave me a look. “Mr. Nodding believes in the mission. I’m not sure why he came. Dr. Posey is back from his trip to the States. He and Mr. Nodding may need to discuss finances, but I really don’t know. None of the visitors talked much on the drive up. Except for the driver, we all napped. They were jet lagged from their flights and I was exhausted from traveling back and forth.”

Byon had been forthcoming; I didn’t think he was involved in dirty tricks. On the other hand, there couldn’t be much time before another agent from General Ri’s outfit would show up. Then I’d have to either flee or start spending full time watching my back. With Iranians joining the Lebanese, I figured I had considerable nosing around to do as soon as we got back to the campus.

First we had to get through customs. I doubted even Reverend Bob’s organization could save me if I got caught for weapon smuggling.  A different official was running the booth this time. He had a lean and hungry look that made me nervous, especially when he told me to put everything on the table. I made an effort to keep my eyes off the disguised weapon. The agent pointed to one of my Hong Kong purchases. “What’s that? A comb?”

“A tuning fork.” I struck it against the heel of my hand and moved it close to him so he could hear it vibrate.

He nodded. His hand moved toward the whiskey box. My heart rate soared. Byon’s cell phone rang. The light on the phone screen glinted against one of my harmonicas, the shiny, brand new F-sharp. That’s a rarely needed key. Only time I ever heard anybody performing on one was when Mickey Raphael soloed in Willie Nelson’s version of “Georgia on My Mind.”

The agent stared, transfixed, at the harp, neither picking it up nor dismissing us.

Byon read the body language as he turned off his phone and put it back in his pocket. “He wants you to give it to him.”

I picked it up, blew a few bars of the Georgia number and handed the instrument to the fellow, bowing my head. He grinned, pocketed the harp and waved us through.

“I could have argued,” Byon said as we left.

“It’s OK. Seems I wasn’t meant to own an F-sharp.”

Tired after the events of the night before, I decided to follow the delegation’s example and get some shuteye during the ride up.

An hour or so after we set out, Byon shook me awake. ”You must have had a nightmare. You were moaning.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Thanks for waking me up.”

“You are a sound sleeper. The driver got a call on his mobile phone a little while ago and the loud ringing didn’t awake you. This is his last trip driving us. That call was to tell him he is being transferred. His replacement arrives day after tomorrow.”

I had a feeling my nightmare was nowhere near over.

* * *

When we reached the campus in the late afternoon there was no sign of either Zack or the Middle Eastern visitors. Sable told me Reverend Bob had asked that I see him as soon as I returned, so I headed over. It was after four and his staff had left for the day. From the outer office, I saw that his door was open. I figured he’d be back soon so I went in and sat down in front of his desk.

With nothing else to occupy me while I waited, I glanced around the room. It was a combination of a preacher’s study and a politician’s lair. Books on scriptural interpretation lined the shelves, while the framed photos showed him in Korea with Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un. In one picture he was shooting hoops with Jong-un. In that photo he looked much more like the young, athletic Reverend Bob I’d known at Calvary. The picture was dated only two years earlier. He’d aged too suddenly, I thought.

Another photo showed him praying at the inauguration in Washington. I thought back to Bartow Toombs’s reminder that photo ops with U.S. presidents had been far more a specialty of the elder Posey. But even if Reverend Bob had additional U.S. presidential photos, I figured, they would be hung on the walls of his U.S. offices. I was willing to bet he hadn’t displayed copies of the Kim photos there. After all, a big shot’s photographic displays are for the benefit of visitors  and in North Korea those would be mainly the North Koreans.

On the desk were some medicines with the name and logo of Mayo Clinic, next to a glass of water. One of the containers was labeled Nivolumab. Damn! His cigars ended up smoking him. I thought of Fatback, in Mississippi, washing down the same cancer drug with Four Roses. It appeared Reverend Bob had been about to take his meds when he’d  needed to go out. How sad to think of my two old mentors, the saint and the sinner, facing off against the same deadly enemy and using the same weapon.

Under a pile of paper on Reverend Bob’s desk I spotted a familiar leather-bound volume: his Souls Ledger. Normally I was a respecter of privacy, but I knew this book had my name in it. I slipped it out. Leafing through, I was astonished to find that it contained not only the tens of thousands of entries, starting in the front, for people who had made religious commitments under Reverend Bob’s direct personal influence; there was also another, much less extensive set of entries starting from the back, entitled “Fallen Away.” I thought for a moment and remembered that an accounting ledger shows both credits and debits.

Joe’s name, I saw, was one of the earliest ones in the debit category. The entry noted his letter of resignation from Calvary Church and the date of the letter. I gave some thought to that. Was Reverend Bob simply listing failures? Knowing him, knowing that he didn’t give up easily, I figured he put the names down to remind him to pray that the fallen would reconsider. There were only twenty or so unused pages between the two sections of entries; it seemed he’d need to start a fresh volume pretty soon — if the cancer let him live long enough.

Turning the debits pages, I quickly found my own name. The entry, with the notation “universalist heresy,” was dated a couple of months into my sophomore year in college. That was around the time I had written to my parents approvingly quoting Thomas Starr King, a nineteenth century Universalist preacher, on the difference between what were then two separate non-mainstream Protestant Christian doctrines: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” If there was a supreme being, I informed my parents, I hoped the Universalists had been right in worshipping a God who embraced everybody.

Reverend Bob, keeping in touch with his old Calvary Church friends even after his move to North Carolina, must have heard about that and seen no choice but to make a debit entry in his ledger. Nothing inconsistent there — Reverend Bob was Reverend Bob.

Smelling cigar smoke and hearing coughing, I replaced the faded brown ledger under the stack of papers, picked up another book and opened it as if I’d begun looking through it.

Reverend Bob seemed taken aback to find me there but smiled when he saw the volume I’d just placed in my hands. “That’s the second most important book ever published.”

I looked at the cover. The book I held was Johnny Posey’s Gird Up Your Loins. It was about prophecies of the End Times. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Reverend Bob sitting down and trying to seem casual as he covered his medicine containers with a copy of the International New York Times.

“Thanks for coming in, Heck. I was horrified to hear of the trouble you had in your apartment while I was gone. Don’t know what got into that fellow, why he burglarized you, why he would attack you with a knife. The DPRK authorities assure me they don’t know, either. We paid him more than decently by local standards. I’ve told our official contacts I expect them to see that nothing like that happens again. When I heard you’d left us to go abroad, I was a little concerned you might decide to make it permanent. It’s good you’re back and I hope you’ll stay for a while.”

“I enjoy the students. As long as it’s feasible for me to stick around, I want to do my best for them.”

Reverend Bob looked pleased. “I’m told you’ve proved to be a champ in the classroom; look forward to hearing the results. In fact that’s why I wanted you to come in. We’ve scheduled a special service for tomorrow night and I’d like you to handle the singing. Here’s the order of worship. If you could have your students practice these hymns in class tomorrow that would be a big help.”

“Happy to do it.”

“This service won’t be held here on campus. Near here we have another facility where the families of our students live while they work in a tractor factory. I’ve been preaching both places on Sundays, but I hadn’t told the faculty about the other location earlier because the DPRK authorities didn’t want us to make it known yet. Now matters have developed to the point where there’s no harm in letting you all know.”

It was easy for me to look confused, as if I were hearing about the other place for the first time. After all, the whole thing still puzzled me. Who in his organization had allowed Reverend Bob’s university complex to land in a site that seemed likely to include an arms factory? And why would the North Koreans permit a community of security risks to live and work in such a sensitive zone?

“I think you’ll be impressed to see the combined worship hall and auditorium. It didn’t take all that much money to fit it out, but largely because it was hewn out of solid rock it turned out to feel a lot churchier than the university auditorium. I call the place our cathedral. One of our donors offered us a pipe organ and we decided that was the place to set it up. All you need to do is bring us a student choir to lead the hymn singing. That way we can let the family members — especially the ones who normally sing in the choir over there that’s directed by the organist — hear a bit of what their kids have been learning to do. Aside from faculty members like me who don’t know the language, people will be singing the hymns in Korean. They’ll have the words printed in the program.”

“No problem. We’ll get the students accustomed to those hymns for sure.”

“One other request: That was a terrific arrangement of ‘Saints’ on your CD. If you could do that with a small ensemble like the one I hear you took to perform for the young leader, it would fit perfectly as an interlude between the two parts of my sermon. I know it’s a bit of a push to work up a number in one day, but I hope you can manage it.”

“Love to do that.”

His smile turned almost imperceptibly to a frown. “You made any progress tracking down that business you and Joe were talking about?”

I had no choice but to deceive Reverend Bob. It wasn’t easy to be cagey with him on this. Our long relationship entitled him to a timely heads-up that his people weren’t producing tractor sub-assemblies, whereupon he could take steps to protect his organization and himself. But I could see Mi-song’s point that we shouldn’t yet risk telling him.

“I’m no Joe Hammond. I’m a musician and photographer, not a financial reporter. I’ve found that stuff pretty much beyond me.”

He nodded slightly and I went on.

“Now that I’ve faced up to my limitations in that department, the urgency is gone. I can focus a hundred percent on my music and my teaching.”

Reverend Bob may have had other things on his mind. Uncharacteristically, he didn’t seem to detect my discomfort at having to lie. “Sounds like a plan.” He stood to signal I was being dismissed. “Byon probably told you we have some foreign visitors. They’re prospective contributors to our God-given mission here. Zack invited them. That man is amazingly dedicated. It’s a great blessing that he manages to juggle our spiritual concerns with his practical responsibility to Goldberg Stanton. He’s invited the visitors to supper tonight in my private conference room, starting at six. I have about an hour’s worth of work to do here in the meantime, and then I’ll give them a quick welcome and turn it over to Zack before I go over to the dining hall to join the rest of you. Sorry we can’t chat longer.”

* * *

As I walked to my apartment I reflected that all this was going to take some sorting out. Reverend Bob’s right hand man was up to serious no good. Zack had invited some guys from the Middle East to contribute? Give me a break. McLoughridge had been killed for overhearing one of them, Maloof, talk about being in the market for tractors.

Mi-song had mentioned that Yu had surveillance equipment on hand in case of need. When I got to my room I scribbled a note saying we needed a listening device planted in Reverend Bob’s private dining room, right away. I inserted my note into a printed instruction pamphlet, with a black and white drawing of a harmonica on the front, and walked to the music classroom. Yu was there, as I’d expected, practicing with some other students.

“You guys are going to have to go pro if you keep this up.” That got a chuckle out of them. I handed the pamphlet to Yu, the only harmonica player in the group. “This may help you.”

She thanked me and put it in her purse.

At six I took my seat in the dining hall. Yu, at another table, nodded at me, just once. While we all waited for Reverend Bob to arrive and say grace, Sable made the announcements. It was movie night and the remake of the first installment of the Left Behind series would be shown, with commentary by faculty members before and after the showing. I had seen the original of that End Times thriller, released in 2000, in which born-again Christians were suddenly “raptured” — taken up to Heaven, their clothing left behind.

Sitting next to me was the theologian Lindsey Harrold. The elderly Texan and I struck up a conversation as we ate our supper. One thing he told me was that there was controversy over an issue of sequence. “The Left Behind view is that the Rapture will happen suddenly, before the Tribulation.”

Although that was the first I’d heard about the theological debate on the issue, I understood when Lindsey explained. If the Rapture should happen first, that would spare the faithful from having to live on earth during the prophesied period of war, disaster, famine and disease that would wipe out the majority of the world’s population in the run-up to the return of Christ.

“Johnny Posey pointed out, correctly, in his book Gird Up Your Loins, that the scriptures don’t settle the timing question,” Harrold said. “The Posey view is that additional testing by the Tribulation before the Rapture is likely to be God’s plan — and that Christians who buy into the more optimistic Left Behind version and count on being able to sit out the Tribulation from the comfortable vantage point of Heaven are cruising for a huge letdown.”

He grinned. “Just between us, there’s also the matter that the Poseys were somewhat bent out of shape when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins hit the bestseller lists with those books.”

The difference of scriptural interpretation would be the focus of the evening’s faculty commentary before and after the movie’s showing. I’d been hearing from students about Tribulation — not the Christian version but in the context of a recent and horrible period in North Korean history. I was intrigued, but instead of staying for the movie program I went to the library and checked out a copy of Gird Up Your Loins. In addition to Johnny Posey’s name in big letters on the jacket, I saw that Robert Posey’s name was printed beneath it in smaller letters. He had contributed updated material for the latest edition. The back of the jacket featured a photo of the two of them together.

I took the book to my apartment and skimmed it all the way through, stopping to read certain parts carefully. Learning how the last days would play out according to the Poseys was a revelation, if not quite in the sense intended. This was a subject that Reverend Bob had become deeply interested in back in his Calvary Church days. I was fascinated to see how real-world events and trends before and since then had fit together to inform his and his father Johnny’s fully developed theology.

Right after I put the book down, I heard a knock. I went to the door. It was Yu. Without coming in, she asked me in a low voice to meet her in Music Practice Room B. I waited a couple of minutes and headed over.

* * *

“This practice room has sound insulation and it’s not bugged.” Yu shut the door. “I did manage to plant a microphone in Dr. Posey’s dining room before the meeting. Here is the recording.”

“Let’s listen together.”

The recorded dinner session was another revelation. Reverend Bob welcomed the visitors, thanked them for coming such a long distance and expressed hope there could be mutual cooperation. “Please accept my apologies that I can’t join you for the meal that our staff has just served. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Thank you again.”

The sounds of footsteps and a door closing followed. Adrenaline surged. My mental computer accelerated, rearranging information.

“The sound’s really clear,” I told Yu. “First class recording device.”

“Japanese.”

My concentration was total as we waited to hear what would come next. I had never been more attentive to an auditory experience. For a musician to say that is something.

Zack’s tinny voice came through the speaker. “Let’s wait a moment for the servers to finish.” We heard the door closing again and Zack resumed talking. “The servers have left coffee, tea and dessert on the sideboard for us, so they will not need to return. We will not be disturbed. Please feel free to talk frankly.”

A man with a guttural voice spoke up in heavily accented English. “We liked what we saw today during the factory tour, but we were simply double checking. After observing the missile launch test and the underground test of the nuclear warhead, we had already decided that your weapons would suffice to fry the enemy and season the dish with a cloud of mushroom.”

He chuckled at his joke and so did one or two others in the room. I was appalled that anyone could so blatantly make light of mass destruction.

“Therefore we wish to go ahead with the purchase. Before we do, I would like to ask General Ri to go over the details of delivery so that we can be sure that all the arrangements are synchronized.”

I hadn’t known that Ri was on campus. A man translated for him, but the general referred the question to Zack.

“Thank you, General Khorsandi, for your question.” Zack replied. “As I mentioned during the tour, the Posey organization is handling delivery so as to avoid detection by your enemies. Your shipment is waiting on the dock at the DPRK port of Nampo. After we send word in a few minutes that the deal is sealed, the cargo will be loaded overnight onto one of our aid ships, which is tied up at the dock. Our vessels call at Nampo often, bringing food, medicine and other relief goods, and always return empty except for water in the ballast tanks. General Ri’s people will load your merchandise and adjust the volume of ballast water accordingly. The ship should have clear sailing tomorrow. The Posey organization’s vessels are well and favorably known to the navies of the United States and its allies. They can enter the Persian Gulf without interdiction or special attention, having sailed there before. We would like to offload your cargo at Bandar Abbas at night, not leaving our ship in your port past dawn.”

“Will your crewmen not have suspicions?” another questioner asked.

“The officers and key crew are trusted members of our organization, General Farahani. They follow orders. They have been told that what we are doing fits with the mission. We hired Filipino sailors who understood that they were signing on only for a one-way voyage to Myanmar. They were released in Yangon, told that the ship would be going into a repair yard for maintenance. For the remainder of the voyage here, and on to Iran, we replaced those men with North Korean crewmen supplied by General Ri.”

“Excellent,” said a new voice — also accented. “My clients were surprised that your organization was willing and eager to deal with us, in view of Dr. Posey’s well publicized denunciations of Islam. But we all suppose you have your reasons. As for what might go wrong, I wish to personally thank General Ri for taking care of that busybody McLoughridge.”

This must be Maloof, the Lebanese middleman.

“Are there any other snoops around that we should know about?” Maloof continued. “Frankly, I was concerned to see that you have American professors living so close to the factory. Any of them could be a U.S. spy.”

“Your concern is quite understandable, Mr. Maloof,” Zack said. “Our security has been close to flawless. One faculty member, a professor of English, caught wind of vague information about the existence of the other compound. But he has no means of communication — and no passport — so there has been no chance for him to share the information with anyone in the outside world.”

We could hear grunts of approval, as Zack continued.

“General Ri’s people checked him out and found he is by no means a spy. And what he knows has become useless because it is no longer a secret. From now the only secret we need to keep about the other compound is what the ‘tractors’ really are. And of course the factory tunnel is closely guarded and remains strictly off limits to anyone without clearance to enter. From your point of view we need to keep even that secret for only a short time, while you take delivery and make use of the product.”

“The professor of English is the only one?” the Lebanese asked.

“Another American showed some curiosity about a different matter that doesn’t concern you gentlemen. When I heard that Dr. Posey had an opening on his faculty I encouraged him to hire this fellow as a visiting music teacher. My thinking was that General Ri’s people could keep a close eye on him here — and deal with him in due course. I assure you he has learned nothing and is no threat to you. Having met him, I can attest that he’s a fool. You needn’t worry.”

General Ri, after hearing his aide’s translation, offered his own brief assurance that everything was under control.

The guests had run out of questions, and Zack suggested everyone concentrate on supper. I thought he was being a smooth salesman. He could have simply lied that everything was perfect in the security arrangements, not mentioning Bartow and me. Probably he’d calculated that those Middle Eastern hard cases would be more likely to believe in near-perfection.

I, on the other hand, was not reassured by Zack’s bland version of the non-threat I posed to their scheme. Unlike Toombs I still had my passport, and I had a phone. I even had a gun. But I assumed that number five of Ri’s killers, the new driver, was on the way. Toombs! My colleague’s name was too evocative. I felt a sepulchral chill as I contemplated the great likelihood that the cryptic prophecies I’d been reading earlier in the evening, prophecies interpreted as warnings that the end was near, applied literally to me.

“Pause the machine for a moment, please, while I think about something,” I said to Yu.

I realized, looking back, that I should have figured out Zack’s involvement right after interviewing him in Hong Kong. He hadn’t told me “CDs” was a misreading. Once I’d realized Joe had meant to write “CDS,” I should have smelled a rat. But Zack had done a good enough acting job, pretending he had to rack his brain to recall — dimly — his conversation with Joe. He’d fooled me into thinking he was just full of himself, as busy big shots often are.

Out loud I said, “The big question is why Zack Nodding would want to team up with North Korea’s thuggish regime to sell nuclear missiles to some other thugs from the Islamic Republic of Iran. He had to have a huge reason to risk the world’s richest investment bank and the biggest name in evangelical Christianity. Goldberg Stanton didn’t need the money, and neither did the Posey organization, that’s for sure.”

Yu nodded.

“Besides,” I said, “You heard Maloof, the Lebanese guy, allude to the fact that Dr. Posey has no use for Islam — has publicly denounced it as an ‘evil religion.’ ”

“Maybe Mr. Nodding is a secret Muslim militant who was infiltrated into the Posey organization?” Yu ventured.

Tense as I felt, I had to laugh. “Like the way President Obama’s opponents said he was a Muslim — and Reverend Bob chimed in on national TV to say he couldn’t rule out the possibility? I don’t think so.”

“I was surprised to hear Mr. Nodding say that he had encouraged Dr. Posey to bring you to teach here, so they could watch you and ‘deal’ with you.”

“So was I. I’d imagined it was all Reverend Bob’s idea, and for only his reasons, the ones he gave me.”

“Hearing that from Mr. Nodding, I started to wonder if Dr. Posey himself might be knowingly involved in the scheme. But that would not make sense — and, as we heard, he left the meeting at the very beginning.”

“He sure did. Didn’t stick around with those sleaze bags even long enough to say grace.”

I had her turn the machine back on, but we already had the substance of the conversation. We were now hearing more chomping and slurping than talking. In a little while Zack dismissed the group. We heard squeaking sounds as they pulled their chairs out, footfalls as they exited and then silence.

I stood to leave. “We don’t have all the evidence we need but it’s time to get started carrying out our plan. I’m going to make a quick visit to the family camp while you give your boss a full report of what we’ve just learned. Please tell her I will draft the story and send the draft to my editor when I get back. Also, ask her to check out a Korean-American preacher named John Jae-ho Hyon. He serves on two boards with Nodding and I’m wondering if there’s a connection with what’s happening.”

Chapter 19: The Tractors Run Backward

The factory compound almost certainly would be among the first targets of U.S. bombs once Washington learned about the nuclear arms export scheme. A passel of innocent Koreans including my cousins faced grave danger, and neither Mama nor I would forgive failure to warn them. Besides, for my story I needed more information about the factory.

It was darker than the night of my previous foray. A flashlight would give me away, so I imagined I was blind, closed my eyes and felt my way up and down the hill. I’d had some success with that technique a couple of times at my mountain place when I’d stayed out too late without a light. It worked as it had before, my few missteps from the path into the brush quickly corrected.

Once inside the factory camp, I found that the darkness was on my side. Maybe because there was no prayer meeting that evening, more people than before were out and about. It was hard to make out anyone’s features, though, even within a foot or two, because only a few dim lights burned.

I walked into the residential tunnel and knocked on the door of the Pak family quarters. Surprised to see me, Shin-il hurriedly ushered me inside and locked the door. I set the bottle I’d brought on the table. He seemed in need of a drink, looking almost as haggard as Reverend Bob.

“How have you been?” I asked, as he opened the bottle and poured for us.

“Things are not so good. Our supervisors tell us we are doing a rotten job. The parts were supposed to be machined to extremely close tolerance but as we assembled them it was clear we had not managed to achieve the accuracy they demand. Last Friday we stopped work entirely and we haven’t been called back to the factory since then. Daily criticism sessions in the cathedral have lasted all day and into the night. Everyone is exhausted. I just got back from today’s session.”

“What’s their specific complaint?” This could be important.

“They told us, ‘The tractors run backward, just like the first one our country’s engineers put together soon after the liberation from Japan. Clearly your attitudes are wrong and you are not devoting yourselves to the Juche ideal.’ Then they made us stand in the front of the room, one by one, and list our individual failures and those of our fellow work group members.”

“Juche — that’s the name for Kim Il-sung’s ideology.”

“It means what we Koreans do without depending on foreigners — our thing.”

Cosa nostra.”

“What?”

“That’s a Sicilian term for our thing. Crime families around the world seem to think alike.”

Shin-il didn’t get my quip.

“So the ‘tractors’ don’t work,” I said. “If that’s true, I hope the news gets out in time — and I hope Washington believes it.”

“In time?”

“The ‘tractor subassemblies’ you and your friends are producing fit together to make nuclear-tipped missiles. As we speak, a consignment of them is being loaded onto one of the Posey aid ships at Nampo to be shipped to Iran. Are your tunnels set up as bomb shelters? If we don’t play our cards right, this site is likely to be in the crosshairs of the U.S. military before you know it.”

“Maybe that explains why they had us using stencils the other day to paint large Russian markings on the biggest subassemblies.”

“Interesting. They try to think of everything, don’t they. But still they’ve left too many loose ends. Those markings may fool someone for a while, but you should have protection. After all, you and I already know the missiles are North Korean made. It won’t be long before that news will get out to the whole world.” I didn’t mention that it was my job to get that news out.

“The residential tunnel wasn’t dug deep enough to serve as a bomb shelter. But the factory tunnel was, and so was the auditorium/cathedral tunnel, which is where we’re directed to go in case of emergency.”

“Be ready to run down there on short notice. Do you have any co-workers you can trust with what I’m telling you? People who won’t lose their cool, who will act to save the people here?”

“There are several. Tomorrow is a special work holiday with no criticism session, and I can talk with them privately.”

“Is the holiday on account of tomorrow night’s church service?”

“If so, that’s only part of the reason. They told us we have done such a poor job we should stay home and reflect on our inadequacy. It seems they are preparing to reorganize the factory.”

* * *

We hadn’t been talking more than two minutes when there was a knock on the door. Shin-il looked alarmed. He obviously wasn’t expecting more company. He hushed me by putting a finger to his lips, but whoever was out there was not going away. We heard a key turning in the lock. It was an inward-opening door. Shin-il motioned for me to hide behind it as he moved to open it. “Ah, Comrade Ja,” he said, affecting a yawn. “We were asleep already.”

“No you weren’t,” came a deep, gruff voice. “You have an unauthorized visitor. I was behind him as he walked in. I went to my apartment to get my rifle. Put up your hands and move backward. Now, where is he?”

I pulled the revolver from my pocket and released the safety as the intruder closed the door. A very large woman, built like a pro wrestler and wearing people’s clothing, spotted the bottle and two glasses on the table. Then, seeing me, she started to swivel her weapon toward me. Not waiting to find out what would happen next, I aimed for the double portrait pin on her breast and fired. She fell without getting off a shot.

While I grabbed her rifle, which likewise had fallen to the floor, Shin-il knelt and examined her. “She’s dead.”

“Then so are we,” Joung-ah exclaimed with a muffled cry as she joined us from the second room. She pressed her hands against her temples. But she was a woman thoroughly accustomed to danger and hardship. Pulling herself together quickly, she went to get rags to clean up the scene and a blanket to wrap the body. Thanks to the Russian designers of the revolver, the children hadn’t awakened.

“Comrade Ja was a factory supervisor, party member, army veteran and reservist who served as hall monitor for this section of the residential tunnel,” Shin-il told me. “Her apartment is three doors farther down.”

“Anybody likely to miss her right away?”

“No, she was a widow — and she, too, was given tomorrow off.”

“Maybe you’d better not wait till tomorrow to confide in those like-minded pals of yours.”

“Right. The first thing for us to do, once everyone else is asleep, is get rid of the body.”

“Hide her rifle — and any ammunition you can get from her pockets or her apartment — someplace where you can get to it easily. You may need it.” I turned to go. “See you in church?”

“Yes. We are expected to attend the service.”

It would be an understatement to say I was nervous as I left. If the authorities caught me in the factory compound, of course they’d find my gun and quickly learn what I’d just done. All the Swedish diplomatic representation in the world wouldn’t save me from standing before a firing squad as a murderer and spy. The Pak family would be punished as accomplices. And all of Mi-song’s and my efforts would come to naught.

* * *

In the end, my departure from the compound was as uneventful as it was stealthy. I’d been inside my apartment only a moment when Yu brought word that I should phone her boss, who was back in Pyongyang. I went to the practice room to make the call.

“My sources say loading is already under way at Nampo and the ship sails at dawn.” Mi-song’s calm voice belied the fact she was talking about a shipment of nuclear missiles that could set off wars in the Middle East and Korea — the Third World War, if the Americans and Russians started nuking each other.

“Were you able to find anything on John Hyon?”

“That was a good call on your part. I researched him on line, saw his photograph and recognized him as one of Kim Jong-il’s unofficial offspring, another nephew of mine. Real name: Kim Song-chol.”

“He went into the bastards’ honor guard?”

“Yes, we were in spy training together. He was notable then for his baby face. When he graduated he went abroad immediately on behalf of the agency that General Ri now supervises. I never heard of him or from him until tonight. Working backward, I learned he was smuggled into South Korea and, with the help of local undercover agents, stole the identity of a dead eighteen-year-old named Hyon Jae-ho. With his native nationality thus laundered from North to South Korean, he emigrated to the United States, enrolled at Posey University’s U.S. campus and studied for the ministry. It seems he was sent to become a mole within the evangelical Christian community in your country.”

“I figure he may have served as go-between when his masters made their arrangements with the Posey organization.”

“That seems likely. I suppose you are ready to start writing, while I attempt to flesh out the main strand of the story further?”

“I’m ready. Yu’s recording of this evening’s meeting is devastating evidence, just the sort of thing to convince people this nightmare is real. And I got some more information just now.” I told her about the “backward tractors.”

Fearful of the consequences if she were caught, I hated to ask for more — but I asked anyhow. “I doubt there will be stamped and sealed official documents available this soon to back up what I write. Please record any potentially incriminating conversation if you can.”

I sat alone in my apartment drafting the piece on my laptop. In my nervousness, I realized, I’d forgotten to tell Mi-song about Comrade Ja. But adrenaline helped more than it hindered my labors to render a complex story succinctly.

Two hours later, expecting Mi-song’s call, I went back to the practice room. She rang almost immediately. She’d gone to Kim Jong-un’s office. Her recording device had been built into one high-heeled shoe so cleverly that she’d made it through the patting-down that even royal family members had to endure. It was her first time to use the shoe device; she’d saved it for a top-priority occasion.

Hugely relieved that she’d gotten out safely afterward, I focused as she played back the recorded conversation with her nephew. Her voice came through first.

“Here is the report I promised, pinning down the whereabouts of remnant members of the Jang Song-taek cabal who have avoided arrest for so long.”

“Thank you,” young Kim replied in a voice now familiar to me. “I’ll read it and we’ll put out a global dragnet tonight. You were right to bring this to me immediately instead of waiting for regular office hours. We don’t want any of the traitor scum to escape.”

“I shall leave you to read it, but before I go I must congratulate you in person on launching the ultimate move of the CDS exercise — and also on having procured with my nephew Kim Song-chol’s help the collaboration of the Posey organization and, particularly, of Mr. Nodding of Goldberg Stanton.”

The tone of Kim’s voice revealed that he was furious. “How did you find out?” he sputtered. “If you know, then others must know.”

Her voice was soft and comforting. “My job is finding out about secrets.”

“True, that is the job I gave you, and I cannot blame you.” His voice took on an ominous tone. “It was General Ri’s job to keep it absolutely secret.”

He recovered the ebullience I remembered from our meetings. “You deserve credit for devising a great idea. This last act of the drama will be by far the most spectacular.”

“With the export of nuclear missiles, I should think so.”

“We are dealing with some militant Revolutionary Guards who opposed the nuclear agreement and were ecstatic when Washington backed out of it. This group is determined that Iran will deploy nuclear missiles at any cost. We’re more than happy to facilitate that.”

His gloating sickened me.

“Once they set them up, the news that Russian nukes are ready to launch from Iran against Israel will be leaked to Western news media. The design for the missiles was Russian in the first place. We have had them painted with large markings in the Cyrillic alphabet. U.S. satellite photography will spot those, validating the leak.”

“Ah, I get it,” said Mi-song. “At that point, Israel will begin final preparations to fire its own missiles and destroy not only the newly deployed missiles in Iran but also any infrastructure that could be used for Iranian nuclear development. Of course the country you are really focused on is Russia, because its economy is so much larger than Israel’s or Iran’s.”

“Correct. Events will occur with lightning swiftness. The Western news media will report that the Ukraine episode and the U.S. election sabotage, in retrospect, were mere preliminaries to the main event that’s now beginning. NATO will go on high alert and deploy troops and weapons. The U.S. and the Europeans will add exponentially to the economic sanctions already in place against Russia. They’ll prepare blockades to choke off its economy. Putin, of course, will not sit still for that but will fuel his tanks for an adventure he’s been eager to set out on, such as invading Baltic states. Pundits will warn that the Third World War may be beginning, with Russia and Iran shaping up as likely losers.”

“I see where this is headed.”

“Yes. Nodding has had his traders at Goldberg Stanton place nearly all of my CDS bets, most of them against Russian government bonds and the bonds of the biggest Russian companies. When those news stories hit, investors in a mad capitalist scramble will bid up the prices of the swaps I hold. I will collect my billions — a vastly larger payoff than you envisioned when you drafted the original scheme.”

Her musical laughter came through the phone. “I can already hear the champagne corks popping in the palace.”

“After my profits are in the financial pipeline — and before the Americans realize that the missiles were ours and punish us for selling them — my agents will leak additional news: We sold the missiles, but they are duds.”

“Are they?”

“Of course. Do you imagine we’d have been so foolish as to entrust manufacture of our real nuclear missiles to a bunch of Christian dogs with no previous experience in the machinery industry? We’re making the real ones for our own use elsewhere, at sites that are familiar to you. The One Eight Tractor Factory was designed like the other sites, and could have been used to make real weapons, but its initial function has been to assemble a shipment of missiles with a built-in design flaw for this Iran export deal.”

“You had invited the Iranians to view a launch test of the missile and an underground test of the nuclear device.”

“Those Iranians watched tests of the real ones. My engineers have observed Iranian rocket launches. They even obtained a copy of the Iranian launch manual, which sets forth the parameters. Knowing the procedures that will be followed, they assure me that if the Iranians try to fire off one of the defective ones they’ve bought it will suffer an electromechanical failure after launch.”

“What does that entail?”

“All the massive sound, vibration and acceleration of the launch must be accounted for. Our engineers have developed a way to use those forces to disable the payload, even the rocket itself, by intentionally weakening the device so that a key part will shift or break free at the worst possible moment. This will at the very least make the device useless — and the shifting will affect the rocket’s trajectory.”

“Could it still fly all the way to Israel?”

“If Iranian launch control should fail to push the button for a command detonation first, in response to data showing the rocket was going out of control, the rocket would be expected to tear apart at the moment of maximum dynamic pressure, early in the flight.”

“Tear apart!”

“Yes, there are a couple of ways this might happen. The payload while shifting could poke a hole in the shroud. Or it could produce a load that the rocket guidance system could not compensate for. In either case the rocket would break up over Iran, not far from the launch site. Its warhead, ripped apart by aerodynamic forces, would scatter radioactive material over a relatively small area of Iran. Most of the core would land in lumps.”

“I take it that Nodding, like the Iranians, is completely in the dark about this engineered flaw.”

“No American has been let in on the secret — yet. At just the right time, Washington will be tipped off that the missiles we sold were designed to fail. After confirming that fact, the American bastards once again will start to look at us in a different way.”

“I suppose you have plans for mollifying Iran.”

“Remember that we’re dealing with an Iranian faction — not the government as a whole. The government should not mind too much. Even if it does object, our profits from the CDS scheme will be so vast it won’t matter to us even if we can never sell another weapon to Iran.”

“What about the Russians? Are they not likely to be seriously peeved?”

“They need us more than we need them. Gazprom is eager to build a pipeline across the DPRK to South Korea, and of course that’s why the Russians have written off most of our Soviet-era debt to them. They’re flirting with pariah-state status themselves, and cannot afford to alienate additional countries. Putin understands the need to make money — you probably saw the news reports when Obama was still in office saying the American bastards were going after his personal fortune, estimated to total forty to seventy billion dollars. And what if Russia does get upset at having been cast — only briefly, after all — as the villain? The Russian government and Russian corporations will not actually go bankrupt and default on their borrowings. They will simply look, for a short time, as if they were likely to default — just long enough for me to cash in on the CDS price rise. Look at it as payback time for us. The Russians since Stalin’s death have been no better than fair-weather friends.”

“Your grandfather certainly felt that way. So how will you spend all the loot from this enormous CDS haul?”

“To modernize and build up the military in support of the eventual armed liberation of the South from its puppet rulers, in case we fail in our current first-choice plan. Plan A, as you know, is to form a peace confederation with South Korea and use our superior political unity and propaganda skills to dominate the fractious and often naive Southerners. Not recognizing my intentions, the puppet masters in Washington will be so happy with the way I have stuck it to Iran that once again they will be ready to join us in direct talks toward a peace treaty. When the treaty is signed all U.S. troops will leave the peninsula, clearing the field for us.”

“So it will not be long before you, like King Taejo starting in the year 936, will rule over a unified Korea — and thus you will achieve the dream that for decades eluded your grandfather and your father.”

Mi-song must have been steaming — Kim had made no mention of using any of the windfall riches to feed the people. But she had kept up her sympathetic pose. She sounded convincingly obsequious. What an actress. “The generals and the people will be happy,” she said. “Your reign will be a long one.”

“I could not have summarized it better myself.”

“I suppose you will have no further use for the Posey organization.”

“I intend to play them along, let them keep the university — for a while. That will help us disarm the authorities in Washington.”

“For a while?”

“Once the American troops are gone from the South, Posey Korea University will be closed down, the foreign faculty sent home. Swiftly and secretly, all the Korean Christians and Christian sympathizers who have been studying there or living in the factory complex will be sent to rot in prison camps.”

“I assume that was the plan from the start. The difficult part must have been bringing Nodding’s bank and the Posey shipping line into the plot.”

“It was only after Comrade Song-chol devised the general outlines of this final act that he was able to approach Nodding and persuade him to go along with the program from the beginning of your proposed list. Then Nodding handled our bets timed to each provocation in sequence.”

“I had wondered about that. The earlier provocations that I outlined for you were not designed to appeal to religious people’s particular interests. I do not understand how this last one is, either.”

“That’s where Song-chol came in. He had studied with Nodding and other Christians under the Poseys and had spent his entire career interacting with them. Understanding their mind-set so well was what enabled him to devise a way to persuade Nodding to trade their help with the CDS and arms export scheme for our tolerance of their religion — tolerance in a limited sphere. I admit that I still don’t quite get why they went along with us. After all, Song-chol is the one we assigned to spend all those years reading their Bible. But he assures me the transaction somehow goes to the very heart of their religious beliefs.”

“Well played, indeed.”

“Meanwhile, having the faulty missiles assembled by the students’ family members was my own idea — presented to the American Christians as a means to assure ourselves that their side would not double-cross us. What we did not tell them was that the real purpose was to use the prospects of university studies and factory jobs to lure disloyal, religious-minded termites out of the woodwork and make sure they would never cause further trouble.”

“Or as Mao Zedong put it: ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom.’ Then plow them all under.”

“Kim Il-sung was the author of the Hundred Flowers metaphor,” young Kim replied frostily. “As with so many other great ideas that my grandfather originated, non-Koreans falsely attribute it to Mao. There has never been any need for us to borrow ideas from the Chinese or anyone else.”

“Sorry. I must redouble my studies and refresh my understanding of Juche.”

“If you had not volunteered so quickly to handle it on your own, I would have sent you for a year to a reeducation camp to carry out that very task. Meanwhile, it’s undeniable that the Christians’ factory skills are marginal. And the site where they are working cannot remain secret for much longer. If our timing should turn out to be off, conceivably the Americans could even bomb it before realizing the missiles are no threat.”

“And save us the trouble of sending them to the camps,” Mi-song exclaimed, in a tone that suggested she stood in awe of his brilliance.

He chuckled. “But assuming those workers survive the next few days, we’ll sideline them to a simpler task. They will sew military uniforms for as long as we need to wait before we imprison them. They have been informed already in no uncertain terms that their work on ‘tractor assemblies’ is highly unsatisfactory.”

* * *

I would have given my last bottle of bourbon for a chance to tear that smug son of a bitch apart. I got hold of myself, though. He was not to be underestimated. I had to acknowledge that the scheme wasn’t totally crazy. A better description would be brilliant in a crazy way. Contrary to Father Paul’s actuarial calculation, the kid might even be smart and quick enough to enjoy a long reign and die peacefully in bed — if the news I was about to send failed to get out, or even if the news did get out but somehow failed to dislodge him as Mi-song hoped it would.

I would need to be totally focused to deal with what was coming. My first precaution was to ask Mi-song and Yu to phone in their recordings to Lang in Hong Kong, right away, with notes saying I would be following up. We couldn’t risk the chance that persons unknown would destroy or confiscate our main evidence before we could transmit the story.

Crossing the campus to return to my apartment, I passed the presidential office and apartment. The windows of both were dark. Considering his illness, Reverend Bob probably needed a good night’s sleep. And what I needed to do was file what we had, get the editing process moving in Hong Kong. I’d talk to him the next day.

With young Kim’s straight-from the-horse’s-mouth corroboration and elaboration in hand, I rewrote the draft and my proposed headlines. Phoning Lang from the practice room, I dictated the story draft. More than once he gasped in amazement to hear details of the plot we’d uncovered.

N. KOREA SELLS DUD NUKES TO IRAN FACTION

IN MULTI-BILLION-DOLLAR MARKETS SCAM

Evangelicals ship missiles to Revolutionary Guard; Goldberg Stanton trades derivatives for Kim Jong-un

By Heck Davis

An  AsiaIntel investigation has revealed that an aid ship owned by an American religious group founded by the Rev. Johnny Posey is en route from North Korea to Iran carrying a cargo of medium-range nuclear-tipped missiles that the North Korean regime — knowing that the missiles are defective and will malfunction if launched — has sold to a militant Iranian faction.

The exporters painted Russian-language markings on the Russian-designed missiles. That was a ploy to shift the blame to Moscow, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un acknowledged to another regime official in a palace conversation. AsiaIntel has obtained a recording of the conversation. [[LINK TO AUDIO & ENGLISH TRANSLATION]]

In the conversation Kim Jong-un boasted that he had plotted to create an international crisis that would undermine the creditworthiness of Russian government and corporate bonds, so that he could cash in via trading in financial derivatives called credit default swaps.

Aiding Kim in the scheme, he acknowledged, is Zacchaeus J. Nodding, who is both Asia chief of the investment bank Goldberg Stanton and vice-chairman of the Johnny Posey Evangelistic Mission Board. . . .

* * *

Lang’s newsman blood was up. He said he’d check the piece, run it past AsiaIntel’s lawyers and get back to me with questions. He planned to release the story the morning after next, which I thought was just right.

I’d need that much time to plug holes. The tentative schedule would give Goldberg Stanton traders working for Zack Nodding another day in which to sink any remaining unallocated North Korean money into Russian CDS positions. The ship would have time to reach the open sea, where the U.S. Navy could interdict it.

Also benefiting from the schedule could be some of us who fit Mi-song’s description of mere individuals whose fate didn’t matter all that much under the earth-shaking circumstances. Shin-il — assuming he hadn’t been caught while hiding Comrade Ja’s body — would have the day to organize his buddies. Mi-song, I hoped, would position herself outside Kim’s grasp. And Yu would have a little time to look for an alternate way to get me the hell out of Dodge, now that Ri’s newly assigned assassin almost certainly would be the one driving the university van.

Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues

Now read: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5, Part 6Part 7. Purchase here.

Next week:  Part 9 – What if it Were Today?

About the Author: Growing up in the southern United States, Bradley K. Martin studied Asian history at Princeton University and went on to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand before starting his news-reporting career on The Charlotte Observer. The two-time Pulitzer nominee has been an Asia correspondent, bureau chief and/or editor for Asia Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Asian Financial Intelligence and Bloomberg News.  Since 1979 he has made seven reporting trips to North Korea. He’s the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, which won the Asia-Pacific Special Book Prize – and which the New York Review of Books called “simply the best book ever written about North Korea.” His new novel Nuclear Blues, set in North Korea and conceived as a fiction sequel to his earlier nonfiction work, has won a 2018 Readers’ Favorite Book Award: the Bronze Medal for conspiracy thrillers. Keep up with him on his Facebook author page.

“The gentle beginning results in a last hundred pages that are gripping and surprising and original as hell. In all books of this nature, whether by John le Carré or Alan Furst or Philip Kerr or Bradley Martin, there is authority that pulls the reader in. Nuclear Blues is a book by a guy who knows what he’s talking about. Bravo!” – Peter Carry, former executive editor, Sports Illustrated and Discovery magazines